Interview: We Are The Union

While touring our shores for the very first time, Faye managed to catch up with We Are The Union frontman Reed, ahead of their show in Newcastle, they discussed how the UK’s been treating them (including their bewilderment of human pyramids), the band’s forthcoming new album, and their constant battle with the stigma attached to ska, as well as lots more!

Faye: Can you tell me a bit of history about We Are The Union?
Reed: We started a few years ago, as part of a response to the sort of monotony in the ska-punk scene, especially in Michigan, it kind of seemed like every band was sort of a rip-off Reel Big Fish, and not that there’s anything wrong with Reel Big Fish, but we kind of shared the philosophy that if you’re going to start a band, you should start a band to do something, or at least attempt to do something that no-one has artistically done before. So, that was kind of the original idea and what actually started happening was that we started to sound exactly like The Arrogant Sons of Bitches, so we had to reformulate our sound and we took on influence from bands like Lifetime, Kid Dynamite, and skate-punk bands like Strung Out, so we became more of a melodic band. Then we wrote and recorded Who We Are and that’s where we are today.

Faye: I’ve heard a few people call your sound a mix between Set Your Goals and Less Than Jake, would you say that’s fair?
Reed: I would say that’s fair, although, we really dig Set Your Goals a lot, we’ve played some shows with them and they’re great dudes, and we all really like that band, but I think when we first started the band, the idea was to be more Rehasher with horns, which is Roger from Less Than Jake’s side project, which is fast, melodic, and hardcore music, but it just so happened that we started at the same time when Set Your Goals were gaining popularity. I wouldn’t call them a direct influence on the idea of the band, but to say they didn’t have any influence on the song-writing would be a lie – they definitely do, they’re one of my personal favourite bands and they’ve had a huge influence on, not only my lyric writing, but on my life in general. Very stoked on that band, for sure.

Faye: You were supposed to come over last March, weren’t you? What happened there?
Reed: Yes, what happened there was we had a record written and we had this tour booked, and we planned on recording the record and shopping it around to record labels, but Vinnie from Paper + Plastik, contacted us and basically said, “Dudes, I really want to put your record out, I’m really stoked on your band, I can get you into the studio in March.” and it was sort of like, we can either go on tour now or record this record and try to come back after it’s done, so we ended up staying and recording the record, we did half of it then and finished it in June. It was a bummer to cancel the tour, but we’re here now, so it all worked out, I think, and now we’ve come over, I think it’ll be easier to do it again, because we’ve had the experience.

Faye: You finally made it over for the first time, how have the shows been?
Reed: The shows have been great, there’s been a couple of places where we’ve been playing to all new people and there’s been a couple of places where it feels like a show in the States, where people know the words and know our band and are excited to be at the show, which is always cool. It’s nice to have that combination, you get some shows where people are screaming all the words and you get some shows where people have never heard your band. It’s been a cool experience, and the hospitality here from the venues is far better than it is in the States. In the States, they kind of don’t really care about you, but here, we feel we’re very well taken care of, so that’s really nice. The first show in Manchester was crazy, we don’t have this in the States, but, I guess, kids here sometimes do like human pyramids, and they did that during our set, it was the first time any of us had ever seen it, it was out of control, so that show was really cool. It’s been about 50/50, with shows where people know us and shows where people kind of don’t know.

Faye: On your MySpace, it says you only play all-ages shows, why? Do you know tonight is 18+?
Reed: Well, that’s actually more of an attempt than reality. Over here, we learned that you really can’t do that, in the United States, it’s pretty easy, but over here, it’s just an impossibility. So, whenever we have an option and whenever we can push a show to all-ages we will, but that was one of the first things Ian, our booking agent, said to us, not every show will be all-ages and that he’d push for the lowest age limit where he could. It’s unfortunate, it’s always been a main thing for our band that our music is for everybody, regardless of age, but I understand laws and laws, and, unfortunately, we are not exempt from them, so we’ll have to make do with what we can. It’s a shame because it’s punk rock music and the whole point of punk rock music is, in our opinion, to be as inclusive as possible, everybody who wants to partake should be able to partake, so age restrictive shows seem kind of directly the opposite of that, because you’re specifically not letting certain people partake in it because of their age. So, like I said, it’s unfortunate, but it was either that or not do the tour.

Faye: Is there much of a ska scene in your hometown Detroit today?
Reed: In Detroit it’s ok, we’re kind of one of the few cities that’s still hanging on to ska and to ska-punk, which is cool. It’s kind of rough these days, we mostly end up playing more pop-punk shows, we tour with bands like A Loss For Words or The Wonder Years before we tour with ska bands, just because there really aren’t that many ska bands in the US. We like to keep ourselves open to both genres, we found that a lot of people who are into ska music like us and we’ve found that a lot of people who are sort of into fast pop-punk are into us, so we try to play to both markets, but the ska scene is definitely struggling in the US right now.

Faye: Like you said, you mainly tour with punk bands, and you recently toured with Shook Ones and Make Do and Mend, how did people react to you on that tour?
Reed: It was kind of weird, I guess I misunderstood the general demographic of Shook Ones fans, because that band is mostly influenced by Kid Dynamite and Lifetime, so I kind of expected the crowd to be more of that crowd, but it ended up being more of a hardcore crowd, which worked for us in some cities and in some cities was kind of awkward, just because we’re such a poppy band. In the north east, where we kind of already played to that scene a little bit, we were received very well and down in the south, like Atlanta and places like that, kids just kind of stood there, they didn’t leave or boo us off stage or anything, a lot of them enjoyed it and whatnot, but it definitely was a little bit weird at some shows, but the tour was a lot of fun, we all love both of those bands, they’re great dudes. The Unquotable A.M.H was actually my favourite album of 2009, so that was really cool to tour with them.

Faye: Are you into much ska today?
Reed: I actually like a very limited amount of ska bands, I’m very particular, I’m not too into traditional ska, it’s something I used to like when I was younger and I still enjoy The Specials and The Clash and things like that, but as far as first or second-wave ska – I’m not too into it, and third-wave ska, I like more of the rough bands like Less Than Jake, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Voodoo Glow Skulls. I like sort of the harder, more punk side of ska, but I’m not too into the sort of two-tone skanking-in-the-pit-type of stuff. I will say that Mustard Plug’s latest record, In Black and White, is one of my favourite ska-punk records of all time, those guys are great, we love playing with them, they always put on an awesome show. I tend to like more serious music that has a political or social or some sort of agenda, that’s what I’m kind of into, spreading a message.

Faye: Do you find there’s a stigma attached to ska?
Reed: Yes! Oh, yes. That’s the biggest obstacle I think we have to overcome, we knew when we kind of started this more pop-punk sound that it was going to be difficult, because not only is there a stigma attached to ska music, but there’s also a stigma within that, bands who appear to be a ska band, but aren’t really. A lot of bands like Long Shot Hero, in the States, got a lot of negative feedback or a negative reception, just because they weren’t really like a ska band, but they had horns, so not only do we have to overcome being a ska band, but within the ska scene, we have to overcome that in the ska scene, so it’s kind of like this crazy double-standard that we sort of have to fight at all times, but it’s worth it, we love the music we play and we’re still doing it for a reason.

Faye: Do you think you’re making, or would you like to make, ska cooler since you mix it in with this popcore sound?
Reed: I hope so, I would love to see ska make some sort of comeback, I think when the genre allows itself to progress, as long as it progresses in a really interesting way. I mean, it’s not like hardcore where it seems like every year the general sound of hardcore is completely different, for some reason, people hold onto the sounds they like, so there are new ska bands that are touring today that sound exactly like bands that started in 1992, it’s kind of like, yes, we all like that music on some level, but it’s time to progress the genre, I think.

Faye: Isn’t Matt, We Are The Union’s trombone player, featured on The Wonder Years’ new record?
Reed: Yes, Hey Thanks, it’s an awesome song, it’s slower and a very-stripped down type of song, I think they use a ukulele, I don’t think it’s an acoustic guitar, it’s really cool and Matt did a really awesome trombone part on it that I really dig. Those guess guys are good friends of ours, so it was an easy thing, but I would love to simultaneously be part of the pop-punk scene and be part of the ska scene, I think if we could pull it off I’d be really happy. Who’s to say if that’s going to be possible, but that’s where we’d like to sit, between the two.

Faye: So, you’ve been working on a new record, I’ve heard it’s basically done, can you tell us a bit about it?
Reed: It’s finished, it’s totally done, we’re just waiting on the records to be physically made, the artwork is done, every single thing that can be done is done apart from the actual pressing of the record, so we’re just waiting on that. The announcement for that is coming really soon, the record will be out in March or April. We’re all really excited to get it out there because it’s been so long in the making, it definitely was a process we kind of took longer in the studio than we thought we would and everything is finally falling into place. I definitely feel like it’s the same band, I don’t think anyone will get too mad at us for changing our sound, but it’s definitely more evolved. We put more effort into our song writing, we took on more influence from bands like Lifetime even more, and more into melodic hardcore, a little bit further away from the ska influences, which is not to say there is no ska on the record, there’s a couple of ska tunes here and there, but for the most part, it’s almost a melodic hardcore pop-punk record with horns, it’s very fast, it’s very poppy. I think anybody who liked Who We Are will like it, and I think some people who didn’t like Who We Are, maybe because it was a little bit too cheesy or something, I think that they’ll like this one because it’s a little more balanced.

Faye: You released The Gun Show Must Go On EP last year, I noticed that was was less ska-y.
Reed: Yeah, I think the new album is even more refined than the EP, and those three songs on the EP are on the new album, but we went back and sort of changed some things about those songs, nothing major, but I went back and redone all the vocals, Matt went back – it’s just trombone now, he just recorded the sax parts on the trombone, and we re-recorded the guitars and bass, and we just tried to make it sound a little bit more like the rest of the album. The album sounds very raw, it sounds like something we can replicate live, whereas, the EP, I thought, kinda sounded very polished, which is not bad, that’s what we were going for, but I like that the album is very much something we can replicate live. That’s where I feel, at least for me, where the band really shines, that’s where I have the most fun, is rocking on stage and playing.

Faye: Yeah, I’ve read lots of live reviews saying We Are The Union is really tight live.
Reed: We try, Jim is an amazing drummer and we brought him into the band after we recorded Who We Are, but before we started really touring on that record, and he’s an amazing drummer. I think 90% of why people tell us we’re a tight live band is just because Jim is back there pounding through every song, he’s definitely reason why it all sticks together live. I’m glad that people say that.

Faye: So, is the new record on Paper + Plastick again?
Reed: Yes, it’ll be on Paper + Plastick, Vinnie’s been doing some really cool stuff, he’s got all sorts of crazy stuff lined up that is kind of under wraps under now, but it’ll be very, very cool. I can’t wait for the ball to get rolling.

Faye: What else is in store for We Are The Union? Have you got any tours or anything coming up?
Reed: I think we’re going down to Harvest For Hope Fest, for sure, that’ll be just before the record comes out. Harvest For Hope is basically a benefit in Florida for the Harvest For Hope Foundation, which benefits migrant farm workers, so it’s cool to go down and play this awesome festival with huge names like Billy Bragg, who I’m a huge fan of, and which the new record is named after, so it’s cool to play with huge, huge acts, and also to be playing in Florida. Beyond that, we plan on being on tour for pretty much forever, that’s the general plan we’re working on. We’re putting together our CD release tour right now, so details will probably be out around the time when the record gets announced, we’ll post it all at once.

Faye: Complete change of topic, you’re straight edge, aren’t you?
Reed: Well, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, so, basically, I am, but I actually recently decided that the title is not for me, I just have personal reasons. I don’t have anything against the idea of straight edge at all, I just think that, for me, it’s not right. I want to not drink and not smoke because of myself and not because of people, and not that there’s anything wrong with it, because I felt like that one time too, I’ve just come to terms with for who I am, I need to be making those decisions on a daily basis for myself, otherwise I start to feel like I’m forgetting why I’m doing these things and why I don’t want to drink anymore and all that. I always say that now I show all the symptoms of being straight edge, I just don’t have a title.

Faye: What do you think about straight edge bands like Have Heart?
Reed: That band was incredible, they really got straight edge, I feel like, a lot of straight edge bands don’t really get it, which is another reason why I didn’t really want to be a part of it, at least in America, I don’t know how it is over here, but it feels like a lot of the American straight edge bands don’t really get it, but Have Heart was spot on, they totally understood what it was about and totally understood respecting other people’s choice not to be straight edge and were totally all about self-respect and not about preaching and looking down their noses at other people, so I looked up to that band and them breaking up was heartbreaking for me.

Faye: Is no-one else in the band straight edge or lives that kind of lifestyle?
Reed: No, everybody else is a party animal, so I sit there and sip on my Diet Coke [laughs] while they have fun, but I don’t mind it. I’m real big on everybody doing what they do and being happy with that, that’s the most important thing, I think, in life, really, is to do something every day that makes you happy and if hanging out and partying makes the guys in the band happy, then that’s awesome for them, and I will be there and I will sip on my Diet Coke, while they sip on their Miller Lite, so no problems.

Faye: So, do you have any idea when you’re coming back to the UK?
Reed: Hopefully, really soon, our agent wants to get us back before the end of the year and I would love to make that happen, once the new record is out. We have to see what plan awaits for us in 2010 and 2011, but if all goes well, we should be back before the end of the year, because it’s been great and every show has been so much fun, we definitely want to come back.

Faye: Would you like to bring over someone next time?
Reed: Yeah, we will definitely try to bring over someone next time, I’ve got a whole list of bands that I want to tour with, like this great melodic hardcore band, kinda pop-punk band out of Buffalo, with ex members of Dead Hearts and Daggermouth called Rust Belt Lights, they’re incredible, they just put out a 4-song EP called EP and that was one of my favourite EPs of 2009, so I’d love to tour with them. There’s a band called Such Gold from upstate New York, they’re incredible, I’d love to tour with them. Obviously, A Loss For Words, we’ve been out with them before. We’d love to tour with Transit, the list goes on. I’d really like to get out with Fireworks and The Wonder Years, those are two bands we’ve done a few dates with here and there, but we’ve never gotten to do a real tour with them. I would love to do a We Are The Union/The Wonder Years/Fireworks tour, that’s something I’m kind of pushing for, I don’t know if it’ll ever happen. [laughs] I’m excited for Fireworks, I think that band is going to be the new face of pop-punk, to be honest. I think that they’ll be huge in two or three years, they’ll be bigger than any of them ever thought they’d be.

Faye: Same with The Swellers.
Reed: Yes! That’s another band that I think is going to blow up, they combine sort of Foo Fighters-y rock with pop-punk so well, I don’t think they have any competition, they’re such an obvious choice for a band to become popular because there’s no other band that sounds like them, now at least, and there’s no other band that can pull their sound off as well as them, so I’m really stoked for The Swellers.

Faye: I think you’ve probably answered my next question, but who should we be listening to?
Reed: I can throw in a few more, there’s a band from Florida called Go Rydell, and they just started getting more serious, they kind of sound like Kid Dynamite, which is aggressive, fast punk music with some hardcore kind of tinges, but they’re great. Their new record is not out yet, but I believe it’s 19-songs or something like that, and it’s basically like 15 or 20-minutes long, it’s ridiculous, it’s out of control, they played it for us in the van once and I was really jamming on it, then suddenly it was over and I was like, “Is that the whole record?!” and their lead singer goes, “Yeah, it was the whole record.” and I was like, “That was awesome, put it on again!” Also, there’s a band called Protagonist, who are label mates of ours on Paper + Plastick, those guys are awesome, we hung out with them a lot at The Fest, those guys are great. Florida’s got some great bands right now.

Faye: Is there anything else you want to say before we finish?
Reed: Just thanks, I appreciate it, sorry I talk a lot. [laughs]

- Faye Turnbull.

Many thanks to Reed for the interview, and for more information on We Are The Union, visit: www.myspace.com/wearetheunion

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