Words by Tommy Johnson
There was a small fragment of time when the die-hard followers of California punk band Neighborhood Brats had to accept the possibility of the band being no more. Having released their first LP Recovery in 2014 to wide acclaim and touring extensively, both Jenny Angelillo and George Rager started feeling the burden of unfortunate circumstances surrounding them. In 2015 via their Facebook page, the band posted their decision to disband. “RIP Neighborhood Brats, 2010-2015. Jenny and I had to make a tough decision this morning. Tour schedules, release delays, different lineups, health concerns, and the general mayhem of managing a DIY punk rock band in 2015 all led to our decision… The only other thing I can say is that if some dude from Ohio and a girl from Nebraska can do it, so can you.“
Thankfully, the hiatus was relatively short-lived, with Angelillo and Rager returning touring in 2016 with dates in the US, Canada, and Europe. That same year, Angelillo and Rager began writing for the band’s second LP, Claw Marks. Neighborhood Brats’ third album, Confines of Life, out now via Dirt Cult Records, pushes their raucous form of DIY punk to another level. The album bites harder than previous efforts and demonstrates a clearer vision of where Neighborhood Brats are headed. Diving into subjects including the environmental crisis and human interests drives the lyrical content in Confines of Life.
Off Shelf: What led to you two coming together to form the band?
Jenny Angelillo: George and I had known each other socially for a while before he approached me at a Spits show in early 2009 and asked me if I wanted to form a band with him. He did this while the Spits were playing, so he shouted: “WE SHOULD START A BAND” in my ear [laughs]. I believe I told him I was retired – he had known me through my former band, The Orphans. He then bought me a beer… which I gave to Sean Spits on stage because I hate beer. A week or so later we had a “band meeting” and went to see Limp Wrist at The Eagle, legendary SF leather bar, and the rest is history.
OS: What was the scene like when the band started performing?
JA: The punk scene in San Francisco/Oakland was fucking great in 2009. There was a show you could go to almost any night of the week. You had accessible DIY venues, art gallery shows, house shows, illegal generator shows. MRR was very active and threw lots of events. We had great dive bars that would stuff you in a corner for a sweaty and packed show. We had a practice space in this giant old building in the worst part of the Tenderloin where you had to stumble through a haze of crack smoke and dodge zombies to get into the building. I used to have to call one of the guys to come and walk me in. We didn’t even go outside for breaks; we would just sit on the stairs in the lobby and smoke cigarettes because it was too sketchy to go outside. San Francisco was for artists, punks, creative people and still somewhat affordable, so literally everyone I knew was in a band, worked for MRR or somewhat involved with the scene. Everybody I knew had a “DJ” night [laughs]. Me included. We originally wanted to be the ultimate San Francisco party band and just have fun, and then people started to really like us and want to put out our records and book us tours. We never really planned on all this.
OS: Reading about the group, I noticed there’s a deeply rooted connection with Europe. What do you could say about the feelings you have for the fans there?
JA: We love touring Europe. Munich, Germany is our home away from home. It’s where Michl Krenner – our European booking agent, tour manager, driver, record label boss, and literal fifth member of the band – lives. There’s definitely a different vibe there from the US. There’s a network of DIY venues, squats, collectives, and you feel very held and taken care of as an artist. There’s an almost palpable energy of punk and the spirit of DIY that goes into all the preparation and feeds out through the fans. It’s a lot like how things used to be in the ’90s when I started going to shows. The fans there are awesome and we love them – super supportive and not afraid to go nuts at shows. There’s no “too cool for school” attitude. I’m not saying that I hate playing in the US or that fans in the US are bad – this is our home and we love touring here too, but in Europe, there’s a sense of community that I just don’t feel here in the US. Also, European fans ask a lot of questions [laughs] and have many opinions. Although sometimes it can be a bit punishing, I always welcome the feedback and enthusiasm [laughs].
OS: The group, at one point, took a hiatus. What led you to get Neighborhood Brats firing off again?
JA: [Laughs] The hiatus. It’s like a breakup – sometimes you need time apart to realize how much you miss each other. George and I were going for it pretty hard and were neglecting things in our personal life that needed attention. So we took some time to address our emotional, physical, personal and mental health…but honestly, when playing music is the most important thing in your life – like it is for me – when you don’t do it, it feels like you’re missing a limb. And apparently for me – George is that limb. In 2015 I went to see Night Birds in play at Gilman and had a talk with Brian about how to make being in a punk band sustainable when you aren’t in your early 20’s and have responsibilities such as jobs, relationships, and housing. Brian made me realize that it was possible to be “an adult” and still be in a touring punk band and fundamentally, I wasn’t being true to myself because I was denying one of the things that makes me feel happiest in life… I called both George and Michl the next day.
OS: What did having the band go from a duo to a quartet do in terms of the dynamic?
JA: The band has never been a duo; we have always been a 4-piece. I mean, George and I both love industrial music and joke about just replacing everyone with computers and turning into Xmal Deutschland, but that hasn’t happened yet. George and I are a writing duo, but it’s not an exclusive situation. We work on music and lyrics together, but every member of the band has input and creative freedom in their parts. We have had lineup changes in the rhythm department, but seriously what band hasn’t had a revolving cast of characters? Nothing we’ve ever done lineup-wise has ever indicated that we are just a duo.
OS: Did the band find the pandemic as an opportunity to focus on anything that you have been ignoring?
JA: We recorded Confines of Life right as the world was shutting down in March 2020. At that point, we were gearing up to go on tour to support the album, all of which were canceled. So instead of rushing the mixing, mastering, and art design and slamming something out for time-sake, we really got to dig in and make sure everything was absolute to our liking and all our mixes sounded exactly the way we wanted them to be. We work pretty well under pressure but found that having the space to get detail-oriented and go over everything with a fine-tooth comb – although at times that also can make your brain want to melt out of your ears – allows you to produce with 100% confidence, so you don’t listen in three years and go “yikes that bottom end, what were we thinking?”…Finally in January 2021 Chris Mason from Dirt Cult messaged us gently nudging in a “let’s do this/what are we waiting for” kind of way, so I got going with Andy Dahlstrom who’s our designer, with the artwork, and we put the ball in motion…there was a period of time after that where I would wake up to like 500 texts on the group thread between Chris, George, Michl and I but a lot of times they were just Danzig memes.
OS: What was recording like as Los Angeles was about to shut down?
JA: It was like the apocalypse. My vocals and mixing were the last things we did, so it was just George, Mark Rains, our engineer and co-producer, and I in the studio. Every day it was looming more and more and we were trying not to get distracted by the news, but finally, on the last day of mixing, we kept getting these alerts on our phones, shit started to get scary, we couldn’t focus and our chairs definitely got further and further away from each other till we were all almost in different corners of the room. Finally, someone called it, I’m not sure if it was Mark or George, and we decided that we all needed to go home. And the very next day, LA shut down.
OS: What albums or artists were the bands locked in on before putting the new album together?
JA: I know George and I talked a lot about Born Against, Bad Religion, and Eddie Current Suppression Ring when we were writing this album. I think we threw around Avail too, but it’s also because George and I both grew up in the Midwest in the ’90s and Avail toured so much, especially in the Midwest so they hold a special place in our hearts. Personally, I listened to a lot of Echo and Bunnymen, Cocteau Twins, Siouxsie and the Banshees, X, Lunachicks, Psychedelic Furs, Sleater-Kinney. I don’t think Confines sounds like any of these bands, but they’re some of my favorites. And as a “vocalist,” I’m inspired by the vocal stylings of all these artists.
OS: What did the band want to do differently during the writing and recording for the new album?
JA: We didn’t do anything different to my knowledge. We’re a well-oiled machine at this point. George met with the guys a lot more than we usually do for practice – they’re in LA/I’m in San Francisco – and they really hammered out the songs before going into the studio and Nick, our drummer, had a lot of input into songwriting. I did go up for practice and played the songs live a few times before I went into the studio, which we didn’t do with Claw Marks. With Claw Marks, I hadn’t heard the completed music until I went into the studio. Recovery, we had one practice as a band before we went into the studio. Usually, the way we work is George will come up to the Bay Area and we’ll have a few epic, day-long writing sessions. Then we’ll go back and forth with rough demos and voice messages and I literally sing along to the tracks in my car or around the house, and boom – we go in and record. I know it seems bonkers, but it just works for us. George and I have a telepathic songwriting wavelength as a result of 11 years of making music together. We’ve always had a positive “it’s all going to be great” attitude and honestly, shit just works itself out.
OS: With everything going on the last handful of years, was writing for the new album pretty easy to find inspiration?
JA: Very easy. All I had to do was listen to NPR in the morning or read the news and get angry about fucking everything!!! There’s a lot of stuff to be fucking pissed off about, especially as a woman. I’m grateful that I have a platform as a punk artist to express my emotions – joy, anger, fear, excitement, anxiety – in a healthy way. George and I have always been extremely concerned about politics, social justice, the environment, mental health issues, and being very astute at taking our own life experiences and making them digestible and relatable to our listeners. We’re pretty good at calling out the bullshit. And there’s been a lot of bullshit.
OS: How hard has it been not getting onstage and blasting tunes in front of an audience?
JA: It has been one of the most difficult years of my life, besides the time we went on “hiatus.” I got that missing limb feeling again, and I literally don’t know what to do with myself… I know most people in the world have had to deal with much larger problems as a result of the pandemic, so in reality, all my issues are “Cadillac problems” and I’m not denying the pain and suffering in the world that COVID has brought. But not being able to get on stage and play music and go on tour makes me feel dead inside.