The big review: The Interrupters – In The Wild
Ska-punk heroes The Interrupters take on the world, and a troubled past, on triumphant fourth album In The Wild.
Aimee Allen was only eight years old when it started. “He’d make me sleep on the ground without blankets and told me that’s how a dog should sleep. Around that time is when I started pulling out my eyelashes and eyebrows, it's also when I started writing songs. It was an act of rebellion.”
Abused in almost every conceivable way by her stepfather, her road to recovery has been long and far from smooth. But if there’s one thing that’s always pulled Aimee Interrupter – as she’s much better known today – towards the light, from terrified child to confident woman, it has been music. It was there, even at age eight, through a little girl’s made-up tunes and strung together lyrics, and it is today, through In The Wild, the victorious fourth album from Los Angeles-based ska punk heroes The Interrupters.
Given the context, ‘heroes’ does not seem too strong a word. While all three of the quartet’s previous releases have been clarion calls for positivity and unity, Aimee needed to use the enforced pause of lockdown to seek help, and ultimately to strike down the demons inhabiting her mind. One by one, they fell. It involved therapy, certainly, and it involved reflection. But equal to anything, it was music that brought true deliverance – exorcism through sound and word.
Speaking to Kerrang! via Zoom, Aimee and multi-talented guitarist/producer Kevin Bivona are in Slovenia where The Interrupters are appearing at the Punk Rock Holiday festival. It’s one of several European stops for the band (completed by twins Justin and Jesse Bivona on bass and drums) before they make their long-awaited return to the UK. They reach British shores on August 19 with a performance at Devon’s eclectic Beautiful Days festival, before playing seven headline shows that culminate at London’s O2 Academy Brixton on September 3.
“It’s like a big release, a big weight lifted, and playing the new songs on tour and seeing the crowd’s reaction has been really awesome,” says Kevin, Aimee’s long-time writing (and life) partner. “We’ve missed the concerts, we’ve missed the people, we’ve missed all of it. Just being back out on the road, connecting with people and the celebration that live music is back – it’s all really, really special.”
“It’s actually the first time we’ve played new songs in the set and had them celebrated like old songs,” notes Aimee. “That’s a new thing for us – we’re so grateful.”
The Interrupters’ return to the UK – where their celebratory live shows have an almost uniquely inclusive, familial quality – is particularly meaningful, as it was in these same venues that the long touring cycle for 2018’s breakthrough Fight The Good Fight album finally concluded in February 2020. The band travelled home, intent on hitting the studio and with the tantalising prospect of joining Green Day’s Hella Mega extravaganza, only for the pandemic to sweep the carpet from under their feet.
“We would’ve made a record, but it wouldn’t have been this record,” Kevin reflects. “I’m not saying it would have been better or worse, but it would certainly have been different. I’m actually glad that we ended up having all that [extra] time. We wouldn’t have had these songs otherwise, so there’s a little silver lining in that. We were able to work on the music for as long as it took.”
The collective were certainly not idle. With the pandemic forcing all normality to exit stage left, the Bivona brothers took it upon themselves to build a new recording studio, converting a garage over six months. This Interrupters album would have to be created in a different way – in their own place, and for the first time without mentor and Rancid legend Tim Armstrong in the producer’s chair. “It was a challenge, but a good challenge,” considers Kevin, “and that comes through in the album title In The Wild because we truly were – it was just the four of us locked down in isolation.”
More importantly perhaps, Aimee finally had time to step away from the touring whirlwind that had kept her mind in motion for the past two years. Having that imposed pause also meant she had no real choice but to consider the distance travelled and, inevitably, its starting point – the childhood trauma that had mutated into a constant but publicly submerged depression.
Deciding not to flee but to face down this shadow, Aimee underwent two types of therapy – Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) which uses magnets to ‘target’ parts of the brain, and Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR), an interactive technique that focuses on one segment of trauma at a time.
“I took that time to do a lot of healing and a lot of growth. Kevin and the twins were building the studio, and I was undergoing treatment for depression, and just writing so many lyrics. It was important for me to take the time to write and be introspective, and have that therapeutic process. It was like going through a personal inventory, and it was a time of rebirth for me. That’s the best word I can find for it: rebirth.
“With my depression I was in a bad place before I got the help that I needed, but I significantly improved after the treatment. I felt so much better and I had the inner strength to write my story, and Kevin has done everything he could to sonically support that. It was a beautiful process.”
Kevin marvels at the difference it made. “I obviously didn’t do the therapy but having lived with Aimee for over a decade, I saw the results even before she did. I realised I needed to step things up myself, because she had become so clear, and so pro-active. She was like, ‘We have to do this thing, and now this thing.’ I’d be thinking, ‘This is new; I’m used to just lazing around and now there’s all this stuff we have to do!’”
Aimee talks about her tumultuous past in the slow and considered tones of someone who has thought about it constantly, and of someone who is clearheaded in their desire to not build it into an unconquerable monster.
“I grew up without a dad around, and when I was eight my mum married my stepdad. He ended up being literally and clinically sadistic. He was a psychopath. Sexually abusive, emotionally abusive, physically abusive. He treated me many times literally like a dog. I started singing as an act of rebellion – it made me feel like I could take my power back a little. He couldn’t stop me from writing songs and singing, even though he tried. And he did try; he did beat me for singing, but I still did it as my act of defiance. It was my therapy. I’ve written songs since I was eight years old to soothe myself.”
When Aimee was 11, teachers at her school began to notice the frequent bruises on her face and body. She’d also developed several obsessive compulsive disorders, including trichotillomania (typically, pulling out facial hair). They decided to contact child protection services. Aimee was taken to an overcrowded foster home. She was safe at last, but separated from her mother, her three siblings and her friends.
“My dad – my biological dad, who I didn’t know – eventually came to pick me up, and I moved eight hours away to go live with him. It was a very lonely, hard time. I wasn’t even allowed to talk to my mum on the phone for years. It was really hard and sad. I felt very lonely. The only solace I could find was in records. I’d got really into Bad Brains and I’d listen to Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley. I’d think, ‘These are my friends. They get me.' When [Bad Brains frontman] H.R. was screaming, that was how I felt inside.
“I always knew that music was what I was gonna do,” she continues, “because I didn’t find happiness or peace anywhere else. I’ve been tortured and tormented. Cut to my early 20s – I got into a relationship that was very similar to my stepdad. Very abusive, very violent. I had to find my way out of that situation too, but it caused a lot of trauma for me. It took me many, many years to recover.”
The EMDR therapy involved Aimee effectively stepping back in time, targeting each and every event, one by one, to find closure. “I’m gonna have to do it for the rest of my life,” she says, “but music has always been my grounding force, my everything. I would not be sitting here today if it was not for music and artists making me feel like I’m not alone in my pain.”
Kevin listens, mostly in silence, to Aimee’s account. Occasionally they lock eyes and nod at each other. The respect and love between them is clear.
Comparing her recent experience to what’s gone before, he’s adamant that a breakthrough has been made. “Throughout the years and being together, it was often like a mental health Whac-A-Mole game – she’d do something like stop drinking and certain things would get better, and certain things wouldn’t. When she wanted to do the EMDR and TMS I was always a huge supporter. It’s funny because – although nothing cures everything – in one fell swoop I can see the results in all these ways and I do think that it snowballs, that its cumulative.”
What was always evident within The Interrupters’ effusive sound has since blossomed in new and colourful shades on In The Wild. It’s not just down to the fact that Kevin has replaced Tim in the producer’s seat – the Rancid linchpin’s hand is still present; he co-wrote a few tracks and guests on As We Live – and it’s not just because they were able to record with fewer time constraints. A big portion of this rejuvenation comes from Aimee’s creative energy, the improvement in her mental health giving her impetus to detail her resurrection within the lyrics. Plus, she’s had the confidence to suggest tonal shifts to the sound – including occasional songs that have more reggae than ska or punk in their genes.
Kevin is quick to give his partner credit for her contribution. “We’ve made many records together but making this one was a lot different,” he emphasises. “She was bringing everything, lyrically and performance-wise. She knew exactly what she wanted in a way that meant I had to be absolutely in tune with her. We always listen to everyone’s ideas but when someone is particularly passionate about something, we listen to them a little closer.
“Aimee was so passionate about things that me and the twins just wanted to listen – that’s the reason we have a song with no guitar on the album [Alien], that’s the reason we have a wall-of-sound doo-wop type song on there [My Heart]. The reason we got to those places is that the songs she was writing didn’t necessarily want to be four-on-the-floor 185bpm ska punk. You better believe that’s gonna be in the set but at the root of this record was Aimee’s personal growth.”
You can see the origins of In The Wild in earlier Interrupters songs, in particular Title Holder, the triumphant opening song on Fight The Good Fight. It features the memorable lyric ‘all my scars remind me my worst days are behind me’ before exhorting the listener to keep on proudly flying their freak flag.
“Title Holder was very much a foreshadowing of this album,” says Aimee, “but you may notice in that song that I’m singing the word ‘we’ a lot: ‘we’re up against the ropes’, ‘we’ve been beat up…’ I was just not ready to say that I had been the one beaten up and knocked down. I actually changed the lyric at the last minute, because there’s a little bit of safety in numbers.
“I needed to heal a lot, and to confront things, to forgive people and do that work within myself in order for me to tell the story; that I’d come out the other side. Once I’d got to that other side, it was like, ‘Wow.’”
On new album track Afterthought, Aimee sings about having ‘made it through the battle, stronger than I used to be’ and in Raised By Wolves she tells us that ‘my teeth got sharper, my skin got tough’. The storming, soaring Jailbird and first video In The Mirror present not only the propulsive bounce and irresistible hooks so beloved by fans, but they find the singer emoting in unusually rich and specific detail on the struggles she has faced. “I talk about looking back at pain and saying I’m stronger because of those things. I acknowledge it, but look at how much stronger I am. A lot of this record’s theme is focused on victory over the pain. As We Live is my victory-over-depression song; happy to be alive!”
“I’ve seen through the years where mental health has got the better of people – but seeing the results of her work has been a beautiful thing," smiles Kevin. "I can hear it in the performances and the lyrics – they really push the boundaries of what we thought we were capable of.”
Going back to the start. Closing circles. Finding new avenues. It’s all been key to In The Wild. If you travel to the beginning of The Interrupters, you find a big clue, a key moment, that tells you what it’s all about for them. It’s a song called Family – the original incarnation performed by the band members when they were backing Tim Armstrong in his Tim Timebomb And Friends side-project, and the more familiar version recorded for The Interrupters’ self-titled 2014 debut. When Aimee met Kevin and the Bivona family in 2009, and then got involved with Tim and the wider SoCal punk scene, she finally found what she’d looked for all her life: a sense of kinship, of genuine belonging among the good-hearted and like-minded. It was family: literally and metaphorically.
“I looked for that feeling my entire life and I never found it, until this family,” she says, her voice catching. “When I met Kevin we became fast friends, and with the Bivonas I felt that I was surrounded by people that loved me. There was a lot of support. I felt like we were kindred spirits. I didn’t even have to say anything – I just felt understood. There was this really comfortable, safe feeling.”
She smiles, and glances around. “I’m gonna cry now. But it’s okay – they’re happy tears.”
The Interrupters' new album In The Wild is out now via Hellcat
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