by Mia Hughes
photo: Jimmy Fontaine

“When you start worrying about people’s reactions, that’s when you’re gonna do that shit that nobody likes. People don’t wanna be pleased, they wanna be challenged.” Justice Tripp has been fronting Angel Du$t with that philosophy since 2013 – it’s hardcore punk that has never concerned itself with being hardcore punk, or really with anything that would get in the way of Angel Du$t being pure unabated fun. But this year’s Pretty Buff, their third LP, takes that philosophy even further. One couldn’t call it hardcore anymore even if Angel Du$t wanted you to; a smorgasbord of ideas from ballads to pop choruses to saxophone solos, injected with punk energy but rarely resembling it sonically. It’s the best thing they’ve ever done.

When Justice calls* he’s in the van, on the way home from tour, and it’s been electric. “The reaction has been maybe not what you’d expect from a modern hardcore show. But people are just giving us the energy, and jumping around, and jumping off of things, and expressing themselves in new and unique ways,” he tells me. “That’s the nature of punk rock to me, is expressing yourself however. There’s no rules to how you express yourself.”

Tripp has been in that world probably half his life. Through skateboarding and the time-old institution of the cool older cousin, he fell in love with Minor Threat, Vision of Disorder, Deftones – anything that screamed. “The small details of how fast or well they were playing, or if you have breakdowns – none of that matters. It was just energy.” He started going to punk and hardcore shows in Baltimore, and at thirteen or fourteen he was purified by fire at a Hatebreed show (the shit was beaten out of him, that is): “There was a lot of freaky-looking people in there and just kinda no rules, everybody’s just wild and crazy. That said something to me when I was that age.” In hardcore he had found a release that he had been looking for, and better yet, he could go to school the next day and show his friends the bruises. He was down.

In their teens Tripp and some friends started their own band; it was called Nick X Fury and they proudly touted the motto ‘Teenage Straight Edge’. When that fell apart, a few members regrouped and, with Tripp at the front, they started a new band; though they carried over some song ideas from Nick X Fury, the idea was, in Tripp’s words, to “go way harder”. That band became Trapped Under Ice, a name ubiquitous to probably any fan of hardcore, one of the most definitive bands of the 00s era of hardcore that they caught the tail end of.

Trapped Under Ice announced a hiatus in 2013, and Tripp started writing with some friends from outside of TUI – drummer Daniel Fang and guitarist Pat McRory. “It was less of a strategic move. We didn’t really know what we wanted. Me and Dan and Pat were just writing any kind of song that felt good in the moment.” That coalesced into Angel Du$t’s first EP, Xtra Raw, before a full-length the following year. At the same time, the wheels were rolling on TUI drummer Brendan Yates’ new project, Turnstile. All at once the splinters of Trapped Under Ice were changing the direction of Baltimore hardcore into something fresh, forward-thinking, and incredibly exciting, and both bands rose to the forefront of modern hardcore at much the same pace. “I don’t feel like anybody in our circle is the type to just settle with things,” Tripp tells me. “We all just keep pushing each other.”

Turnstile, by now sharing three members with Angel Du$t, signed to Roadrunner – a major – for their second LP Time & Space. As Angel Du$t approached their third, the conversation began about whether it would be the right place for them too. “Everybody’s got these stories they’ve heard from somebody who’s heard from somebody who was in a band one time and this bad thing happened. And shit happens in any relationship, you know? But you go your whole life just doing everything yourself, DIY, or small independent labels, and it’s a big step.” But knowing people at Roadrunner and seeing the way they dealt with Turnstile made it a no-brainer for the band. Pretty Buff became their major label debut.

The major label budget and production from the ever in-demand Will Yip allowed for Angel Du$t to refine their approach. “There’s always been a conscious effort to explore a new way to project the idea of what we want the band to be,” Tripp explains. “For example, we’ve recorded acoustic guitars on every Angel Du$t recording, but they always get mixed down really quiet or taken out completely because the nature of the song didn’t really work with that type of production. But this time, we built the songs more around the ideas we wanted for production.” ‘Want It All’ is one of the best examples of that, based around jerky acoustic guitar with a great chorus and a goddamn bongo break in the middle. “‘Want It All’ is really big for me because it’s very representative of things that we really like and we’ve never gotten to do. So that song was all new for us, everything about it: the guitar style, the types of chords we were using, the production, the big chorus. It was a little more of a risk for us, and I love the way it came out, and I think people really like that song and the risk paid off.”

For experimentation on that level to come out of hardcore – a scene often plagued by sameness – is exciting, and it seems like in 2019 we’re hearing it more and more. “Innovation is the backbone of punk rock music. Like, ‘This is my stamp, this is our version’,” Tripp tells me. For that reason, he says, Turnstile are the most exciting hardcore band of the moment – that’s his answer without pausing for thought. After pausing for thought: “I think there’s literally so much good hardcore coming out right now that it’s blowing my mind. I actually feel overwhelmed. I hope that the heart of the hardcore community, the youth, understand how special it is right now.” He names bands like Fury, Wild Side, Magnitude, Diztort, Firewalker, labels like Advanced Perspective and Triple B. When he talks about hardcore he’s erudite and enthused, passionate in a way that comes from not just loving something but devoting your life to it.

It’s self-evident that someone who cares for hardcore on that level is still knee-deep in the scene even as his band balloons outward. A part of that for Tripp is Pop Wig, the label he co-founded in 2016 and runs with a commitment to fair business for its artists (a philosophy that recalls Ian MacKaye’s legendary and famously scrupulous Dischord). “In the context of independent hardcore punk, there’s a lot of really poor business happening. I see a lot of times where people get very greedy, and they use the term ‘punk’ as leverage to take advantage of people. We’re just trying to eliminate that guy taking advantage of cool bands, and hopefully breathe some life and inspiration into really cool independent hardcore punk.” Pop Wig releases range from scrappy garage-punk (Razorbumps),to furious crossover thrash (Iron Reagan), to textural post-punk (Big Bite); what’s consistent is his obvious passion and excitability for punk rock music.

That’s the beauty of anything DIY – it only exists because somebody believes in it, and hardcore is that on a gigantic scale. Millions of people in every corner of the globe for 40 years, keeping it alive purely because they believe in it enough. “I think it’s absolutely mandatory to the foundation of hardcore music that it’s DIY, it’s people that are getting involved and doing things themselves. Hardcore ultimately is a youth movement. It comes from young people, it belongs to young people. I get to play to that world, we get to play hardcore shows, and I consider myself a part of the hardcore community. But at the end of the day, I’m a grown man, it doesn’t belong to me. So it’s important to me to see young people still doing things themselves. Doing punk shows, doing hardcore shows themselves.

“I try to apply those DIY ethics, the things that we learned from the hardcore punk community, in what we do with Angel Du$t or with Trapped Under Ice or with Pop Wig. I hold those ethics very dearly. Yeah, we got a manager, and we’re signed to a major label, and we have all these pieces that help our band to get those resources and reach further and do more. But on the other end of that, it’s always gonna be me and my closest friends who started this band, making the decisions and being as involved in every step of the band as possible. We’re not a hands-off band who just says, ‘Okay, book this tour for us and put this record out, whatever, doesn’t matter’.”

That, really, is why it’s beside the point discussing if Angel Du$t are still a hardcore band, or if they ever were. Because when we talk about hardcore as a genre of music, we’re simplifying it. It’s a way of looking at the world, and once you’re in it you carry it with you wherever you go. “People get very critical of hardcore and punk, and I think they underestimate how impacting our world is,” Tripp says. “It’s a platform and an opportunity to relate to people that you wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to. And to hopefully do something about the pain and the hardships that brought you together.” It’s imperative, Tripp says, that Angel Du$t is ultimately a vehicle for creating a welcoming, loving community. It helps that you can dance to it.

*Editor’s note: Typically the Track 7 house style is to refer to subjects by their surnames, but when you come across a sentence as cool as “When Justice calls”, you’ve got to leave it in, haven’t you? Also we’re our own bosses and we do what we want. But just to be clear to those online nerds who scour our pieces for errors so that they can tweet things like “SO MUCH FOR A SITE THAT PRIDES ITSELF ON A HIGHER CALIBRE OF WRITING???’ – this is an intentional stylistic choice because it was funny. Have a cold drink of water and go outside for the afternoon.