CONFIRMATION BIAS #1: Tristan Jemsek (Dogbreth)

Tristan Jemsek is the principal songwriter and leader of Arizona underground rockers Dogbreth. I don’t remember the first time I met Tristan, but I do remember the first time I heard a Dogbreth song—on tour somewhere in California when someone put “Cups and Wrappers” on in the van. Sometimes a song is so good that it reminds you that you should have higher standards for what makes a “good song.” 

I’d obviously wanted the first interview of this series to be the perfect distillation of everything I hope to accomplish with this project: a display of subversive wit and uncommon insight, a captivating balance of ironic detachment and genuine depth. Real out there, genius stuff—that was the plan. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of posing Tristan a straightforward and serious question about his music right off the bat, and his answer was so thoughtful that I couldn’t bring myself to ask whatever stupid bullshit I’d thought would be funny. This has always been my experience with Tristan both as a person and as a songwriter: unpretentious.

He and I share certain similarities. We’re both the sole consistent members of our respective power-pop adjacent underground rock bands. We both moved thousands of miles away from where those bands began (Tristan has since moved back, I toy with the idea regularly). I did not ask him about any of those things, and anyway, the similarities only go so far: he’s freshly TikTok famous, after all. Instead, we talked about economy of form, creative anxiety, and optimism. 

illustration by Tim Howe

Your songwriting excels at one of my favorite qualities: those moments that feel so instantly classic that it seems crazy they didn’t already exist before you brought them into the world. The chorus of “Cups and Wrappers” and the second verse of “Two Plastic Spools” are two such moments that stick out to me, where the simplicity of the sentiment is precisely what makes it so deep and impactful. Is that something you think about a lot when writing? Do you end up revising and reworking lyrics to accomplish this kind of brevity?

Thank you, yes that’s something I’m very aware of and I’m always chasing that idea and trying to cultivate it. In the past I’ve described it as trying to write the theme song of a specific feeling or moment. Sometimes it happens really fast like in “Cups and Wrappers” – I remember that one felt like it just sort of manifested itself. And I think those songs that come fast are usually the best ones, or at least they’re usually my favorites. They have that sense of timelessness and immediacy because you simply don’t get in their way. The frustrating part of that is you have no control over when you can write them, because the only way that you can is by relinquishing control. You can try to identify the specific circumstance or environment that you’re in when they come to you, and try to recreate that zone to make yourself more open to receiving—like going for a long walk, reading more books, drinking a specific drink or whatever—and that can definitely help take you there, but it’s never a guarantee.

I’m really glad that you hear that quality in “Two Plastic Spools” – because that’s one that took several years for me to finish. It’s one of my favorites now, but it was so frustrating to write. I’d keep working on it and then getting stuck and scrapping it, then digging it back up like a year later and then scrap it again over and over. It kept changing and evolving even as the band started performing it. I’m not even sure what was so hard about it. I think probably because it’s about memories of multiple people in my life during a very special and formative time for me, and l wanted to stay true to all of that without making it so specific that I’m the only one that feels something when I hear it. That can be a real tough line to toe between! 

I love that you said that about the songs that come fast usually being the best; I’ve always felt that way too. I’m glad you powered through with “Two Plastic Spools” though, because ultimately I think you totally nailed that balance of specific personal reflection and relatable immediacy. A lot of your songs have that reflective quality, looking not only inward but also outward in the sense of looking back at your past and the people who have come in and out of your life. They also seem almost completely free of bitterness, which is something I find really admirable (if not necessarily relatable, I have to admit). Is that a conscious decision on your part, or does that happen naturally? I’m not trying to get you to out yourself as secretly miserable and jaded or anything, but I’m curious if you try to focus on expressing a specific mentality in your writing?

I don’t think it’s a secret that I’m miserable and jaded, and if it is, it’s not anymore! Haha, not really. Well maybe just a little. But aren’t we all? Anyway that’s a really interesting question… I think it might have initially started out as a conscious intention, and then it became natural over time. I’m personally not very interested in dudes like me singing bitter songs—for sociopolitical reasons and also just my own personal taste. Even during times when I feel hurt or betrayed I don’t usually find comfort or catharsis in those songs. There are some exceptions to that—I have a go-to Tom Waits song for certain situations—but for the most part those are pretty rare. I think songwriting has become more and more a subconscious practice for me over the past few years. I don’t try to censor myself when I write, or try to filter out certain feelings, I just try and think of them as already existing beneath the surface and my job is to carefully brush away the dirt to reveal them. That might sound like some pretentious bullshit, and it is, but I think it’s mostly true. All that being said, I’ve written my fair share of bitter songs; a lot of them for my old pre-Dogbreth pop-punk bands that you’ll thankfully never hear, but also in more recent times, they just don’t always make the records. Sometimes writing those hurt feelings down is enough for me to process them, and then I don’t usually feel a need to put anyone else through hearing them, or I’ll actually feel guilty for expressing them. Because maybe more than anything, I think I’m prone to blaming myself more than others. And I turn those bitter feelings and frustrations inward. This is something my therapist has helped me to understand recently – I don’t trust myself enough to feel justified in anything.

I don’t think that’s pretentious at all; in fact, I think that metaphor about brushing away the dirt captures it really well. It seems to me that there are all sorts of emotions or feelings present in all of us, some more valuable and some less valuable—or maybe productive is the better word. Our job is to elevate the more valuable and productive ones. Otherwise it isn’t art, it’s just a diary entry. 

I feel the same way about dudes like us singing bitter songs (although I suspect it’s a realization that I came to a little later in life than you did). The way our feelings about what we want to hear and make tend to change over time can make trusting yourself really tricky, especially when it comes to your own creative output. Not trusting your past self makes it more difficult to trust your current self. I’m reminded of one of my favorite of your lyrics, from “Think I’m Funny”—“Sometimes I wonder if I like the things I do / Or if I’m always putting on a show for you.” In the context of the song, this seems to be about a specific personal relationship, but for me, it hits a note that extends to my anxieties about creativity. Do you feel any anxiety around the fact that being in a band with some sort of following makes your evolving taste preferences available for public scrutiny?

No, not really. I think most people outside of Arizona don’t know this about me—but I’ve been a part of close to 90 different bands. I started playing in bands when I was 17 and that’s basically all I did. I didn’t go to school, I always had part-time jobs and wanted to spend as much time away from home as possible. So I spent my late teen years and all of my twenties starting bands, joining in bands, going to shows, booking shows, touring and recording. I’d be in 8+ bands at a time. At this point I’ve been a full member of 61 different bands, a touring member of 8 different bands, and sat in for at least one gig with 25 other bands. I have a list going, haha. And a lot of them were really abrasive and/or weird. Joke bands, costumed concept bands, noise bands, performance art, doom metal, folk punk, surf rock, country, pop punk, free jazz, just whatever my friends and I wanted to do. We were so all over the place, it was a blast. It was a time in downtown Phoenix that was sort of in-between it being abandoned and it being gentrified. Rent was cheap and there were a lot of all-ages art galleries/venues in warehouses that were very kind to us and let us do whatever we wanted. Looking back I have a lot of mixed feelings about the space we took up and the role we played as pre-gentrifiers, but that’s a whole other conversation. To get back to your question – I think because of that background I don’t feel anxious about trying new things, if that’s what you mean. I do feel anxious about whether or not my new stuff is as good or better than my older stuff, but I think that’s a pretty universal worry for songwriters. Trying new approaches actually sort of eases that anxiety for me, because if people don’t like a new song that’s different from what you normally do, it might just mean that you need to work at that approach more or it’s just not a good style for you, and not that you’re getting worse at writing in your older style or you’re repeating yourself and it’s getting tired. If you can somehow get to a place where you accept that you’re a songwriter—that it’s just what you do—and you believe it even during the inevitable dry spells – that can really help you to stop feeling the pressure to make whatever you’re working on next be your masterpiece or your biggest hit. And I think that looseness usually helps you make better work anyway. 

Right, it goes back to not forcing it, in a way—still working hard, of course, but in the sense of making the writing be part of your regular practice of living, so to speak, which really means making yourself available to receive those moments where good stuff starts coming to you. And conversely, I know that accepting that lifestyle for myself has made my relationship with my past material a whole lot less fraught. That sort of brings us to the juicy stuff that the people really want to know about, which is of course your recent brush with internet fame via TikTok. I take it you weren’t bothered by a sudden influx of recognition for something you made almost a decade ago? (I would be, but the music I was making a decade ago wasn’t nearly as good as the music you were making a decade ago.)

I’d love to hear what you were making a decade ago! (Editor’s note: you wouldn’t.) Yeah I wasn’t bothered at all. Even though that record is at times embarrassing for me, I have a real fondness for it and still enjoy performing several of the songs. And even if that weren’t true, the whole TikTok experience was so bizarre and so incredibly sweet and pure that I can’t imagine a person not enjoying the ride and having fun with it. It makes me glad I never changed the band name like I’ve often thought about doing every couple years or so, because even though most of the attention was centered around that first album, it also brought so many new people to the band in general and the newer stuff has gotten a nice boost as well. 

Yeah, I can say from personal experience that changing the band name (even just half the band name!) is never the best move. And I’m glad to hear you don’t feel pumped and dumped by the fame monster. Actually, you made a point about the whole Tik Tok thing in an interview I read recently that made me feel like a whole lot less of a doomer about the relationship between music and the internet than I usually do (even though in the process of clicking the link I somehow ended up looking at a clickbait article titled “Real-life Limitless Pill Gets Largest Deal In Shark Tank History”). Basically, you seemed to be saying that while so much of music listening these days is passive and dictated by algorithms, something like what happened to you with Tik Tok shows that the internet can still allow people to share in the deeply personal and individual experience of music discovery. To me, reading that was like feeling the sun come out from behind the clouds for a second (not unlike your songs often feel). Do you consider yourself to be generally optimistic about the future of underground and independent art in the digital age?

I definitely try to be, but I have my doomy moments too. I think you can find as much reason to be optimistic—or pessimistic—about the future of independent art under capitalism as ever, it’s just that some dynamics have changed. It may be harder for a mid-level band to make a buck off their music than it was a decade ago for instance, but on the flip side of that it’s so much easier for a tiny band to record and release music, and I think that’s really cool. I find the big streaming services, especially Spotify, to be exploitive and profoundly insulting to artists. What I find exceptionally revolting is the way that they’re trying to change the way artists release music; instructing artists to move away from albums in favor of a steady stream of singles. They just want more and more free content that they can make money off of, and they want to get it faster. And just to be clear—I dig singles and EPs, but I truly love and believe in albums. I’m very appreciative of Bandcamp for all they’ve been doing recently, I think their new program to help bands press their own vinyl is really cool. All that said, I think pushing for higher streaming royalties is important for now, but I don’t think it should be the ultimate goal. I absolutely hate thinking of music as a product. I think we should zoom out and fundamentally transform how we value the music and the arts in this country. I believe the arts should be considered essential and they should have funding. I believe people are essential for that matter and we should just have a universal basic income, but that’s another conversation I guess. I have a good pal in Berlin who has a long-running DIY music project, he gets a goddamn stipend to go on tour every year! There would be so much more beautiful music made if people didn’t have to either a) be good business people, or b) appear profitable to business people. So anyway, yeah I think there’s plenty to celebrate in this new dark age and plenty to criticize. 

our subject, truly a picture of southwestern contentment

I agree, for the most part. The meager pittance Spotify is willing to pay artists per stream is probably the 3rd or 4th worst thing about that company’s business model. Anyone who encourages bands to reorient the way they release music around the preferences of an enormous multinational tech corporation ought to be viewed with extreme skepticism and distrust, in my opinion, and those people are everywhere in the “industry” side of things. But doing what we do was never going to be a lucrative career even before streaming came around. Which brings me to a fun question I’m hoping to ask everyone I talk to via this project: what’s the most amount of money you’ve ever lost due to something band-related?

Yeah I’ve been lucky to have never been ripped off or taken advantage of over the course of doing the band, but with the flexibility that comes from working part-time as a barista, there’s also the reality that it’s just very, very hard to save money. So over the years any sort of unexpected emergency tour expense has just kind of wrecked me for months or even years afterwards. Namely van repairs—that’s definitely where I’ve lost the most money. There was a tour in 2017 where multiple things went wrong with my old van at different times, and I eventually had to borrow money from someone in the band to get the necessary repairs done to get back on the road, which looking back weren’t even that expensive, but I was in such terrible shape financially that I was in debt to that person for quite a while after that. And then our last tour in the Summer of 2019 was cut short because our drummer’s parent’s SUV that we were using’s transmission burned out on that drive on interstate 8 from San Diego to Tucson (a notorious van-killer), we had to cancel the rest of our shows because it was going to take several days to fix it. I came to the funny realization recently that a silver lining of not being able to tour during the pandemic is that it’s left me in the best financial shape of my adult life. 

In one of my all-time most brainless tour routing moves, I once planned to drive that particular stretch of interstate 8 in late July, in a van that had no working air conditioning. Fortunately, we were spared that fate because the van broke down before we even made it to that part of the tour. What I’m saying, I guess, is that I had a very similar realization about live music disappearing. I think a lot of people in bands like ours are eventually going to find themselves in a bizarre situation of having to trade what is actually the relative stability of a global pandemic for the uncertainty of returning to the road. The strangeness of that contrast can really cast your motivations for and expectations about doing music the way we do in a new light. You’ve been doing this for longer than me—I’m curious if you’d want to share any ideas you had going in that you feel differently about more than a decade later?

Dang, that is a tough one! I guess I’m not sure what ideas, if any, I had going in. I mean, I grew up obsessed with music and without many friends, and so when I stumbled upon a world where I could make music and make friends making music, I never thought twice about it—I just dove right in. Didn’t really have any dreams or desires other than to have fun and feel like I was a part of something. That was 2004, when I started playing shows around Phoenix. Two years later I went on my first tour, and I feel like back in those days my idea of absolutely “making it” would have been to do a ‘Pink Couch Session’ or something like that. The thought of making money at music was the furthest thing from my mind. I remember us all feeling so insanely hyped in 2012 when we divided up the band money at the end of a tour and we each walked away with a cool hundred bucks! That was the first time the band ever came out ahead after a tour. Even though we were out for three weeks and we easily spent at least twice that individually on food and whatever else, plus with all the time we took off work we were still technically in the hole. But it felt like we made it! So really it’s been a series of reaching a certain point, and then moving that goal post a little further out. I’ve been doing my best to resist burnout and bitterness in recent years, and what works the best is focusing on gratitude and appreciation, corny as it sounds. Sometimes I get really wrapped up in fomo or jealousy when I see peers or friends have more success, but it helps when I think of my younger self and what he would think of all that I’ve been able to accomplish thus far. I’ll always remember a bit of bathroom graffiti I saw somewhere that said: “We used to dream of the things we’re doing right now.” 

That feels like the perfect note to end on. Thanks, Tristan.

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