SNAG: Overview and interview by George Ananchev

August 23, 2017 by nate

Screamo* has had a long journey around the world since its inception in the early 1990s in California. In January 2017, on an unusually warm and wet day, Milwaukee’s now screamo staple snag was playing a song about heat waves in a style that oddly enough originated in the balmy corners of Southern California: some kind of full-circle screamo serendipity. I had joined the three members (guitarist/vocalist Sam Szymborski, bassist/vocalist Peter Murphy, and drummer/vocalist Bryan “Socki” Wysocki) at their rehearsal space in beautiful Cambridge Woods, Milwaukee. I felt honored to be one of the first people to hear some of the songs that would end up on their self-titled debut recorded a few weeks later by Milwaukee’s own Dante Fumo. You can hear Szymborski, Murphy, and Wysocki’s combined musical lineages emerge in snag’s songs: the brutality of Marcy and Plague on Wheels (Szymborski), the lyrical artistry of Graphite and Cowboy Motif (Murphy), and the emotional fervor of Living & Wrestling and Eaten by Trees (Wysocki).

snag rehearsing in their practice space

After witnessing the songs performed in the same room that they were arranged in, I was eager to dive into a conversation about the band and the themes that guide their earnestly dubbed climate-core songs. Outside, rain dissolved the dirty snow into puddles. It had been raining for days at the peak of Milwaukee’s typically frigid winter — a phenomenon we had all become worryingly accustomed to in our adult lives. January heat waves, increased frequency of floods, devastating droughts, abnormal meteorological events — we were already experiencing planetary climate change taking effect daily…while witnessing CEOs and politicians write it off and outright deny its existence. Hard to believe that this is reality sometimes.

Released this May, snag’s self-titled debut is an impassioned, anxiety-ridden plea for environmental care, concern, and caution. How can people be so indifferent? When will this stop? How far will it go? It’s about the destruction of habitat for profit, it’s about a thirst for oil, it’s about how deeply involved capitalism is in giving rise to climate change and inequality. Stylistically, the six songs mainly draw from melancholy screamo pioneers Portraits of Past and the many bands that succeeded them in the late 1990s and early 2000s, setting off a vital alternative to the hyper-masculine energy of hardcore and metal. You can hear the expressive crescendos of City of Caterpillar, the guitar dynamics of Ampere, and the scream/sing interplay of Yaphet Kotto. There are pretty, melodious passages right alongside thunderous choruses. Like many of their musical forebears, a political urgency lies at the heart of snag’s howls.

The most significant geopolitical event for screamo, it can be argued, was 9/11. The aftermath of that dizzying and confusing moment galvanized a growing musical tradition into an international scene steeped in DIY ethics, radical politics, and a yearning for emotional catharsis. Snag inherits that history and ethos while facing the uncertainty of a world that has failed to adequately address its most pressing issue. Since this interview, for example, a climate change denier was appointed the head of the EPA and the president announced his intention for the U.S. to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. It’s certainly something to be anxious, angry, and depressed about when the only kind of environment that people in power care about is a business-friendly environment. But there is a fragment of hope in snag’s lyrics that connects their dread and panic to a wider call for action: “If we truly believe another world is possible, we know what to do.”

*For brevity’s sake, I don’t dive into the discrepancies or debate between the various definitions of ‘screamo’ nor do I address its eventual subsumption into the pseudo-mainstream. Simply put, the term ‘screamo’ has come to represent a particular form of hardcore punk that has been both embraced and rejected by its practitioners.

Photo by Luke Mouradian

What did you just play — three songs I think? — is it about anything in particular yet? Are there names?

Sam: We did “Heat” and “Capitalism is a Pyramid Scheme” and then — what was the last one?

Bryan: “One for the Mountains” [titled A Century of Crisis on snag’s self-titled debut]. I understand the overarching themes to be: the current state of our environment and the destruction to our environment. I think you can even hear these themes played through the melody and the beat — there are soft parts and there are heavy parts — you can go through a forest now and be serene at first, but then there’s obviously destruction from man taking place.

G: …like walking up onto a clear-cut.

Peter: I just saw on Facebook recently a satellite image, I think it was shared by one of the national parks going rogue. It was a satellite image of one of the forests near Olympia, Washington…there was an agreement between the feds and the logging companies to log in a way that logged an acre, skipped an acre, logged an acre…and it turns into this checkerboard that you can see from space where the snow falls on the clear-cut but is not visible on the forested parts…this black and white checkerboard in a valley. I think it’s an apt metaphor.

S: I think with the song “Heat” there’s a general theme of warmer winters…It’s winter right now, and I’m pissed that it’s winter, but it’s been weird, the past couple years at least have been much warmer winters…

P: Yeah, it rained last week for a week straight. It’s strange…the lyrics that I have right now are “maybe it’s the heat, but I can’t breathe…maybe it’s the heat, maybe it’s just me.” I think I’m trying to connect the dots through juxtaposition or using samples…there’s a cop taking an oath of duty over the sound of geese migrating…trying to connect the dots of these other issues like police violence and corruption and the fraying of the supposed fabric of our society. I think this is a venue to try to do that without hitting you over the head with it or without trying to be too explicit with the connections but basically point to them.

S: The sample that goes through the last song — it’s about the pipeline crisis — does that very thing…and we’re playing this doomsday, droney riff over that and it paints the picture visually in my mind of the trouble we’re in…

P: Yeah, that’s an interview with this dude on YouTube who…basically, when Enbridge had their Kalamazoo area spill in 2010, around the the time of Deepwater Horizon, this guy took to YouTube and started filming Enbridge’s activities and how they were being negligent in the clean up. He interviewed this guy who worked for Enbridge and the audio on this song is this guy. He is basically breaking down and crying over how he had faith in the EPA and in Enbridge to do the right thing, but they were grossly and very clearly making dishonest decisions like calling still contaminated wetlands cleaned up. There’s one point where he says you can stick a pitchfork in the wetland and take it out and there’s crude on it…

Photo by Luke Mouradian

G: What is the role of the sample in music for you? From what I’ve heard, it seems to be a crucial part of it…what is the purpose of the sample?

B: I think it makes a good transition between songs so we’re not just tuning. It also paints the story in a way so people can learn a little bit about things like the destruction of our environment or basically what our songs encapsulate as we go along. In a sense it’s like a transition in the story.

P: I wouldn’t want to conceal that I love Godspeed You! Black Emperor. They use samples very well and in a way that’s very moving…moments of super pretty music with samples that are sometimes either dry, provocative, or sad…Socki showed us this band Suffocate For Fuck Sake that uses samples really well too. It’s mostly in Swedish and French so while I don’t know what they’re saying, you can feel it, you can feel what they’re trying to convey.

B: It definitely portrays a mood which I personally love in other bands’ sets and if you take a mood from their set, if it’s angry or sad, it makes it that more powerful.

G: It definitely follows from a tradition within punk and various forms of punk…and I don’t know exactly where the trajectory is, but hip-hop uses samples too in a number of ways obviously, like beats and vignettes…maybe punk forgets that a lot of debt is owed to hip-hop too…

S: To touch on what you were saying…when you listen to heavier music, a lot of people are yelling at you and a typical response is ‘I don’t know the words, I don’t know what they’re saying’ and…sometimes I don’t either, but I get some sort of emotion, I can tell they’re either upset or pissed about something and I can get behind that [laughing]…samples help to interpret that.

P: Yeah, I’ve known of more than one band whom I’ve privately asked ‘What is that song about? What are the words?’ and they’ll be like, ‘Uhh, we’ll figure it out when we record it’

G: I think hardcore frequently can use anger in a way that doesn’t come out of care and love but anger in a more negative way, in a more macho way where it’s like, these guys are angry but…

B: …they’re not trying to help anything.

G: Yeah, what exactly are they angry about?…like how [Converge’s album] Jane Doe is all about a broken heart…

S: Yeah, that’s a little problematic too, like some dude yelling about a girl.

P: But then there are bands like G.L.O.S.S., who just broke up, that flipped that on its head. One of their songs is ‘Masculine Artifice’ where its like, “femininity, always a part of us!” and it’s a super queer- and trans-positive band playing super fucking angry music. But it’s totally interrogating that machismo and basically taking it to the extreme in a way but also in the opposite direction…

Photo by Luke Mouradian
G: So, how do you experience punk and hardcore, like surveying the scene and its history in Milwaukee or elsewhere, what do you feel or experience, given that we’ve all grown up with it?

B: I feel that now, since there aren’t as many house venues, it’s changed a lot and it’s not as inclusive for all ages, but there’s definitely a build-up of emotion due to our current state and there’s definitely more artistic influence. So I think that there will be a rise in more house venues and it could go more underground. When I think of the underground punk scene, I think of a lot of passion and people going all out, which you can’t do as well in a bar setting. But the fact that a lot of bands that used to play basement shows are now in the bar scene is somewhat positive at least in the way that it exposes bands more. I think a lot more people now know about the underground punk scene than they did before, and that’s a good thing.

S: I feel like it’s much more diverse now than it was before. Another thing about basements is that, at least from my perspective, there were more house venues when there were a lot more of us who were underage. Now that we’re old enough to play bars and those are guaranteed venues, there’s not a practical need for us, being mid-20 year-olds, to have a house venue, but that could be part of the problem.

P: When I lived in Chicago, the dudes in Cloud Mouth all lived at Strangelight and they had a trap door in their kitchen that went down into this basement. They kept it pretty clear and bands practiced down there, but they wanted to have all-ages spaces. Summer Camp was the same way, and they were older than me and I might’ve been underage or 21 at the time but I remember looking up to the older, late 20s dudes who could go to a bar and buy booze but preferred the DIY scene to a bar scene.

Photo by Luke Mouradian
G: It seems like there’s this sense of ‘what’s up with these young people not getting this shit together, like, why aren’t there any houses?’ and it’s a strange thing to think about because, now at this age it’s like, I don’t want to live in a show house, I don’t want to put up with that, maybe at a point I did…but I also want a thriving all-ages scene. Unfortunately, the city doesn’t care about providing all-ages venues and there’s more than enough bars to satisfy the lack of it. It could be a particularly Milwaukee issue that has to do with the landscape of ordinances and dominance of bars and all that…

P: There are cool spots that are allowing stuff…like Borg Ward was cool because it wasn’t a house so it didn’t have the exclusivity of a house, like most houses do. I don’t know if this is how you guys feel but at house venues it’s like, ‘who lives here?’ You walk in and it could be any of them. But at Borg Ward it was basically an open venue where anybody can come in and hopefully feel safe in. Borg Ward being gone is a bummer, but there are other places like Jazz Gallery doing Freespace which is really rad. They’ve got thick ass carpet in there, so it doesn’t even feel like a venue at all, it feels like an art gallery, but at least it’s not someone’s residence, it’s a place for the arts. I feel like, in a way, bars in Milwaukee suck that energy out of ‘the arts’ scene, at least this little niche of it…There’s probably also a lot of energy that we don’t know about among younger kids and it’s just like how do you find out about a bunch of 18/19 year-olds putting on shows unless you’re in that scene…I just assume it’s always happening but I have no idea if it is.

S: There’s also Mosh Haus…I had never heard of this venue before and we played there once, there were so many young kids there because it was a house, they were all just going crazy, they were moshing, they were doing their thing and I hadn’t seen that energy in such a long time, it was like ‘ooooh this is where the kids are at’ [laughing]…obviously they’re not gonna be at Quarters or High Dive…but it’s still there.

Left to Right: Sam, Bryan, and Peter of Snag
G: Is that what getting old feels like?

S: Don’t those kids have to drive somewhere?

G: Let’s talk about downloads: free or pay-what-you-want or strict charge? and what does that mean to you as someone who created this thing and put in the work towards recording this? how do you view that format?

P: I think pay-what-you-want is rad. For downloads, it is pretty fair. Like if you want to listen to it…

S: …please do.

P: Right. Like who am I to say, ‘nope, you gotta fork up 5 dollars for this thing.’

B: Yeah, I’m not about to regulate someone’s access, like ‘hey you gotta pay for that’…’oh, but i don’t have any money, i really like you guys’…it’s like, ok, why not?

P: I feel like bands should also include a download code with any physical purchase. You pay for the cassette, you get the free download, that’s fair.

S: Do you guys ever experience these Bandcamps where you’ll listen to it, listen to it, listen to it…and then that little pop-up is like ‘time to open up your wallet…’

G: …and you click no and the heart breaks…

P: I just assumed that’s a Bandcamp policy and not like a setting that they turned on…I hope! I’ve noticed there’s a lot of free shows now. Like, High Dive is all free, Public House is focusing on free shows. How sustainable is it? I know the bars want to make shows free so people feel happier to come and spend money on booze and then the bar does better, I understand that. But also how sustainable is it for bands? Like we want to finance recording through playing shows, how sustainable is it for the local scene to not have covers at shows, you know? On the other hand, I remember someone at the beginning of the year was saying, ‘Listen everyone, in 2017, let’s stop doing 5 dollar shows and make them 10 and let’s pay musicians’, and I get that, but I can see how it’s easier for someone to go to a free show than pay 5-10 bucks. So it’s kind of difficult to consider universally…

Snag performed on WMSE’s Local/Live series on August 22nd.

G: I’ll move on. This could be 3 different opinions, but my question is: what is the role of the band in today’s world? And in parentheses we can put ‘punk’ in front of band, so then it is like two different questions I suppose. Also, is it for you? is it for others? is it relevant?

B: For me it’s about a catharsis of energy, whether it be release from stress at a job or stress from watching the news or looking at the current situation of the world right now. It’s a good place to ball up that energy and release it into an audience. It provides a productive way of dealing with your anger and sadness and whatever other emotions that you have bottled up that you just want to release.

S: Yeah, for me, on an individual level, it is to keep my brain challenged, same with drawing, it’s like I’m trying to piece together this puzzle and when I have the solution I’m really excited about it…it’s a really cool thing when 3 minds can piece together something that wasn’t originally there. As a community, the importance is as a cathartic thing, a social thing, it’s expression, it’s a way to ’break up this mundane life man’

G: In print that’s not gonna sound any different…

P: …‘and then Sam made a weird voice that denotes sarcasm’…Yeah, I was in bands for a long time as a kid and when I lived in Chicago. I moved back here in 2011 and haven’t been in an actual band since, so being in this band has been basically awesome and it’s a thing that feels like part of my identity that wasn’t being nurtured. I feel more whole as a result. Making time every week to practice is a really positive ritual, I think it leads to higher quality of life. I’m also thinking back to an era of music that we are definitely drawing from a lot and looking to for influence and hopefully not ripping it off too hard. Thinking back to what I gained from punk and political music and emo at that time…early 2000s, the beginning of the Bush regime just after 9/11, that was when I became politically socialized so I feel like the role of bands now is to do that for a generation of kids that are coming into, becoming politically socialized, waking up so to speak in a fucking terrible situation and have a lot to learn and have a lot of energy. There’s a lot of potential there that can be actualized through learning about this and feeling confident in asking questions because they are informed on some level by the music that they listen to and the scene or the community or the aesthetic that informs that.

Catch snag live on August 25 at the Riverwest Public House and on September 8th with Two Knights and Guppy. Listen to snag’s self-titled release on their bandcamp page and like them on Facebook. Some of the photos in this article were provided by Luke Mouradian

About The Author: nate

Nate is a host and writer for Bottomed Out. He develops and maintains the website and social media pages. He’s been in a few bands in the scene and has hosted a myriad of shows. Outside of the punk rock world, Nate is a freelance web-developer, owner of a start-up, and a bike courier.