Chicago’s always been a hotbed for great pop-punk music; Alkaline Trio, Allister, Mest, Real Kids, Screeching Weasel, and Showoff - to name a few. With their new self-titled EP, Cliffhanger is a name that can be etched onto that tremendous list as they carry the tradition into today’s generation. We recently had the chance to check in with their guitarist Mike Centracco to chat about the new EP, how the band has grown the most over the past few years between releases, self-producing, their songs “After Sunrise” and “Hollowed Out,” the Chicago punk rock scene, and more!
Photo by: Sasha Strahler
1. Your new Self-titled EP released on January 10, 2020. Tell us a little bit about the EP and what people can expect from it.
Internal and external battles are the common theme on Cliffhanger. We focus on the confrontations that arise from growing up, coping with loss, finding self-awareness, and contending with the present political landscape.
People can expect to hear Cliffhanger’s signature melodic, high-energetic, catchy songs on this release. They can also anticipate hearing carefully thought out songs that all have a deep personal meaning. We like to describe this EP as a true representation of who Cliffhanger is, which is why we decided to have an eponymous title. We didn’t have any outsider producer offering suggestions or telling us what to do. What you hear on the EP is the result of 5 guys writing music true to themselves.
2. This EP is the follow-up release to Old Wounds. For your longtime fans, what similarities will they hear on this new EP in comparison to your previous releases, and also, what differences are they going to hear?
We have been working on Cliffhanger ever since we wrapped up Old Wounds. Given that, we’ve been working on these songs for the past few years, so fans should expect similarities to our sound. They should expect prominent electric guitars, booming drums, thoughtful melodies, and songs to be stuck in their head.
A major difference they are going to hear is around the vocals. Our previous singer decided to step away from the band and our previous bass player, Matt Meindl, stepped up to sing. I guess in a way, that’s also very similar for our fans as we’ve had a different singer for every release. We also experimented with different types of guitar parts on Cliffhanger. Our lead guitarist, Dan Rickert, is into various types of alternative music so we tried to incorporate some of that broader experience into this EP.
3. You chose to self-produce. Why did you feel that you, as the band, could capture your sound best, rather than choosing an outside producer to come in and help you define it?
Before recording, some of the band wanted to go with the producer (Michael Govaere – ex-Every Avenue) we’ve worked with in the past as we value his input, and some members wanted to take a DIY approach and have more of a raw sound to our songs. Ultimately, we were presented with a unique opportunity to partner with Flashpoint Chicago and work with aspiring audio engineering students. They were there to help set up the studio and check inputs and work the recording software.
We didn’t know how self-producing would work but having worked with Govaere on our previous EPs, we understood several nuances to look out for and to always tune our instruments. We were very critical of our studio performance and kept striving to have the best take possible, so we could have a product we’re truly proud of.
4. Back in November (2019), you shared “After Sunrise” from the EP with fans. Why did you feel that this song was the best choice to first represent the EP as a whole?
There was a lot of internal debate on which song to release first. We often feel that bands lead off with their best song and then the rest of the releases are underwhelming. We wanted to do the opposite. We wanted to release a song that was a solid, catchy song that would capture your attention after not releasing new music for 2 years. “After Sunrise” is a quintessential Cliffhanger song in the sense that it is fast, upbeat, catchy, has sick leads, and relatable lyrics. We wanted our fans to know that they should be expecting a quality pop punk EP from us.
5. You followed “After Sunrise” with the release of “Hollowed Out” in December (2019). Tell us more about this song, the message of it, and why it’s so important for today’s world?
“Hollowed Out” is a band favorite to play and it has a long history. We originally wrote “Hollowed Out” back in early 2018, but we were never quite satisfied with the song. It originally was an easycore type song, but we were never quite satisfied with it. We took a step back to reflect on what we wanted to convey. Ultimately, we wanted to focus on the challenge to becoming self-aware and to take action if something in your life is not satisfying you. After coming to that consensus as a band, we quickly reworked parts of the song and we are all proud of the outcome.
In a way, Cliffhanger was based around the song “Hollowed Out.” When we partnered with Flashpoint Chicago, they were going to record a song and a music video for us. We selected “Hollowed Out,” but we were given the opportunity to record additional songs. A huge focus for this EP was around “Hollowed Out.”
This is very important for today’s world as many people feel that they are stuck in their current situation and it can feel that there’s no hope left. “Hollowed Out” focuses on the challenge of finding self-awareness when you’re engulfed in difficult situations. By recognizing the situation, you can take necessary steps to overcome those negative thoughts and find who you are and where you need to go.
6. “Hollowed Out” was picked up by 2 Spotify editorial playlists and streamed over 10,000 times in 3 weeks. Did you expect the song to have this kind of instant success and why do you feel that it has?
We didn’t expect that success at all. None of our previous songs or releases had ever had that much initial momentum before. A day after “Hollowed Out” was released, Meindl texted the band with a screenshot of our Spotify page showing that it had over 1,000 monthly listeners and “Hollowed Out” had a lot of plays. He asked if there was a glitch with Spotify as we have not seen those numbers so quickly before. Upon further investigation we realized that it wasn’t a glitch and that people were really enjoying our new song.
This gets us really excited because the song that we put so much effort into was now being played at a large scale.
7. When you look at the whole EP, which song stands out from it as your personal favorite and why?
My personal favorite song on the record is “The Oaks.” This song starts off with kick by having scratching pick slides which flows into a melodic lead guitar riff. While it’s one of the shorter songs on Cliffhanger, it captures your attention throughout the entire song with the desire for more. This song has everything from loud guitars, to palm muting, to gang vocals, infectious harmonies, and lyrics that inspire you to be true to yourself in new situations.
Each member has their own personal favorite from this EP. As we’ve been listening to the mastered versions for a few months, our thoughts typically change depending on the day of the week. There are so many different aspects of each song that we all enjoy. Dan frequently bounces between “Shakedown,” “The Oaks,” “Hollowed Out,” and “Forever Ago.” Both Mike and Matt jump from “The Oaks,” “Hollowed Out,” and “Diane.” Lou likes the punkier songs on the EP such as “Ivy Wall,” “Hollowed Out,” and “The Oaks.”
8. You guys are from my original hometown of Chicago. That’s been a very strong scene since back in the mid-1990s. What do you feel has made Chicago such a special, strong scene for so long?
I think having several awesome venues in a major city has something to do with it. Many bands come through Chicago and when you perform at a venue that holds less than 500 people, you tend to see familiar faces and you get to know each other. There are a lot of local musicians, so people go to shows and support each other.
If that’s not it, it’s probably something in the deep dish.
9. How does being a part of such a strong local scene like that one, benefit a band like yours the most?
To echo the response from the previous question – the community. Several of us attend many concerts and local shows to support people we’ve met throughout the years. Having a personal network and people you can bounce ideas off of and seek advice from is incredibly helpful and supportive.
10. We’re all about helping the next generation at allageszine.com, so we always end all our Q&A’s with this question. What one piece of advice would you give to someone who is just starting out with their first band today?
One piece of advice I’d offer is to network and keep pushing your music. Work hard and be proud of the art you created.