Critics have described Herzog's music as indie rock, powerpop, noise pop, subtlety-free rock and slacker rock, but no matter how you classify them, they're a not-to-be-missed Cleveland favorite.
They’re set to release their fourth full-length album, Me Vs You, on Feb. 22; they play an album release show at the Happy Dog that same night.
Me Vs You is everything we've come to expect from Herzog and more. It features the same lineup as 2014's acclaimed Boys, save for new bassist Charlie Trenta. It's still Dan Price on drums along with lead guitarist Dave McHenry, and the songwriting team of guitarist/vocalist Nick Tolar and lyricist Tony Vorell, who've been working together since forming their first band, Expecting Rain, in 2001. Well-crafted, guitar-driven rock songs dominate Me Vs You, and Tolar's vocals sit perfectly atop the mix.
Herzog's music is universal while still remaining utterly Cleveland. You don't have to be from the Rock 'n' Roll Capital of the World to sing along, but if you are, and you know the people and places referenced, it's even more fun. Musically, look no further than the city's own '80s powerpop greats the Mice for comparison. Herzog has even performed a perfect cover of "Not Proud of the USA" at live shows and on occasion shared the stage with Bill Fox. Conversely, Herzog has kept it together for longer than the Mice and shows no sign of slowing.
We chatted with Vorell and discussed Me Vs You track-by-track to get some stories behind each song. Here's the breakdown.
"Music Was the Language from When I Mattered"
The album kicks off with the declaration: "Went from the church to the bar without a bed in-between/I gave the best years of my life to the rock 'n' roll scene." “We like starting off with a bang," says Vorell. "It’s a thing we’ve done for years, each time we release something, because we know a lot of people haven’t heard us before. I like to think this song was written by the same guy who wrote 'Rock and Roll Monster' [from 2012's Cartoon Violence]. I'd been working on this song since living on Clifton in the late 2000s, but we couldn’t make it work. Eventually, Nick came up with the vocal intro, which launches the song at a high speed, and that made everything click." A music video for this song will be released soon.
This is one of Tolar's songs, about his life right after Boys came out. "He can be intensely honest," says Vorell. "It’s a guitar-focused mid-tempo track without a prominent chorus. Nick is a guitar player so, when he’s got the pen, he tends to write things that showcase cool guitar parts. Right after we finished the album, we were hanging out at Loop [a hip combination coffee shop/art gallery/record store in Tremont] finishing the track order. Paul Ryan from [the band] Soft Copy happened to be there, and gave his thumbs up on everything we did, so we can say he helped sequence it. I’m glad to have people like Paul as fans."
"No Place is Safe Forever"
The last line of the chorus borrows from Randy Newman's "In Germany Before the War." "I’ve had two kids since the last album, and of course have made new friends amongst my fellow parents," says Vorell. "In the libraries and the playgroups, you run into parents from other countries and you have to think about them. There's heavy anti-immigrant noise from the top of our country, but I have to oppose it because my kids like playing with all other kids, and I’m always going to put kids first. Dan Tranberg, the late art critic from the Plain Dealer, saw our show a few years ago and called us 'social realists,' which I accept as a valid criticism.”
"This song features a killer guitar solo by McHenry. It’s good live, even if I don’t always like the lyrics I wrote for it," reveals Vorell. "There was a point in the Who’s career where they actively wrote songs just because they knew they were going to go over well live. Our live show remains the thing that is the best introduction to us. We practice hard, play hard and we don’t mess around. That’s still worth something.” And yes, the title is inspired by the Jordan Peele movie of the same name "even though Vorell says that "the song has nothing to do with that." "The title was decided at the last minute before sending the album out to the printers,” he says.
"Amps II Eleven"
This track takes its title from a Cleveland band of the same name. "This was a working title that we just kept. It’s a tribute to our friends in the Cleveland music scene," says Vorell. "Amps II Eleven was one of Tony Erba’s bands in the mid 2000s, who played a rocking take on his classic hardcore style. After we released the track listing, I frantically texted him to explain. Tony is a great guy, and a legend in the scene, but I really, truly do not want to piss him off. This song also features my favorite of Dan’s drum parts. It’s very melodic and reminds me of the Weakerthans. He’s got a whole bag of styles he can play, but I like melodic and intricate the best.”
"Me Vs You"
The title track was written after the Cavs world championship victory in 2016. "It’s full of chest-out bravado that we don’t do very often," says Vorell. “The outro to this song was supposed to be just disposable words, but it ended up being some of my favorite writing on the album. I was aiming for Bob Dylan’s level of disgust from It’s Alright, Ma, (I’m Only Bleeding). Nick wanted Me Vs You to be the title of the album, and we worked backwards from there. Also, this is probably a good introduction to new member Alec Schumann. He’s going to play drums on some tour dates, and then handle the keyboard parts for other shows. We’ve always had keyboards around, but I think this song incorporates them best into the sound.”
"Nick’s other song, and his big rocker," says Vorell. "Nick and I work funny together. Our styles are very similar. When I first heard this live, I thought it was something I’d written but forgotten about; but it’s all Nick. In the credits, we attribute all songs to ‘Tolar/Vorell’ in homage to Lennon and McCartney. The sentiment is totally something I would write though, and that’s why I identify with it so much. This is another great live track. It’s a pretty simple, straightforward rocker, and something that goes over well live — a big sing-along song.”
"Little Big Star"
This is the first single off Me Vs You, and the first music video [directed by Lauren Hilary Clune and produced by John Panza of Dark Current Productions. The video mistakenly titles the song "Little Bugs"]. "This song is the other one written about my kids Leon and Cosmo," says Vorell. "Everyone needs to hear 'it’s going to be alright.’ The first time Nick showed it to me, it was very nervous sounding; and I tried to write about the nervousness I feel about my kids' future. As it took shape, it sounded more like the classic rock side of Herzogia. As indie rock as we might be labeled, there’s ultimately the blood of Cleveland’s classic rock fixation in our veins. I view us as part of a continuum of Cleveland rock from the Choir and the Raspberries through to the Mice and Death of Samantha and into 1990s bands like Sidecar and the Unknown.”
"Take Me Where the Strangers Live"
Herzog's first female guest vocalist, longtime friend and Expecting Rain bandmate Leia Hohenfeld, is featured on this track. "This song is the dark side of parenting and domestic life," admits Vorell. "I just don’t get out like I used to. When I do, it’s some-times narrowly focused on the business of Herzog." It also features another fantastic McHenry guitar solo. "When Dave is tuned into a song, he can express its sentiment very effectively with just his guitar solos," Vorell says. "It’s a moody, confused song, and he plays like it. Dan also added some of the sound effects, which is something we don’t do often.”
"New Year So What"
“This was a jam session that the band recorded, and didn’t add any more vocals or lyrics,” says Vorell. “I didn’t know this song existed until a week before it was finished. It reminds me of Explosions in the Sky in the way it builds and builds. I think Nick thinks it’s a joke to end an album waiting for a climax.”
Herzog is currently planning a tour, including a set at South By Southwest Music Festival. Details are to be determined. Watch the band’s Facebook page for updates. Me Vs You can be purchased during the album release show at the Happy Dog that same night. Alternatively, the album can be pre-ordered now at Exit Stencil Recordings.