The Gotobeds: Life And Debt

Time is strange. The punks told us to burn the past, that anything new beats anything old through sheer youth. At least, Bill Bored of the Cardboards preached that credo in Stephanie Beroes’ Debt Begins At 20, a little cult documentary from 1980 that invited viewers to hang out in Pittsburgh’s nascent DIY scene. Almost 40 years later, and the future promises more dread than freedom—urban planners buffer cities with luxuries that a growing lower-middle class can’t afford, policies threaten to rob women of agency, and conniving capitalists tag even the tiniest courtesy with a price. So when Eli Kasan says “I can’t explain why the world has to burn” on a blazing rant on the Gotobeds’ third album, Debt Begins At 30 (Sub Pop), he doesn’t have to elaborate—frustrated youths everywhere know the feeling.

Still, like the pioneers from his hometown, Kasan doesn’t savor the past. He must be sitting on a patio in his house, as over the phone, I can hear the birds chirp louder than passing planes. (We’ve had to carve out a rendezvous between our opposite job shifts, but Kasan worked out an alibi: “I was able to ‘work from home’,” he says, “which means I’m just being a bum.”)  The story goes that he and his fellow Gotobeds starting writing Debt Begins not long after their breakout on Sub Pop back in 2016, Blood // Sugar // Secs / Traffic. And this time, instead of another perfectly imperfect scrap in a friend’s basement, the band would head to Chicago to record in a proper studio with another pal, Tim Midyett (Silkworm, Mint Mile). Kasan would try to actually plan some lyrics instead of devising everything ad lib.

But now, let’s rewind a bit. The first time I saw the Gotobeds, Kasan was stumbling around the stage with a lampshade on his head. He, of course, also stood on several amps; later, he joined one of his guitarists on the same guitar and wished Chunklet’s Henry Owings a happy birthday. Kasan also chuckles to recall his earliest writing, like the commercial updo for “Wimpy Garcia (Brotherfucker)” from album number one, 2014’s Poor People Are Revolting. “TFP (Tom Payne), our guitar player, was just so impressed by the song itself, that he was just like, ‘Wow, this is so great, it’s such a hit, we could sell this for a car. You’ve got to sing this for a car commercial, man,’” he says. “So I completely took the lyrics I had, and mashed in a bunch of junk. And so looking back, I’m like, ‘What the hell did I do?’ Like, it doesn’t make any sense.” 

You see, the Gotobeds thrive on spontaneous combustion. You could talk about the “themes” of Debt Begins—a wariness toward the unwary, loans of all kinds, age abstracted as clocks—if you wanted to pigeonhole the perpetual frustration of living into some sort of artistic “intention.” But Kasan won’t take the credit for masterminding any grand scheme; more than once in our conversation, he admits that some of his best ideas were born from sheer happenstance. The foundation for “Bleached Midnight,” for example, came from a poem in a notebook that Kasan’s old roommate, Scott MacIntyre, left behind. “I was trying to write something about different facets of war, (such as) internally, and versus someone else, and actually being at war,” he says. “His poem was about being addicted to heroin.” So naturally, Kasan reached out, and MacIntyre lent some extra words.

In fact, every song on Debt Begins features at least one other pal or fellow musician—and that, too, was something of a coincidence. The dudes were hanging out at their home base in Chicago, where Midyett lived with another friend—and they contemplated the odds that Midyett would come over and collab on a song with them. “So at one point, our drummer Cary (Belback), since we’re all rap fans, he’s like, ‘Dude, this is going to be just like a mixtape, we’re going to have a feature on every track,’” says Kasan. “He said it as a joke. And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s a great idea.’” So Kasan lined up invites to some old friends, from Bob Nastonovich (Pavement, Silver Jews) to Bob Weston (Shellac, Mission Of Burma) to Tracy Wilson Dahlia Seed, Positive No). “I remember the point when we were wrapping up, and I told the dudes, ‘Hey, I need $200 for someone to record their vocals,’” says Kasan. “And so they asked, ‘Well, so who’s all on the record?’ So I told them, and then they asked, ‘Wait, so is there a guest on every song?’ And I was like, ‘We talked about this!’”

The ‘Beds have no trouble communicating with each other. Granted, faintly gothic barnburner “Slang Words”— which, ironically, concerns this generation’s loose lips and insensitive slander—was almost abandoned forever because of a misunderstanding between Kasan and Payne from nearly six years ago. “TFP didn’t have a guitar part for it, it wasn’t finished, I didn’t have all the lyrics, so we just scrapped it, and completely forgot about it,” says Kasan. When he did remember “Slang Words,” though, he was under the impression that his guitarist wasn’t into the tune. Clearly, he was wrong. “I could have just asked him at the time, but instead I just assumed,” he says. “it’s funny, the way that things stick out in your mind, when you’re a dude, and you’re talking to your fellow friends.”

That’s another running theme in Debt Begins. We all know these days that our landscape could use a few less douchebags, and Kasan constantly draws a firm line between those blokes (like the one “jamming Sublime” on “Calquer The Hound”) and the ‘Beds. “I wake in fright/I don’t have the right/To be so parallel,” he says on “Parallel,” a sober reminder that other folks face greater fears. But Kasan admits that even “enlightened” dudes like themselves still bump against barriers. “We’ve definitely all cried in front of each other,” he says. “I’ve held all of them, spooned them [even]. But it’s still like, I’m not sure how to check on this person, even though it’s kinda easy, almost, on the face of it.”

Still, Kasan and the gang still buck the patriarchy when they can. Both versions of “Debt Begins At 30” challenge the systems that be—particularly the latter, where the ‘Beds called in Victoria Ruiz from Downtown Boys to vent her own narrative into the maelstrom. “She was the only person who essentially had a blank check,” says Kasan. “(I told her), here’s the inspiration, here’s what I was trying to say. It’d be cool to have a non-white guy sing this similar song. You can interpret it however you like.” As of our conversation, neither of us yet knew exactly how close Ruiz hewed to the original. But even with my rusty Spanish, I can still hear some parallels. A “fuego” still burns around the same point as Kasan’s fire; Ruiz cries “palabras en débito” where Kasan shouts “These aren’t even my words/They’re out on loan.” And her refrain of “Debit comienza/Pero nunca termina” remains the same as the English: “Debt begins/Never ends.”

As for Kasan’s version—to some extent, that ties back to the stance against nostalgia, and growing up. Astute readers may recognize the opening verse (“Late last night, I sat Atlas on my lap”) from poet Warsan Shire’s “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon,” another serendipitous influence that our protagonist bumped into on Facebook. But when Kasan says the line, he’s not referring to a book. When his new girlfriend moved in with her daughter Atlas, he decided he’d become her father. “I never thought that I was going to have children, or that I would want to have children,” says Kasan. “But it’s like, well, I love my lady, so I love this kiddo. So I just try not to let her get hit by a car, make sure she’s eating food, don’t be an asshole. All those things you usually do.” 

Of course, anyone who listens to Debt Begins will swiftly find that Kasan and the gang aren’t assholes. The future might look grim, but time has to march on – and while we can’t burn the past, we can at least make some noise with our fellows right now. And that’s all Kasan really wants with the Gotobeds. “You meet one person at a time, and that leads to something else,” he says. “To me, irrelevant of how many records we sell, or we don’t sell—the guests that I respect like it, the friends I really like are getting it. So I feel like I’m doing something right. Even if it’s not Car Seat Headrest level.”

—Lee Adcock