For a group that calls itself an "angsty, anxious punk band" that "rebels against themselves," the guys from Dollar Signs are a chill, well-adjusted bunch.
We sat down with three of the four guys — horn player Luke Gunn lives in Los Angeles and flies in to tour with the band — to chat over beers at Sanctuary Pub in NoDa on a recent Saturday about their new EP, Life is Ruff; why they're so obsessed with marketing their band; and that pesky anxiety that affects them all, some more than others.
Bassist Dylan Wachman did not partake in the afternoon beers, and hasn't done so since a drinking bender shortly after his 21st birthday sent him into a nervous breakdown. He was thereafter diagnosed with general anxiety disorder, and put down the drinks for good.
"That's my anxiety origin story. I've been carrying it with me ever since and trying to use it for good and not evil," he said.
For frontman Erik Button, things were a little more ... familiar, one could say.
"I just got bit by a radioactive anxious person," he joked of his social anxiety.
A feeling of not quite fitting in is something that has bonded the members of Dollar Signs together since Wachman and drummer Arion Chamberlain joined Button and Gunn's two-piece experimental project of the same name in 2013.
Button felt maxed out on what he could do with two people creatively, and began looking to put together a "real band." He was living on Chamberlain's couch at the time, and had met Wachman through attending all the same shows in the Charlotte music scene. Those friendships were all the auditions he needed.
"It took me a while to decide who I wanted to ask to be in the band, because my whole thing is, I didn't necessarily need the greatest musicians in the world, since I'm not the best musician," Button said. "I just wanted people that I liked to be in the band. If it's not fun then there's no point to doing it. It's way too much work to try to make it with people you don't like."
And unlike many local bands that will repeatedly tell you — truthfully or not — that they're not interested in blowing up, Dollar Signs has no such reservations about what their goals are.
Hell, it's all right there in the name.
- Brooke Marsh
- Erik Button.
"Because we played, at the time, folk-punk and now punk I just thought it would be funny to have a band name that was basically us being forward about trying to sell out," Button admitted.
It wasn't until last summer that the dream started becoming a reality of sorts. The band was on their first true nation-wide tour, playing their previous album Yikes, when they showed up to play a show at Subterranean in Chicago. It quickly became apparent that people were there to see them on purpose, and even singing their songs.
"That was like the moment that we knew that, not only is this self-fulfilling, but maybe it's important to other people," said Wachman, who felt justified in the band's then-recent decision to take this "accidental band" more seriously. "It reaffirmed all the work that we had put into our music."
The guys returned to Charlotte with newfound inspiration, and soon thereafter moved into a house together in north Charlotte and began work on Life is Ruff.
"The pressure was mounting to make it serious and we were like, 'This is the best way to make it serious. To just always be in a place where we can play music together,'" said Wachman of the new pad.
Although they say it's nothing new that they're "meticulous, cautious and careful" songwriters, and that they've always taken longer to get songs ready to record than most bands (blaming anxiety, of course) for Life is Ruff, they doubled down.
The band took twice as long as earlier efforts in an attempt to record "the best five songs we could come up with."
That effort will culminate with the Life is Ruff record release party The Milestone on Saturday, April 1.
- Bobby Whitmire
- Erik Button gets into his feels on stage.
"We have a lot of songs, but if you have never heard us before, we just wanted to put out an EP that's like, if you hear any of these songs it explains the kind of band that we are," Button said.
According to a long-running joke among the guys, the kind of band they are is one simply created to sell t-shirts. It's a joke based on the group's knack for marketing themselves.
The band is constantly churning out new merchandise — that Chicago show was a hot sauce release party for the band's own brand of, well, you get it — and looking for new ways to get their name out.
The group takes advantage of its skillset — Button has won two Emmy awards with his production company, Priceless Misc.; Wachman's degree in graphic design and interest in marketing; and Chamberlain's acting background — to shoot high-quality promo videos for upcoming shows.
Wachman uses what he learned in graphic design and marketing classes to inform how the band will roll out each new project — this time on the back of his dog, Barney, who graces the cover of Life is Ruff.
"In college I learned about campaigning, and all of our releases are individual campaigns," Wachman says. "So this campaign is all about dogs, and I don't know what the next one is going to be about. But for the time being we are a dog band."
A lot of thought is put into what may seem like a simple idea. Wachman had the cover art worked out six months before the album was ready and had to pitch it to Button, who had shot down his dog idea already in the past.
This time, however, it felt right.
"It does kind of work for the album, because I think the album is mostly about being in your late 20s, where you don't want to go out anymore, and because we all live together, Barney is a central part of me sitting in my house," Button said.
Other topics tackled with slapstick and sarcasm on Life is Ruff range from fast food and shitty living situations to more serious topics like alcoholism, loneliness and — you guessed it — anxiety.
For Dollar Signs, writing and performing such songs are the best ways to confront any issues they deal with head on.
"The mental health conversation is pushed away. Nobody ever wants to talk about it. Regardless of the awareness that's gone on — especially in social media with people airing their anxious or depressed grievances — I still feel like in person, anxiety and depression are really taboo in a way," said Wachman. "People don't want to confront it in public. Everybody is just trying to have a good time. So I guess being on stage for all of us together, it's kind of a way to share those feelings with a crowd of people who also have those feelings. It's kind of the great unifier."
Despite all the emotional underlying issues, Dollar Signs is still an upbeat band, and Life is Ruff is full of hyper headbangers. The guys are happy as hell to be on stage in front of any crowd, and they want you to know it.
For Button, it comes back to that admission that the Dollar Signs are there to make it playing music, and he doesn't want to waste time around bands who want to pretend otherwise.
"It's honestly the thing that I hate about most bands," he said. "Why do we all have to pretend that we don't care about the things that we do? I think probably the thing that I hate more than anything in the fucking world is when we go and play with a band who just stands there and they look bored on stage. If you don't care about this, why would I care about this?"
For Chamberlain, just like with acting, his role in the performance is an escape. Knowing many of the band's fans deal with the same social issues he and his band mates do makes it all the more important to show up with that high energy.
"If all of us — with all the anxiety we have combined — if we can manage to somehow try to care, there's no excuse," he said.
No excuses; it sounds like a potential campaign.