This is a band that refuses to be ignored. Our interview with Christina Michelle of Gouge Away

Gouge Away released their Deathwish debut, Burnt Sugar, on September 28th. The album, which was mixed and mastered by Jack Shirley (Deafheaven, Oathbreaker) and produced by Jeremy Bolm (Touché Amoré), dives into personal and political subject matter without getting the bends on its way back to the surface. Gouge Away stormed their way into existence in 2013, playing outspoken hardcore that has mutated into an angular blend of sass and spite. Their songs opt for enraged critiques on social ills, pummeling through all time and space in their wake. Taking cues from bands such as Unwound, The Jesus Lizard, and Fugazi, Gouge Away carry with them a lightning-in-a-bottle urgency that imbues their sound.

Burnt Sugar is your latest album. Can you please tell us more about it?
Burnt Sugar is our second album as Gouge Away. It was written over about a year and a half. Jeremy Bolm of Touché Amoré came to Florida for a weekend during the pre-production process. We knew this record was going to be different than what we’ve written in the past and he helped build up our confidence in what we were doing. We drove to East Palo Alto, CA and recorded with Jack Shirley at the old location of The Atomic Garden. He was our first and only choice as an engineer and we’re so glad we got to work with him.

What inspired this new record?
Growth. At a certain point I think every musician grows out of their past material. We want to keep playing and writing, but we had so much we wanted to do that we started to have a lot of goals we wanted to accomplish. Worrying about sounding like the old record was out the door because we became focused on looking ahead. Ideas were never turned away for being too weird or for not fitting on, dies. Instead, we encouraged each other to try new things and even if someone was hesitant, there were 3 other people telling them that their idea was cool.

Where did the title come from?
The first song we wrote for the record is titled “Dissociation”. It’s about the first time I realized it was a problem and started to pick up on all the other times it happened to me. I was going through a lot at the time and I felt like my mind was completely escaping me, and I had no control over it. As scary as it was, noticing what was going on was a huge step. From then on, I was able to kind of catch it in the moment and pinpoint it. It wasn’t planned that the first lyrics I intended to be on this album were about mental health, but it ended up becoming a major theme for the entire record. The name, “Burnt Sugar,” came from a conversation that I had with some friends. We were talking about how there’s a common grounding technique when you realize you’re dissociating and it’s basically finding five things in the room you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you and smell, and one thing you can taste. We were talking about how this exercise feels somewhat patronizing and doesn’t work for us. But then, we realized that maybe it’s the specifics of how to do this exercise that we don’t like, and not the idea itself. There are a handful of things I surround myself with that help me stay present, and I began to notice that. The smell of burnt sugar is just one of those things that makes me feel alert and in the moment. Being able to control my surroundings in some way helps me feel a lot less helpless and lost when anxiety might start to take over.

“Hearing someone express a different life experience from what you’re used to can be a huge eye opener. Music takes up a large platform and can be used in ways that teach people about all sorts of things from animal and human rights, to learning that you’re not alone in dealing with something like loss or depression.”

How would you compare this new album to others?
I think people will probably do that themselves when they hear it. We’re prepared for people to like one record more than another, or to even wish we still sounded like the old stuff. We keep expressing that this new record will be different and that we’re pulling from an even greater range of influences but I think it comes down to people actually hearing it themselves.

Can you tell us a little bit more about the song writing process? Do you think it’s changed from the beginning?
It’s definitely changed from the beginning. Mick used to play drums and moved to being the single guitar player. We also had added Tyler on bass and Tommy on drums since then. The writing process is super loose and way more collaborative. There are songs that started from Tommy writing a guitar part on bass, or Mick jumping on the drums. No one really had a specific role or was told they couldn’t do something. We just wrote stuff we liked with no egos.

Talking about the lyrics, with Burnt Sugar you dive into personal and social political subjects. Why this choice?
This record is definitely on the more personal side. I was going through a lot more personal stuff through the duration of writing this record, and even with older problems that I had, I finally took the time to address them with myself. My mom had major health complications and underwent surgery, and she’s still dealing with PTSD from blacking out and getting into a car accident, as well as having heart surgery. I almost lost my sister due to a male coworker with a gun and the police and justice system did nothing productive about her situation. One of my best friends, and roommate at the time, lost her sister when she had an overdose. On top of the things I was dealing with myself, heavy shit was going on all around me and it forced me to learn a lot. There was definitely pressure to write a mostly-political album again but I had too much I needed to get out this time. When I let myself write honestly and naturally without the expectations, this is what came of it.

You are from United States, do you think that the political situation in your country affects your perception as artists? As a band do you think that your music is a consequence of living in this society?
Yeah, I think that’s true for everyone. We have some very straight-forward songs that are direct responses to being a victim of sexual abuse, the US public education system, lack of police accountability, and so on. Even the less straight-forward songs are a response to the lives we live. The more abstract lyrics relating to things like anxiety and dissociating would have never been an issue to begin with if it weren’t for some sort of mistreatment that relates to a larger scale. Even the decision to write an album with mental health as the focus was a political one because mental health is drastically ignored and belittled.

What do you think the music scene needs these days? …and society?
Lately there are a lot of cases of sexism, racism. What do you think is necessary for a positive change? Don’t expect the person from the oppressed side of a situation to explain everything to you. There’s so much information out there that people should be ready to put their own time and work in. And if someone does take the time to explain it to you, you need to listen, not just worry about responding. If they share resources, take the time to use them and learn from them. Don’t come from a performative place. You don’t have to prove to anyone that you’re “woke” or that you care. People can typically tell if you do. If you mess up, apologize. If you don’t know something, don’t pretend to. Just take that as a sign that you should learn. Recognize that people come from all different starting places and are human. Typically, if they have the right intentions, they should be given the chance to catch up. Don’t expect perfection. There is probably never going to be a clear finish line, so there should always be room to improve and learn something new.

Do you think that the music scene can contribute to change the actual society or at least people’s mind?
I definitely believe so, if people listen to music with an open mind and willingness to learn. Sometimes music is the first introduction to ideas people have never heard before. Hearing someone express a different life experience from what you’re used to can be a huge eye opener. Music takes up a large platform and can be used in ways that teach people about all sorts of things from animal and human rights, to learning that you’re not alone in dealing with something like loss or depression.

In what way with Gouge Away do you think you can actively do something?
We’re always reflecting and learning from our peers. Always having discussions in the van about new things we’ve learned or how to do better. When I have it in me I like to bring certain topics to light during our sets. We have always used sweatshop-free merch. We don’t have a lot of money but we have set up different fundraisers over time, too. There’s always more that can be done and we’re forever open to those possibilities as well.

What do you expect for this 2019 for Gouge Away?
Our record was released in September last year. I hope people are into it and if they’re not, that’s cool too. We’re also still writing. Even though we’re in no rush to put out new material, we thought it might be nice to write without the pressure of a release deadline hanging over our heads.

Words: Marika Zorzi //  Burnt Sugar is out now on Deathwish Inc.

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