Interview: Joey Cape of Lagwagon by Brian McConville
A musician since the age of 10, for well over 2 decades Joey Cape has been lending his voice, his songwriting skills and his guitar playing and his casual charm to the likes of bands as disparate as Lagwagon, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, Bad Astronaut and even to his work as a solo artist. A rock and roll renaissance man, Joey’s a punk, an indie rocker, a troubadour and a shit-kicking cover artist all in one.
Fest. Fest. Fest.
I was not there, so I interviewed Joey Cape. I guess that is the next best thing, right?
Cape and his band Lagwagon just stopped at Fest in the middle of their tour to play a Halloween show. Based on the photos and videos I saw on the good ol’ internets, they donned King Diamond’s look and played a killer set.
Now, many of you know that Cape is a busy guy. Not only is he touring with Lagwagon right now, but he released Stitch Puppy, an all new solo album on Fat Wreck Chords that has really exceeded my expectations. Seriously, you should probably check it out before you read my interview so you know I am not just kissing booty throughout. I sincerely enjoyed it.
For a guy that is pushing 50, he does not seem to be slowing down one bit. Not only is he focused on his music, but he is also still continuing with One Week Records. On top of that, he is a family man. A true hero if you ask me.
I managed to get Cape’s attention the other day and was able to chat about Stitch Puppy, Lagwagon, and even other avenues. At the end, I was even able to get some fanboy questions answered. Let me just say that the final question was answered amazingly.
BM: Man, Stitch Puppy was beautiful. Was the concept of this album leaning towards a darker path? I am not saying all tunes were gloomy, but it certainly had a somber feel to it.
JC: Well, I just decided to make it somewhat conceptual in a very broad sense. It was all written within the idea of the doll Stitch Puppy itself. It’s a victorian morning doll my daughter and wife made me. I had had a tough couple years with the death of a few friends, a falling out with an old friend, and a friend going to prison for a capitol crime. The lyrics simply represent the last couple of years of trauma in my life and the lives of others. In that way, the lyrics are no different than what I always write about. I guess I have always been most inspired by the dark side of life. It rings more true to me.
BM: I loved the piano playing in “This Like IS Strange”. It seriously intensified the song for me, especially towards the end. Tell me, who is the monkey in this song?
JC: I’m glad you like it. The piano is my friend Brian Wahlstrom. We have been working together for the last 5 years. We have co-written music together, his and mine and done extensive touring. I just love the way piano fills up the sound and adds tone. Brian and I have a great musical report. I am not going to share the “Monkey” name. Haha. I make an effort now to be discrete. I have gotten into a lot of trouble in the past for being too transparent.
BM: You took a great song from a totally underrated album of yours, re-recorded it with Chris Creswell, and more or less blew my mind. Why did you select “Spill My Guts” off of that The Playing Favorites album?
JC: I have done very little touring with that band and always wanted to play the 5 songs I wrote for that record. It just seems like the best way to re-introduce them by recording them acoustic. I don’t think any of them would work for Lagwagon.
BM: “Moral Compass” was more folky sounding than the other tracks. Who helped you out with this song?
JC: It was a song I originally recorded with Lagwagon for the “Hang” album. It didn’t really fit that record so I decided to do the Stitch Puppy version. The solo was written by Chris Rest of Lagwagon. I asked him if it was cool to use it. Otherwise, it was mine but, I think the reason it sounds a bit different is because I wrote it as a letter to a child and that effected the overall tone of the song. It’s supposed to be a soft delivery I suppose
BM: “Tracks” was so emotional. Seriously, I just got chills listening to you sing “he would lay down on tracks for you”. Who was this song about?
JC: “Tracks” was originally entitled “I Would Have Laid Down On Tracks For You”. A better title but too long for the layout. Haha. I wrote it in third person because it felt more like a story with empathy and less defensive that way. I wrote it as a letter to an old friend. Someone I knew for 30 years and recently had a falling out with. As far as I am concerned I was a scapegoat. Sometimes couples choose that “Me against the world” role in their relationships. They just have to cut friends almost randomly to keep it together. It’s a shitty move and difficult to forgive.
BM: Tell me more about your daughter and the doll that inspired this release.
JC: Yeah, it was all her doll and catharsis. That doll is my most prized possession and it speaks to me. There is something about a child’s ability to give a pure uninhabited view through their art. That sort of thing gets forced out in my cases by this overwhelming world. It’s beautiful and sad but vital to site and source.
BM: I take it the cover art for this album is a representation of said doll? It’s like Powder meets the Nirvana smiley face, but different.
JC: I thought it would be a good idea to embody the doll. It was fun to play the personality I imagined Stitch Puppy would have. I made a video for “This Life IS Strange”. I walked all over San Francisco in that get up. People starred. It was unnerving.
BM: Can I ask, did you treat Stitch Puppy like a One Week Records recording and left it completely raw, or was there some mastering involved?
JC: It was raw at its base. Brian Wahlstrom and I recorded the basics live at my studio just as I do the One Week Records I produce. It was aesthetically inspired by those records. I did bring some additional instrumentalist in for overdubs and had some guest singers lay down background vocals. I like the idea of not being precious with the production and going for the stripped down vibe. I like the idea of a more pure performance.
BM: Were you able to get a lot of friends to help you write this album, or was most of it done by yourself?
JC: I wrote the songs very quickly, then took them to my writing partner Brian Wahlstrom. Brian calls me out when I’m doing the same old same old. He’s the best sounding board I have worked with. We added a few parts, bridges, etc. and we tightened the arrangements up.
BM: How tough is it to balance all you have going on in life? You have your solo material, Lagwagon, and One Week, plus a family on top of that. How do you do it?
JC: As far as music goes, I just keep working and whatever is in front of me is what gets my full attention. It looks more difficult than it is. I don’t like down time. My family is of course, the most important thing to me and I would spend more time at home if possible. Unfortunately, we all need to work. At least I have a great job that I love even if it takes me away from them.
BM: This was your first solo release in 5 years. Can we expect another one in the future?
JC: I hope so. I just write songs and make records accordingly. It’s hard to calculate the best home for the songs. Lagwagon always gets the first right of refusal.
BM: How’s touring going? Do you prefer the solo route or do you enjoy being with Lagwagon?
JC: I like them both. They compliment each other. They alleviate the tension that either can bring. Sometimes a song gets lost in the band dynamic and that is where my true love lies. Doing the acoustic thing keeps that aspect alive. But I need the energy of the band too. They are both like addictions.
BM: What does it feel like to be on an independent label that just passed the 25 year mark?
JC: It feels great. I can’t say enough about the subject. We are so lucky to have foregone the drama and ups and downs of label change. Fat is an absolutely awesome label and they have always respected us and our wishes. We haven’t never had our integrity challenged by them. They support us unconditionally. We are the fortunate ones.
BM: What’s one thing you can tell me that Tony Sly taught you about yourself musically?
JC: Tony reminded me that it’s okay to do anything you want to do in songwriting. I think I reminded him of that fact too. We both recognized each other’s go to chords and melodies and I believe we both reminded each other that it’s okay to have them. They become your personality as a songwriter, your style. They can be a gift if allowed and appreciated.
BM: Did you ever think you would be where you are today? Look at all you have accomplished as an artist. I seriously doubt you have even reached your peak.
JC: Thank you. No, I am always surprised by every step. It’s just one of those things you are gracious for or not. I am very aware of my fortune, to be doing what I love and the ability to nurture it. I know how lucky it is to be able to spend nearly all my time doing this. I used to paint houses for a living. That is a great job and I loved that too but, this is better.
BM: Not everyone can get into your solo stuff. I think sometimes as we grow older, our tastes change and we appreciate a good sounding acoustic track. I guess what I am asking is, which do you prefer more, Lagwagon or your solo material?
JC: I have always loved both but I am a song guy. That’s what it’s about for me. I don’t really care much about the format. I listen for the hook, the lyric and want to identify. That is the universal language we all can speak.
BM: What is this Cape karaoke that I keep hearing about?
JC: I have no idea. Maybe it stems from the few shows over the years where I got sick and lost my voice. When that happens, we opt for Karaoke rather then cancelling the show. It sucks but it’s fun.
BM: What’s next for Joey Cape?
JC: Good question!
BM: I was hoping to talk about Bad Astronaut for a quick moment if you are cool with that. How did you get John Popper of Blues Traveler to play harmonica on “Our Greatest Year”?
JC: My wife and him grew up together. I met him through her. I asked. He said yes. That simple. I doubt that will ever happen again.
BM: So what is the fate of Bad Astronaut? Grated you stated there was no Bad Astronaut after Derrick passed on, but reforming in 2010 to play the band’s first live show as well as hints of a b-side album have gotten some of us fans curious.
JC: Well, we still have a bunch of unreleased material but I have used many of the song ideas for other projects over the years. We have done a few tours but have had some drama with drummers and other members life schedules. We are all still very close and I imagine we will eventually record together again. They are amazing musicians and some of my closest friends.
BM: Have you, Wahlstrom, and Snodgrass ever talked about maybe continuing with Scorpios or starting another project collectively?
JC: Funny you ask. We are talking now. Jon and I are going to start working on some stuff in February and there is a new Scorpio in town. His initials might be C.C.. I’ll leave it at that.
Brian McConville is the Editor And Chief at the great music website brokenheadphones.com and a contributor to clevelandrockandroll.com