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Interview with the Arrivals
Writing Songs Like Vonnegut Wrote Books
By Mike Faloon Thursday, January 03 2013
There are two kinds of people: Arrivals fans and people who haven’t heard the Arrivals. Thoughtful and earnest on the one hand, rousing and anthemic on the other, the Arrivals have an amazing ability to set the world right a few minutes at a time. Sonically, they bridge the gap between the first and second Clash albums: more accomplished than The Clash, but not as polished as Give ‘Em Enough Rope.
In 2007 I flew from New York to Florida to see the Arrivals at The Fest. I missed their set.
In 2008 I again flew to The Fest to see the Arrivals. Again I missed their set.
Both times I had to buy a plane ticket before knowing exactly which night the band was playing. Both times I could take off only one day from work. Both times I guessed when the Arrivals were playing. Both times I guessed wrong and had to fly home the day they performed.
In 2011 I saw that the Arrivals were playing in Chicago on a Saturday night. That was a show I could make. Toys That Kill and the Marked Men were also on the bill. That was a show that I had to make.
I set up an interview with Isaac Thotz, one of the Arrivals two singer/guitarists. I prepared a dozen or so questions but didn’t use any of them. We jumped right into the conversation and here’s what transpired.
Isaac – Vocals, guitar Dave – Vocals, guitar Paddy – Bass Ronnie – Drums
Mike: That (Arrivals set) was awesome. That ending, I’ve never heard that many people continue to sing along after the band has left the stage. That doesn’t happen. Is that a tradition at Chicago shows or…?
Isaac: No, actually, the first time that happened we were down in Tampa last year. They do that show at the skate park before The Fest. I don’t think that “headlining” that show is a good thing. We were second to last before Tiltwheel. We showed up at 10:00. We pull up and everybody’s already passed out in the parking lot. People are going home and we show up and we hang out for hours and hours. We kind of had a bad attitude about it. We were just complaining to each other—“We should have just stayed in Gainesville. We should have just taken the night off. This is crazy.” We hung out for hours and hours and people just kept leaving and leaving. “By the time we play, everybody’s going to be blacked out or gone—this is going to be terrible.” We were driving back to Gainesville that night so we were trying not to drink, not to party too much. It finally rolled around to 3:00, 3:30 in the morning and it’s like, “Okay, let’s go. We’re going to play.”
Mike: You got there at ten and you played at 3:30?
Isaac: Yeah, and we played and it was awesome. Our record had just come out and it was some sort of vindication. People were so tired and so burned out on music but everyone came inside and everybody knew the new songs even though the record (Volatile Molotov) was a week old at that point and that was the first time where that happened, where people were singing along. I was flattered because that song (“Simple Pleasures in America”) was kind of a cute afterthought to the record. I was riding my bicycle with my daughter on the back and I just started humming this tune and I was thinking about how depressing our record was going to be. And I was like, “Wouldn’t it be fun to have a song that poked fun at what a downer all of our music is?” I had this idea for a song and I had Garage Band on my computer and I put the canned drumbeat. I played along on acoustic guitar and I sang along to it. Paddy (Costello) was coming to town to learn songs for the record, which we were recording in a week. It was a total last minute afterthought. I was like, “This one’s a little weird. I don’t know if it fits with what we’re doing.” It kind of had a Japanther vibe because it had the canned drumbeat and me playing acoustic guitar.
Mike: That’s a very specific vibe.
Isaac: Yeah, and I was like, I don’t know if this is going to work, and he stood there and he listened to it and he giggled the first time because I was singing, “I like the Bill of Rights and I like to ride my bicycle.” And I sang, “And here’s where Dave will sing about two things that he likes/Paddy will also sing/One can be important/The other should be quite trivial.” Or something like that. I was just singing to the tune. That’s how I demoed it. He was just giggling and shaking his head and then he ran it back and played it again and he was like, “Yeah, dude, we should do this song.” And it’s such a simple song. We are not a two chord band. There has to be at least one diminished ninth in every song or it’s not an Arrivals song, so this was something different for us.
So anyway, to bring it back, when we played it in Tampa it was awesome. All of our friends were there. Everyone there we’ve probably known for ten years. And everybody was partying and it was like, “That’s never going to happen again.” And the next day it happened again at The Fest. And in fact, Chicago is one of the last cities (where this has happened). It’s fun. The first punk band that I got into—I heard the Clash, I didn’t know they were a punk band—was Naked Raygun. I had friends who had older brothers, so I knew Naked Raygun and the Smiths. All Rise was the first record I got by them (Naked Raygun). That was the record that I was thirteen years old, singing along in my room. I don’t know if you ever got to see Naked Raygun.
Mike: No, I didn’t.
Isaac: Their whole thing live is they have all these “whoa oh oh” things that people chant along to. I wasn’t trying to do that. I wasn’t sitting there thinking, “How can I write a song with a bunch of ‘whoa ohs’ that people can sing along to?” But when it actually happened it was like, “Holy shit!” That night in Tampa people sang along and that Sunday we played in Gainesville and people sang along for like two hours after we were done. I ended up having dinner with (Naked Raygun’s) Jeff Pezzati that night and he ended up coming back to our friend’s house and he said to Little Dave, “That was incredible, everyone singing along.” And Little Dave was like, “Is that what it was like when you guys played ‘Soldiers’ Requiem’?” which was an epic singalong. And he was like, “No, but that’s what it was like when we played ‘I Lied’.”
Mike: That’s like earning a punk rock merit badge.
Isaac: Yeah. He was on the level. It just feels good to have people enjoy your music.
Mike: How could it not? It was clear that you were done playing and the crowd went on singing for minutes. That’s not normal.
Isaac: It’s one thing for people to enjoy your music. There’s some music that I enjoy on an intellectual level and there’s some music that I take to heart that changes my life.
Mike: The best music is both of them: heart and mind.
Isaac: I guess I’m better at the mind. I’m a very plodding songwriter. I write the music. Then I think about what it should be about and then it might take me months to get all the lyrics out. It leaves me scratching my head about my methodology because that one (“Simple Pleasures in America”) and “Frontline” I wrote them in two minutes—first thing that came to my head once I thought about what it should be about. They’re more emotional songs. There’s no poetry to it.
Mike: Is it more of a reaction to something?
Isaac: Yeah, you’re saying something and trying to be honest and tell an honest story. You’re not worried about the word play. You’re not trying to be clever. That wasn’t even a question and that was a long answer.
Mike: You mentioned going for a bike ride with your daughter. When you broke into that first song I had this sense of a railroad tie, something solid and reassuring underfoot. It reminded me of the other day when my daughter and I went for a walk on these abandoned railroad tracks across the street. I have to assume that people have something similar in mind—that sense of reassurance—when they listen to your records.
Isaac: I would love that.
Mike: I was listening to the record (Marvels of Industry) on the way out and I was thinking, “How do they come up with those arrangements?” I know with some bands it’s intuitive and with others it’s more calculated, “I want it to sound like this and this and this.” How would you characterize it for you guys?
Isaac: It’s absolutely intuitive. I guess I should say this: I learned to write songs from Little Dave. We were probably juniors in high school. I spent the night at his house. I was just starting guitar. He’d been playing guitar for a few years. I was hanging out with his brother; it was his brother who asked me to spend the night at his house. Me and Dave ended up talking. Naked Raygun was one of the bands we liked and we hit it off. He was sitting there and he was like, “You ever write songs?” And I was just like, “I never thought that was possible. I thought that was for other people.” He just pulls out his guitar and started making up goofy words—“You play something, you sing along to it. Bada boom bada bing, that’s it.” I never even considered it.
We started writing songs. The first song we wrote, we did a project for English class. We were reading 1984 and there was something about “I sold you and you sold me underneath the chestnut tree,” or something like that. There’s a poem in there and we had to do some project and we were like, “This would be easy if we sang some kind of song and sang this poem from the story.” We made up some chords and he came up with a guitar line and we sang it in English class. That was the first time we played a song together.
A lot of people I know who are into music had an older sibling who showed them cool music and Dave and I were definitely feeling around in the dark. We learned our own way. My dad had a book, Easy, Complete Beatles was the name of this songbook. It was chord tablature and that was our bible. They used the different kinds of chords: sevenths, diminished sevenths, diminished ninths; it showed you where you put your fingers. We still call them Beatles chords. We learned a whole new kind of vocabulary for writing songs. Once we had that we started running with it. It’s kind of funny because when Paddy joined the band or when we go to record, people are always like—the way we do things is weird, not conventional. It always surprises me when somebody says that because for me it’s normal.
Mike: “Drill Baby Drill” is a perfect example of that. The first time I heard that song there was a part that sounded like Cosmic Psychos and there was a part that sounded like Yes, but it didn’t sound clumsy. It all fits together. No one puts songs together like that.
Isaac: We had the Razorcake 7” to do and we were like, “Let’s write songs for this, let’s not use the songs that we’ve got because we’ve always got some in the can.” We were just jamming. Last night was the first time we played “Drill Baby Drill” live, ever. We had to relearn it. We literally played that song one time and that was when we recorded it.
Mike: And that’s not a simple song.
Isaac: No, and we were just goofing off. We wrote the song and we jammed it and we recorded it and we were like, “All right.” And then I remember I went in by myself to listen to it. I wanted to write an environmental song. That’s like the civil rights movement of our era. It’s important. It matters a lot to our generation. Every time I had an idea of what to do it seemed so corny. And every environmental song, they’re terrible. They’re usually in the contemporary folk genre or Neil Young.
Mike: Songs that make you want to stop recycling and buy leaded gas.
Isaac: That was one that kind of came easy. Dave’s song for that 7”, speaking of intuitive songwriting, he just started playing the chords to “Boys Are Back in Town.” He started goofing on a new melody. What’s the name of that song? “I Wouldn’t Dare.”
Mike: That’s funny because that song makes me think of the Replacements song, “I Will Dare.”
Isaac: Nobody in our band’s a Replacements fan. I bought Let it Be just to have a Replacements record. Other than that I don’t know anything from them.
Mike: And I thought it was rewrite of “I Will Dare.”
Isaac: No. Dave will sit here and talk about Status Quo for forty five minutes, he’ll talk about some obscure rock shit for hours but the Replacements are not on his radar. When I hear it (the Replacements) it’s like, that’s cool but for some reason I never really got into it.
Mike: You mentioned having a band member who lives out of town. I’d think of that as being a detriment, but the way you characterized it, it seems like an advantage.
Isaac: It’s a total advantage. A lot of times when we’re writing the songs he’ll come in and give you a take on it and now we know where to take it. I don’t know anybody who knows more about music than that guy (Paddy), in terms of giving us the historical perspective, in a good way. In the old days you’d come up with a riff and we’d all play along with that, but it’s fun to build it in stages. You get a fresh perspective.
Mike: You’d mentioned that heart and mind divide and going back to “Drill, Baby, Drill,” I know it’s about the environment but what I took away from it was just a general reaction to that side of the political spectrum, a feisty shaking of the fist.
Isaac: I appreciate that because people joke to us about how our music is negative.
Mike: I don’t get that at all.
Isaac: For this band it’s a band like the Clash. That’s what they did for us. That’s what we’re trying to do. Even a better reference in these terms is Kurt Vonnegut. When I write songs I want to write songs the way Kurt Vonnegut wrote books. He’s funny, he uses humor, he uses sarcasm, he uses satire and he’s also a pessimist. He writes about how shitty civilization is but he does it with a smile and he’s doing it because he wants to make people feel better about their situation. He’s not saying the world is shit because he wants you to feel bad about the world. He’s saying the world is shit, shouldn’t we point a finger at it? Let’s do something about it. I don’t know if he ever offers any answers about what to do about it.
Mike: The good ones never do.
Isaac: But I don’t think we do either. That’s part of our problem of why people think our songs are negative.
Mike: The bands that offer answers are too simplistic and condescending. All of the bands tonight have that mix of heart and mind. Another thing about all these bands is that I associate them with Razorcake. You guys are playing their tenth anniversary show. One thing I love about Razorcake is that there are stupid jokes and there are Steinbeck references, and those things don’t sit in opposite corners. They’re part of the same world. That was more of a statement than a question.
Isaac: Not to get all highfalutin’ about it but I think what Razorcake is doing is art. That’s what I appreciate about art, there’s humanity to it. You’re trying to do something important and you never make fun of that but you keep it in perspective.
Mike: You have fun with it.
Isaac: Yeah, absolutely. We’re goofballs about how seriously we take this some times. We’re just playing rock’n’roll. It’s pretty trivial. I justify it to myself because if there were no Billy Bragg, or even if there were no Cure when I was twelve years old, the world would be a lot less fun place. It’s important to me. If those people can do that for me, then it’s not trivial. We try to keep it in perspective.
Mike: Listening to “Drill, Baby, Drill,” I love that it calls on punk rock conventions but it also has some really satisfying classic rock bits as well.
Isaac: We all love all kinds of music. We’re not listening to punk rock exclusively. We were listening to this techno song on the way up here today that Dave made. It was kind of a joke and we were sitting there listening to it and Paddy’s like, “Imagine if someone had a crystal ball and could look in it and see what the Arrivals are doing right now—sitting in a van listening to Dave’s European techno song.” [laughs]
We’re into all kinds of stuff but I remember, in particular, driving to Baltimore to play one show. Dave drove almost all the way home, almost fourteen hours straight. We were all goofy, out-of-our minds exhausted, and I was laying there in the back seat and Dave and Paddy were listening to some crazy Indiana ‘80s pop music station. I was floored because almost every song that came on they knew who sang it and sometimes who wrote it and which record it came from, song after song after song. I didn’t really grow up with radio. I got into music from my dad’s records. I don’t know any of these songs and I was like, “These guys really love music.” To me it was nonsense; I didn’t know why in a million years you’d know this. We all love music of all kinds. That’s who we are. I’m glad to hear that you think it comes out.
(We pause for a bathroom break. Just before we resume I give Isaac a copy of my book.)
Isaac: It’s weird, sometimes I’ll read five books on a short tour and sometimes I’ll go three weeks with two books and a magazine and I’ll read one magazine article. On this trip up to Minneapolis I was reading this book I found when we were cleaning out an apartment. Do you know Cormac McCarthy? That book The Road, have you read that?
Mike: I listened to it on CD commuting to work. That was chilling. That was amazing.
Isaac: That book is heavy. I can hardly get my mind off this book. I read half of it on the way up and it was so intense I was like, “How am I going to play this show?”
Mike: That book is so bleak. I’d love to do a word count on how many times he uses the words black or grey. There isn’t a hint of green or yellow to be found. I listened to it not too long after we had our first kid and I was blown away by the dad’s devotion to his son, protecting him to the end of the earth.
Isaac: When you were talking about walking the tracks with your daughter—again just on accident that I was reading this book—it’s an intense book by any standard but for a parent…I’m almost done with it. I’ve got thirty pages left and I can tell it’s starting to go some place else. I’m kind of sad (about it ending) but the intensity, I love it.
Mike: I like the ending.
Isaac: I couldn’t put it down and I was thinking what I’m going to read next. I wanted to be a short story writer probably from the time I was twelve to when I gave up, when I was twenty-five.
Mike: Did you write some? You must have.
Isaac: I tried but they were terrible. I went to graduate school and I wrote a ton there. That was philosophy, technical philosophy.
Mike: What’s technical philosophy?
Isaac: I was from a math background, that’s how I got into philosophy. Basically what I did was learn all about quantum mechanics, the formal structure of quantum mechanics, and then I learned about different interpretations. And that’s still scientific, it’s not just philosophical. The scientists are scratching their heads trying to figure out what interpretation to give. You have this mathematical theory; in something like classic Newtonian physics there’s a very straightforward interpretation. He kind of invented it with the ideas of what these mathematical symbols were going to stand for.
But quantum mechanics, it’s got a structure they’re not sure of. You’ve got a number, you’ve got a formula, but you’re not sure what in the real world actually corresponds to that formula. So that’s how I came into philosophy. I would invent mathematical formulas that would say, “Here’s a hypothetical scientific theory. It’s just an equation but it could be a mathematical theory. Based on the form of this equation, what properties would it have as a theory?” That’s what I did, and I already bored you.
Mike: No, I wasn’t bored. I rolled my eyes and you called me on it, rightly so, but I’m not bored. I teach physics to fifth graders and I always want to understand it better than I do, but when you say quantum mechanics my head gets dizzy. Then you mentioned math, which is more concrete and sequential; it makes more sense to me. What you’re talking about is anything but boring, it’s just beyond my grasp.
Isaac: It was cool because I learned how to write. You have to have an idea you want to write about and you have to execute. It’s a good procedural thing to know how to write an essay.
Mike: How far in the whole process were you when you left school?
Isaac: I did all the course work. I just needed to write my dissertation. I took a semester where I was supposed to come up with a topic. Part of it was I wasn’t inspired by anything, I couldn’t think of a topic. A lot of people are in that situation, I’m not unique. They take two or three years bouncing around what they want to do, and I had a daughter and a son on the way and I was like, “I don’t want to do this. I don’t even want to think about philosophy anymore.” I didn’t want to waste two years of my life trying to figure out what I’m going to write a paper on for five more years.
Mike: I’ve heard some people talk about that process; taking years to write something that will be read by five to ten people.
Isaac: That’s it in a nutshell. I could write a song and the Arrivals aren’t the biggest band in the world but…
Mike: Thousands of people are going to hear that song.
Isaac: I was like, “Fuck it, man, I may as well just be in a band. If I’ve got a good idea I can write a song about it and a thousand people can listen to it instead of I’m writing these papers, I’m pouring my heart and soul into them and, seriously, one person is reading them and then they throw them in the garbage and that’s the end of it. Great, I got an A but I just wasted two months of my life.”
Mike: How does all of that synch up with the Arrivals chronologically?
Isaac: It’s kind of crazy how it worked out. I had my doubts and my wife was pregnant, and it was a lot of work to be in school. I would write papers with my daughter in a wrap on my chest. It was a hard time. I was pushing her around in a stroller trying to get her to go to sleep and thinking about school. It’s an intense thing. Most people who do it don’t have anything else in their lives. I had a lot of other things. I was rehabbing a house. I had a daughter. We had a lot of stuff going on.
I had my doubts about what I was doing and we went down to play The Fest. And our bass player who’s not in the band anymore was going through all this drug stuff. Something bad happened at The Fest and that was all weighing on me. I could have quit the band as easily as I quit school—everything was in flux. Then we were flying home and there was terrible turbulence, and there was an in flight video about Franz Ferdinand, of all bands. But the lead singer struck me as very intelligent and eloquent. Everything he was saying about his band, I was taking it to heart. I’m listening to him talk about his band and we’re bouncing around, like, “Oh god, we’re going to die.”
By the time we landed, I decided that I was going to quit school. I drank a ton that weekend and I didn’t get any sleep. We got to the airport at three o’clock in the morning, we flew home, and I got to Chicago at maybe eight o’clock in the morning. I got on the El and I was supposed to go home, but instead I went to school and went right to my advisor’s office and I was like, “I’m quitting, I’m not doing this anymore. Franz Ferdinand is the reason.” I went in there and I was like, “I’ve got a lot of other things I want to do.”
I was teaching. I told you I was doing lot of math-based philosophical stuff and the previous semester I was a TA for Plato and it was stupid. I’m not into ancient philosophy. I didn’t like it one bit. That semester I was a TA for medieval philosophy, which was one thousand times more stupid than ancient philosophy. I saw the writing on the wall—if I pursue this as a job, this is what I’m going to be doing. I’m going to be teaching Plato. I’m going to be teaching stuff that I’m not into.
Just like what we were talking about earlier, when I was younger and up to that point I drew a pretty thick line between the intellectual, square life I was leading and doing band stuff. It didn’t all fit together by any means, they were always in conflict. I would do one in spite of the other. My epiphany was, “why don’t I put all of these ideas I’m having, put that all into songs?” I like to write. I’m not the best writer but why don’t I just try to write songs? One of my friends was like, “If you like to write, this (teaching college) is a good job,” but I was thinking, “I do like to write but I think I have something better.”
Mike: What was the first record you worked on after that realization?
Isaac: That was right before Marvels of Industry. We jammed some tunes for Marvels of Industry and after that we went through this whole thing with our bass player—we’re serious about this, we love playing music, and we don’t want to be wrapped up in all of the douchey stuff you’re doing. It was a terrible and wonderful moment. It was so intense. We started writing all these songs. We had all these ideas we wanted to write about. We just about fell apart but moving through it was awesome. Then Paddy came in. Paddy’s such a smart guy and we knew he was going to be into the things we wanted to do. He was coming to play with a band he liked.
Mike: Did you guys ask him or vice versa?
Isaac: Ronnie was talking to him about the problems we were having with our old bass player and Paddy was like, “Dude, if you ever want somebody to play bass, I’ll do it. That’d be great.” That was before we gave our old bass player the boot. Then Ronnie was like, “I’ve got an idea and I think it would be really cool.” And we were like, “Uh, he lives in Minneapolis and it’s going to be a real headache and we want to kick this into high gear and do more with the band than be a bar band,” which is what we were turning into. But it ended up working out. Ronnie called him up and said, “You’re going to be the guy.” He fit in perfectly. It’s kind of ridiculous to talk about him as an outsider at this point. He’s been in the band for like five years. We became a new band at that point.
Mike: And you’d been around for awhile by then, right?
Isaac: Yeah, since 1998. We practiced in Ronnie’s garage every day for a summer. We did that really intensely and wrote all these songs. Then Dave and I went to college and it kind of slowed down a bit. I can’t remember the chronology exactly. It was stops and starts. We made a record, went on a bunch of tours. Everything we did was kind of haphazard. We went through that phase where we were like, “We’re going to play a show and get free drinks. Awesome!” And we’d get bombed and play terribly.
We went through all of that stuff. But when Paddy joined it was kind of nice. You had to take it seriously. You’ve got to make the most of what you’re doing. I remember we went up to Minneapolis to have our first official Arrivals practice. We had a ball. We partied all night, we went to three shows and every bar in Minneapolis—it was great, a total bonding experience. We woke up at three o’clock the next day and Ronnie thought he was having a heart attack as soon as he started playing drums. We played half the songs and then we had to pack up and go back to Chicago. We were like, “We have to do this differently from now on. We’re playing a show, let’s make it good. We’re going through a lot of work.” We weren’t even making $100 for the shows we were playing and Paddy would spend $150 coming down on the bus from Minneapolis. Or we would spend $150 in gas going up to Minneapolis. We were feeling every bit of our dedication to this band. You know what you want when you go through something like that.
Mike: That’s one reason I enjoyed finally seeing you guys—you seem to get so much satisfaction out of playing those songs.
Isaac: We do enjoy it. I said something on mic (earlier at the show), it was pretty stupid, right before we started and I realized when I say stuff like that how ill-suited I am for this whole enterprise. We’re not natural.
Mike: Your version of a band makes perfect sense to me. You’ve got two kids and you’ve been through grad school and you’re in a band where someone’s likely to toss a Thin Lizzy riff at you. Those seemingly disparate elements have coalesced really well.
Isaac: When we do play, that’s all we got. It’s our music that brings it all together. I like that about us. I’ve known Ronnie since he was fourteen and up to my shoulder and every year I have a moment where I think there’s no way we should be hanging out together; we’re such different people. Our whole band, we’re just a bunch of misfits, but for some reason it makes sense when we play music. It works.
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