Getting to work with Philly punks Dark Thoughts

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Dark Thoughts
Dark Thoughts | photo by Yoni Kroll for WXPN

While not all jobs are bad, we’ve all had bad jobs. Maybe it’s a boss who expects you to do twice the work for half the pay. Maybe it’s a coworker who seriously just won’t shut up. Maybe it’s the customers or the owner or the commute or the hours or literally anything. We’ve all been there and it sucks to know that day in and day out nothing will change until you finally get fed up and quit. Work is a necessary and generally positive aspect of life but sometimes it can be such a drag.

At Work, the new album by West Philly punkers Dark Thoughts– Jim Shomo on guitar and lead vocals, Amy Opsasnick on bass, and Daniel Cox on drums – definitely tackles all the important topics: mental health, punk, and coffee. Oh, and work, of course. This isn’t some anthemic diatribe about factory life; it’s a lot more fun than that. Clocking in at just over 20 minutes, the twelve songs on the album hit that perfect sweet spot of poppy, catchy music and introspective, intelligent lyrics that you can still very much sing along to.

The record was digitally released on June 15th, physical copies are available this week, and the band plays a release show at the Church on August 24th. We recently sat down with Jim Shomo to talk about some of the bad jobs he’s had – including stints as a toy train conductor and way too much time spent serving coffee – and if you can turn a BFA in sculpture into riches. For the answer to that age-old question, read on!

“I don’t wanna make your coffee

And I don’t wanna make your tea

I know you wanna make an example

Out of me”

– From “Owing Money” off the new Dark Thoughts album At Work

The Key: I know that all three of you work as baristas, you and Amy at Green Line and Daniel at Last Drop. What else have you done?

Jim Shomo: I was thinking about this the other day. The worst job that I’ve ever had is, well, it’s a three-way-tie. The first being the first job I ever had: I was 15 going on 16 and I worked at [a certain family fun center in the Philly suburbs], which was like a Chuck E. Cheese ripoff. I got paid $6.50 an hour. This place was like a play place, they had mini-golf, they had arcade games.

There were all these 16 year old kids that worked there. I was quickly just put in the back at the snack bar. I was 16 and I had to run this entire operation. Cook, clean, do the whole thing. I would come in and the boss would be, like, “Alright there’s five birthday parties. Go in and make 100 pizzas right now.” I was 16 years old, I had never made a pizza before.

Then I’d have to serve people at the same time, so I was doing that. And then in the middle of doing that, which can’t possibly be sanitary, if a little kid had an accident in the bathroom or in the play place I was the person they would call. Some kid peed on the slide and you’d have to climb into the play place and wipe down the slide. They used to replace the balls in the ball pit. They’d have a guy come once a month and he’d take all the balls and put new ones in. They were so disgusting, they’d just get rid of them.

That was the first job I ever had.

TK: What’d you learn from that experience? Anything?

JS: Nothing, I don’t think. That job sucked! I didn’t get paid well. I learned that this is what being exploited by a boss feels like.

The other two bad jobs: right after I got out of college I needed a job immediately [because] I had no money and I got a job at the Bellevue Hotel Starbucks at Broad and Locust. It was awful. The manager would yell at me. Ed Rendell came in and didn’t tip. I remember doing the interview and in my head being, like, “I can’t believe I’m getting this job, this is insane. This is the worst job ever.” I didn’t work there for very long, maybe three months and I quit.

The other one was while I was still in school I worked at the Jimmy John’s in University City as a bike courier for three days. After my third day I decided that I wasn’t going back and I got my check and left. The owner made fun of my last name. It was a terrible job. I was hired as a delivery person and they were, like, “You gotta learn how to make all the sandwiches and do the deli slicer and wash dishes but you’re going to get paid delivery wages. Also, work the register.” I’m getting paid $2 an hour! This isn’t fair.

I’ve never really been fully fired [but] I’ve been let go a couple times because of staffing issues and stuff.

TK: What about your best job?

JS: The greatest job I’ve ever worked was at Linvilla Orchards in Media. This actually clues in to being let go because I kept on showing up late to the shop – which sucks because it was the greatest job – but I had to take a train from Temple University Regional Rail to Media and then bike four miles to get to work. So I had to leave at like four in the morning or something.

TK: What were you doing there?

JS: I was the children’s train conductor. It was like a mall train but it was outdoors and on a real track. It was gas powered [and] only went about 10 miles an hour. I had a little hat and I would pull the whistle and little children would cheer and parents were happy and kids would just hug me. It was the best job. I did it for a summer and then they had to let me go because of staffing issues and definitely because I showed up late a lot because it was so far away to get there.

That was the sickest job. It was so fun. I don’t even remember what I got paid. I’d do it in a heartbeat now. I’d probably do it for free! The guy who owned the train was the coolest. He was a surgeon and he had a bunch of money and didn’t need to do it so he solely did it because he was into trains. He had a full conductor’s uniform. He was such an endearing guy. I showed up one day and there was a note on the seat [of the train] and it said, “Hey Jim, you’re doing a really good job. This is for you.” And there was just a little conductor’s hat! And I was, like, “I’m in! I’m inducted!” I was pretty proud of the hat. He trusted me to not screw it up, which was cool.

It did derail one time when I worked there, which wasn’t that big of a deal. You just had to put it back on and we had to close it down. If it hit a turn at, like, 12 miles an hour it would go off the rails.

TK: To bring this back to music, if just a little: you were going to shows and playing in bands during all this?

JS: I started going to shows in probably 2002, 2003. To date that [aforementioned fun center job in the burbs], I was definitely slacking off at work and reading the Philly Shreds forum to hear all the gossip about the Pointless Fest riots. I was 15 or 16. And then I quit that job when I got into college. I was going back and forth to shows from the Delco suburbs.

TK: What’s your degree in?

JS: I have a BFA in sculpture from Tyler. It’s served me very well, as you can tell. It’s somewhere! I have it in my house somewhere.

TK: When’s the last time you sculpted something?

JS: I don’t know. It’s more about the idea. I feel like learning about sculpture in school now is more about learning about artistic theory and how to employ your ideas in different ways. So I kind of just learned all kinds of stuff. I learned how to build walls and do electrical wiring and also how to edit video.

TK: So it might not have helped you get a job but it has helped in a lot of things that you’ve done. I mean, in many ways that’s the nature of punk: taking the skills that you have and repurposing them to be doing the things that you want to be doing.

JS: The last year of when I was in school I got independent studies and I would just study punk videos and make weird art about the Ramones and stuff like that. A lot of it was really bad but it was interesting. I watched a bunch of movies and learned about my own interests. I think that’s really what people should be doing when it comes to learning. I think that if you’re going to spend the money you should get something out of it. I don’t regret going to school by any means but I wish I had structured the payment system a bit better. That’s the plight of everybody. That’s why we all work these dumb jobs: you gotta pay the loans and figure out how to live.

I did work for an artist once! I worked for a painter off and on for two years, that was pretty fun.

TK: But you’ve had art shows, right?

JS: Yeah, but there isn’t money in that. I think I have a show potentially in September in Philly. I don’t know the exact dates yet but it’s a new space where a friend of mine is doing a DIY art space type thing.

Artwork by Dark Thoughts’ Jim Shomo | courtesy of the artist

TK: People don’t always seem to realize that making money off of art is kind of a pipe dream. There was a post on this Philly music page on Facebook complaining about how nobody from the city has ever made it big –

JS: What about Hall & Oates?

TK: For sure. I realized that what this person was talking about was being a professional musician. But even if not having a day job is your definition of “making it” there’s no end of people from Philadelphia who have very much reached that point. I mean, there’s The Roots, Sun Ra Arkestra.

JS: Talk about how sick The Roots are that in the second Steven Powers’ “On The Go” video @Black Thought and Questlove are beatboxing [while] ESPO is doing a piece behind them, hitting the roofs. It’s the craziest shit. And now you can go to Universal Studios and The Roots are the house band for Jimmy Fallon! And there’s a ride that features the fucking Roots! It’s so bizarre. You think about it and it’s so crazy that twenty, thirty years ago these guys were just hanging out. That’s big on a level that’s unfathomable. When you’re [part] of a ride it’s, like, “How are you even a person anymore?”

TK: But in Philly they’re still just hanging out. That’s something I’ve always appreciated about the city. If Marshall Allen from Sun Ra was sitting at your coffee shop eating a bagel it’d be, “Oh, it’s Marshall Allen. That’s cool.” But not, like, flipping out or taking a million pictures or anything.

JS: I feel like we had a moment like that when Dark Thoughts was on tour in Mexico. The end of our tour lined up with the Super Bowl so we watched the Eagles win in Mexico City with our friend who drove us. We’re bugging out and yelling at the TV screen and going nuts. [After the game was over] they were doing the wrap up with all the speeches and stuff and presenting the trophy and the owner of the Eagles came out and literally in the frame right next to him is his wife [Tina Lai], the lady from Fu Wah who used to make sandwiches for everybody. And we’re, like, “That’s the lady from Fu Wah! I got a hoagie from her!” That’s a weird moment that can only happen here. There’s weird culture shock moments like that all the time.

TK: I appreciate the fact that I do get to interact with people who have had a huge influence on me and it’s normally not weird at all. Philly is good for that kind of thing.

JS: The biggest one like that for me that I freak out about all the time is Chuck Meehan [from YDi], who is on potentially one of the best U.S. hardcore 7”s and definitely the best one out of Philadelphia. He was so influential to so many people. I buy records all the time and I’ll get an LP and read through the thank you list and [if you look at] any major band that did some shit in the 80s and put out a fucking sick record, Chuck Meehan is thanked in the liner notes. He’s in every single one from ’81-’85. And he still goes to every show that he can. The tapes that we did for the new record, we used his duplicator. That’s the thing that gets me stoked.

TK: Let’s talk about that record. Why’d you call the album At Work?

JS: I came up with the title a long time ago. I think I liked the ring that it has – “Dark Thoughts At Work” – and it’s sort of a nod to [the Ramones album] Leave Home. It’s weirdly representative of the last two years of us figuring out how to be a band and go away as much as we can. Cause we’ve done a lot of traveling over the past few years which is really cool but nobody is paying for us to travel.

TK: All three of you have similar jobs. You’re all baristas. You and Amy also work for R5. I think of those kinds of jobs – barista, bartender, etc. – as these inherently punk things because they let you take off for tour and stuff.

JS: It sucks but it’s not that bad. It’s really annoying but I don’t have to sacrifice doing any of the things that I really want to do so that’s the tradeoff. After two or three months of not doing anything and just having to work, you start to kind of go nuts. Normally the way it works at least for us is that I have something to look forward to. So this month is going to be really busy but in July we have eight shows and then in August we have a tour.

The official record release show is with Impalers [from Austin] August 24th at the First Unitarian Church. And then we’re playing New York the next day and that’s the end of the tour. We’re taking September off and then we’re going to the U.K. for ten days in October.

Dark Thoughts | photo by Yoni Kroll for WXPN

TK: Are you touring with anyone over there?

JS: We’re going to tour on our own. It’s not a super long tour, maybe six shows or something, but the last four days will be at Static Shock Weekend [An incredible yearly punk festival in London put on by Static Shock Records who have put out everyone from Sheer Mag to Uranium Club and tons more heavy hitters – ed.] and The Guests are also playing, so we get to hang out with them.

Talk about a working band: the last time we went to Europe we were in London for a total of 12 hours. We played a show, woke up, and left. We saw literally nothing. It would be nice to, you know, go to the Tate Modern and see the stuff that’s around apart from the apartment we stayed at.

TK: So as a way to wrap this all up, let’s talk about the nature of work. Cause I feel like we’ve established that work is good. Work ethic is good. But jobs aren’t always that great. And getting paid to do what you want to be doing would be awesome but that just isn’t going to happen.

JS: Work ethic is good. Working hard is good when you’re at a job cause you don’t want to fuck over the other people there. Bosses suck. Not everybody, obviously, but the idea of working for a boss is stupid. But that’s a fact of life, it’s what everybody does.

I don’t dislike working. I feel like I’m normally doing something. I have a really hard time relaxing. Like, relaxing and doing nothing is pretty tough for me.

TK: Wait, what jobs has everyone else in the band had?

JS: Amy has some good ones! She used to run an art gallery in Scranton. She had a weird job where she painted model Elvis heads for resale. It was a sick job. I think she also worked at a Salvation Army in Scranton. Daniel has some good stories about [all the punks] working at a Pita Pit in Orlando when he lived there, just making crazy sandwiches and stuff. He’s the type of person who’s always had a job and then quit that job to go on tour. We tour way less than he used to. Old bands that he was in would do two month DIY tours, which is brutal. I think it’s weird for him to have a job he doesn’t want to quit.

Dark Thoughts’ At Work is out now, and the band has a slate of summer gigs lined up, including a June 29th show at Boot & Saddle opening for Iron Chic and their record release party in the basement of the First Unitarian Church on August 24th. Dates and info at their Bandcamp page.

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