Cheekface Interview: Greg Katz On Lyrical Intent, Late Capitalism, And Cowbell

Cheekface just released their third single. “I Only Say I’m Sorry When I’m Wrong Now” follows “Glendale” and “Dry Heat/Nice Town” with a personal account of life of the individual in an often confounding landscape. The world of Cheekface is one in which audiences are credited with above-average intelligence, humor is requisite, and personal interactions carry with them a political significance.

With an approach to craft that echos the likes of Jonathon Richman, Cheekface reduce issues to the richest account of their deepest truths. Each song is also highly fucking sing-a-long-able. Greg Katz delivers matter-of-fact vocals over well-measured instrumentation from Amanda Tanning on bass, and Mark Echo Edwards on (coolest name for a percussionist and) drums. The band have a casual approach to industry, and deliver a level of authenticity to which many aspire and few achieve.

popbollocks caught up with Greg, pushed a bunch of questions in front of his lovely face, and waited while he thought about things. This is what he thought about things:

cheekface-band-photopopbollocks: Let’s talk about “I Only Say I’m Sorry When I’m Wrong Now”. Lyrically, the track toys that weird space between confidence and arrogance. However, it feels like the real topic is personal responsibility in fact-checking. Can you speak a little on the modern phenomenon of people placing faith over facts?

Greg Katz: Like a lot of the lyrics that Mandy and I write, this song is honest but not earnest. It’s basically about self-improvement: society is fucked up, and I feel like that increases the pressure to be “a better version of yourself,” but it’s hard to improve. I usually fail (obviously) (lol). Part of what makes it hard to be better is that anything that involves will-power and breaking old habits is hard. But the other hard part is even figuring out what you need to improve: what actually makes a difference, what’s meaningful, and what’s self-serving.

popbollocks: Previous single, “Dry Heat / Nice Town” also touched on political issues. How much of your own world view has changed in recent times, and, aside from your manners (knowing the real value of a properly placed ‘sorry’) have your behaviors changed to address the new political landscape?

Greg Katz: If I fundamentally agree with someone, I try not to argue with them. Also I go to street protests a lot more.

popbollocks: Are we really in retrograde?

Greg Katz: This question pretty much answers itself!

popbollocks: Cheekface is a trio. Are decisions made democratically, and do you have a manifesto scrawled on an empty pizza box, somewhere? If so – what’s on that pizza box manifesto?

Greg Katz: Mandy and I are equal partners in this band, our votes have equal weight and we both have veto power. Echo is also kinda equal, but he joined last, so as they say, some equals are more equal than others.

Our guiding principles are, “Make the music you want to hear, don’t do premieres, never buy Instagram ads, reverb is bad, don’t play shows you don’t want to play, fuck Donald Trump, abolish ICE.”

popbollocks: Lyrically, you have a healthy pinch of salt with each line. Instrumentally the three of you balance noise well. But there’s always a lot going on. Do you find yourself building a track toward complexity, or do you pare down the process to produce what we hear as an end result.

Greg Katz: Mandy and I get the skeleton of an instrumental going first. I think it’s really important for songs to groove, so finding the right tempo is usually an early thought. Most of our songs have very few chords – “I Only Say I’m Sorry When I’m Wrong Now” is only two chords – so the lyrics, vocal delivery, texture and groove have to do almost all the work. The lyrics are obviously very important to us, so we revise a lot.

Personally, my mind feels off balance if songs have weird structures, so I like every build-up to have a pay-off. But of course songs need to have surprises too, and when we’re mixing records I find myself saying things like “this should sound wrong” or “let’s make this too loud” or “this part should be annoying.” Greg Cortez has recorded and mixed everything we’ve done so far, and he’s been game to make things sound weird even when it verges on tastelessness.

The trio format is a challenge because there’s only a few things you can add or take away to shift the energy. Also there are common musical things I subjectively don’t like and always veto (keeping time on the floor tom is something I hate) which limits the vocabulary of the band even more. The project has evolved since we started playing together about a year ago, and even though there are only three instruments, I’ve come to like when less is happening, rather than more. There’s a lot of information in the lyrics, so the instruments can’t get in the way too much.

popbollocks: “I Only Say I’m Sorry When I’m Wrong Now” is the third single you’ve released. Can you share your thinking in the sequencing of tracks – is this real-time chronology, or are you playing with an orchestrated campaign?

Greg Katz: We wrote “Sorry” like two months ago, so it’s one of the newest songs in the song backpack. We just felt good about the song so we wanted to record it and get it out right away.

I feel like the record business in general has returned to an era when artists constantly batter people with singles, rather than leaving people waiting two years for albums. I like that, even though rock bands and rock labels (and rock press) are mostly still in an album mindset. As a listener, and as a band, singles are easy to like. If you like a single a lot, you can listen to it twice in a row.

popbollocks: Cheekface doesn’t ‘do’ premieres. But there’s always a nice sense of occasion around your releases. Please describe a typical release day for the band – do you watch social networks, read reviews, have butterflies in your stomach?

Greg Katz: This project isn’t accompanied by a desire to “make it” or “build a career” or “impress people” or “get signed” or “get good reviews” or “earn money,” it’s just about making what we want to make. So it’s easy to feel proud of these records regardless of the results.

popbollocks: You clearly have an affection for cowbell. Why do you think so many bands fear the cowbell?

Greg Katz: Steve Albini said, “If a song starts with cowbell, you turn it up, because the number of great songs that start with a cowbell is extraordinary.” I think that sums it up.

popbollocks: When was the last time you called your mum? What does she think of your band?

Greg Katz: She called me yesterday! My mom has always told me I should sing more, so she probably likes it.

popbollocks: What compels you to create music?

Greg Katz: I have made music since I could talk, but after the U.S. presidential election in 2016, which felt so destructive, I felt a strong need to create things, one of which was this project. That feeling seems to grow as this disgusting political situation wears on.

popbollocks: Please will you make a Cheekface video?

Greg Katz: I don’t think this band will ever do a narrative music video. I hate lip syncing and I feel like now in particular is a bad time to fake things. I like doing live performance videos though, and I like watching them. More of those are coming.

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