Playing Enemy: The Life and Death
Story and photos by Pam Sternin
This band was so explosive that it was destined to implode. How could three close friends pack that much volatile ferocity, self loathing, lofty expectations and dueling personalities into one cramped vision, pull the pin and not expect it to detonate. Their music was just as complex as their personal inner workings. Playing Enemy was a time and place in the Seattle music scene and to fully understand their positioning in the metal/hardcore community you simply had to be there. My first memory of Playing Enemy was seeing them perform in 2001 or 2002 at Graceland, now renamed El Corazon. The first thing that struck me was being confused and concerned that their bassist and recent Indiana state transplant, Shane Mehling kept hitting and antagonizing his own band mate vocalist/guitarist, Demian Johnston while they were playing their set. I thought, “Did the two of them get into a fight before the show started? What the fuck is wrong with this guy?” Noticing this but not stopping, their drummer, Andrew Gormley kept playing through the onslaught. Johnston made one lacking attempt to keep Mehling at bay by pushing him away. Instead, Mehling deluged off the stage and into the sparse crowd, flailing like a cat on crack and brandishing his bass at everyone in the vicinity. Needless to say we backed the fuck away from him. On stage Johnston’s anguished, desperate shouting persisted over his shrill, discordant guitar while Gormley marathoned the drums like nothing I’d ever heard before. This band was audibly and physically intimidating, compelling and unstable. I knew right away that there was something different about this band. The lyrics were uncomfortably vulnerable. The rhythm section was powerful and busy, every song its own nightmarish Kaczynski-esque time bomb.
Four years after they released their first full length album, Cesarean, Playing Enemy took to the studio in 2005 to record I Was Your City with producer/engineer, Matt Bayles once again. It would be off-putting to characterize I Was Your City as mere metal/hardcore, it’s way too abstract to be pigeonholed. There’s layered noise, bitter mantras numbly murmured over an acoustic interlude, highly cerebral rhythms and just overall densely moody. You could tell these songs were scrupulously arranged without sacrificing rawness. The writing process up until then for I Was Your City had been a long and arduous one to say the least, turmoil was developing within the band while behind the scenes Johnston’s personal life began to sour. Lyrically, this was without a doubt a “break up” record (I want our old life back/I’m so fucking crazed to be so alone in life/To be so alone in love). Big things were anticipated with this album but in the time frame between the release of Cesarean and I Was Your City, enough had changed within the band while some things stayed hazardously the same, Playing Enemy proved to be a strong band surviving on borrowed time.
“Andrew and I were in Kiss It Goodbye together and that band broke up,” Johnston says, “We were going to continue to play music together regardless. Two songs on Cesarean were supposed to be KIG songs. We were already writing songs for KIG and they just became Playing Enemy songs. ” “Even before Demian was in KIG we had a project band together called, Nothing Left,” Gormley adds, “One of those songs became a KIG song, so Demian and I were already working together before that.” I couldn’t help but crack a smile hearing of the origin of the name Playing Enemy, “Andrew and I used to work together driving trucks for Northwest Center just picking up donations,” says Johnston, “We would always be talking to each other all day on those Nextel phones. There was something on The Fugees’, The Score record where they say something like “playing enemy” during one of their skits in between songs, something like, “All these kids running around playing enemy”. I thought it sounded kind of cool so I asked Andrew what he thought and he said, “Yeah! That sounds fine.” “And, this was after a few months of coming up with nothing,” said Gormley, “The name Clandestine was on the table but that wasn’t going to work.” When I inquired as to their revolving door of bassists prior to their solidified line up with Mehling I got a real ear full. “There was Ashli State of Ink & Dagger, she moved back home before Playing Enemy’s supposed first show with Botch,” Gormley recounts, “Bill Quinby played our first show and was on the demo. He said he couldn’t go on tour a week prior to leaving so that’s when Morgan Henderson from The Blood Brothers got involved in 2000. He wasn’t going to join the band, he was just filling in for the tour (Ryan Frederiksen played a couple shows while Shane was out of town later on). After all that, we were ready to record Cesarean at that point and Thom Rusnak (Bassist for KIG) was talking about moving to Seattle. Demian and I started recording the record before Thom even showed up. When Thom came out here he was really excited and he pretty much had to learn the songs as he was recording them. He’s a really good bass player, he could do it but the process was frustrating for Bayles and Thom. After a bit it felt like he didn’t want to be in the band, it was very short lived. We recorded one record and did one West coast tour. He was miserable on tour, he hated it.” Johnston interjects, “Yeah, he was not into it. He had an online business and pretty much every time he wasn’t home, he wasn’t making money. And, the rest of us had the mentality of, “Yeah we’re playing shows, Oh, twenty kids showed up? Whatever, it’s rad!”, you know?” Shortly after the West coast tour Rusnak left the band.
“In 1998 I found out my favorite band, KIG had broken up and I was really fucking disappointed.” says Mehling. “A while later, I’m going to Purdue in West Lafayette and had a summer break. I was trying to find a job and was really bored so I went home to visit a friend in Crown Point, Indiana. I was on the Relapse message board which I was fucking obsessed with. I saw “Demian Enemy” had posted that he and Andrew were looking for a bass player. I thought, I really love KIG and these are people I really respected, they’ve been a big part of my life growing up in metal so I just hoped they could find someone new. I went to bed that night and woke up the next morning and was like, “I should be their fucking bass player! I could do that shit! I’ve got an ergonomic bass and a Carvin red eye! I had the worst garbage ever and had barely a fundamental understanding of my instrument. So, I emailed Andrew in the Summer of 2001.” Gormley says, “There was the radio show…” “Oh yeah, Andrew’s internet radio show!” perks Mehling, “But, that was before we knew each other. I would request Shellac’s “Squirrel Song”. I’d go listen to his show in the computer lab at Purdue.” Gormley continues, “So, Shane sent us a file of him playing bass. You could tell he was playing real fast with his fingers, pretty manic stuff. He didn’t play any of our stuff.” “Yeah, I sent the file to Andrew and I remember writing this thing explaining it,” says Mehling, “I did some bullshit. I played Fur Elise and the only thing he sent back to me was, “…Listening.” And, I was all like (with clasped hands), “Awwww listening! Ooooo awwww, God! Andrew’s listening! What a strict judge.” Finally, Andrew responded to me and asked if I wanted to come out and try out. So, I thought, “Ohhh, me against all of these applicants, these dozens of applicants!” Turns out there was only one other guy that contacted them and he was also from the Relapse message board.” “That guy flew up from California and he was good but he was really a guitar player,” Gormley says, “He played bass like a guitarist would, it just didn’t gel.” “They had me try out a couple songs, I learned Must Bring Own Weapon,” says Mehling, “I do remember at one point Demian and Gormley said, “Well, you do seem really enthusiastic”. Then we went bowling the next day and they asked me to join. After that, I flew back home and told my parents I was dropping out of college to join this metal band. They weren’t stoked but they supported the idea and I moved out 6 weeks later, then we went on tour with Converge right away.”
Playing Enemy had some awesomely rare opportunities to share the stage and tour with some notable bands. “There were tour dates we set up around playing with Coalesce, Converge, Anodyne, Spaceboy…” says Johnston. Gormley chuckles, “I remember how many tours we went on by which roadies we had.” “Bill came with us on one of the tours and he said he was going to bring a taser,” Mehling begins, “Before we even got out of downtown Seattle he had tased one of us in the fucking van. When Coalesce got kicked out of a club on the tour, they started playing this house show and everyone moved over there. There was a literal circle of people around the band and Bill was just walking around the inside of the circle tasing people. Once you realize that the taser isn’t going to kill you everyone gets curious as shit. Girl’s would yell, “Tase me on my arm!” and he would tase them in the chest! He was such a fucking asshole! At our last show in Seattle (the final Botch show at The Showbox) Bill was supposed to tase me at the end of the show and he didn’t. After the show everyone got a hotel room for an after party and we had decided then he would tase me. I put myself in a corner because I didn’t want to be able to move away and Bill just tased me until my legs gave out. I know at least two people filmed the tasing that night and someone told me the video might be an Easter egg on the final Botch show DVD.”
Curious about how songs came together for I Was Your City and just Playing Enemy’s writing process in general, Gormley gave some insight, “The writing process was basically Demian presenting riffs to us and we approached it as sort of a writing by committee. We’d sit there and play every permeation of every riff that we had that we thought might go together.” “9 times out of 10 a song would begin with essentially having an “A” and a “B”,” Mehling describes, “It was pretty much A/B/A/B and then there was the middle C. The songs would start out straight forward but would always morph. The songs became highly structured as we went on.” “To say verse/chorus/verse/chorus is a different thing than saying A/B/A/B because I wouldn’t always immediately start singing on the A,” says Johnston, “There sometimes was a “chorus” and a “verse” but what we were doing was a different type of song.” “To be critical of that situation while it made sense to us at the time it still took us 3, 4, 5 months to write a song,” Mehling bemuses, “It was a loose structure that wasn’t necessarily confining but always was our starting point” “We definitely got more prolific after we put out I Was Your City,” says Gormley, “I think we learned after that album to not sit there and bang our head against the wall with these songs. We came up with a few songs before the recording and actually came up with another 6 or 7 songs after that. We got through them really quickly and they were fully realized songs.” “It was quickly compared to what we’d done before.” says Mehling with Gormley quickly picking up the slack, “It was quickly compared to any band I’ve been in. One of the songs that KIG wrote was “Everything Dies”. When KIG played it live as a four piece it just didn’t sound good. It was never recorded but you can find on YouTube an entire KIG set at CBGB and we played it. So, Playing Enemy took that rhythm for the song Monaco (third song on I Was Your City). It was the same drum pattern as “Everything Dies”.”
“The writing process was very meticulous, it was sort of the forest through the trees kind of idea in a lot of ways,” Mehling recalls, “Cesarean was essentially Demian and Andrew writing a record. Andrew also wrote some riffs, it was very collaborative and they had bass come in. Thom is a brilliant machine of a musician. He came in, did what was needed and it was fucking great. When I came in I wanted my time on the field. I worked hard to be a good bass player and I wanted to be someone that had more than just a back up position in a band and that essentially lead up to three people trying to write X amount of songs where everyone wanted to do the thing they wanted to do, the things that made them sound awesome without a care about how the song would be.” Gormley replies, “I kept on accusing our song writing process of being pretentious and both Shane and Demian would say, “Why are you saying that? Do you even know what the word means?” We were trying to put ideas before the song, the song is the most important part.” “The band became very cutthroat and highly non-democratic. Demian is an amazing musician, a sweetheart, he can write a hell of a riff but he is a pushover.” Mehling says, smiling over to Johnston who sarcastically calls back, “Well, that’s what everyone tells me I am so I agree.” Mehling hyperactively returns, “I can think of 3 or 4 times where Demian was pushed to such a limit that he went ballistic. With that, before I showed up the dynamic was two really good musicians with one of them firmly having the upper hand of deciding where the band kind of goes. Once I showed up and things started getting put together I was like “I have opinions, I disagree in certain ways and I’m going to be a dick”. Whether it was when I came here to try out or started practicing with them before we went on tour, Andrew from then until however long after was very much on my case, in a good way as in “Your bass playing is “meh”, like I’ve played with better people and you have something in you but you’re just okay”. He made me better so much so that I thought “Oh I AM better now and I have some things to say.”” Addressing us all Johnston leans in a response, “To give Shane a little perspective, before I joined KIG the bands I played in like Undertow played the simplest shit in the world and I was the bass player. Nineironspitfire were guys learning how to not play just straight up hardcore. When I joined up with KIG, I was joining a band of heavyweights. Guys that were fully realized, had their style and sound. I realized I was learning a lot from Andrew, he basically taught me everything Keith Huckins (ex-guitarist for KIG) fucking did. Not only was Andrew able to play drums for KIG he was also able to dissect this angular, dissonant guitar playing so a lot of times I would look to Andrew to figure things out. KIG existed for 6 months with me in the band and I remember one of the shows I didn’t even know how to use my chromatic tuner and we were supposed to tune to E flat. Slayer tuned to E flat, so KIG did it, then Playing Enemy did it. I played the show completely out of tune for every song, it was a nightmare. So, how secure I was as a guitar player was pretty low. I already felt like a fraud and when KIG fell apart 6 months after I joined “I” felt like the reason KIG broke up. I know that’s not the reason why but there I was feeling like the albatross of music. And, to go into Playing Enemy where now I’m expected to sing and be a front man?! A lot of the work Andrew and I would do being in a band was not so much musical but it was trying to get me to be a front man which I never really fully embraced.” “There was a point where we went on that tour with Converge and nobody really liked us, we wanted more of a live presence.” says Gormley. “We wanted Demian untethered from the mic and we wanted another guy that could go nuts.” says Mehling with Johnston following up, “We asked Dave Verellen in 2002 if he wanted to join but he said no because he was working towards becoming an EMT. Dave even suggested his brother, Ben Verellen. I think I kind of didn’t want to sing, I think I just wanted to play guitar.”
Believe it or not, Shane Mehling’s stage antics have calmed in comparison to Playing Enemy days. Well, actually not really but there is one signature move for the most part he strays away from…taking his bass and repeatedly smashing it into his face until he bleeds out. All. Over. Everything. “After the last Botch show was when I stopped mostly,” says Mehling, “A few people came up to me and said, “You can’t do this, you can’t do this to yourself. As your friend we can’t support this.” Definitely bashing myself in the face became a bit of a schtick which was a problem. We would play shows and I would look out at the audience and inevitably someone would be doing this motion at me (Shane indicating with both hands the “bash yourself in the face” sign language). To me it wasn’t anything. Both Demian and Andrew had mentioned that this was getting G.G. Allen, that I was losing the reason I was in a band, that I was making it more like a spectacle which I felt bad about. It was when I went outward and hurt other people Andrew had a stronger problem with that.” I asked Gormley if Playing Enemy ever had a final show, “No. But our last show was in Portland. El Cerdo and Shamelady played with us in 2006.” “It was the end of our West coast tour. We took a break afterward, it didn’t go well. We had some fights and it was just an awkward tour in general.” Johnston admits with Mehling chiming in, “Actually, the day we broke up we got photos taken by Ryan Russell (here you go: http://www.ryanrussell.net/trip_part3.html). He took a photo of the three of us and 10 minutes later we were done.”
At this point in our conversation I noticed the mood at the table we were all seated at began to change, mannerisms and speech became significantly tense. I asked what spurred the breakup of Playing Enemy, “Without being accusatory, Andrew wanted me out of the band.” Mehling said aloud. Gormley followed suit, “We were not agreeing on anything. I felt like we were spinning our wheels and at that point I really wasn’t okay with the fact that Shane was attacking people at our live shows. I saw on more than one occasion people getting hurt and I was not okay with that. There probably was a ton of other reasons why I was not happy in the band, not just with Shane but with Demian also. It got to the point where I either had to make a change or I had to leave.” Says Johnston to Gormley, “You came to me and said I don’t want to be in a band with Shane anymore but I would still like to play music with you. I understood why you said it but I wasn’t going to do this again without Shane.” “I didn’t want to push it,” replied Gormley, “I didn’t want to take away from Shane and his ability, I mean he turned into a monster bass player.” “There was this point that Shane was flailing so much, so crazy and uncontrollable that playing onstage, well there just wasn’t any,” Johnston laughs, “People would say, “Yeah, I saw you guys play and I caught the bass your bassist threw out into the audience”. Well, clearly he wasn’t playing it because he was 20ft from it!” Mehling testifies, “I remember we were at the Tin Hat and Andrew said, “You’re a good bass player and you need to play better live.” Then I asked him if he thought I could be as good as Geddy Lee and he said “No”. I finally asked, “So, if I play the songs right then I can do whatever I want?” and Andrew said go as nuts as you want. So, I was like Alright, I’ll play the songs and then I’ll just find those moments to hurt people or whatever. Playing bass in Playing Enemy there were very few moments where I wasn’t playing anything, so at those moments I would be like “Let’s do this!” and that’s when I would do things.” “The drum and vocal break in “Monaco” is where Shane would usually be like, “I can be gone for 12 seconds…!” exclaims Johnston. “I still remember Andrew’s face when we were playing a show somewhere in the Midwest where I took this guy down and hurt his ankle,” says Mehling, “I hurt him kind of bad and I remember looking at Andrew’s face that night and you could see on his face, it looked like “I’m done”.” “I was never cool with it but we joked about your live show up to that point and then it wasn’t cool anymore,” Gormley projects, “There was another time at the Funhouse where you smashed this girl in the face. After the show she was wasted and out in the back holding onto her face going, “You hit me in the face!” and you’d be like it’ll be okay but she’d say again, “You hit me in the face!”, you’d say I’m so sorry.”
While that sunk in Gormley opened up the conversation again, “One thing we didn’t talk about that I never talked to you about was this show we played in Santa Barbara and I avoided playing “Monaco” for that exact reason that night. We ended up playing a song off the Hex release where there was a small vocal break and you ended up jumping on some 16 year old kid and I got mad about it.” “Is that when we didn’t talk for a day?” Mehling asked quizzically. “I didn’t talk to you for the rest of that tour pretty much.” Gormley retorts. “That was the reason?” Mehling asked closely. “Yeah.” says Gormley. “Shane wouldn’t always go for the low hanging fruit, though,” says Johnston, “We played in Philadelphia and Shane broke a huge guys nose and he almost murdered Shane.” “He was so mad,” says Mehling, “He showed up with his friend later and yelled at me for breaking his nose. I was like, “I’m so sorry, so sorry. Do you want a t-shirt?” The guy calmed down and was like, “Okay.” There were times when I was really mad at Andrew but I never thought to quit or say I didn’t want to do this anymore. It was the only thing I’d known for years, it was the only thing that made sense to me. I never would have said I wanted to leave the band. I would have just dealt with things, for good or for bad.” “It got to a point where I felt I don’t have to be in this band, this isn’t the end all be all of life,” Gormley asserted, “We were working so hard writing these songs and nobody gave a fuck.” “No matter what the live show would have been the writing was always a huge enough problem for the band,” argued Mehling, “Maybe the live show would have gone to the wayside, maybe I would have made concessions if the writing process had been better. Demian and I felt like Andrew was the focus of the band and what he wanted was what would happen, regardless of what we wanted. A lot of the writing hit a blockade because Andrew’s opinion sort of took precedence.” “Shane felt like he could fight as hard as he wanted but no matter what, Andrew would win and my opinion was always like, “Yeah, sure that sounds fine…” says Johnston. “There were enough notable times where I would say I didn’t like a section and Andrew would say, “Just write a bass part that makes you happy with it”,” Mehling says sharply, directing his words across the table at Gormley, “But if I had EVER said that same thing to Andrew it would be like pushing down a fucking mountain. I felt that frustration.” “To be fair, I think the majority of the parts that were presented to the band were used.” Gormley replies. “I don’t know if that’s true,” Mehling shoots back, “I think that’s sort of the reasoning based upon this guy (motioning to Demian) who I don’t think felt very confident to present certain parts.”
Johnston replies with the intent to diffuse the palpable, mounting tension permeating the table. “There were times where I would write something and spend so much time thinking “Does this sound like anybody else?”. I would compare it to other bands, it’s hard to write something totally original every time. I think the success of Playing Enemy also came from all the craziness between the three of us. I felt in Playing Enemy we were supposed to be really focused. I think we borrowed a lot from what we imagined other bands ideologies were, not that they were. There was this Shellac idea that you be the band live that you are on record. You can make little tweaks in the studio, overdubs and stuff. I feel like we’ve spent the last hour talking about us being this dysfunctional band when really there was a lot of compromising for one another within the band. Ultimately, we did get music done and we did our best. But, it was almost like we had a bible of ethics for the band that we had to follow. It was strict and not conducive to creativity. The things that we wrote that were good, and I think a lot of what we wrote was good, came from a very disciplined perspective. The discipline was nice but it didn’t carry over to writing songs, it still took us like 4 months to write a song. Almost every song was like its own little record. We were very critical of linear writing.”
“Playing Enemy songs always had to be their own little fucking universe,” says Mehling, “The part that started the song had to be referenced later, the song had to stand on its own. It made it very hard to put songs together. To me, Playing Enemy songs are not very complimentary to one another, they are very “themselves” which is one reason why they took so long to write and why we spent so much time on them. There was always referencing of parts. It would be like if a part is good enough to be at the beginning of a song why shouldn’t we reference it later in the same song?” I mentioned that it sounds like they had a formula for writing songs to which Mehling replies, “The idea that we did have a formula…how did song writing take so fucking long? Our formula sucked in efficiency.” “That’s why we occasionally talked about bringing people in, we talked about another guitar player,” Johnston laughingly admits, “Often if I got drunk in a city I would invite people to join our band.” “I guess we were always looking for the person who’d tip the scales in some way because Demian was so malleable,” Mehling muses, “It was kind of like Andrew and I were the dad and the son arguing and Demian was the mom saying, “Why can’t we all get along! Let’s just be cool”.” Johnston shrugs, “That’s because I’m a considerate person. I consider more than just two black and white options. I’m a martyr.”
One blatant observation you can conclude from reading the lyrics to I Was Your City was that they were most definitely written by an emotionally distraught Johnston. “I had a long term girlfriend at the time, we probably should have broken up after a couple of years,” Johnston reveals, “Not that I’m talking down about that lifestyle but she made a lot of money. Our weekends were like wake up, go to Starbucks, go see a movie, buy shit at the mall. It was neat and fun but not really conducive to what I was doing outside of that life, it didn’t mesh very well so I started leading two different lives. There was the music part of my life and then the comfortable part.” “We were all living together (Johnston and his girlfriend, Mehling and Gormley),” says Mehling, “Demian and I started smoking a shit ton of weed every day around that time and that’s when shit started going downhill between Demian and his girlfriend.” “My girlfriend had grown out of her weed phase in high school, she was over that,” says Johnston, “I was just regressing because I think I tried too hard to grow up too quickly. I spent most of my twenties playing house. I think I started to resent her in a way, it was weird. She eventually moved to New York and I was upset.” “You were crushed,” Mehling corrects Johnston, “Andrew and I came up with the title I Was Your City. The name I Was Your City just stemmed from the notion of “I was your happiness and now you’re moving to New York for this whole new idea.”” Johnston finishes his thought, “But the whole break up part of the record isn’t about this one relationship. There was this other girl I had this weird infatuation with. We would get together like every six months and make things worse for each other. That first song on the record that starts out “I never want to see you again…” that was for her.”
“A lot of my best memories of the band are in the van with Shane and Andrew arguing.” Johnston impishly remarks. Mehling wails, “Why did you bring that up?! Now Andrew’s going to bring up the towel!” Gormley accounts, “One of my favorite memories was when we went on our European tour and we had a day off, we got a cabin in Belgium. We bought some beer, I had juice and we just hung out in that cabin in the middle of nowhere. That was part of my decision of why I didn’t want to continue on with the band anymore. Because that was my favorite part of the band, was just us hanging out. The music and playing live just wasn’t that important to me anymore. We were a family, we really treated each other like a family.” “We really were like a family,” Mehling insisted, “as much as Andrew may have been done with me at the end. We did live together, we practiced 2-3 times a week. We were on tours and we knew everything about each other, in every regard they were the two people I was closest to.” Lingering on that note for a time Mehling humorously pipes up again, “Okay, here’s the towel thing! You only have two options on tour. You either bring on tour a towel to dry yourself or you never go on tour with a towel. What I did was never go on tour with a towel because I would never take a shower unless the person who was housing us would offer towels, which happened almost every time. I would still only take a shower every 4-5 days. Andrew said that that was rude if you take a shower on tour and use someone else’s towel. We argued about this for two hours.” “No, it was longer,” says Johnston calling Mehling out, “I remember I fell asleep and woke up and you were still arguing in the van.” “Andrew would bring a towel but ALWAYS asked to use the shower,” Mehling expressed, “I thought that was rude to always ask to use the shower.” “I played drums, I’m a sweaty guy.” says Gormley. “I shaved my balls with a girls razor.” Johnston blurts. “I tore a page out of some girls diary,” says Mehling, “As far as good memories of the band go there isn’t a specific great moment, there was a myriad.”
I openly asked them if there was anything they regretted about their time together in Playing Enemy. Johnston was the first to answer, “I regret to the point where I would like to apologize to Andrew and Shane about my behavior on the European tour. I was a total motherfucker to these guys, it actually probably brought the two of you closer together. I couldn’t afford to go so they paid for me to go. I just met this girl (my wife), I was really happy. This tour opportunity came up and I felt really bad because I couldn’t afford it. I couldn’t afford to be away from work because I couldn’t afford rent when I got back home. The one girl I was really excited to talk to I couldn’t speak to at all because it was 2005 and you couldn’t just call them on your cell phone. I had some extensive debt with my ex. I was just being self destructive which made everyone miserable. Shit just went really south at that time in my life. But we had good times, too. We had a lot of fun running around that park in Edinburgh. Or just the three of us driving on the wrong side of the road, just doing what we did well which was the three of us being in a band.”
“Yeah, every time I met someone from England I’d have to tell them about the mushy peas,” Gormley sets the scene, “There’s this little town by the ocean called Grimsby and they say you have to get the fried fish there, it’s the best fish and chips in all of England. So, we’re on tour and I’m eating crappy fried food and all I wanted was some fucking vegetables. It turns out you get sides with your meal and peas were one of the options so I chose them! All I wanted was some goddamn vegetables. So, they ladle out this green, Gerber mush and they just pour it all over my fish and I’m just like FUCK! But everyone I talk to was really into the mushy peas. I definitely have a lot of regrets but much of it was personal stuff.” Johnston picked up where he left off prior to the mushy peas tale, “Of the regrets I have I honestly wish I had focused more on writing songs. Every one of our peers that we were so critical of for writing linear songs or just putting out bullshit, they still put out an album every fourteen months…we put out two records in five years.”
“I’ll say one regret,” Gormley divulges, “I think I regret recording I Was Your City with Matt Bayles. The record sound-wise came out fine but the recording of it was super rushed, it was almost like a song factory with the recording. With Cesarean, Bayles had a lot more time for us, he was more willing to try things out. With I Was Your City it was more like “whatever take you got as long as it’s good enough, we’re moving on”. I don’t know if it would be better if we did it with someone else, all I know is that my favorite part of being in a band is recording and enjoying that process, I did not enjoy that process because it was so rushed.” “I think My Life As The Villain sounds far better than I Was Your City,” says Johnston, “I’ve said this before, if I had known that bands were like “Hey we have a couple songs, let’s get them together and put them on a tape or a CDR, we have the freedom to do this stuff”…If we knew that’s what a band could do we would have done that a lot more.” “Andrew was good at recording at the time and to be critical of him, we did I Was Your City with Matt because Andrew wanted to AND we got a fuck ton of money to put towards it,” Mehling surmises, “It’s just the idea that we paid that much money to record an album that I’m not happy with, that sounds polished. At that time we were under the thought that we could be a bigger band.”
“After all of this venting and whatever a lot of that was a long time coming, all in all I had a good time,” Johnston smiles satisfyingly, “When we first got Shane, Andrew said he was very enthusiastic. Well, he never stopped being enthusiastic.” “Clearly.” Mehling coughs. Johnston continues, “It did cause some issues in general but had we not had Shane we maybe wouldn’t have lasted as long as we did. And, up until I met Andrew I’ve never played with a drummer not only that good, but naturally talented at his instrument and I still haven’t. There’s been times I think about the stuff I’m writing today I could be playing with Andrew, he’s got such a natural openness about how to approach a drum set that not everyone has. Don’t get me wrong, Phil Petrocelli is a fantastic drummer, he’s fucking great! But with Andrew, there was never really a point where we needed to worry about what he was playing. No matter what situation I am in musically, I will never have that again. His taste level as far as drumming is so high. I’m not trying to be flattering it’s just truthful.”
“The one main reason why I never thought about quitting Playing Enemy was because Andrew was the reason why I got better at my instrument,” says Mehling, “He was also the reason why I did music better than I was doing it before. Because no matter how mad he made me for various reasons, he had always been the person who’d say, “Well, you’re playing this wrong. But, if you do this…” and it would be the thing you want to hear, he’d be right 100%. All of that kind of stuff is why I would never think to not play with him cause he sent me on that path.” “I probably had a lot of preconceived notions about bass playing,” says Gormley, “Thom Rusnak was by far the best bass player up to that point I had ever played with, hands down. He set the bar really high and then Shane replaced him, that was some big shoes to fill. I mean, here’s Thom and then here’s Shane going off on a tangent, his own direction. He became a brutal bass player and came to it in his own rights.” “I hated Andrew so much and I just wanted to make him happy,” says Mehling, “I wanted him to like what I did. It was a complicated relationship. Thom and I lived together at one point and I actually offered him money for lessons. But Thom said if you really want to get better, take that money that you are going to give me, put it in a jar and go play for a fucking hour and every time you want a lesson you just do that. It worked.”
After Playing Enemy called it quits, Johnston and Mehling stuck together forming a two-piece noise band, Hemingway later transforming with the addition of drummer, Phil Petrocelli (Jesu/Black Noise Cannon) into Great Falls. Gormley has since joined up with guitarist, Dave Webb (Girth/Wah Wah Exit Wounds) and keyboardist, Luke Laplante (Sean) to form the prog rock band, Spacebag. Approximately 9 years has passed since the release of I Was Your City onto CD format when a little known record label out of Detroit, Corpse Flower Records decided it was time to give this album a second chance. “I was wanting to put out Cesarean but that had already been released on vinyl,” describes Kenny McNabb, founder of Corpse Flower Records, “My friend suggested I revisit I Was Your City. I listened to it again with the intention of releasing it on vinyl and I couldn’t believe how honest the record was. You could hear that depression, the aggression in Demian’s voice and the lyrics. It was a completely different feel and sound than Cesarean. I think this album, much like the band, was under the metal radar and didn’t get it’s fair shake. I’m not trying to reintroduce Playing Enemy to the world, I’m just trying to give this album the respect it deserves. I’ve been getting emails from people saying “Thank you for putting this record out” and that alone is making this worthwhile. This album is kind of like a time capsule of who we were at a certain point in time and what we’ve been through since. Now we can listen to it and look back in a positive aspect, we survived.”
Corpse Flower Records has been active since the Summer of 2013 dedicating itself primarily to vinyl releases and is gaining momentum quickly with the recent release of I Was Your City onto vinyl along with two other selections from Helen Money and Celan. “I knew I wanted to work with either Playing Enemy or Great Falls,” says McNabb, “We got Hawthorne Street Records (I Was Your City‘s initial record label) seal of approval. We wanted to make this a completely autonomous release, it was newly remastered by James Plotkin, new artwork and brief liner notes in there. Everyone put in a lot of effort and dedication into it.”
The artwork for the vinyl release was revamped from the original layout, both creations of Johnston’s. The most evident discrepancy between the two releases is the inclusion of some very telling liner notes on the insert which lends a hindsight perspective as to where the band’s head was at that time. “It’s so brief but it says it right there,” remarks McNabb, “I asked Shane if he could write something about the record to kind of sum it up, kind of put the record to bed. It’s just so short and sweet. You can sense the turmoil. Playing Enemy represents a certain era when music was emotional and very interesting. I don’t think there’s going to be another Botch, another Playing Enemy or Isis, Cave In Until Your Heart Stops. With I Was Your City being a kind of break up record, y’know, I’ve been there. We all know about “that record” that makes you feel good or makes you feel like shit but you keep listening to it, you just want to be punished! You turn on Playing Enemy and you know you’re not alone, someone can empathize with you. As far as putting out this record goes, I’m just as grateful to them for allowing me the opportunity to release this album just as much as they are grateful that I’m putting it out. I just wanted to give Playing Enemy the credit they’re due and I really hope they get the credit that they should have received a long time ago, now.”
Andre Sanabria (Nihilist/blowupnihilist)
My first memory of Playing Enemy was at The Paradox. My noisy hardcore band (Nihilist) had only played once (at 2nd Ave Pizza with Divinity of Truth) and there hadn’t been a PA. So my good friend Wally Young wanted to set us up with a legit show. He booked Playing Enemy, Nihilist, Hurricanrana and Scars of Tomorrow. This was before Shane joined the band. The one memory that will always stay with me was the intro to “Fractures”… I wasn’t smoking pot then, but I was in a trance. Andrew’s intense rhythms and Thom’s all over the place bass lines melted my young mind. Shane joined the band soon after and a close friendship would develop with him, almost instantly. At Botch’s last show I didn’t have a ticket. Ben Verellen caught me in the bar drinking away my sorrows and seemed surprised that I hadn’t already been inside. He gave me a laminate to use. Taking it to the back of the line; I was so intoxicated that the realization a pass would grant me access without having to deal with a line never crossed my mind, Ben grabbed me and reminded me I could enter wherever. Since I was already housed, and it was one of my favorite band’s last show, I felt it necessary to involve as many others as I could, and Demian Johnston was caught up in that whirlwind. We drank a handful of bottles before he stepped on stage, but when they played, it was on point. I’ve never experienced a show that rough at the Showbox prior, or since. Once Nihilist disbanded I continued making chaotic noise with blowupnihilist, and played even more shows with PE. I used to take a lot of Oxycodone and Tramadol so my memories are a little fuzzy. But I can attest to the fervor of their live performances.
One of the last shows they played, I didn’t even get to see. I used to book shows at my place, Excommunicate House, and the cops were called during their set. Once officers arrived I told the band to keep playing, then I stood on the driveway and talked with the cops for almost 30 minutes. Whenever an officer would try and step forward I’d say “this is the bands last song” then change the subject. We talked at length about things they were interested in, and I have no clue what that was. I just stalled until Playing Enemy’s set was finished. When I moved to Seattle I shared a practice space with them, then just Shane and Demian. Andrew Gormley produced both of my full lengths (The Ghastly Paraphernalia of Our Beneficial Trade, and Deconstructionism: The Most Sincere Form of Self Criticism). Shane and Demian put out my last EP, Objective Nothingness on Dead Accents. Jayson Smith (Nihilist, El Cerdo) had this to say. “Once I saw Playing Enemy open for All Else Failed, Darkest Hour, Botch (2nd to last show ever) and The Dillinger Escape Plan. Shane flipped out so hard that he landed the headstock of his bass squarely into my ribs. Hurt like a bitch.” Some time later, I saw Playing Enemy play in a tiny, dirt-floor garage at The Excommunicate House. Shane (bassist) flipped out so hard that he grabbed me by the back of my head and shoved his tongue down my throat during one of their songs. Afterward, while recounting the incident in the kitchen, Andrew (drummer) asked me if it bothered me. I said “nah”.” They stayed at my place a couple of times and Andrew recorded one of my bands. Really nice guys and one of my favorite bands of all time. Highly underrated if you ask me.
Brian Cook (Botch/These Arms Are Snakes/Russian Circles)
I don’t really remember when I first heard about Playing Enemy. I’ve always been a fan of Demian’s music, whether it was Undertow, Nineironspitfire, or his work with Kiss It Goodbye. If I remember correctly, Playing Enemy was originally intended to be the same line-up as Kiss It Goodbye but with Zack from Balance Of The World and Nothing Left on vocals instead of Tim Singer. So I was intrigued by the band before I’d ever even heard a note. It seemed to take awhile to get things going. Thom dropped out. Zack didn’t work out. But when they finally got going… holy shit.
I remember hanging out at a party with all of those guys after a show we played together and Shane got a friend of ours to tase him. Everyone was kinda giddy and laughing in the moments leading up to it, but when it actually happened it looked really painful and miserable.
(Did you have a favorite song?) I feel like it’s an obvious choice, but “The Closer To Caesar” was always a favorite of mine. It’s just a perfect mix of dissonance and fuckin’ mean riffs wrapped up in a short, solid, well-mapped out song.
I’m stoked for I Was Your City to finally come out on vinyl. Playing Enemy was a tough sell back in their day because they were a sonically difficult band. It definitely wasn’t easy on the ears, and I think that alienated a lot of audiences. But that was the point; it was meant to be confrontational music. I think that their records have held up over time and, for me at least, have become even more approachable.
Ben Verellen (Helms Alee/Constant Lovers/Harkonen)
I think I first heard of Playing Enemy when Kiss It Goodbye was calling it quits, I remember being psyched that Demian and Andrew were going to keep with it. Demian was in all my favorite bands so I was psyched. Shane was this really nice intelligent guy who just moved in from out of town and was a really like minded dude….. and then he started smashing his own face with a guitar and bleeding everywhere and grimacing. I remember thinking, well I guess I don’t know that dude at all. As far as albums go I spent the most time with Cesarean, but I Was Your City is just as pissed and interesting, if not more. I just feel lucky that they happened so close to me. Super inspiring. They always felt like kindred spirits to Harkonen because both bands were birthed in that hardcore scene but didn’t really fit in so well. It was a weird place for a heavy band and we felt like they were “in it” with us.
Brian Skiffington (Earth Control/Shore)
All I really want to say about Playing Enemy is that Andrew is one of the most original and powerful drummers I have ever seen. Miss seeing this band.
Matt Bayles (Minus the Bear/Dust Moth)
I met Demian when I first moved here in 1995 and we traveled in the same circles for years after that without working together. I first recorded him in Kiss it Goodbye, then Andrew and he started Playing Enemy and they asked me to help them out. I did their first record, Cesarean as well as I Was Your City. Some of the ugliest music I have ever recorded and I mean that in the best possible way. They are friends of mine still and I love hearing all of their new projects.
Jake Weller (Seattle Rock Guy)
I have no idea when I first heard about Playing Enemy – they were simply there, doing their thing, by the time I was introduced to their sound and experienced their live show. I was just getting my feet wet in the local heavy scene back in 2002 or 2003, and they were one of the more revered bands around town at the time. I’d end up seeing them on the same bill with any number of great heavy bands Seattle had tucked away at the time, and I always looked forward to their set – though not without some trepidation. They were never the most comfortable band to see live, but there is no doubt in my mind that this was their full artistic intention. Johnston’s plaintive howls (always delivered with a deeply passionate scowl) and Mehling’s chaotic bassing and complete disregard for his (or anyone else’s) personal safety made each performance powerful, somewhat frightening, and ultimately, one of the most compelling that any band around could muster.
I was a fan. I was never close to the band, so I don’t have any funny insider tales about their off-stage antics. The only slightly funny thing I remember is being really impressed that Mehling never seemed to hit anyone with the headstock of his bass, even when wildly flailing around in the crowd. I couldn’t take my eyes off it when he’d go lurching towards the poor kids in the front row. Maybe some sadistic part of me was hoping for a little unwarranted gore… And yet, I never saw anyone get hurt. Oh well, at least he’s starting to crack some skulls in Great Falls.
I’ve never been a lyrics guy—meaning that I rarely pay attention to the words or literal meaning of a song’s lyrics—but, for whatever reason, not a full week goes by that I don’t find myself reciting the chorus to Jade: “I’m not Nick Drake, or John Lennon/ I’m not Nick Cave, or Leonard Cohen/It doesn’t matter…” I always found these lyrics amusing and related to them quite a bit. I could be misinterpreting things (which would only prove the point I’m about to make), but Johnston has no reason to feel insecure about his ability to express himself emotionally, even if he feels he can’t do it in words; you’d get where he was coming from even if he had been screaming in Sanskrit. That’s what I appreciate about good music: if you’re doing it right, you shouldn’t need to explain anything with mere words. Ironically, I remember and relate more to this passage than the lyrics penned by any of the artists called out in it.
Whenever someone brings up the Beatles, I mention Playing Enemy’s cover of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”. I don’t know if I’m trying to change the subject or what. I mean, I actually like the Beatles, but I definitely relate more to Playing Enemy.
Jon Weisnewski (Sandrider/Akimbo)
I first heard of them in the late 90’s I think when I saw them open a show at Ground Zero, probably for Botch or Trial or one of the other hardcore bands that always played when I was a teenager. I had seen Nineironspitfire and Kiss it Goodbye so I was familiar with the pedigree and excited to see “those guys!” when they got on stage. I remember loving the set and buying their first album right after they played. I was a pretty dedicated fan for the rest of the band’s lifetime, going so far as to book an awful tour for them during my short stint as a self-employed booking agent, and somehow convincing Demian to play guitar in Akimbo for a 5 week tour.
Something about Playing Enemy that always baffled me was that they seemed to be cursed. Everyone liked them. Anyone you talked to about their band had nothing but good things to say, and they also have more than a few super fans. Like super-fucking-fans at the supreme nerd level. But no one went to their shows. Ever. I’ve never witnessed a more universally praised yet eternally ignored band in my lifetime. They made great records that sounded awesome, put on insane live show, played all the time, toured, supported sweet bands, but no one seemed to buy their records or go to their shows. I’m partially guilty in that, but I rest easy because I don’t go see most bands I like. Because I am a lazy shit and I suck. The first time I met Shane he was wasted, standing on a bed in a hotel room, letting people shock him with a personal self defense taser.
I think I Was Your City is probably the definitive album and my first go-to when I want to listen to them, but my personal favorite is probably the Ephemera EP. I love the art work on that. Demian screams in a lower growly tone that I thought was really cool and sadly didn’t stick. That version of “John Q. Russia” is super good, the digital version of “Must Bring Own Weapon” is a crazy experiment gone right, and holy god, that Pink Floyd cover of “You’ve Gotta Be Crazy” is completely untouchable. No one would ever assume that Pink Floyd interpreted by Playing Enemy would work, but holy shit it works.
I feel lucky to have been able to witness such a unique band in my town, and eventually as a personal friend of the members. To me they’re one of those bands you use as a watermark when you’re trying to describe another band to a person, as in “Oh BAND X has a Playing Enemy vibe to them, but with a little BLAH BLAH thrown in.” That’s the sign of a special thing. I’m sure most people reading this are aware of them, but if not then check out the back log! It’s brutal, it’s noisy, it’s progressive, it’s complicated, at times it sounds like people dying in a fire, it will kick your ass. All the members are still active in Great Falls and Spacebag. Both bands are worth your time. End the curse!
Daniel La Rochelle (Lesbian/Golgothan Sunrise/Shining Ones)
My first real “exposure” to the band occurred before the band was even a band. I saw Kiss it Goodbye at RKCNDY with Demian on guitar. I didn’t realize who it was at the time, but the riffs were exactly the same, note for note, and he was playing the same guitar gear. What I didn’t know at the time is that Keith Huckins had quit and moved back to New York. He sold Demian his guitar gear….the same gear that Demian still uses today! Shortly thereafter, Kiss it Goodbye called it quits officially. I knew something was brewing….something was about to explode…and explode it did! It seemed like a very short time after that Playing Enemy started playing shows.
The first time I saw them was at the Breakroom (which is now Chop Suey, for the youngsters who weren’t around at that time); and, I have to say, they went completely over my head. They still had the aggressiveness of Kiss it Goodbye (it was still the old rhythm section from KIB, and Rorschach..), but the frantic guitar lines seemed even more frantic and had a kind of abstract quality that, while it wasn’t an entirely unfamiliar “feel” to me (I like weird shit), it was presented in such a bombastic (emphasis on BOMB) manner that it took you by the throat and throttled you into submission. I knew I loved it, but I couldn’t grasp it as it was pummeling my ears. There were only a few bands doing that kind of thing in Seattle at that time…Swarming Hordes, Bali Girls, the Abodox, Janmichealvincentcarcrash, and, of course, the legendary Botch come to mind.
I want to make the point that Playing Enemy were very much doing their own thing though. It was noisy but technical, had hardcore and vague metal references, but also projected a strong nod to indie/math rock as well. They blended and shredded it all like a chainsaw cutting through glass…and that’s what it sounded like to my ears–at first….NOT a bad thing, mind you, because bear in mind, they were brand new and we didn’t know their music yet. It sounded like a hardcore version of Gorguts to me. That was all I could think to compare it to because it was so “out” in such a good way. It made you want more, so that you could tackle the task of trying to understand the complexities of it. This is just one mark of a truly great band. Absolutely over the top…insane. Loved it! Still love it! Over the ensuing years I came to know their music quite well, having had the good fortune of seeing them, and playing with them MANY times, and in many different settings, like Matt Doctor’s basement in Wallingford, Shamus Jones’ basement (where Golgothan Sunrise was practicing at the time) in Greenwood, the old Paradox theater, as well as several other venues that aren’t around anymore like I-SPY and Zak’s (before Brian Foss left Gibsons and took it over and turned it into the beloved and very much missed FUNHOUSE), and many that are still with us, like the Crocodile, albeit a new version of the Crocodile, but still…too many more shows to mention here.
I will say, however, that one of THE BEST shows I’ve EVER seen, still to this day, was Playing Enemy, Swarming Hordes and Spaceboy at Zak’s. Mind blowing. I probably wouldn’t make this claim if it hadn’t been the impossibly prefect combination of these specific three bands together on one bill. This previous point kind of speaks to what I find tragic about Playing Enemy’s trajectory as a band. While one could include them in an early version of what some may call “noise-core”….WELL BEFORE “noise-core” became an accepted genre description and said “noisecore” bands started taking sonic shits all over our ears…you know who they are….I feel like they got lumped in with other bands that were also shredding technical hardcore while injecting it with very dynamic structural elements. BUT, I feel like Playing Enemy never got their full due in their time as a band. They did some epic tours, went to Europe, released a pile of full lengths and e.p.’s, but I feel that they were very much ahead of that very same crowd they got lumped in with, and were simply ahead of their time! They were much more progressive in a time when that term wasn’t really bandied about like it is today. I don’t mean “progressive” in their sound, but progressive in the way they combined all the different elements that went into making THEIR sound….I’m talking about Demian’s forcefully strained, and, at times, intensely and painfully evocative vocals, his incredibly wacked out chording and sinuous guitar riffs, Andrew Gormley’s insanely odd rhythmic structures (he LOVES Neil Peart), and both Thom Rusnak’s AND Shane Mehling’s circular and propulsive basslines. To be fair, Shane was with them for the majority of the time they were a band, and I feel that they really came into their own during his time. This is not a slight to Thom Rusnak, who is still a fucking legend to me. It’s just that they had more time with Shane, and his sensibility really crept into their music over the course of the majority of the material they released.
In retrospect, I just can’t say enough positive things about this band. They’re all insanely talented musicians, amazing people…and I’m super happy that their music is garnering the respect to warrant reissues…especially on vinyl. I can’t say I have a favorite record, per se. I love them all for different reasons, because throughout the life of the band, they were constantly evolving THEIR sound, and with each subsequent release, firmly establishing that they very much had THEIR own sound, unlike anyone else, still to this day, in my opinion. I’m really pleased to know these guys, and to have “been there” for the entirety of their arc as a band. I’m humbled and honored to be able to still play shows with their new bands, Great Falls, Spacebag, BLSPHM, etc…(although I still have yet to see or play with Thom Rusnak’s new band Triplehorn. Heard great things). In any event, I digress…I honestly feel that I’ve gotten long-winded at this point, BUT could say SOOOO, SOOOOO much more….more anecdotes, more stories, more reflections. I guess it is THIS very point that marks a truly GREAT band….that their musical legacy still has the potency and inspirational staying power to garner and evoke emotional responses in people. TRUE staying power. Emphasis on power. True inspiration. This was the real shit. This IS still the real shit. Rest in peace Playing Enemy. LONG LIVE Playing Enemy.