It’s been a decade since New York’s auspicious ‘undie’ supergroup, Rival Schools, delivered their first official long-player, 2001’s stylistically influential and ambitiously inventive United By Fate. But after a long layoff, the time has finally arrived for the feisty foursome to reconvene in the studio and drop a latent second effort that builds upon the adrenaline-fueled, post-hardcore testaments of yore. Fronted by singer/guitarist Walter Schreifels, whose exalted credentials include being composing guitarist for ‘80s straightedge hardcore trailblazers Gorilla Biscuits and puissant ‘90s metalcore thrashers Quicksand, there’s no denying these pathfinders enduring underground legend, unbridled exuberance and exasperated ‘heaviosity.’
Setting the course for post-punk’s post-millennial revival, Schreifels and fellow Youth Of Today teen pal Sam Siegler (who’d also drum on Civ’s shot-in-the-dark ‘95 debut, Set Your Goals), plus co-guitarist Ian Love (from unheralded noise rockers Die 116) and bassist Cache Tolman (of jazz metallurgists Iceburn), were proactive, post-modern progenitors. Placing Schreifels’ anxiously overwrought outcries atop a penetrating dual guitar forcefulness and rumbled rhythmic ruckus, Rival Schools emotional hardcore struck a chord with blossoming disciples Against Me, Senses Fail, Finch, Alexisonfire and From Autumn To Ashes.
A shining beacon besting their emo-schooled proteges, Rival Schools exploited heartache and pain with roaring vigor on United By Fate, as Schreifels’ fretful wallowing verged on the edge of a nervous breakdown. The piercing vociferous squalor jolting hurried Fugazi-informed rampage “Travel By Telephone,” snarling emblazoned grumbler “Holding Sand” and “The Switch” incites bitter teen angst aplenty. Arguably, the twisted malfeasance and passive aggression of “High Acetate” presaged emo’s second wave as much as anyone else had.
Furthermore, Rival Schools were not averse to unloading a stammering metallic rampage like sizzling wrangler “Used For Glue.” Or perhaps feeling compelled to connect with ‘90s lo-fi home recorders such as Sebadoh, when surrendering apropos jangled electro-charged missives such as desperation-bound serenade “Undercovers On” and implosive post-grunge contemplation “Good Things.”
Unable to get the industrious crew together to finish a timely follow-up, Schreifels put Rival Schools on the backburner, though various unreleased demos from an incomplete project surfaced on the Internet soon after. He then moved to Berlin with his girlfriend for awhile to escape George W. Bush’s misguided post-911 reign, producing Hot Water Music and Civ in the meanwhile, then concocting an under-the-radar, singer-songwriter solo album that’ll be succeeded by an upcoming autumn release.
Finally, after a few promising ‘08 reunion gigs, a fully recommitted Rival Schools decided to come back strong on 2011’s worthy successor, Pedals. Meant to be a natural progression from United By Fate (despite the long wait), its richer musical tapestry and moodier textural polishing never override the overall visceral immediacy.
Schreifels’ developed a raspier baritone gruffness immediately put to the test on startling confessional, and Pedals opener, “Wring It Out,” relinquishing all the anguish he could possibly muster. An arpeggiated guitar line ascends above circular melodic riffs and collateral feedback noise on sentimental embrace “69 Guns.” And the seasoned gang rips it up even better on tenacious crescendo-driven siege “Shot After Shot.”
Stimulating throwback “Eyes Wide Open,” is a blustery guitar/bass scorcher that reprises their debut’s most scintillating moments.
Conversely, there’s tenderness on the block with melancholic orchestral ballad “Racing To Red Lights.” Yet another crooned retreat, “Small Doses,” tries overcoming demonic fears while applying Suicidal Tendencies’ lunatic-fringed “Institutionalized” as its thematic reference.
Who were your earliest musical influences?
I was into punk and new wave. I loved the Smiths, Buzzcocks and Echo & the Bunnymen. Then when I started doing shows I was very influenced by Minor Threat, Negative Approach and other hardcore stuff. Those two things collided into a different kind of sound. I’ve always appreciated heavy music and pop, as well.
Were your parents into music?
My parents were from the ‘60s, so I definitely grew up listening to Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, James Taylor. My dad used to surf so I’d listen to the Beach Boys. Of course, Beatles and Rolling Stones are classic. I like chord progressions and melodies, but when you plug into lyrics you take it to another level, especially with hardcore. Most of the songs are about the same topics but some people say it in a cooler way. It brought the scene more into focus and I tried to emulate that approach by making distinction with language.
Give me a little idea of what it was like to reassemble Rival Schools and take it out on the road in 2008 after a long layoff.
To get the ball rolling, we did a tour and got in touch with what it was like to play Rival Schools music and got to hang out with each other and meet the fans again. We were hoping someone was still out there that cared. That was part of the learning curve to get in synch. We realized it’s not enough to just play these people in the crowd the oldies. We needed to put together something creative that could lead to something else.
The lyrics seem more sensitive, mature and deliberate on Pedals.
I guess I find myself returning to similar themes that concern me, but I always want to do it from a different approach. I can’t phone lyrics in. I really have to give them effort. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes difficult. I didn’t have to write the music this time so I got to concentrate on lyrics and melodies. I loosened up a bit from straight narrative lyricizing. Every song I write leads to the next in a way. Also, Rival Schools is trying to deliver something that makes sense with an album that came out 10 years prior. I wanted to draw the lines between that as well.
What about the supposedly scrapped second album that never came to fruition circa 2003?
That was a bunch of demos I didn’t labor over that led to 11 songs. They got leaked to the Internet. When we got back together we actually started from those sessions to see what was good and improve them. That was helpful. The main riff and verse of “Shot After Shot” comes from those sessions and I developed some new lyrics. “Big Waves” is the same song and arrangement, but Ian Love plays on this version. Ian can make a guitar sound like anything, even strings.
Was it difficult to improve upon the debut’s intrinsic value?
The daunting challenge was to create something that would do justice to the first album, but also project the future trajectory. The title, Pedals, ties into aspects it took to make this happen. Sometimes we’re pedaling uphill. There’s a lot of movement and organization. We used a lot of effects pedals on the album. Lyrically, it’s not wholly thematic like Tommy, but the mood reflects that trip we navigated. Everyone’s in a different place in their lives than 10 years ago. Changes happen and that reflects the feeling of the music. It’s seen from a fresh, dynamic, different point of view.
Explain the motivation behind moving to Berlin, Germany, for a few years before landing in Williamsburg.
I moved there with my girlfriend for fun and adventure. At that time, I got sick of hearing about Bush’s War On Terror and all that shit. It just became a headache with Bush and I wanted a different perspective. I thought it’d be a good time to get out and expand my horizons. I’ve dabbled in political writing, but that’s not my comfort zone. But since moving back, I love it in Williamsburg.
It seems half the United States’ elite indie rockers reside in Williamsburg nowadays. It’s unbelievable.
Yeah. For some people it’s annoying, but I think it’s interesting. Everyone’s pursuing their creative dream. It’s nice to be in that atmosphere. Everyone’s got their own voice.
I was interested in your thoughts concerning a few album highlights. What was the genesis for “69 Guns?”
It’s meant to conjure up your own story. For example, Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” when I was a kid I thought it was “Lost In Space.” Whenever I heard it I thought of being lost in a flying saucer. In a way, “69 Guns” could be what you want it to mean. To me, it’s a romantic story. But we also had in mind the ‘80s tune by The Alarm, “68 Guns.” We figured we’d top ‘em. We got 69 guns, which is sexier than 68. So we win.
The fiery “Eyes Wide Open” seems to be in a similar vein as the debut’s awesome hell-bent anthem “Used For Glue.”
It had that sort of power. We were just trying to expand on “Used For Glue’s” theme. It’s our most rockingest song. That’s still part of the band.
“Choose Your Adventure” gets an industrial bass-treated grumble that echoes through the climactic cadenced catchphrase. Was it at all inspired by the Kraut-rock you may’ve heard while living in Berlin?
I think that’s an interesting thought. It’s really just a riff Ian wrote that I thought would be fun to sing over. It’s got a good groove and is exciting and a little bit different. Sometimes you think you’re writing a song about one thing, but you end up writing a song about another thing. That’s an interesting consequence.
Most of your songs connote inner rage, but as I speak to you, I feel you have confidence and contentment.
I guess, especially with Quicksand, I got my screaming and pissed off rage out more. In Rival Schools, I may not especially scream about it, but I think you could feel the tension of being pissed off or discontent. That’s a good place to find music. Maybe I’m not as much as a malcontent as I may have been. Music’s definitely therapeutic for me. I’m always chopping into what I’m concerned about and what’s bugging me. I have a great outlet for that.
“Small Doses” must be one of those therapeutic communiqués.
For me, it was more about how sometimes you just need a break from everybody else. Like Mike Miur, when he’s talking about being off on his own now and he feels okay in “Institutionalized.” After all the ranting he says, “All I want is a Pepsi.” I always feel that I could leave songs open for interpretation, though.
Rival Schools will play Manhattan’s Santos Party House on March 8. More info at myspace.com/rivalschools.