“What? American Nightmare? What does Silverstein know about American Nightmare?”
Shane Told is speaking freely. The Silverstein frontman and lead vocalist, donning a deep, white V-neck and a pair of black skinny jeans, sits on a bench just outside the Orlando House of Blues. On the ground near his faded black Vans is an iced coffee, and Told seems tired.
A group of children accompanied by two weary parents walk past the bench, sporting Mickey Mouse ears and grasping the ends of strings that tame the hand-made balloon animals on their opposite ends. Casting a shadow behind us is a five-story virtual amusement park called LaserQuest; in the not-so-far distance is another enormous building, which houses the circus spectacle Cirque Du Soleil.
Playing a show at Downtown Disney just provides a different setting than your average nightclub.
Told has a good reason to look tired. Less than an hour ago, he was tearing through a blistering set of just over a dozen songs with his band. In a direct supporting slot, playing right before August Burns Red, Silverstein’s set was essentially a greatest hits of sorts. From songs on the band’s first LP, When Broken Is Easily Fixed – they still close with “My Heart Bleeds No More” – to tasty previews of new tracks that will appear on the early February release of Short Songs, Told and Co. played a little something for every Silverstein fan.
They even played songs that would entertain non-fans, like the American Nightmare cover of “Hearts” that has become a staple of Silverstein’s set within the last year. In fact, Silverstein’s rendition of “Hearts” was released on a 7-inch called Support Your Local Record Store. The Record Store Day-exclusive vinyl featured two other covers: Kid Dynamite’s “Pits and Poisoned Apples” and Propagandhi’s “Fuck the Border.”
Perhaps those melodic punk staples aren’t what you’d expect a band touring with August Burns Red, Texas In July and letlive. to cover for a surprise 7-inch. You wouldn’t be the only one surprised by Silverstein’s early influences.
“It's weird when people say we aren't a hardcore band or we aren't a punk band,” Told says. “It's like, obviously we know we aren't [a band like that], but our influences are those bands. We just put a different spin on it instead of trying to rip someone off.”
Silverstein’s story leading up to the release of Short Songs is one of a band in transition. For most of the group’s career, it released music via scene staple Victory Records, and that partnership led to a great deal of success. From the fan-favorite, critically lauded Discovering The Waterfront in 2005 to the more straightforward Arrivals and Departures in 2007 and the concept record A Shipwreck In the Sand in 2009, Silverstein became a post-hardcore tour de force on Victory’s roster.
But after four albums, Silverstein’s contractual obligation to the label reached its end and despite all the success the pairing had delivered, the band chose to part ways.
“There comes a time when a term has reached its end and you look forward to something new. It was time for a change and to explore what else was out there,” Silverstein drummer Paul Koehler says. “It's like completing a term in school and now it's your turn to get a job…There are people at Hopeless that we've known almost as long as we've been a touring band.”
With a new label that goes about business in a different fashion, Silverstein was set for a revitalization of sorts. While A Shipwreck In the Sand wasn’t a negative stain on the band’s catalog, their momentum wasn’t as high as it used to be; things were beginning to feel stale, at least from an outsider’s perspective. Switching to Hopeless, with the label’s innovative mindset, got the band out of whatever mini-rut it was in. Subsequently, the appropriately titled Transitions EP had some of the best songs Silverstein had written in years.
“[After Victory], we decided that there were other labels that were a better fit for us with our ethics and with the things we wanted to do musically,” Told says. “With Hopeless we were able to do the Transitions EP, the Record Store Day 7-inch, and now Short Songs, and I think with Victory that wouldn't happen. We wanted to do this stuff before, put out lots of releases, but with Victory, it comes down to dollars and cents a lot of the time, and with Hopeless they saw the passion we had for these projects and was really supportive of them.”
Told described the process of getting Short Songs approved as “shockingly easy.” The band simply brought the idea to the label, was given resources to record the songs, and was sent on its way. “We were like, ‘Really?’ They were like, ‘Yeah, it’s a cool idea,’” Told says.
Told expands on his thoughts, saying he wants Silverstein to be a more evolutionary band. It’s no secret the music industry has changed since the band started, and where Silverstein and Hopeless meet eye-to-eye is in the belief that the traditional model of a band releasing a record, then touring on that record for two years, is dead.
Ian Harrison is the head of marketing at Hopeless Records. Hopeless sat down with Silverstein before the release of Rescue and “challenged the band to come up with something amazing,” Harrison says. “We’re always encouraging bands to move beyond the model of traditional recording and touring. We want to see more creative and interesting stuff that fans can connect with. We were really impressed when they came up with Short Songs and we thought it was the perfect move for them. We feel there is a lot more to Silverstein than people know about because of how the band has been presented in the past.”
Harrison continues to point out recent releases like the acoustic versions of When You’re Through Thinking Say Yes and Reach for the Sun that Yellowcard and The Dangerous Summer, respectively, put out through the label. It’s these kind of smaller releases that Hopeless strives for because of the connection they bring between fan and artist, and because it keeps the band’s momentum rolling.
“We think that’s the future of how bands, especially in this scene, are going to thrive moving forward,” Harrison says. “You’ve got to put out more projects like [Short Songs] if you’re going to stay relevant.”
The leeway to be more creative and Silverstein’s chance to “have more fun with [its] career,” according to Koehler, is just one aspect of the band’s changing face. The group put out a full-length in 2011, Rescue, that felt like its most cohesive record since Discovering the Waterfront – a welcome release in the minds of older fans.
Rescue felt more lightweight, like it was written with no outside pressure, and the band echoes that sentiment. After four well-received records, the group’s fifth studio LP came with the ebbs and flows you would expect out of a veteran band. The hard, fast songs were there – so were the signature Silverstein breakdowns and the more ballad-y aspects. Most importantly, it was the record Silverstein wanted to write most, perhaps more so than any album in its career.
“It's important to remember that Rescue was written over the course of a year in between everything that was going on,” Koehler says. “It was a time without a label – we wrote and recorded on our own, before we even secured the home. Hopeless was already in discussion with us and heard some of the demos, but the album was pretty much finished by the time we signed with them. I think this made Rescue ‘our’ album, and that’s something we're very proud of.”
Musically, Rescue isn’t a far departure from anything Silverstein has done in the past, but the punk influences that always linger around the band are certainly felt. The back-to-back pair of “Texas Mickey” and “The Artist” conveys this well – the former is a more pop-punk song, featuring Bayside frontman Anthony Raneri on guest vocals, while the latter is a straightforward, blunt hardcore punk song. “The Artist” was appropriately featured on the Support Your Local Record Store 7-inch, fitting in with the covers the band chose better than any song in its catalog.
Despite the band’s original influences – “American Nightmare, Kid Dynamite, Propagandhi and Lifetime are our favorite bands collectively,” Told says – Silverstein chooses to go in a different direction when it writes its own music. At least until now, that is.
“I don’t think we purposely try to stray away from our influences,” Koehler says. “I think we’ve just found our sound, our Silverstein sound, and that’s what it is. No matter what type of song we’re writing, it’s still the five of us – it’s always been the five of us – so it has our sound there. Even with [Short Songs], we’re not trying to be Kid Dynamite. We’re not trying to be American Nightmare.
“Since we started 12 years ago, there was no The Used or Underoath – those bands weren’t around back then,” Koehler continues. “So we were trying to make a band that sounded like Mineral and Knapsack and The Get Up Kids – that’s what we purposely wanted to sound like, with hardcore mixed in. And then we started screaming, and it just so happened that there was a floodgate of bands that were doing that, and I guess that’s how we became popular. We just started doing something that ended up catching on at the right time.”
For Silverstein, what it boils down to at the present time is letting its influences shine through more than ever before. While always evident in the musicianship on the band’s records, from the prominent heaviness in the guitars to the pounding kick drum, Short Songs shows the kind of band that Silverstein could have become – and probably almost did become.
Told talks about how each of the members in Silverstein were in previous bands that sounded like a lot of the groups they cover on Short Songs. “I played in a punk band that sounded like Propagandhi and Lifetime,” he says. “Our old guitar player was in a band that sounded like Hope Conspiracy and old Cave In. When we made Silverstein, we tried to use those influences in our own way.”
Told says that Short Songs is just an example of the band letting their original influences become more obvious in their songwriting. On the release, the A-side is 11 original Silverstein songs – and although that half of the record only amounts to 11-and-a-half minutes, listeners actually get an abridged version of a normal Silverstein release.
All of the characteristics of the band’s career-spanning sound are still there – the ballad-y parts, the slower parts, the breakdowns and, of course, Told’s signature screaming-to-singing switch-offs. It’s essentially a typical Silverstein record that is drastically cut down in time, with none of the songs topping 90 seconds, and instead of some of the grandiose post-hardcore elements in Rescue or previous albums, everything is considerably more stripped down.
Pointing again to the influence of Hopeless Records, Told and Koehler describe a “less stressful” recording environment during the creation of Short Songs. With the whole album written and recorded in just a couple of weeks, Told says the production value and depth of musicianship is what changed most. Instead of multiple layers of vocals, and instead of using a segment of strings, and instead of all the other tricks in the post-hardcore production bag, the band recorded everything very simply. It’s the difference between going into the studio and knocking out two songs in their entirety versus going to the studio, working for a few days, but then knowing that one song isn’t even completely done yet, Told says.
As a result of the short song lengths and the stripped-down sound, however, the band had to be careful to write parts that were especially memorable. “You might only play the chorus once, so the chorus has to sound like a chorus right away,” Told says. “It can't just become catchy because you repeat it four times. We have a 7-second song about Josh stealing Billy's food out of the bus fridge. Even that has a verse, chorus and ending,” he laughs.
At the end of the day, Silverstein doesn’t feel like it’s doing anything drastically different than it has been all along. For over a decade now, this band has been playing its own sound, but because of the wave of post-hardcore/screaming bands in the mid-2000s, got lumped into a category that it doesn’t necessarily fit into. Short Songs should do more than enough to separate Silverstein from the pack.
While the 11 originals on the album make for a good listen, the 11 covers on the B-side will be much more fun for fans that grew up with these old punk bands themselves. From the pure aggression of Gorilla Biscuits’ “Good Intentions,” to the familiar half-minute of the Descendents’ “Coffee Mug,” to the short-but-sweet acoustic sounds of Green Day’s “Ballad of Wilhelm Fink,” the covers present something for everyone. The band even recorded two versions of NOFX’s “It’s My Job To Keep Punk Rock Elite” – the album version has the original lyrics, while the version that premiered on Punknews a few weeks ago has lines playful lines like, “We survived Victory.”
“It’s funny how, over time, people have assumed because of all the other bands like us that have come out, that we don’t even know who these bands are,” Told says. “It’s weird that people are like, ‘What, American Nightmare? What does Silverstein know about American Nightmare?’ And I mean, I have an original American Nightmare shirt. I saw them play at Hellfest. It’s just weird that because we sound a certain way, people don’t think that we have those influences.”
What remains to be seen is how much of a lasting effect Short Songs will have on Silverstein’s songwriting moving forward. Koehler and Told say that although the band won’t change the way it goes about writing music, there is no doubt that the experience will leave some sort of impression. Told says even something as simple as how the guitars were recorded could run over to the next Silverstein LP.
With the ever-changing landscape of the music industry, a shift toward its earlier influences could be exactly what Silverstein needs to stay fit and relevant. Or, maybe it’s not – only time will tell. What’s certain is that in an industry fueled by social media and the ever-shortening attention span of its audience, a band keeping its momentum going is essential.
And Silverstein’s momentum might just be starting again.
Silverstein has taken a different trajectory throughout its career than most of the bands they came up with. They were part of a group of "screamo" or "post-hardcore" bands, or whatever you want to go ahead and call them, that got big in the middle of the 2000s. Discovering the Waterfront put them on the map; Arrivals and Departures continued their momentum; Shipwreck In the Sand was a cool concept record, but you could feel things growing stale; and Rescue was something of renewal for the punk aspects of the band's sound.
Silverstein has always toured with good bands, although they could have easily slipped into the wrong spectrum of the heavier music community. It seems natural for them to release Short Songs - a collection of 11 original songs and 11 old punk covers - although if one were to just listen to their most recent releases, it might not make sense. Rescue utilized a fair amount of punk influences, much like Discovering the Waterfront, and Short Songs is just Silverstein paying tribute to the bands it grew up on.
With a total of 22 songs but a run time of under 20 minutes, this is a quick listen. It's essentially an EP, but it's a fantastic idea and a great move for the band. The originals will appeal to both old fans and new listeners who check this out solely for the covers. At times, you wonder if Silverstein couldn't just take a step back and write a terrific Descendents-esque pop-punk record. Later in Short Songs, we actually get a Descendents cover - a neat and enjoyable take on "Coffee Mug." Other standouts are the NOFX cover of "It's My Job to Keep Punk Rock Elite" and the awesome Green Day cover of "The Ballad of Wilhelm Fink," where vocalist Shane Told sounds eerily like Billie Joe Armstrong.
In the end, Short Songs is a solid release for this band, but the most interesting aspect of it is wondering where the band will take its sound next. Personally, I think their tried-and-true format of half-sung, half-screamed vocals and breakdowns has seen its climax. I would love to see this band strip everything down, get into the Blasting Room with Bill Stevenson, and write a beastly punk/hardcore album. Or take a queue from your labelmates and record with Steve Evetts. You've covered American Nightmare before. You're covering NOFX and Gorilla Biscuits now. Silverstein, I've loved your band since the eighth grade - but for the sake of your continued relevance to older fans who have outgrown the "summer of screamo" and the likes of early Scary Kids Scaring Kids and Chiodos records - ditch your established (and slightly repetitive) sound, and make us a punk record. It seems like it's what you want to do anyway.