When Spy released Service Weapon (which Cvlt Nation reviewed here) less than a year and a half ago ago, the four-song EP quickly displaced whatever people had sitting in their “Best Hardcore of 2020” lists. In under seven minutes, the band vaulted into the “most promising new bands,” and in no time, the band’s reputation was such that, like other similarly exalted Bay Area bands, its vinyl, cassette, and merch drops usually sold out in under a minute.
However, a quarantine project, untested by the stage or the road, left some people wondering if this project, compelling and exciting though it may have been, was just a flash in the pan, a one-off project to satisfy the musicians’ whims while their primary bands were kept sedentary by a global pandemic. While that would have been a disappointing scenario, it would have been enough, for Service Weapon had made lifelong fans of many of us, and it would have secured their legacy.
Fortunately for all punk listeners, their debut EP was no fluke. With plenty of unforgettable performances under their belt and with a new EP that increases their song catalog by 120%, the band proves what most seasoned listeners already knew: this band is no side project; this band is no experiment; this band is a game-changer.
Will Butler, head honcho at To Live A Lie Records, says, “Peter approached me because I had recently met him on a World Peace tour where they came through Raleigh. The demo he showed me 100% slapped, so I put it out on tape and it instantly sold out, so I moved onto two vinyl pressings and those both sold instantly. Running a label for fifteen years, I believe in every single band and release I deal with, but sometimes lightning strikes. The band definitely believed in me after the Service Weapon releases and visa versa – so I told them I would be behind their second release if they were interested and Habitual Offender has been sent to the plant with all the bells and whistles it deserves. This is a deluxe well-deserving follow-up 12″ EP with songs twice as stomping.”
Butler (whom Cvlt Nation interviewed here) has been taste-making with To Live A Lie for the better part of two decades, and his stamp of approval is meaningful. Truly, on Habitual Offender, lightning has struck twice, and it is set to knock the listener out of their shoes and leave their silhouette charred into the grass.
Album opener, “Afraid of Everything,” starts with feedback and a relaxed tempo, a mark of a band that knows it has nothing to prove. One can imagine the slow churn of a densely packed mosh pit, just heating up for the teeth-breaking chaos that is bound to burble up when the song reaches its boiling point. Sure enough, the song–which focuses on how fear and ignorance can easily transform into anger and hatred–hits its merciless stride halfway through, a volcanic broil that precipitated many retreats from the lawlessness of the Spy moshpits at the recent Convulse Fest. One injured but inured participant could be seen smiling through their blood, saying “I think I broke my nose again.” Indeed, this is music to break noses to.
Following “Obtained Under Duress,” a song about the injustices of illegal search and seizure and its consequent jail time, answers the question, “What would Hoax sound like if they were big fans of early System of a Down?” Spoiler: They’d have you two-stepping your way through a bareknuckle boxing match with your local mail carrier.
Listening to first single, “Exceptional American,” is known to cause thickening of the forearms and fists and a broadening of the brow. The casual pacing and loutish knuckledragging in this thuggish diatribe against every myth of American exceptionalism and the American dream that we have been programmed to believe since birth. With the question, “Do you love your country?” as the song’s rhetorical centerpiece, the song asks the listener to face a question that the last two years have forced even the most willfully ignorant citizens to ask themselves. It ends with the snarky quatrain: “What a model citizen/Such a good American/Full of blind and thoughtless pride/Fool fanatic fed only lies.”
Title track, “Habitual Offender,” is a “skate punk Warthog” beater that holds a mirror up to law enforcement officers, pointing out that they are really the ones perpetuating violence, crime, fear, intimidation, and harassment. This track and the following ones, “Labor Dispute” and “Negative Mind Power,” all of which comprise the second half of the EP, really demonstrate how this band has grown, integrating more melody and straight-up punk songwriting tropes, without sacrificing any of the raw, negative aggression that made so many devotees of its early listeners. Whether dealing with the oppressive forces of law enforcement, wealth disparity, the ruling class, or even one’s own depressive and anxious psyche, these songs channel the frustration, misery, and rage of the listener, particularly one who has felt the foot of the world on their neck over these last two years.
Vocalist Peter Pawlak shared some thoughts with Cvlt Nation about the band’s success and about their newest release.
Can you start by introducing the members of the band as well as any other projects are they involved with?
At the present moment, the band is Drew and Cody on guitars, Cole on drums, and Peter (me) doing the vocals. Drew plays in a band called Superworld, Cody’s in Scully, Cole plays in Scowl, Raw Sugar, and a new one (that I’m also a part of) called Blazer. I’m also in World Peace.
Spy turned into an overnight sensation, gaining a large and enthusiastic fan base following the release of Service Weapon, your four-song debut EP. Did you predict such a strong response? What do you think made this EP such an instant favorite for so many people?
I can’t imagine anyone ever goes into a new project actually expecting the sort of response that we’ve had, it’s been so much more than I could have ever even hoped for. Huge thank you to anyone who has supported this band up to this point. As far as what elements made Service Weapon a hit for so many people? Probably more factors than I’m even able to put words to, but if I had to try to begin to summarize it: Charles Toshio did an incredible job with the recording, Cain Cox knocked it out of the park with the art, and the tracks were written and performed with an intention and purpose that seems to resonate with people. Also, doesn’t hurt to be from the Bay Area during a time when the Bay is massive in hardcore, having the support and backing of people out here was a huge boost when we initially released Service Weapon.
How did you approach writing for your sophomore release, Habitual Offender? Was it challenging or intimidating to follow up such a massive debut?
Initially, I was actually a bit worried about following up on the success of Service Weapon, but then I sort of pivoted to a different mindset. Write some more tracks, have fun with it. If people like it again that’s great; if they don’t, that’s fine too. As long as we like what we’re doing and have a genuine excitement about the tracks, that’s really all that matters. If you start to put too much pressure on yourself, the tracks will suffer so I just tried to get back into the mindset I had while working on Service Weapon – riffs and songs written with intention, but no expectations beyond that.
Your lyrics are especially political, and these last two years have made it pretty impossible to avoid political topics. How has this period inspired you?
To be real with you, most of my lyrics are about the same sort of shit I’ve been thinking and writing about since I started going to college almost 10 years ago. The last few years have just further solidified and reinforced the thoughts and feelings that have been festering for years.
What were the major musical influences for this release? What about lyrical influences?
Hardcore punk with the emphasis on punk. There’s no particular band or niche sub-style that I’d say was more relevant or influential than any other, it’s an amalgamation of everything I’ve ever listened to and loved, same goes for every other member. When we’re piecing these tracks together it definitely doesn’t feel like we’re trying to emulate anyone. We just create something and if we’re all about it, it sticks. We’ve all been playing in bands for years, so with that experience, I think there’s a sharpened approach to songwriting. We know what we like and we also know what doesn’t work for us, so we work within those parameters. Speaking just for myself, the sound of this band is a reflection of everything I love most about hardcore punk music. Lyrically, I’m writing about the things that I’m most upset about in this world, something I can yell about over and over again with genuine rage.
What were some new things you tried to do on this album?
A more collaborative writing process – I laid out all the tracks on Service Weapon on guitar/bass before ever working on them with anyone else and the structure of the recorded songs stayed pretty true to those original roughs I had made, just with drums and vocals added. With Habitual Offender, there were a few tracks that were done in a sort of similar way to the first release, but others were a completely collaborative process where we’d piece things together as a group, using everyone’s input and ideas. For example, the title track is primarily composed of riffs that Drew came up with.
Considering the early life of the band and the early fan engagement all happened during quarantine, what has performing been like now that you’re finally doing shows?
It’s been incredible, every show we’ve had people pop off for us, they know the tracks and yell along, it’s the sickest thing in the world. Playing shows was the whole reason I wanted to start this band in the first place, so to actually live out that part of it is without a doubt the most fulfilling part of doing this band, definitely felt incomplete without it.
The Bay Area has really been producing some fantastic bands over the last couple years. Who are some bands that hardcore fans shouldn’t miss?
All of ’em. If it’s from the Bay you better just listen to it.
What should people know about Spy? About Habitual Offender?
We appreciate the love and support we’ve gotten more than we could ever express. Hope y’all enjoy the new record as much as we do.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Thanks for rockin’ with us from the start, Cvlt Nation.
Art by Cain Cox.
Photos in this article by Shaun Mares and Cain Cox.