Joey Cape will be the first to tell you that the past few years haven’t exactly been the easiest on him. Of course, there’s the problems that affect many an aging punk—Cape is closing in on 50, and it’s not like there’s a pension plan for punk rock—but then there are the permanent departures that continue to mount as a scene that was built on the “live fast, die young” mantra is now losing some of its finest members. It’s a huge reason why Lagwagon’s most recent album, 2014’s incredible Hang, was, well, pretty fuckin’ dark, from the lyrical content to the noose on the cover art. So when you first fire up Cape’s new solo album, Stitch Puppy, you might think you’ll be in for a downer—and, yeah, you’ll get that, at times. But it’s really so much more.
“Stitch Puppy was inspired by a doll my daughter made me a few years back,” Cape explains. “It’s like a Victorian mourning doll. Stitch is my most prized possession. Put it this way, if my house were to burn down, after my family and the animals, I would save Stitch. My idea to wear his costume stems from years of thinking of him as a representation of purity, strength and maybe a numbness that comes from loss and grieving.”
Cape challenged himself with Stitch Puppy in a way he had never done before, writing almost the entire album in a few months then recording it in a week, which stuck with the mantra of his new record label, One Week Records. “One Week Records is a session label where I record 10 songs with an artist in one week’s time,” he says. “The limitations can be real positives. Second guessing can lead to benefits, but songs will often drastically differ from where you began. Sometimes years later, I will find an original demo and think, ‘What happened?’ That will not be the case with Stitch Puppy because the piano and guitar were recorded live and mostly without a click or metronome.”
The album is as raw as Cape has ever gotten in terms of the recording process, but that doesn’t mean the instrumentation is lacking. If anything, Stitch Puppy expands Cape’s sonic palette significantly with liberal use of piano (played by Brian Wahlstrom) and cello (performed by Serina Chang) punctuating his morose stories, as in “St. Mary’s” and the album-closing “Tracks.” It’s an element the singer was thrilled to include on the songs. “I have always loved the sound of piano—I see it as a cornerstone,” he says. “I wish I had learned the instrument when I was a young sponge. My older sister played; my father played; my brother was a jazz guitarist,” he continues, before remarking with a self-deprecating laugh, “I played soccer.”
Cape gets by with a little help from his friends on Stitch Puppy, too; the Flatliners’ Chris Cresswell sings on a trio of songs (most notably the wonderful “Spill My Guts”) and Yotam Ben Horin of Useless ID contributes harmonies to three additional tracks, especially the powerful “Moral Compass.” But Cape didn’t intentionally seek these folks out; as he says, it just happened.
“Those opportunities just kind of present themselves, which is cool,” Cape admits. “I think collaboration is where it’s at. Every time you collaborate with someone new the result is new. In the future, I would love to collaborate with John K. Samson, Jack Dalrymple, Dan Andriano and Paul Westerberg just to name a few.”
While this is Cape’s third solo album, in many respects it is his first true solo album—the singer doesn’t expect any of these songs to eventually cross over into Lagwagon’s catalog, unlike tracks from his previous two solo LPs. But given the resurgence of Cape’s “day job” in the past year, where does he see his solo career fitting?
“In the cracks between,” he says, chuckling. “I am committed to Lagwagon first and foremost while it exists. But I don’t like downtime. So as long as we have breaks, I will make records like these and tour as well. It’s complementary to do both.”
Cape has experienced more than his fair share of personal tragedy in recent years, one of the most notable being the death of his longtime friend and No Use For A Name frontman Tony Sly. It’s something that affected his songwriting for Hang and seeps into Stitch Puppy as well. “He was a great songwriter, a great lyricist, and one my favorite people,” Cape confesses. “I’m not religious but, when I’m writing, recording or even performing sometimes, I think to myself, ‘What would Tony think?’ I would want him to approve.”
It’s that unwavering honesty in the face of adversity that ties back into the Stitch Puppy character which drives the entire album. As Cape explains, “Stitch Puppy seems to be alone, which is the way it feels to mourn the loss of someone you love or to be abandoned, stood up. We are all blindsided in life at times, but somehow the wiser for it. We transform from a victim to a guide. Life is full of disappointment, disloyalties and abandonment. We have to choose whether we adopt issues or strength. We witness these things and the beauty in between. That’s it. That’s how I see Stitch Puppy. Not defeated. Simply the wise witness holding it together.”