by Kristy Diaz
photo: Katie Neuhof

It’s easy to feel like a loser when you live within a system hellbent on making one out of everyone except those in the most extreme positions of privilege. It’s a well-worn capitalist doctrine: failure will show up at any opportunity, the world’s coming at you with everything it has and it’s your fault – so buckle up. Even though it feels uniquely hard right now, the struggle is a constant, a repeating pattern, a choose-your-own-adventure of life shitting on you from a great height – and finding hope isn’t easy, but it is possible. 

I speak with Spanish Love Songs’ Dylan Slocum in what I can only describe as a large conservatory in the back of a Birmingham pub, with only just enough shelter from the relentless cold and rain. It’s Valentine’s Day, but there’s nothing romantic about the surroundings. Tonight is the penultimate show on their UK/EU tour with The Menzingers and Mannequin Pussy, and their third record Brave Faces, Everyone was released a week ago. 

Thematically, it follows the trajectory set by their previous work that has built the band’s reputation for hyper-relatable, depressive punk anthems that speak to a generation for whom failure feels inevitable. But the difference between 2018 breakthrough Schmaltz and Brave Faces, Everyone is a fundamental shift in blame – with the former facing inward, the latter outward. No longer an internalised despair, Slocum’s writing has moved towards the external factors that have left so many people behind: job insecurity, mental illness and economic inequality to name but a few.

It was a very intentional shift, he explains. “We finished Schmaltz pretty much all about me and my struggles. So when it came time to do the new one, I didn’t want to do that all over again. I felt like I said what I needed to say, so I wanted to focus more on people that we’ve met, people I knew, and some greater struggles.” Sounding like he took his Dad’s advice from ‘The Boy Considers His Haircut’ (“Instead of wallowing in my shortcomings, my gross insecurities, be less narcissistic, maybe show some humility”), Slocum decided to “have a little more empathy for the world and stop being so self-centred.”

Even though Brave Faces, Everyone is “focused on those things that feel outside of our control”, he continues, “I wanted to bring it back to feeling like you could get them under control, or at least acknowledge there’s a lot of stuff at play”. And while that stuff is heavy-going, between albums a lot improved for Slocum personally. “If anything, my life got better because we got to do this, you know? I really wanted to try and broaden the scope, mostly because I had spent the last two years in the back of the van and there’s nothing interesting about that.”

And, so, he tells the stories of others; stories of poverty, of gentrification, of loss – a topic that dominates the record, with multiple references to ‘losers’ punctuating the tracklist. It’s a word weaponised by the political right that seeks to create a binary of winners and losers, haves-and-have-nots who earned their wealth or their poverty, and as Springsteen warned in ‘Atlantic City’ – “don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line”. 

I ask Slocum, does he feel like we’re a generation of loss or losers? Have we given up, or have we been given up on? “I know a lot of us definitely feel lost and directionless, and even if we have a direction, it’s leading nowhere. I know I certainly feel that, as a musician in 2020,” he responds. “The original ‘Losers’ is about trying to laugh at that and be like ‘fuck you, we’re losers, whatever it’s great’, and ‘Losers 2’ is the realisation of what that means in a late-capitalist society – born poor, die poor, and probably not have a lot of fun in-between. We’re not adhering to traditional models of success. We’re trying to reframe it, so it’s like, just because you don’t have a ton of money doesn’t mean you’re worthless.” 

It’s a reclamation that comes with conflict, though, as the band’s growth in popularity raises its own questions. How does being a prominent band – within a DIY punk context – line up with those traditional models of success? Does he, despite rejecting them, still weigh himself up against them? “I’ve had to slowly learn not to because this band got started later than a lot of our peers. There’s nothing cool about being 31 and being in a band that’s just starting to get some traction. Like, it’s quite sad to a lot of people that I’m still trying to do this,” Slocum says, as he compares his life to that of his friends who are building careers, having children, buying houses. 

But it’s a trade-off that he, and the band, seem willing to make. Very few people would be shocked to hear that it’s hard to get rich, or even live a comfortable, middle-class life off playing emotive punk songs in 2020. The economics don’t fill anyone with hope, not least Slocum: “As a musician, you probably won’t have that much, financially. It’s truly wonderful to play music to people every night and any day we get to do that is a great day, but in terms of finances, it’s a different story.

“I’m a pretty one-track-minded person,” he continues. “I get to tour the world with my friends, sing music for people every night and they sing it back. That, to me, is successful. Being able to do what you want with your life is maybe the most meaningful form of success because very few people get to do that, especially if they’re not rich. Money allows you to do what you want. The rest of us have to work to survive, and so I feel like we’re hacking the system in a way – we get to do the job that we enjoy.”

Quitting their day jobs – rather than being The Dream, or a marker of the band’s success – was a choice made for them. Within the past year, four-fifths of the band found themselves out of work. “We were terrified,” says Slocum. “That’s not to say that we haven’t received help – I don’t think you can get anywhere without a little bit of help. So, it’s not like we’re trust fund kids, we’re still all pretty much struggling, but we’re trying to be creative about how we struggle. At this point, it’s like, how long do I have before I wear out the people around me, crashing on their couches? I know we’re living that punk life and I hate it. I don’t think it’s cool. But sometimes, there are sacrifices you have to make to get where you want to.” 

That same resolve is apparent in the record. Ultimately, Brave Faces, Everyone is about survival. There’s no denial and no unrealistic depictions that attempt to hide just how fucked up things are, but it isn’t without hope. The album’s closer and title track ends with the same line – “brave faces, everyone” – which isn’t so much a rallying call, rather a playfully sarcastic sentiment that doesn’t let power and capital off the hook, but hints at a better future, a future that is possible, and a future that needs him – and us – still in the ring.

So, how do we make that future possible and fight back when even basic survival feels out of reach – and for some, genuinely impossible? “Oh man, I wish I had an answer,” Slocum replies. “That’s a large part of what the album is about. There’s no answers and there’s no judgements. It’s just, this is how people live, this is a story about somebody and take what you will from it. If you’re on that borderline and are really struggling it’s about finding what’s going to work for you. And sadly a lot of people don’t ever find that, they don’t have the resources to find it.”

He references a comment from the internet, sent by his mother (“she likes to send me stuff that people say about me, it’s great”). “It was like, ‘oh they sure like to complain about money a lot!’, and it’s like, every single problem that we reference on the record ties back to money, so mental health and lack of access to it is often based on your finances,” he begins. 

“That ties into depression or drug usage. Rehab is not free, you know? Even with something like climate change, the reason we’re in the situation to begin with is because greedy people like to make money and then we feel hopeless to change anything. They’re like ‘this is the hottest January on record’ and we’re like, ‘what the fuck do we do?’ We stopped eating meat. We don’t drive our cars as much. And it doesn’t fucking matter because there are people who don’t want to invest and want to keep pillaging for their own gain.

“So it definitely feels helpless,” he concludes, down but certainly not out: “Tax the rich. Give people free healthcare. Do what you have to do to survive, steal from fucking Walmart if you have to.”

Despite the hurdles, the job losses, and the weight of just existing in all of this, he and the band keep showing up, especially for their fans. “When we’re on tour, it’s tough because we don’t get to have bad days. I mean, I haven’t been in a great mood today, but this is someone’s Friday night at this show. They’re choosing to spend a hard-earned resource that a lot of people don’t have a lot of to come hang out with us. And so if I get up there and I’m acting shitty and depressed, I’m letting them down on a level that I can’t stomach,” he says. “They’re escaping, and I’m at my job. And so every time I feel myself starting to slip, I try to pull myself out of it.”

As we speak, Slocum is keen to emphasise that he isn’t a trained mental health professional and doesn’t have all the answers. Nor should he – he’s a musician and a person navigating all the same issues alongside his fans, which is clearly how he is able to write the kind of songs that so many people end up singing back at him with the fervour you will see at any Spanish Love Songs show.  But, his thoughts for anyone struggling to show up, to fight back, to put on their brave face? “You’re not alone. That’s the number one thing our band is about. You’re not alone and there are people like you and some things are your fault and some things aren’t your fault, but no matter what, there’s no judgement – short of doing shitty things to people and harming with intent,” he says. 

“With things like mental health, or climate change, or voting rights, or gentrification – the nature of the system is to make you feel alone or like you are helpless, and I think recognising that is powerful.” Ahead of tonight’s show, he issues a very specific invitation and one I can’t help but welcome: “Come on in, we’ll shout really sad things to each other on Valentine’s Day and then we’ll go home and feel better.”