Words by Jim Testa
The shirtless maniac with face paint and a heavy metal guitar known as Grim Deeds is in real life Dustin Umberger, a mild-mannered husband, father, and elementary school teacher. This ridiculously prolific one-man band has something like 300 pop-punk songs on his Bandcamp page, recorded alone in a home studio – a treasure trove of insanely catchy tunes with clever and often comedic lyrics, clearly inspired by ’90s Lookout! Records bands like Green Day, the Mr. T Experience, Screeching Weasel, and The Queers. Now Grim Deeds has a new persona, The Gungans; still the same guy, still doing pop-punk, but stripped of all the shtick. We caught up with Dustin, self-isolating with his family at his San Francisco home, to talk about his unlikely career.
Off Shelf: Tell us how Grim Deeds was born.
Dustin Umberger: The 2020 version of how Grim Deeds came to be is probably a little more enlightened, since I’ve had time to reflect on it since I’ve done earlier interviews. I’ve always been a creative person, with an urge to create some kind of art I can share with people. I’m sure I’m not alone in also being an artist who wants some kind of acknowledgement and some kind of community based around what I do. I became very interested in songwriting about the time I stopped skateboarding. That was my main thing for a long time. I wanted to be a pro skateboarder and pursue that dream, but I got hurt and realized that I didn’t have quite the talent I needed to achieve those goals. I had a few milestone accomplishments as a skater; I got sponsored and I was on the Airwalk Flow Shoes team for a while, I rode for a shop for a bit and I had a part in a skateboard video. So those things kept me going for a few years, but all the while I was drawing and interested in music.
Music became my way of leaving skateboarding and pursuing something else that could be artistically satisfying and fun. I remember I had a big moment the day I rented The Ramones documentary “End Of The Century” and I suddenly put together all these little pieces of information that I had been collecting for years. From there, I discovered the whole Ramonescore scene. It had always been there, I had just never acknowledged it. But it was simple and straightforward, and sort of rhyming poetry, and it was something you could start doing right away and then get better at while you pursued it.
I had a few bands and experimented playing with other people, I was in one band called The Sprains that was fun and worthwhile. But it also opened my eyes up to what it meant to play in a band, like booking rehearsal time and booking shows. I was living near San Francisco so we were constantly competing with national acts for attention, and you ended up playing shows that sucked. We played at Gilman Street, which was cool, but there were three people there.
I also realized that by that point, I had missed the boat as far as the pop-punk scene went. The music industry had collapsed and everything was on the internet, and it just started to make more sense that if I could write good songs and forego the whole band approach, it would be easier and a lot more fun. And if I put my mind to it, I could probably reach a whole lot more people doing it by myself too. I could be creative, I could do it without all the disappointing rigamarole that being in a band comes with, and I could be completely in control and use whatever communication skills I had to get myself out there in front of people.
OS: Where did the idea of the makeup and the Grim Deeds persona come from?
DU: I knew when I started Grim Deeds that I’d probably have to have a chip on my shoulder for a while because it wasn’t an official way to be in a band. I had enough confidence in my songwriting that I felt like I could make this home recording project into something. The whole thing evolved from me wanting to make this personal and about myself somehow.
The makeup was actually a fluke. We were invited to play a show – and by we, I basically mean me and anyone willing to help me – and at the time, I was hanging out with Kody Templeton who was reforming The Lillingtons. He asked if I would come out and play a secret show they were doing, it was the tenth anniversary of Red Scare Records in Chicago, and all these awesome bands were going to play. So Kody was nice enough to ask me to play this show, and since it was Halloween, me and my friend Jacob thought, what can we do to make this special? So we went to the Walgreen’s across the street from the hotel and bought this Halloween makeup. The thought of black corpse paint and black leggings just seemed like an idea. I knew how to do the corpse paint pretty well since I grew up a metalhead, and so I just slathered it on a few minutes before we were supposed to play – Jacob was playing drums with me for that show – and that’s how it happened. It was all in the moment, but it went over well. And even though it’s silly, it felt authentic somehow, like it was an extension of my personality to do that. So every time I played live after that, I’d do that, except for a few acoustic shows I’ve done as Grim Deeds.
I’ve always been a fan of the artistic side of punk rock, especially the album covers and things of that nature, so I saw an opportunity to create a character for myself, like Milo of The Descendents. This was going to be my little thing. In the beginning, I even had an accent on stage, like I was supposed to be from Norway. So I had this thick Norwegian accent when I talked but when I sang, it just came out like Ben Weasel. If you can do anything that’s just a little bit outside of normal that people can relate to, it’s a good thing, and I just stumbled onto this and decided to keep doing it. I have this new project that I’m focusing on at the moment, but I know that Grim Deeds is my legacy and it’s what I’ll leave behind.
OS: What was your gateway band into punk?
DU: Being a skateboarder, I’d always see ads in Thrasher for bands like Black Flag and The Misfits and Descendents and stuff, Epitaph and Fat Wreck Chords would always buy ads, so I was aware of punk but I didn’t really know anything about it. When I got old enough to choose my own music, heavy metal was my first love. Then a friend of mine who had turned me on to a lot of metal just happened to have some punk tapes with him one day, I think he had Bad Religion’s Generator and NOFX’s Liberal Animation, which is actually one of their worse albums. But that stuff sounded fresh to me because all I had listened to up to that point was thrash metal. Punk was fast, it scratched the itch that was satisfied by metal, but it was melodic and you could understand what they were saying. It had a different urgency to it, and that was very interesting to me.
It took a while, because these weren’t bands you’d see on MTV. So I just dug around and eventually I discovered a lot of punk bands through Thrasher. We just called it Skate Rock. I didn’t know any different until much later. By the mid-90s, I had discovered a lot of the SoCal punk rock and then suddenly Green Day and Offspring were everywhere, and things got easier to explore. Suddenly this music was mainstream, but you could tell it came from the underground, and that was really cool to me, since I was about 14 at that point.
At that age, you really had to hunt around to find underground music. I was living in a small town in Virginia. The nearest scene was Washington, D.C. and that was two hours away. There was no way my parents were going to let me go to shows at The 9:30 Club. But you know, I think it helps to be a punk rocker who comes from a place that has a low tolerance for punk rock. Where I grew up, skateboarders would get heckled and yelled at from passing cars and pickup trucks. The cops were always on our case. And the punk rockers were even a step below the skaters. Everyone hated the punkers. And they became my people.
OS: I think you can make the case that the reason Emo in the 2000’s was so awful is because it came from a generation that didn’t have to grow up as outcasts and losers.
DU: Absolutely. It’s a real sour feeling, even today as an adult, to know that even if you perform at your best and achieve your best, no one will care, because what I do just doesn’t matter to so many people. If I had become a pro skateboarder, if I had been signed to a big record label, it still would’ve been, “So what? You think you’re better than me?” back where I grew up. It’s just that small town mentality. If you’re lucky enough to find a welcoming community in a place like that, you just become very grateful and very protective of it. And once you’ve found that community, all these people who think they’re better than you become people you don’t have to take seriously anymore. Only with like-minded people can you feel that respect and acknowledgement.
OS: What took you from Winchester, Virginia to the west coast?
DU: Typical story. I met a girl, followed her out here. Now she’s my wife. She was from the Bay area via Hong Kong, her family was Chinese and moved to the Bay area when she was very young. She went to law school in Virginia and that’s where we met. I was just getting into education, working as a substitute teacher. I needed to get teaching credentials and it just wasn’t happening in Virginia. So I thought, okay, my girlfriend’s going to be a lawyer in California. I might as well follow her out there and become a teacher. That way, even if it doesn’t work out, I’ll at least have a career. So that’s what I did, and it’s worked out so far.
Although I have to tell you, my wife – we’ll be married nine years this month, together 15 years – hates punk rock. Has no interest in it whatsoever. I’ve probably written and recorded close to 300 songs, and if you gave her the chance to name two of them, I don’t think she could. She totally doesn’t give a shit. That’s been the other chip on my shoulder that’s probably kept me going all these years.
OS: That sort of brings me to my next question. I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned the name Grim Deeds without using the word “prolific.” What is your process? How do you write, and how do you write so much?
DU: Let me start with this: I read a lot of interviews with other songwriters for inspiration, and one that stuck with me was with John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats. He came from a pretty rough, abusive background, and he knows heavy metal music really well, to the point where he used to write a column for Decibel magazine. So we have a little in common. And his songs are very cool and really literary. But his message was that there’s no such thing as writer’s block, because songwriting isn’t an art, it’s a job. And you can decide to do the job or not do the job. If you decide to do the job, then you’re going to have a product. And whether it’s your best work or not isn’t the point. The point is to keep doing it, and as you do it, if you’re paying attention at all and focusing on learning your craft, you’re going to get better.
I read that and it really resonated with me, especially once I decided that I was just going to record at home and release things online. That’s as easy as sending an email, you just have to sit down and do it. I may have some natural abilities when it comes to putting together a pop-punk song, because that style has been imprinted on me for over 20 years. I know what a pop-punk song sounds like, I know how to write lyrics, I know how to write songs. So it’s just a matter of constantly letting your mind collect as much data from your life as possible, and know when it’s time to say, hey, that’s a good idea. I’m going to stop and record it into my phone. Whether it’s just an idea, or a lyric, or a melody, or even just a title.
And from years of doing that, you develop routines. So I always have my phone with me, I have a working notepad full of ideas constantly, and my process is developed to the point where if I wasn’t also a full-time teacher and a full-time dad and a full-time husband, I could probably write any amount of songs a day. As long as I had food and water, it wouldn’t be a problem. It’s never an issue of a lack of ideas.
It dawned on me that when it comes to that Ramonescore style of pop-punk, people just kept treading the same path and writing the same songs over and over again for decades – a love song, or a silly, goofy song, or a homage to The Ramones. And that’s great. But why not write about something different? So I tried to write about things that would resonate with people, or at least things that I needed to get off my chest. Because songwriting is in fact a therapeutic thing for me. I enjoy it, but it also releases a lot of stress. When you’re as easily bothered by life as I am that makes you prolific… because you’re constantly being bothered by things, you’re constantly chomping at the bit to express yourself.
OS: Do some of your songs start with just the title? Because something like “Glenn The Heavy Metal Janitor” seems like it must happen that way.
DU: I don’t know how it works exactly, but if a topic is cogent enough, that’s all I need to get started. If I know it’s going to be going to be about Glenn the heavy-metal custodian, I know Glenn, I’ve worked with him for ten years, and I know the type of tone I’d want, funny and cool but also with a little tinge of sadness in there. It’s almost like having a conversation about someone with Glenn.
So topical songs are probably my forte at this point. But I can write based on a melody. Sometimes when I’m riding my bike or driving home, a bit of melody will pop into my head, and I can go home and write a whole song around that. But I’ve realized that the strength of the topic or idea will really make for better lyrics. If you say, okay, here’s a catchy melody, let’s just write some dumb syllables that fit, that doesn’t have as much staying power. It’s also not as satisfying for me.
OS: Tell me a little about your new project, The Gungans.
DU: Well, with Grim Deeds, I started doing it at a time when I was pretty depressed. I didn’t even realize it until much later, but depression is definitely something I’ve struggled with. So a lot of Grim Deeds came from a need to write songs and express the negative feelings I was having in pop-punk form. That’s probably what made it a little different, it was depressing songs with catchy melodies. I liked using that juxtaposition to form some kind of musical identity.
But the thing is, in the last year or so, I’ve just become a much happier guy. I’ve learned to cope with a life in a way that’s much more sustainable and positive and doesn’t leave me feeling super low or bummed out all the time. So that means I don’t really have the desire to write sad, negative stuff at this point. Maybe someday I’ll go back to that. I have a whole folder of Grim Deeds song ideas that I put aside for later. But the songs that I’ve been writing are just a lot more light-hearted and fun. And it’s also an invitation to anyone into pop-punk who might have all these nerdy interests. Like I’ve written a song about collecting action figures and one about Jar Jar Binks, just all this nerdy stuff. But I believe I can take this even farther, because my songwriting’s just gotten better with time.
I have this new inspiration to write songs now and it’s a fun, healthy part of my weekly routine. They’re not coming from this dark mind set I feel trapped in. I’m writing a song every couple of days, I just keep that momentum going, because it sustains me emotionally, and now I can channel it into something I can share with more people. Because, let’s face it, I’m not going to play Grim Deeds for my students or my school community. My family is already pretty skeptical about what I do, so it’s nice to show them a song I’ve written that’s catchy and silly and light.
To be honest, being Grim Deeds is all well and good until you have to deal with living that double life. I’m a normal human being who comes home to this dark alter ego, and it kind of bothered me for a while. I want to be an authentic person. The thing that was holding me back was being depressed. Now I’ve worked through those issues and I’m writing happier songs.