Since they formed in Minneapolis in 2002, Off With Their Heads have lived on aggressive but melodic punk rock. It's a style that can't really be described as punk-pop because it's louder and more raw than the more manicured sound of a band like Green Day. The tempos are typically breakneck, the guitars are cranked to the rafters, the rhythm section is in merciless lockstep, and singer/guitarist Ryan Young growls like a combination of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones' Dicky Barrett and Bad Religion's Greg Graffin.
And up until 2016, their music was electric by default. But the band's fourth album, 2016's Won't Be Missed, changed everything. Young, who serves as the mainstay of the band, recast 10 of the band's favorite originals in an acoustic setting, taking away the volume that was the signature of so many of their songs. And it was a startlingly effective change.
Young's lyrics are more audible than ever before, revealing the anger, desperation, and confusion underneath the sheer propulsion of the band's music. On the album-opening "Clear the Air," the stripped-down setting puts Young's anguished cry of "Goddamit, I'm falling apart" into stark relief over his relentless acoustic pummeling. On "Stolen Away," a lazily sensual slide riff and a tambourine become the skeleton of a road-weary musician's lament. "There is no future, I'm struggling to stay afloat," Young howls, "No plans for children, no plans for growing old."
The album reveals the insecure human behind the punk-rock road warrior, and it feels like a major artistic statement — except that it was never intended that way.
"That record was something I did to keep busy while life got in the way of my music," Young says. "It's just 10 previously released songs that I thought would sound cool stripped down to the basics."
In fact, if a friend of Young's hadn't reached out to him and reminded him of the few acoustic songs in the band's catalog, Won't Be Missed might never have existed at all.
"We only recorded a couple acoustic songs before we decided to do the record," he says. "My friend Dan in Minneapolis sent me two or three songs and told me that this is definitely something that we should pursue."
But Young still wasn't convinced even as they began recording the stripped-down songs, until they got to a track from their second album, 2010's In Desolation, called "Old Man."
"I think I was finally sold on it when I heard 'Old Man' re-recorded for the first time," he says. "I remember being in the vocal booth and trying my hardest to capture what all of these songs were about. It was like ripping scabs off. That's when you know you're onto something. If it's affecting you while you are creating it, it's important to you. What really happened was the lyrics would strike a chord with me all over again. I think that's what I liked about making that record, because it just reminded me that I've still got all kinds of fire in there."
The band took the stripped-down aesthetic to heart, being careful not to be too careful. "We made a rule that we weren't recording more than three takes of anything, whether it was guitars or vocals," he says. "I've made records in the past where it was imperative that everything be perfect, but I've personally never cared about perfection. It's all about the vibe. Some of my favorite bands can barely play their instruments. And that's awesome."
Won't Be Missed spawned a lengthy acoustic tour, an 80-show jaunt that will come to an end with a string of shows in the Southeast. "I figured we would do one last run of shows through that part of the country because it's the only area that we haven't hit yet," Young says.
So how does a band known for heavy punk rock adjust their show for an acoustic performance? It's about the crowd, regardless of whether the music is acoustic or electric.
"When I get on stage with my bandmates and play a full-on show, I'm not trying to convey anything but whatever energy is genuinely there," he says. "If I'm feeling it and the crowd is feeling it, then it's going to be a good vibe. If I'm not or the crowd isn't either, it's just kind of a bust. I always do my best, but I'm also insane. I can't fake shit. The point I'm trying to make is that this is a different beast than a full band show. Some people like it even more, so that's kinda cool. I like to keep it interesting and fresh."
For a long while, Off With Their Heads kept things fresh by having a revolving lineup, with Young the only constant member. But they've had a steady lineup for six years, other than behind the drum kit, and even that's stabilized recently with the addition of Kyle Manning.
"We finally have a drummer who I can play with and really connect with," Young says. "He's great to play with and definitely reignited my interest in continuing being active. I decided when I was 16 that I wanted to be in a band no matter what the outcome. I've made it work by keeping it central to myself. Everybody knows that this lineup of the band is our lineup. It's our own special thing. But should someone choose to move on and do something else, it will most likely keep going. That's been pretty clear from the get-go."