Nearly four decades after the Sex Pistols appeared, it’s fair to say that punk rock is more than a fad. However cliché leather jackets, mohawks, and rude rhetoric may be, something honest remains at punk’s core. The ability of bands to endlessly tap that emotional reservoir of rebellion, angst, and self-determination speaks to a certain truth, a truth that Trever Keith of longtime California punk band Face to Face believes.
“Punk was meant to be rebellious and in-your-face, but I think it’s developed into something of substance, and particularly American punk rock has become cultural, sort of a generational thing that speaks to people on a level that’s almost folk-based musically, but in the message that comes across,” Keith says..
Weaned on old-school West Coast pop-punk acts like the Descendents, NOFX, and the Offspring — think big hooks, shout-along choruses, and hard-charging rhythms — Face to Face formed in 1991, just in time to sign a major label deal in the wake of Nirvana-mania. In 1992, Keith and company released their debut Don’t Turn Away for Fat Wreck Chords, and then recorded two albums for Atlantic. After that they released three independent albums — 1999’s darker, metal-friendly Ignorance is Bliss, 2000’s punkier Reactionary, and 2002’s How to Ruin Everything, a stylistic grab bag, before breaking up in 2003. After a dozen years together, including several lineup changes, Keith and bassist/co-writer Scott Shiflett needed a break.
For a while the pair pursued their own projects, but absence made the heart grow fonder, and Keith says he and Shiflett soon realized that “we should probably just appreciate what we have.” In 2008, Face to Face reunited, then made a comeback record in 2011 with the sparkling Laugh Now, Laugh Later.
“Once we came off our hiatus, our breakup, it gave us a new kind of freedom with the band. We didn’t feel tied to other people’s expectations of our success or failure,” Keith says. “Our philosophy for recording that record was to try to not over-think anything and try to get great, spontaneous performances, not layer a million tracks of guitars and overdubs.”
Now they’ve gone the other direction with Three Chords & a Half-Truth, one of the most ambitious and eclectic albums in their catalog, featuring dashes of rockabilly (“Marked Men”), new wave (“Smokestacks and Skyscrapers”), and dub stomp (“First Step, Misstep”). Surprisingly, the LP is a pretty seamless affair.
“We spent a lot of time working on the songs, tweaking them, and getting them right,” Keith says. “We worked pretty close with [producer Kyle Homme] to make sure we got the kind of guitar sounds and drum sounds we were specifically looking for. We weren’t afraid to lean into some effects here and there or doubling up some vocals. Doing some things that were a little outside the box.”
One of the best tracks is “Flat Black,” a jangly, bass-driven tune which recalls first wave British punks like The Stranglers, Stiff Little Fingers, and Wreckless Eric. It tells the story of a befuddled consumer with “option anxiety” who has narrowed his world to the “dull white and flat black” of the radio. The song echoes the spirit of the Clash’s “Lost in the Supermarket,” and rightfully so.
“Our blueprint for this record is London Calling by the Clash. It’s just one of our favorites. What they achieved creatively with that album is so cool,” says Keith. “We weren’t looking to copy it but maybe just get some inspiration.”
As for the album’s title, it’s a reference to Harlan Howard’s proclamation that country music is “three chords and the truth.” Keith says, “Rock is three chords and a half-truth, particularly punk rock, because there always seems to be some agenda behind punk, particularly when it’s politically motivated.”
After more than 20 years and eight albums, Face to Face has developed a dedicated fanbase, and as such, the band spends much of their time catering to the true believers. And why not? It’s what their fans want. So even though Three Chords & a Half-Truth may be Face to Face’s finest moment to date, Keith doesn’t expect to play more than three to four tracks off the record this time around.
“I find the times when we challenge our own fanbase with our music, it’s a bit of a slower acceptance, but the more we continue to play the music off the records that might be a little more outside our set list, they start to become more accepted and even maybe some of the most beloved songs in the set,” Keith says.