Civic Duty

Pictured Left to Right: Brendan Lamb, Mike Mullaly, Raymond Mcgavin

         I was home for spring break. If I remember correctly, it was 2018, a year after high school graduation. My friend Ray had invited me to come to the Barking Dog, a local bar in Bethesda, Maryland, to see him and his band play.

“We’re called Civic Duty,” he explained to me sometime in high school (I’m paraphrasing here of course). He then proceeded to tell me it was named after his guitarist, Mike Mullally’s, Honda Civic. It’s where they would load up their equipment for each show. You see, it was their duty to do so.

         I was especially inclined to see them play because, due to a lineup change, my best friend from kindergarten, Zeb Dempsey, was playing bass for them. Ok so now its pretty obvious that I am writing from a perspective of complete bias. You should know, it is my duty to love these guys.1

         When I told them they nailed it that night; I wasn’t lying. And I have lied to other friends’ bands. The band ripped through a series of covers, ranging from Mac Demarco2 to Electric Light Orchestra to Stacy’s Mom. For fans of your local rock station, this is a pretty decent range. They were playing hard that night, almost like they had something to prove. If they did, they were fucking proving it. Mike was sturdy as ever, bringing strong rhythm and even going back-to-back with Ray during solos in a way that was so undeniably rock and roll that it transcended cheesiness. Zeb was in full John Entwistle3 mode– slappin da bass while staying completely still, while drummer Brendan Lamb was just going ham, man. Sure, it was a show of my friends and their friends. A show you, the reader, probably don’t care about at all. Well, shut up because I do. 

         Ray was a magnet. You just had to look at him. Maybe part of it was his appearance. He was over 6 feet with the shaggiest, most unkempt mane (think Animal from The Muppets), and wore an ill-fitting, retro suit because he wanted to look like Bruce Springsteen. He did not look like the Boss. In fact, we called him Baguul4. But Ray had an undeniable magnetism. He would play in this way that was almost aggressive in demonstrating how talented he was. He screamed, bantered with the audience, thrashed around, and also hit every note. Even though they played a lot of covers, you were hearing him. You were hearing Raymond McGavin.

         They played for three hours that night. Around the 90 minute mark, they took a needed break for water and trips to the bathroom. I remember Ray came up to me and asked if I wanted to get some air. We ended up in this dingy alley next to the bar, where Ray took a seat and opened his dip tin. I gushed over the show.

         “We mainly play covers,” he told me, “because no one gives a fuck about your originals.”

         A bouncer came out to have a cigarette break and saw us in the alley. He took a look at the two of us. Let me rephrase, he took a look at Ray, decked out in his grandpa suit and crouching on the ground.

         “Are you guys doing drugs back here,” he asked, with ample suspicion.

         “Nah, just dipping,” Ray responded.

Somehow, that felt worse than heroin.

A few months later, he had passed away. I don’t want to get into any specific details about the ordeal, lest this become one of those gruesome, self-serving post mortems that have literally nothing to do with the reader’s interest. This is a site for music and I want to focus on the music of Civic Duty, not my feelings. That said, it is important to mention Ray’s passing, as he left two things behind: a debut album and a band missing a frontman.

Let’s start with a discussion of said album, Funny Sad Songs. Recorded sporadically over the summer of 2017 through the summer of 2018, it was a labor of love for the late frontman. He recorded the majority of the album by himself, with the exception of Brendan on the drums and a few parts for Zeb on bass. However, there is no denying that this was Ray’s album. His own four-track masterpiece.

Civic Duty exists within a strange genre… something that I can’t really place my finger on. When talking to the band recently for the article, newly christened band-leader, Mike Mullally, described it as “neo-grunge.” I had heard this many times before on their social media pages but I still don’t have a firm grasp on what that means. I mean, certainly, there is an element of classic 90s grunge to it. The album has harsh melodies, distortions, humor, and perhaps most importantly, a singer that reminds me of Kurt Cobain. Now Ray never acknowledged that he sounded like Cobain5, but listen to his singing on tracks like “Manic” or “My Love” and you might see what I’m talking about.

Yet, I feel like something is incomplete with the term “neo-grunge.” Maybe it’s just because I have no real idea what the term “neo” means6. Sure, it means “new” or some Latin shit, so that kind of makes sense, but like, what does “new” mean in the context of music? Civic Duty is not just a “new grunge.” 

Take the guitars, for example. Ray was inspired by artists like George Harrison, a decidedly non-grunge musician, The Harrison-watery-style of guitar brings the band’s sound closer to the realm of indie sensations of psychedelic pop-rock, such as Ween or Mac Demarco. It’s not just grunge. Furthermore, the album boasts more than a few skits, adding a strange layer of surrealistic humor to what otherwise would be a strong, albeit angsty, work of simple rock. It opens with a distorted voice sarcastically extolling the notion that “rock and roll will never die” and this kind of absurd garage humor is threaded throughout the entire album. In fact, having inside knowledge into Ray’s taste, I know he was a big fan of Kanye West’s The College Dropout, giving the skits a whole new sense of clarity. Definitely not just grunge. 

I’m getting off track. As you can probably tell, it is incredibly difficult for me to talk about the album separate from the artist, but I’m gonna try anyway. To start, it’s an incredibly verbose album. I mean the song boasts 17 tracks and runs about an hour and 17 minutes. For any band, not just one made up of high schoolers, this is ballsy. For fuck sakes, the majority of these tracks run over the four-minute mark, some even cusping ten minutes. It’d be easy to call an album that spans four episodes of The Office self-indulgent, especially pre-Ray’s death, but it works. It actually gives you the feeling that every song or silly detour is completely necessary to the band’s vision and any cut would cheapen the effect of the album. Given my own short attention span, I’m surprised I did it in one sitting… but I did.

The main reason its extreme length is so inoffensive can be attributed to the strong narrative thrust of the album. It is not just a collection of randomly assembled songs, hastily strung together to make Civic Duty seem impressive. Rather, it tells a story. Not in a lame, Tommy-esque7, rock opera way (thankfully there are no characters or plot), but thematically, there is a lot going on. If I were to compare it to another work without worrying about pretension, I would say it’s close in vibe to R.E.M’s Automatic for the People, where each song presents the primary theme in a different light. While that album focused on literal death, Funny Sad Songs is more focused on depression and the ways in which people cope, or fail to do so, in life8. This doesn’t mean the album is autobiographical or somehow a document of Ray’s suffering. Though not impossible, this kind of reading is not only completely obtuse but also cheapens the universality of the songs themselves. Sure, there’s some real shit in there… but not more than any other album. For example, on the sixth track, “The Door to the Sun,” sadness is explored through a philosophical lens. Instead of confessional lyrics, the song uses abstract metaphors to explore the way people fail to find meaning in their life and the frustration that brings (“Fiction will be fact, till you can stand reality”). The fourteenth track, “Looking at Negatives on Thanksgiving,” takes a somber look on the past. As the song’s protagonist mulls over his past, from the “happy thoughts” of his past to his “mother’s sweater” which he no longer wears, he questions the certainties he was so sure of in his younger years. Now in a depressed state, he simply doesn’t “know anymore” and can only look “at negatives” to contextualize his past emotional states. There’s an incisiveness in the song’s lyricism that sets it apart from the Car Seat Headrest, “I am sad!” form of writing that serves as the poster-white boy for depression. There’s nothing cute or romantic or self-pitying about the kind of sadness he presents. It’s ugly… which makes it relatable.

Finally, the album’s closer “Clouds” (if you don’t count the humorous epilogue “Thank You”) provides a poignant and contradictory conclusion to the oeuvre of funny-sad songs. The song opens with a childishly hilarious skit in which Ray, in a distorted vocal, does a faux weather report. He gleefully announces that the weather is 69 degrees at the time of 4:20 pm9. I have great respect for a band that can juxtapose musings on depression, grunge noise, and middle school humor and somehow makes it all work. What gall. Compared to the rest of the album, “Clouds” is surprisingly upbeat. The melody is pretty, the lyrics optimistic, and the garage sound shifts from dispiriting to uplifting. The listener is encouraged to “keep [his] head in the clouds” and “don’t look back to the ground.” Thus, an album focused on self-hatred and the darker side of the psyche leaves its audience with a simple urge to look forward. Funny Sad Songs may be funny and sad, but ultimately, comes to the conclusion that the outer world doesn’t have to be a reflection of one’s inner sadness. There’s something strangely comforting in that sentiment.

I know I reek of bias10 and I know you’re probably sick of hearing me acknowledge it. Separate from this bias, however, Funny Sad Songs is a fantastic album. Lengthy, clever, dynamic, and, above all, wise. The album would be an achievement for a seasoned band, much less one barely into adulthood. Of course, it is a shame that its architect couldn’t continue his work, nor see the results of his efforts. He not only left his music but an extremely talented band in a realm of uncertainty. The question was posed almost two years ago and still remains… what is next for Civic Duty?

Pictured Left to Right: Jack Olcott, Mike Mullally, Zeb Dempsey, and Brendan Lamb

“After Ray, we had to figure out a whole new dynamic in terms of sound”

I am sitting on a Zoom call with the current iteration of Civic Duty. We have Mike Mullally, Brendan Lamb, Zeb Dempsey, and Ray’s high school buddy, Jack Olcott.

Zooming with the band now, it is abundantly clear that the specter of Ray looms over them. Mike Mullally has one of Ray’s guitars hanging over him the entire interview. Jack Olcott starts playing what I believe to be another one of his guitars (the man played a lot) and starts fiddling with it at one point. Brendan’s hair is long and unkempt, which he claims is an homage to Ray’s Baguul cut. He also has tattooed himself with the word’s “Let’s Rock,” which can be heard at the beginning of their track “Jitters.” And Zeb Dempsey, well, Zeb’s drinking a beer, which reminds me of Ray.

I’m not excused. On the call, I notice I haven’t shaved in a little bit. I can hear Ray’s voice in my head telling me that I look like a pedophile.

The band had mixed feelings when it came to their association with Ray.

“This is his band, we’re just trying to keep it going,” Brendan tells me.

“We won’t be offended if no one knows about [him], but it’s definitely a story we want people to know,” Mike adds on.

Understandable. If Nirvana somehow kept going after Kurt Cobain died, it would be weird of them to change their name to Schmirnana and start playing random ska music11. No matter what they do, Brendan is right, it was his band. That’s not a criticism, in fact, it’s actually admirable that they attempt to find the tricky balance between homage and enslavement. This tightrope walk seems to be the basis of their upcoming, untitled album. Funded by Kickstarter, the group has raised enough money to buy new equipment and even maybe some studio time. This may seem like a small task, but that would be the opinion of someone who has never tried to record professionally. It is difficult and expensive and justifies Ray’s original decision to record on low-tech four tracks. 

The new album will be another layer to the story they wish to keep alive, but not necessarily be defined by. In other words, Ray wrote all the songs for the new album. The thing about this guy was he was always writing songs, like literally always. I don’t know if this is true or not, but he claimed to be able to write ten songs in one night. In all honesty, based on his demos alone, Civic Duty probably has enough material to record a whole new American songbook. While he did write the songs, it is important to note that this is only half the battle. It is up to the remaining members to not only keep public interest in the band but to arrange the songs themselves. Easier said than done, especially when you pose the questions regarding their obligation to Ray’s sound. Will it sound like Funny Sad Songs or some sort of hybrid? That’s complicated. 

“In terms of moving forward, we kind of have to do our own thing,” Zeb tells me, “Even if you’re trying to honor the memory of Ray, part of that is that he did not want to do what someone else was doing… we can’t try to emulate what Ray did because we’re not Ray… His influence will always be there but we sort of have to move on to our own thing.”

“I wanna honor his legacy. I want my contribution to the band to be to become the best musician I can be. I just want to do it for Raymond,” Jack says.

Jack brings an interesting perspective to the band. Before Ray’s death, he was just a good friend and a good guitar player. I had seen him play with Ray before but never at official Civic Duty gigs. He has the attitude of someone who is really psyched to be playing in the band. It’s not a bad attitude to have. In fact, it’s pretty infectious. Jack’s the kind of guy to wear a cowboy hat and take his shirt off on stage, making him a highlight at all live shows. Pretty fuckin’ sick if you ask me.

“We’re a kick-ass live band,” Brendan says. An apt description of the current state Civic Duty. It’s what they’ve mainly focused on in the two years post-Ray’s passing. In fact, it was just last month that the band released their first single in two years. The song was called “Fishbait” and it was written by Ray. Whereas he would have taken that track in a messier, grungier direction12, the new iteration of Civic Duty cleans up the sound considerably. There are sharp hooks, nice layering, and an overall sheen that pushes them a little closer to the Green Day side of the grunge/alternative spectrum. That being said, the song is still faithful to Ray. I don’t believe any lyrics were changed and it still has an angst-ridden melody that made up so many of his songs. In fact, this song is strong proof that Civic Duty has the ability to “do [their] own thing.”13

“Fisbait” aside, Brendan’s summation is correct. They are a kick-ass live band through and through. One of the many things on the list of why this quarantine has sucked is the fact that I can’t see Civic Duty perform. They always manage to book pretty decent venues, from Gypsy Sally’s to Bethesda’s The Barking Dog to the recently deceased Rock & Roll Hotel14. I always show up a little late to their acts, as that way I can miss the (usually) shitty opener15. I’m always there for their opening number, however, and they kill it. Mike now centers the act and plays like a consummate professional. Jack, as I previously mentioned, takes off his shirt and dons cowboy hats. Zeb and Brendan are the wild ones, as they perform like meth-heads and douse themselves in water16 before gigs. It’s a ritual that Zeb has yet to be able to explain to me.

Ray preferred to play covers live. I don’t know if he was right. He made a strong argument, but I always enjoyed the originals. Maybe that was just me and a handful of others. I mean, who really wants to hear the music of a bunch of nobodies? But after going to a recent show and seeing the same crowds screaming the lyrics to “My Love,” I’m struck with a peculiar notion. People want to hear Ray’s songs… the ones he wrote, Thank god Civic Duty is still around to play them.

  1. Snare drum
  2. Fun fact: Ray made out with Mac Demarco
  3. Bassist for The Who
  4. Reference to the demon from 2012’s Sinister
  5. Or that he was trying to sound like Cobain
  6. I suspect I’m not alone
  7. Another Who reference. Their 1969 album about a deaf, dumb, and blind boy who becomes a pinball guru.
  8. As you can tell, these are some fun albums.
  9. Get it?
  10. As well as poor taste.
  11. Wait, that might be cool actually.
  12. Which can be partially attributed to his messy, low-tech recording set-up
  13. Also, it incorporates a sample from Jaws. Just a fun fact.
  14. Rest in Peace.
  15. They’re rarely insanely bad, but they are never Civic Duty
  16. They jump in a shower together at the Rock & Roll Hotel. Yes, it had a shower. Once again… rest in peace.

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