Stormshadow – “Forty Ounces And The King Of Smoke” (Stereogum Premiere)

Last Saturday night, New Brunswick punk band Stormshadow played their first show in 13 years at the Don Giovanni Records annual showcase in Brooklyn. The same night was the official release date for Don Giovanni’s re-issue of Stormshadow’s only full-length record, Set On Destroy. The word “reissue” should be taken lightly though, because in reality, until now, these songs had only been available via a limited-run CD-R during their last year as a band. Stormshadow were short-lived –- they only played around New Brunwick from 1995-2000 — but during those years they were largely influential in that scene.

At their first show in over a decade, Stormshadow’s set of fierce hardcore and explosive shout-along verses provided an introduction of sorts for many in attendance, although a fraction of the crowd was clearly made up of long-time super-fans who likely trekked in from Jersey to scream along with every line. One of the most overheard comments of the night was that they sounded like Fucked Up, with the way singer Matty King and singer/guitar Sue Werner trade off on lines. The first time I listened to this band, I was taken by the ways they mixed relentless anti-authoritarian politics and hardcore screams with the sweeter more melodic mood of folk-punk bands from the Plan-it-X scene, and that resonated live.

Below stream the Internet premiere of Stormshadow’s “Forty Ounces & the King of Smoke” from Set On Destroy, and read on for a lengthy Q&A with King, covering the album, the meaning behind this song, the ways his lyrics mix the personal with the political, and how it felt to play live after all these years.

Stereogum: When and how was this song recorded? Was it intended for a specific release?

‘Forty Ounces & The King Of Smoke’ was recorded in the summer of 1999 for the ‘Set On Destroy’ sessions. I want to say August. Maybe. I don’t have the best powers of recollection for times and dates. We recorded the whole record, 16 songs, over 2 or 3 weekends in a studio in Hoboken. We actually recorded the songs in the order they’re on the record. That’s how prepped we were. Well sort of. Certain song lyrics, ‘Watson Brake’ and ‘Stainless Stealing & The Wage Gap’, were finished the day before we recorded the vocals. Eep. But those are some of the best ones! Also the Dylan Thomas poem we did, I had never sang that before. One take!

We never had a lot of money to record, like most punk bands, so it was a stressful time because you want to make the best record you can – you only get that one shot – but the clock is always ticking. In general, I still love the record. A lot. A whole lot. Definitely the best thing we did and most of all our jams are good. We had like 40 songs altogether through the years and most are quality. Musically I wouldn’t really change a thing with ‘Set On Destroy’. Vocally I can’t really say that. There are definitely some things I’d fix if I could go back in time. I mean I recorded my vocals, multiple takes of each song, all 16 songs, in a row in one day. Probably in a couple of hours. So my voice is pretty run down towards the end. That’s dumb and a regret. Bands don’t do that. But like I said we had budget concerns.

When it came time to do the re-issue with Don Giovanni it wasn’t really even a thought to change anything. I think once something’s done – music, art, whatever – and you put it out there it’s over. That’s it. You’re done. But even with all that I think vocally ‘Set On Destroy’ is our best effort too. With every release we did, we always would take stock and analyze to see how we could get better. And with every one the main thing was always to get better vocally, do more vocally, and we did.

What sort of themes or ideas are you singing about here? What’s the song about?

This is a song about friendship. It’s about finding joy and comfort in your friends and having fun while the world around you is so hard. One of my best friends Brian aka Forty aka The Kidd and I are the title characters. He’s my oldest friend, 23 years now. It’s mainly about us but it’s also about all my friendships, especially the ones I made through punk rock. So yeah the song is about us growing up, being punks and weirdos, and then becoming adults and still being friends and punks and weirdos.

The whole ‘greaser’ thing is just something we called ourselves that we took from 50’s culture and applied to our lives. We were punks – The Greasers – and the rest of the world against us was The Socs. The last line, “Greaser Forever! Social Never!” is actually a throwback to an old Stormshadow jam called ‘Greaser Manifesto’ that was the first song on our demo and probably the first song most people heard by us. Full circle.

Does this song speak to Stormshadow’s song topics in general?

Sue and I we’re discussing this song and we both basically said it was our favorite. I don’t know if it’s her favorite favorite but it’s mine for sure. For me the first verse – “The piano vibrates like thunder. It’s only a sin if you hurt another. So let’s stomp and holler and make a glorious sound because tomorrow there’s still coal in the ground.” – is the best verse I’ve ever written in any song and I got a lot of gems I think. It just really speaks a lot to how I feel about and approach life.

Lyrically, Stormshadow songs can be broken down into three categories: straight up political songs, personal songs that are political in nature, and personal songs that are deeply and starkly emotional. The straight up political songs are of course in some sense personal because they’re how we feel about whatever subject. But yeah ‘Stainless Stealing’ is about wealth inequality, ‘Watson Brake’ is about evolution, ‘Who Watches The Watchmen’ is about the military industrial complex, ‘Ponce de Leon & The Fountain of Slaves’ is about history and who controls it, and so on.

What I mean by the second category, personal songs that are political in nature, is that those songs talk about how we as individuals relate to the world around us. ‘Compassion Confection’ off our split 12” and ‘Black Power For Human Liberation’ on ‘Set On Destroy’ are good examples. They talk about the connection of us all as human beings and the connection of all struggles for liberation in the world and how we need to always remember these connections. I think with the political aspect of our band we’ve never been preachy. At least we always tried not to be. Like a lot of our songs have questions in them and they’re for us as much as the listener. We’ve always tried to present these things as this is what we feel and see and think, what do you think? Hopefully we’ve succeeded at that.

The last category is the really personal songs that are autobiographical and about things I’ve gone through in my life. Relationships, losing loved ones, self-doubt, struggles with depression and anxiety, having someone put a gun to your head. Fun! Songs off our split 12” like ‘Anvil’, ‘Piano Wire’, and ‘Notes From The Greaser Underground’ and then songs off ‘Set On Destroy’ like ‘Catch You On The Flip’, ‘Phone’, ‘Summer To Summer’, and ‘Houdini’ are all along those lines. Just real emotional shit before ‘emotional’ became a bad word used to describe passive aggressive dudes complaining about how someone usually a girl hurt their feelings. The personal jams aren’t all dark though. ‘It’s The Passion’ is about the love of music and why we play it. ‘Glitter’ and ‘Switched On’ are about being alive and energy and electricity. ‘Forty Ounces & The King Of Smoke’ is about friendship. Also I think that even our darker songs have a lot of hope in them. As a band we always wanted to let people in. Let them know that there are other people out there just like them, going through similar things, and that they aren’t alone in the world. You are not alone friends.

How did the Don Giovanni showcase go for you guys? Any surprises?

The Don Giovanni showcase was a total blast. Honestly one of the best nights of my life. We all had a great time. All the bands were rad and we had a lot of fun hanging out with the guys and gals of the other bands, especially Shellshag and Black Wine, and with each other. A lot of old friends came out and it was awesome to see them and we made a lot of new friends and it was awesome to meet them. That’s the best thing about punk rock for me: the friendships. Always. The whole thing went by too fast! Being real, I think we sounded and played the best we ever had. We prepped and prepped and we accomplished what we set out to do, what we always set out to do, which is to destroy.

We’re really thankful to Joe and Zach at Don Giovanni. They’ve been really great to us and I’m really proud of them and what they’ve done with their label. It’s funny way back when everyone called Joe ‘Nervous Joe’. Well I just found out he’s only 28. I thought he was a few years older. So when I met him he must’ve been like 14 years old. No wonder he seemed so nervous, he was just a kid!
In terms of surprises, honestly all of this has been a surprise. Everything. Just how much love we’ve gotten. The best thing has been realizing so many people love and care about what we did, that we reached more people than we ever thought, and that maybe we helped make some friends’ lives just a little better, their world a little less dark. And now because of Don Giovanni and what they’ve done for us we’re reaching even more people which is beyond rad.

It’s funny when we were a band way back when I always joked that we had a 100 people who loved us. When we’d lose two we’d gain two more. And that was fine. They loved us and we loved them. We didn’t think much about success in the conventional sense. It was just about music, ideas, feelings, what we had to say, and the friends we made. And that hasn’t changed for us. We’re real happy with the music, the message, and the friendships to this day. Very happy. And the fact that we’ve gotten so much love has been truly wonderful. Thanks friends.

Set On Destory is out now via Don Giovanni.

Tags: Stormshadow