With that in mind, the term “punk supergroup” might seem like something of an oxymoron, but the members of nascent Portland band Help have uniquely impressive resumes. Guitarist Ryan Neighbors is a former member of Portugal. The Man and currently helms Hustle and Drone; Boone Howard is a lauded solo artist who previously played in The We Shared Milk; and Bim Ditson plays drums for Portland indie rock linchpin And And And (when he’s not running for mayor — seriously.)
“Pennies On The Ground” provides an excellent sonic overview of Help’s forthcoming self-titled EP. It’s an aggressive, compact and politically-charged single that melds classic hard rock with the most timeless aspects of ‘80s post-hardcore (and its early ‘00s renaissance). We spoke with the members of Help about what it’s like playing heavy music after years of operating in a much mellower musical paradigm and politicizing rock music in the modern age.
Here’s our lightly edited (for clarity and length) conversation with Help.
Morgan Troper: Let’s get this out of the way. How do you feel about the term “supergroup?” That term always makes me think of bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Is it tongue-in-cheek in this context?
Ryan Neighbors: I wouldn’t really consider us a supergroup. I think people like the idea that we are all from bands that don’t sound anything like this, so [that] is interesting. The three of us aren’t vain enough to consider ourselves a supergroup.
Bim Ditson: For some reason the term supergroup makes me imagine an episode of “How It’s Made”—seems manufactured, I guess. The way I see it, every good band is a supergroup but not every supergroup is a good band. Dammit, I painted myself into a corner! Semantics aside, it would be unfair to call us a supergroup, because that implies we have our shit together.
MT: When I first heard about this project, I wasn’t expecting a hardcore band. In your press release, Ryan mentions that the three of you were inspired to start playing heavy music again after you saw Metz at Mississippi Studios. How long has it been since you all played music like this?
Boone Howard: I’ve pretty much never played this kind of music. My punk leanings in high school were more pop punk. But I am back to playing my original instrument: overdriven bass!
Ryan: I haven’t been in a punk or hardcore band since I was 16. So that’s a solid 16 years.
Bim: Other than jumping in a van as a pinch drummer for short tours with other bands … I haven’t played in this style of band since I was 18. I sure missed it though.
MT: Hardcore and extreme music, in general, is a lot more demanding than indie rock, especially for a drummer. Do you find that to be an accurate assessment? Is playing this type of music a difficult adjustment after years of playing comparatively mellow indie rock?
Bim: My body has been continually destroyed since our first practice. My ears, my neck, my back, my wrists, the skin on my hands, my lungs, the little muscles next to my shin bones, my ankles, my bones more generally. It’s been the most fun band to play drums in. I’m getting super buff from it. Interesting things happen at the edge of collapse.
Ryan: My voice takes a beating when we play live. I almost barfed when we recorded “Staying Awake.” It’s a pretty good audio clip that we crack up about often.
Boone: Ryan and Bim definitely take a beating. It is super impressive to see them work in the studio and in rehearsal. There are times in practice when we kind of have to chill on working something out because it’s physically hard to keep going. Not very often. The dudes are machines. My only issue is my right hand hurting from my patented “bass slam” where I hit my strings into the pickups to produce a little percussive sound.
MT: Ryan, you mention how the Trump presidency is one of the things that inspired you to start playing heavy music again. Though it’s pretty explicit in some instances, can you elaborate on the political nature of these songs?
Ryan: I would consider the political nature of the lyrics to be a lot less about our current president and more about standing together in our smaller communities and doing what we can to help one another. Recognizing issues around us and being supportive is the least we can do in these times. Some of the lyrics touch on anxiety and personal demons which can be a good analogy for overcoming difficult situations, whether it’s something deeply personal, or the bigger issues facing the world right now. Our song “Devil is a Snake” is a good example of this.
Bim: [Spells out in all caps ‘CLASS WAR NOW.’] This is all way bigger than baby boy Trump. We gotta either unfuck the American political and economic systems, which have devastated peoples’ ability to live reasonably comfortable and moral lives, or we should start talking seriously about completely scrapping the idea of the modern nation state. Not all the songs are about this stuff though. Lyrically, most of the songs are about Ryan working through the kinds of personal things most people must grapple with.
Boone: I feel like Trump is more of a symptom of what we’d say we rally against. Apathy, inequality, de-humanization in general. I like when political music is rooted in personal expression. I feel like Ryan does a great job providing that lyrical framework with Bim adding his substantive political perspective. I just kinda chill on the lyric part for the first time ever. I trust the dudes and the output has been so solid.
MT: You also say that “everyone is just angry and talking about it on Facebook,” which is a sentiment I can sympathize with. Do you actually think punk rock is an effective vehicle for social change in the year 2019, though? Don’t you think your audience is already on the same page for the most part?
Ryan: I think our audience is on the same page, but I think it helps to be vocal about it. Art is always effective even if it just get your gears turning and inspires you.
Bim: Punks have been on the ground consistently pushing back against bullshit for a long time. But to answer the question, no, not just punk rock. Whatever thing it is that helps you connect with and support others. Look around, there are so many top-down approaches, and the world is still on fire. … What we need is shit-tons of small solutions. We need fixes that are real to us, close to our bodies and in line with our natural instinct for mutual aid over competition, the kind of stuff that’s doable at the individual and local community scale. Combined, these sorts of things really do change the world. … So yes, punk is one small part of this.
Boone: Angry sounding music with an actual context is a great vehicle for expression and connection. I love any music that connects the crowd with the performer in an almost physical way. The loud, wild atheistic is really just a way to deliver our ultimately positive worldview. Our solution is community-minded, loud-ass, cathartic bonding. I think that’s what punk is?