Words by David C. Obenour
CLIFFFS is a great pop punk band. Or a rock band. Though the tag seems to matter little to them. They’re off-the-cuff, DIY, just some friends in a room banging out songs about whatever it is they’re feeling, and all of that can be called punk. They’re also not the least bit concerned about sounding perfect and that’s pretty punk too.
Unsurprisingly the lyrics on their sophomore album, PANIC ATTACK are riddled with anxiety – something we’ve all been thrown into a Zoom-based masterclass on for the past few weeks. But there’s something immensely reassuring about having great melodies that have you singing along about your doubt and fear and uncertainty. Most all of us feel this way. It’s universal. And never has that been more true then the spring of 2020.
Off Shelf: It’s a classic premise, but what is it that appeals to you about putting dark lyrics to catchy pop songs?
John Dufilho: Words are really important to me. I guess I had a lot on my mind when writing these songs, they came out really quick. In the past, I’ve never been this direct word-wise. With the music, we were trying to mirror nervousness, anxiety, loss of control, and panic… but most all of my favorite songs have great melodies, so I can’t help but want to shoot for that as well.
OS: As a listener, how do you find it shapes the emotional response differently?
JD: I know it makes more sense for music and words to match up, but something about it seems a bit obvious to me at times. It’s almost like leading the listener, “here’s how you’re supposed to feel.” This way it’s up to the listener, if they care to figure out what’s actually going on.
OS: This sort of questioning and self-doubt is also not new in underground pop music, but I wonder if it’s coming out in an interesting time – when more and more of that feeling of anxiety is permeating society. Even though most of your themes are personal, how do you think the current climate relates to the music?
JD: I think they fit together perfectly. A lot of the basis for my feeling anxious, nervous, out of control, panic, etc. is because of the state of things.
OS: A stark image that conveys a lot in its simplicity, can you talk about the cover image for PANIC ATTACK?
JD: The cover is a photo of a friend of mine, Richard Winfield. The moment I saw it I knew it had to be the cover and thankfully he was for it. It seems to convey everything about what’s inside perfectly. Plus he’s great, black eye or not. Another friend of mine, Allison V. Smith, took the photo. She’s incredible! She asked if she could take his photo one night, after running into him looking this way.
OS: Your sophomore album is a chance to seize the narrative that both you put out there and that people started to tell about you from your debut. What was the thinking in how you wanted to follow up bill, you’re only human?
JD: Andy, Bill, and I were all in the same mindframe as we went to Rip Rowan’s studio to record: faster, more primitive, less concern for perfection or cool. Plus we drank a lot of whiskey.
OS: PANIC ATTACK has these great background vocals and voices scattered throughout it, particularly on songs like “you are freaking out” and “i might try psychics”. Can you talk about how you utilized those and what you were going for by including them?
JD: We were mostly keeping with our minimalist approach musically, so it seemed like an easy way to experiment. Plus, like I said… whiskey. We discovered when we started recording PANIC ATTACK that our drummer, Bill, as in bill, you’re only human has the greatest garage rock scream we’d ever heard. So we put him to work.
OS: What is the sound clip at the start of PANIC ATTACK? What made you want to include it?
JD: Bill’s dad was in a band in the 70’s called “Swamp Gas.” They’re pretty incredible, and strange… anyway, Bill had asked me to help convert some old recordings from tape and we’d listen through as we recorded. He’s got tons of sessions, demos, outtakes, etc. As they’re about to record once, someone in the band says, “Listen honey if I ain’t home by now I ain’t ever gonna be home – hahahaha!” I just loved it! It sounds so 70’s. It’s got a few meanings, at least to me. For one, it sounds like he’s saying he’s lost his mind. I didn’t ask Bill, I just put it on at the beginning of Panic Attack when I was mixing the record. Fortunately he loved it too.
OS: It may be a dumb question, but is there any thinking behind how CLIFFFS and PANIC ATTACK is all caps and how your last album title and all of your song titles are in lower case? It seems to be intentional, so I was curious.
JD: All intentional CAPS. Once again trying to convey urgency, insistence… and subliminally wanting people to turn up the volume when they listen to this record. [laughs]
OS: You’ve been in a number of celebrated bands throughout the years. What excites you about CLIFFFS?
JD: This was the kind of music I listened to when I was 18. I wanted CLIFFFFS to put our own stamp on that sound. Plus I absolutely love playing with Bill and Andy, they’re amazing.