Face To Face – ‘We wrote this record as our last album’

Words: Miljan Milekić

For the past three decades, Face To Face have been one of the staples of the South California punk rock scene. And they still are. Massively influential, your favorite band’s favorite band, they recently released a brand new album ‘No Way Out But Through,’ via legendary Fat Wreck Chords. We teamed up with the band’s bassist Scott Shiflett to talk about the new record, what it means to the band, and much, much more. Check it out below.

Hi Scott! How are you? How’ve you been spending these crazy two years?
Scott: A whole lot of nothing, just like everyone else. It’s been a crazy year and a half, as I’m sure you know. We had started making the record right at the beginning of the lockdown, back in March of 2020, and had to stop after getting just the rhythm tracks done. Then, we waited for three months to start working on the record again. And then, in the ensuing months, we had mixes, changing of the mixes, and all that. So, in a very sort of drawn-out way, I felt productive. I had something to do, to concentrate on the record, even if it was while being stuck at home and watching a lot of Netflix and crap like that.

It gave me that mental bone to chew on and stay focused on something. It was almost a great lifeline to get through this last year and a half, but with the downside of all other plans like touring and playing shows getting canceled. We have done a little bit, we played three or four shows a few months ago, and then we played here in California, in San Pedro, which was fun. But it’s not like we’re up and working right now, we’re just doing these sporadic things. It feels great to feel the volume and the roar of being in the band, but it’s not like we’re on the road or anything.

So, to be honest, I’ve just been spending a lot of time at home playing guitar, which is what I always do anyway. You know, not Face To Face related stuff, just staying creative, staying busy. Nothing the world is waiting on. And just stupid shit like riding my bike, you know, I don’t have a real job or anything. All my energy is usually band-related, so I’m just waiting for the world to clear and for our opportunities to kick in. I know a lot of bands that have already taken the steps and made those moves. Some are out touring even now, but I think it might be a little early. But honestly, I don’t play a very active role in the booking and stuff. I put all my energy into writing, producing, and performing the music and leave the steering of the ship to other people.

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And how happy are you with the feedback for the album so far?
Scott: You know, we’re not a band that flies high above the radars. Our stuff’s not getting discussed in Rolling Stone and shit like that. What I do hear and experience is what fans of the band have to say, and it’s been overwhelmingly positive. I’m sure there were some detractors out there. There always are, you can’t please everyone. And we don’t make the music specifically to make other people happy. The way Trever and I write and work together – we’re both strong-willed, creative people, and pretty much just have to please ourselves and each other, which is enough of a balancing act without trying to factor in everybody else’s opinion.

So, of course, you hope that people dig what you do, and you don’t want people to be unsatisfied with your efforts. But you can’t let that dictate your course of action. You got to write how you feel. Trever and I are our ultimate bullshit meter. We keep each other in check if we think we’re phoning it in. We’ve got 25 years of a working relationship, and we know what to expect working with each other. So we bring what we consider our A-game, whatever we’re doing. So ultimately, that’s where the real work goes down. And you never know how people are going to respond. People might love it or hate it.

And who knows, maybe it was a year and a half in isolation that worked in our favor? People were starving for some good, hard-hitting, punk rock, rock and roll, whatever you want to call it. So, what I get are comments on Instagram and stuff like that. That’s been my personal barometer because we aren’t out playing many shows, so there’s not much of an opportunity to see people out there in the real world. So, I just hear it online, and the result has been overwhelmingly positive. You know, we’ve put our effort, we’ve put a lot of love like we always do. We always want to make a great record, and they don’t always come out that way in people’s eyes. But this one seems to have gone over well, which does please me immensely. I’m no different than anyone else – I like being liked. (laughs)

I think it’s fair to say that you haven’t really reinvented the wheel with the new record, but you offered everything we would expect and we love from Face To Face. But once again, you made it sound fresh and new. How challenging is it to keep doing what you do best, and never become stale or repeat yourselves?
It can be challenging to some degree. On one hand, you have the stylistic limitations of what you can and cannot get away with within any genre. You step too far outside that realm, and you’ve essentially abandoned that zone that you’re working in. To whatever degree you acknowledge it or not, you have fan and follower expectations, and you can’t deviate so far that it’s anomalous to the rest of your catalog. We have actually done a bit of that, and the music might be rewarding to us on an artistic level, but it’s challenging for our fan base. So, we want to keep our craziest ideas for our side projects in favor of the more straight-ahead rock and roll. But then, you can only use so many beats and chord progressions that are satisfying to the human mind and soul, and let’s be honest, they’ve all been done a thousand times.

But my sense of creativity is boundless, and I know Trever‘s is as well. Music is an emotional medium, and there’s always an emotion to get across. And we can just get this out of the way right now in this interview – yes, Trever and I wrote this record specifically as the last album. We could go on as a band for ten more years, but we feel that we’ve done it, in terms of the records we want to make with this band, without getting into stale territory. So it’s interesting, if you stick too close to the script, they accuse you of treading water. If you deviate too much, you’ve abandoned your sound. So it is a balancing act.

And it’s interesting because a lot of bands I grew up on managed to do that. They created a new record that did not sound like the previous one, and it was still satisfying. It felt like a proper evolution for the band, it was interesting and different, but it was still something that you felt you could go with. I love music, I will ’till the day I die, and any opportunity to work on an album project, I want to put that love into it. So there’s never been a cold and remote phoning it in for me. Maybe I don’t always hit the mark with our fan base with my creative instincts, but my creative instincts are always alive. And it was all-in with this record as well.

I wanted this record to sound so good that you don’t even have to like the band or the songs for it to feel good just to fucking play the thing. Because music, on top of being a medium for a point of view, and Trever is fantastic with his lyrics and conveying a point of view, it is also a visceral thing. I want every fucking kick drum to knock you in the chest. I want the rumble of the bass to shake your house. Music needs to feel good, sound good, be delivered with passion, and be performed well. I want the whole package. Honestly, as you’re doing this stuff, you’re always aiming as high. Your goal is always high, and the results never quite live up to it. So every record, including this one, as we were running out of time and budget. But I’m still trying to get it just a little bit farther. So, there’s never any sleepwalking. There’s never any lack of care.

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And once it’s over, I have to walk away from it for a couple of months and not go near it, so that I’m not stuck in that mindset that I didn’t get there. And then, the other day, when the record came out, Trever was on his own tour, and I was driving out to a friend’s house and decided that would be a good opportunity to listen to it. Not to mention that I have it in so many different mixes and files, I practically forgot which ones were which. And I didn’t want to listen to it anymore and to accidentally get used to listening to the wrong mix.

So I listened to it on the drive and I was stoked with what I was hearing. I was happy with it, and I felt good about it. And that’s when I texted Trever to say – “Hey man, congratulations, buddy. We did a great job.” I know that sounds a little self-congratulatory, but Trever and I being the primary writers and producers, a lot more of the vision is resting on our shoulders. So we had that moment, and we did it again as a band the other day when we finally all got together because we hadn’t actually seen each other for a while.

So, no sleepwalkers in this band, only people that love music. Even Danny and Dennis that aren’t writing the songs are highly opinionated and passionate people. There’s no just showing up, getting through it, and going home. We have to also then pass muster with them. Everyone’s got to feel that they’re performing well, that they’re being well-represented, and that they’ve got something to really do. So we all feel really good about it.

And you’re right though – we aren’t reinventing the wheel. And I don’t think that it’s all that important that we try to prove that we can change music as a medium. I call it rock and roll. I don’t care if it’s punk rock or hard rock. I said that once in front of some young guy in a band, and he got mad. He hated that term. (laughs) But I can’t help it. To me, it’s all rock and roll, and I don’t do it to reinvent the wheel. I do it to tap into that feeling, that universal energetic current that gave me so much throughout my life. I want to honor it.  I just want to do the thing and do it with passion and creativity. To just nail it. 

Face To Face has been a band for three decades now, and you’re part of the ride for the vast majority of that time. How does it feel to reflect on the past, and the fact that as a band, you went from cassettes, hand-made fanzines, and show posters, to the time of streaming services and social media, and still remained relevant while keeping your integrity?
Scott: Well, it’s interesting because I only joined in ’95, though I was already a fan of the band, having the first record, and all that. So I’ve been aware of them since the beginning. And to be honest, we’ve never operated at a huge level. It’s been a DIY band from then to this day. If you were at the show the other day, you saw me breaking down with my own gear. We still operate like a garage band, like we’re 22-year-old guys. We’re just old and gray and wrinkly, but the passion is still there for the music and for the band.

We were a band before you had cell phones or computers, you know, the band driving around in a renovated airport shuttle van and all that kind of crap. Yeah, we had tour buses for a while there, the middle, when we could sustain that kind of thing, but we don’t do that much anymore. We mostly take out vans or Bandago, it needs to be cost-effective. We’ve always been open to that. It is true that it’s not always easy, but it’s been kind of easy for us.

And don’t listen to any band that tells you they’re not trying to increase their yield, so to speak. They are lying to you. Everyone wants to branch further. They want more people to listen. They’d like to have more financial support. And I do remember the guys in Fugazi saying that your band can’t be your main source of income. I understand and respect that point of view, but I don’t have an option. I have to walk that line. But we, as a group, never curtailed our artistic vision to try to coincide with trends or to capitalize on those trends. Our band, as a whole, doesn’t have the skills to do that anyways. We can only do what we do and be able to go out and replicate that on a night-to-night basis.

We were never a band that took out sequencers and prerecorded tapes and anything like that. And I know a lot of huge bands who pat out the band with studio guys hiding in the background, who use prerecorded tapes, and they still call themselves a punk rock band. I don’t know – maybe that’s punk rock. I guess it’s a subjective thought, whatever floats your boat. But to me, the fact that we go up there and it could be a disaster, or it could be, what I consider brilliant, on a night to night basis, means that the danger is alive. It’s still a living, breathing entity to this day. There’s nothing professional about us. We sink or swim by the whims of the night.

And I know that sounds like a corny-ass cliche, but it’s very true. Our music is pretty fast-paced and tight, and we are reliant on unknown quantities of equipment and other personnel, like sound people that we don’t take with us because we can’t afford it. So every night, we’re throwing those dice and hoping to come up with a workable thing. And because our music is so human and physically driven, we have developed a certain amount of force with what we do that pushes through a bad experience and pushes through obstacles.

The way I play bass in Face To Face – I don’t have a backout plan. I can’t fake my way through it. So, when things are going rough up there, I am faced with the most brutal element, to try and keep that alive, because what I do up there is core to the structure of the band. And I know a lot of people can just throw their arms up and let it fly, but I don’t have that as an option. I’ve developed a sense of – do or die. Push your way through it, and make it happen. And that commitment, to wanting to be as good as we can be, never dies. Whether it’s ten people or 10,000 people, there’s no other version of the band. They all get the same effort out of us. Every show, I come off stage drenched with sweat.

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I know I’ve deviated from your question, but in reality, we’ve always been open to fanzine people. Back in the nineties, with snowboarding, skating, or motocross videos, we let them use our songs for free, without even permission. We were never going to go after them. Now, of course, if Martin Scorsese wants to use a song, we’ll have to bring a lawyer in or whatever, but if it’s just a guy putting out a video, we’re not going to squeeze him for money or something. The band has always been pretty street-level in that regard.

And you’re right – staying relevant is difficult because no musical genre stays particularly relevant after five to seven years. Most of them only last two or three. So, once you’ve established a thing as a band, it doesn’t take very long to become culturally irrelevant. You age out a little bit of what’s happening. You’re yesterday’s news to some degree, and you’re that for a while until you’re resurrected as a survivor. And the trick is not dying during those years where you sense the sea change, and the younger, cuter version of what you do is now the hot thing, and nobody gives a shit about you. And you’re not making very commercial music because you’re sticking to your guns. You know, people in the music industry might consider the name of our band to be yesterday’s news. They might consider our age bracket to be unmarketable.

But my passion for music is as alive as it was when I was 16. And that’s what’s real to me. What else am I going to do on this planet? I’m the kid that fucked off his life to play rock and roll, and I’m still here, and I still have opportunities to do that. So by God, I will take that opportunity, whatever it looks like. I love it. My ego isn’t so big about it that I think I should be headlining the Forum, and if I’m not, I won’t do anything, you know? Yeah, I’ll play your club, and I’ll rip it to pieces. And I’ll have a great time doing it. Quite frankly, history is full of brilliant, beautiful, talented people that never got a shot at their dream.

I know tons of brilliant, passionate musicians, that wanted it, that loved it, that gave it their all, that just couldn’t keep it afloat or get an opportunity to do it. My heart goes out to them. My hat tips to them because, in my opinion, my life is closer to The Rolling Stones than that. I got to spend the bulk of my capable years making records and touring the world. I got to see the world, and I got to feel the comradery of a band. I got to fight with my brothers, and I got to hug them. So, I really do consider myself one of the luckiest people that ever wanted to play in a band. And I don’t dismiss that lightly. It’s meaningful to me. It gives me the passion and strength to dismiss all the other stuff.

I didn’t get into rock and roll to buy mansions. I didn’t get into it to buy motorboats and stuff like that. Of course, if that money came along, that would be great. You know, I live my life on the edge of paying my rent. I’d like that to not be the deal, but that’s also common. It’s not unique to me or my life. Far more capable and as impassioned people as myself never got anywhere near the chance and the opportunity that I got. So, I do consider myself one of the lucky ones.

Around two years ago now, you released the live album ‘Live in a Dive.’ How weird was it to see that record be the only experience the fans could have of hearing you live for quite some time, with all the lockdowns and travel bans that happened in the coming months?
Scott: Honestly, that one seemed to fly a bit under the radar, unfortunately, because I thought it was a terrific live album. I thought the performances were dynamite, and Siggy did a fantastic job on the mix. In the long run, we considered it more as an addition to the first one – we didn’t wanna repeat songs that were on that record, in spite of it being such a long time since.

We recorded three nights at Saint Vitus, and we wound up all getting really sick by the third day. We were all staying in this weird little Airbnb or something. I would spend the night on this loft that was so high up that I was scared to come down. We were having a few drinks after every show, and I was like – “I’m gonna break a fucking leg!” I think I pissed in the guy’s vase ‘cuz I didn’t wanna climb down the ladder. (laughs) So, by the last night, we were all catching colds. I remember trying to hit some of those background notes, and my voice is flipping like a teenager. Maybe that was why a couple of things weren’t usable, but we got it. I always wanted to get a good version of ‘Resignation’ on a live album. It always seemed weird that that wasn’t on the first one. So, I was just glad we got that. 

I’m not overly familiar with the format. I know that Fat Wreck Chords does these ‘Live In A Dive’ records with their bands, and the one complaint I saw at the time was that a couple of people thought the record was too short. But I just thought it was a good record length, you know? I mean, I didn’t wanna be the band that’s giving people 28 songs to slog through. I don’t think anyone wants to hear that much of anyone anymore. I think a good twelve-song record is a respectable length, and since most of our lives set is comprised of the songs that are on the first one, we didn’t wanna be repeating any of those tracks and having comparison issues. So, I think it’s a killer live album, but it does seem to be the dark horse, in the sense that it just came and went. I don’t hear about it too much from people. I might even listen to it today since you brought it up, you know? 

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So, there’s one more thing I would like to talk to you about. Back in 2018, you released ‘Hold Fast,’ giving your songs an acoustic makeover and breathing new life into them. As I remember, it was something your fans asked you to do for quite some time. How different was it to work on a project like that, compared to your “plugged” albums? I know that for some artists it may be more like a side project or something to do while working on a new record, but it seems you really took this one seriously.
Scott: Well, here’s the thing. The current lineup of this band is different from the original lineup. We don’t have Rob [Kurth] on drums, like when I first joined, and we don’t have Chad [Yaro] on guitar. And whereas I love those guys, they weren’t necessarily strong musicians. But in Danny [Thompson] and Dennis [Hill], we have two top-notch musicians. And with me, you have somewhat of a secret weapon because I can do so much on bass and guitar. My influences and stylistic parameters are fairly wide. And once again, not to pat myself on the back about it, but that might not be a common trait with a lot of people in punk rock bands.

But the reality of how that record came about is sort of interesting. That was never a huge game plan. What we had in the previous year or so was that Trever had started arranging meet and greets at our shows. It was a way to interact with fans that wanted something a little bit more special, and for a slightly higher ticket price, they could meet the band and all that. But meet and greets are actually spending a few minutes talking with the band, getting your picture, or maybe a T-shirt. So it was really Trever‘s idea. He wanted to do something more special for these meet and greets. So, we cooked up about ten or so songs for the acoustic set that we would play privately earlier in the day for the meet and greet people. And at that point, it was really stripped down. I was on acoustic guitar, it was all three acoustic guitars.

So, it wasn’t that it was a throwaway idea, but we approached it so casually and off the cuff that we weren’t overthinking it. And when we were doing those performances, we weren’t considering that we were laying the groundwork for an acoustic record. We were just having a good time. Then we had a day off on tour, and we decided to go into a studio and make a demo. We just basically did most of the set, but we didn’t even get through all of it. And Mike Cheese, our manager at the time, heard the demo, and he got really excited. And Trever and I had already started thinking about working on a new full punk rock record; I may have even started demoing some ideas.

But Mike wanted to take a left turn and make a real acoustic record. Now, I just figured we would go in and replicate what we had already been doing at the meet and greets, but when I showed up, Mike wanted full-band performances. He wanted Danny behind a real drum set, not just a shaker, and he wanted me on bass. So it was interesting because it’s such a lush and well-made record that it would fool you into thinking that we pre-planned it and worked it out. We literally sat in a circle in the studio and discussed alternate ways we could approach songs. And no rehearsal, I never had time to think about what I was gonna play on bass. I figured I’ll record on acoustic guitar and then overdub bass, but he wanted me tracking bass. So I never even had a chance to think about what I was gonna play. I didn’t even bring a bass. I just used a bass that was at the studio.

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We literally just talked it through, went in the room, and that would be it. And then I would overdub guitar and, you know, add a bunch of extra guitar parts and stuff. Lay down the parts, and discuss how the next song would go. And that’s just how we did it. It was really in the moment, absolutely spontaneous. I was honestly making up those basslines because I can’t just replicate the studio versions when you’re changing a song that dramatically. It just won’t work. But, you know, I know my way around the instrument enough that I was making that shit up here and then laying it down, almost live, in an instant. And then overdubbing guitar. It was a real, living, exciting, fun thing to do. We didn’t overthink it.

We weren’t trying to prove that we’re some Americana band or anything. Anyone can play acoustic music. It doesn’t belong to anyone. We’re just as entitled to make one of those records as anyone else. And I honestly felt that doing those treatments showed the songs are more than just loud and fast, that they are well-constructed songs, with heart and meaning behind them. And it was an interesting thing and way for us to do that. So I’m real proud of that record. I was hoping we would actually branch off and do more of those shows. We did a tour doing that, and it was a lot of fun. I mostly play with a pick in the punk rock version, but I played fingerstyle for all that, which was fun. It was different, and I really enjoyed it. I wish we had done more of it.

And here’s the truth – we actually did eventually go back and record six more songs that to this day have not been finished. I think they’re mostly finished. They just need some background vocals, but we’ve never gotten back to it. The discussion was that we would re-release the record with those extra six songs as bonus tracks. So those are out, those exist, and we just eventually have to get to it. I know I laid down some beautiful guitar playing on a couple of them that I hope to see the light of day someday. So, it sounds overthought, but it wasn’t. It was really a very off-the-cuff casual, living, breathing moment to make that record. And I’m really stoked at how it came out.

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