, the seventh and latest full-length from Punchline, is either a jump off the deep-end or the fitting next step in an 18-year career evolution. It depends on where you’re standing. The album, released on InVogue Records on Dec. 4, is Olympic-tier catchy and decidedly un-punk, a distinction neither lead singer/guitarist Steve Soboslai or bassist/singer Chris Fafalios seem to care much about. Thrilled
is pop, ten strong songs of the stuff, a label the duo are quick to point out has comprised 50% of the “pop-punk” genre they’ve worn since the late 90s.
Punchline has always had two headlines for every story. They’re popular and they’re obscure, risk-taking and unthreatening, unabashedly sincere and deeply self-aware. But that’s extracurricular, that’s for us to worry about; Soboslai and Fafalios are focused on the music and making more of it. After almost two decades, different labels, members come and gone, and seven full-lengths, Fafalios and Soboslai are now the sole force behind the Pittsburgh-bred band and seem intent on continuing until it is no longer physically possible.
On Friday, Punchline returns to Pittsburgh for a homecoming/album release show at Altar Bar, featuring drummer Cory Muro and new guest guitarist Trevor Leonard. City Paper spoke with Fafalios and Soboslai via phone separately, like a vice principal interrogating troublemakers to find cracks in their alibis. Their stories checked out, but we learned a lot.
Did you ever consider putting this album out under a different bandname? Or just starting a new band?
Courtesy of Jordan Tomb
Chris Fafalios and Steve Soboslai
: Absolutely not, never for one second, even though many people told us to do that. For us, Punchline is us. To us, when we listen to it, it’s still Punchline because it’s us.
That’s why I’m flattered to see online the reception of the new record, people saying “wow at first I wasn’t sure but this sounds completely like Punchline.” And I really think that it does.
I think the song “Thrilled” might be the most Punchline song ever. It has to me, it has all the elements that I see would make like a...don’t know if I’m allowed to say this, but like a quintessential Punchline song, but I’m in the band, I analyze what’s going on, what our melodic motifs are, what our common lyrical themes are, and that one really hits it on the head. So especially because of that one, we were like “how could we call this something different? That would just be crazy.”
Chris Fafalios, separately
: I think we discussed it a little bit, of course. But we’ve just been Punchline for so long that it’s like ingrained in us to be Punchline, that’s what people know. It’s a daunting task to start something new, especially when you’ve had 18 years [as Punchline].
So many people that like our band will talk to us about like “I saw you guys when I was in high school” and now they’re like 30 years old, or older. I think that people have grown up with us and we’ve grown up with this band. I’ve been in this band since I was 16, and I don’t know, I just feel like that would be giving up on my life’s work in a way.
What was it like with Steve in Nashville and Chris in Belle Vernon during the making of this album?
: At first we sent song ideas back and forth. It’s actually a lot easier than it would have been back when we started the band or even like ten years ago because it was even to the point on some songs, he’d say “hey, here’s the BPM for this song and here’s the key of this song, just send me whatever you come up with for this” and that’s actually, one of the songs on this new album, it just fit perfectly. Sometimes that doesn’t work, but sometimes that’s fun just to see if something that he has and something that I have fit together just knowing the very basic elements of it.
Which song came together perfectly?
: That was “No Stopping Us.”
Is that the one where you sing?
: I sing the chorus of that one, and Steve sings the verses. That’s the closest thing to an older Punchline song that we had on this album, the more punk one I guess you could say.
What led to the decision to have you sing on it?
: I like to sing. Over the years we always had a second guitarist who also sang. I don’t know if it was a confidence thing. I always felt good writing lyrics, writing melodies, but the dudes I was in the band with were always such good singers that I think I felt a little bit bashful about insisting that I sing. I always sang here and there on the albums, whether it was backups or I got a few lines here and there.
Also, you know, being that when we recorded this, it was just Steve and I being the band. I kinda felt like if I didn’t do a little bit of singing, that it was just Steve’s solo project that I just helped write. So a combination of things but more than anything it’s just because I like to sing.
If somehow you got a time machine and you were able to play Thrilled for young Chris Fafalios & young Steve Soboslai in the year 2000, would they like it?
: I definitely think I would. I think I’d be really psyched about the way it sounded. We were lumped in to the pop-punk category forever, and I totally understand why. We put out an album in 2007-2008 called Just Say Yes where we started getting very, I don’t know if “experimental” is the word, but for us it was, it was definitely a departure. I have been interested in how many people haven’t really mentioned that when they talk about how much different this album is, because I think we started to go there 7 or 8 years ago.
: Probably wouldn’t like it...wait 2000? I might. That’s when I started listening to like Jimmy Eat World and started getting more into like cleaner, pop influenced punk. So 1997-Steve would not like it. 2000-Steve, I would probably like it.
As I’ve listened to Thrilled over the past few days I’ve started to think about how this really isn’t much of a departure for you guys; the differences between this and your older stuff is really just skin-deep. I think fans are very protective of punk, in particular, of it being subversive and representing the margins, so if they perceive it as more mainstream or losing its edge, they feel betrayed. But Thrilled is just as catchy and upbeat and sincere as your previous records, so there’s really not much that’s changed. Would you agree with that?
CF: I definitely think so. What’s funny is the only thing that’s really changed is maybe, we played electric guitars through Mesa amps, that’s just more of an equipment thing. And to call ourselves punk, like I don’t even know, we were punk in [what we played] stylistically but we weren’t really punks, we were just kinda normal guys who wrote pop. Like you’re saying, we’ve always written pop songs, it’s just that maybe there was more distorted guitar on them before and now we’ve tried a little bit of electronic stuff. Just [trying] different sounds to go along with the same type of song that we’ve written, I just think we’ve gotten better at writing those types of songs.
How long have you been working with InVogue Records?
: So we signed the record deal with them a few months back. But we’ve been working that out since probably this summer. And I’ve known Nick who runs the label for about a decade, he was in a band that I worked with in a production capacity then not long after that, started a record label which grew into InVogue Records.
People always say “it’s about who you know,” and what I love about this relationship with InVogue Records is that I’ve known Nick for a decade, I’ve met his parents, I know his family. It came down to ...I texted him “hey do you want to put out the new Punchline record?” and he wrote back “yep.” It was as simple as that.
When did you start writing this batch of songs?
: I would say about three years. Pretty much to right at the end of the last one. The first idea that I had personally was this song “Green Hills.” That was the last song on the album but it was the first idea that I had where I thought to myself, “Wow, I don’t know if we’re gonna do another Punchline record, but this one is going to be set aside for that, if and when it happens.”
Tell me about featured artists on the record.
: Jon Bindley of Bindley Hardware Co sang backup vocals on the song “Answer Me.” Jack O’Shea of the band Bayside plays guitar and has a guitar solo at the end of the song “Let it Rise.” Who else is on there? Tim Nelson from the band Smile From Tokyo, from NYC, appears on the song “Oh Sierra.”
How long have you known Chris?
: I have known Chris since high school. We rode the bus together. Then we became friends through a mutual friend who I had never met, just got my number and called my parents house and asked me if I would start a band with him and Chris. And we jammed and I remember that no one in their band had ever really played their instrument. Everybody had an instrument, and I was only like a week ahead of them, as far as guitar playing, but hey, I knew chords! Then not long after that, me and Chris, we paired up with PJ and started Punchline, total like garage-rock style.
Has your and Chris’ working relationship changed?
: I guess it’s changed in that it’s become more streamlined over time and us realizing that he and I are the common threads because people keep coming and going. I think the way in which we communicate and like speak this secret creative language has been a big part of why Chris and I continue to work together.
What can you tell me about this show on Friday?
We had a new album just come out, we’ll be playing a little bit of that, but we’re also gonna try to span the entire career of our band as far as the setlist. A cool thing about Pittsburgh shows for us has always been more than just a show, it’s been like a big gathering of friends and people we haven’t seen in a long time. Try to make it a pretty party-like atmosphere and I think...among friends and people we know, because we’ve done Punchline shows and done them sparingly in Pittsburgh over the course of our band, it’s always been like a special night, it’s been an event. I hope that people that maybe don’t know us personally, maybe hung out with us once or twice, that we try to make it more of like an event than just a show, and make it a really cool night so I hope that anyone who comes out feels that and knows that that’s what they’re getting into.