Jake Smith and the possibilities of punk - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

There’s having a unquenchable thirst for music, particularly punk rock, especially when it connects to a community as rich and as vibrant and multi-dimensional as Philly’s, and being prolific in that community and scene with bands, art, music, labels and activism — whew! And then there’s Jake Smith, a do-it-absolutely-freaking-all savant who has his guitar string-shredded hands in some of Philly’s most potent punk rock bands, from the murky post-grunge of Eye Flys, to the depths of d-beat and noise of bands like Backslider and Penetrode.

Smith’s musical promiscuity within the ever-narrowing parameters of punk would be considered a miraculous feat, but his ability to jump from guitarist in Knife Hits to drummer in Penetrode and back to guitar in Cain Corso, a breathtaking task no doubt, is not simply a matter of efficient time management but reflective of something more innate. For Smith, playing music is at the crux of his lived experience, his medicine, his reason for getting out of bed and facing an uncertain world.

Ironically, I first met Jake Smith while waiting tables on the rapidly gentrifying Baltimore Avenue; he’d come in on his lunch break at Mariposa Co-Op and geek out to the cafe-friendly jams I played over the loud speaker — Janet, Justin, The Weeknd; his post-Warriors punk look belied a deeper music taste and sparked a mutual interest. His band, the aforementioned Knife Hits, were in the midst of rearranging screamo and post-hardcore with their live shows in support of their Eris LP, and yet further still, I would have no idea of the prolific nature of this punk sage’s ever-expanding body of work. We sat down with Smith, chopping it up about punk’s potential, its progress, and its genre stratification and what all this means in the midst of a movement clawing its way out of dystopia.

The Key: You’re originally from Florida. What part? Was that where you discovered punk and hardcore?

Jake Smith: Actually, I’m originally from Bennington, VT but moved to Orlando, FL when I was 11. I fell in love with Green Day in the Dookie era, like a lot of folks near my age, though it didn’t lead me down the path of finding punk stuff until years later. My early childhood (basically the Vermont years) saw my summers being spent at bluegrass festivals as my Mama and Grandma were in a band that did these circuits every year for a long time. They had a community built around this thing that was very much in opposition to mainstream music and corporate influence, this instilled in me at a young age a lot of what would naturally draw me towards the punk ethos’ and even the faster tempos of the music later on.

After moving to Orlando, I started to deal with an identity crisis, as any middle-schooler does. I was drawn to the dark and grim look of the up and coming Nü Metal thing at the time, the theatrics and the abrasive sounds spoke to me and made me feel like I was being represented. The summer following 8th grade, my closest friend at the time, Eric (who plays in HUMAN, that I will mention again later) and I decided we wanted to start playing music, so his stepdad bought him a bass and my mom let me borrow her first guitar she’d gotten when she was a teenager. We started learning covers of the bands we liked at the time, and very quickly lost interest. The songs felt too basic and the vibe started to feel really corny… [soon], I basically got my mom’s friend to shave me a mohawk the next day, went to school and Eric was like “dude’ and I was like “we’re punks now” and literally hunted down everything we could get our hands on.

Eric and I had both independently grown up pretty poor in the shitty neighborhood of Bonneville in east Orlando. However, right around this time, Eric’s stepdad became a big time foreman at his construction job and things changed quickly over there. Every week he would take us to Best Buy and let us pick out a couple CDs (usually based on the liner notes from the previous ones) until eventually he bought a home computer and put an addition on the house which allowed us to find whatever we wanted to get into and a place for us to play our shitty music LOUD. Along with this we were also getting into the politics that we were having blasted at us by Crass, Aus Rotten, Capitalist Casualties, Dropdead, Poison Girls, Spitboy, Los Crudos etc.

TK:What was the catalyst that brought you into this music community? How is the scene there different from Philly and can you elaborate on how what you’ve been taught or experienced in Philly as a musician and as a person has shaped you?

JS: Eric and I, along with two other close friends, had a band that lasted into our early adulthood called Blacbloc and that was what started our true integration into the Florida punk world. We continued on later to do dozens of other bands and for a while we had an extremely special and vibrant scene based in compassion and music and nobody else in the country really knew what we had going on, besides the handful of bands that took a chance to tour down that far. And when they did, they made it a point to come back regularly.

The scenes in Orlando and Philly, at least at the time of my move in 2012, were very different. In Florida, Orlando was [labeled] the “PC city” where we might get shitty with you for using language that we knew to be oppressive and so on. Well, this did not prepare me for how very much Florida I still was when I got to Philly and immediately inserted myself into the West Philly music scene and also started work at Mariposa Food Co-op. I had never even heard the term “non-binary,” let alone did I know how to talk about it. Gentrification wasn’t something we really talked about back home, and though I was raised in part by my Black grandfather with traditionally radical views, I didn’t really grasp how deep the nuance of conversation around systemic racism was becoming in these types of communities that I already considered myself a part of. Let me just say, the punks of Philly, especially the ones who aren’t white, straight, cis males, were very gracious with me and my clunky attempts to assimilate into my new home. My friends Amy and Ryan who were a big part of helping me decide to move to Philly, said to me early on “you’re gonna say some stupid shit and you’re gonna get called on it, the best you can do is be open to learning from these experiences and don’t respond as if you’re being attacked, because you’re not.” I’m not sure if I needed to hear that, but I’m not sure I didn’t either. Regardless, it really helped me, not just to navigate spaces without incident or whatever, but to really be open to understanding how I can be a better person in this little community we call punk and our greater communities.

My trips back to Orlando to start tours or play bigger shows were always fun, but also making the differences between scenes glare more and more, so when I would talk about this stuff “back home” I would get a little push back: “so you can just choose to not be any gender? that’s not fair” type shit, and people genuinely being like “sounds too tedious up there” so it made me feel all kinds of ways for a bit. But also, let me say that was a short lived dichotomy. Pretty much all the people I really care about from that community have worked on themselves in gigantic ways to really become beautiful, and literally about 20 of them ended up moving to Philadelphia. Philadelphia’s effect on me is one I’m very grateful for. As a person and member of a community, it’s pushed me to sharpen the tools necessary to be the person I really wanted to be, it takes many types of literacy to put out into the world the beauty and love I want to project, and I got a fucking crash course in that shit as soon I dropped my bags on the floor at Bath House in West Philly. It’s so much more effective when we do this shit on a personal level and I’m so lucky to have access to that, the ability to learn from it. Punk is extremely important and I have an undying love for Philadelphia — they go very well together. 

One more thing I want to comment on as it relates to this question. It took awhile to really get used to the punk-in-a-big-city thing. The entire punk / hardcore scene of the whole state of Florida is probably the same size of that in Philly. In Florida, if you saw someone you didn’t know rockin’ punk gear, you absolutely would approach them with excitement and they would respond with excitement, and chances are you had a new friend almost immediately. In Philly, very much not the case, haha…not that people are being snobs or elitist, but just that…it’s common to see someone in a Rudimentary Peni, X-Ray Spex, or Pure Hell shirt who does not give the slightest fuck that you like the same stuff, because it’s not exactly rare here, haha. That messed with my head for a little bit, but it’s really just the nature of a big place with so much going on. In Florida, the same folks at the powerviolence show were at the screamo show the next day, and then they were also at the combination pop-punk and crust show, and then we all would go see a Death Metal band at the end of the week….same folks, and sure we all had our little niche preferences, but there wasn’t enough of any of it for the sort of natural splintering that is more common here.

TK: Punk and hardcore seem to be such splintered, fractious movements and growing more so every year. As someone involved in multiple projects across various sub-genres, has the micro-genrefication if you will, of punk and heavy music worked against punk as a movement? Do you think having these micro-genres helps in any way? As far as points of entry into the music scene, it seems like a lot to parse.

JS: Oh wow, looks like our brains are moving the same direction here, haha! This is an interesting one. The larger trends in punk I think still happen the same way as they did when I was young. Like, I remember people whining about “the crusties” or “the dbeat kids” or “disrockers” as some say now when Discharge and the musical revolution they kicked off was super popular in the early 2000’s, and now that it’s been happening again and the influence on the fashion has followed again, young folks who don’t like it complain that it’s this new thing happening and “fuckin’ trends” blah blah…but this isn’t anything new. I remember reading [‘90’s grindcore band and grind pioneers] Charles Bronson’s lyrics and they would make fun of stuff like this and that was even years earlier. For me, I always loved all that stuff and have always kept a sense of humor about the different tropes across sub-genres. I also like to poke fun because it’s part of caring deeply I guess. I see the splintering as a double edged sword though, people naturally fall into the spaces that speak to them and the more that get created out there, the more those spaces attract people to fall down the punk rabbit hole. Maybe I’m naive to how it’s affecting folks just getting into finding what they like or where they feel they belong in all this, but punk can do a lot of good for folks and whatever tributary they take to roll in is probably gonna end up a fruitful one.

TK: With the record label Silence is Death — first, are you aware of the once-popular ‘90’s slogan for LGBT rights and HIV/AIDS advocacy Silence = Death? Is this a deliberate homage?

JS: Yes! Definitely aware of the slogan’s origin. The queer-centric Olympia crasher crust band Physique, absurdly great noisy punk on Iron Lung Records was using the slogan on some tour materials and I spoke with Bee who is a member and asked her thoughts on if I used that for the name of the label and explained the objective. We agreed that the phrase suits all struggles against oppression and I consider it an homage as well. Not to mention it kind of becomes a pun for those of us who live to make noise.

TK:  What’s the central concept of the label?

JS: Basically, the label came about last summer. After the murder of George Floyd, when things really started to erupt in the streets, I was painfully recovering from two separate and awful injuries that kept me in the house and not able to be out there putting myself between police and POC like I used to. I wanted a way to develop a somewhat sustained way to support Black Lives and be a part of this movement using resources that I have access to, and for me that access is simply being a part of the greater underground music community.

I always wanted to start a label and help get music out for friends and musicians I admire but never had the funds, but with the short lived flux of unemployment money I was getting at the time, I was able to invest in a few pieces of equipment that would allow me to start making tapes of relatively high quality audio. With that stuff in place, the rest of the operation has super low overhead when doing short runs on cassette tape. So now, we’re three releases deep, have donated $1,000 so far to the Free Ant campaign and have more plans on the horizon. The third release was from the band HUMAN sold out the physical copies within a day of its release. If you like freaky punk influenced Death Metal with angry-righteous brown dudes berating you about capitalism and calling out the realities of Palestinian genocide, make sure you check it out. A lovely man named Jordan Moses has recently invested in this label so I’ve got a new partner in this thing and the next order of business is to get a copy of the HUMAN album out on vinyl, a release date will be announced when all the ducks have been lined up, but it’s coming and we’re trying to level up! 

TK: Has there been any push-back to the altruistic, sort of embodied reparations aspect from either the bands you’re working with or audiences? If so, how do you handle this?

JS: As far as artists go, going into it, it needs to be understood what’s happening. I make the first run of 50 physical copies to be sold exclusively through the label, and when that sells out, I make another run of 50 and send it to the band to be sold themselves at shows or in their hometown etc; and that’s for them do what they want with, I keep all the music for digital sale on the label’s Bandcamp page and continue to donate whatever comes in. The band can do what they wish with the music and sell it however they’d like once the initial run of cassettes sells out. So far, there has not been any push back about what we’re doing with this thing, if it comes up I’m going to try my best to make it make sense, but also if it’s really a problem, let’s not work together or maybe don’t buy the music.

That being said, it’s important to work past that stuff, it’s part of our indoctrination, if it makes us white folks uncomfortable then it’s probably progress. Invest in Black art, promote Black art, get involved with Black-led activism, help it catch on with your peers, if you don’t have access to material resources that can help, use your time, social standing, and reach to lift up Black voices in and through the context of your interaction with culture and subcultures

TK: When you start a new band or music project, what is the process? Do you have a hand in the aesthetic and concepts and the lyrics? Is there a starting point for each band or are they all born out of jam sessions?

JS: I’d say it’s case by case. I have a voice in all of my projects, however the objectives differ quite a bit between groups which also means different members take a tighter grip of the reins depending on what we’re trying to achieve collectively. Backslider was started years before I joined. When a band I was in back then, Republicorpse, was going on tour, we came to Philadelphia and played with Backslider and they were doing a thing that we highly coveted in the hardcore music world, so years later when I moved to Philly it was very much a no-brainer for me to try and weasel my way into being their bass player, since they were only a two-piece at the time. At this point we’ve got a different drummer, and have been through some changes stylistically as well and I certainly have a voice in all of that but it’s mostly a supporting role of trying to help best achieve Logan’s [the singer] vision.

With Eye Flys and Penetrode it’s more of a collaborative thing, we bring ideas to the sessions but a lot of it is hammering out stuff at the practice space and seeing what we like in the moment and then refining over time. Bootsie of Penetrode handles all the lyrical themes and a lot of it is very personal to them. In Eye Flys I am the person who writes all the lyrics and decides what the concepts are and it’s a level of control I’ve not had since I was a teenager, I never really wanted to be that person actually but when Pat asked me to join up with him and Spencer, one of the caveats was that I would have to be the vocalist. I’m glad I agreed to it, but honestly sometimes I’m still surprised I did, haha. With pretty much any of these projects and others, usually things have a starting point of “we want to start a band that sounds kind of like these examples but with our own stink on it” between two folks and then build out from there.

TK: From Backslider’s pummeling progressive blast beats, to Knife Hit’s Rorschach-influenced screamo metal, to Eye Fly’s total sludge-core noise rock — to the outside ear this might not seem to be much difference, but in the punk world those are massive rifts, as we’ve discussed. As outspoken as you are through both your music, your online presence and with the record label, do you feel that sometimes the message can be missed via the screaming and the thrashing? That the often aggressive music might obscure the message?

JS: Yea, I’d like to think that all of my projects are largely different from each other. Variety is the spice of life! There’s so many things I want to try and create that I haven’t had the chance to explore but that’s sort how it’s always been for me. 

I’m gonna be honest here, I almost feel bad saying it, but it’s the truth. It’s always about the music first. I care deeply about a lot of things, but I’m a musician before I’m anything. I have never started a band where the lyrical themes or social / political implications were hashed out ahead of the music. I do this stuff for extremely selfish reasons, it’s the only thing that motivates me off my couch or out of my bed really. When it comes to a “message” I don’t even know that I think about it that way. It’s like — I don’t want my bands to be instrumental, most of the music I make only makes sense with aggressive vocal styles, and songs need lyrics, so they might as well be about things I care about and reflect the conversations I think we should be having in the world. I recognize that what we put out into the world is going to land somewhere and it’s not lost on me to give those things value, but I’d be full of shit if I pretended that was the main objective of any of the music I’m making. I want to make music that feels fulfilling, and I want to play it for as many people as possible, and the themes will naturally reflect who we are and what we’re trying to put into the world for the various groups I play with and those things will often involve heavy social and political commentaries and statements, as well as deeply personal things that might not even make sense to anyone else and that’s important too. It’s a part of being honest with self expression. If I did it any other way, it wouldn’t feel genuine.

 I think part of starting the label though was so that there was a place for me to be fully intentional in a sort of “money where your mouth is” kind of way, where I don’t have to try and make sure I fit a list of objectives into artistic expression that sometimes has room for it and sometimes does not. I don’t believe in forcing anything in art, and I also don’t want to just go off saying the same shit a thousand people have said better than I ever could, often with more relevant precedent and genuine lived experience. 

TK: Eye Flys in particular, the album is called Tub of Lard. There seems to be a lot of themes about body dysphoria — how have those issues affected you? How has Eye Flys helped you parse through these issues?

JS:Tub of Lard, and the sort of title track “Tubba Lard,” was about growing up and living my whole life as a fat person. I found a level of peace with it early on, but also I think I unpacked some of it as a suppression of emotions attached to how I see myself. The song and album is simply named for a nickname I had in 8th grade. It started as all the classics “fat ass,””fatty,” etc.; but then this one kid called me a tub of lard in gym class and everyone thought it was genius so it stuck through the whole year, eventually shortening to “Tubba” for some people.

It was hurtful and certainly put a stain on my self image that lingers to this day, but I also sort of embraced it moving forward from there. I’m not sure if it’s some Stockholm syndrome type shit or a survival mechanism, but it kind of worked. By the time I was in high school, I was able to kind of flip it. As I got into punk and people would have nicknames associated with them, I started going by Fat Jake for a while. It was kind of like I had taken the power away from those wielding it against me and that stuff really slowed down…and then when I stopped going to school and really only surrounded myself with people I wanted to be around, I let myself live a little more and got into a bubble where I thought maybe I had overcome this body image stuff. It wasn’t until years later that I was able to unpack how I shut myself down out of trying to protect myself from the world that didn’t want fat people in it.

I realized that the mechanisms I developed to get through it all were just suppression and that I still really hated what I saw in the mirror because I’m fat, and it was still largely because for so many years, people made it very clear to me that I was not what anyone saw as traditionally attractive and all that, and that shit hurts. So, when it came time to make the second Eye Flys record, and our Thrill Jockey signing was announced, you [yes, me, Alex Smith, the writer -A.S.] slid into my DMs to be a bird in my ear about how this was an elevated platform for me and that it shouldn’t be wasted on nonsense. I struggled with that quite a bit, I never wanted to be fake or come off like I was speaking for other people but wanted to talk about stuff that’s important to me.

“Tubba Lard” was the first song I wrote lyrics for after that conversation, and it’s mostly just a series of insults that were thrown at me as a young person but framed in a way that I hope is obviously dealing with the lasting effects of bullying and body shaming that fat people like myself deal with. I think the whole thing was very therapeutic for me, I’m more open about what it means to move through the world as a fat person and I feel more connected to fat culture. I’ve always leaned towards this stuff anyway — my mom named me Jake because of Belushi’s character in The Blues Brothers, I’ve been doing Chris Farley impressions as long as I can remember, etc.; but now [I’ve leaned in] even more so. I can’t watch a fat person be happy about anything on TV and movies without completely melting into a pile of joyous tears, it fills me up to the point of overflowing these days. I love being a fat person, and it was a bumpy road to get here, but we are beautiful goddamnit. 

TK:Also, are ya’ll named after the Melvins song? That must be a little frustrating if so, considering that band’s members being…let’s say, gleefully “anti-PC” in the last couple years here. Continuing on that theme, how do we as punks maintain a reverence for the music that’s come before without delving into hero worship? Is it possible to separate the art from the artist, why or why not?

JS: Yes, we are named after a Melvins song. That was one of the main points of reference when we started making music together and it just seemed to make sense. If Buzz’s interview with proud boy Gavin Mcginness had happened before we started the band, we definitely would not have chosen this name. I wouldn’t want to be intentionally associated with any bullshit like that. However, I’d be lying if I pretended that all of the sudden we weren’t influenced by them anymore. We’ve all loved their music for so many years, it’s a part of our musical DNA, I can’t undo the massive influence Buzz’s style has on my guitar playing or how the way Dale Crover plays drums has affected the way I think about how drums should be played for certain styles.

Again, I kind of feel bad being honest here, though I was upset to hear about some of the things Buzz has said in recent memory, I didn’t get rid of the records or anything, I still listen to them. Some people don’t operate that way, and that’s cool, and probably more responsible than my position on it, but I also never listened to them expecting them to have anything good or bad to say about anything as it relates to the world outside of music. I was hugely disappointed to find out Buzz is actually fuckin’ stupid enough to say things like “well, think about it, the socialists are the real Nazis, it’s right in the name, National Socialism” as well as other super eye-roll worthy bullshit, obviously without ever having given these things any real thought because regardless of where you stand politically, believing a statement like this shows that you have not spent any amount of time thinking, talking, or reading about these things, or you’re being a troll…which, ugh…better off shuttin’ up.

What I did learn from it, however, is that maybe it’s not best to be giving out lip service to and engaging in hero worship, with old white men especially, who are good at a thing we like for those reasons alone when we don’t know what kind of energy they are meeting the world with. The art and artist conversation is a rough one in this age of rising accountability, and I’m always happy to talk with anyone about the nuances of this stuff, and not afraid to call out bullshit even if it comes from folks I look up to as musicians.  Maybe I’m just trying to convince myself, because I think about this dichotomy often and I also recognize that the level of privilege I hold as a white cis-man probably makes it a little easier to feel the way I do. But at the end of the day, I challenge myself to be honest about what I enjoy and I will not stray away from any conversation about this stuff just to preserve my fandom of things. Now, if we are talking about a band with an agenda of something, that’s different — like the white-supremacist Black Metal thing? No way! At that point, we’re not just talking about an artist who might put their foot in their mouth over something, or have a bad take. That becomes a central point and message of the music, an agenda to spread ideas that are damaging to society, like hateful and genocidal rhetoric. There’s no excuse for putting up with that stuff at all in my eyes. I fully support knocking out the teeth of someone sporting a Burzum shirt for example. 

TK: You’ve got a few albums and tours coming up — can you talk about them a bit? As well, are you ready to get out there and start rocking again? It’s got to be a little scary considering how real COVID still is despite the vaccine being relatively easy to obtain.

JS: Yes indeed! Things are starting to happen again and the feelings are less than consistent, but overall I’m very excited. Backslider has a new LP coming out on To Live a Lie Records later this year, the release date will be announced soon! We worked on this thing for almost five years, we had to take some unexpected breaks over the course of that time but we regrouped and made something that we’re all really happy with and I’d like to think that we’re further pushing some boundaries as it relates to blast-beat centric hardcore punk. Backslider will be doing a handful of local gigs between now and the end of the year, and then we will be strategically hitting different runs throughout the country through 2022.

Also, Eye Flys released an LP back in March of 2020 and then everything shut down just as we were about to embark on an aggressive tour cycle to support it, but during the downtime we wrote and recorded a new EP for Closed Casket Activities that will be out this Fall just in time for our tour with Inter Arma and Yautja, so we’ll be supporting two releases for that run as well as something we have cooking up for next spring.

Penetrode released a full length Tape on Silence Is Death earlier this year, it will be coming out on vinyl from a soon to be announced label as well, and we will hit the road a bit after that’s out. Cain Corso has a colossal-sounding full length being mastered at the moment, there will be more I can say on that a little more into the future. My partner Alissa and I have a band called Titanoboa that will be debuting music soon. There’s always more than a handful of projects I’m working on at a time, some move along more swimmingly than others but they are all quite a bit different from each other so keep your eyes and ears open and ready!

Yea, it’s definitely a little scary to think about how this stuff is going to look when we get back to full throttle on the touring front. I have friends who are going out on the road months before I have plans to do so, I hate that I am little relieved that I will be able to gauge what I do based on what I see from those folks’ experience, but I am so ready. Part of me expects all this shit to get canceled again when this delta variant starts to wreak havoc, but also maybe that’s just not how it’s gonna go? I’m vaccinated, as is everyone I play music with, and as far as I can see at the moment, that’s enough for me to say LET’S GOOOO. Hopefully it doesn’t get super out of control again. I am significantly less depressed when touring is a more regular occurrence in my life, I have basically only ever worked towards making that take up as much of my time as possible without it killing me and I really tend to spiral into bad places when it’s not within reach, so I’m being cautiously optimistic because I need this shit!

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