Monday, April 27, 2020

Interview with Tony Bertolino from Bent Blue


Every once in a while I come across a piece of music that GRABS me; not just in the sense that I like the music because that happens somewhat frequently, I mean the delivery and especially the lyrics connect with me in a way that draws me in and makes me want to learn more. When I heard the demo from San Diego's Bent Blue a month or two ago, I definitely had that feeling. The band plays a refreshing style of hardcore punk that combines speed and melody, and is topped off by vocalist Tony Bertolino's earnest delivery & lyrics. The demo is raw yet crisp and warrants repeated listens. I connected with Tony over IG and we had the following exchange.

"Between Your and You're" is available now on cassette tape from War Records (which is run by Andrew Kline from Strife).  

I’m always interested in learning about people’s backstory a little bit, so tell me about yourself, your family, and your childhood. Are there any particular moments or events that you would say significantly shaped you/your outlook?

I was born in San Diego to a pretty normal middle-class family. I'm the oldest of four kids. My dad was enlisted in the Marines and later the Army, so I moved about 15 times before starting high school. Moving so frequently early on was often a bummer in the friend department, but I have great memories from the various communities we lived in and cultures we acclimated to. 

For instance, we lived in Savannah, Georgia for about six years, which was by far the longest I've lived anywhere outside of California. I was only five when we moved there, and it's where I had my first meaningful experiences with music. My dad was a jazz buff, and as a family we would sometimes go down to River Street, which has a sort of French Quarters thing going on. We'd watch the street musicians and I remember being mesmerized by their playing. It spawned a lifelong love of jazz and music in general. Savannah was also where I gained a love for art, which is now a major part of my life and my career as a designer. I'd say those were some of the positives of moving so much.

The last placed we were ever stationed was in Colorado. It was around the time the Iraq War broke out and I was almost 14. My dad had been deployed to Iraq for 8 months when we got a knock on the door by two men in uniforms. They informed us my dad had been shot and killed in an ambush. That experience shaped my life and who I am in a major way. I love and miss my dad every day, and I'm super grateful for a strong mom who raised us four kids on her own. That being said, the Iraq War was pointless. My dad died for nothing. As I've gotten older, that reality seems to sting more and more and has taught me to be distrustful of government.

Hoooooly shit, I am so sorry to hear about your loss.

As a young kid how did you cope and adjust to a loss of that magnitude? As the oldest of four, did you feel the need to “step up” so to speak and take on additional responsibility within the household?

My mom was a huge source of comfort. She's a major positive force in my life and she was a rock through everything. She helped us navigate the storm by staying lovingly consistent, level-headed, and transparent. At the same time, there was a feeling that as the oldest kid I needed to be there for her. I felt she needed to rely on me to help her, particularly with my younger siblings. When I got my driver's license it was a lot of pick-ups, drop-offs, running errands, being there for my brothers at sporting events, taking my sister to daddy-daughter dances at school, etc. I also feel fortunate to have found kids at my new high school who introduced me to the idea of straight edge. That helped distance me from coping in more harmful ways. 


How did you ultimately move from a love of jazz to finding your way into punk and hardcore?

My mom moved us back to California when I was 14 and I began high school in a little suburban town in Riverside County. I was new and didn't know anyone at school, so I would sit at lunch by myself. I noticed this group of kids who looked like they skated or rode BMX who sat at a table near me. One day I decided to just sit at their table. It was awkward as hell, but they were cool to me and I eventually started hanging out with them regularly outside of school. I started writing graffiti with a few of them, and one afternoon while we were coordinating a nighttime excursion, one of the guys showed me a Casey Jones song, which is so funny to me now. That was my introduction to hardcore. I was already into pop punk by that point from having skated in middle school, and that helped me connect with some of the riffs. About that same time I began going to house shows and found that a bunch of my friends from school were in bands. We'd go support them and ended up forming this crew of kids who would always go to shows together. We had a bunch of little makeshift venues in our town that we frequented, but Showcase, Chain Reaction, and Che Cafe were the main venues we'd hit when touring bands came to our area. 

For a while the music simply served as an emotional and physical release for a pent up kid. I think the moment hardcore really imprinted on me the way jazz did was when I got ahold of lyrics for Have Heart's song "Armed With a Mind". The lyrics really struck me. I found the things that drew me to jazz also drew me to bands like Have Heart. Like bebop and forms of progressive jazz, the style of hardcore that Have Heart played was genuine, intelligent, ugly, high-energy, often misunderstood, and could be fast as hell. Pat Flynn's honesty also really stood out to me, and I loved that Heave Heart was a band of normal guys playing music that was as thoughtful and consciously aware as it was aggressive and pissed, yet never brutal or dark. That was when the wires connected for me and the light came on. I recognized that hardcore and punk could be a means of delivering an earnest and thoughtful message to a group of people who may never have found that message anywhere else. Obviously bands had been doing that for decades, but it was a revelation to me.


What in Savannah specifically sparked your interest in visual art and design?

I can't say anything stands out in particular. Savannah is just a beautiful town. It's old, lush, and filled with cool details. I think the real spark stemmed more from the fact that my elementary school in Savannah had a great arts program and my parents were supportive of my interest in art.

As a dude in the Midwest, the idea of having venues like the Che and the Showcase in your own backyard seems so wild, but I also wonder if I’m idealizing it or blowing it out of proportion haha. What was it like having those kinds of spots around? Did people out there seem to take stuff like that for granted or was there a sense that you had something special on your hands?

I think most of us were clueless to how special those spots are/were. I think there's something about being young and living in the moment where you're kind of unaware of what you have until it's gone. I mean, we would go to shows every weekend and it was just normal for us. I'm sure the older heads got it, but I didn't. I really wish Showcase was still around. It was the perfect venue in my mind. Fortunately Che is still open, despite multiple attempts to shut it down. That place has had some heavy hitters come through. Bent Blue was lucky enough to play our second show there and it was a really exciting experience; an opportunity I never imagined having as a 15 year old watching bands like Allegiance, Have Heart, and Verse on that stage. 


It’s interesting that you mention Pat from Have Heart and his lyrics in particular because when I first came across your demo, the lyrics are definitely what jumped out at me most prominently. I was struck by your ability to take really broad social issues like guns or immigration and talk about them in a way that captures both the breadth of those issues while at the same time writing about them in a way that paints a picture of how they impact individuals. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about your process for writing lyrics, as well as who else might be influences on your work, both inside hardcore and beyond it.

appreciate you saying that. I don't think my process for writing lyrics is too out of the ordinary. I have a small notebook I keep on me. During the day I'll have themes or topics that weigh on my mind that stem from conversations I have with people, things I read, or things I listen to. A lot of times they're themes that piss me off in a deep way. I'll usually scribble those ideas down haphazardly and save them as a resource until the band writes a song that feels sonically appropriate. We make phone recordings at the end of each practice to refer to during the week. Before I have lyrics I'll just kind of insert gibberish that feels right phonetically or rhythmically over the music. When I'm actually writing I'll refer to those recordings as the blueprint and try to lay down lyrics in those spots.

When writing lyrics, my influences usually come either from my own experiences and observations or those of friends and family. When I get writer's block, I'll sometimes ask friends or family about their experiences related to the topic to get a different point of view and to develop talking points. Other times I'll pull inspiration from the perspectives of other artists. Like I'll hunt for songs or poems that loosely touch the subject. For example, for "They Ask Why" it was The Dicks "Hate the Police" and Zero Boys "Civilization's Dying". For "Between Your and You're" it was Have Heart's "Machinist" and a poem called "Things We Carry on the Sea" by Wang Ping. The snottiness of "Influence Me" probably came from a heavy rotation of Dead Kennedy's and Minor Threat during that time. That approach usually helps spark ideas in ways to express my opinions. Not what to say, but how to say it using literary device, if that makes sense.


So “Between Your and You’re” obviously tackles the issue of immigration directly....I know for me as a middle aged (fuck!) white dude in the Midwest, when Trump started campaigning on an overtly xenophobic message and when the “build the wall” chants became a centerpiece of his campaign, I was completely repulsed by the hostility it expressed; a hostility both to people of Hispanic origin and more fundamentally to what I see as the core ideals of the United States. Living in Southern California I imagine the reaction must have been even more visceral. I guess I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about how that message hit your ears, and the ears of people where you live, and what sort of reaction you’ve seen to Trump’a policies on immigration and the border. 

As you can probably imagine, there is a deep feeling of anger for and hurt from Trump and his administration here in Southern California that stems from his xenophobic and racist attitudes toward immigrants and refugees. Before Trump was even considered a candidate, I remember being disgusted by his racist attitudes toward people of color in the way he advocated for racist and unfounded conspiracy theories concerning the validity of Barack Obama's country of birth. It was later when he made the "rapists" comments during the beginning of his campaign that I realized what we'd be in for if he became president. He has consistently shown an astonishing level of disregard for people he deems different than himself in the way he treats the lives of these "others" as worthless.  

Trump's actions have been largely hateful and heinous. One of the most appalling examples to me personally was through his policy of family separation. In my eyes, the US government kidnapped children. To make things worse, the DHS initially lied about the policy to save face, which meant that the record-keeping processes were not updated for the wave of separations. Thousands of children were not only stripped from their loved ones, but the US had no way of reconnecting many of the families they were tearing apart. I feel for those children and their parents and I am repulsed by what Trump did. And the list goes on. Our city shares a border with Mexico and it has shaped the identity of our region in a positive way. I've largely seen our community unify and resist in response to Trumps policies. 

I think it would help for us all to consider the situations of others. Asking questions like what would you do if you were faced with a do-or-die situation that threatened your family? Would it matter, and should it matter where you are from if it meant you had to flee? My wife is an immigrant who was without papers and faced deportation for most of her life. Her mom, a beautiful and intelligent woman with a masters degree from her home-country was forced to flee with her daughter from a violent situation. She came to the US where her education was deemed useless. Without papers, she worked as a maid. The chemicals she used from that job were later considered a contributing factor to the brain-cancer that killed her. I guess what I'm getting at is, this stuff is complex. Let's treat humans like humans and consider what it would be like to experience the painfully difficult shit others are forced to experience just to live in relative safety.


You guys obviously just announced a partnership with War Records to get the demo out on cassette. How did you establish a relationship with Andrew and are you guys scheming on anything together beyond the tape release?

Yeah, we just started working with War Records to put the demo out on tape and to do a limited run of shirts that benefit the International Rescue Committee, San Diego chapter. We're super honored to work with someone like Andrew who's got decades of experience in hardcore. During the COVID lockdown we digitally "met" Andrew after sending War the link to our demo. We were scheduled to play a really cool show with his band Berthold City at Che literally the week that social distancing measures went into place. I think being on the same bill, paired with the release of the demo put us on his radar. As for the future, we've had discussions, but nothing planned for right now.

How are you guys managing the lock down sitch we’re all in....have you found any creative ways to work in music or at least stay connected with each other as a band?

We hold weekly Zoom check-ins. A lot of the lockdown has been dedicated to building relationships, planning, making art for the band, working with War, getting merch made, and thinking about future records. We've also been stockpiling riffs and learning a few covers since we can't practice together yet.

What’s next for you guys?

We're currently planning a potential split and reaching out to a few bands to put that in motion. We hope to move fast on it, but a lot depends on how long social distancing measures are needed.

For people not from your area, give us three local bands people probably don’t know about that they should seek out, and talk a little bit about what makes each one noteworthy.

Three San Diego bands you should seek out:

1) Glean on New Morality Zine. Powerful, youthful melodic hardcore that blurs the lines between Hüsker Du, Title Fight, and Anxious. They're buddies of ours and we love to see them receive well-deserved credit. 

2) Headcount on Safe Inside Records. Danny, who plays guitar, was the vocalist for San Diego band Drug Control and also books for Che. The band has a solid, straightforward youth-crew sound in the same vein as Carry On and In My Eyes.

3) Vile Reality. They've got this mean, old school hardcore punk sound that reminds me of Negative Approach. I'm excited to see them live. Vocalist is Aaron from Orange County's Dare and drummer is Dylen from San Diego's Spirited Away.

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