Unlike most bands that lean toward the more guttural end of the hardcore spectrum, Stick to Your Guns has an affinity for songs that are both lyrically sophisticated and socially conscious.
The Hope Division, their new album released Tuesday on Sumerian Records, offers up amphetamine-charged songs — OK, as amphetamine-charged as a mostly straight-edge group can be — that actually set out to say something.
A case in point is "Amber," a pummeling track that concerns teenage self-mutilation ("I see this world and I'm drowning slow / My numbing pain is lost in the undertow"). Another is "Scarecrow," an ode to Matthew Shepard, the university student who, in 1998, was targeted for being gay, pistol-whipped, and left tied to a fence in a coma. (The man who found him initially mistook Shepard for a scarecrow.)
"I love hardcore music, but my heart is in the punk scene, and that's where I kind of got the whole thing about singing stuff with a message," says frontman Jesse Barnett, who started the band in 2003 at the age of 15. "When I was 8 or 9 years old, my older sister gave me and my brother two cassette tapes she'd made for us — one being a Black Flag cassette tape and one being a Minor Threat cassette tape. And now that I've grown older and actually know what they're screaming and singing about, it just makes me love the music even more."
Stick to Your Guns' music is melodic enough, especially on the choruses, that other bands sometimes dismiss them for not being sufficiently hardcore. In fact, the band's ultimately uplifting message has even made them compatible tour mates with Christian metal bands like Sleeping Giant.
Well, not entirely compatible. Barnett says that, on more than one occasion, his onstage comments have prompted their Christian tourmates' fans to return their merchandise.
An Orange County native, the singer says he grew up playing guitar and drums in a church band. But while his parents taught him to respect everyone regardless of their preferences, his church preached otherwise.
"It was like, you know, if you don't believe in a Christian God, you're gonna go to hell. Or if you're gay, you're gonna go to hell. And I started thinking, wow, this dude God sounds like a bit of a prick."
For this latest album, Stick to Your Guns traveled to Fort Collins, where, as it happens, Matthew Shepard died. The selling point for the band was Blasting Room Studios, which is run by former Descendents member Bill Stevenson.
"They recorded bands that raised me as a person and helped me out a lot," says Barnett, citing the likes of Propagandhi, Comeback Kid, and the Suicide Machines. This was also the first time, he adds, when performances that were off-key or otherwise deficient actually got redone, rather than being fixed in the mix. "They basically made us be musicians; they pushed us to be something that we wanted to be."
Onstage, Barnett pushes himself in other ways, inflicting punishments that are beginning to take their toll. "Even now at 22, my knees are hurting, I have to wear a knee brace, and my back and neck hurt. Music like this is so energetic and in your face, you know, that you kind of gotta be energetic and in your face."