“You won’t be happy till you’re dancing on my grave! All you motherfuckers dancing on my grave!”
There is perhaps nothing at this moment in music so viscerally gratifying as shrieking along to the chorus of “Pine Ridge,” the title track on The Pullmen’s new EP. From the frontlines of So Cal’s relentlessly hip cultural landscape, where discarded dreams drain to the ocean, comes this plaintive wail, and right on time for the band and its rabid fans.
It may be a stretch to compare a Pullmen show at Bombay Bar in 2013 to a Springsteen date at the Stone Pony in 1975, but to be among the dozens of fans crowded around frontman Shane Cohn for a sweat and spit baptism, bottles (or cans) raised high, singing along to any of the band’s accidental anthems, is to tap the main artery of rock and roll, to give a shit about nothing else but this moment, to be unburdened. And if The Pullmen fans have anything in common with early Springsteen fans, it’s the need to be free Americans, to get wasted in a bar, to sync their heartbeats with a bass drum, to leave the day, or the entire past, behind them for just one night.
The Pullmen formed in 2010 when Cohn and guitarist H.S. Strong, who played together previously in the punk outfit Shim Come Quick, decided to learn some Hank Williams songs. One thing led to another and they found themselves writing hard riffs with a traditional country flavor, a sound that would later be dubbed “Western thrash.” They recruited Hotels and Highways drummer Erin “Syd” Sidney (Cohn’s brother-in-law) and bassist Matt Kash (Missing 23rd).
The urgency and recklessness of Cohn, Kash and Strong’s punk roots grounded by Sidney’s tasteful, East Coast singer-songwriter sensibility, creates just the right tension to bring their gritty, masculine sound to a shine. And while at full gallop the music can work the audience into a frenzy, it’s the literary narrative of The Pullmen’s lyrics that fans can ultimately connect with, the unpredictability of a crazed and vulnerable lovesick antihero — as opposed to Springsteen’s working-class heroes of a bygone era — that they’re rooting for.
Three years have passed since the band was christened by a tipsy Iraq War vet who overheard them rehearsing. In that time, it’s released two records — The Western Score full-length and the Pine Ridge EP — landed a fortuitous sponsorship with Sanuk footwear, appeared with Pennywise, Old Man Markley, Riverboat Gamblers, Jason Cruz and Howl, toured the East Coast with Donavon Frankenreiter and handed a free T-shirt to a fan who exposed her third nipple. It was pierced.
On Friday, Nov. 22, The Pullmen will celebrate the release of Pine Ridge with a performance of the EP streamed live from Sanuk HQ at noon and a show at Bombay later in the evening. Shane Cohn, who recently returned from a coast-to-coast solo acoustic tour in a food truck, spent a few minutes with VCReporter to discuss the record and the rigors of semi-rock stardom.
VCReporter: What’s your favorite Bruce Springsteen song?
Shane Cohn: “Atlantic City.” It’s rugged, romantic and slightly desperate.
What has changed since your first release?
We’re just better now. That’s a simple thing to say, but it really does translate to everything we do, whether it’s recording, playing live or songwriting.
What’s the songwriting process like?
Oh, it’s terrifying. You’ve got to be thick-skinned to bring a song idea to this group. The band is like a pack of hungry wolves just waiting to shred apart someone’s song ideas. But basically, somebody drops an idea into the pit — a riff, chord changes, a melody, lyrics — and we have a go at it.
Is there an ongoing narrative to your music that includes a sort of main character, and how has it evolved?
There was in The Western Score, and while it wasn’t intentional with Pine Ridge, the character is there and his journey continues. The Western Score collection was about this outsider riding into this western town and falling in love with this lady and things begin to go horribly wrong, albeit mostly by his own devices. The stuff this guy gets into is pretty nuts, actually. But it’s a passionately flawed character and you can’t help but root for him. The Pine Ridge songs take the listener on another ride, but it goes deeper this time and more introspective.
How were you received on the East Coast?
Sold-out shows with 300 to 400 people for nearly two weeks. We got a taste of the glory. That changed everything for us. We understand what we’re capable of now and want more. I can’t speak for the rest of the guys, but I haven’t been the same since. We saw places we would probably never go to in our lifetime — The Hamptons, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, Cape Cod and so on. We were skipping across the Atlantic Ocean on ferries to get to gigs, and when we went there, we played rock ’n’ roll shows to packed venues where people partied and danced their asses off. We played one venue two nights in a row and people came back the second night singing the lyrics to our songs. It was unreal. How do you go back to closets and appointments after something like that?
You have a solid and loyal fan base. Why is that and how do you keep them satisfied?
Our drummer is really handsome.
What’s next for The Pullmen?
We want to do a full-length next and we’re crushing out new songs, probably a handful already. We want to take this show to Europe. To paraphrase a line from a great movie, we are the gatekeepers of our own destiny and we will have our glory in the hot sun.
Pine Ridge: track by track
On this, The Pullmen’s follow-up to the debut full-length The Western Score, we see the band honing its voice and experimenting with nuance — a decision that pays off nicely, most notably on the band’s very first ballad. The desired effect, brought to fruition through Sidney’s production prowess, was “a sort of three-dimensional reality of what it’s like to see us live,” explained Cohn. “For instance, it sounds like a whole bunch of guitars onstage when there are only two, so let’s capture that feeling.” The band’s development is also evident in its lyrics, which anyone who’s ever attempted to write a song knows is a beast of an accomplishment. The cover art is an original painting by artist Mike Stilkey.
Tie Me Down
A rollicking number with a sing along chorus and signature Pullmen melody, shows our antihero —“the matador, the raging bull, your every hope and fear”— taking no prisoners as he declares, “I’m not giving up!” The band’s first attempt at punk-style backing vocals for full barn-burning crowd-pleasing effect. The man in black would surely smile.
Another wild ride on the mechanical bull, this time with a message to all naysayers, whoever they may be. Remarkably satisfying to sing along with, the title track features more backup chanting and some sweet honky-tonk piano, another experiment that pays off in spades.
A song that plays right into the hands of the ladies. Less is more on The Pullmen’s only ballad, a testament to the beauty of simplicity, the power of holding back. Once again, the production choices on this record shine bright without ever being self-conscious. A stunner of a song that gently draws — probably unintentionally — on the spirit of certain moments from U2’s The Joshua Tree with a little Love is Hell-era Ryan Adams to rough it up.
The hardest, punkest track on the EP is equal parts love letter and hate mail to the City of Angels, the city everyone loves to loathe. Leaves you wanting more, which should be every record’s ultimate goal.
The Pullmen will perform the songs from Pine Ridge on Friday, Nov. 22 at noon live from Sanuk HQ. Log on to www.sanuk.com/live to watch. The Pullmen will play on Friday, Nov. 22, 10 p.m. at Bombay Bar. To learn more or purchase music, visit www.thepullmen.com.