Nervosas - singer/bassist Jeff Kleinman, guitarist Mickey Mocnik and drummer Nick Schuld - talk about the breakup that could have ended the band but instead fueled their sophomore album.
The bandmates in Nervosas are restless.
Gathered in an Old North diner in late July, the three musicians - singer/bassist Jeff Kleinman, guitarist Mickey Mocnik and drummer Nick Schuld - alternately fuss with a leaky water glass ("I think it's defective," Kleinman said), count bug bites amassed on a recent cross-country tour and briefly toy with a plastic yo-yo.
It's a collective character trait that drives the inventive punk trio's forever unsettled music, pushing the players to test the absolute limits of their abilities, according to Schuld.
"I talked to [Kyle Sowashes drummer] Dan Bandman about this once. I think Dan Bandman's drumming is super good because he's always at the edge of his ability, which forces him to be innovative. But he's always worried it isn't going to come out professional enough or polished enough. I said, 'Did you ever think about the fact that's attractive to some people because you have an actual human quality you wear on your sleeve?'" said Schuld, who joins his bandmates for a concert at Café Bourbon St. on Sunday, Aug. 2. "That thing where you can hear it's someone playing at the edge of their ability, it may not be the most polished thing in the world, but I think that's really exciting. And we all can identify that as something that's important to us.
"We just want to be as good as we possibly can at any given point in time. If you're not good enough at something you want to do … teach yourself how to fucking do it. That's how it works. That's how it's always worked for all of us."
This ingrained desire to better itself has helped the band - which formed in 2011 when Kleinman and Mocnik started writing songs together while dating - develop a reputation as a ferocious live act, since songs are constantly evolving and changing as the musicians find new ways to attack the material.
"I saw them twice at [Canadian punk/garage festival] Ottawa Explosion in 2013 … and they really blew my mind both times," said Dirtnap Records founder Ken Cheppaikode, who recently released the trio's self-titled sophomore long-player on his highly regarded label. "One thing that stood out right away was the level of musicianship. Even though they're not overly flashy, it's really obvious they're competent musicians, which is something you don't see every day in the [punk] genre."
On Nervosas, which somewhat confusingly shares a title with the group's 2013 debut, songs typically build around Kleinman's percussive basslines and hammer-blunt vocals, Schuld's indefatigable drumming and Mocnik's glistening guitars, which send shrapnel shooting in all directions, making it a wonder the band isn't forced to rope off an area near the stage with caution tape whenever it plays out.
With rare exception (pretty album closer "Quarantine"), tracks move with locomotive momentum, most clocking in right at or just shy of two minutes. But even this relentless pace can't obscure the music's shattered core, and there's an undeniable sense that, played at half the speed, songs like "Parallels" and the barbed, broken "Industry" would be twice as depressing. "I find myself staring at the wall again," Kleinman barks on the latter, a lost soul desperate to find connection, "Hunting for some human form."
Throughout, the songs' narrators struggle with anger, confusion, isolation, depression and disillusionment - heavy concepts fueled in large part by Kleinman's split from Mocnik following a three-year relationship that ended right before writing sessions for the new album began.
"The whole record, more broadly, was weirdly written as almost a therapy session for me and Mickey," said Kleinman in a follow-up phone conversation the day after the diner interview. "When we broke up it was difficult to be in a band together, obviously. We'd get together to practice and play … and we would just be sad. We both had a lot of feelings, and it was hard to be around each other.
"Breaking up wasn't something we wanted, necessarily, but it had to happen. We went through it and wanted to maintain our friendship … and there were times I looked at it and thought, 'Man, all this is making everything worse. I didn't think I could feel worse, but this is making it worse.'"
Though many around the band, including Kleinman's parents, questioned whether Nervosas would continue, the musicians never wavered in their dedication to one another.
"It's hard to walk away from the opportunities this band has had," Schuld said.
"Even when [Mickey and I] broke up we talked about it, like, 'Let's try our best to make sure this band keeps going,'" Kleinman continued. "I've played in a bunch of bands - we all have - and the idea of not being in this band, I just can't imagine it. I'm in other bands, like Yuze Boys … and those things are fun. But the reason they're fun is because I don't take them as seriously as I take this. And I can't imagine ever taking them as seriously as I take this. These are my two favorite musicians I've ever played with. If I ever started another band and was playing with another guitar player I'm sure I'd be like, 'Can you do it more like this?' And it would pretty much mean, 'Can you do it more like Mickey's stuff?'"
In spite of everyone's best intentions, the breakup prolonged recording sessions, which took place at Schuld's home studio and stretched out over the course of 2014. Kleinman, in particular, struggled when it came time to write lyrics, describing himself as "a giant blank." "It was frustrating for Mickey and Nick, and Mickey was like, 'Why can't you write?'" he said. "And I was like, 'I don't know,' and it was because I was so torn apart from our breakup."
Initially Kleinman hesitated to write about his relationship out of respect for Mocnik's privacy - "I didn't want to write this record like, 'Oh, boo-hoo, Mickey broke up with me,'" he said - but his resistance evaporated when the guitarist urged him to address the fallout in song.
"She was like, 'Why don't you write about us?'" the singer said. "So we'd get together and I'd share lyrics with her and get her opinion, and once we started doing that it got easier."
The songs populating Nervosas, in turn, veer from intensely personal (one line on "Permanently Isolated" references the pair's initials inscribed in a heart on the walls at 15th House) to more abstract entries like "Arcadia," which was partially written by Schuld.
"I want the lyrics to be specific to me - I don't want them to feel empty or vague - but I also want them to be open enough that the listener isn't alienated by them," said Kleinman, who was born and raised in Dublin and started playing guitar as a teenager because, as he put it, "Doesn't every 15-year-old white boy want a guitar?" "Some people write lyrics that are so specific that it's alienating, like, 'Oh, I don't identify with this at all.' I try to go somewhere in the middle, where they're important to me but they could also mean something to other people."
While challenging, Kleinman and Mocnik credit the songwriting exchange with both jumpstarting the healing process and allowing a more hopeful mindset to surface in the album-closing "Quarantine," easily among the prettiest, most emotionally charged songs in the band's catalog.
"I had been working on ['Quarantine'] a long time … but it's the last song we got together and finished as a band. It's like 'Hey, I still care about you. I'll always care about you and I'll always be there for you,'" Kleinman said. "The first time we played that song live I remember it was really hard for me. The way we stand, I can see Mickey, and she can see me … and it was really difficult to play without getting really upset."
Nowadays, the singer said he's starting to feel a bit more distance from the material - "Sometimes we're on tour and we just play the songs and it's nothing," he said - though there are occasions when he's unexpectedly gripped by an entirely new emotion.
"There are other times, for whatever reason, where we go play a show and some song, man," Kleinman said, momentarily trailing off. "It's like I'll get this strong swelling in my chest, but it's not a sadness. It's really the opposite, I guess. It's almost this weird, happy feeling I'm still not used to."