Setting the record straight: The parallel lives of Tigers Jaw and Three Man Cannon
Ben Walsh likens it to being in a relationship with someone nearly eight years when they to suddenly tell you, “I can’t do this anymore.”
“Obviously it took us by surprise when they told us that they weren’t going to continue on with the band,” he says of when three of the five members of his Scranton-bred, indie-leaning pop punk band Tigers Jaw decided to leave. “We kind of weren’t sure what was going to happen.”
Walsh and band mate Brianna Collins broke the news that vocalist/guitarist Adam McIlwee, bassist Dennis Mishko and drummer Pat Brier to fans via their Tumblr page in March 2013. Many followers interpreted the message as a definite end of the band. But now it’s more than a year later, and Tigers Jaw’s just released its third LP Charmer – an album that debuted at number 49 on the Billboard charts, and one the departed members still helped Walsh and Collins record when they decided to carry on as the band’s sole permanent line-up.
“We talked about the record and got them back on board because it was something that we all worked so hard on and were really proud of the songs,” Walsh says, adding that more than half of the songs for the album had been written when McIlwee, Mishko and Brier announced they were leaving. “We all wanted to see it come into fruition.”
What came to fruition on Charmer is what Walsh calls the band’s most cohesive record, and what Collins says is “exactly how I was picturing our band would sound recorded at the time.” If the album art for their break-out 2010 self-titled release – an unidentifiable 20-something preparing to eat a slice of stringy cheese pizza – was a sign of Tiger Jaw’s then youthful energy, Charmer’s artwork – an ornate doily handmade by Collins – is an apt sign of the band’s maturity.
“There’s a mix of slower, more delicate parts and there’s plenty of faster, more hard-hitting parts as well,” Walsh says of the album. “We were able to cover a lot of ground on the record, and still managed to make it sound pretty cohesive. We were able to experiment a little bit more with dynamics and layering not only vocals, but layering acoustic guitars and things like that that we haven’t really done a lot of in the past. Another big difference was getting Brianna more involved with writing and singing.”
“Working with Will had a huge impact,” adds Collins of Studio 4’s Will Yip, who produced the record. “Layering vocals and all of his little input and ideas that were really on the same page with, at least in my opinion, what we were trying to do.”
Walsh and Collins have been through a lot in the past few years that has forced them to grow up, not only stemming from their experiences with Tigers Jaw. Both came to the end of college and were faced with many new responsibilities, along with new freedoms. It’s this transition that Walsh is responsible for Charmer’s darker vibe, both lyrically and in the way it sounds.
“There’s still a lot of energy put into it,” he says. “Maybe [it’s] not as raucous as some of the earlier stuff, but just as much enthusiasm was put into these songs as any other songs that we’ve written, if not more.”
Though he’s sometimes heavily influenced by what he’s going through personally, writing for Charmer was the first time that Walsh really turned to another medium for inspiration. More specifically, it was interplay between characters on the show Twin Peaks, which is even cited by name in the song “Nervous Kids.” Both Walsh and Collins really enjoy the show.
“It’s so interesting. It’s so in depth and the themes are so dark,” Walsh says. “I got pulled in by just the small town interactions that everybody has, where there is so much going on underneath the surface. I think that’s the really cool thing, you go to a place that may be completely different than what you expected based on its outside appearance. I think there are a lot of themes on this record of duality, and things that can maybe be taken more than one way. That’s definitely something that we pulled from a lot of the stuff that happens in Twin Peaks.”
While they’re not writing music or binge-watching TV, both Walsh and Collins have also almost completed all requirements for becoming teachers in their designated fields – Collins for art whilst living in Kingston and Walsh for speech therapy while working at a school in Central Pennsylvania.
“Nobody at my job knows what I do,” Walsh says. “None of my kids, none of my coworkers or anything, know that I play in a band or anything like that. It’s kind of a strange separation. It’s almost like working two full-time jobs [because] we don’t work with a manager, so we both have a lot of extra responsibilities apart from our jobs and also from writing and practicing music. So it’s a lot, it’s a big commitment, but it’s been totally worth it.”
“It was weird today, I had to tell my bosses that because they were like, ‘What are your plans for the summer?’ being like, ‘Yeah, I’m traveling and having a life. I am actually in a band,’” adds Collins. “‘My hair will be blue tomorrow, so be warned.’”
Tigers Jaw will start their summer tour on Monday when they headline Union Transfer. Playing in Philly feels much like playing to a hometown audience, Collins says, with Walsh adding that it’s one of the next best things now that Scranton is almost devoid of places to perform.
“It’s definitely different working with different musicians when we’ve played with the same people for so long,” Walsh says. “It’s sort of refreshing. I kind of miss the styles of the guys who aren’t in the band anymore, but at the same time it’s cool having some new experiences and drawing influence from the new people we’re playing with.”
Walsh says that he’s still very much on good terms with the band’s former members. McIlwee is still making music under his solo moniker, Wicca Phase Springs Eternal, while Brier and Mishko remain in Philly’s own Three Man Cannon.
“They’ve always been one of my favorite bands and they don’t get nearly as much attention as they deserve,” he says of Three Man Cannon, who released a new album just one week before Charmer was scheduled to drop.
“Hopefully more people start to pay attention. I’ve definitely been seeing them get some more press, seeing song premieres on different websites and stuff, which is not something their band has really gone after too much in the past. But it’s really nice to see them getting some credit for the great art that they create.”
When news broke that Three Man Cannon was set to release its new LP, Pretty Many People, on May 27 via Lame-O Records, most headlines made sure to include that the band featured “ex-members of Tigers Jaw.” Drummer Pat Brier deems that widespread association, well, kind of silly.
“Dennis and I, we were in Three Man Cannon for about two years before we joined Tigers Jaw,” he says. “We weren’t actually in the band, we were just filling in. … For me, and I think Dennis and I have talked about it, it’s so silly because none of us really thought about it like that with either band. It’s something that is very much, unfortunately, fabricated. Not fabricated, but just totally taken out of perspective.”
Three of the four Three Man Cannon men that live in Philly are currently lounging under a tree in Fishtown’s Palmer Park on a Saturday afternoon. Brier has just gotten off work, vocalist and guitarist Matt Schimelfenig has just woken up, and rhythm guitarist Spenser Hogans has been watching Orange is the New Black all day. Bassist Dennis Mishko still lives in Scranton, and all four members of the band grew up together in the Scranton area.
Schimelfenig says he and Mishko started playing together in 7th or 8th grade. Their first “band” jammed on NOFX songs and other similar repertoire. When they got to high school, the two met Hogans and he promptly joined, followed closely by Brier, who played along on marching drums that he has stolen from school. The band has fond memories of playing local venues like Scranton’s Test Pattern, which closed in 2008, and Wilkes-Barre’s Café Metropolis, which closed in 2010.
“Test Pattern, when I think about it now, I can’t believe that these people would dedicate all of this time to being like, ‘Yea, sure, you 16- and 17-year-old kids and your bands can play here over the weekend and we’ll put on a show for you,’” Schimelfenig says. “It was great to play shows, but looking back on it, it’s way more awesome because of the time those people put in to letting that thing happen, which was really, really great of them. If there weren’t people like that in Scranton, then a lot of the stuff that exists now – and people being like ‘Oh my god! Scranton scene! Scranton scene!’ – if it weren’t for those people doing that, it wouldn’t be as much of a thing as it is now.”
“All those guys were so nice and did weird shit, and encouraged everybody else to do weird shit and not be embarrassed,” Brier adds.
The first time Three Man Cannon ever recorded was actually in a funeral home in south Scranton owned by McIlwee’s grandmother, which was also Tigers Jaw’s practice space. The band recalls this and other interesting moments in their early years, including the time they made their own CD covers by cutting pockets out of pairs of Mishko’s old pants and stapling the CDs into them.
Though they probably wouldn’t have turned out the way they did if they hadn’t spent their formative years in Scranton, by age 17 or 18, Three Man Cannon was ready to move on.
“Everyone from Scranton moves to Philly,” he says.
“I feel like the two or three years that we were finishing high school, all of my really good friends and the people who played in bands who I wanted to hang out with and be around, nobody was around because I stayed in Scranton two years after that,” Brier adds. “It was really like a different world. Shows rarely happened. It was a bummer. I just felt like I had to get out of there. It was a very sort of crushing feeling.”
When Brier and Mishko left Tigers Jaw last March, all four members of Three Man Cannon were living together in a house on Martha Street in Fishtown. Now that Mishko has moved back to Scranton, it’s sometimes harder to get things done. But they were still able to write and record Pretty Many People in Miner Street Recordings, where Schimelfenig works as an engineer. Utilizing Miner Street’s resources allowed the band to use a wider array of instruments than they’d ever been able to before, lending itself to the vast experimentation of sound that’s quite noticeable on the record.
“[We were] trying to play things well, take it more seriously, but still do what we’ve always done,” Brier says, “just be more conscious of it, I guess.”
The result of this consciousness? An indie rock record that sounds beautiful but still presents the reality of life – that sometimes, it’s really hard.
“It’s really weird to say, but I kind of would hope that people respond to the lyrics, too,” Schimelfenig says. “It’s weird because they’re super fucking depressing, and it’s pretty miserable of a record. … I feel like that record is like, this point in time sucks, but not everything sucks, even though none of that really comes across on the record. There’s no resolution like that.”
“I love that pairing,” adds Brier. “That’s one of my favorite things, music that is beautiful and sad.”
The band credits much of the press and the hype surrounding the record to the promotional help from Lame-O Records. Pushing their music isn’t necessarily something that they wouldn’t do for themselves, but it’s not a natural inclination for this modest band.
“I think that’s just how we are as people, we’re just not ones to do that,” Schimelfenig says. “So having them do that for is kind of like, “Oh wow, this is cool. Somebody else is doing this?”
“Somebody else cares enough or is invested enough to do that and let other people hear our music?” adds Hogans.
Having a relaxed mentality allows the men of Three Man Cannon to take part in outside endeavors. They have another band called Queen Jesus in which they all play different instruments (Brier on guitar, Hogans on drums and Schimelfenig on bass). Aside from working at Miner Street, Schimelfenig also plays in idiot kid. Brier works at the Pub on Passyunk East (P.O.P.E.) and also plays in Thin Lips. Hogans delivers sandwiches for Paesano’s on Girard Ave., and just started writing for an online magazine called The Local, which covers the goings on in Northern Liberties.
“I do think we feel like we have a nice pace about things,” Brier says. “There’s a very, sort of, tried-and-true way of being a band. People do it differently, obviously, and whatever works for them, but there’s no pressure in this band. We just kind of operate at our own pace. I feel like there are people who rely on routine in a band. You have to do it a certain way. You have to do this, do that. I’m not all about that. I like things being more relaxed. I think I’ve learned in this band especially that things take time. When you relax about it, it’s usually more fun.”
Tigers Jaw will headline Union Transfer on June 16th with support from Pity Sex, Loose Planes and Petal. The band will also be giving away a free poster to the first 100 attendees. You can get tickets here.
Three Man Cannon just recently toured with Kite Party, and will be playing around Philly this summer.