Kurt Vonnegut once said: “If I ever severed myself from Indianapolis, I would be out of business. What people like about me is Indianapolis.” Something about the city of Indianapolis was woven into his being and impacted his art greatly. Now, a new generation of artists in the form of political, post-grunge band The Sprawl have now sprung up from the same city roots and they just released their debut album Cancelled Future.
I spoke to the band members and got their take on the city’s music scene, how artists there use their voices and talents for activism and how so much is broken in the society around them, and, in turn, how all that weaves into their music.
Halldór Kristínarson: On your Bandcamp page it says that The Sprawl is angsty rock n roll. What are you anxious or upset about regarding where you live and the people you share your country with? What is it that motivates you to pen down a lyric and make a song?
Nate Dirck (guitar/vocals): Hi, thanks for taking the time to reach out and interview us! Right now is a very interesting time to be making art because with the pandemic and all, we’re starting to see the normal hum-drum of current events translate to day-to-day desperation in a very real way. All of us are entering adulthood during the worst global crisis of our lifetime and there’s a persistent feeling that the world we were raised to function in won’t exist much longer. So I guess the short answer to your question would be, well, everything. We’re anxious and upset about current events but also about rent, the shitty jobs we work, and generally navigating life during what is an incredibly difficult time to live in. Most of my lyrics are inspired by my own experiences and observations but I try to use the mundane nature of day-to-day life as a way to understand widespread social problems.
HK: Following up on the previous question, how do you experience the music scene in Indianopolis in regards to artists using their voices for good or in protest?
ND: Indianapolis is definitely the kind of place where social problems tend to be very in-your-face and hard to ignore so there’s naturally a lot of protest activity among people in the art community. I’d venture to say the vast majority of our peers in the music scene use their art to speak on important issues to some extent. Indianapolis is in a very conservative area so those of us who exist outside of that culture tends to be quite vocal about how we feel.
Drew Hampton (Drums): I think it’s sort of an action-reaction consequence between conflicting groups. The high concentration of conservative political beliefs in our immediate area leaves us and a large number of others feelings constricted in our beliefs. I think many would be surprised to learn how activism-centric our scene is. So while Indy’s scene is relatively small, I agree with Nate that a sizable portion of it is like minded folks like us who just needed a place to vent their protests.
HK: You recently released your debut album, Cancelled Future, which is an incredibly tight and catchy album that Shouts HQ’s have been blasting non-stop in the past days. Can you tell a bit of the creative and production process behind creating this band’s first piece of work?
ND: Hell yeah, so glad y’all are enjoying it! It’s interesting because we actually had no intention of putting out an album right away. Most of these songs accumulated from failed attempts to be productive during the first part of the pandemic. After we ended up with like eight songs we just said “fuck it” and decided to write a couple more to make a full album. This was a lot different from other projects I’ve been involved in where everything is usually thoroughly planned out before going into the studio. It was cool to be part of an album that sort of came together in real time like that because I (like most people in 2020) was struggling quite a bit to make ends meet while these songs were being written and it definitely had an impact on my lyrics. In fact, a good chunk of them was written on the notes app on my phone while my supervisor wasn’t looking at this really shitty overnight job I was working at the time.
June Smith( Lead Guitar): Thank y’all for blasting the album, we really appreciate it! As far as my portion of the creative process, I’m very lucky to be in a band with Nate. They write most of the material and give us free reign to put our own spin on the songs. I play in a few other bands, but I use The Sprawl as an outlet to push outside of my comfort zone. I’m a rhythm guitarist in my other projects and Nate gives me song ideas I would honestly never think of! It’s always a fun challenge to figure out the most suitable way to add to their songs and not distract from their core. It’s also been great to co-write some material like “I’m Not a Democrat I’m a Nihilist”. I show Nate a riff or two and they usually run with it, finishing the song with twists and turns I’d never expect. I’m also very influenced by our local music scene. The solo for “Safe Word” was inspired by watching some of my peers perform noise sets.
DH: I too am lucky to be in a band with Nate who is such an excellent songwriter and like June said, gives us a lot of freedom to be creative. I’ve had the privilege of playing in bands with Nate consistently for what is approaching a decade now. This puts me in a super favorable position as a musician and songwriter because Nate is incredibly aware of my capabilities, strengths, and limitations. I think this allows Nate and I to push my limitations and help me reach for things I never would have thought possible because I have someone who knows me so well to push me. From a production standpoint, I reached out of my comfort zone on this record. I went beyond the drum set to write some glockenspiel parts that I’m really proud of, and I’m happy to say that I plan on writing many more.
HK: One of your songs speaks of nihilism. Can you elaborate on how the process is behind creating songs with a certain social justice message but mixed with the idea of human existence being meaningless?
ND: I think the song you’re referring to is “I’m Not a Democrat, I’m a Nihilist”. That title is a reference to a comedian named Eric Andre who said that in response to a conservative pundit who mistook him for a Democrat. The Democratic party is considered to be the primary representation of the left in American politics even though their actual ideology skews right. There’s been an increasing call for American leftists to establish an identity independent of the Democrats so the title is meant to be a somewhat tongue-in-cheek nod to that.
I’m glad you brought that up though because that contradiction is one of the things that drives the overall narrative of the album. The album starts out with an emphasis on social justice messaging but grows more existential and introspective with each song. The point I’m trying to make with that is that social justice rhetoric might as well just be nihilism if it’s just being used to identify problems in the absence of real organization and action. A lot of my lyrics on the album are really just me venting frustration at the lack of meaningful progress despite the endless amount of discourse we all engage in.
DH: I would like to add that the whole idea of being a Nihilist as opposed to a Democrat evolved into a deeper meaning for me. Often we on the far-left get called skeptics, critics, negative, and of course, nihilistic for feeling like our system is completely broken and that the most fastidious solution would be to simply start from scratch on practically everything. However, from my perspective, we are some of the only people who acknowledge that the way things are transpiring, a lot of people are being left behind, or much, much worse. From my perspective, we’re some of the only people who really care about all the people being hurt or even killed, and I find it ironic that we get called cynical for insisting something needs to be fixed, or more accurately, replaced, while those who often hurl these names and insults at us care less about the problem than we do. If feeling so strongly that things need to change somehow makes me a nihilist, then yeah, I’m not a democrat, I am a nihilist. Actually, it seems more accurate to say that our opposition are the nihilists, not us. Perhaps I’m reading too far into it, but all good jokes have an underlying truth, right?
HK: What is your take on artists using their work for activism? Should these two things be intertwined or seperated in any way?
ND: I feel like it’s hard to make art in an open and honest way without talking about social issues because a lot of what gets labeled as “political” is really just peoples’ lived experiences. I always find it funny when people suggest those kinds of things should be off-limits as if that’s not what art is meant for.
DH: Nate and I have had some recent conversations on creating politically slanted art and my personal struggle with finding where I/we fit on that spectrum. We’re gearing down the overtly political messages in our songs and moving towards societal and existential problems that surround us instead. This might seem simply semantic, however, the difference is important. Our songs used to be political to the core. Many years ago, we wrote what was pretty much a Donald Trump diss track at the start of his political reign. I’m glad to have helped create that track because it helped me to where I am today, however, I don’t ever see myself creating art of that nature again. I’ve been incredibly lucky to grow up and live as a straight, white male in America, which pretty much means I’ve been on easy street. So what do I really have to say or add that the people who are actually affected by these people and problems can’t? It feels disrespectful to say, “I can more accurately describe your experience than you can.” I don’t mean to speak for the other members of the band in that regard, as they have not necessarily had the windows-down cruise I’ve had in life, but I personally feel like being a part of art describing things that legitimately impact your life is not only ethically correct, but I think the end result is better.
To boil it down, art should be used for activism, and we’ll probably write a couple more politically overt punk bangers before our time is through, however it is absolutely paramount that we, and others in similar positions to us, lift artists up who have important things to say from beyond our perspective, and acknowledge that sometimes the most powerful voice you have in a privileged position is to allow someone else to say something. I know I could do a lot more in that regard, and I’m trying to work on that. To clarify, I am not talking down to anyone, I’m describing the recent change of heart I’ve had where I’ve personally come to regret some of the art I’ve created for ethical reasons. Art and activism is a really, really tricky subject, especially for people in positions like me, and to be honest with you Halldór, I don’t have a simple or easy answer. (Obviously 😉 )
JS: I’d just like to add that even if music isn’t political, it’s still important for us as artists to create an environment geared towards activism. Especially in a conservative state like Indiana there are not many “safe spaces” for all the groups that experience oppression. We are lucky to be around people that want to hold each other up , and create spaces where everyone can be comfortable.
ND: I think it’s also worth noting that not everything has to be overtly political to be a valuable part of political discourse because damn near anything somebody could write a song about has social ramifications when you think about it.
HK: What do you hope to achieve with your music?
ND: I just hope these songs are something people can relate to.
HK: Are you following any like-minded bands that you’d like to give a shout out to (and introduce to Shouts readers)?
ND: As far as immediate peers in Indianapolis, Chelshots and Pat and the Pissers are two bands that I would recommend to anyone who digs our stuff. I also just recently got introduced to a band from northern Indiana called Tigershark Don’t Quit who make really good music in the same kind of vein. I also want to take the opportunity to shout out our label Sauna Suit Records ( https://saunasuitrecords.bandcamp.com/ ). I would absolutely recommend digging through the rest of their catalogue if you enjoyed Cancelled Future. Beyond the local level, I’ve been really into this punk band from the east coast called Drug Church lately and they definitely informed my lyrical approach on the album.
JS: Definitely check out Sauna Suit. I help them with whatever I can and am loosely a team member! Both of my other projects are located there The Sick Boy Method and D.R.L.N. if you enjoy what I do in The Sprawl I’d recommend checking them out!
DH: In our local scene, Anti-Feds and Dope Sweater are probably the best Indy has to offer in terms of punk and punk-adjacent music. Across the pond, a band named Squid just put out a record called Bright Green Field that we’re in love with.
HK: What is on the horizon for you?
ND: We’re almost done writing an EP that we hope to release by the end of the year and we’ve definitely got another album in our future along with a few one-off singles here and there. We’re also planning out some tours for 2022 right now. If you’d like to see what we’re up to, be sure to check out our assorted social media accounts @TheSprawl317.
HK: Anything else you’d like to shout from the rooftops?
The Sprawl: Stay hydrated and don’t trust the government.
Halldór is the managing editor of Shouts - Music from the Rooftops!, an investigative journalist, audio engineer, and animal rights activist. Currently based in Cuernavaca, Mexico.