[This first appeared in Spark Mag, July 2016]
David Combs and Erica Freas have been close for years. They’ve bonded through their myriad musical projects, including their respective punk bands – Erica sings and plays guitar in RVIVR, while Combs does the same in The Max Levine Ensemble – and their extensive work as solo artists. They’ve toured together, performed together, written together.
Then, they tried dreaming together.
Fascinated by the prospect of writing songs while deep inside a particularly lucid dream, Freas and Combs embarked on a mental mining expedition through their individual and – they hoped – collective unconsciouses in the hopes of emerging into waking life with new, sleep-composed songs in hand. They didn’t quite get there, but their months-long efforts did net them a new band and a preposterously good pop punk record.
The Moon Shines On The Shit, the debut album from SOMNIA – in which Freas and Combs play alongside fellow RVIVR guitarist and vocalist Mattie Joe Canino and drummer Josef Bellucci – employs big, hooky pop-punk songs to chronicle two artists’ quest to plumb the depths of their dream states, and make those dreaming lives connect on the other side. Somnia is the Latin word for dreams and visions, and each song on the record seems to weave between this hazy, dream state and our tangible, conscious lives. “Double Life,” the album’s opening track, is an admittance that this dumb waking world so often leaves us grasping for something more, reaching for the the extended possibilities of the sleep realm and the “astral plane.” The record pivots from the hopeful to the dark, perhaps dwelling on death too much, as we all do. “Death blows in like a cold breeze, wrapped in the cloak of night, it occupies my mind,” Combs sings on “Death Blows.” That’s the reality of probing one’s deepest dreams for the stuff of songs: the light and the dark all come out, and you can’t really choose which one you get.
For Combs and Freas, such psychic questioning unfolds as mastercraft. Freas has written songs based on dreams before – the subject matter of “Spider Song,” which she’s recorded both solo and with RVIVR, came to her in her sleep. But together with Combs, The Moon Shines On The Shit documents a mental journey few songwriters have embarked upon. The resulting songs are fascinating and urgent – both as ways to delve deeper into one’s own consciousness, and to escape what’s often a trash pile of a waking world.
Combs and Freas talked to us about SOMNIA, writing about dreams, making a living as a DIY artist and the fight to deliver their music while fending off search engine algorithms and corporate music power.
RON KNOX: You two have known each other for a long time. When did you meet, and how long have you been collaborating on music or other projects?
Combs: I believe we met when I booked a show for Erica’s punk band RVIVR in DC in like 2010, and since then we’ve toured together with our respective solo projects and punk bands, and I even played in RVIVR for a tour because they don’t really have a bass player.
Freas: I can confirm David’s chronology and will add this bonus material: We were mutually appreciative acquaintances whose bands played together periodically until one show in Portland, OR where I left RVIVR and stayed with TMLE and joined their tour flow for 24 hours. We transitioned into actual friends, dreaming about the future and making plans. That was in January 2012.
Tell me about SOMNIA. How did you decide to form the band? WHAT DOES IT EVEN MEAN?
Combs: SOMNIA is the latin for sleep or dream depending on how it’s conjugated, I believe.
Freas: We were going to be Blast! which is already claimed by a band from California that I hadn’t heard of. Once we found SOMNIA, which fits our theme and feels so right, I felt satisfied and didn’t even mind that there is a band called Somnia from the Ukraine.
Combs: But yeah, after that Portland show Erica mentioned, we were listening to a radio show about lucid dreaming. I’ve often come up with songs after remembering them from my dreams so we were talking about how nice it would be to be lucid and working on songwriting in your sleep.
On top of that, I once had the same dream as someone else on the same night, which is a phenomenon called “dream synchronicity,” so we got talking about this wild idea – like what if we both got good at lucid dreaming, and had the same dream on the same night, and collaborated on a song that way? That was basically where the idea for the project came from, which is obviously pretty far out, and I’m sad to say we didn’t quite achieve that goal, but the next time we went on tour together we did a ton of dream journaling, and lucid dreaming exercises and started collaborating on dream inspired songs in the waking life.
I once had the same dream as someone else on the same night, which is a phenomenon called “dream synchronicity,” so we got talking about this wild idea – like what if we both got good at lucid dreaming, and had the same dream on the same night, and collaborated on a song that way?
You both have a lot of other stuff going on! Being a musician can be this really spiritually fulfilling but not very financially fulfilling thing, and also the world is kind of garbage and you have to pay for things and travel and maybe live somewhere. How do you balance your time/energy so that you can each play in two or more bands and also live and be a functional human?
Freas: Yeah, very spiritually fulfilling, like, this is exactly what I want to be doing: making as much music as possible with people I respect and admire…and at this moment I’ve literally been sitting at a keyboard doing music admin for six hours by myself and I’m tired and would love to play guitar.
We’ve both been doing writing and touring a long time, when I go out on tour most of the time, with RVIVR or my solo stuff, I break even or make some extra to live off of for a bit. I have a seriously modest trickle income through bandcamp and record sales. I keep work in Olympia that allows me to come and go and when I do work at any of my jobs (a conflict resolution organization, a toy store, a stagehand union, and I’m a guitar teacher) I work really hard so that they value me and want me back next time I’m home and not slammed with music stuff. It’s a hustle. My overhead is lower than David’s because I don’t live in a city. I don’t make very much money but I’m hoping to someday bring in a “functional human” amount of money while sticking to my values. I believe it’s possible. It’s definitely worth it.
Combs: It’s really hard for me to imagine living off DIY music living in an expensive city like DC given the current state of the creative economy. I sell upscale pizza or beer or walk dogs or whatever, which are things I don’t really care about, so I can spend all the rest of my time working on music. Those hours and hours of work Erica’s talking about are a hustle for sure. It’s like you have this job you care about and are working overtime for, but it doesn’t pay so you squeeze in a second or third paying job on top of that.
Erica, tell me about your songwriting. You’ve been performing the song “Silver” for a long time. Do you write some songs intending them to be performed by a full band, or do you just songs for yourself and maybe they work with a band, maybe they don’t?
Freas: It can unfold in different ways but, yes, with “Silver” I wrote the song and then shared it with David and we adapted and added to it to make a SOMNIA song. I love where his songwriting skills took that one. There’s a slightly different version on my next solo album, which will be out in September on Don Giovanni Records. Sometimes I’ll bring a song and offer it up to a specific band and sometimes I’ll be playing one for awhile and then one of my bandmates will unexpectedly be like “… that one! we gotta do it!”
Playing the same song in different styles is one of my true joys as a musician. I’ve talked about this before elsewhere; it harkens back to a relationship with music before massive access to recording existed when a “song” was the chord progression and the lyrics on a sheet of paper or passed down through memorization, rather than a single cast-in-stone recording played forever into eternity. I love how different interpretations draw attention to different aspects of the piece.
“Silver” is the only song on How the Moon Shines on the Shit that I brought to the table in its entirety. David and I did a lot of songwriting on tour together; I’ve contributed to songs that he wrote and we’ve had some bi-coastal cross pollination between visits.
Playing the same song in different styles is one of my true joys as a musician. I’ve talked about this before elsewhere; it harkens back to a relationship with music before massive access to recording existed when a “song” was the chord progression and the lyrics on a sheet of paper or passed down through memorization, rather than a single cast-in-stone recording played forever into eternity.
In setting up this interview, David and I ran into these very hyper-modern issues where our messages were ending up in the wrong inboxes and so on. To me, that’s like a perfect indictment of our times: I wanted to connect with someone but my message was in the wrong inbox. Do you two struggle with balancing you music – like actually being artists and performers – with doing this other, online, kind of schticky thing where you have to market yourselves and do promotions and connect with people through these other mediums?
Combs: This line of questioning stresses me out. Like I literally don’t know which of Erica’s five email addresses I should be writing to.
Freas: Oh yeah, see above where I mentioned I’ve been sitting too long doing music admin. It has to get done though, and it doesn’t need to be a schtick, in my opinion. It’s a privilege to be able to connect so easily and share music all over the world and it’s a trade off from how the music industry worked 10 or 20 years ago. You have access to working your ass off on a keyboard and maybe creating a platform from which you can broadcast your tunes. The access makes it crowded and that can feel overwhelming.
Combs: The way the vast majority of people discover music these days, including DIY music, is really different from how I discovered music when I was young. People largely discover content through Facebook and Google, two platforms that rely on non-transparent algorithms that curate the content you are more likely to find. And these are huge corporations whose main concern is going to be generating ad revenue so they’ll be privileging content that comes from bigger sources that can pay for ads. If you are a band or label releasing music, you start to operate according to this kind of corporate logic, trying to figure out what you can do that will put you in a good position for the algorithms, and that’s gross. That’s when it feels like a schtick or a hustle.
At the same time the point of making music and art is to share it with the world and we live in a time where there are these particular limits on how you can do that, that you need to navigate.
In the punk scene, I think there’s sometimes an idolization of the DIY band that opts out of seeking media coverage or whatever. I think that’s fine, but I don’t think it’s really all that political of a statement. Functionally it often acts as its own version of building a “DIY brand.” Whether or not that’s the intention, that’s how it functions in a brand-obsessed culture.
Bordering on a rant here, but there’s also this fetishization of poverty in the punk scene. Like the idea that art is more authentic if you don’t aspire to live off of it, which I can sympathize with from a couple of perspectives. But from another perspective, you put a shit-ton of labor into making music, and to devalue that labor or pretend it exists in some other realm that’s not shaped by the capitalist economy, you’re basically disenfranchising yourself as a worker. And letting independently wealthy people invisibly accumulate credibility when no one’s asking how they can afford to hustle and not get paid.
Freas: I hope people want to know about what we’re doing with SOMNIA because I think it’s a good band. I don’t want to force it on anyone or trick anyone into liking it. I hope people want to connect with our music because they can’t wait to hear what we’re going to pull out of the dream world next.