Local Wire

Pop Punkers Dogbreth Reconcile Dreams With Reality

Tristan Jemsek, one of the primary representatives of Phoenix’s thriving downtown DIY music community, took off for Seattle early this year, leaving behind his bandmates. Settling in Washington, he took a break from playing music for the first time in more than a decade.

“I spent the first four months there not really playing music,” Jemsek says by phone from St. Louis, where — spoiler alert — he’s playing a show with his pop-punk band, Dogbreth. “It was cool, but it was hard. I hadn’t gone four months without playing a show in 12 years.”

The break allowed Jemsek to devote himself to normal things: going out and seeing shows, “shooting hoops,” and indulging in “some me time.” Most importantly, it allowed him to gain perspective on his band’s third full-length recording, Second Home, which sat practically finished back in Arizona. Recorded with Jemsek on guitar and vocals, bassist/vocalist Erin Caldwell, guitarists Cesar Ruiz and Tyler Broderick, and drummer Liam James Murtagh before Jemsek’s departure, the record sees release August 5 on Asian Man Records. 

The slight delay was worth it. The album is filled with exuberant rock songs, anchored in pop but covering earnest, difficult themes. It’s cliché to apply the “Dogbreth grow up” narrative, but also hard to get around it. Jemsek and Caldwell find resonance in pizza at Christown Spectrum Mall, unattended hot plates, and cramped vans strewn with trash, crafting aching lines about the disillusion that comes with maturity, about “a growing pain that won’t go away.”

Despite its heavy concerns and meditations on adulthood, Second Home isn’t a bummer record, because Dogbreth isn’t a bummer band. Propelled by three-guitar leads, played capably by Jemsek, Broderick, and Ruiz, the album spikes with energy, melding Thin Lizzy melodies and New Wave hooks to pop-punk fizz.

“I just love beautiful lead guitars that are melodic and shreddy,” Jemsek says. “It makes me feel so good.”

You could file it among the albums of contemporaries like Car Seat Headrest, Sheer Mag, or Joyce Manor, but Second Home also taps into the sideways triumphs of vintage college rockers like the Replacements, the Smiths, and Superchunk. It sounds bruised and worn in.

Previous albums like 2011’s Chookie and 2013’s Sentimental Health featured moving poetry in their own right, but Second Home is more focused than ever before. There’s broken-heart stuff, but mostly it’s centered on questions Jemsek found himself asking in Seattle, where he turned 28 and started facing down what another 12 years of playing music might look like.

“I don’t know if a record has a theme until it’s done,” Jemsek says, “but I’ve been playing in bands for 12 years now and touring for 10 of those years. For a while, I was letting songwriting and working on the band get to my head a little bit too much. [I began asking] how should music fit into my life? Where should it be on the priority list? It used to definitely feel like the most important thing in the world, and it’s still the thing that makes me the most happy, but I’ve been trying to put things in perspective more, find a better balance.”  Balance is key these days. It not only informs his artistic approach, but also the practical considerations required to make the band work. The band on Second Home represents the main Dogbreth lineup (though Caldwell has since announced her departure from the band), but in order to tour as much as possible and deal with the economic realities of a band with members located in different states, Jemsek recruits players around the country to sub in as needed.

“I’m thinking of the band like a basketball team,” Jemsek says. “There’s a roster, not necessarily a lineup. There are people who act as starters and people on the bench, friends I can ask to tour when they can.”

The move to Seattle complicated matters, too. Putting down roots in a new town meant adjusting the system he’d developed in Phoenix.

“In the past, I was living in Phoenix, touring for one or two months at a time. I would just move out of whatever house I was living in, put my stuff in storage, and move somewhere else when I came back to make it affordable,” Jemsek says. “There’s definitely an element of sacrificing comfort to be able to road-dog it for so long.”

All that road-dogging has worked out. The band signed to national label Asian Man to release Second Home, and the new record’s received rave notes from Stereogum and NPR Music, which called the album “the work of punks who write youthful, larger-than-life songs that still wrinkle at the edges.”

Plus, the time playing live has broadened the band’s scope. Though ostensibly a pop-punk band, Dogbreth skirts genre, incorporating weirdo touches from outside the punk template: saxophone, plinked keyboards, and most notably, monster grunge guitars — Smashing Pumpkins turbo-charged distortion here, Nirvana’s scuzz pop there, and interlocked Gossard/McCready guitar tangles throughout.

“Make no mistake … our aesthetic is ‘hard grunge,’” an entry on the band’s “Temple of the Dogbreth” Tumblr page reads. The sentiment would call to mind that scene in The Simpsons where one Homerpalooza attendee asks, “Are you being sarcastic, dude?” and his buddy answers, “I don’t even know any more” — that is, if Jemsek’s prevailing mode wasn’t one of hyper-earnestness.

“I’m a very sentimental person for sure,” Jemsek says, laughing at the notion of ’90s nostalgia and a Simpsons reference.

And while grunge begins its transition into “modern” classic rock on radio airwaves across the country, Dogbreth also synthesizes “classic” classic rock. Jemsek speaks fervently about his experience with Bruce Springsteen’s Seattle stop on The River tour earlier this year — Eddie Vedder came out and did a few songs with the Boss, he exclaims — and he says that music by Thin Lizzy and Fleetwood Mac dominates his listening and has become engrained in his songwriting.

“Pretty much all of what I listen to is either bands that my friends are in or classic rock,” Jemsek says. “It just makes up so much of what I listen to — I think a lot of that has been internalized.”

There are dozens of moments on the record that capture the spirit of classic FM, like the triumphant guitars at the end of “Cool and Blue,” the stacked solos of “Do You Really Want Me,” and the charging “Walky Talky.” “To make it sound right, you work so hard,” Jemsek sings in “Almost Right,” but the line goes beyond the sonic aspects of the album. It’s an album about idealism and reckoning with it. It’s not about rock ’n’ roll fantasies so much as it’s about rock ’n’ roll realities. To paraphrase Springsteen’s “Badlands,” it’s not about the dream; it’s about the process of trying to make it real. Trying to make it last.

“I try to write songs in the moment, and be transparent,” Jemsek says. “With these songs, now I can look at them with a clarity I didn’t have when I wrote them. I feel like I barely knew what they were about when I wrote them.”

Jemsek sings “Rock ’n’ roll/won’t make it all okay” on the album’s best song, “Cups and Wrappers.” The line, coming from a DIY lifer who’s dedicated his adulthood to rock ’n’ roll, almost hurts to hear. Luckily, there’s a grace to the way the crashing guitar chords contradict the sentiment.

Dogbreth is scheduled to perform Friday, August 5, at Rebel Lounge. 
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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.