Mic CheckMusic

Dollar Signs Drop New Album Full of Pop-Punk Folk Tales

'Legend Tripping' underscored by anti-nostalgia, horror vibes

Dollar Signs sit and stand along a staircase in a creep black-and-white photo
Dollar Signs (from left): Luke Gunn, Tommy McPhail, Erik Button, Arion Chamberlain and Dylan Wachman. (Photo by Dylan Wachman)

In the song “Nuclear Family,” the penultimate track on local pop-punk band Dollar Signs’ new album Legend Tripping, frontman Erik Button tells the story of the 1961 Goldsboro B-52 crash, in which a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress carrying two 3.8-megaton Mark 39 nuclear bombs broke up in mid-air, dropping its nuclear payload in the process.

“We could have been beachfront,” Button screams in the refrain, and it’s hard to tell if it’s a wish or a warning.

The story encapsulates the theme of the album quite well — a mix of local folk tales, macabre horror and anti-nostalgia for rural North Carolina, where Button grew up in Burlington.

The album drops on Oct. 27, with a release show and costume party scheduled for Halloween night at The Evening Muse.

In the lead-up, we caught up with Button to chat about the new Dollar Signs project, the band’s first since leaving their record label and going independent with the help of crowdfunding.

Queen City Nerve: This album does have an undeniable theme from the jump, one of anti-nostalgia and going home only to not recognize the people or things there — or not want to. What was the inspiration for that?

Erik Button: Well, it kind of came about from the fact that we recorded our last album literally five days before the COVID shutdown started. And when that started, I was like, “Okay, well, shit, what do I do for songwriting?” Because I didn’t really want to write a COVID record and do that route. But also my writing style is very diary-based. It’s usually just about whatever I’m experiencing at the time. So I was like, “Okay, well, if I can’t do that, what else is there?”

Erik Button looks up at the camera while climbing the stairs and holding a Miller Light
Erik Button of Dollar Signs (Photo by Dylan Wachman)

And so as the pandemic kind of got deeper into it, I started seeing the political perspectives of people I went to high school with change or certain people in my family become more radicalized. And so it kind of shifted my perspective. I was like, “What if I wrote a hometown record?” which is a pretty classic, cliche pop-punk thing to write about, but instead of wanting to write about, “Oh, I want to escape my hometown,” like what 19-year-old pop punk bands write about, I was like, “What about a record from the perspective of someone in their 30s coming back to their hometown and kind of trying to reckon with their memory of a place versus the reality of that place?”

Were you physically back there or were you just sort of watching from afar?

It was kind of a mixture of watching from afar or when I would see my family. But yeah, a lot of it, especially at that time, kind of everything happened over the internet because that’s just how everyone experienced the world.

So would you call this more of a concept album than your past stuff?

Definitely. When I started writing this record, obviously being from the South and wanting to talk about history, it gets very complicated very quickly in a way that I wasn’t sure if I was totally equipped to get into systemic forms of racism and things like that. I’ve always had a mild interest in folklore and kind of like this alternative style of history. And so I felt like that was a cool way to give me a lexicon to be able to explore and talk about the things I want to talk about, but it just kind of gave me a backdrop.

So that’s why there’s so much horror imagery or references to either odd historic events that happened in North Carolina or folk tales and that kind of thing. It was a good way just because folklore is often used to simplify and explain history or the dangers of a thing or a place. So I thought it was an interesting way to explore nostalgia and memory in that way where you basically start with something that’s already partially or wholly not true.

You recorded in Boone. What brought you there?

My parents got a little place in the mountains that me and my now-wife would go to and we would kind of like work remotely there, and it was a good place to write songs because it frees you of distractions and because everyone was super busy, we kind of wrote this record altogether in these small chunks at a different mountain house, where we would essentially go up there and stay for four or five days and just work on these demos that I had written.

It was a really fun way to work because it was very distraction-free and we could kind of stay on a schedule. So when it came to recording, the guy who typically records our music couldn’t do it because he now lives in New York, and so we were like, “Well, why don’t we just use our know-how and just record it in the same house that we wrote the record in,” which made it feel very cohesive. We ended up working crazy long hours, but it didn’t feel nearly as stressful.

Local musician and producer Te’Jani produced the album with you all in Boone. How did his input shape the album, if at all?

It honestly was very cool. He has a background in engineering; he’s engineered a lot of hip-hop and kind of started in the EDM and electronica music world, and has recorded a bunch of stuff for solo singer/songwriters. He’s very good at crafting any kind of sound we want, particularly when it came to the piano or anything specific like that.

Learn more: Te’Jani Turns Dark Thoughts Into Deep Noise

He really just has a pretty deep wealth of knowledge and it paired pretty nicely because we also got the record post-mixed by our friend Rick Johnson, who has a studio in Michigan. He is kind of the opposite end of the spectrum, which is he’s very good at putting things on tape and he has a lot of analog equipment from the 1970s. So I felt like we really got a full spectrum of people’s expertise and we took advantage of it.

How would you describe the ways that your sound has evolved as a band on this new project?

Well, this record definitely has the most space in it. I feel like all the rest of our records kind of come much more from punk sensibilities of just like, say it as quickly as you can and get out, whereas this record we took a lot more influence from Bruce Springsteen or 1970s rock ‘n’ roll bands like Big Star, where we’re like, “Okay, well, actually, let’s just let the guitar solo play out,” which is a thing we’ve never really done before. So it really led to the record sounding a lot bigger. And to me, this feels like a rock ‘n’ roll record more than like a basement punk record, which is funny and ironic because we recorded it in a basement.

What inspired the horror aspect of it? Was that due to your experience during the pandemic? Or was it not that deep and just something you wanted to play with?

The pandemic really got me thinking about a lot. And for some reason, just the way my brain works is, like, if I feel stressed, the way I relax has always been watching scary movies — either, like, more modern stuff or a lot of schlocky B movies from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. So in the background of all of the stress from the pandemic, it definitely put horror kind of in the front of my brain more. I’ve always been a huge fan of it, but I kind of feel like this was a way for me to figure out a different way to write songs.

I mean, when I first started working on the record, there’s probably five or six songs that I just kind of threw away because I felt like it either was too close to what we used to do or it was too far out there in horror references. And so I was kind of trying to find the middle balance of it, where it’s like it still feels accessible and if you don’t know exactly what I’m talking about it doesn’t really matter — that’s what I was going for — but also, if you want to Google shit about the lyrics of our record, it would be fun for you to do.

Did you feel pressure to drop around Halloween thanks to the horror vibes?

The worst thing about being on a label is the fact that you record a record and then you have to wait sometimes up to a year to put it out. And I just didn’t want to do that. And so after leaving our last label, we were like, “Well, if we’re going to put it out this year, we should probably put it out as close to Halloween as we possibly can,” which I’m really excited about. It was only stressful because I got married [in early October], so planning a wedding and a record release in the same month was certainly a big decision for me.

Speaking of leaving the label, you all ran quite a successful Kickstarter campaign to help fund this record. Tell me about that.

Yeah, so we left our label in December of last year, and we were like, okay, I mean, technically, we could fund the record ourselves, but barely. So we’re like, “Okay, well, we’ll try the Kickstarter thing,” and we set out a pretty modest goal for a record recording, which was $12,000, which would just basically be enough for the physical stuff of it and the recording. But we ended up raising that in one day, and raised $26,000 in the end, which really gave us a lot more room to be able to do music videos and get an actual PR rep and just kind of doing anything that we want to do with it, which was pretty incredible, the amount of support we got for it.

You guys were recording a video when I reached out. Do you have a timeline for any visuals that are coming with the release?

Yeah, that video is supposed to come out on [Oct.] 25th. So we’re putting out a video for our song “Old Time’s Sake,” which is the third song on the record, and we basically got two new friends of ours who kind of approached us wanting to do a music video — Eric Bader and Stephen Venezia, who’ve done a lot of music video stuff. Eric has shot music videos for Panic at the Disco and Fallout Boy, and they just moved to Charlotte and kind of found us, and so they were like, “Oh, if you want to do a video together.” So we jumped at that, especially with me doing wedding planning. I didn’t really have time to do it myself, and so they are doing it. The video is just kind of a slasher film in the style of, like, 1970s Italian horror, and it looks really cool. I’m excited for everyone to see it.

And I assume the Halloween album release show will not just be any old gig? Costumes encouraged?

Oh yeah. We’ve done a lot of themed shows in the past, and we haven’t done it in a while, so we’re like, “Well, we’re having it on Halloween, let’s decorate it up and do it big.”

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