Honestly, the story around releasing the second full length from Portland’s Prize Country is pretty boring, but one that shows that once I get an idea in my head I’m pretty driven to see it through, no matter how dumb or ridiculous it might be.
I distinctly remember reading a review in a trusted publication I respect for a band called Prize Country and their debut full length, “Lottery Of Recognition”. The comparisons made were enough for me to really get pretty excited to check it out. I sought out their music on the interhole, absolutely fell in love with it, and then noticed they were going out on an extensive U.S. tour. I saw that Buffalo was one of the dates on that tour- a scant 2 hours away from me. I decided then and there my band at the time- Mistletoe- should do a little touring around that same time and try to play a couple shows on the Prize Country tour. Why not? Well, we played some shows and that Buffalo show was the only one we connected with Prize Country on. We played one of the best spots in town for shows- Mohawk Place. It’s a great spot with great sound and toes the line between DIY punk ethics and respectable establishment you could invite your parents to. It’s a great place to play.
I didn’t think the show would be all that big since it was a Monday or something, but I didn’t expect it to be all of about 4 people in attendance. As we arrived the door guy straight up said, ‘Why did you want to play this? You know the Sabres are playing tonight, right?’ I kind of laughed a bit, but he was dead serious. Buffalo people don’t fuck around with their sports, it’s pretty crazy. If it’s bands on a Monday night, or the Sabres they’re choosing the Sabres.
Well, I kind of didn’t care either way because we were playing with Prize Country and I was excited to see, in person, how they were live. And even in that empty room they really brought it, and played so damn tight and loud that I was convinced right then and there that I ought to try and do a record for them.
I talked with them quite a bit that night and vowed to stay in touch. My communications were primarily with their guitarist/vocalist Aaron Blanchard, who I learned I sort of met years ago as he was a touring guitarist with the one and only Fall Silent. To go from the metallic insanity of that band to the heavy-handed post-hardcore of what he was doing now was not a huge stretch, but a different game nonetheless. As I dug deeper, I found out Aaron had a pretty deep history with some notable projects, including a stint as guitarist for a studio band featuring all of Kiss It Goodbye (minus Keith Huckins) known as Family Man that made it as far as cutting a demo before splitting up.
So over the next few months we talked and came to an agreement for Hex to release their next LP, which became “With Love”. It was released in October of 2009, right in time for the label’s 10th anniversary and a show to celebrate that milestone. Prize Country toured all the way out from Portland for the celebration and I sort of set the show up around their touring schedule, since they were coming from farthest away.
Above all else Prize Country were a touring machine. They toured heavily. They went everywhere and never seemed to stop. But in their willingness to play absolutely anywhere that would have them it often led to playing crappy dive bars, middle-of-nowhere empty rooms, and dead-end spots just so they could fill a weeknight without taking a day off. It was a strong work ethic, but frequently led to poorly attended gigs. As a band they never dug too deep into the DIY scene for spaces to play for whatever reason. Maybe as older adults they left it behind, or lost touch with people who still did that. It could have served them better, who knows. But that tireless ethic to just play all the time, no matter where, led to burnout and after a couple months of touring on “With Love” it seemed as if some of the band had had enough and decided to step away. It was difficult to recover from that as each member of the band was indispensible. They were all such strong players. Prize Country quietly called it quits after some attempts to keep it going and that’s the end of their story.
I lost touch with Aaron not too long after that and was really unsure of what he ended up doing with himself. That is until I also moved to Portland, and I had no idea if he was still in town. A whole year went by of living out here and I randomly ended up seeing him at a show. Yeah, it took a whole year of living here before I caught up with him. The dude just stays off social media. I don’t blame him. But now that we had each others phone numbers it was high time to give him a call, meet up in our shared city, and catch up on the last ten years or so.
So it’s been 10 years… what have you been up to?
(laughs) Hmmm, what do I tell people I haven’t seen in 10 years?
Feel free to summarize.
Workin’, playin’, ya know, I’m in some bands. I think since Prize Country fell apart I have been in around a dozen bands locally. I’ve played drums, guitar, bass. So, staying in music I came to the realization that it’s OK for me to not be in a touring band. I don’t need to be going bananas and throwing my whole life at it.
The short answer is that I have been finding a nice balance of music and stability. At the time (of Prize Country) I didn’t have that balance, or that stability. I didn’t have that mechanism that makes you say, ‘in order to do this I need to have X,Y or Z first’. No, it was just that. That’s the only thing. Which is really why the band fell apart.
You mentioned you were born out here, but spent a lot of your life in Reno before coming back here. What kind of music were you doing there and then what led you to move to Portland?
I had an argument with my wife about this. I say I am an Oregon native, but I was raised in Nevada. I was born in Oregon, but I’d always been going to Nevada, specifically Northern Nevada, or the Tahoe Basin. I’ve been going out there since I was zero because my grandparents lived out there. Reno wasn’t too far away, so when I was in high school that was sort of the big town to go see some of the larger punk and hardcore shows. And the Tahoe area isn’t too far from the san Francisco Bay area so I’d travel out there a bunch to see the big, big shows. The stuff that wouldn’t stop through Reno. The punk rock stuff always did, but not the big shows like Soundgarden.
Well, Reno had 7 Seconds, so there’s your punk foundation.
Yeah, they definitely established a scene there. I was actually just listening to an interview with Ian MacKaye and he mentions Reno as he’s haphazardly going through a list of cities that used to have great scenes and a relative regional sound. 7 Seconds had a very specific sound. Who else would have done that?
pretty nice review, right?
When there’s nothing else around you, you have to make it up as you go along.
Yeah! So, in high school I started playing in bands too. But it wasn’t until I was about 17 that I picked up a guitar. I bought a bass. I had no idea what I was intending to do. I just bought a bass. I think my thought was, ‘this will be easy, it’s only got four strings!’ And it just so happened that me and a couple buddies from high school had that sort of pots and pans origin where you just kind of pick up anything and see what sort of noise it will make. And I remember a dude who actually knew how to play guitar came down and was like, ‘Hey, do you guys know how to tune? If you tune that to G, and that to A, it will sound better.’ And then it was all like the symphony getting ready to play and it all sort of made sense to me, and that was a big awakening for me.
Then I moved to Eugene for awhile and did some school for about two and a half years. I had all my gear with me and I had actually come across a number of people who knew how to play, but no one wanted to be in a band. I was there around ’95 and ’96, and all this great stuff had been coming around like Quicksand, Jawbox, Jawbreaker, Chavez, and Sunny Day. All those bands were blowing my mind. And then you had Northwest bands like Engine Kid and stuff like that going bananas. I was checking out shows from those bands here and there and in the meantime I’m just dying to do what those bands were doing.
I think a lot of the cats I knew were sort of neo-hippies. We would all just get high and have Rocky Raccoon on the guitar, and some guy playing bongos and I just could not hang with that.
Cut to later in ’96 I moved back to Nevada and caught up with a friend of mine who was this metalhead guy. He mentioned he and his friend were starting a band and I asked him to keep in touch because I would be happy to join up. But he thought I was full of shit. He thought I was kidding. But they eventually gave me a call and I came over and in one afternoon I learned what they had and they saw I was serious. That was my first band that actually played shows.
There were a lot of punk rock bands going through Reno at that time, and when I was still out there, like between ’96 and 2000 there were so many good bands in town! Reno was exploding with cool bands for awhile. So I was playing out in bands and playing with all these great bands out there.
I went back to Eugene for love. An old high school sweeteart had moved out there and I was sort of a mess, and everyone could see it. Even my parents knew. They just said to me, ‘why don’t you go out to Eugene?’, and that’s really all I needed. So I packed up and left. I was gone. I dropped whatever classes I was in. So I moved out there and was there for a few years, and then me and her moved up to Portland. I’ve been in Portland since 2003.
Prize Country (from l to r): Josh Nurthcutt, Jabob Depollite, Jon Hausler, Aaron Blanchard
How did Prize Country start?
I had a band here called Shamelady. We toured a bunch. At one point we were on tour and played in Salt Lake City and we played with Jacob Depollite’s (Prize Country guitarist) band. He was in a band called Union Of the Snake, which we jokingly called Union Of the Jake. They were really, really good. They were one of the best bands we saw on tour. Jake is also a really good guitar player, so it stands out. Plus, he’s like 8 feet tall, so he really stands out. So we vibed pretty hard.
I got back from that tour and I quit playing in Shamelady. The band dissolved. Jake and I had spoken and he worked for a label called The End Records. That label was about to move to New York City and he was saying he didn’t want to move to NYC. So I jokingly said, ‘why don’t you move to Portland?’ and he said, ‘OK’. I think within two months he was moved out here.
He asked if he cold sleep on my couch for a little bit until he got settled and I said sure. I think within a week he found a job and a place to live. I was getting ready to have this slumber party thing ready to go, and he’s got it together right away. He does not fuck around.
At this point there was a guy I worked with I was playing drums with, and a guy I met off of Craigslist playing bass. I would kind of just fire out ads saying asking if anyone knows about all these bands to kind of weed out people who wouldn’t be a good fit. Not to be too much of a snob, but if you know some of the bands I’m listing than it’s going to automatically cut through a bunch of bullshit real quick. So that guy turned out to be great. He had great gear, a great tone, and we were on the same page.
The drummer, Brian, he was fine. But he didn’t really want to do anything. He kind of just wanted to get together once a week and hang out.
And when Jake moved out he ended up meeting Josh (Northcutt, Prize Country drummer) at a show and mentioned he was starting a band with me and Josh stated he wanted to be a part of it. So then I had to figure out how to get rid of the drummer we had who didn’t really want to be a part of the band, but still be cool with him. So I just let him know that we wanted write, record, and go on tour. And he was fine with it, so that was pretty easy.
So that’s the origin of me, Jake, Josh, and our first bassist.
Once we got moving we recorded an EP, did a short little tour to test things out, and after that run our bassist said that he didn’t want to do this and he wanted to go back to school. So we got our friend Jon (Hausler, bassist), who was a bartender friend who played in a couple great bands, and he was always around the Prize Country shows taking pictures. He said he really liked our band and I asked him if he wanted to learn the bass parts and go on tour with us because our first bassist couldn’t do it. Jon was down with it, everything went great, and while we were on that tour our first bassist actually called us to tell us he wouldn’t have time to do the band at all and he was fine if Jon wanted to take his place. It was about as seamless and amicable as you could imagine.
Were you always a touring type? Prize Country toured very heavily and I imagine not all the members were accustomed to that lifestyle.
I was in a band in Reno that toured a lot and that was sort of the litmus test. That’s where I learned that you write songs, you record them, and then you go on tour. Otherwise, what’s the point? So that was my early onset tour syndrome.
Was that Fall Silent?
Yeah. So I did a two month U.S. tour with them in 1999, and then a 7 week European tour with them in 2000, and a 10 day Japanese tour around that same time.
The first time I went out with them it was explained to me that I could continue to tour with them, but there was a lot of touring up ahead and I thought, ‘this sounds like a dream to me!’ I even dropped out of school to practice with them more.
And if you were to ask those guys they would tell you that we weren’t really friends. We weren’t buds. They had already done the touring thing and they were not going to wait around for me. They were more seasoned. The lesson I learned was indelible. It was valuable. I didn’t need to be their buddies, or feel like I was loved. It was ‘do your job’. I don’t want to make them sound mean. They’re actually very nice people. But in this case it was more like boot camp.
Aaron playing with Fall Silent in Syracuse 1999 (he's the dude in white in the back)
So that put in your mind that you wanted to tour a lot?
Oh yeah. No doubt. I had no reservations about doing that. That’s what I wanted to do. I don’t know why exactly because it’s not always a pleasant experience. I would say I definitely learned a lot about myself, and what I could put up with because I see playing out as important.
I love those Fall Silent guys and what they taught me was more valuable than anything I could take away from school, aside from maybe just traveling in general. Once I did it I knew I could do this. It doesn’t always need to be daisies and rainbows. It’s fun on it’s own merits. I wasn’t going to give up. I also had nothing else going on, so why not?
And that attitude carried on into Shamelady. I thought, ‘this is what you do.’ You start a band, write a record, and then go on tour. This is how it works. We need to get a van, there’s some real costs involved in this. Everyone needs to be on board. And in Shamelady I was sort of the guy who took care of everything. But I also wasn’t asking anything of my bandmates. They worked hard too. I was just the guy that took care of the van and booked the shows, and did the business end.
So when Prize Country started Jake had had a similar experience. So I was like, ‘oh, you do that too?’ He was the guy in his band who did all the booking, and all the driving, and taking care of the van and whatever.
It’s a nice feeling being able to share the work.
Yeah exactly! So Jake and I were like, ‘this is the best’. Not only do we get to share this workload together, but we get to commiserate about the pitfalls of taking care of all this stuff.
Was that something made clear from the get-go? Did the band come with the expectation that you were going to do it full time pretty much?
Yeah, that’s what we wanted to do. Actually, I recall a few conversations where Jake and I said that we just wanted to be in a rock band. We didn’t even care about touring. We just wanted to be in a fun rock band, remember what it’s like to have fun and play shows, and just rip it up.
I think we played one or two local shows and we said, ‘we gotta fuckin’ tour!’ (laughs)
But I think it ended up being like that show Alone. Have you ever seen that show? It’s like that reality show where people go out into the wilderness and they build themselves a hut, or they build themselves a little boat, and go fishing in it, and they make themselves little nets and traps and all this shit. But when it comes to mental health, and just being alone, that’s when they crack. They just implode.
And that was sort of like touring with Prize Country. I didn’t realize there was a mental element to doing this. We had all the tools and the gear and the ability. But the mental component is a crucial factor. I think we went just a little too hard and we cracked. Everyone started cracking apart.
Top- the art by artist Michael Wohlberg, as well as the different vinyl covers
Below- the record that the cover art is based upon
Prize Country was definitely a heavy rock band, but the argument could be made that you fell under a wide umbrella of hardcore-punk music, or at least emerged from that scene, which can often be a bit pious. That all being said, I’m surprised by how many of those songs were straight up about dirty sexing. It kind of makes me blush to think about.
I don’t think that was a question that I even considered. I’m happy you mentioned that because it had never occurred to me. It was something, as a band, we never considered. I can tell you, speaking for myself, while we love a lot of hardcore music, and some of that scene, it did seem a little silly to be so serious.
I remember way back I had a buddy that I saw cry in the locker room during half time of a football game when I was in high school. And I thought, ‘What the fuck? This isn’t real life. We’re in high school and we’re playing football. Where are we going from here? We’re going to go into the parking lot afterwards and get shitfaced.’ Why is this so intense?
So that sort of attitude with me, and I could probably unpack that more, is that it’s not that big of a deal. Don’t take yourself so seriously. So a lot of the Prize Country stuff was that we really just wanted to have fun. We wanted this to be fun.
However, there’s real honesty in the lyrics. There’s no other way to write. How could I have not written what I wrote, especially if I’m trying to think of what the rules were for heavy music. We were a rock band, we just came from a hardcore scene.
I think maybe plenty of hardcore bands sing about the same stuff, they’re just not as direct, or blunt, about it.
Yeah, sure. Our English was a bit different. We were more on the nose. I didn’t really know how else to do it. I will say, though, that when constructing lyrics I usually have batches and batches of lyrics. I’d have a lot that I wanted to say and it would be in more of a prose, short-story kind of way. So there were a lot of words. But we would always write the music first, and then I would kind of just plug-and-play to see what worked. I’d have music and find lyrics that fit the sort of emotion that the music evoked. “It was a Night Like Tonight”, or “Regular Nights”, and “What We’re Made Of” are the big sort of, filthy, sexy songs. I think they’re romantic. But when I whittle down the lyrics and work on my phrasing, and think about melodies, and plugging this stuff in and still think, ‘I have to play guitar while I’m doing this’. I have to be able to do this live and do it well. I honestly sort of dumb it down because I had to edit down a bunch and still be able to do it live.
But I never thought about it too much. I’d never second-guessed myself about it before, but maybe now I can look back and think that was sort of ballsy. I may be a little more subversive about how I say things now, or be a bit more guarded. But I think back then it just came out. That probably had to do with how much I was drinking at the time. Liquid balls.
What did you feel were some of the big differences between your first album, “Lottery Of Recognition” and “With Love”?
It’s weird. I think “With Love” is so much more ‘mature’. Like, everything was aligned. Everything was in place. We were a fully-formed band.
But it goes back and forth. It’s like what’s your favorite Propaghandi record, or your favorite Dillinger 4 record? It could change week-to-week.
“Lottery” feels a little more punk. It was thrown together pretty fast, which is great, because it worked. There’s some spontaneity with it. I was a little out of my comfort zone being behind the mic. There was a little magic that happened on that record that none of us were aware of, like ‘whoh, it worked!’ I like how quickly we put it together and how it turned out. I even tried my hand a little at writing some political lyrics on that.
Whereas, “With Love” is way more naked. And by that I mean it’s more gross, sweaty, and waking up on someone’s couch with your balls hanging out. That’s really uncomfortable.
What were some of the ideas going into making that record, and what was the general status of the band during that time?
We would just have really good practices. We were in a couple different spots. We were practicing in this little tiny place for awhile. And “With Love” we would come home from various tours and write two songs, go back on tour, play those two songs for a couple weeks, come back and write three more songs, go back on tour and play those five new songs, and just battle them out.
And that was a good way to test out and see what we wanted to keep, what we wanted to ditch, what would work good live, what we wanted to keep but not play it live, and so on.
So we had this practice space downtown that we ended up moving into after having that tiny space. A guy we knew that rented spaces told us about a place he had just bought. It was a bar, but he wasn’t going to do anything with it for at least a year, so it just sat empty downtown. And it was right next door to one of our favorite bars called The Tube. So he said we could rent it for $300 a month and it was this big, empty space with a bathroom and everything. So we got to have this enormous space all to ourselves, not sharing it with any other bands, or having to compete with bands next door to you to hear anything. So we would just write and write and we had some great sessions there.
I remember writing “It was a Night Like Tonight” and one other song in that space while Jake was gone visiting a friend in Salt Lake. He was a little mad that we wrote them without him, but he picked up on it and it was just fire.
And we basically wrote most of Side A of “With Love” in this one spot and then we wrote most of Side B in this other space we had in inner Southeast. I know we wrote the last song on the record there, as well as “Cement”.
But writing that record had a lot to do with those spaces, as well as what was right next to them. So we would go and get dinner at this one place, and then practice, or we would go get drunk and then ride our bikes to the practice spots. We always rode our bikes around, ya know, from work to the bar, or to the practice. An sometimes we would get a little too drunk to practice so we would skip practice.
But there was a little burnout happening around this time, we could tell. But we knew we wanted to do this record, and we knew how heavily we were going to be hitting the road once it was out, and how hard we wanted to work the record. We were working towards making the band sustainable.
The dream was not really money. It was just to make the band be able to perpetuate. To be able to just keep writing, recording, and playing out. Can we please do that? Is there a way to do that? I thought non-stop touring was the way to do that. And I don’t think I had the mechanism to stop myself, and manage the stability and mental health to make it work. But it’s the hardest I ever worked on anything I think. It was a ton of fun though, and there’s also embarrassing moments that make my face turn red even to this day. Stuff like actual alcoholics telling me I needed to slow down.
We were so looking at the future without really considering the present, but I was elated to be making that record regardless. And I think we got so focused on looking into the future that not being in the present was bd. And it did cause us to fall apart eventually. Of course, there was a lot of booze and drugs too that led to that. And that’s when you met us!
One of many tours the band did
Do you have anything you would change about “With Love” given some time to reflect on it?
No. I’ve embraced the idea of things I’ve recorded being a true reflection of what was happening at that time. So it is what it is for when it happened. Now if I were doing something on that record like rapping, then yeah, I would definitely want to make some changes. But again, I’m proud to say there’s such honesty on that record, the likes of which I haven’t gotten back. It’s not a sob story. I’m patting myself on the back for it. I wouldn’t change anything about any of the stuff.
Now that it was been nearly 10 years since Prize Country stopped playing I can look back and think if we would have took six months off to cool down things would have been different. We might still be a band. But in those last 10 years an entire life has happened- I’ve been in a bunch of other bands, I got married, so I have no regrets. The four of us from Prize Country are all friends still and we’re all in good places, so things are good.
What was the best thing about Prize Country, and what was the worst?
Oh geez. I think the best thing was just the work. Just what we managed to do in five years was quite a bit. Because that really is a short amount of time. Five years goes by quick. For me, the songs take a back seat to the work. We busted our asses. You had four dudes who didn’t know what the fuck we were doing. We were totally untethered with careers and life. We all agreed that we were going to crush this, this is what we want to do, and we’re going to do this the hardest we can and the best that we can.
And the worst thing was kind of failing that. We worked that hard and the goal I was working for- to have the band sustain itself- didn’t happen even with the amount of work we were putting in, it still kind of fell apart. But we were burnt out, and having drugs and booze in the picture didn’t help. And at some point you just need to settle down, go to the nest, and take a break and recover and we didn’t do that enough.
I was just talking about this the other day- I stopped drinking around seven years ago. I didn’t do the 12 steps or anything like that. I just realized that I had to knock it off. It wasn’t doing me any good. So having done that I realized that I was just sort of uncomfortable, like every day. And drinking made me comfortable. So I would do it all the goddamn time. So when you take the possibility that the four of us in the band were uncomfortable, and we’re uncomfortable on the road with people we don’t know, and uncomfortable at venues with shitty sound guys who are dicks to us, and all these uncomfortable things… and I feel like we were pretty good at being outside our comfort zones. But that would grind away at us. And that added to things. I know that’s certainly not unique to our band, but it was a realization to me for sure.
And there you have it. That was a long one. but when you don't see a dude for nearly a decade it makes some sense to catch up for awhile. And since you made it this far here's your prize (pun intended): Get "With Love", by Prize Country for just $5 this whole week. That's right, one gatefold vinyl LP for $5 right HERE. And if you want the CD it's only $4. And if you just want them digital tracks.. you know it, $4. Do it.