Generally speaking, to encounter the music Sacramento-based duo Middle Class Rut plod through is to experience something colossal. Its black-lit swirl of acid-laced guitars, punk percussion crunch, and hypnotic vocal sirens is the product of guitarist Zack Lopez and drummer Sean Stockham; a duo whom, up until recently, didn't need to rely on anyone else to completely overwhelm the listener's senses. Yet after the success of No Name No Color and its mutant single "New Low", the guys wanted more for their recently released, sophomore album, Pick Up Your Head. Adding a couple more cohorts to the mix, the band's new sound feels like a stick of dynamite exploding before you even have the chance to get it out of your hand. It's punishing; it's brutal; it's a deadly weapon. Funny then to find the guys donning acoustic guitars for our latest Atlantic Studios Session. If you know Middle Class Rut, it seems a little odd...that is until they work their way through "Aunt Betty", "Leech" and, of course "New Low". Sure, they've built a reputation on sounding gigantic, but our three-song sesh is a chance to hear the elements of Middle Class Rut's bigger, bolder future.
One, two, three, four. Aunt Betty's in the basement looking for a way out There ain't nothing upstairs no no need to come out I got a shit brown future, nothing but time So let me live your life, you can live mine Aunt Betty's on the war path, you've got to run. She don't eat, don't sleep, don't fuck no one So say what you want to say, say what you want to say Just let me take yours so you can take my way Dust off the gears that move this machine Cause they feel so old, they don't work no more Show me a day that brings me better things 'cause these days don't lie. You're running out of time Aunt Betty's in the compound, lock up the door Go tell her that her key don't work no more I tell her that that you don't tell her, that you don't know why She's got a hard-lived soul that I seem to live by So dust off the gears that move in this machine 'Cause they feel so old, they don't work no more Show me a day that brings me better things 'Cause these days don't lie, you're running out of time. Why don't you believe in me? Why don't you believe in me? Why don't you believe in me? Why don't you? Dust off the gears that move this machine Cause they feel so old, they don't work no more Show me a day that brings me better things Cause these days don't lie, you're running out of time It's called pick up your head. It's our second album. New songs, new attitudes, new feelings. A whole new look. - We're excited, we've felt like the first album cycle and everything leading up to that was like forty years long, so its good to get a new one out. - This time around there wasn't really a clear focus of what we were doing. We did the same thing we always do, just stockpile songs. And then they have to be done by a certain date and then pick a handful of them and put them on a record. We never really sat down and said alright this month we're going to write our record. I don't think that's really a context we work well in, so we're just always trying to put things together, always trying to have something to pull from for a new release. - I think these songs were written in a smaller period of time, closer together so they probably naturally sound a little bit more like they belong on the same record. Where as maybe we felt like the first record was like the greatest hits of our last three or four years, even though nothing had ever come out. You remind me of someone that I used to love You remind me of ten years ago And everything you're saying well I've said before It don't mean nothing to me either way I can't hold on I can't hold on I can't hold on I can't hold on I can't hold on I can't hold on I can't hold on You remind me of someone sucking like a leech You need that blood to feel like a woman And all those things you're asking don't mean a fucking thing So come on now and give like a woman I can't hold on I can't hold on I can't hold on I can't hold on I can't hold on I can't hold on I can't hold on I can't hold on And you may think you're innocent But the truth hurts You stole me You stole me So keep on acting innocent, but the truth is You stole me You stole me I can't hold on I can't hold on I can't hold on I can't hold on I can't hold on I can't hold on I can't hold on I can't hold on - We're still kinda messing around with things. You know, we're just sitting in the van on drives working songs out you know. So its cool to be able to do that and I think, you know, we have a goal of trying to do more stripped down versions of the songs in general just that aren't blazing loud, you know, once we have time to sit down and figure something like that out. I think, I mean, we're validated personally just hearing something back initially. It wasn't like, I mean we'd spent so much time looking for other peoples validation in our old bands and never genuinely getting it. - And probably never even feeling it ourselves either. - And then now, knowing exactly why, you know, so as soon as we started getting these songs down it was like, man. It almost became a we could care less what anyone else thinks. And whenever you take that attitude then people start coming around. If you believe in your stuff so much, they go oh man there has to be something there. And then on top of it New Low to get the success that it did without any labels, it just reassured that we were doing the exact thing we needed to be doing Well I have no space, no room to move around. And this box is getting smaller I'm trying to get out. How did I get so far from where I was? When did I decide to lose my way? Who have I become? I've got a new low. All 52 cards in a row I see now that I wont let go. No I wont let go. Well who I am I? A cold shoulder used to cry. You feel bad, well so do I. Yeah, so do I. I've been right, I've been left. I've been wrong, I've been left behind I've been up, but mostly down. I've been right, I've been left I've been wrong, I've been left behind. I've been up, but mostly down I can not help feeling like I have so much at stake so I lock myself inside my head And I just run in place So many directions, I don't know which way to go I'm so busy doing nothing, I got nothing to show I've got a new low. All 52 cards in a row I see now that I wont let go, no I wont let go Well who am I? A cold shoulder used to cry You feel bad, well so do I. Yeah, so do I I've been right, I've been left. I've been wrong, I've been left behind I've been up, but mostly down. I've been right, I've been left I've been wrong, I've been left behind. I've been up, but mostly down I make mistakes, just like everybody else But instead of letting go of it I cannot forgive myself Well I did my time in a windowless box. Like it or not, all I got is now today Tomorrow ain't here and yesterday is gone dead on me anyway I've been right, I've been left. I've been wrong, I've been left behind I've been up, but mostly down. I've been right, I've been left I've been wrong, I've been left behind. I've been up, but mostly down I've been right, I've been left. I've been wrong, I've been left behind I've been up, but mostly down. I've been right, I've been left I've been wrong, I've been left behind. I've been up, but mostly down I'm most proud probably of the idea that we're still somehow doing this. You know that we managed to release music and tour around. You know, we tend to get caught up in the negative side of things, probably not be the most positive guys but just the fact that we're still putting out records. Touring around, we're pretty grateful for that. - Yeah, probably just the fact that we kind of at some point grabbed the reins and decided that we needed to steer this thing. which is what anybody should be doing the whole time, but when you're sixteen years old and, you know, you don't really have that kind of confidence and you're sort of thrown into this huge industry that you have no idea how it even operates. So to have gone through that whole experience in our last band and learned a hell of a lot now, you know, just to be doing what we want when we want usually.
When we last saw MIDDLE CLASS RUT, the band was tearing through a North American tour in support of 2010's No Name No Color and hit single "New Low." The song shot to No. 5 at alternative radio, its companion video (http://bit.ly/Ketxkv) racked up more than 4 million YouTube views and Middle Class Rut was, as USA Today declared, "on the verge."
The Sacramento, CA-based duo of vocalist/guitarist Zack Lopez and vocalist/drummer Sean Stockham shared stages with the likes of Muse, Social Distortion, Them Crooked Vultures, Alice In Chains, 30 Seconds To Mars and Linkin Park and more than held their own, drawing rave reviews from NME, the BBC, Alternative Press and Kerrang!, who proclaimed, "Their sound is nothing short of colossal, and one that a mere two-piece shouldn't be able to create, combining the boisterous swagger and pomp of Jane's Addiction and the feral fury of Rage Against the Machine." Added Alternative Press, "its mind-blowing to witness the sheer depth and complexity of the sound these two guys are capable of unleashing on their own."
Lopez and Stockham are raising the bar with Pick Up Your Head, an album that sees the duo opening up their sound. "We realized wed exhausted everything we could do with drums, guitar, and vocals," Lopez explains. "Once we decided to take an 'anything goes' approach, the songs poured out. We were freer with layering and didnt worry if we couldnt reproduce it live, as long as we captured the music with the highest energy possible."
Mixed by Grammy winning producer Dave Sardy (Johnny Cash, LCD Soundsystem, Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds), the album was produced by the duo working alone in the studio. "We wanted to have a distinct sound," Lopez says. "Instead of jamming together, Id write a bass line or a vocal melody. Sean would lay down a tempo and wed write around that. For percussion, wed use whatever was laying around pots and pans, an old desk anything with a nice crack and ring to it."
They recorded together in one room, so the music and vocals bleed into each other to preserve the feeling of a live performance. "There are more layers on this album, but weve been playing together so long, there was never a conversation about what kind of record we were going to make," Stockham says. "The songs and arrangements evolved as we played them."
The music on Pick Up Your Head has a denser, fuller sound than before, with Lopez playing bass and rhythm guitar, sometimes laying down multi-tracked parts. "On every song, we added percussive elements that play along with the drums to get a more spontaneous bang to build off of. Its not overkill, but it does sound more like a normal rock band. We had a budget, but we didn't send out for any fancy equipment. I used my practice amp and the usual amps I use on stage. We didnt use samplers. We didnt want any sounds a thousand different people have used before."
On "No More," Lopez piles up layers of grinding rhythms as Stockhams looped drum track adds a hint of funk to the songs message of desperate heartache. Stockham sings lead on "Dead Eye," a mournful tribute to the friends and family hes lost in recent months. The track's loping bass line and shimmering, reverb drenched guitar lines give it a country-esque vibe. "Sing While You Slave" describes the frustrations of a dead end job, alternating punched up guitars and a growling rant with jolts of processed vocals full of quiet desperation. The band shows diversity on tracks like "Leech," which has the bright feel of a 70s glam rock hit in its bouncy backbeat; the heavy surf guitar, tidal bass and primal drumming of "Cut the Line" and the Latin-tinged rapnroll of the title track. "Born Too Late" is a full-on blistering post punk attack, while "Take a Shot" closes the record with a quiet meditation on lifes disappointments.
The album is introduced via its electrifying lead single, "Aunt Betty." Says Stockham, "A lot of the songs on the new record, including 'Aunt Betty, existed as finished demos long before we even set foot in the studio. They were like these elaborate little buildings, finely chiseled, where every ornate detail had a definite purpose. Some needed a facelift, others needed ass implants. In the case of 'Aunt Betty, she just needed some weight in the bottom end - a new foundation. We chopped her in half at the waist, fed her legs to the wolves, and rebuilt some new stems with thunderous thighs and bunda booty."
Keeping with the "anything goes approach," Lopez and Stockham are amplifying their live sound by adding a bassist, guitarist and percussionist. Explains Zack, "We were talking about our touring and figuring out how to play the new songs live and realized we had two choices: either we play to a laptop loaded with tracks, which would be lame, or we bring in some guys to fill out the sound, which seemed cooler. Sean was a little reluctant at first, which then made me reluctant, but we agreed to at least try it. If it works, great. If not, well just go back to the way weve always done it."
The band's roots can be traced back to Sacramento in the early 2000's. Stockham knew he was going to be a drummer from the moment he saw a fellow student bashing the drum kit in a junior high jazz-fusion band. "The sound of the drums in that big practice room was it for me," he says. "Id been singing and dancing since I was four or five, but when I heard those drums, I knew thats what I wanted to do with my life." His parents had gotten him a drum kit and he spent every afternoon in his living room, bashing away to the bands on MTV.
Lopez, meanwhile, had been forced to take piano lessons--not the coolest instrument for a teenage boy. After struggling with a nylon string classical guitar that he couldn't get his fingers around, he got an electric. He learned the basic chords, ditched his teacher and started teaching himself. The two eventually hooked up and together with a friend, formed a band. Zacks mom had a tape deck. As soon as the still-unnamed band started writing songs, theyd record them. "We liked to listen to what we were writing right away," Stockham says. "We needed to hear it come out of a stereo."
The band called itself Leisure. They continued playing until everyone had graduated from high school. Lopez and Stockham were the core of the group, with other singers and guitarists coming and going. Eventually, they got signed by a major label and moved to LA. "We played bad rock music," Lopez says. "Sean and I played well together, but the other guys didnt. Wed always existed as a band within a band, it just took a long time to realize we could do it all ourselves."
Leisure made two albums; the label shelved them both. "The label got us an agent and a business manager, but it was pretty silly," Stockham says. "All this money was flying around, but we started getting disgusted by things that we had to do to keep playing the game. At the end, they didnt want to deal with us and we didnt want to deal with them." The band imploded. Lopez and Stockham stopped playing music for two years. "After the major label deal fell apart, we had to get real jobs," Stockham says. "While I was working, I was thinking, 'If this is what Im going to be doing rest of my life, Im going to go back to making music." The pair reconnected and decided to play as a duo.
They were reenergized and recaptured the excitement they felt when they first started playing together, only this time they could both wail on their instruments, with a bracing intensity and aggression to spare, even when they played acoustic songs.
"We decided to be totally independent," Lopez says. "We booked and promoted ourselves and did a national tour before we had a label, just two of us in a van, with one buddy who did our sound." Stockham had recorded the music he made with Lopez years ago, developing his production skills as they learned how to play. They quickly fell into a pattern of intense songwriting, recording and performing. "Recording our own music was a part of our process, ever since we were kids. As soon as we finished writing a song, we cut it. Thats what we did with Rut."
Lopez agrees. "We cut [everything] on the album live, just threw down guitar and drums and it was finished. If we like something enough to record it, wed capture it with the highest energy possible, right in the moment, everything totally stripped down." The recordings were sold online and at shows as The Blue EP and The Red EP. When DJ Andy Hawk at KWOD in Sacramento played "New Low," things opened up and the band took off. Bright Antennae signed them, their demos became their first album, No Name No Color, and they've never looked back (read: no more day jobs).
"Were super-excited about this record," says Lopez. "The first album was a collection of songs that had been written and recorded over a period of years. This one is way more cohesive from start to finish. When you listen to it, you can tell that it was all written in the same headspace."
The album got off to a good start, with USA Today naming "Aunt Betty" "Song of the Week" in the March 6th edition of the paper. "Its a good sign," says Stockham. "Wait till they hear the other 13 tracks."