Down Appleton Avenue on Milwaukee’s far northwest end sits what appears to be an abandoned building. You’d miss it if you weren’t looking for it. You might miss it if you were. Next door is Midpoint Motel, where longtime Chicago Bears defensive lineman Bryan Robinson took his final breath on June 11. A few steps from a totaled minivan in its final resting place at the end of unkempt concrete lot is the blighted property’s side entrance, which opens to reveal a musty hallway flanked by even more doors. Behind one of those heavy metal doors, in an unthinkably tiny room, is Direct Hit!, running through material one more time before this weekend’s trio of regional release shows.
The glorified closet—made even smaller by amps, drums, and boxes of room temperature cans of High Life and Pabst—is a curious place for a band to write an album, especially when that band could be the city’s most accomplished act at the moment and when said album is just days from being released on one of punk rock’s most legendary labels. But even on the cusp of Fat Wreck Chords putting out the band’s third full-length, Wasted Mind, the guys in Direct Hit! aren’t about to get ahead of themselves.
“We tried our very best to not believe it was actually going to happen until somebody told us a release date,” singer-guitarist Nick Woods says. “It happens so often where there’s some cool shit that’s suppose to happen and nine times out of 10, nothing even remotely happens that’s anywhere close to it.”
Direct Hit! first learned of Fat Wreck Chords’ interest when some Wasted Mind demos the band sent the label made their way to the label’s co-owner and NOFX front man “Fat Mike” Burkett, who allegedly purchased and enjoyed the band’s 2013 apocalyptic concept album, Brainless God, and liked the new material as well. At least that’s what the band was told.
“It’s happened multiple times with this band. We’re told something will happen and then six months later, it’s never happening,” drummer Danny Walkowiak says.
After months of uncertainty and an expectation the rumored possibility of winding up on the popular punk imprint would have the same disappointing ending of past video game soundtrack offers, promises of a custom beer, and inquiries into their availability to open for bands Blink-182 and The Thermals, Fat actually came calling. A handshake deal was struck and a dream Direct Hit!’s members had since their teens came true.
During the period of record label purgatory, the band kept busy re-writing, perfecting, and recording Wasted Mind at Bobby Peru Recording in West Allis, in Woods’ basement, and at Madison’s Acme Sound Studios with All-American Rejects guitarist Mike Kennerty, who also produced Brainless God. Thinking they completely wrote the record, Direct Hit! received what Walkowiak calls “a scathing review” from Kennerty after sending demos his way.
“We probably wrote, in total, about 25 songs. We wrote 12 at first and sent those Mike, and out of that first batch, three songs are on the album,” bassist Steve Maury says.
Though just a dozen of those 25 songs made the final cut, gaps were filled and songs were bolstered by using components of the 13 unused demos, however small some were. “There’s just little cut up parts, little two-second bits that we’d use as a transition or something,” guitarist Devon Kay says. Further depth was provided in the form of horn, piano, and organ accompaniment from members of The Hold Steady, Something To Do, among others.
The overwhelming ambition of the recorded product is matched by the record’s overarching theme. Like Brainless God, Wasted Mind is a concept album, but instead of dealing with a broad focus like the end of the world, the new record narrows in on one character, their drug-induced hallucinations, the nightmarish things they experience, and the creatures they encounter. Put more simply, “It’s basically just about a dude who takes a lot of drugs and the shit that he sees or she sees,” Woods says. “I thought that was just an interesting way to take it. The horrors that one would see if you get too fucked up.”
Adding to the concept’s madness is the record’s sporadic arrangement and stark difference in sound from song to song. Woods says he was influenced by works like William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, and the drugged-out British War film, A Field In England.
As much work and thought as the band put into Wasted Mind, Direct Hit! isn’t feeling the pressure to sell enough copies and make enough of a mark to stay on the Fat Wreck Chords roster. The goals are simple: keep touring internationally, meet new and interesting people, and enjoy the moment. Maybe countless earlier disappointments have tempered the band’s expectations, but in that dingy room on Appleton Avenue, Direct Hit! seems at ease and eager to share songs that were born behind that heavy metal door with the world beyond.
“We’ve been through a lot of stuff, man,” Woods says. “I’m just glad that we’re still a band.”
Wasted Mind comes out on Fat Wreck Chords on Friday, June 24. Direct Hit! will play its all-ages release show at The Metal Grill (Cudahy) on Friday, June 25 with Midnight Reruns, The Hussy, and Jetty Boys. Watch an exclusive premiere of Direct Hit!’s new Max Hey-directed “Do The Sick” music video below.