Smoke or Fire Ties One On With ‘The Speakeasy’

Smoke or Fire’s latest full length, The Speakeasy, almost wasn’t.

The band had pretty much packed it in after a rough tour of Europe. For nearly a year, the band didn’t exist. Then singer/guitarist Joe McMahon and guitarist Jeremy Cochran started writing again, with no idea where the songs would show up. Those songs eventually became the blueprint for The Speakeasy, the album which finally pulled the band back together.

Smoke or Fire spoke to Innocent Words about the grueling events that led up to the new album.

Innocent Words: You guys didn’t rush into the record – taking about three years between full lengths (with a 7-inch between). Was there a conscious decision to take it slow?

Joe McMahon: No, not at all. We were writing a lot, and had planned on heading into the studio when we were offered the tours to Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe. That put the record off for a while. When we came home from Europe, we went on tour with NOFX for a few weeks, and then at the end of that tour, we were burnt. We needed time off to figure things out. We didn’t do anything for over a year, before Jeremy and I started writing again in my basement.

IW: During that time off, you guys seriously considered ending the band?

McMahon: Yeah, I think we thought it was over. We had gotten screwed out of a ton of money in Europe, and I think it was just too much for us to take. It felt like we were constantly digging ourselves out of one hole and immediately falling into another. If we hadn’t started writing the record before the break up, I think that would have been it for us. Jeremy and I felt like we had some of the strongest songs we had ever written, and that we needed to see it through.

IW: Last time I interviewed you guys you were scattered all over the country. Are you all still living in different cities?

McMahon:  For this record it was easier, and that was a major concern going into it. I told Jeremy that if we were going to do the record, we would have to be in the same room like we had always done before Sinking Ship. Gwomper, Ryan, and I were all in Richmond, so Jeremy came down and stayed here during the process. He’s up in Massachusetts now.

IW: When it came time to record, did you always know you would be turning to Matt [Allison] again to produce?

McMahon: We knew we wanted to record with Matt; we just didn’t know if we would be able to do it financially. Once we worked all that out, it was a no-brainer. He had called me in the past to let me know he wanted to do our next record, and Matt is seriously the best guy in the world. I would never want to do a record without him. It was great this time too, because we had already worked together, and so we knew each other much better going into this.

IW: At this point, how do you guys and Matt work together?

McMahon: It starts by sending him demos. He listens to them, and then we sit down over some beers and talk about each songs individually. There’s a lot of discussion about what we want to record to sound and feel like. We have similar tastes as Matt, so we’re always on the same page. Matt also doesn’t like to rush anything, but time was a big factor with this record, and we had to hustle. Once we’ve discussed all the basics, Matt will usually let us know which instruments we should track in what order. Then it’s just day by day. You put up your wall chart and start knocking things out. He really feels like the fifth member of your band when you work with him.

IW: Have you had any lineup changes since This Sinking Ship?

McMahon: Yeah, Ryan from Darkest Hour played drums on this record. He asked me a while ago if he could do the record with us, and I was kind of shocked, but I couldn’t imagine him not being a part of the record. He not only kills it on drums, but he was such a huge part of the writing process. He had great ideas and overall enthusiasm about the whole project. Also, Gwomper has been playing bass with us for a couple of years now, but this is the first time he has recorded with us. It was great just watching him record his parts because he takes it really seriously and is all over the place. He really is an amazing bass player.

IW: How does The Speakeasy differ from your previous work?

McMahon: I think the difference between this record and the last is that after Above the City, we spent every second on the road, and I think that comes through on This Sinking Ship. It’s a lot about the road, and being away from home. This record is much more focused, and there was a lot of time put into it. We said from the beginning that we wanted to write and record it as if it were the last thing we ever did. I love the way it came out. It’s the first time we ever left the studio and said that was exactly what we came here to do. And that’s nice, because when you feel that way about it, it doesn’t really matter what reviews say.

IW: Is there a theme to the songs on this record?

McMahon: I don’t know if there’s a theme, but it’s a pretty overall disgust for our country at the moment. Nobody is willing to bend to see us through these times. It’s all about being right. I just feel sick and tired of the same old shit year after year. I guess that’s the theme.

IW: Given what happened in Europe, do you plan to tour much behind this record?

McMahon: We’re not sure. We just did three weeks, but really it’s going to depend on what those tours are, for how long, and where. We’re going to take it day by day as to not do anything to put unneeded stress on the band. If it makes sense, and it’s going to be fun and good for the band, then we’ll do it.