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Now six albums deep, The Bronx are still, somehow, at the top of their game. We sit down with frontman Matt Caughthran to find out the secrets of their survival and why they’ll never give up the fight…
On August 2, 2019, America’s greatest living punk band posted a new photo on social media, showing its five members standing in front of a recording console at Tool/Kyuss engineer Joe Baresi’s House Of Compression studio in Pasadena, California.
“Bronx VI in the can,” ran the accompanying caption. “2020 gonna be a wild year.”
With hindsight, this would prove to be something of an understatement.
“Absolute chaos” is how Matt Caughthran chooses to remember 2020 from the vantage point of summer 2021. “It was fucking crazy, man, absolutely bonkers.”
Anyone who’s breathed the same air as The Bronx’s 42-year-old frontman in a bar, concert hall or festival site at any point since the east Los Angeles band’s formation in 2002 will know that Matt’s smile is one of the most joyous, life-affirming and infectious sights in rock’n’roll. Happily, as he speaks to Kerrang! today from the living room of his LA home, sporting a white Black Flag T-shirt and a West Coast Board Riders trucker cap, that trademark grin remains firmly in place. Which is not unconnected to the fact that, after 18 months of virtual house arrest, The Bronx are readying a return to the road which will see them open for fellow punk rock lifers Rancid and Dropkick Murphys on an impressively comprehensive tour of America’s amphitheatres.
“It’s going to be amazing,” Matt predicts, his whole face lighting up as he once again visualises a scene he admits to having played out “over and over again” in his head since the spring of 2020 saw the global touring circuit screech to a halt. “The idea of being onstage again, hearing the music blasting through the monitors again, hearing the crowd screaming… and then looking over to the guys in the band and seeing just how much your best friends are enjoying this too…”
Matt pauses briefly, lost in the moment. Just for a second, it appears as if the idea might prove emotionally overwhelming, but he rallies quickly, and composes himself.
“It’s going to be super fucking cool,” he beams. “I can’t fucking wait.”
Had The Bronx not publicly flagged up the completion of their sixth album back in August 2019, before the term ‘COVID-19’ ever existed, it would be easy to interpret its 11 songs as vivid, vital dispatches documenting this moment in history, the album a state of emergency broadcast from a world going up in flames. ‘Feels like my head’s in a vice… some relief would be nice,’ Matt sings in the first verse of the album’s opening track, White Shadow: seven songs later, on the impossibly intense Breaking News, the vocalist appears to have abandoned all hope. ‘Breaking news: We’re all fucked!’ he screams. ‘Breaking news: Nobody cares if you die!’
But these snapshots, of course, don’t present the full story. The Bronx have always been masters of embracing life in all its messy, complicated, unknowable beauty, and much of Bronx VI is characterised by a burning sense of carpe diem eagerness to embrace new experiences, an urgent desire to dive into the unknown, secure in the certain knowledge that there’ll be a killer story attached come what may.
This hunger is perhaps best illustrated in Watering The Well, which boasts the best KISS guitar riff since 1974, and a zero-fucks-given appetite for misadventure. ‘I’m not out looking for an answer, I’m not looking for a cure,’ Matt sings. ‘She said she used to be a dancer, and the rest is a blur…’ Elsewhere, on the swaggering, tongue-in-cheek Curb Feelers, which Matt described as “a sonic anchor that sets the tone for the entire album” when it emerged as a single in June, the singer’s role plays as a burnt-out, horny Hollywood punk lothario, drooling ‘So who’s the lucky one tonight?’ then spitting, ‘Now you’re dying like the punk scene.’ High Five boasts the deliciously sarcastic chorus ‘High five? Yeah right! I wouldn’t talk to you if I could choose to die’ and was written, Matt says, about someone who thrives in hell more than heaven: the lyrics here, he stresses, are not autobiographical. “I’m at a point, creatively, where I don’t need to be miserable anymore,” he states. “I’m stoked, and I don’t think it’s taken any of the edge off my sword.”
Album highlight Mexican Summer – which could easily be reimagined for the quintet’s brilliant companion band Mariachi El Bronx – is a more personal song, Matt admits, though heavily coded to the extent that even his closest friends might not see the real-life parallels.
“It’s a deep one,” he says, “but written in a very El Bronx way, with storytelling masking its origins. It’s a song about an unavoidable ending. Think of the ending of director Brian De Palma’s unforgettable 1983 crime drama Scarface, that Last Days Of A Drug Lord moment, where you know everything is coming crashing down around you, and realise that everything you’ve done is leading to this moment: as the fires are going up around you, you realise that everything you thought was real and true and meant something, doesn’t mean anything at all.
“At the time I wrote it, I was going through some things where I was shedding skin, because there were things I didn’t want to carry around anymore,” he explains. “I was just trying to kill off those bad parts within me, to burn it down. It’s about positive self-destruction, the death of ego, erasing the person that you don’t want to be. It’s self-destruction as a good thing and necessary thing, a conscious act to free oneself from past mistakes and move away from dark traits you want to escape.”
That “wild year” The Bronx envisaged as they wrapped their studio sessions at the House Of Compression played out in ways no-one could have anticipated. In common with every other human being of sentient age on the planet, Matt admits to finding the past 18 months “challenging”, and when he recalls how a world stalled in freeze-frame impacted upon his friends in the band – “people were working on their places, [bassist] Brad [Magers] was opening a bar, [guitarist] Joby [Ford] was home schooling his kids” – then adds “I was having an existential breakdown”, the laugh which follows rings slightly hollow.
In July 2020, when asked to write an article for the Knotfest website promoting the then soon-to-be-released Mariachi El Bronx compilations Música Muerta, Vol 1 and Vol 2, the singer chose to preface his piece with the words “My name is Matt Caughthran and I am a total loser.” In the paragraphs that followed, Matt revealed that in the same week The Bronx raised over $20,000 for the family of Breonna Taylor, a black woman who was shot dead in her Louisville, Kentucky home by three plainclothes police officers in March 2020, he was forced to file for unemployment.
'I’ve never felt so proud and so ashamed,' he wrote, movingly. 'Smiles and cries my friends, smiles and cries.'
"There was probably a three-month stint there in 2020 when I was pretty depressed,” he admits, when the topic is raised, “as far as, like, not really knowing how to handle what was happening, and not really knowing what to do with the kind energy that I was dealing with. I think one of the things that helped me get out of it was that essay.
"Perspective is a super-powerful thing,” he continues. “Here in the States there was so much happening, politically and socially, so it was important to recognise that, but also to give your own life validation: it’s okay to be concerned about yourself and your career and your family and your friends, but it’s also important to not lose sight of the bigger picture, with everyone in the world trying to get through this together. Honestly, it felt good to be vulnerable in that way, and to write about it. We’d been touring for 15 years straight, and then suddenly you’re being left at home to your own devices: wondering who you are outside of being a singer, a musician, an artist, was… an unsettling question for a little bit there. Luckily, I was able to look inward and not be too disgusted (laughs).
"I think everyone went through some sort of existential crisis in 2020. It was a year like no other, but we got out of it relatively unscathed. And actually, we were able to realise how lucky we’ve been to do what we’ve done for the last 18 years. Now we’re excited to be getting back to the community that we missed so much. I’m sure there were moments for all of us where it was like, ‘Shit, what are we gonna do?’ But whatever happens, we adjust, whatever happens, we make it work. The Bronx isn’t going anywhere.
“The Bronx is something we’re extremely grateful for, and don’t ever take for granted. And going through a year with no real ‘normal’ band life, as we know it, only amplified that. This band is something that means so much to us, something we truly value and treasure with all of our hearts. We’ve poured everything we are as human beings into this band, and we’ve gone through a lot: we’ve flipped vans, we’ve lost members, we’ve had and lost a major label deal and put out records by ourselves. There was no way 2020 was going to break The Bronx.”
Photo: Jenn Five
There were times last year when Matt considered updating the album which The Bronx finished the previous summer, re-tooling it to make his lyrics more topical, more relevant. Ultimately, he decided against it.
"The thing about making a record is that it’s such a specific moment in time,” he explains, “and when you go back to revisit something like that, it feels almost invasive. When I went back to it, it just didn’t feel right, it just didn’t fit. So I thought, I’m not going to force this.” Instead, he and his bandmates – Joby, Brad, guitarist Ken Horne and drummer Joey Castillo – held group Zoom calls to drink beers and “game-plan” how to make the release of the album special, ideas which would include releasing every song as a seven-inch single with artwork by artists they held in high regard. “It was something to be thankful for, for sure, because we had a place to put our energy,” Matt says now.
At this point, the singer is asked to consider why all this means so much to him. An analyst looking at bald indicators of commercial success in a band who’ve never scored a chart placing for an album in the UK, and peaked on the singles chart back in April 2004, when their very first single, They Will Kill Us All (Without Mercy), reached number 65 might wonder, 'Why are you still doing this? Where’s the growth curve here?'
Matt smiles broadly when he hears this.
"Being in a band is a trip,” he says. “For us, the upward trajectory has been constant, but it’s all about how you measure shit. We’re not the biggest band in the world, but we grow every year. We have periods where we grow big, and periods where we grow small, but when you look at it as a lifetime’s work, you’re not worried about that. Some years are a fucking battle, straight-up: I’ll be honest with you, there are years where you have to look for the growth with a motherfucking microscope, but that’s okay. We’re still making art as friends, we’re still able to travel the world, still able to live a life that has meaning and brings us fulfilment in every sense of the word.
"What we get out of the band personally, in terms of being artists, is being able to pour our hearts and souls into the work we do, make records and have something that is going to be around forever, long after we’re dead. It’s about creating a legacy, as a collective, that means something to us. If you’re a band, and you release a record, and because you don’t immediately turn into Green Day you quit… fuck off. There’s plenty of other career paths and opportunities for you to chase. When you make a record, you want it to go as far as it possibly can, you ramp up for every release and you give it all you got, and then you wind up and go again. But if we were worried about being famous, we should have quit a long time ago (laughs)."
The Bronx will kick off their 20th anniversary year next year touring the UK with Every Time I Die. At those gigs, it’ll be all too evident that people need this band, just as much as the five musicians onstage. People – this writer among them – are ecstatic at the prospect of a new Bronx record in 2021, and beyond excited at the thought of attending a Bronx gig again. Chances are, yet again, you won’t see Bronx VI crashing into the upper reaches of the charts this Friday, but the appetite among UK rock fans for The Bronx’s return should not be underestimated.
“And that feels good,” says Matt. “It’s nice to be a band that people care about, and get excited about, and are invested in. It means a lot to us too. This is everything to us, man. Writing a record, recording a record, releasing a record… those three things are so involved, and so fucking fun. I’m glad that people still give a fuck, I love that people are hyped about our return. And I can’t wait to be travelling again, pulling into towns and seeing friends we haven’t seen for a long time, and sharing this music.
"It’s going to be a beautiful thing, man, a beautiful thing.”
The Bronx VI is out now via Cooking Vinyl.