Features

Playing Dead: Long Island Melodic Rock Band Understands the Power of a Great Hook

Photo: Christopher Schultz

Playing Dead tread unlikely ground. They combine a wealth of sounds in crafting really impressive and layered music. Their impressive musicianship is bolstered by their prolificacy too. The band has released eight recordings since getting together, and their newest EP, Catharsis of Choice, just dropped this past October.

Combining big guitars and hook-laden choruses, Catharsis of Choice shows Playing Dead’s ever-expanding sound and song-writing skills. I sat down with singer and guitarist, Sam Hoyos, to talk the new EP and what keeps him motivated as a musician. 

Playing Dead has a pretty extensive catalog. How does the writing process unfold for you? Do you generally have a cache of songs for the band to flesh out?

Yeah, we have been releasing music for a long time now. We only seem to change our lead guitarist. So every few years we get a new guitar player. Not on purpose of course. But every song starts with me staring at the TV while I play guitar and every now and then I hear something and I stop and think, “Oh I like that.” Every phone I have has a backlog of bits and pieces of songs. As I type now my phone has over 100 ideas. Some may be awful and some may be great. From there I bring it to the band as a full singer songwriter type song that everyone does what they do and then we end up with a Playing Dead song.

How was the recording session at Freedom Soundworks? Jast has a pretty DIY setup, but he’s also got an encyclopedic command of music. 

So we met Jast when he asked us to be on his Classics vs Classics, Vol. 3 compilation. We had to pick a cover in our genre and a cover outside of our genre that predated 2000. Then we recorded those 2 covers with him and liked his speed and enthusiasm for music, also being local and affordable helped as well. Affordable is key these days because we don’t sell music or tour. This is mainly for the love of. We had a super pleasurable time recording with Jast [Collum]. We like fast efficient people. No dicking around. And like most good engineers, he knows when to call a session and come back to get the best takes. Highly recommended.

How did the collaboration with the people from Go Big come together on “16”? Both the keyboard and female vocals add a lot of dynamism to the song.

So, we have been friends with Go Big since we met them. Super-duper assortment of talented musicians. We learned Jess and Jason did a cover of our song "December Blue" and posted it on YouTube. Around this time we were tracking the Catharsis EP. And I was like, “Well I hear a keyboard and backing vocals so let me just ask them if they wanna do it.” So we practiced it once or twice and they came in and knocked it out of the park.

I always wanted to add a keyboardist back up vocalist, so for this song I got a chance to live that out if only for 3 and a half minutes. We had two features on our last album and that really made me think, “Why not do more of that with people that really blow me away musically?” At the end of the day, the recording is what most people hear and what we inevitably leave behind.

Much of the lyrical content seems very introspective. But “Start Today” feels particularly painful. What’s the story behind the song? Any hardcore punk purists chide you for the song title?

“Start Today,” lyrically, is actually pretty inspirational. It wasn’t really about anything other than motivating oneself to start today, whether you’re trying to pep talk a friend, a relationship, or yourself. And it’s funny that when I wrote the title of the song it was more of a joke in reference to our song “Not Today” from 2015’s Transient album. Didn’t even think of Gorilla Biscuits til someone jokingly did. As for the purists? [Laughs] They don’t care about our band, duh.

Playing Dead is laden with melody, but those melodies seems to run the gamut from punk to indie to low-fi garage rock. Are there any musicians or bands that you can consistently point to as the paradigm for Playing Dead’s sound?

Always too punk for the indies and too indie for the punks. I’m ok with that. I always loved big guitars and even bigger hooks. Music with melody will always keep my attention longer than those without melody. I can say bands like Get Up Kids, Lemonheads, Superdrag, and Samiam, as well as Face to Face, we owe those bands a lot! They taught me everything I know, or pretend to know, about songwriting and how the right chorus chord progression and melody can change a life, or at the very least make it alright for that 4 minutes. I think I almost avoided that huge hook thing on last year’s The Inevitable album, and played more guitar. So I wanted to come back super melodic on this Catharsis… album and the next two EPs that will follow.

Photo found on Facebook

What makes Catharsis of Choice a distinctive release in Playing Dead’s catalog?

So, we released an album in October of 2018. Our first with Rich Ferrara on guitar. It was totally energizing because we were really exploring mid-tempo stuff on the last two releases prior. Rich came in and gave us that jolt that brought us back into fast and heavier stuff. So that carried over to Catharsis... A year later we had about 12 songs but I didn’t want to drop ‘em right away. I noticed that for a band that’s not going to tour and basically play locally, that it’s best to release less music more frequently. Catharsis of Choice is EP 1 of 3, and the first step in that experiment.

Also, with all the DIY tools we have now like Instagram, Spotify, Apple Music, apps like Headliner, there’s never been a better time to throw your hat in the ring. But that comes with pros and cons. Even though it’s easier to be heard, it’s even harder to be found. Being that Catharsis.. is only 4 songs, it allows me to really focus on creating visuals. We are dropping the video for “Start Today,” directed by Neil Rubenstein. And then one for “16” next. Then I’ll probably make lyric videos for the other two. Let that marinate while we go back in and record the next 4 songs in January with Jerry Farley that did the last Sick of It All which sounds amazing.

So you are a busy artist. Between Playing Dead, Cover Me Badd, Red River Podcast, and If I Ruled the World Podcast, you’ve got your hands in a lot of artistic ventures. How do you balance all of your different projects? Is Playing Dead the main focus?

Funny enough, you missed one. I play guitar and sing backups in a band called The Pilot Program. If I was single I’d be doing a ton more, but I have to say no to some stuff [laughs]. That being said, Playing Dead is and will always be my main focus from today until the time I can’t move or play or breathe. It’s definitely a challenge at times to juggle them all but at the end of the day they are all fun things to do so I am super lucky to be my age, and still have people to create art and or content with. I don’t take that for granted ever.

You have a lot of connections across the underground genres (punk, hardcore, indie) on Long Island. How does that work for Playing Dead as a band?

I think I understand the question so I will say, from Day 1 of us being a band, we don’t ask for anything. We play where we are asked to play. I’ve never been the guy to be like, “oh please bigger band put us on your show” or “hey can you do me a favor and etc.” I mean maybe we should have? [Laughs] I don’t know, but to me we get validation from our peers that like and respect what we do. That’s like gold to me because we are on an island with lots of history and super talented songwriters. I hope I answered the actual question.

Most underrated Long Island band? Any era. Any genre.

Tough question to answer because I can name 50. I don’t want to leave anyone out so I’ll answer by saying the one band that influenced me to play that never got the nationwide props they could have gotten is Small Arms Dealer. I started playing in a band super late in my life. I was 26 or so, and one day I saw this band play in Port Jefferson called The Devil Himself. They were like nothing I had seen at that time locally anyway. Not long after, Jason turned up in Small Arms Dealer. I saw them at Saints and Sinners, and got their Hot Knives EP.

They were executing musicianship, songwriting skills and harmonies. It was like NOFX meets Pinkerton. I watched them any time I could. Jason inspired me to actually start a band. Obviously later he went on to form Iron Chic and the rest is history. I was lucky enough to get him to do a feature on the song “Nice to Know Ya” off The Inevitable album. Full circle type shit. So that’s my answer. Everyone on Long Island should know them.

One movie that everyone needs to watch.

Another subject I can talk about until your ear drums pop. Given the political climate nonsense we live in, I’m gonna go with the underappreciated 1995 masterpiece, The Last Supper. Cameron Diaz, Bill Paxton, etc. It’s a very, very dark movie about people inviting strangers that they disagree with politically, and they try to change their mind. But if they don’t succeed, they all have to agree to poison the dinner guest or let them live, unbeknownst to the guest of course. This is a movie everybody should watch NOW. 24 years later it seems so relevant and topical.

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