Interview: DREAMWELL – The Illusion Shattering Grand Slam of ‘Modern Grotesque’

Posted by Morgan Y Evans - Walking Bombs on Wednesday, March 31, 2021 at 7:58 AM (PST)


‘This album is essentially a reflection of the societal ills that hold us back from having the grand culture and community the United States loves to pretend it has.’ – KZ

Hello dear readers and happy Trans Day of Visibility. Hope people are lifting one another up today and feeling good and loved. I need cold water thrown on my face after the inane stupor I entered from just reading an article about how friggin’ Michale Graves might testify on behalf of some loser Proud Boy Jan. 6th insurrectionists. Uh, that’s your character witness? What is he gonna do? Get up there and go ,”You’re lookin’ through the eyes of a Psycho! An American Psycho (Whoa-oh!).” The sad part is I don’t know if that would work in the fash mob defendants favor more or less considering how compromised many of our courts are.

One thing that DOESN’T make me want to scream in frustration (at least not in a bad way) is listening to the cathartic and brilliant new record Modern Grotesque from melodic post-screamo East Coasters Dreamwell, pretty much the most impressive shit I have discovered in a long time. This record , especially after the shared PTSD of 2020 we are all semi-thawing from,  just feels like a massive release of hope, heart and triumphant defiance. A cry for a more caring and dignified world for people who are different, sensitive or just genuine… for the lovers, dreamers and you (to get more Kermit than Pepe up in here). It is an album that reminds me that feeling things is not weakness and which has some of the fiery and passionate type of playing that first got me into bands like UOA, At The Drive In or On The Might Of Princes.

Modern Grotesque also boasts some of the most impactful melodic playing I have heard in a long time this side of really good Modest Mouse, moments that just take artful twists and turns that couldn’t have been generated through a cynical aim and only through vibrant and vulnerable love for the music.

Please enjoy my chat with vocalist KZ as much as I did.

Read more BELOW.

Photo Credit: Jared Shute

That’s cool you are from Providence. My sister Cambria lives there. I need to visit more often. What got you into the scene there? Dropdead records growing up? Also, is this your first proper full length? The Distance Grows Fonder seemed like a longer EP to me or nah? 

Keziah “KZ” Staska (he/she/they): I think that realistically, the scene that we tend to play within more often than not is the Greater Boston scene. We haven’t played many RI shows. None since I’ve joined, actually. But Rhode Island is still where we are rooted, and I definitely have a firm connection with that scene. When I first really started to develop my own specific musical identity, and develop the taste I still have to this day, two major players in that were Lightning Bolt and Daughters, and now I would add The Body to that list. My first ever basement show was in Providence, or I guess it could have been Pawtucket, but I don’t think so. The venue was called Gay Gardens and I was there to see a band called Tinsel Teeth. I remember it starting on hyper-punk time. Like I think it said “doors at 8” and the show didn’t start a minute before 11pm. It was so gross and hot and I remember choking on cigarette smoke all night, and for some reason all of these things were good apparently, because basements are still my preferred environment for shows. Providence has a huge fingerprint on my musical life.

As for Modern Grotesque vs The Distance, I don’t think you could be faulted for saying MG is a more refined, cohesive album. But The Distance is still a good representation of who the band was then. We definitely think of this as LP2.

Ok, so huge congrats on Modern Grotesque. The playing, tones and especially the human elements are phenomenal. This is some of the best post hardcore or ‘screamo’ type stuff I have heard in ages. Huge fan of the intricate melodic guitar parts (like “Plague Father, Vermin Son” and “The Lost Ballad…” (the latter kind of had a few parts that gave me early Minus The Bear vibes). But yeah, I was just reading with my gf about the history of all the fucked up shit Coca Cola has done as a company over the years and your album title made me think of how almost horribly comical it is how we pretend the modern world we live in is normal and that consumer culture isn’t pretty damn toxic – often literally. What does this record mean to you personally?

Thank you! This album is essentially a reflection of the societal ills that hold us back from having the grand culture and community the United States loves to pretend it has. That’s what a “Grotesque” is. A distortion of what a culture or a community pretends it is, uglied up to more closely represent the truth. The US pretends it’s all about unity, all about prosperity, yet is built upon and consistently running on beliefs that destroy whole communities based on arbitrary variables like race, so-called-gender, sexuality, etc. So it’s a reflection on how modern culture is breaking is down, breaking the backs of the people at the bottom, and hiding from itself as it does so.

The last day or so the internet has exploded with people loving or being freaked out by that awesome Lil Nas X video of him riding the stripper pole to Hell, etc. All my gay homies with connects to the Church Of Satan are like wooooh. Lol. But for real, his earnest letter about being proud to be who you are and not hide it actually made me think of…your band name. Like, we all have this dream life in our heads be it the myth of the white picket fence for some or a more accepting society or whatever. I know it is cliche to ask a band “what does your name mean to you?” type questions, but here we are! 

Dreamwell, to my knowledge, initially stood for, in essence, just mining and putting in work and hoping for whatever that dream that motivates you is. That’s what being a band on our level is all about. Just doing what you can and hoping it works. But whatever the initially meaning is, I think over time and member changes, it’s probably morphed. From my perspective, the name makes me think of the abstract source of creativity and inspiration. That’s something that can’t be taught, it can only be discovered inside of yourself. And I think that motivates me when I write to really play with more ethereal lyrical styles from time to time. That’s how I’m applying the band name and ethos to my contributions, anyway.

I feel like a lot of music reviewers are try hards, lol. Sometimes thurough analysis is great but other times people are just willfully cynical to seem cool. I read one review that I felt totally missed the heart of your record and was like way too critical of it. I just can’t imagine someone hearing these dope arrangements and intricate parts and heartfelt screams and thinking you were just like checking off a list of style points. There is a lot of personalization to these songs and a valuable dynamic between all of you that reminds me of the excitement I had when I first heard very “live” sounding bands like At The Drive In or Quicksand (not that you sound like them). Was it hard during Covid to not be able to do as much or complete the record? It feels like these arrangements must take a long time! 

I think I know which review you’re talking about and, while I certainly would never fault anyone for simply not connecting with our album, I do agree that review was a bit odd. The write seemed to decide for himself what we were trying to do and based a lot of his criticism on that. The irony was that the album he said we were clearly trying to emulate was one that none of us had ever heard. Covid definitely proved a stumbling block because it kept us out of the studio for much longer than we would have liked. We started tracking in March and couldn’t finish until July. But the hardest thing Covid has presented is the after-release. Not being able to perform it live. You are right that we have a live sound. In particular, I always write my vocals around how it feels to perform. I will write what I think works, but a song is never done until we have performed it a dozen times. I’m always still writing little lines or new vocalizations as we perform until it’s finally right. The show is most important to me, so in my mind the album needs to reflect that. In the same concept, I record as many of my vocal parts as possible in one take. Several of the songs are front-to-back single vocal takes with no edits. It is painful that we have not been able to actually perform this album for anyone yet.

“You Dreamt Of Me, I Dreamt Of A Mountain Of Salt” at first made me think of the story of Lot’s wife and then the horrible way the Catholic Church has been towards gay marriage. Even though there are also plenty of passages saying not to judge and to love others in the Bible, way more than those that get twisted to condemn. It is supposed to be an even bigger “sin” to push people away from trusting in loving God, which bigots certainly are guilty of. Wondering if I am anywhere close to home plate with that analysis or what it means to you? 

Yeah, pretty on the money here. The general story of Sodom was where the imagery for this song came from, and it’s about how the church and religious conservatives have augmented the original purposes of Bible passages to fit a certain agenda and “justify” their bigotry. Back then, humans didn’t have the language to conceptualize homosexuality. There was no social difference between same vs. opposite sex intercourse. It wasn’t something they thought about. The assertion that the people of the time of the Bible were condemning homosexuality is ahistorical.

How long have you all known one another and did it take just as long for Anthony to get such a perfect drum sound? Hahaha. But for real, there seems to be a real chemistry and passion in your band that is refreshing to see/hear. It is the only way to have music with heart survive in this day and age. 

There’s no doubt that we are incredibly close. Writing music can be really stressful at times. We prioritize making time to simply be in one another’s company before and after writing sessions to remind us that we love each other. As best as I can tell, Justin and Anthony have known each other longest, and Ryan and Aki have known them/each other since the inception of the band, so roughly five or so years. I have known them since probably 2017, so pretty close to the whole time they’ve been a band. I was in a band called Lymphoma Twins that played with Dreamwell at some point and we became friends with Ryan, later asking him to be in our band for a little while. That’s how I ultimately joined Dreamwell. I didn’t know the other’s extremely well before joining. I kind of knew Anthony because I would always borrow his kit when we played with them and we would talk about drum stuff at gigs. But since I joined, we’ve all be really close. They’re my best friends.

“Show me a god who doesn’t spill blood, and I’ll show you a rusted machine” is a line that really struck me. I love that last track. The faster early drum parts reminded me of Blood Brothers and then it just opens up all wide and expansive-like. “Sisyphean Happiness” was the perfect album closer because it truly feels both cathartic and exhaustingly bittersweet in a way. Like, holding out hope against the odds for a sort of spiritual personal payoff or kinder angels despite how cruel the world seems and indoctrinating it can be. I mean, these are just impressions. But it is also part of why I love the idea of reclaiming the Rosary for sacred Mother worship, something that can really make conservatives pressed. People want a monopoly on avenues to hope and to stomp out or co opt more loving, pagan traditions.

Thanks! I’m really fond of that one too, personally. The inspiration is a cross between “The Myth of Sisyphus” by Albert Camus, and various lectures by Alan Watts, particularly those involving reincarnation and the dissolution of the self. He talks about “God” as being a simple name that we give to something that can’t really be understood, something that guides us in our life. I’m using it in the same way here. “God” is that which we aspire to, our ethics, or beliefs. No person can be wholly good. No one, no matter your beliefs, your practices, can be perfect. We are all going to mess up, and we are all going to suffer. But the journey is about always learning, growing, being better. Pushing the boulder up the hill even when it hurts.

How was the process of working with Ryan Stack and do you think you will again? 

Stack is a great engineer. He has an awesome ear, and he always pushes for the best performance you can get. He did a lot of wild stuff for the songs that I clean sing to help me get my pitch just right. It was a lot. He sits in this perfect middle ground of understanding how much rawness is good, and how much polish there needs to be. Whatever we do next, we imagine Stack will be part of the process.

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