Interview: Dogbreth

words: Alex Wexelman

If you go on Dogbreth’s Bandcamp page, you’ll notice that there is only one user comment for the band’s most recent offering, Second Home, out now on Asian Man Records. The reviewer writes, “Don't f--k with these people. Do not cross them. You'll be sorry. I know I was.” 

After speaking with Dogbreth principle songwriter, Tristan Jemsek, I can assure you the review should not be taken at face value. Tristan, 28, is as nice as could be: he eloquently offers up an unrehearsed argument on the stratum of energy drinks and then apologizes at the end of the interview for not being as articulate as he’d like to be. In other words, Tristan is utterly earnest. 

I Have No Friends, the aforementioned reviewer, did get one thing right, though: they chose “Hoarder House” as their favorite track. Of the 10 songs on Second Home, “Hoarder House” makes the best argument for why Dogbreth deserves your attention and they deliver this argument in fewer than two minutes. In this short period, Tristan laconically lays out a whole story with a Hemingway level of expertise. The song exemplifies his depth as a lyricist, but also his abilities as a musician: his words offer pathos, but his heady guitar solo caters to the id inside us all. 

Photo: Stillman Busselle

Photo: Stillman Busselle

On “Cups and Wrappers” you sing, “Rock and Roll won’t make it all OK / But it used to seem that way.” What brought about this shift in thought? Do you mean that writing a song won’t make you feel better about your problems or that listening to rock won’t fix things?

That song was about a specific time in my life when my first real serious relationship ended and I just retreated into rock and roll and tried to express everything through writing those songs. I guess it’s about [how] making a song about it wont make any personality flaws that I had go away. It’s just a way to cope with stuff without actually working it out myself.  

Do you find that writing music is a good outlet to explore your feelings and maybe get some better understanding of who you are as a person or do you find that you come away and you have this song but you’re the same person and nothing has changed?

I think it can be a very cathartic thing and always has been for me. I think it can help understand yourself, but it can’t be the only thing. 

Do you find that listening to rock music can also be a similarly cathartic experience for you?

Oh yeah, totally. It’s been a very cathartic thing for me throughout my life. If I need to make myself feel better I can always go on a drive with an energy drink and turn up a Thin Lizzy record. 

I saw that you mentioned energy drinks in your Facebook description. Why do you like energy drinks so much and which is your favorite one?

I like energy drinks because of how they make me feel. They make me feel extra alive. There’s different energy drinks for different situations. If I’m going on a long drive I’ll go for the Monster-style energy drink, like the big cans—though I don’t normally go Monster because that’s like the top-tier. I normally go second-tier, which is like the Rockstars or the Amps or the Full Throttles because they’re usually about a dollar less so if I feel like really treating myself and going really hard I’ll get a Monster Energy. But normally my day-in-day-out energy drink would be a Rockstar. And then if I’m in a social situation that’s when I’d go for a Redbull. That’s a little bit classier I guess. 

Do you think the price reflects the quality?

Oh yeah absolutely, I think monster energy is an innovator for sure and has set the industry standard for energy drinks in that style, and for a reason: it’s the best. 

I hope you get a sponsorship deal out of this

[Laughs] that would be amazing.

Photo: Stillman Busselle

Photo: Stillman Busselle

To circle back a bit, I asked about the role rock music has in your life. You sang that there are songs that have the ability to shake you to your core. Did you have any songs in mind that blow you away when you listen to them. The type of thing that you crank at 11 when you’re driving down the highway?

There are a few Third Eye Blind songs that meet that criteria like “Graduate” or “How it Used to Be” are songs like that for me. Also there’s a Karl Blau song called “Mockingbird Diet” that has always affected me very strongly—that might have been the song that I was thinking of when I wrote that.  

What albums were pivotal in making you want to become a musician?

Bad Hair Day by “Weird Al” Yankovic, Apollo 18 by They Might Be Giants, a Dead Milkman compilation called [Death Rides a Pale Cow (The Ultimate Collection)]. My first band, I started [it] with my brother, and it was a polka-punk band called Haunted Cologne. My brother played accordion and I played drums. There were a lot of weirdo bands in Phoenix at the time. The early 2000s, the downtown Phoenix music scene just had so many oddball bands and weird stuff and as soon as my brother and I were exposed to that we started going to local shows. It just blew our minds. We really embraced our weirdness and that’s what got me playing shows. I played drums in that band and I didn’t start writing my own songs until a few years later and that’s when I getting into stuff like The Mountain Goats and Magnolia Electric Co. and kinda more like heavy-handed, emotional stuff. 

Do you happen to know Stephen Steinbrink by any chance?

Yeah, I’ve known Stephen for probably 10 years at least. We both came up playing the same art galleries in Phoenix in particular this space called The Trunk Space. I love Stephen. The very first French Quarter release was a split with an old band I was in called Fathers Day. 

I interviewed [Stephen] and he was telling me the same thing about the Phoenix scene how it was a launching-off point for so many awesome, cool, weird bands. 

There was this golden age where downtown was kinda abandoned at night and there were all these warehouse spaces that were cheap to rent and people turned art galleries into venues. It was kinda a free for all and it was awesome. Because there was almost no attention from the city, they’d be all ages so it was a lot of really cool stuff happening that was just mind-blowing when you’re a 17-year-old weirdo, loner. 

Does the scene still the thrive?

There’s still a lot of great music being made in Phoenix for sure. That hasn’t changed. But the landscape is just very different. There’s fewer all-ages spaces that are DIY. There’s venues and clubs that are all-ages, but they’re businesses less in the sense of “be as weird as you want; be as free as you want” that they used to be. When I first started playing shows at Trunk Space with my brother and friends Steph and JRC, the two owners, were just so supportive of us and really didn’t care about money. They had day jobs and put their own money into it. They didn’t look at it as a business. They allowed our weird, bad bands to play all the time and they let me set up weird, bad shows that no one went to for years and years. And because of that I really grew as an artist and fell in love with expression and being weird. But I don’t think there’s a place like that anymore. Even though there are cool all-ages clubs, if you set up a show and no one comes, they’re probably not gonna let you do that again. 

What do you think the role of weirdness plays in your life? Did you feel like a bit of an outsider growing up?

Ya, ya I think so. I had kinda a weird childhood—I was homeschooled and I think because of that I got into a lot of stuff maybe I would have gotten into had I gone to school but maybe not. I’ve always felt like a weird, awkward person I guess. 

What type of stuff do you mean? Like music or books or comics…?

Weird music and movies and performance art 

What’s your favorite weird movie?

My friend Madeline just introduced me to this movie last year called The Hardly Boys that’s really incredible. It’s made by this artist—I’m blanking on his name right now—but he’s the guy who makes those photos and videos of this certain type of dog but it’ll have human arms…

Is it William Wegman? [Editorial note: reader, it is William Wegman and I am a genius

Ya that sounds right. He made a movie called Hardly Boys that’s like a 30-40 minute long movie about these detectives that are his dogs and his dogs just play all the characters and it’s so bizarre and so beautiful. 

I wanted to know what your process was when you and Erin [Caldwell] collab’d on those songs. How did that come about?

Normally my songwriting process is I’ll write music and lyrics pretty separate for the most part so she had a bunch of lyrics ready to go and sent them to me. I went through them and the songs of hers on the record are the ones I was able to hear a melody to. I had the lyrics and I had a few song ideas that they happened to match up to. That’s normally how I’ll do it: I’ll have some riffs or song ideas on one side that I’m working on and then some lyrics over here and mix and match and see what works together. But I try and look at both things as separate entities. 

I like lyrics that you can read and have your own experience just reading them. I haven’t done this as much lately but in the past if I had a CD with a lyrics booklet I’d just read the lyrics first before listening to the CD. I really like the experience of just reading lyrics so I try and write and format my lyrics in a way where you can just read them and have that be complete in itself.

I feel like looking at Lemuria lyrics are kinda like that. I remember when I first got Get Better, their record, I just loved reading the lyrics sheet. When I saw that just one paragraph of words could be a whole pop song I thought that was so cool and I try to emulate that. 

Are you inspired ever by poetry or books?

Yeah, I am. I’m really bad at reading books—I’m always trying to get better at it. I’ve started so many books that I’ve never finished. But when a book does grab me enough to where I can read it all the way through, it always really affects me. Right now I’m really into Margaret Atwood’s poetry. She’s better known for her novels but I think her poems are just so beautiful. I’m also reading The House on Mango Street right now by Sandra Cisneros. Really lovin’ that. I just finished a collection of short stories by Murakami, The Elephant Vanishes

What did you learn from the time you took away from music?

After we moved to Seattle in January, I went four months without playing any shows, which I hadn’t done in like 12 years. In Phoenix, I’d be in, [at] the very least, five bands at a time, sometimes as many as eight bands, so playing shows has always been a constant in my adult life. Being in a new city, not playing in any bands was, for the most part, really cool. I would use that time to re-learn what life is like without playing music and it was pretty cool because now that I’m doing it again I think I have a refreshed sense of appreciation for it. The band isn’t as connected to my own sense of self-esteem and self-worth as it was. 

Music is obviously a big part of your life but it seems like basketball holds a special place in your heart. How do you think the two are similar or intersect?

Basketball has been a refuge for me from music. I loved it a lot as a kid and played it a lot with my grandpa and when I hit puberty and started getting into music I lost all interest in basketball and sports in general but then I picked it back up maybe five or six years ago and it’s a great way to clear my head. I just go play a pick-up game somewhere; I love the Phoenix Suns; I love following NBA. If I’m feeling too neurotic about music I can tune out that part of my brain and get into basketball. That’s the role it played for me. I was actually watching a documentary recently about Dirk Nowitzki. It was a profile on Dirk and he has a basketball coach [Holger Geschwindner] that he’s had since I think high school who came over with him from his country [Germany] to the NBA. They were showing them working out together and [Geschwindner] was telling [Nowitzki] how basketball is like jazz and I really liked that quote. To be good at basketball you just have to be able to improvise. 

So the last one I wanted to ask is why do you think Phoenix has the best Taco Bells in the country?

It might just be my hometown pride but there’s one in particular on 3rd Street and McDowell that I have gone to every day since I’ve been back. I’ve been here five days and that was my regular one I’d go to when I lived here and after a while they got to know me and got to know my order. The consistency and quality is just outstanding. I’ve been to Taco Bell’s high and low—all over the country—and for the most part there’s a baseline quality, but they’re definitely hit or miss. Very rarely do you get a Taco Bell that nails it and knocks me off my feet but the locations here in Phoenix do that. They’re just the best they can be. 

What do you order there?

Normally I try and stick to the value menu 

Good game plan.

The spicy potato soft taco, the cheesy bean and rice burrito. Those are like my two most common ones. I’m really bad at ordering at Taco Bell. I’ll either order too much or too little but usually my order will involve one of those two things. I’m a vegetarian so I think that’s why I learned to love Taco Bell so much. They’ve always catered to vegetarians better than any other fast-food chain. Burger King has a veggie burger but it’s not even on the menu. But Taco Bell, you can get anything with beans so I really appreciate that. 

My recommendation would be the beefy Frito burrito and you substitute the beef for beans and add the spicy ranch sauce. It’s an extra 30 cents but it’s so worth it.

I like imagining the creative board for Taco Bell are all just 14-year-old boys. Mountain Dew AM is just Mountain Dew and orange juice like that’s such a pre-teen boy idea. I love it so much. Like someone named Jeremy or Cody came up with that. 

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