The Cover Story

Dying Wish: “We’re very radical people, but maybe showing love and compassion is the most radical thing that we can do”

Fire burns deep in the heart of Dying Wish. From protest barricades to hardcore’s grandest stages, this Molotov energy has propelled the Oregon quintet from DIY beginnings towards the apex of their scene. And on outstanding second album Symptoms Of Survival, it’s flaming hotter than ever: no longer just a thrillingly explosive force, but a beacon beckoning us all towards a brighter future…

Dying Wish: “We’re very radical people, but maybe showing love and compassion is the most radical thing that we can do”
Sam Law
Ian Enger

The line between compassion and confrontation is sometimes almost imperceptible. Emma Boster feels like living proof of this. Plug the 10 letters of the indomitable Dying Wish vocalist’s name into Google and you’ll find plenty of coverage about one of hardcore’s most brutally brilliant bands (of course), but also more than a decade’s worth of righteous activism and wholehearted community outreach.

“We come from a hardcore background,” she grins early in our conversation this morning, alluding to the uncompromising mindset that saw her picked up by Portland police for resisting arrest during the Black Lives Matter protests in July 2020. “Ethically speaking, punk and hardcore have always been more involved in politics and community. We just approach things in a different way.”

Resistance: the unwillingness to be cowed by authoritarian interference, personal trauma, or simple circumstance. If there’s one quality that’s defined Emma’s journey so far, that's it.

Sitting to talk today with bright eyes, bruised knuckles, and heavy supports around the fingers of her right hand, she looks every inch the rebel with a cause. And, although her injuries are not the result of throwing fists – rather the medium-term consequences of being caught in the shards of a hotel’s imploding shower door – her steel shines through in the stubborn refusal to let hurt or harm speed-bump progress on the eve of Dying Wish’s first headline tour in more than four years.

“It’s been a pretty brutal healing process,” she winces at the stiffened appendage, more with frustration than pain. “The scars have adhered to my tendons, which slowed everything down.”

Not that going slow has been much of a problem…

Within the band and beyond it, an incredible amount has changed since that last headline run down the U.S. West Coast in mid-2019. Debut LP Fragments Of A Bitter Memory wasn’t out yet. Nor, in fact, was breakthrough single Enemies In Red, featuring friend and co-conspirator Bryan Garris of Knocked Loose. The long stasis of COVID was still a bad dream waiting to come true, as was the upheaval that would re-shape the world waiting for them when touring resumed.

Getting back on the road would be the most transformative experience of all: the thousands of miles trekked around a planet scarred by the pandemic and socio-political trauma inspired the humanist understanding that would define new album Symptoms Of Survival.

“When we started to think about this album, we had certain words in mind,” Emma expands. “Fear. Survival. Suffering. Control. It’s about that daily suffering that we, as a species, go through just to survive in society. That could be in reference to the specific traumas that we’ve personally endured, it could be about the injustices we see on every street corner, or about the broader political divisions that have opened up everywhere – and what those things can do to us. They’re themes that we’re all beginning to really understand, not just as individuals, but as a people.”

“Punk and hardcore have always been more involved in politics and community. We just approach things in a different way”

Hear Emma on her hardcore background and what the scene is all about

Emma’s bandmates are a colourful bunch. Guitarist Sam Reynolds is the musical architect pulling the strings, whose compositions often speak to the vocalist as clearly as words. His fellow six-stringer, and Emma’s co-lyricist, Pedro Carrillo spends his spare time MMA fighting and is responsible for some of Dying Wish’s most shamelessly aggro moments (see: Prey For Me). Talented bassist Jon Mackey is a hardcore lifer integral to the band’s internal humour. Drummer Jeff Yambra has just nicknamed himself ‘The Bull’ in recognition of the damage he’d do in a china shop.

Having spent almost all their lives fighting to broaden minds and build alternative communities in America’s relatively isolated Pacific Northwest – several of the collective have been friends since their early teens – they were already keenly aware of issues close to home: institutional racism; the reversal of Roe v. Wade and the outrageous oppression of those able to conceive children; gross economic inequalities; the systemic oppression of queer and trans rights. But, since lockdown lifted, horizons have widened, literally and figuratively. Performing with legends like Lionheart in Germany and Hatebreed in the United States sparked conversation with a less sensitive, more bloody-minded breed of hardcore fan. Visiting European cities like Warsaw and Prague introduced new ways of life. Seeing how much protest is ingrained into French culture, across conventional political divides, underlined how demonstration and dissent can bring a people together.

“You meet different people and hear different things, and it’s surprising how understanding they can be if you just have a conversation with them,” Emma nods. “We need to break down those walls. I am very unapologetic in fighting for my beliefs, but if an average Trump supporter and I sat down and had a conversation, we’d probably find we have more in common with each other than whatever House Speaker is being elected right now. When one person in society suffers, we all do.”

Understanding. Empathy. Co-operation. Willingness to set our differences aside. On a societal level, these are the ultimate symptoms of survival. And although this is an album that’s all about fight over flight, it also understands that often open arms are more valuable than balled fists.

“Coming to this understanding has been a very fluid process,” Emma concludes. “These are still dark times. This is still a very dark record. And we’re still very radical people in a lot of ways, but maybe showing love and compassion is the most radical thing that we can do…”

When Dying Wish approached Paul Romano to provide the artwork for Symptoms Of Survival, they had no idea what he would produce. With a tight timeframe geared around an autumn 2023 release, the renowned painter and famously collaborative Mastodon favourite didn’t get studio time with the band. Instead, he worked from lyric sheets and detailed explanations of each of the 11 tracks from Emma. Dominated by shades of green and blue, however, his vision of woman’s broken body wreathed in vines, crowned with thorns, giving life to fresh, flowering shoots spoke to them.

“It’s a representation of suffering,” Emma digs deeper into the album’s themes, “and how, afterwards, beautiful things can grow out of it.” Picking SOS apart song-by-song, the body depicted could be a personification of Mother Earth from late highlight Hell’s Final Blessing, which imagines how humanity’s demise would benefit our planet: ‘The ocean will swallow us whole / Healing as we decompose.’ But, in the context of what’s come before, she could equally be Emma herself.

Fragments Of A Bitter Memory was a deeply personal record. Almost painfully so. In songs like Severing The Senses and Drowning in The Silent Black, as well as the countless interviews she gave in their wake, Emma confronted the darkest days of her childhood: suffering abuse at the hands of an alcoholic stepfather. It’s telling, this time out, how the vocalist prefers to explain Symptoms Of Survival by unpacking big ideas rather than reliving the specifics. But if that broadened worldview is the main fabric of the record, those experiences are the threads that bind it together.

“To survive is to move on,” she smiles, simply. Moving on to bigger things, and challenging herself to unpick fresh problems was key to that. But there was room, on a couple of tracks, to reflect on progress made and to celebrate how survival is an ongoing process. “Fragments… was such a sad record. It was so [relentlessly] dark. Here, while there is all this suffering, there is ultimately hope.”

Emotionally throttling highlight Path To Your Grave feels emblematic of that. ‘I could have let your faults kill me / But I found strength in spite,’ Emma seethes. ‘The hell that hides inside my mind no longer burns in fear of you.’ Finally facing down memories that had been allowed to fester since childhood provided the opportunity to finally slip their suffocating, decades-long chokehold.

“It’s about how I’ve grown in my feelings having talked about those things so much, desensitised myself to them, taken ownership of my trauma and all the painful things that I endured. Now, it feels like I’m the one who’s in control. I’m still angry, but I won’t let it bring me down.”

“While there is all this suffering, there is ultimately hope”

Emma talks dealing with the trauma of Symptoms Of Survival

There is another line in Path To Your Grave, however: ‘My healing forms in twisted ways / I welcome the pain.’ A characteristically serrated interpretation of country star Kacey Musgraves' lyric ‘Healing doesn’t happen in a straight line’ from 2021’s justified, it is an acknowledgement that the aftermath of trauma can be an irregular, unpredictable process, and progress can be a path to confronting even more pain. True to that, Path To Your Grave is followed by SOS’ most harrowing moment, Paved In Sorrow. ‘I failed to protect you / From the storm / Drenched in regret / Mistakes in my trembling hands,’ Emma sings: an admission of the guilt she has lived with for the trauma suffered by the stepsister left behind, when she finally escaped from her own cycle of abuse.

“I wasn’t there to protect her before, but I am now,” Emma sighs. “I love that those songs run together, because they really are connected. Path To Your Grave is about that final stage of grief – acceptance and ownership, being ready to finally step away – but then Paved In Sorrow is like an epiphany in real time, where I realised that I was writing about something that I would never have understood or talked about without coming to terms with what I already had. It’s another trauma I would never have reconciled without reconciling with the trauma of my own childhood first.”

Unfortunately, overcoming trauma is not the same as becoming immune. It’s a lesson Emma has had to come to grips with, as her rising profile has seen political adversaries and online trolls using the ethics and emotion of her music to stockpile ammunition and take aim – often, right now, due to her vocal opposition to Israeli occupation in Palestine. It’s an experience manifested in the self-doubt and fear pulsing through smashing single Watch My Promise Die.

“I have made myself very visible and very vulnerable," she sighs. “That’s very important because it’s what I love. It’s how I relate to what I do. But it’s also terrifying to see your vulnerability being thrown back to belittle or insult you. It can lead to feeling like I’m not good enough, that I shouldn’t be here, or that I don’t deserve this. This band started as a passion-project. We never really thought we’d be signed or doing tours or on the cover of Kerrang!. It’s a lot of pressure. That pressure can be crippling. It can be a reminder to myself that I am very human. Publicly, it probably looks like I’m handling that really well but, privately, sometimes, I’m not. Visibility weighs on my mental health. But failing or sabotaging it intentionally is not how I deserve to see this play out.”

Of course, it’d all be easier if they didn’t care so damn much. Emma sees the irony that bands who operate at a shallow surface level – without the same ethical or artistic substance – can more easily deal with being slingshotted into the limelight. But neither Dying Wish nor the team around them (trusted producer Randy LeBoeuf, manager Tom Williams) are the types to sacrifice one ounce integrity for an easy ride. With increased exposure, greater self-examination is inevitable. Emma tells of her continued grappling with gender dysphoria, for example, and the trials of owning her femininity without being reduced to the stereotypical ‘pretty girl in a band’. But with a vocally supportive majority of fans in her corner, these are challenges she’s learning to embrace.

“I’ve never wanted to be this inspirational icon, and that’s a lot of pressure to take on, but I’m trying my best to own that role rather than being afraid of it, because I think it’s happening regardless,” Emma shrugs. “I am a complex person with a broad set of beliefs. Since we made this record, I’ve been dealing with things that I’m sure we’ll probably write about on the next one. I just get more complex every day.”

“We’re seeing the death rattle of what most of us would consider The Opposition, which is really just governmental control”

Hear Emma on her outlook for the future of society and politics

Dying Wish isn’t just about processing pain and entering the glare of the public spotlight, mind. It’s able to serve up a fair few ‘WTF?!’ moments, too. A real humdinger arrived on August 18 this year, when the band’s phones lit up to let them know that indie-folk superstar Phoebe Bridgers had just posted a rather chilly selfie to Instagram sporting a hoodie with their name front-and-centre.

“It was crazy,” Emma laughs. “Like, it was record-release levels of chaos where you spend all day scrolling through the comments online to see what people are saying about it. Except we hadn’t put any music out and weren’t prepared at all! [Phoebe’s boygenius bandmate and ardent hardcore aficionado] Julien Baker had come to a show we were playing with Counterparts in Nashville, and when I got to the merch table she was right at the front of the line. I sold them that hoodie! We spoke briefly, but when my friend messaged me about the Instagram post a couple of minutes after it went up, I was like, ‘No way!’ Safe to say we re-printed the hoodie and are selling it on tour right now, ‘co-signed by Phoebe Bridgers’. I hope I get to meet them properly one day.”

Such crossovers with the world of alt.pop aren’t necessarily as left-field as they seem, though. Having relocated to Music City herself since recording Symptoms Of Survival, Emma is a confessed fan of pop and country, and followers of her socials will know all about her obsession with St. Louis singer-songwriter SZA. It’s an affinity writ large on the sonics of their new album, with Dying Wish’s signature 2000s metalcore swollen with new levels of catchiness and melody.

“If you look at a song like Lost In The Fall, for instance, when Randy and I were writing that melody at the end we were like, ‘How can we make this SZA, Amy Lee and Howard Jones all at the same time?’” Emma smiles. “What I love about those other genres is the focus on songwriting – hooks, bridges, catchy choruses – and we use that when we’re writing our music as well. As a fan of music, I think it’s important to understand how you’re influenced and incorporate aspects of that.”

SOS’ singles – each with an ingeniously low-budget/high-sheen video courtesy of director Anthony Altamura – have delivered striking variations on that vision. In the straightforward crash and swell of Torn From Your Silhouette and Watch My Promise Die’s furious three minutes, there is plenty of the crunch of early August Burns Red and classic Killswitch Engage. But the anthemic, atmospheric, melody-led classic sounds of Lost In The Fall and Path To Your Grave feel like the foundation stones to build towards bigger things, expressly influenced by the kind of genre giants – Bullet For My Valentine, Avenged Sevenfold – Emma previously told K! they wanted to become.

During that early-2022 conversation, Emma also spoke about abandoning the extremity that burns within. It’s careful to stress, she maintains, broadening their sound does not mean giving up one sliver of heaviness, and – as with their heroes – moments of lightness only emphasise the dark.

“We are a very dynamic band,” she picks up today. “We wanted to make that very clear.” The majority of SOS is bone-crunchingly brutal – guttural vocals heavily outweighing clean – but there is also the dexterity to drop a ballad like Paved In Sorrow where the occasion calls. “It’s about grabbing people’s attention. Surprising listeners is something that we’re so excited by as a band.”

There was a full-circle moment earlier this summer when Emma found herself tearing up the stage at Sound & Fury Festival: a gathering she had first attended as a 17-year-old more than a decade ago. Although she’s doubtful that wide-eyed teenager would even believe how far she’s come today (“I didn’t really believe in myself at all as a young person…”) Emma’s ambitions for Dying Wish feel geared towards delighting the girl she was and inspiring similar youngsters in the here and now.

“You don’t see as many young people in bands nowadays as you did when I was a kid. So start one. Go to shows. Meet people. Be involved in the community. Do whatever it is that calls to you in your scene. This genre of music changed my life. It saved it, in a lot of ways. Without it, I don’t know where I’d be or who I’d be right now. Getting involved and never letting go of this world is a means of survival for some people. I would encourage that as much as I can.”

In many senses, Dying Wish are still figuring things out themselves. From duelling with detractors and navigating the increasingly hostile memescape of social media, to nailing down the formula for surviving financially as a band in 2023, the challenges just don’t stop coming. But the more obstacles to navigate and adversity to face, the more fuel they have to keep leading the charge.

“I just want to keep working and try to take over the world,” Emma raises that bandaged fist one last time as we bid farewell. “We’re just trying to prove that we’re a ‘real band’. Sure we’re a bunch of hardcore kids from Portland, Oregon, where there isn’t really even a big scene, but we’ve worked for years and years to get this far and there’s no ceiling to stop us now. So we’re going to keep stepping up and pushing at the boundaries. It’s what we do.”

Symptoms Of Survival is out now via SharpTone Records

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