The world was a different place five years ago, in the year of our Lord two-thousand and twelve.
“Gangnam Style” was the biggest song in the world. People wrote impassioned blog posts about Fifty Shades of Grey. Edward Snowden was an unknown, hardworking NSA employee. We still poked our friends on Facebook and no one thought that that was weird at all. Some people said “YOLO”, and other people heard them say “YOLO” and thought “that’s a cool and totally reasonable slang word that won’t seem awful and cringey when I look back on this period of my life in the near future.” A truly wild time in history.
But perhaps most important of all 2012’s hallmarks was the release of Terry Malts’s breakout album, Killing Time. Blogs dubbed the album “vanilla fuzz”, or “chainsaw pop”, or “power-saw bubblegum buzz” or even sillier and more meaningless compound adjectives. No matter what tag you slapped on it back then, it’s undeniable the album has grown immensely in stature over time, from its emergence as a low-stakes debut of a local band into its current state of existence: a genuine Bay Area punk classic.
The gospel of Killing Time lies somewhere between both the ideologies and sounds of the Troggs and the Smiths. Corey Cunningham’s shredding, oversaturated guitar riffing is the ideal foil for Phil Benson’s part-Joey-Ramone-part-Morrissey vocals and Nathan Sweatt’s noisy rhythm section. Their songs are plain, honest, and immensely quotable: “A zombie’s still a zombie, in J. Crew” from “Mall Dreams” is still one my favorite lines from any album, ever.
I caught up with guitarist Corey Cunningham last week, the morning it was announced that his band would be playing a very special show at Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco, celebrating the 5-year anniversary of their debut.
“Hey, there you are,” he said, after a late start and a couple missed connections. “Sorry about that, I was just killing time.” Despite his insistence that the phrasing was accidental, I refuse to believe that he wasn’t intentionally plugging the title of Killing Time within moments of commencing our interview about that album. Take note, young bands. That’s some veteran marketing genius on display.
So it’s been nearly 5 whole years, 1827 days, since you released your debut album. What’s changed in your life since then?
Ooh boy, do you have a few hours? I moved away from San Francisco to LA four years ago, but somehow continued to be in a local band in San Francisco, riding the Megabus once or twice a month. Other than that, it’s really normal stuff: you start getting older, you start figuring out that you can’t live the way you lived when you made that album. At that time, the way we operated was almost a contest to see how high of a level we could function on while wasted, and it turns out you can’t do that every day or every show your whole life.
Yeah, that doesn’t seem at all sustainable.
Not at all, no! Your body really starts to reject what you’re doing. Even if people like what you’re doing, your body doesn’t.
When you were rehearsing for this upcoming anniversary show and looking back at that album, in its entirety, was there anything you really cringed at? Or was it more just song after song of “Damn, this is still really good!”
It’s really surprising when I hear that album, because — it’s not like I don’t know who made it, but it’s a side of myself that I can’t access anymore. I don’t know where that came from. Phil or Nathan would probably say the same thing, it was just sort of a perfect time, place and circumstance kind of thing, you know?
I was looking at iTunes to see what would pop up under their “related albums” section for Killing Time, because Apple’s algorithms are usually hilarious, and the only album listed was The Strokes’ First Impressions of Earth (2006), which was an…interesting pick to say the least! Assuming it wasn’t just The Strokes, who you remember what you were listening to at that time?
Haha, yeah, we were listening to this East Bay band called Black Fork that we like a lot. We were listening to Hickey, another local band, an old punk band. We were listening to a lot of 14 Iced Bears, do you know them? Slumberland [Records] reissued some of their music, they’re a British band from the 80s. These are just bands we took cues from…and Crass! I don’t know if those influences always translate specifically to us as it would to a layman listener. We’re just filtering those ideas through ourselves.
Yeah, I’d never really heard a whole lot of Crass influence in your music, but now that you mention it…
We’d listen to something like Crass and then feel emboldened to make a song like “No Sir, I’m Not a Christian”. Like, in our weird warped lens, it came out really poppy.
One of the other songs I want to ask about is “Where is the Weekend?” The song seems pretty straightforward about the awful job where I assume you were working at the time. Did you get to quit that job after the album dropped?
No, I didn’t quit that job! I worked at…I’ll just say a nameless grocery store forever, more than a decade total, so just working the most abysmal day job possible. And Phil had a similar day job that was not so hot. That song is as honest a sentiment as you could ever get out of song. I think that’s common to musicians, but also to anybody in general, we just feel the need to work even though it’s not to make us happy.
I talked to a friend who is a huge fan of yours, and he very casually used the term “bubblegum punk” to describe your sound. What do you think of that word, “bubblegum”?
I don’t think that’s a derogatory label at all! I think that’s something we felt comfortable working in, even if we weren’t intentionally trying to do that. Our strong suit is being melodic and poppy, and we wanted to turn that on it’s head and be obnoxious. Not in like a NOFX way, though. Like, in a Jesus and Mary Chain way.
Well before Terry Malts, you were in Magic Bullets playing Smiths-y and Orange Juice style stuff, which is also close to that inverted bubblegum pop sound you’re talking about. So there’s this Killing Time anniversary show coming up, but are you ever going to revisiting those Magic Bullets albums live?
Yes! We must have gotten so old that we’re stuck in a thing of nostalgia right now, because we’re going to do a Magic Bullets reunion on June 3rd — it hasn’t been announced yet, but it’ll be in San Francisco. It should be announced soon.
And on top of that you’ve also got a new group, Smokescreens,that just released its first album.
That’s a good story because it’s a byproduct of touring and making friends out on the road. We played one of our first shows touring with Fresh and Onlys and Crocodiles in San Diego, and there was an opening band from San Diego called Plateaus, and they were somehow drunker than we were. They were like the Replacements but even drunker, so I made friends with them. The singer moved to LA not long after I moved to LA, and we both loved New Zealand Flying Nun bands and we wanted to make something in that vein. So we co-wrote a lot of those songs together and recorded that in an old dairy factory on a small tape machine.
Why the dairy factory? Were you getting in character because there’s a lot of cattle in New Zealand?
Exactly! Some people try to tap into the divine and we were going for the bovine. Actually, it was an interesting sounding place to record in my mind, but I couldn’t picture it until we got there. Then it turned out it was just a room with a tape machine in it.
So in addition to the Smokescreens record, you’ve also just put out a solo album as Business of Dreams, which features some production work that’s super clean, which is kind of out of ordinary for you.
Yeah! It’s not that far off from The Field Mice or some other late 80s stuff. It started because I had a backing band, but it started sounding like Terry Malts with me singing rather than a whole new project. I just wanted it to sound like a one man thing, and the only way I could do that was by re-arranging the music and including some sequenced electronics.
Everything has to be easy! That’s the one thing I learned since we started Terry Malts. I prefer everything to be as easy and simple as possible. We don’t even practice anymore!
Woah. I mean, if you have enough trust in your band members, why not?
Even more it’s the trust in the band design, so it’s easy enough to convey what you’re trying to do without having to perfect or enhance your playing abilities.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve heard you’re very into old SNL, and SNL is having somewhat of a resurgence in relevance lately, if not maybe quality. Are you keeping up with it?
I swear you’re reading my mind, I was composing this tweet a couple days ago, but I didn’t post it. Before all this political stuff started to seep back into SNL, I thought “Hey, maybe they’re starting to get their mojo back,” and then I saw it again recently, once the super-political stuff came in and pushed out some of the more abstract writing, and I thought “Ahh, this isn’t nearly as good as I thought it was going to become!”
I agree! It’s like the thing people were saying about punk music, and how it’ll supposedly get so good under Trump. But for comedy.
Yeah, when I was putting together the show, it was really important to me that it reflect something of the time, or something of our past. And Tony is from the Peninsula where Phil and Nathan are from, where I first moved when I came from Tennessee, and I think we took him on one of our early tours, before he’d had anything out, before he was on Slumberland. And Yogurt Brain is a band we played with a couple times in the East Bay when we were first starting out. And Mike from Slumberland is DJing!
It sounds like you have so many connections in the Bay, how many people are you guest listing for this Bottom of the Hill show?
Oh gosh, I don’t know. I was a little scared that nobody was gonna care! But when I announced it this morning and saw a lot of people so excited, it gave me so much relief that it wasn’t gonna be a total dud. It might be that everyone’s guest listed at this one.
It does seem like y’all have always been a band with a lot of forward momentum and movement, and now all the members are doing other projects on the side, too. What brought you to nostalgia right now, deciding to play this show?
I think one of the things…well the first thing that occurred to me is I was curious, when our new album came out, to see how much time has passed since the first album came out. And it blew my mind that 5 years had passed! It doesn’t feel like 5 years. Time starts accelerating when you get older, right?
It’s very bizarre, so I thought, “Let’s see if we can find who we used to be by doing this. And then let’s see if we can connect the dots on who we are from there.”
Terry Malts performs Killing Time at Bottom of the Hill on February 21st, with Tony Molina and Yogurt Brain. Get your tickets here.
This interview was lightly edited for clarity.
Interview conducted and written by Matt Sater