Brian Moss can sum up his high school experience in one word: awkward.
Sporting bleached hair, multiple piercings, and Payless ShoeSource combat boots emblazoned with band names written in white out, Moss, who is now a middle school English teacher and the lead singer of San Francisco punk band Great Apes, was every bit the confused teenager trying to figure out his identity and place in the world. Bullies targeted him, and depression plagued him at times, too.
“When people are in the adolescent phase, the world can be beautiful and shining and exciting,” Moss says. “But if you’re struggling, it can be an incredibly painful time, too. Coupling adolescence with mental health issues can be pretty brutal.”
It was a hard four years for Moss, but he made it through, and now that he’s on the other side, one of his goals is to make the whole experience of teenagehood a little less painful for current and future generations. He does this on a daily basis in the classroom, but now, with the upcoming release of his band’s second full-length and fourth overall record, California Heart, out Oct. 14 through Asian Man Records, he’s attempting to do the same through his music.
From a strictly instrumental standpoint, California Heart is a true-blue punk album. It’s got fast-paced, propulsive melodies, thick, textured slabs of guitar, rough undercuts of bass, and clamorous, reckless drumming. Moss’ vocals, which are often shouted or yelled, compete for space in the sonically crowded tracks, peeking out from behind a wall of distortion or getting drowned in a barrage of ferocious, no-holds-barred fit of drumming.
But if you parse the lyrics and drown out the noise, you’ll unearth an entirely different side to the record, one that is fragile and introspective and simply aching to be understood. In the album’s 10 tracks, Moss, who is also Great Apes’ songwriter, weaves a first-person-narrated tale of a disenchanted, misunderstood, and utterly bored youth who is stuck in the Central Valley city of Fresno. Though no one in Great Apes is actually from Fresno — Moss hails from Berkeley — the Central Valley appealed to him because its “off the beaten path” location meshed well with the album’s escapist narrative.
“It’s kind of like this suburban, shitty half-city,” Moss says, “that is perfect for telling a story about a kid who’s not only depressed and an outcast, but who is just bored and dying to get out.”
Though the album marks Great Apes’ first foray into young adult-themed material, it is by no means the band’s first story-based project. Their debut album, Thread, from 2013, revolves around friends in Moss’ own life who were each struggling with personal issues, while their 2014 EP, Playland At The Beach, combines bits of history about the former seaside water park with railing indictments against the changing face of San Francisco.
In California Heart, listeners are automatically introduced to the unnamed teen, who, for the bulk of the album, has no gender, except for one line in “Bullard Hex” about “Jenny from art class smil[ing] at me” that hints that the narrator is male. Flanked by his parents at the dinner table in their cul de sac-situated home on a warm, autumn night, the teen launches into his first of many monologues, questioning the point of existence (“Maybe we’re just a chemical mess brought here on a comet from the sky / The failed experiment of an accident / Maybe we’re just born to die”) and his personal failures (“Why can’t I get it right?”).
It’s heavy stuff, but Moss, himself a deft storyteller, peppers the album with anecdotes and scenic details that lend some levity to the album and help distract from the main character’s overall despair. We shadow him as he bravely attempts to interact with fellow students at a Halloween-themed house party, before giving up and relinquishing to the basement, his “shallow grave,” along with “the freaks, medieval knights with 12-sided dice, robotic nerds, and punks with spikes.” We suffer with him in “Brown Dots” as he takes psychedelics for the first time — at school, to boot — and as he flips through an old photo album of his parents in “Regarding The You In Me,” hoping against all hope that he doesn’t become like them in the future. In “Chuckchansi’s Complacency For Beginners,” his cynicism shines through at a baseball game — “You can try and you can dream but it won’t do anything / So keep calm and die” — and self-doubts over take him in “Prom Com” while he navigates a school dance.
The album ends with “The Escapist,” a tune that regurgitates the same sentiments expressed by Blink 182 in their 1999 suicide-themed hit, “Adam’s Song.” Purposely vague in its ending, the narrator wonders if, “When I’m gone, you’ll forget me,” before coming to peace with the idea — “Frankly, that’s alright” — by the song’s end.
But as vivid and detailed as the stories in California Heart are, Moss is keen to point out that they are works of fiction, culled from memories of his own life and his bandmates’, as well as from experiences and observations that he’s made in his six years of teaching.
“Working around children all the time, you encounter kids who are depressed, who feel outcast, and who are having a hard time with the world around them and their identities,” he says. “So that was definitely an influence.”
As a teacher, Moss is no stranger to writing or reading stories, but he credits Great Apes’ narrative underpinnings to the band’s roots in punk, rather than to his own creative inclinations.
“When I got into punk music, one of the things that I really gravitated to were the lyrics,” he says. “They were relatable and they really comforted me and gave me strength. So it’s always been a hope of mine to kind of return that favor and give it back.”
Great Apes play This Is My Fest 3 at 7 p.m., on Saturday, Sept. 17, at Oakland Metro House. $15; oaklandmetro.org.