Where would Ryan Young be without his emotional issues? As guitarist, vocalist, and primary songwriter for Minneapolis-based punk rock band Off With Their Heads, he’s spent most of the last decade detailing just how fucked up his life is — how he destroys most good things and watches the rest crumble. Angst, hate, regret, drugs, destitution, and a whole mess of other grim nouns perpetually stew in his music, just waiting to be unleashed. Adding to the decay is the gritty venom lodged in Young’s voice, a by-product of hard luck and harder living. Based on titles alone, the band’s major releases evidence his hopelessness — Hospitals, All Things Move Toward Their End, From the Bottom, and June’s In Desolation. Young’s lyrics reveal a lot about his bleak mindset. Many sound autobiographical.
“Theme Song” from 2006 EP Hospitals, is as good a starting point as any. In the song, Young pleads to return to a happier time because he now wants to scream and punch the concrete until my hands bleed. His daily routine couldn’t get more dour: I wake up and work, and get fucked up and sleep/and then wake up and work, and get fucked up all over again. For more existential pain, see “That Must Be Nigel with the Brie” from 2007’s Things: Don’t know if I can withstand/Another night of this Hell living in my head/You say there’s something you can do that will help/How can you help me when I can’t even help myself? Elsewhere, he wails about living in debt alongside the kind of girl with those amphetamine shakes, being an idiot, hating himself, his friends, and his job (I hate everything but you), and making a vindictive oath (Until the day I die I fucking swear/I’m gonna make your life as miserable as mine). Hell, in “I Am You” from ’08’s From the Bottom, he goes ahead and plots out the M.O. behind his music: I’ll tell you why I fucking hate my life/I’ll tell you why I can’t seem to get it right/I’ll tell you why I entertain the thought of dying all the time. Some of these songs provide a small road map of Young’s existence. Others lead to nothing but dead ends.
It doesn’t sound like there’s much reason to tolerate the tirades of someone constantly depressed. But the band’s music makes the experience worthwhile. Pumped out with alarming hooks and a take-no-bullshit attitude, the act’s pop-punk has enough of a jolt to entertain your spirits while the words crush you. The combo of upbeat melodies and downtrodden words make for a sound that Young described as being “like The Ramones if they were severely beaten as children.”
In a marked contrast to his in-song persona, Young sounds pretty affable in conversation. He’s quick to acknowledge his sullen sensibility and chuckles at off-hand moments perhaps to alleviating the tension of discussing personal drama with a stranger. Recapping his life, he divided his musical tastes into periods: Country with his parents; alt-rock “in his angsty years;” then mid-’90s punk like Rancid and Green Day; and now indie rock like Neutral Milk Hotel and Metric. Yet, he’s unable to pinpoint any of those sources as contributing to his lyrical angle. “I never really heard a band like that, that was so blatant, for the lack of a better word. That just came from living life like I have chosen to live it — growing up how I did and dealing with all the dumb shit I have done,” Young said. “It’s the only honest thing I can write about. I’m not into politics or anything like that.”
Young attested that his songs are full of “100 percent actual truth,” adding, “It has to be real or it sounds phony to me, which is why it takes me forever to write songs. I don’t have that many bad days. It may seem like I’m super-negative all the time, but it’s not really that. Everyone has shitty days. Instead of dwelling on it, I write a quick song.” To him, the sporadic awful days are worth immortalizing in song for two reasons: 1) “You don’t ever need to vent happiness,” and 2) “How do you keep a punk band interesting? It’s pretty hard to do, and [those lyrics are] my solution to that problem.”
“Your Child is Dead,” another track from Hospitals, is his most charged composition and the perfect kind of interesting. Inspired by the 2005 Red Lake massacre (in which a 16-year-old boy shot and killed multiple people on a Minnesotan reservation, including seven at his high school), Young uses “Your Child” to ask, How many times can a little kid be called a fag before he’s lost his mind and tries to get back at everyone that’s done him wrong.” The track is one of the most poignant pieces in Young’s discography. He has a weird ability to make you feel empathy for a murderer, even though he declares in the song that he would have handled the situation differently. “It was the classic ‘kid that gets made fun of’ [scenario],” the guitarist said. “I just get why someone would be driven to that — how someone could feel so shitty about something that they could just snap.”
For Young, the real value of these confrontational confessionals resides in a listener being able to understand his most of despondent of lows. Learning something from that is what separates it from pointless bitching. “The younger you are, the more it seems like things are hopeless and never going to change,” he said. “Living through all that stuff, it’s like, ‘Wow, ups and downs,’ [but] that’s just how it always works — as long as you keep your head on straight.”