Cheekface Walk Us Through Their New Album “Emphatically No.”

The talky LA rockers’ sophomore album arrives today via New Professor.
Track by Track
Cheekface Walk Us Through Their New Album “Emphatically No.”

The talky LA rockers’ sophomore album arrives today via New Professor.

Words: Mike LeSuer

January 11, 2021

“Just because it’s funny doesn’t make it a joke” Greg Katz deadpans on the chorus to the opener on Cheekface’s sophomore LP Emphatically No., seemingly dispelling any notions from potential new listeners that the talky nature of his vocals are more in line with Weird Al than post-punk tradition. Sure, the record’s rife with punchlines, Twitterfied lyrics (if it came out any later I imagine there’d be an indirect reference to Bean Dad), and instrumentation bordering on cartoonish sound effects, but his first mention of the Minutemen in the ensuing track-by-track Katz and co-“singing person” Amanda Tannen shared with us provides the context needed to place Cheekface firmly in the lineage of West Coast post-proto-punk.

Later in the record, Katz compares the longevity of life to a CVS receipt while drummer Mark “Echo” Edwards borrows liberally from JAY-Z megahits, “Emotional Rent Control” briefly brings Ric Ocasek back to life, and “No Connection” mashes up Talking Heads with Selena Gomez. At no point, though, does it not sound distinctly like a Cheekface record—the staccato, upbeat instrumentation, even without Katz’s unmistakable conversational tone, could belong to no one else.

With their follow-up to 2019’s Therapy Island hitting streaming today, Katz and Tannen walked us through Emphatically No.’s thirteen tracks—half of which were released on their Bandcamp in the time since Therapy Island—and even offered us a little insight into Cheekface taco night.

1. “‘Listen to Your Heart.’ ‘No.’”

Greg Katz: This is obviously a song about the negative messages your brain sends to you when you are suffering with a mental illness. It was the last song we wrote before we started recording stuff for this album. We recorded almost the whole album at New Monkey in LA with Greg Cortez recording and mixing, including this one.

I remember when me and Mandy were writing this one, getting the hook was pretty easy, but I was having a really hard time coming up with a melody for the verse. I must have improvised, like, 25 different ideas that didn’t work. Then Mandy was like, “Well, I think it should be this!” And she sang the first four notes of the song. I was like, “Why did you let me torture myself trying to come up with something when you knew what it was supposed to be the whole time?” I’m incredibly grateful to have Mandy as a writing partner, even though she sometimes likes to watch me suffer.

Amanda Tannen: I’m so thankful to have found Greg in Los Angeles after moving from NYC. From when we started the band up until March, almost every weekend we would get together to write songs. Whatever song came out that day normally would reflect how we were feeling that week. I remember while writing this one I was getting more comfortable with saying “no” in general. But also feeling judged by so-called “self help” fads. You can say “no” to anything supposedly good for you, or bad, reminding myself that only I can make that decision for myself. 

2. “Best Life”

GK: This is one of three on the album that we recorded in Brooklyn with Jeff Berner at Studio G. The opening line, “Everything is normal,” had been in my notes for quite a while, and I’d written several songs trying to use that line. But that lyric finally found a home in this one. The guitar lick that plays eight bars in, that was what started the song idea. I think I was trying to channel the slippery lick from “Satan Is My Motor” by Cake. 

AT: We were in Brooklyn in mid-February at the end of traveling to three cities to play. To top it off we recorded with Jeff at Studio G, at the end of the trip. I’m so happy we fit it in! It was so much fun for me to be back recording in Brooklyn. It had been over a decade since I had recorded anything in the city. We even started the day off with some good bagels. Perfect day. 

3. “Call Your Mom”

AT: At the time of writing this one I think we had a handful of mid-tempo songs. For personal reasons, we needed a fast one. Punk songs are good for my mental health. 

GK: The title lyric, “They want your attention 24/7? Resistance is easy, call your mom,” is about how the federal government tries to insert itself into our lives constantly and consume all our attention to consolidate power. Ignoring it is an act of rebellion, in my opinion. This song has a ripping guitar solo from Devin McKnight of Maneka (and ex-Speedy Ortiz) fame, and the laser gun sounds are him on guitar too.

4. “Crying Back”

AT: I consider this one a chill walking-while-wandering song, which I can always use more of in life. I remember my one mixing note was more shaker. Love the shaker in this one, it takes center stage. Echo’s got talent. 

GK: My favorite part of this song is that the pre-chorus is the same chords as “Cruel to Be Kind” by Nick Lowe. That was not intentional. But we had learned the song at band practice once for fun, and Mandy pointed out that we ripped off the changes for this. The lyric “No pockets for your phone in your surgical gown” was written on my phone in a hospital emergency room after I got in a car wreck. 

5. “Wedding Guests”

GK: We wrote this one with our friend Brijesh Pandya, who’s an amazing drummer and songwriter in LA. He was like, “I have this monster riff saved in my phone that I don’t know what to do with,” and it became this song. He also kicked in the lyric about “a man, a plan, a plain bagel, and an omelette” and a couple more of the good punchlines in the verses. I remember when we were recording this song we were listening to “99 Problems” and “Crazy in Love” to see how to give the song some more lift in the chorus, hence the bell loop that you hear there. That’s the Mellotron Hammond sound beaming through at the end. The other keys were a toy Casio.

6. “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Calabasas”

GK: One influence we came back to a lot while writing this album was Minutemen. They don’t get the credit they deserve as both an influential LA band and a thoughtful political band. This one is a pretty direct reference to them, down to the lyric “What makes a man want to be a referee” that references their What Makes a Man Start Fires? album title. This didn’t make it into the final version, but we also recorded some mariachi trumpet overdubs and Greg Cortez on nylon guitar as a nod to Calexico’s version of Minutemen’s “Corona.” Cooler heads prevailed and those ended up on the cutting room floor, i.e. a muted Pro Tools channel. 

AT: While writing this, Greg had to explain to me where Calabasas was. The LA area is still new to me after nine years. I remember starting the lyrics by riffing off of bottled water brands. 

GK: Calabasas is a place, but it’s also, you know, a metaphor.

7. “Original Composition”

GK: This one nods to Minutemen’s “History Lesson Part 2.” I thought the guitar solo should be one note, but Mandy said it should be two notes, and she was right. Echo really knocked the drum groove out of the park on this one, in my humble opinion. I improvised the whistling hook at the beginning and end of the song when I was waiting for the mic to come on to record vocals, but it ended up sticking, even though I don’t like songs with whistling in them.

AT: Another walking song. Whistle while you walk. I love guitar solos, this one needed two notes. Simple.

8. “No Connection”

GK: Another song where the Mellotron gets a look. That’s the Mello plucked strings at the top and the Mello harp glissando. Echo played the toy piano on that nine chord that opens the song. Before writing this one, we’d covered “Bad Liar” by Selena Gomez at a few shows, and it has a sample of “Psycho Killer” by Talking Heads that plays through it. I think that really called our attention to the super simple disco kick drum pattern in “Psycho Killer” that gives it so much power. We used that kick drum pattern in the chorus of this song and in a few other places on the album, including the next song on the album, “Emotional Rent Control.” Also, I want to go on the record saying sorry that the guitar solo in this one is so long.

AT: When asked if the guitar solo was too long, I said no, should it be longer? And yes, up the fuzz pedal. If you can’t tell, I’m a huge Dinosaur Jr. fan. While recording this batch of songs we would take dinner breaks and eat vegan taco salads. Mmm, Cheekface taco night. We try to keep dinner light, combatting the dreaded food coma.

GK: In my old band, we lost a half day to burrito comas in one session. Never again! In my meandering experience, you forget to eat in the studio, then you overeat when you realize you’re starving. Terrible for the blood sugar flow, and it means you play worse as the day goes on. So now I always pull up to the studio with a fresh baguette, a couple bags of baby carrots, roasted almonds and a couple tubs of hummus. I spread them all out in the control room to start the day. Keeping a low-level semi-healthy nosh going throughout the session means that no one is ever tracking during a calorie crash. That’s our tip for the other productivity-conscious bands out there.

9. “Emotional Rent Control”

GK: This one we started writing a few weeks after Ric Ocasek died. We definitely wanted to give a direct nod to The Cars. There’s a lot of Cars-inspired moves in our songs, like the Moog solo in “Dry Heat/Nice Town.” So with this one we wanted to go straight for a “Just What I Needed” vibe to pay respects to the legend. Also I’d been listening to “Highway to Hell” a lot by AC/DC around the time we wrote this, so this one has the tom-tom thumping pre-chorus like that song, and also the bass dropout after the chorus that lets the air in. Last thought: every single one of Mandy’s bass lines is pretty great, but this one is especially nasty.

AT: Sometimes we write songs by looping a riff over and over—bass or guitar. After playing that riff a while, I end up picking what I think beat one is, but a lot of the time it’s not the same one Greg is thinking, it can make the interplay between guitar and bass have a push and pull in places, which I love. 

10. “Big Big Friend”

GK: This was the last one written that went on the album, it was written at the top of 2020, and it was recorded last, in February 2020, and it kept evolving pretty much until we recorded it at Studio G in Brooklyn. The quiet guitar solo with the harmonics was in the original demo, but the loud guitar solo right after was added in the last band practice before we recorded it. It’s a song about how hard it is to thrive in a big bureaucracy like a university.

11. “Loyal Like Me”

GK: This one is the oldest song on this album—we wrote it before we recorded our first album, Therapy Island, but it didn’t make the cut for whatever reason. It was one of several efforts to do something like “Anything Could Happen” by The Clean, which is one of the greatest indie rock songs ever, but it didn’t come out very similar. The song is about how I take other people’s generosity for granted. It’s a sad song to me because I feel guilty about doing that, but I guess everyone else does it too. Echo does some pretty nifty drumming under the second verse.

12. “Do You Work Here?”

AT: We wanted to write a darker-sounding song, with some big distortion. I remember I was listening to a bunch of psych rock at the time—B.R.M.C., The Warlocks, Black Angels, and Autolux, who are one of my favorite LA bands. The effects to Greg’s voice were added at the end and fit so well.

GK: Oh yeah, Greg Cortez killed it with the reverb and delay throws in the mix. I think we were like, “Why don’t you try some delay throws?” And he was like “OK, where?” And we were like, “We don’t know, everywhere?” The stuff you hear was all his first pass.

13. “Don’t Get Hit by a Car”

GK: One day we came into our practice space to write, and I think Mandy had just watched a documentary about A Tribe Called Quest, and she was like, “All their songs have that same groove, can we try something with that feel?” So we started that new-jack drum groove and draped the chords from “Sweet Jane” on it. To me it sounds more like “Jack & Diane” than it sounds like either of the actual inspirations. Not gonna lie, I feel really exposed by the lyrics on this one, hence we buried it at the end of the album. But shouts to Lena Dunham, hope she doesn’t take us on The People’s Court for name-dropping her. It’s all love, Lena!