Sometimes life throws you lemonade, when all you needed was a glass of water. Such was the case with Captain, We're Sinking frontman Bobby Barnett, after a childhood spent dreaming of punk rock excess and life on the road led him to follow his brother Greg of The Menzingers down a similarly six-stringed path. Forming a band in the latter years of his high school career, he holed up in teenage bedrooms and practice spaces, stitching together Captain, We're Sinking's frantic, noodling punk rock alongside co-vocalist and guitarist Leo Vergnetti. A scrappy, self-recorded debut soon followed; after that, a record deal with label Run For Cover followed. With a fervent fanbase amassing around them, and second album The Future Is Cancelled immediately framed as a potential scene classic upon its release in 2013, those daydreams seemed to be coming to fruition. Hopping into an ill-equipped four-door family car for some shows along the East Coast, though, prompted those longheld ambitions to quickly bite him in the denim-clad ass.
"We've always had a running joke within the band that we're the worst band to exist. Everything that we've done has been either the wrong move, or just blown up in our face," a now late-twenties Barnett laughs from his Philadelphia home, tempeh meatballs bubbling away in the background. Every bit the picture of suburban calm, it's a world away from the fire and brimstone, all-or-nothing attitude he once held the band to. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, and it's through that near-perfect retrospective vision and sense of calm that Captain, We're Sinking's new, third LP King Of No Man came to be.
A more considered, spacious record, it's one that finds Captain, We're Sinking—completed by bassist Zac Charette and drummer Bill Orender—taking some much-needed breathing space. At times, the near polar opposite to The Future Is Cancelled's anxious, cacophonous noise, the likes of "Cannonless" and "Water" find the group soaring skyward, rather than scrunching themselves up in a ball, stomach tied in knots. Even the record's more furious cuts like lead single and opener "Trying Year" or the blitzkrieg "Don't Show Bill" are less muddy-headed, their anger delivered with pinpoint precision rather than a wild, smash-everything-in-sight abandon.
That calmer outlook is no accident. Instead, it came out of necessity. As the mounting pressure of success and willful excess began to play havoc with Barnett's head, having everything he'd spent his youth dreaming about on his doorstep quickly brought the singer to his knees. The everything-on-the-table punk rock dream wasn't all it was cracked up to be, and every action the band took became an arduous task. "After every tour we would go on, I would get home and put the band to the back of my head like, 'Well, that's it. I'm not doing that ever again!'" he half-laughs, remembering those rash early years. While the band's youthful outlook viewed every show as "party time," Barnett and his compatriots soon found themselves ending every night with their head on a bar, or worse, in a toilet. Unsurprisingly, Barnett bolted before The Future Is Cancelled's title could become all-too-literal, leaving the band on the backburner while he sought out school.
"We've been playing in this band since we were in high school, and we never really pursued it full-time, or anything close to that," Barnett says. "The small taste I'd had of that, I knew that I wanted to be in the band, but also knew that I wanted something else in life. I don't wanna just be the guy on tour, or have the band be my whole thing. I always wanted to go back to school, I always wanted something else so that I could have that balance in life."
Enrolling in Scranton's Marywood University course for education, the one-time punk-rocker found himself ditching the guitar in favour of those same classrooms he once formed his rock 'n' roll ambitions in. "It's kinda ironic," he smirks, "I spent high school just daydreaming about being in a band, and doing really bad, and then when the opportunity came to play in a band, I went back to school to be in high school again as a teacher…" He cringes at the idea of any of his students knowing of his band life, though, more than happy to keep the worlds as separate as possible.
It didn't take long for the itch to return, though. With the pressure somewhat lifted and breathing space afforded, Barnett began writing songs again in his Scranton apartment. Those became his Little Wounds solo LP, a record that now reads like a diary entry, tracks like "Do You Think I'm Happy" and "You're Getting Better" charting Barnett's slowly-recovering mental state. Before long, a near-sunken Captain, We're Sinking started to bob back to the surface. "All the way through school I was like, 'Okay, if I become a teacher, that'd be great if I had summers off, because then I could just tour!'" Barnett jokes. "It was like, wow, okay, maybe I do really enjoy this." Taking a handful of those solo record songs with him on a two-hour drive south back to Philadelphia, Captain, We're Sinking mended their wounds and got back in the practice room.
These days, the band approaches their actions with a smidge more foresight. Touring is treated less as a nightly riot and more as an opportunity to see the world, while Barnett's new weekday role as a history teacher in Philly allows him to maintain that balance he sought. Shows and studio time were booked around day jobs, while monthly band practices steadily became weekly as they eased themselves back into things. With aching limbs and a more considered worldview on their side, Captain, We're Sinking pieced King Of No Man together over time, rather than in the three-day limit they imposed on themselves for The Future Is Cancelled. It shows, in a record that shines some light amongst the dirty riffing, rather than cloaking everything in a dark cloud.
"I think the biggest thing is that The Future Is Cancelled was a very desperate, angry sounding record, and really frantic," Barnett explains. "It really represented that time—we were all 22, 23, writing that album, and no one really knew what was going on in their lives; that early 20s freak-out of, 'What the hell am I gonna do with myself?!' Those songs were just in your face and all over the place. This time, everyone's a little bit more sure of themselves," he says.
While Barnett still talks of the "very strange, intense personalities" that plague the four-piece like he's holding something at bay, the Jekyll and Hyde of Captain, We're Sinking's present and past seem relatively secure, for now. With The King Of No Man under their belts, and a handful of upcoming shows alongside The Menzingers, they're in far brighter spirits. Cancellation, be damned: this time around, their future's been renewed.
The King of No Man is out on June 23 from Run for Cover Records. Pre-order it here and listen to the whole thing below.