Matt Southwell’s band keeps crankin’ across the miles

Bang Sugar Bang releases fourth album; records videos from three separate states

Courtesy Photos Above is Bang Sugar Bang in summer 2019. From left to right are Matt Southwell, Cooper Gillespie, and Chris Black.

They’re selling energy.

And they’ve still got a lot of it, even after more than a decade-long hiatus.

Alpena’s Matt Southwell and his band, Bang Sugar Bang, recently reunited to release a gritty, dark, loud and fun album, “Invisible City.” The band’s fourth album — their first in 13 years — came out Aug. 24.

Started in 2000 in Los Angeles, Bang Sugar Bang consists of Southwell on guitar and vocals, Cooper Gillespie on bass and vocals, and Chris Black on drums and vocals.

The high-energy alternative indie-rock group co-founded the Kiss or Kill music scene, devoted to fostering underground indie bands in Los Angeles.

Bang Sugar Bang in their early years.

Southwell said a documentary was made about the Kiss or Kill Club, called “In Heaven There Is No Beer.”

“Those were crazy days,” said Southwell, who moved back to Alpena in 2010. “It was a burgeoning scene and bands were starting to get signed out of it.”

Bang Sugar Bang broke up in 2006, Southwell said, but reunited for a Kiss or Kill reunion show in 2013.

“This guy, he was part of that whole group of people, and — he’s a filmmaker — he made a documentary. And then, for the DVD release, he had all these bands from the day get back together and play,” Southwell said. “It was our club — we ran it — so we were kind of the, you know, the clean-up hitter. We always played to make sure we kept people coming. We kind of featured ourselves a lot.”

They had a blast playing together that night.

Bang Sugar Bang's new album, Invisible City, came out Aug. 24.

“We got back together for that, and we … vowed right then and there” to make another record, Southwell said. “We were really sad that we never got to make a fourth record because we were really starting, our music was starting to grow. We just kept that on the back burner.”

He said a few years ago, Black called him up and said they should get back together and do some more shows.

“You know, shows are fleeting,” Southwell said. “You do them and then they’re gone. So I was like, ‘Let’s do another record.’ So we talked about it and I called Cooper, and we all agreed. What would our fourth album be like? We really wanted to see.”

Thanks to a crowd-funding campaign and a lot of gumption, the group recorded their new album last summer.

“This album couldn’t have been done even 10 years ago,” Southwell said, explaining that modern technology made it possible. “We used Google Drive and shot demos back and forth to each other.”

Gillespie (who also happens to be Southwell’s ex-wife) flew in from Joshua Tree, California, and Southwell drove from Alpena to meet up and record their new album in Black’s hometown of Madison, Wisconsin.

They made due with what they had, rehearsing for just three days (after 13 years!) at Black’s daughter’s preschool.

“It was so weird,” Southwell said with a laugh. “You couldn’t even sit down ’cause the chairs were really little … it was really funny.”

Then they went full throttle at Clutch Studios, recording 10 songs in just five days.

“That’s why I’ve always thought Bang Sugar Bang is like the little train that could,” Southwell said. “We could just always get stuff done. You know, we started playing in L.A. and there wasn’t a place for us, so we formed our own club, and we did it and made it popular. L.A. Times voted it one of the best things in 2004, and all that stuff. We just made stuff happen. No one could tell us ‘no’ — we’d just find a way to make it happen.”

Southwell completed the tracking at Menzo Media in Ann Arbor.

“Dave Menzo is a genius,” Southwell said. “He’s a very creative, unorthodox dude, and that was perfect. Exactly what I was looking for.”

He said this album has a lot of “experimentation and cool things” on it.

“We really wanted to see the band’s growth enhanced by this approach,” Southwell said. “And it worked.”

Southwell then sent the tracks to Los Angeles where Josiah Mazzaschi of the Cave Studio mixed the record.

“Only Bang Sugar Bang could not strike a note together for 13 years, get in a preschool for three days to rehearse, and write and record 10 songs,” he said.

As for the videos, Southwell, Gillespie and Black each sent recorded clips of them playing and singing, and innovative director Mike Schnee morphed them together into a seamless production.

“Mike Schnee is such a great editor,” he said. “He really did a fine job with it.”

Alpena is featured in Southwell’s portion of some videos, including the empty Ella White playground and the aquatic Art in the Loft Community Mural on the side of the Local Basket Case, as well as the mural with the girl and the owl on the side of Family Enterprise.

He said his friend Jim Vick helped him film his portion of the videos. Alpena Civic Theatre also helped allow Southwell to use a green screen, with the help of Zachary Irving.

“It was all shot with iPhone,” Southwell said. “It’s amazing what technology can do now.”

Dual lead vocals add a layer of depth to the record.

“Cooper and I … one of our signatures was we tended to do a tandem lead vocal, kind of a discordant harmony mixed together at the same time,” Southwell explained. “To us, we were only three piece, so doing that added, like, a fourth instrument because there was always a lot of vocalization to carry any holes in the music.”

He described Bang Sugar Bang’s musical style.

“We got lumped in with punk bands a lot,” he recalled. “But we really weren’t a punk band. We were power pop with a little bit of punk in it, for sure. We were closer to the Pixies than we were to the Clash.”

The band was planning to perform in 2020.

“The pandemic just kind of threw a wrench in everything,” Southwell said.

He added that the distance between band members, as well as work and families makes it hard to get together to do a show.

“Cooper and her new husband have a really good band called LANDROID, dream pop stuff, so she’s really busy, and Chris has a family now and he lives in Wisconsin and he works for UPS,” Southwell said. “So, spending six months on the road like we used to — those days are probably gone.”

Gillespie is also a teacher, and Southwell works on boats such as the Lady Michigan. He is also an avid player in local community theater, primarily with the Alpena Civic Theatre.

“I remember having conversations saying, ‘OK! This is some new territory. How does one release a record during a pandemic?”

They certainly figured it out.

“People need entertainment more than ever right now,” he said, so that’s why they didn’t want to wait to release the album.

In true Bang Sugar Bang style, they just got it done.

He is extremely grateful to the fans for their support.

“I owe Alpena so much because, the thing I’m most proud of on this record … this album was 100% fan funded,” Southwell said. “A huge chunk of what we earned came from Alpena-area people … including our mayor (Matt Waligora). It was very humbling … I really felt the love from folks in Alpena.”

To listen and purchase the album, visit https://bangsugarbang.bandcamp.com/album/invisible-city.

For more on Bang Sugar Bang, and to see the videos, head to their Facebook page.

Ever since he was a boy, Southwell has loved guitar.

“I always wanted to play guitar,” he said. “I was in love with it from a young age.”

He would watch The Glen Campbell Show when he was a little kid.

“I used to fall asleep with guitar catalogs,” said Southwell, who idolized David Bowie’s guitarist Mick Ronson. “Most kids would read comic books, and I would read guitar catalogs.”


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