Justin Hemminger re-forms indie-rock quartet to call out the crises of post-2016 America
For most of his life, singer/guitarist Justin Hemminger wrote songs couched in metaphor. In indie-rock act treysuno, which formed at Bowling Green State University on New Year’s Eve in 1999, and later, in Columbus band SPD GVNR, Hemminger tended toward the oblique.
But something changed after the 2016 presidential election. Hemminger had a lot to say, and he wanted a louder, less ephemeral platform than social media on which to say it, so he began crafting songs that got straight to the point. He was writing exactly what he wanted to say.
“There were things that I felt like I needed to get off my chest. There's a lot of people that I love and care for that I've seen transform into people that I don't know anymore because of things like Fox News and sponsored Facebook posts from Russia and Ukraine and all these things that are happening that are influencing the way that people think and talk to each other,” Hemminger said. “That bothered me a lot, so I put pen to paper and started noodling around on the guitar.”
At the time, Hemminger, who also plays guitar in the Kyle Sowashes, didn’t have an active band of his own; SPD GVNR called it quits in 2015, and treysuno petered out in 2007 after releasing its final full-length, Narwhal. But the more the songs began to take shape, the more Hemminger knew they were a natural fit for the big, riff-driven sound of treysuno, and even though all four bandmates live in different cities, everyone jumped on board right away.Sometimes Alive also puts pen to paper and starts noodling around. Read the results in our daily newsletter
“The dudes in treysuno, they've been my friends for almost 20 years now,” said Hemminger, referring to guitarist Prescott Wagner (Cleveland), bassist E. Komuniecki (Toledo) and drummer J.D. Fleming (Lexington, Kentucky). “We miss each other dearly.”
After learning the songs from Hemminger’s demos, the band convened at Wagner’s home recording studio in Cleveland in March and hammered out five songs for a new EP, ...everything is fine, which the band will celebrate with a release show at the Oracle on Friday, Nov. 1, alongside Billy Peake (Miranda Sound, Bicentennial Bear) and the Kyle Sowashes.
While songs like “A Hundred Million People Can Be Wrong” and “Worst Episode Ever” came directly out of that late-2016 era of discontent, “Catchphrase” began life back in 2007, when treysuno was still active.
“I was working for a company that made political merchandise. We had the contract with the Obama campaign, and we were pushing out a ton of merchandise in 2006, 2007,” Hemminger said. “Dealing with that side of politics, where you have to distill your essence down into a bumper sticker or a button — taking a complex argument and getting it down to fortune cookie wisdom — that was a challenge for me. I'm kind of verbose. I want to get the nuance. But that's not where the money is. … I wrote that song from frustration with the Dem perspective, but it cuts across both sides.”
On opening track “A Hundred Million People Can Be Wrong,” pummeling drums and wiry guitars provide the backdrop for Hemminger’s central question, which comes across as both alarm and lament: “Who decides what the truth is now?”
“[After 2016], we got to the point where truth that you don't agree with is a lie, and that doesn't register with me. I’m a reasonable, logical person. I don't understand how you can look at the world around you — observe things with your own eyes — and then believe somebody who's telling you the opposite of what you actually witnessed,” Hemminger said. “That whole thing frustrates the hell out of me.”
In “Worst Episode Ever,” Hemminger challenged himself to write a song about the reality show aspect of the presidency and the decline of Fox and the Simpsons at the same time, while on “Speramus Meliora, Resurget Cineribus,” which translates to “we hope for better things” and “it will rise from the ashes,” Hemminger addresses the ever-resurgent idea of burning everything to the ground in order to start over.
And while Hemminger’s fiery vocals are full of passion, he refrains from getting overly emotional about it all. “I really feel like I'm more of a town crier than a crier. I'm not really focused on my feelings. … We're in crisis. This is a hard time for our country, our society, and I'm doing my part to just yell the warning signs out,” he said. “It’s the first record I've made where I feel like I'm actually saying something.”