Self Defense Family, “Have You Considered Punk Music?”

I saw that a musician I like had just released an album on Bandcamp, consisting of a fun, loud tribute to the Sonic The Hedgehog soundtracks of the Sega Genesis era. When I went to buy the album, I saw in my Bandcamp cart I already had the new Self Defense Family album, Have You Considered Punk Rock? and bought both, wondering for a moment why I had gone to buy the album but didn’t do so. It was only puzzling because I’d been on a family vacation to the Gulf Coast for a week and had been away from the internet. Said family vacation was a big event; we’re not the type that does big things like that every year, mainly because the younger generation like myself can’t afford it. But a recent cancer diagnosis meant that the kids didn’t really have a choice.

That day that I re-encountered Have You Considered Punk Rock? was the first day back and I still haven’t shook the sinking mood I woke up with the morning of that day, now two mornings later. Maybe it’s as simple as being back to the grind. Maybe it’s that cancer diagnosis. Things haven’t really changed much in the family dynamic. I’ve never felt connected to my family in the way I feel like I’m supposed to or that they would want me to. The way that we interact and the predictability of it alienates me unintentionally and harmlessly but always puts me in the mind of moving away for a long time. I don’t have strong feelings about the detachment, I do the things I should do and ignore the truth that they could disappear from my life and I wouldn’t be as upset compared to, say, if my car suddenly stopped working completely or I started balding.

Self Defense Family was never the band I would listen to in these kinds of moods. The albums and EPs of theirs I listen to have a sophisticated power that I enjoy. But it’s never cut deep the way my favorite albums do.

That’s changed drastically with Have You Considered Punk Rock? Before, where the band often created an atmosphere of restless anxiety with noise or discordant instrumentation, there’s now a sort of clarity, despite the presence of reverb in many instances where it wouldn’t have been used previously. The clarity feels meditative, but a meditation born of isolation, of forced introversion when there’s no one else around and nothing else to do and answers are being sought to difficult questions. Self Defense Family has always asked difficult questions but this album has moments where the band seems to be at a loss, purposefully so. In some cases things have changed only subtly: the drumming is a bit more restrained, wandering, with much of the percussive texture of the album drawn from hand percussion: tambourines, shakers, etc. One some songs, there are explosions of noise but even those are far more sculpted, precise than what I ever expected. The guitars are absolutely lonely-sounding, with prominence of pedal steel abound. I hear, at one point during the song “No Analog Or Precedent”, a plaintive saxophone wail (or a guitar processed so that I mistook it as such) that precedes one of those walls-of-noise moments, assisted beautifully by Kristina Esfandari of Miserable’s vocals.

In 2015, an interview with SDF band member Benny Tate had him refer to a statement from frontman Patrick Kindlon; “Our model has been intentional failure in exchange for no expectations from the audience.” Benny clarified it as such; “The ‘failure’ Patrick was referring to was refusing to change our art to be more successful.”

The well-known (and some would say ‘reviled’) UK music publication Kerrang! declared “Have You Considered Punk Music? feels like a missed opportunity to drop the verbal shields and let people all the way in.”

There’s always been a (if you’ll pardon the cliche) painful vulnerability to this band that I’ve been drawn to. It’s a band led by one of the most idiosyncratic personalities I’ve ever had the honor of interacting with. Expecting his ‘verbal shields’ to drop is hilariously misguided. But this album feels like the first time that idiosyncrasy has been made a real weapon. This album hurts to listen to, in the way it hurts to listen to the Mark Sandman solo album or “Trem Two” by Mission of Burma. This isn’t some revelation or surprising new aspect of Self Defense Family that has suddenly redeemed them in some way. But there will be a lot said about this album and, in particular, the inclusion of Kristina Esfandari. Self Defense Family has always sat in between the worlds of conventional punk music (Run For Cover has released her works so it made sense in that way) and the world of unclassifiable musicians. But her presence here will say, to many people, that Self Defense Family has a favorite side of the fence now. Punk rock music has always been at war, in that way.

This album feels like a band that has finally quit that war (though some songs, like “Certainty Of Paradise”, still show that they’ve got their weapon in hand, ready for a fight). For me, it’s the best thing they’ve ever done. The idea that a band that plays punk rock music can’t be as deeply moving is absurd and my love for their previous albums is a demonstration that I understand that. But that’s not how I’m built. I needed this album to be what it is, to really love it. Listening to it these past days has been a cool, soft pillow for my tired head to rest. I’m miserable, and it sounds like my misery and I love it more for that than anything else Self Defense Family.