When Illegal Drugs announced their plans for an LP earlier this year, it was anyone’s guess how the record would sound. Would it take the form of snotty street rock like frontman John Robinson’s previous band Turf War? Would it mirror the gargantuan noise of drummer Shane Patrick’s longtime group HAWKS? Or would it fit with the spastic punk of guitarist Joe Hardwick’s work in Husseins? The answer is a Frankenstein-like combination of all three, but to pick apart the elements which make up Illegal Drugs’ self-titled LP is to miss the giant jams and grotesque energy which make the album a serious contender for the best rock record in Atlanta this year.
The band makes their intentions clear from the very first chord of the 10-track record: heavy is good, and Illegal Drugs know how to make smart, propulsive heavy music. In 2016, the idea of hard rock is often met with an eye roll, but for a genre that was always nebulous and piecemeal, Illegal Drugs are remarkably successful in combining intricacy and swagger to reshape the music in their own image. There’s no tough guy posturing or machismo here, simply cavernous riffs and singalong choruses swathed in unrelenting darkness. Vocalist and songwriter Robinson penned many of the lyrics while in a transitional period of his life and the feelings of uncertainty and chaos bleed through the music on every level. Still, all the tracks are surprisingly versatile and feel as appropriate for a party as they do for a breakup or bender. By the anthemic final cut, “I Don’t Sleep Alone,” it’s clear that for Illegal Drugs life may be an endless shitstorm, but they are committed to riding it out till the bitter end.
We caught up with the Atlanta veterans ahead of their record release show at the Earl and first-ever tour, and they explained the formation of the band, their evolving writing process, and how Thunderbox was a catalyst for their album.
In a recent interview, you spoke about wanting to create darker music with Illegal Drugs. Was that borne out of desire to more closely match your influences, or were there some things happening in your lives that you needed to confront?
John Robinson: I go through phases of obsessing over certain things. It was around fall and I was listening to a lot of goth and punk music that made me feel inspired again and it started bleeding over into what I was playing at practice. I wasn’t in a darker headspace as much as I was in a transitional headspace. I went from feeling like I was running out of music to write to going to the practice space every night after work and writing two songs and feeling really excited like I was having a musical awakening.
Shane Patrick: In general, I believe we all like darker music. Darker music in turn makes me feel good, where happy-go-lucky tunes drive me insane.
How has the band’s sound progressed from the early jam sessions at Thunderbox to what we hear on the LP?
Tom O’Neill: John and I began playing together at Thunderbox and really grooved from the beginning. We must have written two dozen songs in just a couple months. They ranged from airy pop to a more dark sound. The heavier pieces really stood out to us both, and those were the tracks that attracted Joe and Shane to the group. So that’s the direction we went. As far as personal life influences go, I’ll only speak for myself here, I’ve always written and listened to more pop-centric music. The past few years have been the most introspective of my life, and this music is definitely a catharsis for my personal crucible.
JR: The early jam sessions at Thunderbox were more scattered in terms of style. Once Joe and Shane joined, the band had more focus on what style we were going to do. From the beginning we were already writing half the stuff on the LP, but when we became a full band we ditched quite a bit of the songs that didn’t fit with the more centered approach.
SP: We’re always working toward being tighter in our execution. We always find little things to trim or clean as we rehearse, but you can’t forget it needs to be fun like those early practices, too. So take the edge off with a beer and don’t take yourselves too seriously.
Is your writing process collaborative or do members write songs individually and then bring them to the group?
JR: Tom and I wrote most of the material by ourselves because it’s easiest for us to write the music. I’ve always written music by myself or with one other person. We bring it to the band and it’s still a collaborative thing but I feel really comfortable writing with Tom and we both get that if a song isn’t gelling than we can let it go or work on it again later. When you have four people getting together to work on a song that doesn’t work out it’s a lot more disappointing that just two guys writing some songs that might not work out. We’re also in the early stages of being in this band so who know’s how we will write songs. That’s how we’ve written them so far.
TO: Our formula for songwriting is John coming up with a guitar riff and vocal melody. He’ll present it to me, usually at one of our homes, and we’ll collaborate on arrangements and additional parts. Thus far lyrics are all from John. From there we play it for Joe and Shane at the rehearsal space. For the most part they’re given carte blanche. On rare occasion are executive decisions made. We naturally have a pretty cohesive approach. Our varying musical pasts and tastes bring lots of different influences to the table. I think that’s what I like most about playing with these three guys. It all comes together nicely.
Each member of the band has a very different music history and some are involved in other projects. Does that make it more difficult for the group in terms of consistent practices and pushing the band forward?
JR: My slates clear.
SP: We’ve all basically cut other projects down to let Illegal Drugs take focus. We don’t usually have any restrictions finding time to play, other than work.
Musically, the LP is dark, but wide-ranging in terms of styles. It’s also very cathartic with a lot of emotional and spiritual purging in the lyrics. Is there any unifying theme to the record?
TO: I think this is a very thoughtful record for all of us. We’re all a little older and farther removed from the 20-something punk attitude that dominates Atlanta’s rock scene. It’s like a reflection of that punk mentality in a dusty old mirror.
JR: Everybody’s got monkeys in their closet; let em’ out every once in a while. The music should be interpreted in whatever way whoever is listening to it decides. If you broke up with somebody and it’s your break-up record, so be it. If you fucking LOVE doing DRUUUGS while listening to Illegal Drugs, so be it. Hopefully no one listens to it and wants to do anything super harmful, but you get the picture. The songs are about whatever they mean to me when I write them but then once it’s out there and recorded they’re about whoever is listening to the songs. All the music I’ve ever loved feels like it was written for me but those songs could be about eating apples or going to school, and I don’t like either one of those things. For the record though, the album is about becoming a successful businessman.
The big hard rock sound of Illegal Drugs isn’t very common in the Atlanta scene right now, were you intentionally trying to stand out or did the sound of the band develop naturally?
SP: When John approached me about joining the band, I was unsure how we would get along musically. But once I understood that the project could be so versatile, it grew quite easily. We write quite well with each other, and if it’s too hard rock for people, then they must not know my background.
TO: We set our course for “dark, heavy rock” and it developed pretty organically from there. Standing out in Atlanta is incidental and exciting. Thankfully there are a handful of good bands we’ve played with in town that fit well with our sound.
“Just by being there, we contributed. It’s hard to pinpoint the boogeyman in that situation. But once I saw the first live-work-play development in Old Fourth Ward, I knew the end was near.”
From the closing of Thunderbox to development on the Beltline, Atlanta has changed so much in the past couple of years. As veteran musicians, how have you learned to adapt to changes within the city and the scene?
Joe Hardwick: There are a lot of factors regarding gentrification which unfortunately led to the closing of Thunderbox. Just by being there, we contributed. It’s hard to pinpoint the boogeyman in that situation. But once I saw the first live-work-play development in Old Fourth Ward, I knew the end was near… Had it not been for Thunderbox, Husseins wouldn’t have evolved into what they were, and I feel Acid Freaks may have never existed. I felt like a chapter of the Atlanta music scene was put on pause when the bay doors of Thunderbox closed. All I can say is, I’m happy that Illegal Drugs formed in the time before that pause. We put a lot of work into this record, and Thunderbox was an integral part to our creative drive. I want this band to do well and hopefully reach a national or maybe international audience. I think we write good songs and that anyone with a similar ear will agree.
TO: Thunderbox left a hole in everyone’s heart. I think it was a massive speed bump to so many musicians in town. But we’ve tried to adapt quickly to keep momentum rolling with the group. We’ve been in and out of John’s home. We rented the dingy-ass basement of a gallery space downtown and recently left when our gear started growing gills. All our amps smelled like a fishing boat! Since we left, we’ve been rehearsing for the tour in my studio apartment. All my furniture is stacked in a corner and I have to lean my bed against the wall. But it’s a worthwhile sacrifice. Once we’re back from the road we’ll be setting up a more permanent studio in East Lake. I’m still waiting for that magical phone call from someone telling me a new Thunderbox has arrived.
JR: Sometimes we get real sad. But we’re still writing music so that’s what matters. We’ll keep practicing and writing music even if we have to move into a house together. Even if we have to move into a one bedroom apartment in Midtown together. Even if we have to move into a bathroom of a one bedroom apartment in Midtown, we’re gonna keep on rocking.
SP: It’s home. You roll with the punches and still push on when you’re forced to move. Music will always keep on truckin’.
This is the first time Illegal Drugs will be out on tour. What are you looking forward to the most?
JR: Showing this band to people outside of Atlanta. I’m proud of this band and I want new people to hear us… and see us.
TO: I’ve never toured the East Coast. I’m very excited to play for people who don’t know anything about us. To be a fresh face in front of people who have never heard us is what I’m most looking forward to.
SP: A New York state of mind.
Now that the LP is out, what are your plans for the group beyond this tour?
SP: We’ve already been writing the second record and eventually need someone to help us fund it so we can keep crankin’ out the tunes!
TO: Once we’re back in town we’re going to start tracking more songs at our new practice space and work on booking another tour for the spring. We accomplished our first full-length LP and booked a tour without any backing from a label or anything and I’m very proud of that. I want to keep the momentum up and do it all over again but faster and better. And harder. And stronger.
JR: Tour. Tour. Write more music. Record more music. Tour some more. I just want to stay being this band. Success to me would be us being able to keep recording and keep touring. It’s pretty hard to make it nowadays so just being a band that can tour a lot and get some respect would be super cool.
Illegal Drugs will celebrate the release of their self-titled LP on Saturday, November 5 at the Earl. Supporting them will be the Powder Room and Day Old Man. Doors open at 9 p.m. Admission is $8. 21+ to enter.