What is Pezz fighting for? In the liner notes of their new album More Than You Can Give Us, they tell you: "Honor, dignity, justice, fair play, equal treatment, the benefit of the doubt, a leg up."
Since their first all-ages gig at the Antenna Club on June 19, 1990, Pezz have been the quintessential Memphis hardcore band. In a few short years, they were touring incessantly and packing the New Daisy Theatre with scruffy kids. Last month, they returned to the renovated New Daisy for Memphis Punk Fest. "It sounded awesome. It looks like somebody cares," says Pezz founding member Ceylon Mooney.
Unlike the English variety, the first wave of American punk was apolitical. Birthed in the Reagan '80s, hardcore changed that. The music inspired the members of Pezz not only to write political songs, but also to live lives of social consciousness and political activism. Mooney acknowledges the similarities between today and the Reagan era, but from his point of view, Trump is just a symptom of a diseased system. "You have a cartoonish villain, but these institutions of power operate by design, regardless of whose face is in front of them."
The cover of Pezz' More Than You Can Give Us pairs images of striking Memphis sanitation workers from 1968 and last year's I-40 bridge protest. The band started tracking for the album in 2012, says Pezz singer/guitarist Marvin Stockwell. "We're purists in the sense that we like to record to tape, but ProTools has been a helpful thing. It's a help and a hindrance. The good news is, you can mess with it forever. The bad news is, you can mess with it forever."
Originally, the band wanted to use an image of the Ferguson Black Lives Matter protest for the cover, until they were inspired by the bridge shutdown. "I'm glad it didn't work out with the Ferguson photos," says Stockwell. "It allowed us to have, as bookends, two Memphis events. The reason we juxtaposed them is because they represent different moments in our city's history where regular Memphians stood up and said, 'The status quo will not stand. We're going to take radical action!'"
Pezz' music has always been fast and hard, with a melodic streak that endeared them to pop-punk fans. For this album, the band sounds heavier than ever. Mooney stepped out from behind the drums, where he was replaced by Recoil drummer Graham Burks, and returned to the front line with a guitar, joining Stockwell, guitarist Shawn Apple, and bassist Christian Walker. "This is a three-guitar record with a lot going on," says Stockwell.
The lineup is uncommon for punk; Stockwell says they were inspired more by classic Chicago hardcore band Articles of Faith than Lynyrd Skynyrd. "When we first started to do it, it seemed like it was too much. But your mind spreads out and hears differently. We had been in a two-guitar dynamic for so long."
Mooney compares the complex new arrangements to a conversation, as on the album closer "Guilty," where Walker's bass takes the lead while Mooney fills in a bass line before all four guitars join in unison for the album's finale. "You can't have everybody yelling all at the same time."
But there's still plenty of yelling on More Than You Can Give Us. On "Welcome to Palestine," a song Mooney originally recorded in 2006 with his solo project Akasha, the singer delivers a full-throated tirade against "Occupation, subjugation of the land and its oppressed nation."
"Unfortunately, that one is still relevant," he says. "Sometimes I think, 'We're still talking about this shit?' It's like 'Live Another Day.' When people we love stop offing themselves, I guess we'll stop talking about it."
Pezz will play their record release show on June 30th at Growlers. Stockwell says he hopes the group's fifth album (or tenth, if you count split LPs and cassette-only releases) inspires in others the same sense of urgency old school hardcore inspired in him. The vinyl insert contains both a list of local organizations working for change and the record's mission statement, a call for people to "demand ... their birthright as members of the human family."
"I wrote that before Trump won the election, but if you read that with Trump in mind, it's not hard to make it fit," says Stockwell. "We are very fortunate in this band to be able to do the things we've done and to use our collective voice to demand change and to express ourselves. We realize not everyone has that opportunity."
Pezz' More Than You Can Give Us record release show is June 30th at Growlers.