Q&A With DJ Wilson of Scary Kids Scaring Kids

Don’t be frightened. Bassist DJ Wilson of Scary Kids Scaring Kids doesn’t come across as particularly terrifying in either the profile of the band published in the October 18 Westword or the full Q&A, reproduced below.

Wilson begins by talking about his hometown of Gilbert, Arizona, before transitioning into his first experiences with listening to and playing music; his taste for softer sounds despite his proclivity for playing harder ones; the group’s kinda-tongue-in-cheek fondness for Michael Jackson; woodshedding, early tours and supportive/worried parents; vehicle problems that prevented SKSK from playing Denver’s Warped Tour date this past summer; the more mature flavor of the outfit’s new, self-titled CD; the dearth of profanities on the disc’s songs; a defense of ballads that have raised the hackles of some web posters; and the importance of communicating with fans from the stage.

In other words, Wilson talks about a lot of Kids stuff:

Westword (Michael Roberts): You guys are originally from Gilbert, Arizona? Is that a suburb of Phoenix?

DJ Wilson: Yeah, kind of a small Phoenix town.

WW: How would you describe it? Does it feel like a town? Or is it just another suburb in a bunch of suburbs?

DW: It has that kind of suburb feel. You could see it as Anytown. It’s just a small little city. But it’s fun. We enjoy it.

WW: So you all still live there?

DW: All of us except our drummer. He’s from San Diego, and he still lives there.

WW: So it’s like any suburb in the United States except a hell of a lot hotter.

DW: Yeah (laughs). It’s really hot here.

WW: So growing up in Gilbert, was there a lot to do? Or was one of the reasons you guys got into music was because there wasn’t all that much to do?

DW: I would say that’s a big reason we got into playing together in band. There’s just not a tremendous amount to do in town. And we all are big fans of music. We all really looked up to the other bands’ musicians and we wanted to do our own things. And we had a lot of extra time on our hands. It started as a joke – well, not so much as a joke, but just for fun. And we eventually took it seriously.

WW: When did you first start playing an instrument? And was it guitar before bass?

DW: Yeah, I’ve played an instrument for… I can’t remember not playing an instrument. And it was definitely guitar in middle-school time, or maybe a little bit before. I would just mess around with it. I originally started playing guitar in the band and moved to bass later.

WW: What was the first music you remember hearing around the house that really connected with you? And did you have older brothers or sisters who introduced you to good stuff?

DW: My family didn’t really listen to a whole lot of the music that would influence me as a musician. Kind of strangely, I really liked a lot of stuff like Les Mis and a lot of more classical type music. That’s more of what I would hear around the house, and more of what I was into when I was younger. But my friends influenced me into listening to other things, and I eventually got into a little bit harder music. But a lot of what I listen to still is a lot more mellow. I listen to Counting Crows and the more mellow side of music. I don’t really listen to a lot of rock or aggressive music.

WW: Do you do that because it’s kind of nice to have a break from the kind of aggressive music that you guys usually play?

DW: I think so, part of it. But it’s more just what I was brought up with, or what I was exposed to at a younger age, and it stuck with me. I love the music that we play. It’s fun to play. I can listen to the music and I enjoy it, but it’s not my first pick, you know?

WW: One name that keeps showing up in articles as an influence on you guys is Michael Jackson, which I assume is a joke, since he scares kids a lot more than you guys ever could.

DW: Yeah! (Laughs.) But actually, you’ll actually hear Michael Jackson on the bus every once in a while. We like to have dance parties on the bus, and Michael Jackson is a constant in there. As far as being a musician, he’s amazing. I don’t know that he influences our music, but I think at one time or another, all of us listened to Michael Jackson. It’s a half-joke, but we do listen to it at our dance parties.

WW: Where did you guys first practice when you started playing together? Was it at somebody’s house?

DW: Yeah, we’d practice in somebody’s garage until they’d kick us out, and then we’d practice in somebody else’s garage until they’d kick us out. We’d kind of bounce around between parents’ houses. Luckily, a lot of the guys in the band, their parents were really supportive of what we were doing and let us practice and let us invade their privacy a little bit.

WW: How long did it take you to get from sucking really bad to sounding good?

DW: I’m not sure we’ve quite arrived yet (laughs). I think it’s kind of a constant progression. Early on when we played shows, we’d do a lot of fun things on stage, like blowing fire and destroying stuff. That was kind of our thing, and it was just for fun. But eventually, we started to take ourselves more seriously. When we got time to record our first album, that’s kind of when we started taking things more seriously, and we started playing outside of Arizona more. I’d stay pretty close to the time when we recorded our first record was when we started to come into our own as far as what our live show is progressing to be right now. It’s constantly changing. This next tour, we’re trying out some new stuff and trying to make the live show tighter and better and more of live show instead of just going to see some guys play some songs.

WW: How old were you guys when you first started doing shows outside the Phoenix area?

DW: We’d do weekend shows when we were still in high school. But once we graduated, that’s when we just hit the road and kind of never stopped. We were all eighteen years old, probably.

WW: You were talking about supportive parents before. Do anyone’s parents freak out, thinking you were going to go hog wild on the road? Or were they behind you the whole time?

DW: Most of the parents were definitely behind us. My parents are a little more conservative, and so I wouldn’t say they’re not supportive, because they’re definitely supportive of what I’m doing, but they were a little more conservative in that respect. But for the most part, everybody’s parents were really supportive. They’d come out to the show, and everybody’s proud of what we’re doing.

WW: Did you get phone calls when you were in Iowa or wherever, asking, “Are you alive? Are you in a ditch somewhere?”

DW: Yeah (laughs). All those are-you-eating-well phone calls. We still get those.

WW: So… are you eating well?

DW: (Laughs). Yeah, we are. We’re really fortunate, the level of touring we’re doing right now, and we couldn’t be happier. We’ve got an amazing booking agent, and they really help us get the best possible tours for us to continue to progress. We’re really happy. We tour in a bus now, which is really weird. We thought we’d be in a van for the rest of our lives.

WW: This summer, you were scheduled to be the Warped Tour date that was supposed to hit Denver, and you didn’t make it. Was that a van problem? A bus problem? Or a combination?

DW: Kind of a little of both, actually, which is weird. We had a bus for the first few days of Warped Tour, and it was just horrendous. It broke down. Everything that could have gone with it did go wrong with it, and the driver showed up a day late, so we had to find transportation to the date to even meet our bus. And then, when we were in Canada, it broke down again, and we had to rent a Uhaul and a minivan and drive all the way from Calgary to Salt Lake City.

WW: That’s a hell drive.

DW: Oh yeah. Especially being so crammed in. We have six members of the band, plus we have a full crew. So we’re all crammed into a minivan and a Uhaul. We made it to Salt Lake City, and our manager drove from Sacramento to Salt Lake City in a van overnight, but the van just wasn’t in a good enough condition for us to keep going. So we had to unfortunately miss the Denver show. We got a new bus in Phoenix and kept going from there.

WW: And the new bus is operational?

DW. Mostly. It broke down again when we were on tour, but this bus company was really good. They repaired it quickly and we were on our way again. And we have an amazing driver, the coolest guy in the world. So we’re really happy with the way touring is going right now.

WW: The new album definitely seems like the most ambitious recording you’ve done so far, and at least one reviewer I’ve read so far suggested that the songs tell a story. Is it a story? Or is it more like a theme?

DW: Maybe a little bit of both. We recorded The City Sleeps in Flames when we were just out of high school. I think when we went into the studio to record, we had six songs done, so we had to write the rest of the album while recording it. We were very rushed. And we were really new to it. We’d never been on a label before. And the record came out and we toured for two and a half years straight on that record with very few breaks. I can only remember a few days in a row when we were home. And while we were on the road, we continued to write the new record, and I think a lot of what we experienced on the road and that two years of traveling really influenced what we wrote about and how this record came about. All of us have been through hard things or things that influenced the lyrics, and I think that came through a lot in the music. It’s definitely something we’re more proud of than anything we’ve ever done.

WW: How do the duties break down in terms of the songwriting?

DW: Everybody puts in their own ideas. We bring them to each other and bounce those ideas off each other to create the music, the instrumentation of the song. And after that’s finished, Tyson [Stevens] handles 95 percent of the lyrics and the melody. He’ll take that and come up with the rest of the songs from there, and I think he did a great job with this record in terms of the melodies and the lyrics. But the music, we definitely all contribute ideas. Chad [Crawford] will bring an idea to the table and we’ll all work on it for a while, or Steve [Kirby] will bring in an idea, or I’ll bring in an idea. Everybody has their own parts that they play in the writing of the record, for sure.

WW: One of the things that surprised me in going over the lyrics for the album is that there’s only one profanity in the whole thing: There’s a “fucking” in “Set Sail.” Is that something conscious that you guys decided as a whole? Or was that just the way it worked out?

DW: I don’t think it was anything too thought out, but Tyson’s lyrics from this record compared to the last record, he’s come a long way as a writer. He’s definitely shown a new level of songwriting, and I think it comes through in a more intelligent manner, and I think he uses more descriptive words on this record than filling it with something he can’t think of, so he puts in a swear word, a profanity.

WW: That’s so commonplace. It’s easy when you’re blanking out to throw a “fuck” in there. But it sounds like the ambition of the music carries over to the ambition of the lyrics.

DW: For sure. It’s a hand-in-hand thing. And I think the one profanity we have on the record, I think it fits in pretty well in the song, in the place that it is. It expresses an emotion and it’s used appropriately. I think Tyson felt the other songs didn’t warrant that, which is fine with all of us.

WW: A lot of people have talked about the new album being more mature, but that’s one of those words that can cut both ways. Some of your fans may not want you to mature. Do you think about that? Or do you feel that you need to follow your muse wherever it takes you, and you can’t worry about some fans not wanting you to head in a new direction?

DW: We honestly don’t give it a second thought. We wrote this record for ourselves, not for our fans. This is a Scary Kids Scaring Kids record, not a record we wrote to please some kid on a message board. And unfortunately, anytime a band progresses, there’s going to be kids that don’t want to see that, and we’re fine with that. You don’t have to buy it. But fortunately for us, we’ve made a record we’re proud of, and that’s honestly the only thing we really care about: making a record we’re going to be proud of and making a record we can stand by, and years from now continue to be proud of what we did and excited about our work. If we continue to make the same record over and over, it’s going to just leave us stagnant and bored. Nobody wants to be in a position like that, and nobody wants to be in a band where you don’t progress.

WW: Those kids on the message board: The songs they really seem to go after are the ballads, like “Watch Me Bleed.” Do you have any idea why that is? Do you think in threatens punk-rock dudes’ sense of machismo when you do anything that seems even slightly sensitive?

DW: I really don’t know. I don’t get it. You listen to a lot of the harder bands in the past, going all the way back to Guns N’ Roses. They’ve got some heavy, hard songs, and then they’ve got the ballads, which are some of their biggest songs ever. And we weren’t going for some commercial success with a ballad. What we were trying to do is make one cohesive, complete record, and on a record, there are times when you want to slow down and really explore those other elements that are part of you as a songwriter. It’s part of not stagnating and trying to expand your abilities and test yourself and push yourself further to write the kind of music you want to write. That doesn’t mean we’re going to fill our next record full of ballads. It just means we want to make a record that’s cohesive and complete and flows really well, and I think those ballads really help to make this record more dynamic.

WW: We’re in this period when people are buying fewer discs and they’re downloading individual songs – and as a result, some bands don’t seem to care about that flow you’re talking about. But it sounds like it’s still important to you guys.

DW: I think it is important to us. If kids download it, they download it. They pick the songs they like, and at least they’re listening. But for the kids who really want to get into this record and really want to understand what we wrote about and understand this band, I think it’s important to have the entire record and be able to listen to it as it flows, the way we designed it to flow. That’s important to us, for sure.

WW: At the same time you’re maturing and going in new directions, do you want to hang on to that feeling you had when you were high school kids, just bashing away?

DW: Oh yeah. Anybody who comes out to a show, hopefully they’ll be entertained when we perform. A big part of this band is our live show. We take a lot of pride in it, we work really hard on it, and we want people to come away from the show trying to figure out what they just saw. We always want to push the envelope, and push ourselves as far as the live shows are concerned. I think that’s a big part of music that a lot of bands don’t put enough stock in: the way they perform the songs they write. Nobody wants to come and watch you just sit up there and play a song when it’s this type of music. They want to be entertained, and that’s what we try to do. And this record, I think it represents what this band is like live a lot more than our last record did, and we’re happy about that.

WW: Does the Warped Tour format, where there could be four bands playing at the same time, and you need to come up with something good enough to keep the people watching you instead of them – does that format inspire you guys to raise your game live?

DW: I think we’ve always been the same way we are, regardless of whether five people are watching or 5,000 people are watching. We’re always going to try to be as crazy and energetic as we can. I can see how that would come across on Warped Tour, with so much competition for kids to stay and watch you. But for us, this is kind of how we’ve always been, and fortunately for us, it works.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts