“That’s funny, yeah we did start as a metal band. What interview was that from?”
Gumm vocalist Drew Waldon is surprised to hear me bring up Gumm’s metallic origins. I briefly feel like Nardwuar as I explain, over Zoom, how I’d heard the band mention it in a Youtube interview. “So, we weren’t called Gumm at the time,” Waldon explains. “I was playing drums, Harrison (Gumm’s drummer) was playing guitar and Dylan (one of Gumm’s two guitarists) was playing bass. It was supposed to be a heavy hardcore project, but it fell apart because I couldn’t play it on drums. My double bass is really sloppy.”
Some things just aren’t meant to be. The world has plenty of heavy hardcore bands, but there’s only one Gumm. The Chattanooga, Tennessee-based band have developed an imaginative and spiky brand of hardcore punk, one that carves up the genre’s base ingredients and neatly re-splices them in their own image. There’s recognizable components—the guitar, bass and drums, Waldon’s shredded vocal style—but the end result is distinctly off-kilter, packed with odd chord changes and unpredictable structures.
The press release for the five-piece group’s debut full-length Slogan Machine goes some way to outlining their sound, selling their sound as Touche Amore meets Rollins Band. I ask Waldon about Gumm’s creative process—what base alchemy generates their recognizable approach. He’s pretty modest: “It’s all five of us in a room together. We all play multiple instruments, so it’s very collaborative. Plus, we all listen to so much different shit.”
He elaborates, “For example, Harrison will go weeks where he’s only listening to Marvin Gaye. Or Dylan will be listening to Grateful Dead and early Dischord albums. Phillip (Amos, bass) likes a lot of hardcore and Trevor (Lynch, guitar) is into drum and bass music.”
The chimeric approach bleeds into Waldon’s lyrics, which are as sharp as Gumm’s music, rich with cryptic intelligence. Take the opening lines from Slogan Machine’s blistering opener “No Frontier”: “the height of progress/height of accomplishment/a shell of hollow labor/an eager lantern/with no more road.” These aren’t your usual hardcore screeds about brotherhood or prosaic mosh calls. The themes traversed across these eight tracks are wise and nuanced, tackling self-destruction (“Mirror”), aging (“Give You Back Your Youth”) and fragile hope (“A New World Grows Old”).
There’s more than a hint of sociopolitical angst rumbling throughout Slogan Machine. Nowhere is this more intriguingly-tackled than on the title track. “A ‘slogan machine’ could be large-scale media, social media or any echo chambers that are able to quickly offer up a slogan that makes you feel validated,” Waldon says, choosing his words carefully. “It’s something that presents a complex idea but gives it back without any nuance, understanding or sense of a bigger picture.”
Is this concept a specifically-modern form of platitude? “Totally. The beauty of them is that they can fit so many scenarios. People look for answers to big questions, but settle for the easy answers because it’s uncomfortable to do any more work.”
The dominance of social media and an intensely divided political culture has undoubtedly oiled the gears of slogan machinery. Drew’s picked up on something here that can apply to all sides of the political divide. But would he describe Gumm as a ‘political band’?
“There’s certain things I’ve written that can be interpreted that way,” he answers, in typically nuanced fashion. “Some stuff I did write with that intent, but I try to write about more than that. I want to write about, I dunno, being human.”
Beyond the impassioned scorn of the likes of “Leave Me Out” and the aforementioned title track, there’s a desperate optimism to much of Slogan Machine. “Mirror” is a call to arms to conquer personal demons, “A New World Grows Old” is a lament for what the world could be. Hardcore punk loves talking about strength and resilience, but nihilistic and downbeat perspectives are also equally common, perhaps more so in recent years. Along with their Convulse Records labelmates MSPAINT and Gel (who’ve both released killer albums in 2023), Gumm’s outlook seems to tip in favor of, not strictly positivity, but palpable empathy and a broadly optimistic view of humanity.
“I don’t want to be the morose guy,” Waldon says. “There’s a lot to be morose about, but there’s a lot of things that make life beautiful. I’m working through this idea that optimism is not just ‘everything’s fine’, but can instead be combative. A lot of good can come from experiencing unrest in your community and the way to move forward is to say ‘what are we doing next?’ because we can’t remain in that negative space.”
One of the many contradictions of hardcore is that it can provide this sort of participatory community, while also being a transgressive, sometimes dangerous place. Waldon recalls his early memories of the hardcore scene: “At my first show I remember thinking ‘there’s like 30 people here but everyone’s super into it’. That night the touring support band pissed off some of the locals and were trying to leave but the bouncer chased them out, ripped the singer out of the van and beat the shit out of him. I thought, this is dangerous, but also so cool.”
This paradox mirrors Gumm. There’s a feral menace to their tight, abrasive music, but also an imaginative, impassioned approach to their craft as well a rich vein of humanism within Drew’s lyrics. Slogan Machine is hardcore at its complex best and will hopefully be just the beginning of Gumm’s already idiosyncratic and compelling journey.
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