Interview: Teenage Wrist’s Marshall Gallagher, on moving to the front, muscling up and making album No. 2

Teenage Wrist (Photo by Lindsey Nico Mann)

*Updated with the full album stream.

For most artists, it was a hell of a year. For Marshall Gallagher, make it two. Back in 2019, well before COVID-19 struck, the guitarist from Teenage Wrist had a crisis on his hands: Just as the band was gearing up to begin album No. 2, founding member and frontman Kam Mohager notified Gallagher and drummer Anthony Salazar that he did not intend to continue.

Teenage Wrist might have ended right then and there, but Gallagher and Salazar instead chose to soldier on, making their sophomore record, “Earth is A Black Hole” (out Friday via Epitaph Records) as a duo, with Gallagher taking on the role of lead vocalist. It’s been a long and unexpected journey to get to this point, but the band has, on the evidence of their new songs, emerged stronger for it. While still bearing an obvious relationship to the atmospheric shoegaze that characterized their 2018 debut, “Chrome Neon Jesus,” the new tracks pack a deliberately muscular punch, reminiscent of some of the more propulsive pyrotechnics from “Siamese Dream”-era Pumpkins and My Vitriol’s underrated “Finelines.” Unlike many shoegaze-indebted records that seem perfectly content to fade into the background, “Earth Is A Black Hole” is, by contrast, very intent on making an impression.

||| Watch: Gilbert Trejo’s video for “Yellowbelly”

In a wide-ranging interview with Buzz Bands LA, conducted on the day of the presidential inauguration, Gallagher touched on his own personal politics, why he could do without hearing from some of his heroes and what it feels like to finally be front and center.

Buzz Bands LA: This record feels like a big step forward in a lot of ways. What were your goals when you set out to make “Earth Is A Black Hole” and how did they differ from what you set out to do on your debut?

Marshall Gallagher: On the previous one we were just finding our sound and cranking things out. I think it’s fair to say that this time we wanted to take a lot more chances, and we really had to because we lost a member who had been an integral part of our songwriting process. I give a lot of credit to our producer Colin Brittain. He co-wrote a couple of songs, and he really helped us move the sound in a different direction while keeping some of the elements that worked the first time around.

How did Colin get involved?

Marshall Gallagher: He was actually set up as a co-write session from the label. He had also worked with some of our friends and they had great things to say about him. From the very first session, we liked the way he worked and his energy and ideas. We walked out of that session and felt like he would be a good person to do the entire record with.

What drove you to want to bring in a co-writer? Why was that important to you?

Marshall Gallagher: I have done plenty of co-writes and what’s nice about [those sessions] is that they pull you into territory that you wouldn’t normally go yourself. I am definitely guilty of latching onto the same words or melodies at times, and you’d be amazed at what having another person in the room can do — just one little idea will spark a whole chain of events that would have never happened otherwise. Of course, like anything, some co-writing sessions are better than others, and we had a few along the way where it was like, “Eh, that was fun but we won’t be rushing back.”

When I said the record sounded like a step forward, I should probably have clarified a bit: you sound more direct and confident. You’re still taking a lot of inspiration from shoegaze but you’re also pairing it with a stronger sense of rhythm and edging into post-grunge in spots. It honestly reminds me a lot of what My Vitriol was trying to do.

Marshall Gallagher: Hell yeah, I’ll take that. Kam [Mohager] was actually the one who introduced me to My Vitriol, so it’s funny that you say we sound more like them now.

As long as you don’t follow them politically. The singer’s sort of gone down the rabbit hole.

Marshall Gallagher: Ugh, don’t tell me that. Can’t say I’m surprised. I feel like as the years go by all of my favorite artists are heading that way into weird territory. I have a real soft spot for Smashing Pumpkins, but every time Billy Corgan opens his mouth these days or shows up on Alex Jones, I’m like, “Man, can’t you just be cool and just stop just talking about all these conspiracy theories and what you hate about millennials?”

I know you’re fairly political aware and that politics are important to you. We’re talking on Inauguration Day. What does today mean to you?

Marshall Gallagher: First of all, I have to say that we don’t necessarily want to be known as a political band. We’re not Rage Against the Machine. I’m not the guy holding the megaphone at the protest, but we do have somewhat of a platform, and if there’s something we both believe in and can at the very least direct some attention and money to it, then we will. As for today, I know on some level that most of what comes out of politicians’ mouths is a load of shit and should be taken with a grain of salt. But after everything we’ve been through the past four years, I do like Biden’s general message of unity. There is so much misinformation and anger out there; we need something to counteract it.

||| Stream: “Taste of Gasoline”

Going back to the band: I understand that it was a completely amicable split with your former lead singer, Kam. Can you talk a little more about what transpired?

Marshall Gallagher: Well, one thing I do want to say is that a lot of people may not realize that I was doing some of the lead vocals on the first record. He was probably lead on 60-70% [of the songs], but nobody really put together how much I was doing because our voices sound similar when they’re drenched in reverb. So, it wasn’t all that crazy of a step for me to take that role because I had already been there to an extent.

The reason why Kam went his own way wasn’t because of creative differences or friction between us. He was just going in a different life direction. He is married and has a career in graphic design. He was doing a lot of other stuff, and he didn’t want to be doing the long-haul touring grind for Teenage Wrist. As much as we have, the fact is we’re still a small band and we have a long time before we’re doing successful headline tours. Simply put, the life paths were moving in different directions. He’s got his own project now that is heavy music like we used to do together.

Well, that was the strange part to me! His new project didn’t sound very far removed from Teenage Wrist, so it really begged the question as to why you’d split.

Marshall Gallagher: Yeah, it was never a creative thing. People go different directions in their lives. I completely understand not wanting to spend six months in a van for not a lot of money.

Did you ever contemplate ending the band when he made his decision?

Marshall Gallagher: It did cross my mind. He was responsible for so much of the aesthetic and musical vision. I give credit where credit is due: It was as much his band as mine. And when he left, it definitely freaked me and Anthony out. The only thing we could do was see what came out when it was just us and if our team was going to be onboard with the sound. So we went and made the demos for “Wear You Down” and “Yellowbelly,” and everybody was like “OK, let’s do this. This is going to work.”

I used to front my own band … but I was never someone who craved the limelight.
That said, I am comfortable with it.

You mentioned you had actually sung lead vocals on a few of the songs for the first album, but did you have any trepidation stepping into the main role full-time? Was this something you had always wanted to do or something you took on as just a matter of necessity?

Marshall Gallagher: I’ve never considered myself a singer but, yeah, I’d done it before. I used to front my own band called Swing Hero and a lot of that sound wound up in Teenage Wrist, but I was never someone who craved the limelight. That said, I am comfortable with it, and I am actually finding a lot of joy in it now.

So it wasn’t a situation where you considered finding someone else to take on the role.

Marshall Gallagher: No, we never considered another lead singer. That would have been a whole new writing voice, and it’s a struggle to find someone we agree with, let alone who isn’t a psychopath. [laughs]

It feels like the guitar has fallen out of favor in recent years, but it is front and center in what you do in Teenage Wrist. Is it important to you to champion the guitar? Is this an instrument that you wish more artists were using in a more obvious way?

Marshall Gallagher: I will always be inextricably bound to the guitar. I was a guitarist long before I was a singer or a songwriter, and it’s still a really fun instrument for me to play. I’ll also say that it’s very special to me to be able to play an instrument when so much music is going the way of computers and backing tracks. And I don’t say that with any judgment or hate toward electronic music. I make electronic music myself, and I love pop production and vaporwave, but the guitar just has great texture to it and it’s one of those instruments that you can’t recreate with software yet.

I actually do think the guitar is having a moment; it looks a little different than it did in the past, though. It’s being used a lot in hip-hop, right alongside 808s, and in areas outside of traditional rock music. For example, I just got turned onto an R&B guy named Dijon who is using the guitar in pretty interesting ways — almost ’90s emo in parts.

Have you given thought to how your live shows are going to work now that Teenage Wrist is a duo?

Marshall Gallagher: We’re going to have to enlist the help of some friends or session players. We’ll be a four-piece for sure [when we play live], and we’ll definitely be playing some shows when it’s safe. We know that after COVID, people are going to want to see the artists that got them through COVID. We’ll be ready.

||| Stream: “Earth Is a Black Hole”

||| Previously: “Silverspoon,” “Earth Is a Black Hole,” Quarantunes