These guys ain't happy.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY AMANDA SHAW.
  • Photo by Amanda Shaw.

The guitar starts slowly, a mass of fuzz and feedback droning relentlessly. The tension is almost tangible, before the drums thud down like a hammer on a carnival strength test. A note is held for a second or two, and then the vocals kick in — throaty, aggravated noises from the mouth of a man who sounds inconsolably pissed. The music isn’t hyper-fast, by any means, but sludgy and intensely heavy. The words tell a story, one of a difficult life lived daily in Detroit. This is Sawchuk, and they ain’t fucking happy.

They say that “Sawchuk brings to light a distaste of not only their personal lives but also a strong resentment of the American lifestyle, as well as the overall state of the world.” They’re not kidding; on the title track from the Blackened Hearts, Blackened Minds record, Damon Trestain sings, “I cannot escape this life,” and later in the same song, “This life will never get any fucking easier.”

On the surface, that might seem like downright depressing stuff, not at all helpful when the city is desperately trying to cast a positive light on itself. On the contrary, Sawchuk’s music is therapy for the four men involved (Trestain, Jordan McGowan, bass; Jerry Cox, drums; Maxxwell Lange, guitar). They need it after getting through a day of (if they’re lucky) shitty jobs and day-to-day crap. “I do mechanical work — heating, cooling, and plumbing,” says McGowan. “Max is a caretaker, Damon’s a butcher, and Jerry’s kind of in between jobs right now. We’re all in our mid-20s.”

When asked what the band writes about, what pisses them off, McGowan replies, “Just day-to-day stuff. Work, shitty jobs, everything around us in Detroit — it’s seen a lot of shit for the past couple of years or even decades. Growing up around that, personal experience. Damon writes a lot — he’s lost a lot of friends and family members, and that gets to him. It’s not hard to find inspiration around here.”

The vocals aren’t always easy to make out, but the annoyance is apparent, and the few lines that are clear are extremely nihilistic. On “Hate & Destroy,” Trestain sings, “This is the life you chose, this is your demise.” On “Losing Faith,” he sings, “I can’t take much more of the life I lead.” This isn’t sing-along stuff.

Sawchuk formed in 2007 but only really got going in 2009. “I think the only existing member who was in the original band then was our drummer, Jerry,” McGowan says. “It pretty much didn’t really start until 2009 — that’s when myself and our old guitar player, Brandon, joined. That’s when we actually started trying to get out of state and play a lot more shows, taking it a little more seriously.”

McGowan was 18 when he joined the band. “Before that I was playing in high school punk bands,” he says. “For me, hardcore and punk is the same thing played a little differently. Bands like Negative Approach and Minor Threat got me into the hardcore side of it. I really like the Necros and Meatmen, those early Detroit hardcore bands. Matt Freeman from Rancid made me want to play bass. I don’t think I play bass anything like him, but that’s who made me want to pick up this instrument.”

The evolution of the band is interesting; the 2011 album How Can You Live Like This had a slightly cleaner sound, and the riffs were metallic like later-era Suicidal Tendencies. There were atmospheric intros, and the vocals were easy to translate. The title track features the line “You’re just another epitaph waiting to be written out, scum to the throne,” so, in terms of subject matter, the band has barely moved on at all. Perversely though, it’s that stagnation that drives them — the feeling of being stuck or held back.

Talk to the not-exactly-chatty McGowan for a few minutes, and it’s quickly apparent he’s not a content man. What does he do to relax? “Play music,” he says. “Otherwise, I sit at home listening to music, go out with some friends. I play hockey in a beer league.”

The bridge between How Can You Live Like This and Blackened Hearts, Blackened Minds was a track posted online in 2012 called “Believe Nothing,” in which Trestain yells, “Believe in nothing but yourself.” The nods to NA and Minor Threat were still there, but the riffs were getting more distorted, along with any remaining sense of calm left over from their childhood. 

Nowadays, Sawchuk is a working Detroit punk band, hauling gear from dive bar to basement show as they continue to create heavy, meaningful music and maybe generate a bit of a buzz too. There’s nothing shiny about the band — they don’t play the promo game. Indeed, we didn’t receive any sort of press release; we had to hunt them down. Sawchuk represents the underbelly of Detroit punk — the darker, spit-fueled side.

The band recently played at Detroit’s burgeoning Yonka House with Jersey hardcore vets The Banner, a show that McGowan describes as Sawchuk’s best yet. “That was the last show we played, but it’s probably the best one in recent memory,” he says. “That show was a lot of fun. All those people in a basement — it’s always going to be fun. There have been a lot of bad shows, but that comes with playing in a band. You just kinda roll with it.”

On Saturday, Sawchuk plays the Swinegrinder show in Pontiac with Disgust and Hellmouth, among others. “It’ll be a pretty standard set,” McGowan says. “We’re just going to go through 20 minutes of songs. We like to keep it short and sweet. I’ve met the dudes from Hellmouth a couple of times, and I’m a big fan of their band. But we’re excited — we’ve never played with them before. … I really don’t know much about Disgust or Empire of Rats. We played with the Family quite a few times.”

It’s going to be intense. Just don’t expect big grins and widdly solos. 

Sawchuk plays with Disgust, Hellmouth, Empire of Rats, and the Family at 4 p.m. on Saturday, May 31 at the Pontiac Moose; 1047 Oakland Ave., Pontiac; $10.


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