“Under pressure hammerhead in the shallow end;
No surrender for the death guard watch;
Pound of flesh, the water red but we still swim;
Rub his belly and the bad fish stop;” — From SupaFeeler (Vice Grip) by Fitness
For Max Collins and Kenny Carkeet of the band Fitness, music was a pathway out of disconnection and loneliness. “Going back to when I was in high school and felt weird and rejected and pimply and put on a Jawbreaker record and read the lyrics – he [Schwarzenbach] was giving me something. There was something invaluable going on there,” Collins told me. “And that’s the antidote for loneliness that I look for in music.
“There’s someone out there who gets me.”
To be sure, it was not the rebellion of punk rock that they found appealing per se, but rather the authenticity of the music and artists. “Punk rock to me is honesty – not non-conformity,” Carkeet explained. “James Brown didn’t choreograph dance moves. He did whatever the music did to his body. And to me that’s the most soul satisfying thing to see – someone doing what is natural to them.”
In fact, the more arrogant and outrageous the artist, the more authentic and satisfying the music is to Collins. “Performers and writers and artists that I love who are in a position of arrogance and wear it for everyone to see – there’s a generosity in that to me. Because that’s entertaining to watch … That’s artistic integrity in its most pure expression,” Collins said. “It’s like I don’t care what you think. I’m following my whimsy. Everything else be damned.
“I’m doing it for the joy of it.”
Collins cites Oasis guitarist and songwriter Noel Gallagher as well as Michael “Fat Mike” Burkett of NOFX as a good model of this approach. “If you’re reading a Noel Gallagher interview, some people might call him the biggest asshole in the world. To me there’s something emotionally generous and honest, because it’s fun to read and fun to listen to.” Collins explained. “Fat Mike is the most contemptuous cunt to the audience. He’ll go up to them and say, ‘I don’t feel like playing this fucking show. I wish I didn’t have to fucking be here.’ And then they’ll crush and talk shit to the crowd. That’s entertaining to me.
“You’re being more generous as an entertainer than a guy going up and spewing banalities and saying, ‘Clap your hands.’”
And so this was the approach that Collins and Carkeet took when pursuing their own successful musical careers. As the lead singer and songwriter of Eve 6, Collins wrote and performed songs such as “Inside Out” and was eventually sought after to write and produce songs by artists such as Puddle of Mudd and Emily Osment. And as the keyboard player for Awolnation, Carkeet performed songs such as “Sail” and was eventually recruited to write and produce songs for bands such as 5 Seconds of Summer and The Used.
And yet, they soon found that the tail was wagging the dog. They were writing songs for the expressed purpose of making hit records, rather than writing and performing songs that happened to wind up as hit records. They had lost that swagger – that arrogant authenticity that they appreciated in other artists and to which they aspired themselves.
“A lot of bands start off genuine and honest, making things they believe. Then you get put into the machine,” Carkeet said. There’s no money in the music business,” Carkeet explained. “People are focused on analytics and statistics and fads and what are people going to like. You can’t bring the chorus in after one minute – you’ll lose the audience. And as a songwriter for hire, that’s what we do with bands – we want to make them commercial songs.”
But writing commercial songs for other artists did not extinguish their desire to write and perform emotionally honest and authentic music for themselves, which sparked the birth of their new band, Fitness. “Kenny and I have both been chewed up and spit out by the machine. We wear professional hats when we’re doing songwriter for hire stuff and production stuff,” Collins said. “Fitness is an opportunity for us to be completely unconstrained by all of the stuff that ultimately doesn’t matter, and just makes us smile like fools when we’re in the studio. The way that we wear this is part of an attitude that keeps Fitness very real for us.
“Preserving a certain ‘fuck you’ thing has been very important for this project.”
To be sure, this process has not been easy. For one thing, according to Carkeet, getting out of the mode of writing songs for popular radio can be difficult. He had to re-learn to give himself permission to write without concern for whether the song had commercial appeal.
“For a while we were in the machine where we sucked the fun out of it and we were just doing a paycheck. So I feel like for me at least, I’d lost my way … seeing the bright lights and the success,” Carkeet described. “And then we went back to this for Fitness, and we started over from the ground up, we came from a very genuine place of Can I do that? Can I not even have a chorus? And who’s going to tell me that I can’t?
“I want to make something that I like.”
More, while some might view their past success in Eve 6 and Awolnation as free passes for people to want to listen to and work with them, Collins found that often the opposite was true. “We live in a culture where it’s all about newness … Our other band names can get us in the door in some places – with radio it’s been particularly helpful because we have radio histories,” Collins said. “But when we’re talking about getting on the coolest blogs in the world, we don’t lead with it’s Max from Eve 6 and Kenny from Awol Nation.”
But that hasn’t stopped Collins and Carkeet one bit. They are loving every minute of it, and know that the more they are willing to find their unique voice – wherever it may take them – others will connect to the music.
“It is like meditation – our live shows – even when there’s not many people. It’s about making it an arena. Getting into our own world. You’re giving me your hour and a half to indulge me and listen to things that I can’t help myself but say,” Collins explained. “And that’s where a lot of the arrogant positivity thing works – self-centered expression that just gets us off.
“It’s the most specific, unique-to-you truths that end up being the most universal.”
Michael A. Friedman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with offices in Manhattan and South Orange, NJ, and is a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Contact Dr. Mike at michaelfriedmanphd.com. Follow him on Twitter @drmikefriedman.