Like their name suggests, Wailin Storms‘ anthems lull you in with the rain’s deliberate pummel before violent gales punch you off your feet. When you listen to their sophomore record Sick City below, you’ll hear the pulsing bass of opener “Hurricane Trashwave” give way to a devastating crescendo. Later, the deliberate prowl of “Night of the Long Nights” kicks off a fiery freakout before the song’s casket lid closes. From vocalist/guitarist Justin Storms’ contagious croons to his pointed barks, Wailin Storms are both the push and the pull of rock ‘n’ roll fury. The calm before, and the actual capital-S Storm itself.
Building off their striking One Foot in the Flesh Grave debut, Sick City still offers hints of Clockcleaner’s antagonistic rock, Southern Gothic post-punk, and Danzig’s dirty work in Samhain. But this time around, Wailin Storms have crafted an album that reads and feels like a Flannery O’Connor story collection. Like Wise Blood or “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Sick City offers ruminations on murder, religious hypocrisy, and urban isolation. The North Carolinans create sweltering songs that bring closer “Waiting” to life with lyrics like “the night is all velvet, the air is all humid” and “the air feels like hot breath.” Sick City is full of the sweat and grit of a summer night where the heat doesn’t relent with the moon’s ascent. After seeing them in Philadelphia on their last tour, I can attest that these new tracks are dizzyingly awesome played live as well.
Below, let Wailin Storms steer you down Sick City‘s haunted streets. While you listen, read comments from Justin Storms and bassist Steve Stanczyk about murder ballads, mortality, and meeting Jesus during acid flashbacks. But first, step into the Storm and press play below before Antena Krzyku Records releases Sick City on October 2nd.
Were there any changes in the band’s sound you consciously wanted to make after One Foot in the Flesh Grave, or were any changes just organic?
Steve Stanczyk: Definitely organic. Every band I have been in seems to hit their stride on the second release. You get a better feel for collaborating, [a better feel for] your role within the songwriting process, and a more thorough understanding of the band’s distinct sound and what we’re trying to do. That certainly happened with Sick City. I think all our parts are more refined, play off of one another more consistently, and show a general maturation of songwriting.
Why did you pick the title Sick City for this record, and how does it thematically connect to the songs?
Justin Storms: Our guitarist Todd [Warner] actually thought of that title. He thought it seemed fitting since our town [Durham, NC] is also known as the “City of Medicine.” Plus, it seemed to have many other meanings given the current state of things and the subjects of the songs. For me, Sick City connected to nearly all the songs. A few being: “Irene Garza,” which is based on a true story of a priest who raped and murdered a young woman on Easter, in Sacred Heart Church, McAllen, TX; “Night Of The Long Nights” is about dementia; and “Blue as the Blind,” which came to me in parts after several long walks through cities. There’s that loneliness you feel walking around streets, despite people being all around.
In Sick City, your lyrics examine religious and death rituals with grotesque images, like in “Hurricane Trashwave” and “Clean Shirt.” What are your own personal views on death?
JS: Having experienced it several times now, both personally and with friends and family, my views on death changes from time to time. However, I think it’s the only thing we can expect from life. The few times I nearly died it was pretty cliché: ethereal lighting and memories flashing by. I didn’t see Jesus, but I did come across him once when I was on acid. Long story short, I had been tripping for a few hours in the evening and needed to get some sleep before working the next morning. When I went to close my eyes I could see him hanging there with his arms wide open on a cross, but it looked like he was tacked onto a blacklight poster. All I could see was a glow in the dark cross shining there in black space like some faint holy ghost nightlight. I guess he was taking a sick day the other time I nearly died.
With [One Foot in the Flesh Grave‘s] “Down in South Texas” and now with [Sick City‘s]”Irene Garza,” you have created memorable murder ballads. Is there an existing murder ballad that speaks to you and you’d consider covering?
JS: A few I’d love to do someday would be Tarheel Slim and Little Ann’s “Two Time Loser,” and “Long Black Veil” by Johnny Cash
Justin, you’re also a painter and visual artist. For you, how does musical inspiration differ from the way you develop ideas for images?
JS: Art and music are a weird balance of instinct, history, and research. Sometimes I let the gut win, and sometimes the mind devours the gut. That said, the best songs and art have come from an ineffable place. That may sound a little hokey, but I’ve created the most gratifying work when working quickly and instinctively. I used to have a bad habit of overthinking and overworking everything, and the song or painting ended up being muddy and stale. Why let the mind polish something that has a nice patina or crack already? Stay primitive, stay loose, and don’t think too much. There’s always exceptions to this, like if someone asked me to restore the “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.”
How did the inspiration for the album’s cover image develop?
SS: As a band, we have very divergent opinions on visual art. We learned early on that the best way to get consensus on a design was to pick an illustrator that inspires us and give that person the license to create something with little direction from us. For Sick City, Todd recommended a local artist, Ron Liberti, who does these incredibly interesting, hand wrought compositions, often for well known indie bands who are coming through town. Given the Sick City name having so much to do with Durham, it made a lot of sense to go with someone who gets our sound and understands the city we live in. Ron absolutely nailed it by creating this amazing album cover based off the backstory of Irene Garza. Check out his stuff at ronlibertiart.com
I caught you playing in Philly on this last tour, and you’re intense, energetic performers on stage. Were there any shows you attended as a spectator that changed how you approach your own performances?
SS: Many years ago I roadied for a friend’s band who was playing the Concert Cafe in Green Bay, WI during a huge blizzard. The entire city was shut down and we didn’t know if we’d be able to get the van through the highway to the venue. The show went on in spite of the blizzard, but next to no one came out. My friend’s band performed in front of myself and maybe three other people and gave the amount of effort you’d expect at such a show. The other band, from NYC I think, played as if there were hundreds of people there. They absolutely destroyed. That level of professionalism and energy despite the circumstances made a huge impression on me.
JS: Seeing Fugazi do a headstand.
You have some shows coming up in October. Were there any memorable stories from your last tour in August?
SS: Probably the Philly show had the most interesting story. It was at a DIY space that protected the address to the point of we didn’t know where we were going exactly until a few hours before the show. We stopped to grab some food and met a Philly friend who described the venue as a former strip club that got closed down due to having too many murders on its property – I believe the threshold was eight – and now occasionally has shows. So we drive over to the venue to find that it isn’t in the best neighborhood (surprise!), there was broken auto glass in three places as we drove around looking for parking, boarded up windows/locked doors on the venue. No one is there. We call our friends we’re touring with – Unmaker from RVA – to see where they’re at as the place is deserted other than a couple arguing loudly outside the club. Apparently, the guy that owns the strip club also owns an old VFW style hall – with an underground bar beneath it – which is where the show was at. Whoops! Much better scenario with dirt cheap drinks.
What’s in store for Wailin Storms for the rest of 2017 and beyond?
SS: We’re doing all we can to support this release. We’ll be on the road again at the end of October heading down to Gainesville, FL to play The Fest, and doing some shows on the way there and back. We’re trying to set up a short tour heading South early next year with our friends Vincas, an amazing band from Athens, GA. Speaking of, next year we plan on touring through the Midwest and back, and hopefully we’ll be in Europe – still TBD – for a short stint in the Summer of 2018.