By Matt Pais
RedEye music editor
August 7, 2013
So few great hard rock bands exist anymore that Middle Class Rut would sound refreshing if they weren’t so damn powerful. Rather than a cool breeze, the Sacramento duo—which recently expanded to a quintet on stage—is more like an entire trough of freezing water blasted at your face. It’s a wake-up call.
The group’s recently released “Pick Up Your Head” moves forward from 2010’s under-heralded “No Name No Color,” as the new record finds singer/guitarist Zack Lopez covering more varied lyrical and melodic material, while drummer Sean Stockham continues to drive the music with both force and precision. Here’s hoping the band continues to rise—as Lopez says, “We’ve spent so many years being the band that is trying to gain everyone else’s fans so you just [bleeping] climb the ladder. You win 20 percent of every audience, hopefully, and come back around.”
On the release day for “Pick Up Your Head” before the band’s first show of the tour, Lopez, 32, and Stockham, 31, talked at Subterranean about the challenge of performing with a keg on stage, the delay leading up to the sophomore record and why the band is like a “club” requiring advance knowledge before joining.
In concert: Aug. 22 at First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre
Watch above: Middle Class Rut performing “Aunt Betty” exclusively for RedEye at Subterranean
How do you feel like your live show is different now? If someone saw you at SubT in ’08, what will they get that’s different now?
Zack Lopez: Oh my god.
Sean Stockham: Any time we’ve been on the road for a couple weeks, two weeks, we start to feel really good. It doesn’t matter what year or how many people are in our band: The first few shows are always going to be kind of rusty. But you go from doing nothing and then you try to go sprint for five miles and obviously you feel tired. Obviously, we have more people in the band. That’s going to be the biggest difference. Might be a little bit less spastic than it was before.
Why was it spastic before?
SS: I don’t know. [We were just] younger …
ZL: [It was the] first tour that we’d ever been on as two dudes. It was a good time, but it was definitely a different time. I’d be amazed if there was someone who was at the show tonight that was at that one.
What makes you say that?
ZL: It was part of a five-band tour. We probably played at 6:30 or something to maybe 20 people. We remember this venue. Every time we come here, he goes, “Remember that one time we played …” and we never knew what it was called, and now we’re here.
Are you looking forward to not getting as many comments about, “Wow, I didn’t know you were only two guys!”?
SS: Actually, it’s nice to not get that.
ZL: But now it’s just as many comments on the other side. [Shrugs] Now there’s five. You just can’t [bleeping] win.
I know the keg is part of the tour because of the sound it makes, but do you bring it everywhere, or when you arrive at a venue do you say, “Hey, do you have a keg?”
SS: No, that would be smart, but we just went over to London and we weren’t able to bring one so we had to actually go and find one.
How did you find it?
ZL: We had our [tour manager] and we said, “Hey, we need an empty keg.” He said, “I got you covered.” We’re like, “Really?” We showed up and there’s a [bleeping] keg waiting for us. [Laughs]
SS: And then somebody kind of complained about it. Like, “I don’t know if it’s really that cool.” And he’s like (in British accent), “I had to drive 50 kilometers each way to get it.”
As a big fan of “No Name No Color,” I was waiting a while and wondering when the new record would come. Did you get a sense of people getting impatient for it?
SS: Like two years ago.
Did you feel pressure to crank something out faster?
SS: No, we must not have. Maybe had we felt pressure we would have done something quicker. We felt pressure to keep staying on the road and drag out the first album cycle. And the funny thing is we had a lot of music a year and a half or two years ago, and that’s just how long it takes to get things released.
ZL: Yeah, even this record, we’ve been sitting on it. We finished recording it in the end of September. It got finished getting mixed in January. Then you just wait wait wait. It takes a [bleeping] long time, man.
Does it ever amaze you guys that there’s not much out there for people who just want solid hard rock these days? Do you feel that absence, or are people missing the good stuff besides for you?
SS: I think there’s less of it now than there was. A lot of the hard rock bands have moved away from their own kind of music.
Who are you thinking of?
SS: I don’t know …
ZL: It definitely feels less cool to be a heavy band in the eyes of the mainstream. I don’t think people are rushing to, “Let’s go sign a heavy band.” If you listen to the radio, it’s not what is happening. Maybe that’s just the way we feel on the west coast. I think when we come more to central parts of the country it feels like maybe heavy music’s still pretty big.
But there’s a lot of stuff around here that falls into that middle-ground sludgy sound where it’s not interesting; it’s just thick. Whereas with you guys, there’s smart composition there besides for being kickass.
SS: I think we’ve always found ourselves stuck in the middle of those two worlds a little bit. Of the more interesting, eccentric alternative music and the heavy—
SS: --dumb, heavy music. We’re probably somewhere right in the middle.
It’s awesome you guys have been playing since seventh grade. Can you tell me about the early gigs? What was it like the first time you jammed?
ZL: The first time we ever played a show was at his junior high.
SS: That first one? “Hot Summer Nights.” Is that--
ZL: We played a dance called “Hot Summer Nights.” It got pretty crazy. There might have been a pit.
Were you playing the usual junior high dance songs?
ZL: No, all originals. [Laughs] We never covered anything, man. We even sold our [bleeping] tapes there.
SS: We’ve been writing our own music since probably the first time we ever jammed together.
Were people calling out, “We’re ready to do ‘YMCA’ whenever you guys are …”?
ZL: I think they were probably a little put off like a lot of people are the first time they see [us].
SS: It’s funny; when you’re that young, back then, nobody was in seventh grade and having a full band and playing out in clubs and stuff. I remember when Silverchair came out, and ... we had felt like we had been a band for a couple years at that point. Silverchair came out and they were 16. That was like young. Now we were on tour with a band in London called The Bots--
ZL: Those kids were 11 and 13—
SS: They were touring around the world. Opening for all kinds of different bands. Back then it wasn’t as common.
Did you feel back at that time that something was going right?
SS: We knew the second we started playing music: “OK, no more skateboarding; no more karate; no more baseball.”
You quit everything immediately?
SS: Yeah, pretty much quit everything. [We’ve] only now gone back to a lot of those things that you left behind when you were a kid. At the time it was just like that was our skateboarding or whatever.
ZL: It didn’t really feel hard either. Making a name for yourself in your own scene felt so within reach even as a kid. Even having your parents lug your gear to places that you’re not even allowed to go in and still getting shows. It felt just like something you do.
When people listen to “Pick Up Your Head,” what’s something you hope people take away as far as the way you’ve matured or something you brought to the table this time?
SS: Maybe just pay attention to the lyrics. Because having not written a lot of lyrics and coming to it more as an audience almost, listening to the songs--we listen to so much music, I listen to a lot of music, and there’s a lot of bad writers out there. And I feel like these songs aren’t bad. I feel like the lyrics are really good. Maybe it’s just that I identify with ‘em so readily.
Is there a lyricist that comes to mind that’s bugging you lately? I know I have one.
SS: Zack Lopez.
ZL: [Laughs] I can think of so many. I need one; give me something.
SS: Yeah, who were you going to say?
Bruno Mars bugs the hell out of me.
SS: He’s a little cute.
He always sounds so insincere. “I think I want to marry you.” Either you do or you don’t.
ZL: I might marry him …
SS: I think he’s smart enough to know exactly what every girl wants to hear. So he writes the song and then just like he planned, they all come swooning.
I guess so. It doesn’t work for me.
SS: I don’t think it’s supposed to work for us.
I think it’s interesting that someone coming to your band and not paying attention would think there’s more anger than there really is, when what I think is great about your lyrics is that they’re cathartic.
SS: That’s what we feel like the whole thing is for us. Even the whole show. We struggle going into situations where we’re playing for a bunch of new people. It’s fun and exciting to play for new people and have them get into your band, but this is a club, and people need to know what it’s about and what to expect when they come here. For us it’s a big physical and emotional release to do this every night, so we want people to come to the show to feel like they’re going to do the same thing.
So you hope that they’ve done their research a little bit?
SS: Yeah, kinda. There’s nothing worse than going up there and doing what we do the way we do it and just feeling like you’re five out of a few hundred people that are even sweating.
ZL: Especially around the time when “New Low” was doing its thing, and maybe there’s a bunch of people that came because they heard it as a ringtone or they heard it in some context and they figured, “Oh, this is a pop-alternative band” ‘cause it is mellower, and then came to see us and they’re like, “OK ….” Especially with a song like that, it reaches way more younger females, and then they come out and it’s more like a punk show and they’re terrified.
What was a movie that scared you as a kid?
SS: “The Wizard of Oz.”
Why “Wizard of Oz”?
SS: Don’t know, man. The feet sticking out of the [bleeping] house. That was frightening to me.
Not the flying monkeys?
SS: I don’t even know if I noticed the monkeys. I couldn’t even get through the whole thing. It was just terrifying to me.
And “Child’s Play” for you, Zack?
ZL: Yeah, I always wanted to be into horror movies, and so I saw one and I was a little too young. I definitely wasn’t into ‘em.
You wanted to be in a horror movie?
ZL: No, I wanted to be into ‘em. It’s always something that appealed to me and I think I saw one too young and it [bleepin’] flipped me out.
Did it traumatize you for a long time?
ZL: About a week.
What’s a guilty pleasure TV show of yours?
SS: It’s not around anymore. It was like a bad “Felicity.” I think it only ran for like three episodes, but I always felt pretty guilty watching that.
I like that the implication there is you watched “Felicity” and enjoyed it as well.
SS: Did I say that?
It sounded like it. I did! I can admit that.
SS: I watched a little “Felicity.” I watched “90210.” The whole scene, man. That was me.
ZL: There’s no guilt about that.
What about you, Zack?
ZL: Probably “California Dreams.” I felt like I was betraying “Saved by the Bell.”
ZL: Yeah, man. Surf dudes with attitude. (singing) “Kinda groovy” … Remember?
SS: Yeah, I do.
Do you guys want to belt out the whole theme song?
SS: That’s all I remember.
ZL: Yeah. Me too.
SS: (singing) “Laid-back moods.”
ZL: Good vibrations.
SS: (singing) “Sky above, sand below, good vibrations!”
On Chicago: “I’d probably go back to Vic’s Drum Shop for a few hours. We’ve been to Chicago a few times, and every time we come here we really like it.” (SS)
Artists they listen to that might surprise fans: “We’re both into Paul Simon, Dylan, Petty. Any classic stuff that’s mellower.” (ZL) “Been listening to the National a lot.” (SS)
Rap songs they know the words to: “Paul Revere” by Beastie Boys. Vanilla Ice, “Ice Ice Baby.” Those might be the only two rap songs I listen to.” (SS) “Child’s Play” by Geto Boys. “Mind Is Playing Tricks.” That whole record. There’s a million. I think I like hip-hop more than rock music sometimes.” (ZL)
Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U
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