Interview: John Russell of Gnawing shares ‘Shaky’ and new sounds
Posted: by The Editor
John Russell is ready for a little punk and a little twang to come together. His second EP, Shaky, showcases select tracks that bring together two of his lesser-known loves in music: country and pop. Though his friends know him from his projects in the Charlotte scene, John’s transplant-to-Richmond project Gnawing opens up his identity further and celebrates milestones in his life, from love to new beginnings.
Hear the EP Shaky below:
John spoke with the Alternative to share his experience collaborating with new bandmates Christian Monroe and Chris Matz, his move to Richmond, going country, writing songs for Jar Jar and “The Mandalorian,” and more.
John, how did this new EP come together?
The first take, the Gnawing tape, was just songs that I had that didn’t really fit in any of the bands that I was in, in Charlotte. I recorded those with a friend over a weekend so I could cauterize those and set to tape. But I really liked it and I had fun with him, so I went back and listened to them. I thought I’d put them out on tape just to see what happens and for fun.
In that time, I moved up to Richmond and started playing with Christian, who plays drums now, since we both worked at Guitar Center. Because we were jamming and hanging out, I was like, “Hey, I have this tape of songs. You’ll probably think it’s silly.” He’s really into Converge, Full of Hell, and a lot heavier stuff, so I was like, “You’ll probably think it’s sugar pop radio rock, but I like it.” I played it for him and he thought it was a really cool! All of that is to say, we started playing and filled out the live band, and started playing shows.
I hadn’t really prepped in my mind for it to be more the just the tape, so I hadn’t really been writing anything. But once I started playing with the two of them and started playing out a lot, I was like “Oh, this is the direction I want to go with it.” Then the new songs, especially for the 7-inch, just fell out and I immediately wrote them down. We had two the songs on the 7-inch that fit well together and sent them over to Josh from Refresh Records. He thought it was cool and we decided to put them out.
It sounds like you had a great chance to revisit some older songs as well as start to play around with having full band side to your project.
It’s interesting to add more voices into the mix. For the tape, if I wanted a verse to be 8 bars or 4 bars long, I just decided. To have that democratic process of having other people be like, “Nah, this sounds bad, you shouldn’t put that there.” That was important.
The sound of your music is so different than a lot what’s out there. What artists or music were you listening to as you wrote these songs? Did any influence you?
The two that I kept going back to when writing for Gnawing have been Dinosaur Jr. and The Lemonheads, who are two of my longtime favorite bands. I’ve always wanted to play in a band like that, even The Gin Blossoms, who were like big on the radio in the 90’s. Those were the kind of bands I wanted to be in. I’ve always been in heavier bands except Alright, loud bands. THat’s fun, but it got the point where I got kind of tired of that because it wasn’t really representative of me. I really like country music and a lot of the softer stuff that Gnawing gets to touch on. So yeah, a lot of Dino Jr., Graham Parsons, Flying Burrito Brothers, all of that 60s California-type country stuff. I was big on that too.
You definitely have that 90’s rock vibe to your music and alt-country influence, too. It was really cool to see you expand on this in Shaky, too. How do you feel your sound has evolved from the tape to this new release?
So I feel like with the tape, I love all of the songs, but each one, I can tell which band I was trying to rip off. Like the first song, man, that’s a Jawbreaker riff, and I really wanted to write a Jawbreaker song so bad. I feel like adding other players into the band and having other voices kind of influenced the sound. Also maturing and becoming more comfortable writing my own songs. I’ve always done like drums in Alright and had more background roles in a lot of bands, so that evolution of getting more comfortable. So like, loud and fuzzy with guitar solos and all of this stuff, but also that country influence. That’s kind of my avenue, I’m just going to go down that as far as it’ll take me and see what happens.
Some musicians really seem to be inspired when making a move to a different city, and you’ve made a move over to Richmond, VA. Did your move inspire your creativity and music?
Definitely. Richmond is a lot different than Charlotte. Richmond, to me, is kind of like a good mix of Philly and Charlotte. I was trying to move to a bigger city than Charlotte, but Philly felt too big to me.
Richmond is just the perfect size to where I can go to the grocery store and run into four people I know there. But I can also go to a coffee shop and not see anybody that I know there. Whereas Charlotte everywhere I went, I’d see people that I know, friends, all around town. Which is cool, but I like to have a little bit of anonymity, so moving to Richmond provided that.
It gave me time to kind of not be, you know, having a first Gnawing show where it’s billed as members of Alright or Earthmover, where I’m not as defined by bands that I’ve been in or how people knew me in Charlotte or North Carolina in general. So here I can carve out my own sound and scene.
A lot of people I know have moved to Richmond and seem to love it!
Yeah, it’s a great city, I love it. The river being so close is really nice. To go sit in the back of your car, bring your guitar, and just sit by the river is just so nice and inspiring.
That’s so country, too! And it suits you!
It is, very country! I feel like I’ve really come into my own. It took me 29 years but I figured it out now.
I really like how you’ve reimagined “Matheson Ave” in this version – with a lot more of those poppier hooks and more country vibe. What was it like for you to revisit that song?
It was cool to hear it how it sounded in my head, with the massive guitars and chords, but still that sugar-y sweet vocal line. Ali (Big Baby, Young Scum) killed that chorus – her harmony on that really makes that song. Sarah (Alright) sang on the original version on the tape. So far I’ve had two of my favorite vocalists add their little flavor to that song, which is really nice.
The first time we recorded it, we were in a shitty punk house in Charlotte where we recorded in the kitchen. We had like four mics and it wasn’t ideal, not professional recording. It was nice to take back into a slightly more legitimate studio and have other people play on it and really beef it up. It was nice to hear the final version of it be like how I heard it in my head.
The subject matter of the song was when I was still in Charlotte, I was dating someone who lived in Arizona, so it was about being 2,000 miles away and stuff. Now we’ve lived together in Richmond and we’re engaged. It’s cool to come back to it and all of these sweet, soft feelings are still there. That song is still important for me because it’s the first song I wrote for Gnawing and very indicative and relevant of that relationship. Now we live together in Richmond, so it’s a perfect tie-in to the story.
It’s nice that you have that happy ending for the song, because this version does feel little more romantic in that way. In a lot of your songs, you have that romantic yearning while having that desire to be grounded, lyrically.
I don’t know if it’s intentional, but I’m glad it comes out that way! Sometimes it feels like I’m kind of making shit up and am like “oh, I don’t know!”
All of my favorite bands are my favorite because they’re so relatable across the board. So that is very important to me as well. I think back on times that I’ve sat in my car on the way to high school, crying to The Replacements or had a really shitty breakup and listened to the entire Waxahatchee discography, whatever fills that void. I want to do that for other people, with that grounded kind of yearning that says “Hey, these are feelings that everybody has and it’s cool to talk about and discuss.”
I always try to not use pronouns or gendered kind of terms in the songs because I always appreciated that in Jawbreaker. In their whole songwriting discography, there have been “her” or “he” two or three times, maybe. To me that’s cool, especially in this modern age of punk where we are expanding and viewing it from a bigger lens. It’s cool that you can go back and listen to songs from the early to mid 90’s and it’s not exclusive to Blake, who’s a white man. It’s amazing because yeah there’s so many people who love Jawbreaker because when you’re in a bad mood, that song is relevant to anybody, it’s just a good breakup song.
I wanted to that of thing where it’s just a good long distance song or not a breakup song or mid-breakup song. I wanted to make that everybody.
Is there a song on the EP that you’re really excited to share?
“West Coast,” because that is really the most straight-up country I’ve ever got. My friend Wes plays the pedal steel and does a really killer job. It really ads that ‘60s cosmic-country feel, but we still do everything twang-y and fuzzy to have a good blend of both of those. There’s still that huge Nirvana-like guitar riff that is really cool. Too much Kacey Musgraves is a good thing and this is what happens.
What is something you want your listeners to get out of Shaky?
i would like for them to hear sort of the current updated version of Gnawing, which is not just me or not just sloppily put together tracks on a tape. In 2019, we played like 20 shows, and we were set to play more this year… We spent so much time carving out and getting tight. It’s funny to hear people’s instagram stories of the old songs, but with like “Matheson” and all of the songs, we’ve really made them our own as a unit. I like that this EP is a better picture of what we sound like now, a little more fleshed out and a little tighter.
I promised you I’d sneak in a Star Wars question for you. If you could write a song for your favorite Star Wars character, who would it be?
Oh there’s so many! I’d say I have to write one for my dawg Jar Jar Binks. He got a bad rap. I want equal Jar Jar Binks representation, because as much fun as it is to make fun of him, I love him. I would say it would be either Jar Jar or the Mandalorian. I feel like our music would fit with him going on a wild bounty hunt. Us in the background with a ripping guitar solo would be well put together.
I just pictured the creature with from the first episode with the flute calling the speeders up on the ice, but y’all are jamming behind him.
Yes that would be perfect! We would definitely fit in that world.
Shaky is now available on all streaming platforms and physical on Refresh Records.
Amanda Starling | @starlingaj
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