Erik Button insists he’s not the victim of a hit and run although he sings about it in the song “Negative Blood.”
“I don’t feel so well/ Got hit by a car in front of Taco Bell/ Then they drove away …”
The song then relates how the cops arrived and gave Button a lollipop as a kind of consolation for experiencing vehicular assault, but that didn’t actually happen to the frontman and primary songwriter for prankster punk band Dollar Signs either.
Instead, it happened to the band’s guitarist Tommy McPhail. Well, all of it except for the lollipop.
“A lot of the stories in our songs are things that happened to me, but every once in a while, something will happen to someone else in our band and I’ll write about it,” Button says.
As for the bit about the police dispensing lollipops: “It’s a metaphor for how the cop who talked to Tommy didn’t really care.” It’s all part of Button’s job to draw on life’s disappointments and embarrassments as grist for Dollar Signs’ lyrical mill,
Dollar Signs trades in rowdy punk rock tunes with roaring guitars, triumphant horns and rollicking shout-along choruses, all coalescing around a warm and cuddly heart. This last attribute is acknowledged in the title of the band’s latest album, Hearts of Gold, which drops March 12.
Dollar Signs, which launched 11 years ago as a folk-punk duo comprised of Button and Luke Gunn in Burlington, North Carolina, has always cocooned a coping mechanism amid its peppy pop-rock and melancholy emo undertow, says Button.
“The band is about taking these bad experiences in your life and trying to see some catharsis or something funny, to give yourself closure through art,” Button offers. The effect is like listening to a close friend tell a riotously funny story about navigating a painful predicament. You laugh, but you also suspect that the incident was probably a living hell to slog through at the time.
Button says writing and performing songs about terrible or humiliating things is a way for him to process his feelings about them. That process, in all its socially self-conscious and surreal glory, is on hand in “Bad News,” the second single and first video off Hearts of Gold, the band’s third full-length album, recorded at Legitimate Business in Greensboro.
Better with a beer
As Gunn’s piano pings incessantly, the camera pans past a spinning beer bottle on a barroom table to a stage where Button hides behind a cardboard cutout of himself. Button tosses the cutout aside and sings in his everyman bellow as McPhail’s buzzsaw guitar swoops and soars. It soon becomes clear that not all is well in this boozy party paradise.
The people I drink with don’t really know me/ They’re like the waitstaff on your birthday at Chili’s/ They’re forced to sing happy birthday/ They’re forced to cheer and clap/When they leave, you’re all alone
Button goes from dancing awkwardly to carousing amid a sea of cutouts, the only other “people” in the bar. The tune downshifts to a shuffling bridge with McPhail’s guitar mimicking a kazoo. Gunn, in a glitzy Vegas entertainer’s suit, tickles the ivories at a grand piano as the camera pans to Button singing his heart out onstage. When the camera pans back to the piano, a grinning skeleton has replaced Gunn at the keyboard, leaving Button frozen in terror.
As the tune gallops to a raucous crescendo, the band — Gunn, McPhail, Dylan Wachman on a loping bass and Arion Chamberlain on crisp drums — are replaced with creepy mannequins, and the chorus delivers the song’s ironic message, “Bad news goes down better with a beer,”
The viewer is left with an unsettling fusion of an inebriated Twilight Zone episode and a Roadrunner cartoon in which Wile E. Coyote clambers out from under a boulder to dust himself off and soldier on.
“Bad News” fits into the grand rock ‘n’ roll tradition of boozing and partying songs that are actually dire warnings against the “drink your problems away” mindset, songs like Fishbone’s “Alcoholic,” Fountains of Wayne’s “Bright Future in Sales” and The Kink’s “Have Another Drink.”
Button sees partying as a double-edged sword. Drinking should relax you and make you feel better, but it can germinate a whole new set of problems.
“Drinking songs are a great way to express this general feeling I have [that] even when I’m trying to have a good time, I’m always worrying about something.”
Button notes that despite the video’s boozy demeanor, Wachman quit drinking at age 21 after being diagnosed with general anxiety disorder and Chamberlain has abstained from imbibing ever since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Who’s cutout for video work?
Aware that they couldn’t tour their new record in the midst of a pandemic, the band decided to push the artistic envelope with high-quality videos like “Bad News.” The challenge was how to avoid shooting endless footage of people standing around wearing masks, Button says. The band hit upon the expedient of stand-in people.
“We thought, ‘What if we made a standard music video about having a show at a bar, but instead of having humans there, we’ll all get cardboard cut-outs of all our friends?’” The band reached out to their contacts hoping to get 10 cutouts. They wound up with 36.
During the planning stage, the first shot that popped into Button’s head was the pan from Gunn at the piano to Button onstage then back to the skeleton. Button knew the only place that could be the “Bad News” bar was Petra’s in Plaza Midwood, as they have a beautiful grand piano onstage.
As the early November shoot date approached, Dollar Signs turned to Button’s day job at video production company Priceless Misc. for production gear. Button has won two Emmy awards working as an editor for the company, though he self-deprecatingly claims that he garnered his first award simply because he filled in for another video editor who fell ill.
Button is quick to praise the contributions of cinematographer Tricia Coyne and lighting director Kiernan McMahon to the music video. The only problems Button recalls is struggling to find a mannequin for each band member and locating a skeleton so soon after Halloween.
“It’s not impossible but it was trickier than I expected,” he says.
Button says he’s delighted that Gunn also acted in the video. It turns out that Gunn studied acting and made short films with Button when the two friends were in high school. Like Gunn, other Dollar Signs members make contributions to the band beyond their musicianship.
Chamberlain has a background in acting and pursued a performing career in Los Angeles for two years. McPhail works in social media and marketing, so he takes the lead in those efforts for the band. Wachman was booking shows before there was a Dollar Signs, so he manages the band, while also producing t-shirts and flyers.
“We take what we have and use it to the best of our abilities,” says Button.
A fistful of Dollar Signs
Button’s love of music began at age 14 when he discovered bands on internet forums. Burlington didn’t have a booming music scene, so when he turned 16, he started catching shows in Greensboro and Chapel Hill.
“That’s when I truly fell in love with music, punk rock in particular,” he remembers. In 2008 Button moved to Charlotte and learned to play guitar. In 2009 he started writing and recording songs with his friend Gunn. The pair put their efforts up on the internet under the name Dollar Signs.
“It was a funny name for a punk rock band,” Says Button. “The idea that making acoustic punk music for the internet would be our ticket to success just seemed preposterous to me.” Today, Button feels that the moniker appropriately reflects the band’s playful side.
In 2013, after Button graduated from UNC Charlotte with a degree in English, he and Gunn decided to move past the acoustic duo lineup. They recruited Chamberlain and Wachman and began concentrating on playing live as well as recording. McPhail joined in 2017.
As the lineup expanded, the band’s songwriting process changed. Originally Button wrote songs solo and played them at open mics at clubs around town like The Evening Muse to get feedback from audiences. Then for a while, Button would write the bare bones of a tune and bring it to the band, who helped flesh it out into a full, functioning song.
For Hearts of Gold, songwriting became even more collaborative. For the first time, everyone in the band was living in Charlotte. Chamberlain was back from L.A., and McPhail had moved to the Queen City from Richmond, Virginia. Everyone was able to write everything together, Button says, with Gunn and McPhail giving Button melodies to pair his lyrics to.
“It’s a much more fun way to make music,” Button says.
From ‘Negative Blood’ to ‘Hearts of Gold’
In the process of making music, Button and the band have perfected their use of humor, a skill that Button says is the result of his English major. He cites authors like Mark Twain, who inspired Button to ground humor in his reality.
“I know that my problems are not the biggest in the world, but that doesn’t mean they’re not important or they’re invalid,” he says. “I try to write in a way that feels true to me.”
He’s also constantly trying to make his bandmates laugh.
“A lot of the jokes I put into the songs aren’t really for anyone except for [the band]. There are things that I’ll reference that only they know about.”
As important as humor is to Dollar Sign’s songs, the band’s music is also grounded in Button’s sharpened sense of social anxiety.
“I’m a pretty anxious person,” he says. “The hardest part of doing the band thing is having people talk to me after a show because I always feel awkward.”
Button confesses he feels most comfortable when he’s on stage presenting a heightened version of himself. “Creating art gives me the control to say things the way I want them to be said.”
In December, Dollar Signs released “Negative Blood,” the first video from Hearts of Gold. The song that recounted McPhail’s run-in with a reckless driver and cops who couldn’t be bothered was accompanied by a sort of anti-video. For the duration of the three-minute song, the only visual is a still photo of Button carrying pizza boxes and an empty milk jug while looking utterly miserable.
“That’s an old photo of me after a poker night,” Button offers. “I lost money and I was having a bad time. It’s not a rock-bottom picture, but it’s a picture of me in distress.”
For Button, “Negative Blood” states the theme that runs through all of Dollar Sign’s records: It’s important to make the effort to turn all the bad pieces of yourself into good pieces. When looking at bad things that happened to you, try to see the optimistic side.
Button, who has started seeing a therapist, says it’s time to go beyond getting through the rough spots and struggling to be upbeat.
“This record is the first time I’m starting to see beyond that,” he says. “After you feel better through catharsis, what then? What do you do with this feeling of peace you get after you’ve yelled about it?”
Hearts of Gold is primarily about how difficult it is to change, Button maintains, how tough it is to get the ball rolling to make yourself a better person.
How can you ensure that bad situations that happened before won’t do so again, he asks. If you’ve made mistakes, how can you avoid repeating those mistakes in the future?
“Now that I’m not constantly in survival mode, I’m trying to figure out the kind of person I want to be going into the future,” Button says.
Become part of the Nerve: Get better connected and become a monthly donor to support our mission and join thousands of Charlotteans by subscribing to our email newsletter. If you’re looking for the arts in Charlotte, subscribe to the paper for the most in-depth coverage of our local scene.
This work by Queen City Nerve is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.