Influenced by the likes of Jesus Lizard, Unwound and Fugazi, Fort Lauderdale's Gouge Away have been making a name for themselves ever since they got their start five years ago. Not in the least thanks to 2016's 'Dies' and their powerful live performances. And they won't be slowing down anytime soon. Not with their new album 'Burnt Sugar' coming out next week via Deathwish and their first ever European tour next month. We caught up with vocalist Christina Michelle about the new album, working with Jack Shirley and the band's relationship with Touche Amore's Jeremy Bolm.
PRT: Am I right in saying that ‘Burnt Sugar’ very much sounds like an album made by a band that let go of what people were expecting from them, both on a musical and lyrical level? Or what they felt like people were expecting from them?
Christina: We had a lot of expectations placed on us when it came to writing this record and we had to check in with each other a lot. Sometimes songs or parts would be written and someone would start to think that it might be too different than what we’ve written before, so we had to remind each other that it was okay. It definitely took a lot of time and effort to shed ourselves of those expectations, but we’re happy that we did.
PRT: I’ve read that you are all kind of shy, yet the lyrics on the new album seem to be a lot more personal compared to the ones on your debut album. Did you ever feel self-conscious while writing them? Like, do I feel comfortable sharing this with everyone that will listen to our album?
Christina: I think since we had a few songs out already that were very personal to me, it confirmed that this is where I wanted to continue going. I’ve always been self-conscious about my writing, and always will be. There are just so many factors involved. On Burnt Sugar, there are songs that I’m sure are very easy to understand, and some that I’m still learning about as I go. A good chunk of them were written at particular times in my life and I knew they meant something to me, but it wasn’t until after they were recorded and I was able to step back as a listener, that I found out what they meant exactly. There’s some I can easily explain like, “This is about watching my mom’s health unravel” and others that I’m not comfortable talking about yet. I think writing can be healing, and it’s a strange way of expressing yourself. I can sing about this personal thing to a room full of people while no one knows the specifics, and at the same time someone might take something from it that relates to their own life.
PRT: And is that shyness something you have to overcome when you are about to play a show? Or is that different?
Christina: I’ll speak for myself, but it has always been difficult. I joke around a lot about how I almost failed Public Speaking in college because I don’t know how I ever got the courage to be in a band. For a long time, I faced the drums and wouldn’t look up. I’d bring my lyric book, or bullet points, or write lyrics on my hand for comfort to get through the set. I still get nervous before every single show. It doesn’t matter where it is or how many people are there. There can be 10 people in a basement and I’ll still be worried about peeing myself. I can’t watch any past sets of ours because I can hear the shakiness in my voice. But I am at a point where it’s at least manageable, and I think what has helped me the most is playing with bands that I look up to. You think everyone’s so calm and collected but when you see them backstage, in such a vulnerable setting, you learn that most of the people back there are nervous too. And that’s pretty validating to see! It’s just like yeah, this really is scary, huh?
PRT: ‘Burnt Sugar’ was produced by Touche Amore’s Jeremy Bolm and mixed and mastered by Jack Shirley. What is it about both of them that made you want to work with them?
Christina: Jack Shirley was the only person on my list of people I wanted to record with so I’m really glad the guys felt strongly about recording with him too! He has worked on so many amazing records, many of which came out on Deathwish. We’re also fans of Everybody Row and Comadre, two bands that are good at pushing genre boundaries. I always wanted to work with him but being from Florida, I never thought it would be possible.
Jeremy Bolm has always been close to us and supportive through the years. We never worked with a producer in any way, shape, or form, so our first experience being with him was really cool! At this point we view him as a friend of ours, but I had a moment during pre-production when I realized how many people would love to have the chance to work with him, and I definitely don’t take that for granted.
PRT: You recorded the album while playing in the same room without headphones and straight to tape. Which I guess is the best way to capture a sense of urgency and a live feel, but it also means you can’t do a zillion takes to get something right. Is that a fun way to record or did it add some stress to the process?
Christina: At first it was definitely an adjustment. When you record digitally, you can punch in and fix things in any spot. You can save all the different takes and hear them back and compare them. When recording analog, if you want to redo something you have to record it over the original take, meaning the original is gone forever! So you don’t have the safety net of relying on a past take. Often times you even have to record the entire song over. Whenever we got to something that someone wanted to fix, Jack would ask, “Is it worth redoing the whole thing?” It made for a cool predicament because usually the answer is “no.” When you’re used to having the option of erasing every tiny mistake to make it sound perfect, and then get into a situation like this, you realize that perfection isn’t even the goal. We intended on having a more raw, live sound, and that means its going to include imperfections. There’s a missed snare that bothered Tommy in the studio but now he loves it. With vocals, I feel this need to be as solid and powerful as possible, but I want to sound like the record live so the record has to sound like me. That means the voice cracks gotta stay! In the end, I think it was a fun way to record. It was a lot more fast-paced so we spent less time stressing over minor details.
PRT: Jesus Lizard is a collective influence for you. It’s also a name you don’t hear as often as you should. If you were to cover one of their songs, which one would it be and why?
Christina: I actually wanted to cover them! When we dressed as the Stranger Things kids at FEST, I wanted to cover “Mouth Breather” since it’s one of Eleven’s taglines. We have this habit of coming up with cool ideas really last minute, though.
PRT: If ‘Dies’ is the album that placed you firmly on the map, what do you hope people will take from ‘Burnt Sugar’?
Christina: That we’re always open to growing and always want to do what comes naturally to us. We never want to settle or try to put out something just because someone might be expecting it. We want to encourage each other’s creativity and keep writing. We think that Burnt Sugar is an important part of our own lives and a milestone for the band, but it’s only a single step.
PRT: You will be coming over to Europe for the first time, including a show at the indoor edition of Groezrock. What are you most looking forward to?
Christina: It’s my first time ever leaving our continent so I’m excited for the new experiences! We’ve tried to make it over there a few times and it unfortunately never worked out so it’ll be awesome to finally play some UK and Euro shows. I’m especially excited to see Culture Abuse play every night.