The Commonwealth Plays Workingman’s Punk
When The Commonwealth vocalist and bassist Dan O’Leary said the Misfits suck, he didn’t mean to start a social media shitstorm.
But O’Leary’s description of the veteran horror-rockers as a punk rock Kiss that is more marketing scheme than music stirred up a cauldron of Facebook responses from Misfits fans and detractors alike. Days later, sitting on the back patio of Pint Central with vocalist and guitarist Simon Strivelli and drummer Richie Grecki, his bandmates in the muscular rock trio the Commonwealth, O’Leary provides some context for his controversial post. Wickedly hungover while driving into work, O’Leary had just plugged in the aux cord between his phone and car when the Misfits song “Halloween” came on, he remembers. His immediate response was, “The Misfits aren’t that good.”
Strivelli agrees — sort of. “They’re not, but they’re fun,” he says, laughing.
O’Leary is more open minded about the Misfits on this rainy November night, hours before the Commonwealth hit the stage for the Punk Rock and Tacos Party at the Plaza Midwood pub and eatery. The band will also perform at the Punk Rock Smackdown, a holiday special at Tommy’s Pub on December 15.
“In their day, they were probably really awesome,” O’Leary says, but he rejects the argument, posted on his thread, that punk rock is not supposed to be good.
“It’s a gray area,” Grecki counters. “You can have bad punk and you can have really good punk.”
“It’s all art, so it’s subjective,” O’Leary concludes.
It’s apparent that the three friends have held many discussions on the quality and power of music since forming the Commonwealth four years ago. It’s also obvious that the trio is committed to making the kind of punk that falls in the “really good” category. Debuting digitally on August 3 and slated for a physical CD release early next year, the Commonwealth’s Worst Things First EP balances power with precision and aggressive playing with supple technique. Ranging from the raucous vocals and melodic guitar fills of “Time Goes By” to the chunky bass and clattering drums of the anthemic “Back in the Fight,” the five-track collection, recorded and engineered by Joey Park at Warzone Studio in Charlotte, delivers jackhammer rock that also swings.
The EP’s title is a kind of homage to a terrible unnamed band that O’Leary and Grecki both had the misfortune to play in. The expression is an acknowledgment that you often have to get the shit out of the way before you hit pay dirt, Grecki explains. O’Leary cites a credo that he credits to author Stephen King.
“Always write shitty first drafts because if you don’t get the drivel out of your head you’re never going to get it right,” O’Leary says. “If you keep it bottled up you’ll have a bad idea stuck too long and a good idea will pass your subconscious by.”
In contrast, the Commonwealth seems to run no risk of passing up any good ideas, Strivelli maintains.
“We try to extract from so many different avenues of music,” Strivelli says, explaining the band’s sound. “I write standard G-C-D chords, open strumming, but Dan writes in a totally different style.”
At 46, Strivelli is the oldest band member, and he notes that close to a decade separates all three musicians — Grecki is 36 and O’Leary has just turned 27. Such a range of ages provides a broad spectrum of influences and experiences for the players to pull from. In addition to playing in and writing lyrics for the Commonwealth, Strivelli plays with Celtic folk band Bottle of Smoke, and O’Leary has recently helped out absurdist rockers Cheesus Crust by donning a cardboard robot costume and battling a guy in a Godzilla suit. Despite the members’ differing backgrounds, Strivelli says the music they make is cohesive, in part because they share a handful of key influences.
“It’s like a Venn diagram,” Grecki explains. Each musician has his own preferences outside of the band, but in the middle, where they all meet as the Commonwealth, the bandmates know exactly what they like and what they want to do. One point of convergence is oi, the British-born subgenre that united punks, skinheads and other working-class youth in the late 1970s. It turns out that Strivelli has firsthand experience with the American version of oi; 28 years ago, when he was 18 years old, Strivelli hung out with the Chapel Hill based band Patriot, one of the mainstays of the 1990s oi and street punk scene.
“I lived with [Patriot] drummer Chip Harris,” Strivelli remembers. “I used to take him to band practice because he didn’t own a car.”
With its rolling buzzsaw guitar attack and catchy shout-along choruses, oi has delivered rousing punk anthems like Sham 69’s classic “If the Kids are United,” but the genre — along with its skinhead followers — has also been maligned for its association with racism. Strivelli scoffs at that characterization.
“The skinheads were English working class youth,” he explains. “They shaved their heads to keep the bugs out.” He and Grecki point to explicitly anti-racist oi bands like Charlotte’s interracial hardcore outfit Unruly Boys.
“Just because you shave your head and like punk rock music, it doesn’t mean you’re racist or violent,” Grecki says. The mission of punk is to bring people together, he insists. “Punk and oi are all-accepting.”
Ironically, misconceptions based on appearances almost stopped Commonwealth from coming together. In 2014, when Strivelli was working security at Tommy’s Pub at its original location on Central Avenue, he took one look at Grecki and decided the future Commonwealth drummer was trouble.
“I thought Richie was going to be a piece of shit, but he turned out to be the friendliest guy,” Strivelli remembers. It was then that Strivelli recognized Grecki had been in one of his favorite Charlotte punk bands, All Rise. O’Leary and Grecki had played together in the hardcore street punk trio starting in 2010.
“I’d always appreciated what All Rise did for the scene,” Strivelli says. In fact he asked All Rise to open a Celtic rock show featuring his former band, Ghosts of Bannockburn, and Virginia-based band The Fighting Jamesons.
During O’Leary and Grecki’s tenure with All Rise, the band had toured nationally with Dirty South Revolutionaries. All Rise split up in 2014, but the timing turned out to be fortuitous, Grecki says. A week prior to the break up, Strivelli had asked Grecki if he wanted to play drums in a new project. Grecki declined because he didn’t want to play in more than one band at a time, but with the demise of All Rise, Grecki was free to consider Strivelli’s offer. In the meantime, Strivelli approached O’Leary about playing bass in his new group. Grecki remembers Strivelli’s unique pitch.
“The words he said were: ‘I don’t necessarily need the best players. I need the right players.’” Having played together for 10 years, Grecki and O’Leary have a near telepathic connection on their instruments. There was no question that they fit the bill for the Commonwealth. Considering that both Grecki and O’Leary were at the Common Market in Plaza Midwood when they accepted Strivelli’s offer, it may seem natural that the band takes its name from the market’s location on Commonwealth Avenue. Not so, says Strivelli.
A commonwealth is defined as a group of like-minded people, separate from the government, who strive for a common goal, Strivelli explains. It’s a happy accident that this band of goal-oriented musicians shares a name with the location where it was born. In another coincidence, O’Leary happens to work as a cook at Common Market on Commonwealth. O’Leary’s day job brings up another shared bond between the members of the Commonwealth: They’re all working class guys who make music.
“We all work manual labor jobs,” Grecki says. “We all serve.” He points out that he works construction while Strivelli drives a beer delivery truck. The dignity of labor is as important to the band’s mindset as making music, Grecki continues. O’Leary believes it’s impossible to untangle work from music.
“You’ll go insane if you do not have a song in your head when you’re working,” O’Leary says. “Doing monotonous kitchen work will kill you if you don’t have something going on in your head.” O’Leary remembers that he once played a show on his dinner break. One night, while working the line at a restaurant in NoDa, he bought the other line cooks a 12-pack of beer to cover for him while he ducked out to the gig.
“I drove across town, played for 30 minutes, unplugged my amp, threw it back in the car and drove back to work,” O’Leary says.
“Now that’s fucking punk rock,” Strivelli says, laughing.
While work ethic is crucial to the Commonwealth’s sound and attitude, he continues, a positive mental attitude is just as important. Despite the band’s hard-hitting musical attack, the lyrics penned by Strivelli and O’Leary are often positive, Grecki points out. Strivelli wants people to leave a Commonwealth show feeling better about life, he insists.
“I want people to walk out feeling uplifted,” he says. “I want to help people.”
“The world is a bleak enough place if you read the news,” O’Leary adds. “You have to take the bitter with life, but you can’t let it consume you. If you do, you’re screwed.”
“This is my escape and therapy,” Strivelli concludes. “I look forward to practice with these guys every week, because it’s time to play. It’s time to get real.”
This work by Queen City Nerve is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.