Dentist, the surf rock-inspired trio out of Asbury Park, NJ, truly embodies the D.I.Y. work ethic that is synonymous with the culture of the music scene within the city by the seashore.
While most often pigeon-holed as just a surf rock band, Dentist’s sound has evolved and expanded to so much more these days — mainly due to their commitment to honing their craft during their tireless schedule of live performances. The band continually tight-rope-walk between indie-rock dreamscapes and bubblegum sweetness, and their punk rock edginess is often just a razor’s edge away from pop accessibility.
At the core of Dentist are husband and wife songwriting duo, Justin and Emily Bornemann, who play off each other in person and on stage like that of a veteran comedy team, trading off perfectly timed licks and effortlessly complementing each other’s style. Drummer, Matt Hockenjos was just recently inserted into the lineup and seems to have slipped seamlessly behind the kit, tightening up both the band’s sound and overall dynamic, as well as adding exclamation points where needed throughout each performance.
Dentist has experienced their share of ups and down during recent years, they released Ceilings in 2016, on Little Dickman Records, which showed improvement in leaps and bounds from their solid self-titled debut just a two years earlier, in terms of songwriting, pace and depth of sound. But just as they were finding their groove, the then-quartet imploded: two members departed, and Justin and Emily went on to tour Canada as a duo in an attempt to regroup.
After attempting a few self-described “stupid ideas” — such as incorporating a drum machine into the mix — Emily decided she would play bass and learned on the fly, and Hockenjos on was brought in on drums. Although Dentist never actually died, the band found themselves reborn, rejuvenated and determined to take on the world, one live show at a time. In 2017, Justin and Emily were involved in a one-off musical collaboration with John Stewart on drums — yes, John Stewart of Daily Show fame — and Dentist continued to be omnipresent, performing throughout New Jersey and partaking in mini-tours up and down the East Coast.
2018 is looking to be a breakout year for the band, as they were officially selected to perform at the SXSW festival in Austin, which both Justin and Emily describe as a “validating accomplishment.” The band is finishing up their new record, a collaborative effort among members that promises to get a bit more serious while still holding true to their roots and are making plans to embark on a tour the West Coast throughout the summer.
I caught up with Dentist, fresh out of the studio, at their apartment by the beach to chat about their journey as a band, their upcoming record and their road that leads to SXSW.
You just came from the studio where you were mixing a few tracks for your new album, so let’s start there, shall we? What can you share about the new record?
Justin: We just decided on the title; the record will be called Nightswimming, and it will have 11 songs.
Emily: We are hoping to release it on Friday the 13th of July. It still has some surf qualities to it, but I think overall, it’s a little harder and some songs are more serious than previous records.
I always see Dentist listed as a “surf rock band” but it seems your sound has expanded beyond that and dips into several genres. How would you describe your sound?
Emily: Surf inspired…indie rock…pop…
Matt H: With a touch of garage!
Justin: Any combo of those words would work.
Talk about the songwriting process for this album. How has it changed, or stayed the same, in comparison to your previous records?
Emily: Well, previously, it was just me and Justin writing together, but Matt joined us for the making of this record and so we got his input on songs which is different for us… but in a good way.
Justin: For some songs, Emily and I would come up with an idea and work it out, and once we liked the chord progression and the melody we would present it to Matt and then we would all try to make it into something. But there was a handful of songs that will be on this record that actually came from the three of us just sitting in this room and starting with a pretty minimal idea.
Matt H: There are some songs that started out either fast or slow then totally changed once we got together on them and started exchanging ideas. For example, there is one we are tentatively calling “Something’s Wrong Again” that was going to be very slow but it came through with so much energy that turned into a really fast song.
Dentist seemed to be hitting their stride just after the release of Ceilings in 2016 and then there was a lineup change. Two members departed and you brought in Matt Hockenjos.
From the outside looking in, it appeared that Emily just picked up the bass, Matt slid behind the kit and Justin continued to shred. There was no hiatus nor extended time off between tours. It was like you didn’t miss a beat. Can you talk about that period of transition and what it was like for you?
Justin: We were in crunch time because the band kinda fell apart right before we were scheduled to go on a month long tour of Canada so we were forced to make it work. Emily just picked up the bass and did great with it from the get-go. She barely got a month of practice in.
Emily: I basically learned the bass on the road. The only other time I played the bass was for a set of Pixies cover songs that we did a few years ago at a New Year’s show. Other than that I had never played the bass at all.
Matt, how did it come about that you joined the band?
Matt H: Dentist had been one of my favorite bands in Asbury Park and about three years prior to me joining, I had met Justin and Emily when I was booking shows for the Music Foundation and told them to let me know if they ever needed a drummer. I ran into them again after they got back from Canada and we started talking about playing together which led to me rehearsing with them, and it just felt good. I think we were out playing shows like two weeks later. So it’s kinda like the band is always in a crunch time situation of some sort.
Justin and Emily, you toured Canada as a two-piece, and returned home to do some gigs as an acoustic duo. Was there a point before Matt came onboard, that you considered continuing on as duo or was there always a plan to reform the band?
Justin: A couple times we had some weird ideas like programming a drum machine. We even tried it out and just felt like it was a stupid idea. So after that, we wanted to find at least a drummer. Then without even putting any effort into it, it randomly fell in our laps that I ran into Matt that night. It all just fell into place after that.
In keeping with the theme of lineups and band dynamics, the core of Dentist since the inception has obviously been Justin and Emily. You two are married and I’ve seen several interviews and reviews where that was made mention of. I’m sure that by now you’d rather talk about the music than your relationship, but I find that a very interesting dynamic because if something isn’t working in the studio or on stage, it has to come home with you. Or when Emily hands in lyrics to songs like “Climbed Too Many Trees” or “Awful”, I would assume Justin’s first reaction would be to wonder if they are directed at him. With all that said, how do you find balance and/or separation between work and home life?
Emily: Since we have known each other, we have been making music together. Since day one. So it’s not typical for us to take it home with us. If there’s a problem in the studio, I don’t think that I ever bring it back home…
Justin: I don’t know about that! But seriously, anything like that always seems to blow over quickly. And like Emily said, we have been making music together since the beginning of our relationship, so we just work really well together and trust each other. By this point, we don’t take everything to heart. I trust Emily’s opinion and her instincts so much that if I show her something and she doesn’t like it, then I know it probably sucks. I think it’s the same when she shows me something she is working on and I don’t like it.
Emily: C’mon, I thought you said that you liked everything I write!
Matt, was it challenging to find your place in that dynamic when you initially joined the band? I would assume it might be tough to gel right away with an already established band, let alone one that’s made up of a married couple.
Matt H: They are the two best people to work with. The fact that they are a couple doesn’t really ever stick in my mind. The whole thing just felt very natural from the beginning; the band became an instant family. Everything just seems to roll right off everyone’s shoulders. I think another thing that brings us together is that I have such respect for their musical tastes as well.
I think we are all on the same page when it comes to what we think is good and what we think sucks. And they also opened a lot of doors for me in terms of learning about new music, and I’m still learning from them. It’s been great.
Ok, let’s move on to talking about the road. Dentist has always appeared to be tireless when it comes to performing: you have been a fixture on the Asbury Park and Brooklyn scenes, made your way up and down the East Coast and recently toured Canada. This March, you are headed to the SXSW festival in Austin. Dentist has played unofficial SXSW showcases in the past, but this year you have been officially accepted to play the festival proper. What does that mean to you?
Justin: It actually means a lot to me. I have applied to SXSW before with this band, and when I was in other bands, and have never gotten in before. So, to get on an official SXSW showcase felt like a big accomplishment. I have been to SXSW twice before but this is the first time I will have a badge so I’m excited.
Emily: When I heard that we got on an official SXSW showcase, I almost cried. It’s important because we have tried for several years and never gotten it, so now that we have, it feels validating in a way.
Can you talk about the submission process for SXSW?
Justin: The application used to be exclusively through Sonicbids, which was a service where you paid a monthly fee to have an EPK (Electronic Press Kit). So that kinda shitty because we were paying the service solely for the chance to apply to SXSW. Thankfully, this was the first year that they let bands apply to SXSW directly. We had to submit a song and fill out a questionnaire, it seems they are looking for bands are touring, somewhat established and working hard.
You will be heading down to SXSW with an entourage of friends in the form of record label, Little Dickman Records, Cool Dad Music, which was a champion of your sound from your beginnings, plus a plethora of your area tour mates. Will you be able to party and check out shows or is this trip just like work, work, work?
Justin: I will know more people at SXSW this time than the two previous times I went down there, so it’s going to be a lot of fun to hang with everyone, for sure. I think it’s going to feel like a big party, but of course, we really want to work it to while we are down there, we want to meet new people, network and of course play really good shows. We also had the best Bloody Mary when we were down there so hopefully we can find those again.
Emily: Yeah we are big Bloody Mary fans! We also like Caesars, which is a Bloody Mary but with clam juice and it’s really, really good. We also like pickleback shots too.
Matt H: I have never been to SXSW but I have done a lot of pickleback shots since joining the band. I am looking forward to both.
Do you have additional tour dates planned around SXSW?
Justin: Had we known sooner that we got the SXSW showcase then we would have probably booked like a week-long mini-tour on the way down there. We found out two months ago, and that just wasn’t enough time to book a proper tour and we had to decide between flying and driving there. We just started scrabbling this week and have one show in Asheville, NC and are working something out for Memphis and in Alabama on the way down.
Matt H: We have a show in Asbury Park (at the Saint) on March 10 and then we will wake up at 7 a.m. to drive seven hours to play a show, then wake up early to drive another seven to ten hours to play another show, and repeat until we get to Austin.
Justin: It sounds like the couple days getting there are going to suck really hard.
Let’s jump back to 2017. Emily and Justin did a one off reunion with your former band, No Wine for Kittens, with the notable addition of John Stewart on drums. That pairing garnered a lot of attention on social media. What was that experience like and where you able to capitalize on the publicity?
Justin: It was a great experience and obviously, John Stewart is a really funny guy, so that was just cool to hang out with him and get to even do something like that. It was definitely an interesting and fun experience but the music that came out of it does not sound much like the music we make as Dentist…so it wasn’t something that we could really piggyback off of. It was just a cool thing to do but Dentist definitely did not capitalize on that, at all.
Emily: It was cool but yeah, most of the sites that reported the news or played that song, did not actually mention that we also play in Dentist.
Matt H: Yeah, I think that what came out of that was mostly just talk of John Stewart eventually replacing me on drums.
I’ll make sure to make mention that DENTIST was involved in the No Wine for Kittens reunion with John Stewart! You all seem like super chill and laid back folks, and you have more than paid your dues on the road and have put out killer, catchy tunes like “Meet You There in Delaware,” “the Latter” and “Over & Over”. So I was wondering if it gets frustrating when you hear the absolute crap that gets played on the radio?
Emily: At the moment, I’m also working in an office where I’m forced to hear the same top forty songs at least five times a day. And the only reason that I am hearing them is because someone paid a lot of money to have them played. There’s not even options to call in to request songs anymore, and that kind of stuff does piss me off. There are a ton of great bands with tons of great songs that should be getting heard but unfortunately, they don’t have a million dollars behind them to get their songs played on the radio.
Justin: But there definitely bands that we look up to that are out there doing it and by that I mean out there touring and making a living doing it, even if it is a modest living. Those are the bands we are aspiring to have similar careers to. Of course, being a Top 40 band would be cool, but I just don’t know if that is in the cards for us.
Emily: Being on the radio sure would be nice! Even just getting to hear real music on the radio would be cool too. For now, I just hope when writing songs that someone enjoys them and finds their own personal meaning when listening. That’s basically it.
Catch Dentist playing The Saint in Asbury Park on March 10.