The Madison punk trio discuss their new album, various solo projects, and hopes for the local music community.
Photo: Proud Parents playing ZZQ’s in Green Bay on August 8, 2018. Photo by Steven Spoerl.
Before everyone started staying inside, if you went out to a punk show in Madison, chances were good that you’d run into a member of Proud Parents. No matter if they were on the bill, in the audience, or just hanging out in the general area, there were stretches of time where the band seemed near omnipresent. Guitarist-vocalist Tyler Fassnacht, drummer-vocalist Heather Sawyer, guitarist-vocalist C Nelson-Lifson, and the band’s former bassists (Maggie Denman and Alex Seraphin) constantly found ways to contribute intrigue and infectious energy into Madison’s DIY punk scene.
Against seemingly all odds, the band’s central trio has found a way to continue that trend in the face of isolation. At Home With…, the new Proud Parents full-length, marks the sixth release between the trio’s numerous projects since March 2020. Across the record, Proud Parents’ music sounds more expansive, with an emphasis on acoustic guitars lending the songs what Fassnacht describes as a “chill, summer, windows-open” vibe.
There’s a bit more softness around the project’s unforgiving, high-energy insistence. Opener “Cellophane” sets up the album’s thoughtfully refined dynamic, teasing out a scrappy, folk-punk sound before sharply pivoting into something more explosive and familiar. At Home With… ultimately winds up as a culmination of power pop history, with tracks like “H Number One” reaching back to the genre’s early tendencies and “Badnight Loving” paying tribute to its more modern adaptations. All of the work on At Home With… isn’t just a testament to the band’s comprehensive understanding of the storied hallmarks of the music they’re making but to their own proclivities as musicians.
Listeners familiar with the members’ solo work are bound to recognize their unflagging, outsize energy in the playful “Nirvana Tattoo,” (see: Baby Tyler’s “In The Trunk” and Heather The Jerk’s “3D Binch”). The melancholic introspectiveness of Fassnacht’s TS Foss project makes its mark via the lyrics of the otherwise charging “Falls Apart.” Nelson-Lifson’s endearing sense of lackadaisical, wide-eyed wonderment heavily informs a few of At Home With…’s most arresting, singular moments (“It’s Not Enough,” “Baby Boy”). All of the songwriters’ individual strengths coalesce into a cohesiveness on At Home With… that subtly plays up intangible commonalities across their respective works.
Dirtnap Records, which released the band’s self-titled 2018 sophomore album, initially planned to release At Home With…, but the COVID pandemic forced Proud Parents to switch over to self-releasing. Recording for the full-length had wrapped in October 2019, setting the band up for a 2020 run that never came to fruition. Drawing from their collective experiences navigating working with and without a label, the band confidently opted for a DIY release strategy. As a result, At Home With… has been available both digitally and as a cassette since the start of April. Proud Parents’ first live show following the record’s release will be a livestreamed event hosted by The Capital Times on September 14.
By the band’s own admission, At Home With…, stands as the most cohesive record of Proud Parents’ discography. Fassnacht credits the recording process the band went through at Appleton-based studio Crutch Of Memory with playing an integral role in cultivating the record’s sound. Fassnacht, Nelson-Lifson, and Sawyer all agreed to a remote interview and spoke at length about the record’s journey, inspirations, and their current roles as members of Madison’s music community. Throughout the interview, the trio was in good spirits, wasting no opportunity to reaffirm each other’s voices and offer support. Through a lot of laughter and a good deal of thoughtfulness, even after being physically separated for more than a year, the band seemed as in tune as ever.
Tone Madison: Faced with a pandemic, the departure of your bassist, and Dirtnap all but shutting down due to the financial constraints the COVID pandemic presented for just about everyone, how much more difficult did the path to writing, recording, and releasing this record feel compared to your previous records?
Tyler Fassnacht: The writing and recording was already done. We recorded it in October of 2019 with Amos [Pitsch, Tenement and Dusk member] up at Crutch Of Memory. So, that part was no different really. I guess the release was a little more complicated because we didn’t have anything in writing but, you know, the way that [Dirtnap founder Ken Cheppaikode] was speaking, the plan was to always release the second record with Dirtnap. Then COVID happened and that kind of changed things. With him, it wasn’t him saying that he refused to release it but more so that he couldn’t release it for at least several years or something. So down the line he maybe could? But we talked about it and it just… we just wanted it out. So we figured out the cheapest way we could kind of just do it ourselves and made tapes and threw it up online.
C Nelson-Lifson: I thought that while it was complicated, it was kind of a relief that we didn’t have to do it on anyone else’s timeframe and it was just like, there wasn’t a rush and we got to… I don’t know, there was some recording stuff that we got to add on, like extra backup vocals and we got to take a little bit of extra time with the art that we didn’t really have the first time around.
Tyler Fassnacht: That’s true. And I love our art, so I’m really happy that we got to really spend time with that and get it all together.
Heather Sawyer: Yeah, it looks really good.
Tone Madison: So is this going to be tape- and digital-only? For now, at least?
Tyler Fassnacht: For now. I mean, if a label wanted to press it on vinyl that’d be sick. We probably aren’t going to do it ourselves because that’s a significantly larger financial commitment than just doing a run of tapes but we’re certainly not opposed to it. And also, for the record, there’s no hard feeling about any of [the Dirtnap] stuff. Ken’s still a good friend and we totally understand where he’s coming from so we’re not salty or anything like that.
C Nelson-Lifson: We just wanted it to be sooner rather than later.
Tone Madison: A lot of this record deals with these themes that have become increasingly prevalent with the pandemic. There’s different spots of the record that tackle isolation, ennui, arrested development, general frustration, but like you said, you were playing these songs out as early as 2018 and it was all recorded by the end of 2019. Did you find that an added weight or relevance to those themes with regards to the pandemic made the record seem more timely or recontextualized anything at all for you?
C Nelson-Lifson: I feel like it made it really easy to decide what to call the record. Because most people were at home. Even if you were working, when you weren’t at work, you were probably at home.
Tyler Fassnacht: Yeah, and at least for my songs on the record, a lot of the songs came from a place of me hyper-focusing on myself and my own emotions and feelings so being quarantined in the pandemic, I was by myself even more. So a lot of those feelings didn’t go away, if anything I just focused on them more. I guess in that sense, some of the songs have become, not recontextualized but more reaffirming for me.
Tone Madison: So, then would you say, at least for your work, that there’s an autobiographical bent to the songs rather than just a brand of storytelling where you’re pulling in fictional elements, or is it a bit of both?
Tyler Fassnacht: For me, I have tried so many times to write fictional songs but they always come out super corny and cheesy. I’m unable to do that, which I’m definitely salty about. I’ve tried so many times. So mine are definitely all very autobiographical but I don’t know about the other ‘rents.
Heather Sawyer: Yeah, mine are pretty autobiographical too. I was going through a divorce at the time and was pretty much writing about that. And I was also way into at the time, and still am now, The Goodnight Loving, so I put that into there too.
Tyler Fassnacht: I am so happy with how “Badnight Loving” turned out and am so happy that [Goodnight Loving member] Andy Harris is on it.
Tone Madison: I’m glad you brought that up because one of the moments that immediately stood out to me on At Home With… was “Badnight Loving,” as it’s an extremely direct homage to The Goodnight Loving and it’s rare to see that type of hat-tip made that explicit. How often do you find yourself turning to other Wisconsin-based bands for some form of influence and are there any others that stand out at that level?
Heather Sawyer: Tenement. Tenement is awesome.
Tyler Fassnacht: Definitely.
Heather Sawyer: Everything that they do, like Dusk. The Midwest Beat, just from being in Madison.
Tyler Fassnacht: Mystery Girls. I wasn’t around when they were around but their records have definitely had an impact on me.
Heather Sawyer: Catholic Boys.
Tyler Fassnacht: Oh yeah. Just having other Wisconsin bands do really cool, maybe not internationally important but regionally and locally important [things], it has definitely been very influential to me. Being born and raised in the Midwest, you don’t see a lot of opportunities being given to bands. It seems like they have to make their own statements and make their own records without people pouring money into them so a lot of the bands are just labors of love. It’s really amazing how many incredible bands come out of that. And, yeah, The Goodnight Loving is just a band we’ve all loved for a really long time.
Heather Sawyer: We covered “Drag” for a while.
Tone Madison: I was honestly trying to remember if that had actually happened or was just an invention in my head.
C Nelson-Lifson: No, it’s real.
Heather Sawyer: It happened!
Tyler Fassnacht: That’s the most fun song. More fun than any of our songs.
Tone Madison: That’s also a song I was thinking about when you were talking about trying to write fictional songs but not being able to because that’s one that’s always stood out to me.
Tyler Fassnacht: Oh yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Especially in The Goodnight Loving, the songwriting’s incredible and I’m really jealous of a lot of it.
Heather Sawyer: Yeah.
Tone Madison: An aspect of At Home With… I admire is that it strikes a very precise balance between the unfettered energy of your live shows and a slightly more laid-back aesthetic that suits the material well. Is creating or conveying a specific atmosphere a focal point of your writing or something you’re actively considering throughout the songwriting process?
C Nelson-Lifson: I would say for myself it’s pretty organic. Songwriting is art. And most art, for me, is a way to express feelings or at least to sort out feelings so it’s usually an extension of whatever feeling I’m having at that time.
Heather Sawyer: Yeah, I’m with C on that one for sure.
Tyler Fassnacht: Yeah, I think a lot of this record, the more laid-back atmosphere probably had more to do with recording at Crutch Of Memory with Amos. I don’t know if our songs had a little more space to them this time around, just being in that environment. It was a very loose recording process and it was very chill and laid-back. Amos is an incredible engineer and he knows when to let the bands do their thing but when to give a little input if he feels like it’d be helpful. I think that added to the atmosphere, because I know what you mean. It certainly is a more cohesive kind of chill, summer, windows-open record. A lot more acoustic guitar.
Heather Sawyer: Some chains.
Tyler Fassnacht: Yeah, had some chains in there!
Heather Sawyer: I wanted to play those on it.
Tyler Fassnacht: Yeah, on the first track, “Cellophane,” Amos has this huge bin of percussion instruments.
C Nelson-Lifson: Box of tricks.
Tyler Fassnacht: Yeah, so we were thrown a lot, and at one point Amos just pulled out this huge metal chain and this sheet of metal. So it was just like, Heather whipping this chain on this metal sheet.
Heather Sawyer: Yeah, it was pretty fun.
Tone Madison: Out of curiosity, the overdubs that Amos and Julia [Blair, Dusk member] and company did, were those their call or was that you asking them to play a few little flourishes on the record?
C Nelson-Lifson: It was so long ago.
Tyler Fassnacht: It was more the latter, I believe. I think Heather had just wanted some more instrumentation on “Badnight Loving,” right?
Heather Sawyer: Yeah, and with the bells on, I forget what song it is now. The one with the harmonica in it.
Tyler Fassnacht: Oh, “Livin’ In A Dream.”
Heather Sawyer: Yes! On “Livin’ In A Dream,” they kind of did all that. I just gave them a tiny direction.
Tyler Fassnacht: They did all that and we knew they had the talent so we were just like “Do some cool shit here, do some cool shit there.” They did all the overdubs after we’d left Appleton and were like “how’s this?” and “Oh. Perfect.” Boom. And then having Frank Anderson [Wisconsin multimedia mainstay who contributed to several notable recordings as a session musician for Butch Vig’s Smart Studios] do the lap steel was incredible.
Tone Madison: On “Badnight Loving.”
Tyler Fassnacht: Yeah.
C Nelson-Lifson: He did some on the song “Baby Boy” that sounds really cool too.
Tyler Fassnacht: Oh, on the chorus. I love that too.
Heather Sawyer: Yeah, really good.
Tone Madison: How do you navigate splits between who takes the helm on what for Proud Parents material? Is there a conscious effort when it comes to maintaining a certain balance for the purpose of the records, or is the approach typically more geared towards releasing whatever new material presents itself regardless of whoever’s taking lead?
Tyler Fassnacht: I feel like, generally, whoever’s singing the song is the writer of it and there’s definitely a couple tracks that are more collaborative. “It’s Not Enough,” I wrote the chords for it, but then C did the lyrics and vocal melody and sang that. Then “Left Behind,” Heather did the vocal melody and stuff on that but I wrote the lyrics and the chords to that. Proud Parents is more of a slow, steady-moving train. I feel like we wait until we have a good batch of songs that everyone contributes to. I don’t think anyone really… there’s no rush to it. If anyone doesn’t have a good amount of songs they’re contributing to it, then it’s not ready. In my mind, I think. I don’t know if anybody has any more to add to that.
C Nelson-Lifson: I agree with that.
Heather Sawyer: Yeah.
Tyler Fassnacht: I think the beauty of the band is with everyone’s voices and writing being showcased together but also them highlighted at different points as individuals. So, we ain’t in no rush.
C Nelson-Lifson: Haste makes waste.
Tyler Fassnacht: There you go.
Tone Madison: How long does it usually take you as a group to work a track from first draft to final copy?
Heather Sawyer: Kind of depends on the song I think, right?
C Nelson-Lifson: It’s a really good question because we all haven’t played together in so long that I don’t really remember. Some of these questions, I have to really think about.
Tyler Fassnacht: What were you saying, Heather?
Heather Sawyer: Oh, I think some of them, they just… it depends on the song I guess.
Tyler Fassnacht: Yeah, that’s true.
Heather Sawyer: I’m trying to remember which song. Some songs we’ll just write at home and bring it in and it’s already done. “Baby” I think was like that, from the first record. I’m just thinking only on my own song, I think it was kind of just I wrote it in five minutes and then it was just done.
Tyler Fassnacht: Yeah, I think a lot of the Proud Parents songs, there’s a certain immediacy to a lot of the songwriting. Or they’re pretty basic and then they come in and just fall together really quickly. There’s a couple on the new album that were written maybe a month or two before we recorded them. “Left Behind” and “Livin’ In A Dream” were pretty late additions. “Falls Apart” was kind of written and just came together but then we had songs like “Cellophane.” We worked that so many different ways. At first, it was fully instrumental all the time and then me and Heather were trying to do harmonies for the verses for like a whole practice.
Heather Sawyer: I wish we had recordings of that because that was so funny.
Tyler Fassnacht: We couldn’t do it! And we were just working on that so hard until Heather was just like “No, let’s just cut everything out for almost the whole song and then just kick in at the end” and it was like “Oh, this is how the song should be. It just works perfect.” But it took us forever to come to that conclusion.
C Nelson-Lifson: I feel like there were some songs in the past where it was like “Hey, I have this part and this part and I don’t know if there needs to be another part but maybe we can try with a verse here and then a chorus here,” and then eventually the structure will happen. But usually the pieces are there and then we’ll work through the structure together.
Tyler Fassnacht: Yeah, and then when the songs come to the band setting it becomes much more obvious, I think, to what the song needs or it just works well. I know in “Falls Apart,” I had this whole third section that was way overly-complicated and I was trying to make it work for the transition and Heather was just like “no, cut it out. Just get rid of it.” And it was like, oh, yeah, the song sounds way better without this. So it’s definitely nice having the other songwriters to bounce things off of because we generally can all agree when something is right and sometimes it takes all three to figure out what is the right way for it.
Tone Madison: A small handful of the bands a few of you had been playing in disintegrated over the past year but some of your other projects seemed to be re-energized in the wake of those departures. What’s everyone currently committed to now and what are the respective statuses of those projects?
Heather Sawyer: I just do Heather The Jerk and Proud Parents now and Heather The Jerk is going to be putting out a tape on Under The Gun Records out of California in June I think. So, I’ve been doing that.
Tyler Fassnacht: That new Heather The Jerk album is so good.
C Nelson-Lifson: It rocks.
Heather Sawyer: Thank you.
C Nelson-Lifson: It gets me pumped.
Tyler Fassnacht: I am still doing TS Foss stuff and I had released an album right before the pandemic started and I was going to do a bunch of solo touring on it and then that kind of fell through, obviously. So then I wrote another record, earlier on in the pandemic that I’m going to go in and record with a full band that Heather’s going to be drumming on. Emili Earhart is going to be playing piano on it too. So we’re going to record that a little later this month or in May. Then I’ve been doing my new punk project, which is called Baby Tyler. Been making a lot of drum machine beats and coming up with songs that I’m writing as I’m recording them basically. I have another EP of that that’s almost done and I’m working on another album of that. If it takes me longer than like five minutes to figure something out, then I just move on. That project is supposed to be as quick as possible, just for fun. A way that I can make music entirely by myself. I don’t know if it’s ever going to be a live thing, maybe at some point.
Tone Madison: Are you going to continue to keep all of that under the same Bandcamp? Or are you ever going to split it up?
Tyler Fassnacht: I might. I mostly didn’t want to have to deal with another Bandcamp page. There’s so many that I have to remember passwords for and stuff. It seems silly when it’s still just me and also initially when I started putting it up, I didn’t really think people would care about it, so I didn’t want to make a big deal about it just in case, you know, crickets.
C Nelson-Lifson: But it’s not. Not crickets.
Tyler Fassnacht: Got to set those expectations low.
C Nelson-Lifson: That’s healthy. I’m just in Proud Parents. That’s my only musical project right now.
Tyler Fassnacht: Yep, but you’ve been doing a lot more painting.
C Nelson-Lifson: Yeah, I have been playing a lot of music by myself for obvious reasons and just trying to learn how to be a better bassist and that’s been fun. I’ve been working on a lot of visual art and painting and embroidery. And you can see that art on our album cover.
Tone Madison: And you did most of the bass work or all of the bass work on this record?
C Nelson-Lifson: No, I think I did one song.
Tyler Fassnacht: Yeah, then I did all of the other bass stuff.
Tone Madison: As some of the more active members of the Madison punk community, is there anything you think this city could do to improve how live music functions here once things return to relative normalcy?
Tyler Fassnacht: I think it would be nice for live music not to be so bar-focused.
C Nelson-Lifson: Yes.
Heather Sawyer: Yeah.
Tyler Fassnacht: I mean, I know it’s difficult to have a venue that you can continue to keep open and pay bands without the sale of alcohol. Nowadays, I’m barely up past midnight. I’m in my PJ’s by like 7:30, I can’t fathom being out at Mickey’s at 3 a.m. anymore. So, I feel like that detracts from the music itself and adds more to the ambiance. Like, you want to go to a punk show so you can get drunk and messed up with your friends and not go and enjoy a cool band from out-of-town. So, that’d be cool. I don’t really have suggestions [on] how to fix that problem.
C Nelson-Lifson: Yeah, yeah. That’s like, very that. The idea of going to a show where it starts at 10 at the earliest, makes me feel panicky.
Heather Sawyer: Yeah, I’m [too] old for that.
C Nelson-Lifson: That’s just past my bedtime now. And it just isn’t very sustainable for people. Sleep is really important. I very much value that and I want everyone to get a good night’s sleep and going to one show that that’s late can mess up your whole rhythm. Then if there’s many shows… I don’t know. I drove past the Parched Eagle and they had a show outside at like 4 o’clock or something. Maybe like 6 o’clock but I was like “that’s cool.” I’d like to see more stuff like that.
Tyler Fassnacht: Yeah, and now we’re seeing sort of all of the bigger venues announce rescheduled tours and announcing shows for late summer and early fall, because I think they had the resources where they could put things on pause and then unpause them as soon as they had that revenue coming back in with the tours. But for smaller venues, I don’t know when that’s going to happen. I don’t know when a place like Mickey’s or The Wisco or even like North Street Cabaret can just be like “Okay, we’re playing shows now!” or can be like “Here are the concert schedules coming out for the fall.” So, going forward, I don’t know what the DIY scene is really going to be like. I know there’s a lot of people who are excited to get back into it and start doing things, but… I don’t know. It’s an issue that has a lot of problems and not a lot of easy solutions. I’ve always tried to just do the best with the tools provided when sometimes the tools provided are not ideal.
Heather Sawyer: Yeah, that pretty much sums it up. It’s going to be different but I don’t have any solutions to that.
C Nelson-Lifson: Change is scary but it’s not always bad so hopefully, maybe the things that are different are the things that are for the best. Could be cool.
Tyler Fassnacht: That’s true.
Heather Sawyer: Yeah, yeah.
Tyler Fassnacht: And I hope people and, you know, smaller DIY touring bands still come through Madison. Because I feel like it’d be a real shame if they didn’t and that would detract a lot from the scene but if there’s no venues or resources for them to play, then I could see it being a skippable town for a little bit, at least. Which is a bummer.
Tone Madison: What’s the next step for Proud Parents and is there anything else any of you would like to communicate about the record or just in general?
Heather Sawyer: Finally getting together and practicing.
Tyler Fassnacht: Yes, oh my god.
C Nelson-Lifson: Mhmm.
Heather Sawyer: Step A.
Tyler Fassnacht: Step A, yeah! Get back into the shack.
C Nelson-Lifson: Yeah, it’s been over a year since we’ve all played together.
Tyler Fassnacht: We’ve all been very safe and cautious, so, I think in three weeks from now. We’ll all officially be fully vaccinated, then we’re going to get back and start practicing again. The only performance we have right now scheduled is at the High Noon for a livestream on September 14, through the Cap Times, which is exciting. I think we’re probably not going to be jumping back into touring or anything. We’re just going to be focusing on playing together and then maybe writing some new stuff.
Heather Sawyer: Finding a bassist.
Tyler Fassnacht: Yeah, that’s a big one too!
Heather Sawyer: We gotta do that yet.
Tyler Fassnacht: Yeah, jumping the gun a little on that one I guess.
C Nelson-Lifson: But it’s okay because we’re a slow-moving train!
Tyler Fassnacht: Yeah, exactly.
Heather Sawyer: Chugging along.
Tyler Fassnacht: I feel like our whole band demeanor is kind of like “it’ll happen and work out eventually.”
C Nelson-Lifson: Yeah.
Heather Sawyer: Yeah.
C Nelson-Lifson: The universe has a plan, you know?
Tyler Fassnacht: Exactly but it’s also scary because with shows, we’ve had a couple of offers for show possibilities this summer. But, I mean, I for one am still very overly-cautious about how safe it is to be jumping back into things. Especially if there aren’t safety precautions or measures taken, so I don’t know what that’s going to look like, even in the fall. So, I want to wait until someone else messes up and gets yelled at before I do. I think the future of Proud Parents is just us getting back together and hanging out.
C Nelson-Lifson: Just vibing.
Tyler Fassnacht: I feel like that’s always been the most important part of the band. If it’s not fun, you shouldn’t be doing it.
C Nelson-Lifson: Yeah.
Tyler Fassnacht: But we’re really happy with the record.
Heather Sawyer: Yeah.
Tyler Fassnacht: We spent more time and put more energy into this than any of our previous releases and I, for one, am incredibly proud of it.
Heather Sawyer: Yeah, I’m super proud of it.
Tyler Fassnacht: I’m also very grateful for everyone who’s been buying the tape and listening to it and streaming it and stuff. We’ve been getting tons of great reception and we sold a ton of tapes the first day it was out, which was a really great feeling. We recouped all the expenses from making it. So it was nice seeing that people still cared and didn’t forget about us, even though we haven’t been doing anything. Very thankful for that.
C Nelson-Lifson: What was the question again? Oh, yeah. Just… slow-moving train, vibing, excited to vibe with my friends and excited for people to collaborate in the future when things are safe to do so.
Tyler Fassnacht: Yeah, listen to the album. Share the album. It’s weird when you’re doing things by yourself after releasing something with a label how, you know, not having a label PR person or someone going to bat for you, that really affects publications reviewing the album or premiering anything. But just through word-of-mouth and people sharing it, it’s been doing really well so I’m thankful for that… Anything to add, Heather?
Heather Sawyer: Get vaccinated!
Tyler Fassnacht: Yeah, get vaccinated!
Heather Sawyer: Come on, now.
Tyler Fassnacht: Come on, now!
C Nelson-Lifson: Please?
Tyler Fassnacht: That’s the next record! Still vaxxed, baby!
Tone Madison: That’s gotta feel good, knowing that you’re all on the same page on that and that practicing in the same room is just a little around the corner, after not being even remotely an option for so long.
Heather Sawyer: Yeah.
Tyler Fassnacht: Oh yeah, I mean, pretty immediate in the pandemic, we all agreed, we were all like “No. We’re waiting this one out.” But it’s exciting. Really happy and hopeful for things.