The Fine Art of
Ink & Dagger
Nathan T. Birk
In both sound and vision, Ink & Dagger is light years beyond your stereotypical punk band. Formed only three years ago in Philadelphia, Ink & Dagger was initially beset with equal amounts of controversy and hype, mostly due to their vampiric appearance and the fold-out tombstone cover of their first 7-inch; sadly, most people overlooked the band’s sound in the process. But on their latest album, The Fine Art of Original Sin , Ink & Dagger are dead-set on destruction: coming closer to an aural scissorfight than any American post-punk band before them, the band’s bolder, more refined sound is an amalgam of tweaks and modulations, knives and blood, pokes and prods, revolution and transgression. Gearing up for a European tour this summer, vocalist/lyricist Sean McCabe took some time to expound on the fine arts of sin and revolution.
Ink & Dagger are touring Europe come April. Have you guys ever toured over there?
We just were over there a little less than a year ago, touring Europe with Refused. Granted, that was a very awesome experience, and crowds were definitely receptive to what was going on. It’s interesting to see what countries and “scenes” are more receptive to bands like ours, meaning that we’re not the typical “mosh-it-up-go-fucking-wild” band. Sometimes, that’s obviously what people were expecting, and it felt awesome to be able to turn the tables and surprise them. This time should be no different, and if anything, it should be more challenging since we’re headlining. The sincerity and passion that drives a lot of the people in European countries concerning punk rock is something that simply amazes me, given that us Americans are so often jaded about what we have over here. Being in places and situations that are completely new and strange to us always end up to be super learning experiences, and I don’t see this one being any different. Needless to say, we are definitely excited about returning.
How would you characterize Ink & Dagger’s musical evolution? Specifically, would you say your bold, new sound is a refinement of your old one, or an entirely new aesthetic altogether?
If I had to categorize what was happening with Ink & Dagger now, the only word I could accurately use is “progression.” After being in the same band for the past 3 years, there’s never been a point where we have drawn a certain line and said, “We’re going to completely change our sound”. Keeping that in mind, everything that we’ve been doing has drawn from what we were playing in the past, with the natural addition of everyone’s particular view and impressions. We’re still Ink & Dagger, and we try to make that point come shining through in everything we do. This “bold, new sound” is very much our own, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. We’ve been learning and developing certain ideals and sounds over time, and they are definitely beginning to take shape and influence our music and theories altogether. Keeping this interesting and challenging to everyone involved in the band, while still providing the dedicated masses with entertaining and though-provoking music and ideas is what we aim for, so naturally we have the choice of either staying the same and hope people are still into it, or instead, take a more selfish approach and see how far we can press the envelope.
How long has it been since you guys discarded the face paint and eyeliner? Why did you decide to lose it, and what was the impetus for wearing it in the first place?
Whereas in the beginning it was very commonplace to see us don the face paint and what have you, again over time, it has decreased. I’d like to think that the trade off for such dramatic instances were because of a new interest in other areas of the band. What drove us to do things like have the light show, the makeup, etc. was stemming from a fact of being “over-dramatic”, to go over the edge a little bit, to garner the attention that we felt was needed to have a worthwhile effect on the masses. Now that we have people’s attention, such tactics are often put to the side so new ones can take precedence. It was very discouraging to have people only see us as “that emo-goth-core band that wears makeup” when there was much, much more to the puzzle. With that said, I don’t think you’ll exactly never see us use that imagery again either. We’re going to keep it spicy and interesting to us, while still keeping everyone who has watched the band for awhile now on their toes.
Not that the facepaint wasn’t cool (in fact, it was), but do you find audiences taking Ink & Dagger more seriously now?
I don’t know, to tell you the truth. I think we are in the period where people don’t know what to expect, and some of the less open-minded folk are feeling let down because we don’t play the same songs, do the same things, etc. That actually makes me happy, because it means we’re not sitting in the mediocre, complacent holes that so many bands dig for themselves. We’re changing things up, and maybe even changing things period for the whole. I am trying to think about what if I was in the audience for the past 3 years, and what if I saw Ink & Dagger go through this time without having the knowledge of all the behind-the-scenes occurrences. I think I would feel rewarded and delighted. I can understand that some people never really took this band seriously, and in that, that’s what drew them to like us in the first place. However, seeing that it was a serious moment from day one, I hope those people don’t feel too jilted that we’re still around. It’s all part of a well-detailed and thought-out plan, so this process of weeding out those that might not take interest in what we’re doing is all part of it as well. It’s like the people that show up to our shows, and yell out names of the bands we’ve been in before this. We feel that one of the major factors that is detrimental to punk rock is that most of the people involved are so damn obsessed with the past, and when people get upset when we don’t play all the songs off our earlier records, or we don’t subscribe to the same tactics that we’ve used in the past, it’s like the perfect proof that we’re doing the right thing. We’re becoming our own example in this, and that strengthens us to continue on.
What are the origins behind the band’s name? Aesthetically, what does it say about Ink & Dagger’s sound?
Ink & Dagger — the two words single-handedly take on multiple meanings. Ink, as in writing and composition, as in words and structure; dagger, as in weapon, and in strength, as in fighting, revolution, rebellion. Together, the two words take on meaning as a combination of permanency, forever, much like the old style of tattooing warriors for battle — using the ink and the dagger to etch words or ideals forever into your skin, your body, your mind. Keeping this in mind, the approach we use with the band is one of an angry fight, much like the one revolution we’ve heard so much about in the punk realm of thought. — “forever fighting….”
Tell us more about the Philadelphia society for future vampires, such as functions, members, and what not.
It’s an organization we have established in order to keep track of what’s going on behind the scenes. It keeps all the progress, information, experiences, and personalities we encounter organized so later on we can draw logical conclusions concerning what we have done in relation to what we originally set out to do. It’s a separate entity designed to keep us thinking, so we don’t wind up getting lost in some egotistical rock ‘n’ roll world that so many of our peers currently subscribe to. Everything that people send us, everything that we have done or seen is kept, and, hopefully soon, we’ll be able to actually have more time to develop some interesting results. I’d like to see the P.S.F.V. start publishing more information, but for now, given the time involved, there is still a multitude of gathering that still needs to be done.
What were the main musical and lyrical influences on The Fine Art of Original Sin ?
Our music and lyrics are directly influenced by life, mainly the dark, psychotic side of life. We are sarcastic in our motives, and we again try to use ourselves as an example of what’s going on instead of becoming these icons directing a way. It almost seems pagan to think about the class system divisions of punk, so where we draw influence is from our own personalities and they are as eclectic as can be. I think we came close in documenting all the different sides of the puzzle on the record, and I am sure we are going to continue to show more sides as time goes on. As far as direct influences, again, I don’t think there were any set direction or things that had an overwhelming effect. Naturally, our environment, growing up in Philadelphia, our sarcasm, our strengths, our mischievous sides…they all played a large part.
The electronic moments on the new album, namely “Vampire Fast Code Ver. 15” and the drum ‘n’ bass remix of the title track, worked exceptionally well. Is this a signal of a new approach for Ink & Dagger?
We decided long ago to use new instruments in the approach to our sound. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that the band is dominated by electronics in any way, but they definitely play their part. When you get in the realm and range of using such instruments, you run the risk of overuse and pigeonholing yourselves. Those songs utilize the electronics well, as well as most of the album. The most enjoyable thing is that not many will be able to directly point out where the “electronics” are used, and that’s mainly what we we’re after. To have all the sounds become balanced, without one necessarily being dominant, is one of our goals. Accenting certain parts to add surprising flavor always is better than to throw some token cool part in the mix. However, with the inclusion of these instruments, you can definitely expect the range of musicianship to be affected. Don’t be surprised to hear some songs with no electronics, and then again, don’t be surprised about the songs that are completely electronic.
Ink & Dagger is often viewed as a rather deadpan serious group. My friend Rob from the band Koufax played a show with you guys not too long ago, and said all of you got really drunk and vomited all over a bunch of Christmas trees. What are five “un-serious” things people would be surprised to know about Ink & Dagger?
Wow, that sounded pretty scandalous, for sure! I don’t know what really designates something as “un-serious,” but if you’re looking for something a little off the wall, I can at least indulge that far without giving away too many of our secrets: Feline Photography, the Lighter Game, Intentional Flipping of Automobiles, Liquid Morphine, and the usual share of mischief are all things that we all partake in, so the story (Rob) tells is pretty tame.
Many of your lyrics deal with destroying “the system”–in particular, “Vampire Fast Code Ver. 15”–but you also reject the music industry in “The Six Feet Under the Swindle,” thereby rejecting money, the most powerful tool in destroying anything. Not to sound presumptive, but wouldn’t it be more subversive–and, in turn, more destructive to the system–to sign to a major label, where you can reach and possibly influence a wider variety of listeners and destroy the system from the inside, rather than wallow in the underground and futilely cling to naive ideals? Basically, is preaching to the converted all that effective, or does Ink & Dagger have non-musical ideas/weapons up its sleeves?
Preaching to the converted is one of the downfalls, definitely, in the realm and genre of punk music. We’re very angry and pissed, so naturally that comes out in the lyrical approach. However, I don’t think that I am rejecting money in that song, but rather, the way our peers get “stars in the eyes” concerning musical endeavors–people that once stood in the same places that we currently do are more often ready to trade their own ideas in for some quick cash and fame. We think that yeah, the cash and the fame are readily attainable, but if you want to do it the right way, you shouldn’t have to trade in your heart and soul for it. You mention that whole “blow it up from the inside” approach, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to do, without scraping too much of our hard skin off in the process. We’re very intent on setting the example that you don’t have to give in to the system of thought that auctions off your vitality to the highest bidder. The financial downfalls of not being able to be everything you need to be to get the job done plagues this band and my life. “If only we had this much money, we could do such and such…” It’s hard and distressing sometimes that while we have these great ideas and approaches, more often than not, we have to sacrifice mental and financial stability to reach our goals. But it’s not a one-sided deal, and as time goes on, more instances to be able to complete what we’re doing and manage not to starve in the process occur. This whole major label inclusion makes me laugh, because of the surrounding scandal that so often involves situations like those. I honestly can’t say that right now that would even be an option in our way of completing the tasks we have set for ourselves, but the financial aspects definitely would be welcome. We want to take over the world, and that’s pretty much the only ideals we cling to. So far, it’s been working out well, and I am sure as time goes on, it will work more in our benefit. We aren’t as naive to think that our ideals and theories and music are strictly for a certain audience, because in 1999, to make such an assumption would be stupid–music barriers of sound are crossing, ideas are crossing, and the combination of influences from all over the spectrum will result in a new sound being developed soon enough. This makes us extremely excited, so we’re definitely welcoming any changes to this already stale and near dead scene of ours. If we’re the ones wielding the weapons of change, so be it, and we’re definitely going to do all we can to make sure it does change. Of course, we do have some tricks up our sleeves — definitely more than split cover 7-inches, colored vinyl, and all that, for sure.
Do you ever feel trapped by the orthodoxy and “flavor of the week” mentality of the modern hardcore/punk scene? Why or why not?
Not at all. In fact, such orthodoxy and “flavor of the week” mentalities are exactly what we stand in defiance of. We leave those trends to be enjoyed by bands like Coalesce and Boy Sets Fire, because that’s obviously what they aim for. We’d like to think that we’re a different cut from those bands’ attitudes and directions, and while they’re out doing what makes them happy, we’re doing what makes us (happy) as well–only most of the time it’s totally different than what may seem “cool” right at that given second. It’s hilarious when people try to describe punk as some different society or whatnot when, in reality, it’s just a microcosm guilty of the same class system and hierarchy as “the Real World.” I don’t want to subject myself to such blindness, so in any of our endeavors we are going to be able to reach out and smash out windows, whether they be of punk rock or whatever. When I do feel trapped, when I feel that the rules to this game have already been defined, that’s what challenges us to break them, to rise above them, and to cause a little trouble of our own. I could never sit back and actually be satisfied with what’s going on today in this scene of ours. It seems like everyone is resorting to adding the “college rock” to the equation to “push tons of units.”
When can we expect a new record? Any more propaganda you’d like to impart to the masses?
We have a new single coming out on Leary Records out of Germany–Axel is an awesome guy, and his label is pretty scientific, for sure. Then we have a split single coming out with our good friends from Long Beach California, LeShok, who destroy most bands away with their sheer attitude alone. Other than that, we are busy writing the next record, and touring. The design of our new website should be done before we leave for Europe, so look for all the science to be dropped there.