In the past few years, Harrisburg, PA’s Koji has become just as well-known for his activism, unrelenting positivity, and the intimacy of his live shows as he has for his recorded music. He just arrived home from an extensive North American co-headliner with labelmates Turnover, and idobi editor Eleanor Grace caught up with him at one of the tour’s final dates to talk about how the past two months on the road have treated him, working with a full band, his thoughts on the scene, and how this tour has seen him reclaim his voice.
You’re just about to wrap up a massive North American tour with Turnover, Have Mercy, and Ivy League, and what I think is really cool about this tour is that you’re all out supporting your debut full-length albums. That’s a huge milestone for any artist. How does it feel to be sharing that with these guys?
It’s such a proud feeling to be with people that have become really close friends. Two months on the road will do that to you — bring people together or tear them apart. In this case, I couldn’t ask for a better group of people to be on the road with. And the fact that it’s four bands on four debut full-lengths that all sound so different, I think it really shines a light on our values as bands. Especially for me, talking about diversity and being able to talk about how special every person’s viewpoint is. There’s not one band that sounds like another on this tour, and to do something like this and to have people respond and support every single artist is crazy. So I would just sum it up in saying that it’s just an incredible and truly positive experience.
That’s awesome, man. That’s definitely what you want to get out of a two month tour, because two months is a long time to be out on the road — especially touring not even in a van, but in a car.
Oh, it’s crazy. Yeah. We definitely lost our mind multiple times.
Tell me about that!
I mean, the first week was like, having a tire explode, being pulled over by the only cop in Wyoming and not getting ticketed — we’ve all been pulled over and searched but not ticketed, just because we’re band dudes. And there’s been so much violence on this tour, like people getting stabbed and assaulted at shows — crazy things that you never wish for. Seeing dead bodies in the street and stuff…like, crazy shit. So for us to be able to play good shows and be welcomed by every single music community that we’ve visited — we treasure that. That’s, I think, what keeps us engaged and still doing it — the fact that every community we go to, people take care of each and take care of us and we hope that we can only do the same. For every lapse in sanity, I would say that there is a handful of people there to give it back to us.
How much easier has it been to kind of hold your own, especially on such a long stretch out on the road, now that you’ve got a couple guys touring with you and you’re not just doing it solo?
Oh, it’s great. I love playing with the band. I always wanted to play with a band, but I couldn’t find the people in Harrisburg to play with, so I just started doing this by myself. But now, the guys that I’m out with — Shane Webb on bass and vocals and Willie Rose on drums — it’s a dream. They’re such a good pair of dudes to be backing me up.
How has working with a band changed the dynamic for you, both in the studio and when you’re out on the road?
It’s an interesting contrast, I guess, from my earlier work — it’s far less electric in terms of the full band effort. We wanted to do something that was acoustic, but didn’t sound like an acoustic record. And there’s elements of folk, and there’s elements of punk, but it’s not a folk-punk band. What we’ve kind of realized is this sort of like, post-punk songwriter vision, which is gonna be unique to this project because of the personnel I worked with — Matt Warner from Balance & Composure, Ned Russin from Title Fight, and Brad Vander Lugt from La Dispute. So between them and a range of other guests, we crafted a really cool sound that I think is really unique. And it’s been interesting to see people’s reaction to it, cause it’s not a love/hate thing; it’s not particularly a grower because a lot of people get it right away, but there’s something about it that just sits different. And I think that’s cool. I wanted to make a record that was really different for people that felt really different.
I think that sums up the album really nicely, actually.
There’s too much of this like, template, I think. A lot of people aren’t learning about punk or learning about the scene from going to shows and experiencing it and starting a band or setting up shows themselves — they’re learning about it from Wikipedia and Tumblr. Which — there’s nothing wrong with that because those are great; it’s such a democratic way to distribute information and to share. So there’s great beauty in that. But there’s this experiential learning gap that we need to overcome. We need to get people engaged and really involved with the scene so they have a sense of personal autonomy and ownership over the scene. And I think when we’re looking at a more engaged community, we’re looking at a better community, period. So that’s been, I guess, the message of the record and the message of the show: to empower people’s voices, to say that you have value, to say that you are beautiful and what you do with that voice that you have can be incredibly powerful and moving. This is the space where I realized that. So to be able to bring that to people is an honor, if anything.
That’s amazing, man. What do you think are some of the best ways for people to re-engage, as you said?
We need to address the superficiality of the scene. Like, it’s not about your fucking sneakers. I don’t care what Air Maxes you have. I don’t care what five panel cap you’re wearing. I don’t care what pressing of what record you have or what’s on your iTunes. Like…I do not give a shit. That doesn’t define you. I want to see your heart. And I think you can see that in the small interactions with people. Treating people with respect and dignity, that’s a good baseline for just good living in general — recognizing our equality as humans, and really trying to work towards a place where you accept yourself and where you’re at so you can accept other people. When we look at friction within the scene, it’s the same thing that causes bad energy in your own life — letting fear be your guide over hope and optimism and love. So, I don’t know, I challenge people to be more compassionate, more open-minded and open-hearted to the other people that we share this world with, or a gig space with.
Does the sense of responsibility that comes with that ever weigh on you at all?
I mean, the responsibility that I feel to carry this message…I shed blood, sweat, and tears on stage every night with such urgency because I feel like I’m paying a debt that I will never be able to repay, which is my record collection, and the bands that I listened to growing up, they somehow found me and pulled me out of the darkness. So I’m just singing so hard, playing so hard, and my band’s the same way — we’re playing as if we owe something to the people we’re playing for, and to the artists and to the community leaders that changed our lives. Not everyone frames being in a band and tour life that way, but genuinely that’s our compass — our responsibility to the people.
That’s beautiful. So stepping back a little bit, you put out the new record Crooked In My Mind just a few months ago. Obviously, your debut full-length — that’s a big statement. How do you feel now that the record’s been out for a couple months and you’ve been able to see how everyone’s receiving it?
I feel great. I feel really good. I feel like that’s the weight that I wanted to be lifted. Holy shit, I’m glad that shit is out. [laughs] But just working, being able to work on new material and then play these new songs live feels so great. I’ve been working on songs in between shows and everything, and that’s been a thrill as much as being able to play the songs off Crooked.
I feel like the songs that you’ve been playing on this tour have this whole new energy to them live with the full band.
Yes. I feel like we’ve finally found this balance between like…I would say bands like The Clash and Fugazi up until this point really dictated the content. Those were like maybe the two biggest influences on my music. But then for the record we were also pulling from bands like Wilco or Pedro The Lion. So it’s cool to be able to kind of mash all those influences and realize these full band songs in a brand new way in the live format, which is definitely different from the record.
Outside of just changing up the arrangements and working with a full band on the record, what were you really striving for with this release, knowing that it’s such a milestone to put out your first full-length?
I just wanted to know that I could make a full-length. I set a couple goals when I started doing this. I’m a late bloomer — I didn’t start touring full-time till until I was 23. I didn’t put out my first full-length until this past year, and I’m 26 now. But I decided when I started it, when I was 23, I was like, “When I’m 25, I feel like I might have enough to say for a full-length. So I’m gonna make a full-length, and I’m gonna see the rest of the fifty states.” So after the bus crash on Warped Tour last year, I went and I saw the last of the fifty states, which was Alaska. I Craiglist-rideshared and hitchhiked my way up to Alaska from Portland, where the last day of Warped Tour was. And after that, it like, gave me the time to kind of reflect on the release. We had already started tracking it, but we needed to come home and finish it. And it became apparent that I was just doing things. I was so wrapped up in like, “I need to put out this record, I need to do these tours, I need to do this, I need to do that,” that I didn’t have the space to truly think about the work. And once I had that, the perspective I took away from that trip was that I made this record to confront my own apathy and complacency. I make work to remind myself of that, to remind myself of my brokenness and my flawedness and to say I accept that so I can be one. And I couldn’t verbalize it in those terms until I made Crooked In My Mind. So that was really profound for me and really moving in terms of just reframing exactly what it is I’m doing. So to be able to share that with people, again, that’s an honor because I couldn’t have gotten out from under the rock of my depression had I not had an outlet like music.
It’s pretty beautiful that your music is then able to turn around and do the same thing for the people that listen to it.
That’s the best part. I have kids that have been hospitalized for their depression, for attempted suicide and things like that, and to have kids that are in crisis currently or just come out of that share their stories with me is…is something I don’t have words for yet. It’s very powerful because of my own depression. It’s so moving and it’s really affirming to know that I’m reaching the kids that I want to. I’m reaching the kids that feel left out, that feel like they don’t have a place. To be able to say to them, like I said before, you have value and your voice matters and you have the power to change your situation. It just feels really good because I couldn’t say those things at a certain point in my life. Not to say that I don’t go to that place anymore, but to be able to share that with people in a real, genuine way…I just don’t have words. I’m so thankful for it.
I know you said you feel like a little bit of a late bloomer, but this year’s been pretty crazy for you. Like you said, you marked all fifty states off your checklist, you put out your first full-length, and you spent the last two months touring pretty much North American in its entirety. What else are you hoping to be able to accomplish by the end of 2013?
I went to art school and I dropped out of it, but I have a lot of images — drawings and paintings and photographs — that I’ve made in the years since dropping out. So I’m gonna start putting organization to that and I want to start sharing that. I’m also looking forward to doing some international touring — I get to tour with Slingshot Dakota and Into It. Over It. in Europe coming up. And there’s more on the way. I just feel really blessed for all these crazy opportunities that keep coming up. I thought a long time ago that someone would tell me, “You have to stop now.” And the fact that it’s continuing and that I still get to make music, I get to be involved with film and drawing and photography and of course activism…I’m thrilled. So I don’t know — I have everything, there’s everything to do. I would like to leave this earth doing this shit. I don’t ever want to stop.
What would you say is the most valuable thing that you’ve learned so far this year and taken away from everything?
I keep coming back to that idea of voice, cause that’s been what’s been on my mind. And this tour specifically has been about reclaiming my voice, cause it started to get in my head — I’d hear people be like, “Koji’s too positive. I don’t like what he has to say during shows. I don’t vibe with who he is or what he’s about.” And that will freak you out no matter who you are. I had a conversation with Dan Yemin from Paint It Black, Kid Dynamite, and Lifetime — we live in the same neighbourhood in Philly and we just met up randomly when we were meeting other people at a restaurant. And so we got to talking, and he was telling me about this new band he was starting, and I was telling him what I was doing with all this stuff, with Crooked and everything. And I was asking him what his new band sounded like, and he was telling me the band he would be most influenced by would be this band John Henry West. And I was asking him about that cause I had never heard of them. So he was like, back in ’93, one of the most impactful moments of his life was right before a Lifetime tour, he went to a show and saw and heard John Henry West. And he was like, “It was the abrasiveness of Fugazi, the energy of Chain Of Strength, and the things that he said in between songs so perfectly summed up why we do this, why we’re a part of this community.” And he said it just changed his life. And that’s crazy to me, because as someone that grew up in central Pennsylvania, I looked to Philly/DC/New York hardcore as big influences and of course all of his bands. So to hear that from someone that really shaped a lot of my worldview and music worldview was crazy. That was a couple days before I left for this tour, and that kind of re-framed how I do what I do. I think once I started playing these shows on this tour, I really found my voice again and really felt strong in what it was I wanted to share. And I didn’t fear judgment the way that, you know, all the pressures of putting out the record — I’m not afraid to say that I’m human and it freaks you out. Because it’s not someone not liking a band — it’s someone not liking you. Like, Koji is my name. And to have people make personal attacks on you freaks you out. So I guess this tour and this year has made me stronger in my own voice, and more committed to sharing my vision and empowering other people and not fearing that judgment of the naysayers and the cynics and the negative people. I hope that maybe my story can help bring courage to other people and help them to be brave.