In the interest of full disclosure I feel like I should tell you from the outset that I know Dirty Sidewalks guitarist Evan Foster. I don’t even remotely consider myself to be a journalist or anything, but I do try to have a certain amount of integrity in my blogging (♠) so let’s just get this out there. Evan and I went to high school together and got along well enough, though I don’t ever remember us hanging out outside of school and I’m guessing that we saw each other no more than two times during the two-plus decades between graduating and last November (♣). We re-connected via Facebook and eventually in person at Airwaves when Evan was in Reykjavik performing with The Sonics, where we shared (and spilled) beers and generally had a good time catching up. So there you have it.
ANYWAY… prior to his recent work with The Sonics, Evan spent over a decade recording with the surf/garage outfit Boss Martians and now he’s paired up with brother Erik and bassist Evan O’Neil to put out a full-length under the name Dirty Sidewalks. Bring Down The House Lights dropped last month and it’s been on near constant rotation on my iPod and turntable, because, well, it’s the most exciting new release of 2018 so far bar none. Sure, we’re only a month-and-a-half into the year. I get it. And I’m sure I’ll drop more hyperbole on you over the next few months. But I can promise you this puppy will be getting consideration for my year-end lists in December. It’s that good.
I caught up with Erik a few weeks ago and got the chance to ask him a few questions about the new record.
Dirty Sidewalks isn’t exactly a new project – you put out a few singles under that name over the last few years. Why was now the right time to go into the studio for a full-length album?
ERIK FOSTER: Technically, we started Dirty Sidewalks in 2010. Being that we were recording Bring Down the House Lights on our own time, in our own home studio, we wanted to make sure we weren’t rushing to get the album done for the sake of getting it done. We tried to really spend time arranging the songs, dialing tones and developing the overall production. The album had gone through a couple different revisions and a few rounds of mixes, but it was the kind of situation where we knew that we would know when it was done. Once we knew it was done, we knew it was the right time to release it.
One of the surprising things about Dirty Sidewalks is that, based on the credits, all the “drumming” is programmed. But what’s even more intriguing to me is the role that bassist Evan O’Neil plays in the band. Not only is he a “rhythm section” without a human partner, but to my ears his bass is given a lot of room to contribute on Bring Down The House Lights. It feels like the bass is given a prominent, expressive role in the Dirty Sidewalks. Is there a band philosophy as to how you want the bass to contribute to the overall sound?
ERIK: As far as the “drumming” on the album, it’s kind of a “sum of all the parts” scenario. Yes, a lot of the drums are sequenced, however, there are a lot of live drums and percussion happening as well. Then amidst all of that, there are also loops and samples happening too. It’s definitely a pastiche. The bass is definitely a key part of what we do. Originally, O’Neil and I started the band as a duo (us + drum machine). Bass is always important, but I feel like when you’re in a 2-piece situation it’s extra important, so we were always striving to make sure the bass was booming, yet chugged like a ghost train, and had really had it’s own voice. Once my brother officially started playing with us it gave us a unique opportunity to take what we’d developed and open it up, making room for O’Neil to get a little more wild with his bass parts.
This album opens crazy strong with “Rock & Roll (Save My Soul)”, which is unquestionably one of its best jams. This might be an odd question… but what is it that makes rock ’n’ roll so self-reverential? There are so many great rock songs about rock and rocking… what is it about rock music that drives you as musicians to celebrate it? It’s not something we hear in other genres.
ERIK: True. I’ve never heard anyone talk about “jazzing” or how hard they “Jazz”. For me, rock music, in it’s various forms, has always made sense to me. It’s always been there for me, and I’ve generally found it to be relatable. That said, I definitely feel like the act of rocking should be celebrated. It’s my way of giving back to a genre that given me so much.
Lyrically “Bring Down The House Lights” has a bit of an outsider feel, sort of James Dean-ish… the cool guy with his hands in his pockets and sort of hunched up shoulders who knows he doesn’t quite fit into what everyone else seems to be about. It’s a feeling best expressed in what might be my favorite song on the album, “Heard You Want To Kill Me” with it’s “I heard / you wanna kill me / that’s OK / I don’t blame you / I heard / You wanna call me / I don’t care / If you do. Is that part of the perspective of the album, or just maybe something I’m internalizing from it (which is not to even remotely imply that I’m “cool”!)?
ERIK: The album definitely has an outsider perspective at times, with vague optimism sprinkled in for good measure. I’ve heard other people say this before, but its totally true (for me at least) – sometimes the lyrics will come straight from the subconscious mind, and you wont realize what they mean or it’s about until later. It’s a trip. That said, I’m a big fan of lyrics meaning different things to different people.
Things take a bit of a darker turn in the middle of the album with “Euphoria” and “Black Holes”. The latter in particular is a bit experimental… I think all the lyrics are samples from Stephen Hawking?
ERIK: Yes, the vocals in that are an excerpt from a Stephen Hawking piece. Legend.
What are you guys listening to and into right now? Any new bands we should be checking out?
ERIK: I’ve been listening to the new Jupe Jupe album Lonely Creatures, Joe Waine’s most recent album Pantomime, lots of Glen Campbell, Bo Diddley, and Jim Sullivan’s album that Light in the Attic re-issued.
If Bring Down The House Lights has one defining characteristic, it’s sonic density. The Dirty Sidewalks Bandcamp page categorizes them as garage rock and shoegaze, and there are certainly elements of both in their music. But there’s also a heavy dose of modern psych, especially in the way they use the space provided by those four or so minutes each song lasts. One of my personal criticisms of psych is that after a half dozen or so songs my ears simply get tired and I need a break from it, but Dirty Sidewalks avoid that trap; instead they combine the best facets of psych and shoegaze without getting caught up in the pretentious excesses that those genres have a tendency to devolve into. The instrumentation is rich and full while maintaining subtleness and the vocals are self-depricating without becoming morose.
I like a rock album that opens strong with a catchy rocker. Sure, there are exceptions (♥), but I want to kick things off right and get into the mood to sneer and drink beer and rail against The Man. So fortunately for me Bring Down The House Lights opens with a power-jam, and one that even specifically emphasizes the power of rock, “Rock & Roll (Save My Soul)”. Rockers love to make songs about rocking (♦) and this is no exception, setting the table and letting us know that this record is going to rock our faces off. Erik’s vocal delivery is all smooth cool ambivalence, the quintessential white-t-shirt-and-black-leather-jacket brand of rock that has pissed off the jocks and made the girls swoon for decades. From there “Never Wanted to be Loved” takes in a more indie rock direction, maintaining that overall attitude of lyrical indifference with a dose of punk rock sneering. By the time we get to “Always” Holly looked up from her phone to declare, “damn this is a good album”. I know, right? The guitar work is taking on a bit of an 80s feel but the vocals have a bit of that Black Rebel Motorcycle Club vibe. And the tambourine… the goddamn tambourine! It shouldn’t work. Intellectually I want to hate it. But I don’t. I love it in spite of myself.
During my initial listens I was primarily smitten with “Rock & Roll (Save My Soul)”, but as I spent more time with Bring Down The House Lights during my dark and often rainy hour-long commute I found myself falling in love with “the other woman”, specifically with “Heard You Wanna Kill Me” – I used to hate you back / Now you hang around. There’s a whiskey-soaked lethargy to the guitar that fits the vocals perfectly, before ending with the slightest guitar flourish, a hit of hope that maybe, just maybe, this time it will work out. That’s followed by the ironically gloomy “Euphoria” and then the aforementioned Stephen-Hawking-inspired “Black Holes”, a trio of tunes that take the whole album to a more melancholy and introspective place, my favorite part of the record.
The second half of the album is more vocal expansive, both at its core and with the harmonies, particularly on “Where’s the Love” and “Never Be Alone”. “Either Way” is the perfect little alt-indie number, a jangly 90s-style ditty that would have easily climbed into the College Radio Top 10 back when I was in college.
While the above may make you wonder if this is in fact three distinct mini-albums, in fact Dirty Sidewalks never stray too far from their core sound, so even when there’s a bit of a stylistic shift things there’s still an overall coherence to their core sound. And that’s the beauty of Bring Down The House Lights – it’s an album in the truest sense of the word, the true sum of its parts. It knows exactly what it wants to be and it executes on that plan perfectly.
Even after all this you may be thinking to yourself, “Yeah, sure Jeff, you’re just saying all this because you know Evan”. And I get that you might be skeptical. But don’t take my two-thousand-plus words for it, go listen for yourself HERE. And if you like it as much as I know you will, pick yourself up a copy on the format of your choice.
(♠) No, seriously.
(♣) Those would potentially be our 10- and 20-year high school reunions, and then only maybe.
(♦) AC/DC seemingly made an entire career out of this with songs like “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Want to Rock ‘N’ Roll)”, “Rocker”, “There’s Gonna Be Some Rockin'”, “Let There Be Rock”, “Rock ‘N’ Roll Damnation”, “Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution”, “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)”, “Rock Your Heart Out”, and lyrics like “I’m gonna rock all over you”, which I think might be some kind of sexual innuendo, though it’s hard to tell be cause it almost seems like AC/DC’s entire career was based on the idea of substituting “rock” for any verb in the English language.