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Interview: Walter Schreifels (Quicksand)

16 August 2021

Photo by A.F. Cortes

In April 2021, with no warning, NYC post-hardcore legends Quicksand dropped a brand new single, “Inversion”, on unsuspecting fans and then followed it up in June with the announcement that their second reunion album, Distant Populations would be released in August. This shouldn’t have come as a great surprise as the band did the same thing with their 2017 release, Interiors but, nevertheless, it did.

Coming out of the punk scene in the early ’90s, Walter Schreifels (vocals, guitar), Sergio Vega (bass), Tom Capone (guitar) and Alan Cage (drums) helped pave the way for generations of bands in the decades to follow. 1993’s Slip and 1995’s Manic Compression were the blueprints for bands like Sparta, Thursday, Drug Church and Title Fight but the all-too-common “creative differences” led Quicksand to break up in late 1995.

Though periodic live reunions happened in the ensuing years, rumors of new Quicksand music didn’t come to fruition until 2017 and, by that point, personal issues led the band to drop Capone from the lineup and continue as a three piece. And now, four years since the trio reunited, Quicksand has as many full length releases as they did back in the ’90s with the promise of more to come. Of course, we likely won’t know that they’re working on something new until a single drops given the history of Interiors and Distant Populations.

A few weeks ago, Schreifels and I chatted for about 20 minutes via Zoom as he drove around New York City looking for an ever-elusive parking spot. When the call was suddenly dropped, I figured I had enough to go with but within 24 hours, Schreifels had reached out offering to continue our conversation, which we did a week later. Here’s what came out of those two conversations.

Both Interiors and Distant Populations were big surprises. I don’t recall hearing that you were working on new material. Was keeping it quiet intentional?

WALTER: We wanted to drop them out of nowhere. With Interiors, I was going by the example of My Bloody Valentine. They dropped their MBV album out of nowhere, like it just appeared and I thought that was great. The real commitment we made was that we were paying for it ourselves, so it became, “If we don’t complete this album and if it’s not good, then not only is that going to be a bummer, but, we’re going to lose a significant amount of money.” It was a great incentive to make the best record we could possibly make and to complete it. I think the best thing was to drop it out of nowhere so people could be surprised. Nowadays, things are rolled out in such a long way that it’s rare that things are surprising.

I was fooled both times. You dropped a surprise single with no immediate mention of a full album. That was something fans like me were hoping for but just to get a new song was great. And then, a week or two after releasing singles, comes the announcement that not only is a new record coming but that it’s done and will be released imminently. That blew my mind!

WALTER: Good. I’m really stoked on this new record. I feel like we were more focused with what we were trying to do and didn’t really feel the pressure or the baggage of the legacy of the band. It felt like we could be more contemporary if we decided to be a band that exists in the world right now. Of course, we have our past, which is cool, but that’s like a lot of bands. I think we really just said, “Okay, what do we want to do now? Let’s say something with this album with some sort of intent.”

The gap between 1995’s Manic Compression and 2017’s Interiors was 22 years. Now that you’ve released as many albums in the four years as you did in the ’90s, you’re not going to wait another 22 years for albums five and six, right?

WALTER: No, that’s not the intention. When I was younger, it seemed crazy to me that I was a professional musician. It wasn’t like that was my career path. Now, I see it through a different lens. I hang out with my good friends, who have been part of my life story, and get to do creative work with them. We get to travel the world and see friends and have experiences, communicate, create art. I’m grateful for that. I enjoy what we do and there’s a lot of respect between us. I value it and want to continue the story. In a lot of ways, I think we’re just getting started. I think there’s no limit to what we can do creatively and I think we have a good vibe. That’s cool. That’s rare as hell.

After the initial break up, you did an interview where you said there would never be a Quicksand reunion.

WALTER: Yeah, because we were all pissed off. There was a lot of drama. When you’re that age, you’re like, “No, never again.” If there hadn’t been a reunion, I think that would have been fine but I’m grateful that these guys are my friends and I love these people. They’re still in my life and we’re able to do fun things together and be creative and be better people to each other. At that time, we loved each other and we had some cool chemistry, but, we weren’t able to find time to work on our relationship. Now, it’s a really nice way to mark your progress as a person. “I would have acted like this, but, now I’m not acting like that.” Or, “This would have set me off, but, now it’s not setting me off.” They’re my brothers. At the time of that interview, that’s just the way things were.

With four albums under your belt, and a recently announced tour, have you started thinking about what songs you’ll be playing live?

WALTER: We’re starting to work on what the setlist will be and I’m really stoked on it. Since we have a wealth of material now, I think we can create a very interesting show, the kind of show that I’d want to see.

As much as I love the material from the ’90s, if you were just playing new stuff, I’d be the first in line. That’s not always the case, where a band waits 22 years to put out new material and it’s as good as their early stuff. With each listen to Distant Populations, I’m finding a new favorite song.

WALTER: Thank you so much. When we’ve been rehearsing, these new songs are rocking. Obviously, I want to play “Dine Alone” and, of course we’re going to do that stuff. It feels good to live within those songs, but being excited about the new songs is very empowering because I don’t want to play new songs live and have you go get a drink. The new songs are the stuff that we’re actually the most excited about, so I’m glad as a listener you’re catching that too.

The new album is economical, 11 songs clocking in at 32 minutes, but I don’t feel cheated at all. You don’t waste time, everything is right to the point.

WALTER: I thought with Interiors we took the liberty of being a little more expansive and I was fucking around with effects a little bit more. I think that was a really cool next step for the band coming back, but, having done that, we went in with the idea to keep our songs under 3 minutes and be economical, that’s a good way to put it, and crack our knuckles. A 2-minute song can be a whole world. Some of the best songs are like 2-minutes-and-15-seconds and you don’t need any more than that. We were kind of on that trip with this record, almost like a punk record where you can listen to it three times in a row and absorb it.

The departure of guitarist Tom Capone during the 2017 tour has been documented and we don’t need to rehash that but, as you went into work on a new album, did it feel like you were missing a family member or had you already moved on?

WALTER: I think with Interiors it was a little bit more of a struggle because we were just headed in somewhat different directions and weren’t collaborating. We were making the songs and moving forward as a band but there was this side, I don’t know if it was a drama at that point, but we just weren’t on the same page. Obviously, Tom’s awesomely talented and when we were together, that was an awesome thing. Like a lot of relationships and friendships, they can work on some levels and not work on other levels. That’s an evolution of people. I think with this record, having done the last record as a three piece, we were way more confident. That wasn’t something we were worrying about. We were just coming up with the statement that we wanted to make music that would make a fan like you go, “Oh, they are talking to me. They are doing tighter stuff.” It’s a bit more punchy. I think musically it’s very futuristic and shows a lot of different directions in which we could do well.

While there was punchy material on Interiors, I know what you’re saying. It did feel like you were missing Tom and, for me, it took a few listens to embrace the new Quicksand sound. That being said, it’s a phenomenal record with a lot of depth. Have you given any thought into bringing in another guitar player to fill out the sound when you go on the road?

WALTER: We have. We’ve got somebody really, really cool joining us for the upcoming tour and we sound so heavy and awesome. It sounds more like the records than ever. Where we were more jammy in the past, because I was doing all the guitar work, now I think we can be a lot punchier. I’m really excited about it, I think it’s going to sound great.

[At the time of the interview, Walter wasn’t ready to reveal who would be rounding out the Quicksand touring lineup but the “Colossus” shows that Cave In’s Stephen Brodsky has been tapped to play guitars and add backing vocals.]

You kept busy with bands like Rival Schools, Vanishing Life and Dead Heavens during Quicksand’s hiatus and Sergio has been a member of the Deftones since 2009. I know Alan was in Seaweed in the late ’90s but what was he doing between Seaweed and the Quicksand reunion?

WALTER: Alan has an interesting past. After Seaweed, he got into union organizing. Alan’s always been very left wing political. He’s a man-of-the-people type person. He got into organizing unions at hotels. It’s really hard work, people are exploited like crazy. There’s politics within the politics of the unions. He did that for many years and then decided to take a break and became a professional gambler, of all things. I don’t know if he puts that on his resume. He has a super math mind. His mind was able to keep cool in these situations where he’s assessing the outcomes of things. It makes sense since playing drums is kind of mathy. When Quicksand started playing again, I think Alan was a bit out of practice but he has such natural skill and feel and since he loves playing drums, he was practicing all the time. On this album, the amount of playing he did wasn’t a big leap from the last album but I can hear in his playing how far he’s come and what an awesome drummer he is. His fills are super musical and I don’t think anybody plays like him except John Bonham.

With the album coming out digitally recently [vinyl will be out in September], does that mean you recorded in 2020?

WALTER: No. Actually, the very last day of recording was my birthday, which was March 10, 2020. And the lockdown happened on the 13th. Covid, for me, was really, really cool. I don’t want to sound glib, because, obviously, it’s a huge weight that we’re all universally connected to within this time that we’re still going through. But, I have a place in upstate New York and I could go there without having to accomplish anything. Whenever this pandemic is finished or whatever comes next, I already knew I had finished an album which is something I was excited about. It felt like a summer vacation and gave me the opportunity to be upstate in a rural area and be outside of New York City.

I don’t think I had a unique experience. I think a lot of people found they were capable of doing more than they thought and they could put a finger on the pulse of where their challenges were. For me, I was really happy to discover that I could live in the country as much as I could live in the city and appreciate the slowness. And rather than let it freak me out or feel isolated, I was more in touch with the richness of that experience. I did a lot of cool things that weren’t part of the grind mentality. I know some people celebrate that daily grind and I’m not looking down on trying to celebrate being productive but, at the same time, I think people are discovering that, as the lights come back on, the manic pace that we’re living at makes us sacrifice some stuff. You’re constantly having to show up here and there in this constant state of production as opposed to really valuing nothingness. It’s kind of like a Buddhist concept to embrace the void – I’m here with myself. I’m here with my family. I’m here in nature.

I think the pandemic allowed me to explore that more and be cool with it and not think that I should be doing something else. The field was flattened to where it was like I’m not calling you, you’re not calling me unless we just want to talk. It’s like nobody can get an edge on anybody right now and I see that as a good thing. But, of course, I have friends who were very, very sick and I know people that died from Covid. We’re going to be feeling the impacts of the psychological PTSD for many years to come.

These songs were written and recorded before Covid but some of the general themes of what we’ve been feeling as a nation the past 4 or 5 years still work their way into your songs. When you’re writing a new album, do the songs start with lyrics? A song title? A melody that is stuck in your head?

WALTER: A lot of the lyrics are generally coming from the music. The music will dictate the emotion of what the lyrics will end up conveying. I started writing lyrics when I was with Gorilla Biscuits and I was very plugged into what the scene was, what I wanted to say about it, and the messages I wanted to convey. It was very straight forward. As I got into writing lyrics in Quicksand, it became more personal, more of my struggles and observations. Then I would start to get away from the lyrics being about me directly and start to find different angles. As a songwriter, you have your basic things that get you wanting to write, you have those 10 things that you’re qualified to talk about and once you’ve written 5 songs each on those topics, you have to start to find, to use a sport analogy, a new type of pitch to throw. If you’re throwing all fastballs, you have to learn how to throw a curveball.

The first song I wrote lyrics for on the new album was “Inversion”. The lyrics are really straight forward and simple but I feel like there’s some weight to them. I always try to insert a sense of humor into what I’m doing, even in the heaviness. With a band name like Quicksand, it kind of invites that heaviness but I try putting a little humor in it so there’s a lightness. The lyrics for “Inversion” have personal meaning for me, they have political meaning for me, they have a wide range. I think you can find different things in them.

As you go through the rest of the album, some things are not like that. I might have a simple thought but, in the scope of the song, I need to be more obtuse in painting the picture. An art metaphor rather than a sports metaphor. I do feel like a lot of the songs are stemming from some sort of emotion that I can’t put a finger on. I’ve been doing this for such a long time, I have to always think about roots to that end to keep moving. I would prefer everything to be simple but sometimes it just doesn’t work that easily.

When I mentioned the album is economical, I think the same can be said for the lyrics. You don’t need a lot of words to say what you want to say. But, when you mix the lyrics with the music, though the songs may be short and the lyrics may be simple, the end result is this really rich and heavy thing.

WALTER: If you listen to earlier Quicksand stuff, I was very influenced by Kevin Seconds and the hardcore stuff that would have a ton of lyrics within a minute and 40 seconds. I would rather have less lyrics and be more impactful than fill in all the details and have all these added rhythms. I just want to make everything count. There’s no right way. I think a lot of stuff I’ve done with all those details and all those rhythms have been great but I’m not as into that as I once was.

With Rival Schools, you put out an album of B-Sides. There are a lot of B-Sides, demos and lost Quicksand songs on YouTube. Have you considered packaging up those songs for an official release?

WALTER: That’s a great thought. I’ve been thinking about that more recently. A friend of mine has been gathering all his bits and pieces from his catalog with the idea of packing it up and releasing it. I’d like to do that. Right now, I’m focused on this record but I have some time before this tour starts. It’s going to be a project, but I want to do that.

Not only are your fans from the ’90s happy you’re back, but so many bands have started since the first breakup that have cited Quicksand as an influence and they may never have gotten to see you live back in the day. I don’t know if this is something you want to admit, but you must recognize the influence Quicksand has on so many bands.

WALTER: There’s some things that I’ve done that have impact that have filtered through the musical community. So when I see my peers, I feel really good that I’m part of that conversation. For me, what I want to do with music is get into people’s heads, to communicate. Through music, we can all connect.

When I get a cool compliment or somebody says something is meaningful to them, like we just put out the new single “Brushed” and people were texting me all day and saying cool things about the song, when something hits like that, the feeling you have when you know a song you put together has gotten in somebody else’s head is just a really cool feeling. I don’t get a big head about it because I’m just taking from other people who have made me feel that same way. I wouldn’t say I don’t have pride, but I’ve made lots of songs where people are like, “Eh. It’s an okay song.” It’s cool to have people clapping for you. It’s an amazing miracle that I can make a living doing this. I’m super grateful for that. I’m just mad lucky and grateful to be part of that. I’m benefiting from that system because other people are inspiring me and making me think, “How can I take that someplace else?”

 

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