Before reading any further do yourself a favor, please. It will only take 25 minutes of your time. Go to whatever app you listen to music on, and look up No Thanks’ 2020 LP Submerger. Put in the nicest headphones you have and give it a listen.
Across 10 tracks and 25 minutes, it’s difficult to resist headbanging along to Gabe Cohen’s drums while Cam Stout’s basslines hammer on the beat. Meanwhile Mike Huber fills the instrumental space with screeching guitar riffs and Brendan Leahy commands the mic with cutting social commentary. It’s punk. But it’s also distinctly No Thanks.
“We all love punk, but Mike deep down just wants to write pop songs,” said Leahy.
No Thanks is as much a reflection of their environment as they are a stark contrast to it. They’re a product of the Omaha scene, but don’t sound like anyone else. While most are just starting to see social inequities highlighted by COVID-19, they’ve preached to the proletariat.
And just when you want to assign them a label, they slip their way out of it.
“Brendan looks goth. He looks punk,” said Huber. “But you don’t know which it is, like a swirl ice cream cone.”
Omaha’s punk scene isn’t like a lot of other cities. It’s big enough to have one, but not large enough for most labels to notice or for people in the scene to care how you play, dress or act.
“We get to do whatever we want, and there’s not some label waiting to swoop in and put us on VH1 or something,” Huber said. “That’s not gonna happen, so we’ve never thought about it. We’re gonna do whatever we want all the time, and the audience just has to deal with it.”
With that lack of expectation also comes the freedom to write about bigger issues affecting this country and the world at large. Leahy’s lyrics are steeped in leftist, working-class politics and the dark, moody instrumentals provide an urgency to his words.
It’s only gotten more apt as the country’s slid deeper into social unrest: the COVID-19 pandemic making historical inequities glaringly obvious, a president telling his followers to overthrow the government, the widening gap between rich and poor in America.
“Our lyricism has been consistently almost completely communist, and that doesn’t have anything to do with us living in a red state. It hasn’t changed our views at all, as the political atmosphere has changed,” said Stout. “But I think it has changed the way Brendan writes about it. It’s getting darker because things are getting exponentially worse.”
For Leahy a lot of this isn’t new ground to tread. As someone who grew up in the South and gravitates toward studying history and philosophy, he’s never thought of the band’s songwriting as being specific to Nebraska.
“Growing up in Georgia, the way things like white supremacy and antisemitism reveal themselves is different than here, but I tend to think of these things in very broad historical and international senses,” he said.
No Thanks’ working-class ethos isn’t just an aesthetic for them; it’s not a cleverly designed grift to sell t-shirts and vinyl records. It is a sincere reflection of their day-to-day lives as students and workers. Practicing, writing and recording music has amounted to a part-time job’s worth of time commitment according to the band.
The idea of profiting off their music is laughable.
“A significant amount of music and art comes from what is essentially the upper part of the working class and the lower part of the middle class, neither of which can afford to sustain those art projects on their own,” he said. “The myth of bands making it, is actually, you have to start off rich or become incredibly lucky.”
However, Stout said they have reached a point where the band is financially self-sustaining. Over their seven years together, the tours have gotten bigger, the turnouts a little better and the earnings a little heftier. But it all goes toward their band fund and paying for things like fixing the tour van or recording music, like 2020’s Submerger.
“Our band isn’t losing money, but it isn’t something that we can live off of either,” Leahy said.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020, No Thanks had just finished recording Submerger. Their plans to tour had to be scrapped. They weren’t sure if they would still release the record if they couldn’t play live shows to make the release financially possible.
But the four decided to push forward with the release, signing on to Black Site, a co-op label based in Kansas City. And true to the DIY nature, the band got heavily involved in every aspect of releasing the album–from designing the cut-and-paste aesthetic of the packaging, to dropping off shipments of vinyl records at stores.
“We went to KC and did all of that just to save $300,” Huber said.
After the record released on Halloween, 2020, No Thanks got to play one live-streamed show from Lincoln. Since then they’ve watched record sales trickle in and friends share the songs on social media. But not being able to gather for a show, with Leahy shirtless and blood-smeared as the band rips through songs, has taken its toll.
More than a performance, live shows are a chance for the community to gather, join in cathartic shared experiences and, hopefully, feel a little less alone. Now there’s none of that, and it doesn’t seem live shows could make a serious comeback until fall 2021. That’s a year and a half with little live music, and it’s taken its toll.
“When you have the ability to be in shows, I think what punk has been able to do is give disaffected people a sense of community, in the sense of being able to take care of one another and educate one another and create pretty progressive spaces,” he said. “It’s very hard not being able to do those shows right now. I think a lot of people are feeling that loss.”
At the same time, by the time live performances return, the “normal” that comes after the pandemic is unlikely to resemble anything that came before. Not only will it be awkward returning to spaces packed with other people, Stout noted that any new music that’s written post-pandemic will be “inherently tainted” by the experiences of isolation and separation that informed it.
But maybe the community will return, and with it a chance for old friends to sing, dance and process the year that kept them apart. That’s what keeps No Thanks hopeful.
“I think once we come out of this, everyone is gonna be a lot happier to see each other and a lot of the aloofness that comes with the Omaha music scene will dissipate,” Stout said. “Either that, or we’re all going to be fighting to the neck to play multiple shows on the same night.”