Say the word "punk" to a generation that grew up with "Sk8er Bois" and Ramones T-shirts available at Target, and you're sure to conjure certain vague associations — loud rock music, crunchy guitars, maybe Green Day. Of course, none of these necessarily defines the sort of anti-establishment, DIY spirit from which the genre sprang. With major labels pairing punk bands with corporate sponsorships and fans being counted on Facebook, how does an outfit like Leeds' Eagulls define "punk"?
"Punk music to me is just being experimental," says Eagulls vocalist George Mitchell, talking to the Scene via Skype at home in the U.K., his thick, Northern English accent punctuated with a heavy dose of "erms." "You don't have to have safety pins through your nose and stupid hair and look like an idiot constantly. It's more or less like an art form."
Eagulls exemplify the modern conundrum of punk: They play music in the scrappy, passionately charged blue-collar tradition, and they collide with the mainstream via big-name tours (opening for Franz Ferdinand), stints at South by Southwest and high-profile performances on Late Night With David Letterman and Later ... With Jools Holland. But Eagulls don't believe that punk, in its current incarnation, needs to necessarily shirk the mainstream anyway.
"It's still going against the grain," Mitchell says, "but punk is accepted everywhere — it's a family word. It's not anti-establishment anymore. It's about the creative side of things."
Eagulls formed in 2009, writing songs propelled by working-class struggles and built on a steady diet of The Clash, David Bowie and Black Flag. Mitchell grew up listening to the flutter-paced soundtracks of skateboarding videos, fascinated not only by the music but the lifestyle. He was recruited to sing by guitarists Mark Goldsworthy and Liam Matthews, drummer Henry Ruddel and bassist Tom Kelly, and they signed to Brooklyn's Partisan records — home to Deer Tick and The Dismemberment Plan — trading homemade cassettes for shiny vinyl and dingy basements for a headlining American tour.
On their debut self-titled LP, Eagulls' sound is urgent, ear-shattering and visceral — the result of a writing process that begins with composing music centered on capturing a specific emotion and adding lyrics later. Eagulls is full of songs that shake the listener violently and are held together by an emotional pull and subtle melodies — built this way so "people can grasp the idea of what the song is abut without even knowing the lyrics," Mitchell explains.
Not unlike Nashville, Leeds has a thriving creative scene. People can actually afford an artistic lifestyle there — as opposed to London or New York, where the city sucks the very soul it's supposed to feed (or at least drains bank accounts). Even so, it wasn't always easy.
"It took us four years to release an album, because we were constantly at work paying the bills," Mitchell says. "But the mundane sort of life, that's what spurs the music. So in a way, it's good and bad."
But life for Eagulls lately has been far from mundane, and they seem to have a bit of a hard time reconciling all this themselves — old punk vs. new punk, and what success can both bring and limit. A handwritten open letter blasting "beach bands" with "disgusting Afrobeat sounds" and "mums and dads that pay for you to 'do the band full time' " was posted online and quickly taken down after it spurred a deluge of Internet vitriol. Eagulls, raging against the machine as they will, quickly see the consequences of their misbehavior and acquiesce. (For the record, the letter was replaced with a picture of an ass and a dick, so not acquiescing too much).
"A lot of people in the industry are just scared to say anything," Mitchell says. "It's ridiculous. You should be able to say whatever you want."
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