by Mark Anderson
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not always drawn to the type of emotive, alt-pop music played by bands like Celebration Guns.
Too often I find that, while the technicality of the music and band may be stunning, requiring incredible talent and precision from the musicians playing it, it ends up lacking the one thing I look for in music the most: soul.
However, we at YabYum have always had a soft spot for the Guns. Of course we heard and loved their debut EP, Quitter, back in Rubber Brother’s heyday of 2013. We also suggested hearing and aquiring The Me That Used to Be when it dropped in 2016. And I’m here to tell you that (Probably) Worth It is definitely worth it.
The album opens with the instrumental intro “(Probably)” before jettisoning into the second track, “Worth It”. Essentially two parts of the same song, “(Probably) Worth It” conveys right away what you can expect from the entire album: indie ambient fusion mixed with frantic noise-pop. Lead vocalist and guitarist Justin Weir belts an impressive, thought-provoking chorus: “And I think it doesn’t get better than this/ And I hope I never take it for granted/ When one day what we have comes to an end/ Will it feel like we gave it all that we had?”
The rumblin’ rhythm section of Ryan Miller on bass and Peter Coleman on drums bring to life the third track, “Where You’ve Gone”, before Christopher Blanco on lead guitar and Justin on second lead guitar fill in some some righteous melodies. A highlight of Celebration Guns is that both guitarists perform some awesome tap-work and melodic breakdowns both simultaneously and apart from one another and it makes for a truly dazzling effect. They are often spaced apart from each other, playing in the relative major or minor of the song and widen the scope of the audial landscape immensely.
In fact, the recording quality found on (Probably) Worth It is stellar and I can’t compliment Alan Leggett enough. The mixing and production are pro and it’s little wonder he instructs at the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences. However, while all the instruments and sounds of this album are right where you want them to be, be careful listening to this album with only one earbud in at work or if you’re sharing earbuds with a classmate across desks: the guitars are panned pretty hard left and right from each other and you’re likely only hearing one side of the composition!
Things change up into more post-punk territory on “You Aren’t the Only One” and I like it. Although it might be more accurate to describe Celebration Guns’ sound with bands like Tera Melos or even Razing Alexandria, I get a toned down Propagandhi vibe on this and other songs, especially during the lines: “You aren’t the only one/ I’ve ever welcomed through/ To take a part of me/ And turn and leave.” One could go as far to say that they sometimes sound like a much less aggressive Fall of Troy but perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.
“Move On” moves into more major key territory after mostly minor songs preceding it and this is a welcome change of pace, as is Justin’s mandolin keeping up with Christopher’s riffing on guitar. The gang vocals on this track are a nice touch as well.
However, my favorite track off of (Probably) Worth It has to be “A Window”. Orchestral guitar parts + wicked rhythm and time signature = success. The lyrics hit home with me as well: “A window is all we get/ But we just don’t see it yet.”
As the album continues, my biggest negative critique of (Probably) Worth It is one that we at YabYum have made before about Celebration Guns music: a lack of diverging sounds that tends to lead many of the songs blending together in memory. While certainly the entire album isn’t this way, as I dip into the second half of (Probably) Worth It, I just find it less compelling than the first.
The drumbeat and bass line throughout “Consider the Source” certainly grab my attention though. As with the next rack, “Great Again”, I enjoy the themes of these songs immensely and am glad to see Justin and the band move into more societal/political territories with this release. Peter’s xylophone really is fun too.
The album finales with “Pangaea”, featuring a leaving partner and whimsical, staccato string parts. It definitely ends with me wanting more and that’s always a good thing in my book. Maybe that’s also why I felt I needed to learn more about (Probably) Worth It and what went into it so I contacted Justin via email and sent him some questions. Check out the album (procuring your own copy on vinyl, CD or cassette from Lumberjerk Records) as well as our Q+A with Justin Weir below before heading to the (Probably) Worth It Album Release Show + 5 Year Anniversary Party at The Rebel Lounge with Captain Squeegee, Bear Ghost, and Instructions!
First off, a little general info. Who is in Celebration Guns these days and has it always been the same 4 members?
Celebration Guns is Justin Weir (guitar/mandolin/vocals), Ryan Miller (bass guitar), Christopher Blanco (guitar) and Peter Coleman (drums/xylophone). When we started in 2013, we had a different drummer named Timothy O’Brien. Tim and I were coming out of a failed Craigslist band and decided to take some demos I had written on Garageband and make a band out of it. Those demos became our Quitter EP, which YabYum also graciously reviewed. Tim quit the band due to a lack of time to commit to the band and to pursue his own solo project and I was very bummed to lose him because he was a great drummer and also one of my closest friends. I took it pretty hard personally, but we moved forward with our longtime friend Peter Coleman taking over on drums.
Out of 4 albums, this is Celebration Guns’ first full-length album right? What made you guys decide to do a full-length album this time?
This is our first full-length! We made the full-length to challenge ourselves and because up until this album we’ve released 3 EPs and 2 splits. It felt like time for a change, to up the ante. There have been a few people who have asked about a full-length and although today’s music industry isn’t exactly clamoring to have a relatively unknown band release a 10 song album, I think we did it for ourselves. We also did it because we had a great opportunity to work with someone who was willing to be patient with us and give us the time we needed to spend on making the album the best it could possibly be.
Where did you record (Probably) Worth It? Was it all recorded with Alan Leggett at the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences (CRAS) and Deep Roots Studio in AZ? What made you guys go with Alan?
Alan Leggett recorded an album for our drummer Peter’s metal band, Flying Scorpion. When Peter joined the band, we immediately wrote two songs we were pretty excited about (“(Probably)” & “Worth It”, which is basically one song, and “Better Days”) and we had a song with mandolin called “Move On” and were feeling motivated to get them recorded. Peter talked about how great it was working with Alan so we went in and recorded those 3 songs in September of 2016. We tracked some of the guitars for those songs at Deep Roots Studio in Tempe but ultimately decided to record the rest with Alan at the CRAS, where he is an instructor. Alan was eternally patient with us and had this knack to be able to create a sound that I would try to explain with words and hardly even made sense as I was explaining it, but he would make it happen. He’s also a super nice guy and very knowledgeable about finding the right effects and recording in general. We recorded the rest of the album in April of 2017 and then spent the rest of 2017 mixing it, mostly on weekends with primarily myself and Alan.
What would you say was the easiest part of recording (Probably) Worth It? How about the hardest?
The easiest part of recording was having a comfortable place to do everything at CRAS, and having such a nice and easy going guy to deal with our various neurotic issues (okay, those are mostly coming from me, I”ll be honest…). The hardest part was trying to stop myself from using the comfort and ease of working with Alan to go overboard on obsessing over mixing the album and then going back and changing the tiny change that was made the previous week. “Too much of a good thing” and all of that. I am extremely happy with it now, but by the time we had exhausted ourselves to the point of near insanity with mixing and making changes I wasn’t sure what I thought.
I feel with each release of yours you continually define the Celebration Guns sound and each album is better than the last. What have you learned about both your music creation and recording said music since your debut, Quitter, up until now?
Our debut Quitter was literally just me playing all of the guitars, bass and recording vocals over pre-recorded Garageband loops. There was one song (“Ride Home”) that used recorded drums from Tim O’Brien, otherwise it was essentially demos. The interesting thing is that we hear from a few people that they actually prefer Quitter because it was admittedly our best attempt at doing the “shoegaze” thing and it has a lo-fi feel to it.
After that we recorded with Josh Medina (Old Hat Analogue) and that was a lot of fun and he knows his stuff and gave us a great deal. Those 2 songs were released on split with Twin Ponies and we might have recorded more with him at that time if we had more money to work with.
With our next EP Bright Enough, I made the classic mistake of thinking that because I had purchased a cheap microphone kit for tracking drums and a couple of other microphones that we could record our own full-length. Our only real reason for attempting this was that we didn’t have any money to record somewhere legitimate. The outcome was an EP that at times feels unlistenable due to poor recording quality (one song inexplicably goes down considerably in volume halfway through). We released it and sold our 100 CDs and said good riddance. Rather than a full-length, we saved 2 of the songs and used them for our split with BOTS.
With The Me That Used to Be, we knew that it was time to get a better recording than bright enough under our belts as our songs are very specifically structured and we have a lot of competing sounds that we want to be heard within the recordings. We decided to go with Bob Hoag at Flying Blanket Studios, one reason being that recording with Bob always felt like the ultimate goal for local bands that I worked with over the years and also because our bassist Ryan had a good experience recording his bands Mourning Maxwell and Neba with Bob. The Me that Used to Be was absolutely our best sounding recording at that time and we all pooled our money in to pay for the higher quality AND to release it on vinyl.
One lesson I learned working with Bob was not to discount my vocal abilities as much as I had been. For all of the previous recordings we did, I buried my voice as much as possible and even told Bob on the first day that I met him that my voice wasn’t great. I still don’t think it’s “great” but I definitely learned that it’s not awful and that hiding it in the mix wasn’t doing us any favors.
With our most recent album, I think it may be a combination of all of the time Alan let us spend mixing and fine-tuning details to having more complex and developed songs that really helped achieve the quality we were hoping for. Also, I feel like Alan was able to help us combine a little more of the live energy into the sound and helped us avoid it being too flat or stale sounding. Alan took a pretty active producer role and I learned to step back a little and take his advice when things weren’t working, which is difficult for a control freak such as myself.
Many of your songs seem to deal with some pretty heavy relationship struggles, not just on this album but on all your releases. Have you been in a lot of difficult relationships or are many of these songs pulled from one really bad one? You also just may be writing from experience not necessarily in your life but in more of a general relatable sense. I really hope you haven’t just been screwed over in one relationship after another, you seem like such a nice guy!
I actually made an effort to write less about relationship struggles for this album than I have for any of our previous releases. Writing about bad relationships feels a little bit like a trope for bands like ours, that have a strong emo influence on our writing style, and the more I would find myself writing about it the more I found myself cringing. Our early albums almost entirely focused on relationship problems with girls, our latest album doesn’t have any romantic relationship struggle themes (except for “the harder I try (again)” which is a new version of the opening track from the Bright Enough EP, so I don’t know if that one counts).
The song “Better Days” was my reaction to our drummer Tim quitting. Like a Christian band trying to make their songs sound like love songs to hide what they’re really about, I’ll admit that I wrote them in a way that they could be perceived as lyrics about a breakup with a significant other. Also, the song “You Aren’t the Only one” was mostly written about Tim but also a reaction to falling out in many relationships I’ve had, particularly friends I’ve had in bands. I have played live in about 20 bands since 1997 and have found that for most of these bands, these people become pretty close friends. I’ve also learned that in 75% of these cases, they would end on bad terms and I would essentially lose those friendships. Not every band “screwed me over”, there were probably plenty where my ego and stubbornness were partially to blame, but I have had a few where I took it very hard based on how it ended.
I guess it’s fair to say that I’m a nice guy, but I’m also human and not always the easiest to get along with.. .especially when I feel strongly about the music I’m playing and that comes into opposition with other people I’m playing music with. Regarding Tim, we have ultimately gotten past our differences and I’m sure it wouldn’t be surprising for him to hear that a few songs were written about him (both were written right in the middle of the worst part of it) and I don’t know if I handled the situation the best, but I think I handled it the best I could considering how important the band is to me and how important our friendship was at the same time they seemed to be imploding.
It seems you’re also more political on this album than on previous releases and I like it. Did you just reach a point where you realized you had to say something about what you see going on in our state/country?
“Consider the Source” was written about the hypocrisy I’ve seen with people using religion as a political weapon. I think George W. Bush implying that God supported the war in Iraq was on my mind when I wrote this. It was surprisingly pre-Trump, who at one point pretended like he was religious but I think once he won the election he was able to drop the act a little bit.
“Great Again” was written a month or two after the election. It almost seems cliché at this point for a musician to make it known that they are not a supporter of Trump, or maybe it feels that way because it should be so OBVIOUS that he’s a horrible choice for a leader of any kind… but it’s definitely how myself and most of the band feels. I was just thinking about how silly it was that a vague phrase like “make America great again” was enough to inspire millions of people to support him for president, and I couldn’t stop wondering what period of time Trump and his supporters were actually wishing to go back to. The only other political song we ever wrote was on our Quitter EP, it was the bonus track on the Rubber Brother Records cassette release and it was called “Control Escapes Us”. It’s the only time in one of our songs where we incorporated our band name. In it there’s a line that says, “there’s a celebration at the right-wing station where the guns are waiting”. I know, we’re naughty boys.
You guys are releasing a video for every song on this album with 6 of the songs already completed. Whose idea was this or did you guys all come up with this together? I think it’s really awesome although there must be some challenges involved with this. I see you’ve done much of the editing and some of the directing yourself Justin! Who else have you worked with to help bring these songs to a visual life?
I got the idea from the Beach House album “Teen Dream”, which came with a DVD in an unlabeled paper case with pink zebra stripes on it. I thought it was a CD at first but found that it had a music video for each song and I thought it was an awesome idea. Not every video on their DVD was great, most of them weren’t superb quality, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
I think having something visual to follow along with while you hear a song can completely influence how you feel about it. This can also work against you: if your video is too distracting, a first-time listener might move to the million other things available to them without really even realizing what they just heard. We were kind of hoping to have all 10 songs done by the album release, but the challenges are trying to get everyone on board to quickly film and edit a video when they are being paid very little (or sometimes nothing at all). Fun fact: for our song “where you’ve gone” my plans for that video fell through right before I wanted to release it so I went online and found some free stock footage and somehow made all of it work for what turned out to be a pretty sweet video.
I did come up with the concept for “(Probably) Worth It” and “You Aren’t the Only One”, basically wrote out the entire video second by second and then edited it together accordingly. I had a LOT of fun doing that and I actually really enjoy editing (thanks, Final Cut Pro). Our drummer Peter Coleman had actually worked with us before he joined the band: he filmed and edited our video for “The Me that Used to Be” in 2016, about 2 months before he joined the band. He also filmed and edited “(Probably) Worth It” and filmed “You Aren’t the Only One”.
We had Robbie Pfeffer do the video for “Great Again”, Charles Barth is working on the video for “The Harder I Try (Again)”, Jordan Murawa (closing track on Straight Outta Comp 2) did the video for “Pangaea” and he’s working on one for “Move On”. Patro Gaston is making a video for “Consider the Source”, and my wife Brittanny Weir made a video for “Better Day”s and is working on one for “A Window”.
Overall, the collaboration with everyone has been seriously fun and awesome.
The (Probably) Worth It release show is at the Rebel Lounge on September 8 with some amazing bands on the bill but’s also a 5 year anniversary party for you guys. Can you tell us about some of the festivities you have planned?
We originally wanted to come as close as possible to recreating our first ever show which was at The Rogue Bar on September 28th, 2013 with Twin Ponies for their “Pores EP” release show, Captain Squeegee and a band from Tucson called The Electric Blankets. This is surprisingly our first time playing with Captain Squeegee since that show in 2013, so we were happy to have them. We had Twin Ponies planned to play, but they unfortunately had to drop. We replaced them with Instructions, which is fitting because they were one of the bands that turned me onto Rubber Brother Records, who released our Quitter EP and our two splits. Bear Ghost? I couldn’t help but think of the insane, shredding energy that is going to be brought to the table when you combine the riff action of us, Instructions, Captain Squeegee, and Bear Ghost so it felt perfect. I think the live performance quality of all the bands that night is going to be kind of insane and I’m really excited to have that kind of energy at our show. We will have our new album on vinyl, CD and cassette along with brand new shirts. We’re going to sell our vinyl at the insane price of $10 as a thank you to everyone coming out, and nothing else will be any more expensive than $10.
What’s next for Celebration Guns? Obviously a few more videos! Any touring for this album? Have you already started penning songs for your next release or do you like to take a break from one album to the next?
We actually have enough songs written for another album and plan to record in October! We may not release them as an album, but we had so much fun recording with Alan we wanted to get back in the studio and work on some more and see how we want to release them or what we want to do with them in 2019. We’d like to tour but our jobs and Chris having a kid make that a little difficult (not to mention that half of the band is in their mid 30’s and less willing to risk going out potentially blowing money on touring). We are hoping to get out of town for some weekend shows and if we get to a point where we have a good enough opportunity to at least break even on some short tours, we want to do that. This year is by far our quietest year for playing shows so I’d like to see us get out there more to promote the album. In the end, we’ve come to understand that we connect best with people through playing our music live and it’s something we love doing, so we don’t want to get too far way from that.
Make sure to catch the Celebration Guns: Album Release/Anniversary Show this Saturday, September 8 at The Rebel Lounge with Captain Squeegee, Bear Ghost, and Instructions. More info can be found here.