In the late '90s and early 2000s, Not Waving But Drowning made a glorious noise at maximum volume and at breakneck speed — first in its homebase of St. Louis, and eventually on stages across the country. Despite this success, the quartet was never quite sure what its role was in the larger music scene.
"We were kind of a hardcore band, kind of a metal band, kind of a punk band," recalls guitarist Justin Mank. "We never really fit in."
The band has its roots in the lifelong friendship of Mank and lead singer Todd Finoch, whose delivery matched the histrionics of hardcore with some stage-prowling theatricality.
"It all started with the two of us," Mank says of Finoch. "We changed the rhythm section a couple years into it, but once we got Jeff [Meyer] and Calvin [McRoy] in the band we knew that was it."
That particular foursome is what Mank, and most NWBD fans, will consider the "classic era" of the group. And since Mank took the lead on bringing many traveling hardcore bands to town at venues like the Creepy Crawl and the Galaxy, his band often played alongside touring acts and made connections with out-of-town bands and promoters. All that touring, though, led to more miles than money.
"We toured extensively for a few years, and after a few labels and things falling through, we found that only got us so far — especially when you're living out of your van," Mank says.
The band split up in 2002 and released a retrospective compilation in 2004. For a while, that seemed to be the end. But as the years went by, the occasional Not Waving But Drowning reunion gig would appear around the holidays. While Mank says that many of those gigs amounted to "a high school reunion of sorts," the band decided to make their return official in 2017.
"We got older but realized that we liked playing together so much, even if we knew we wouldn't make a living at it," Mank says. "Now, it's about us wanting us to hang out."
Relaunching the band gave the members of NWBD a chance at a redo; they had no desire to re-write history or just rehash its old songs, but an older, wiser version of the band could honor its legacy and still break some new ground. Better yet, they could make some recordings that better represented the group's signature sound.
"That's the lineup that we toured with the most, but we never spent as much time as we should have in the studio," Mank says. "It wasn't until recently that we recorded as the four of us that sounded great and that we were happy with."
Initially, the reunited Not Waving But Drowning had contributed one very brief track to Encapsulated Records' Quarter Hour of Power comp, but that experience gave the band the itch to return to the studio.
"We never felt like we did this lineup justice," Mank says. So when the chance came along to record a two-song seven-inch for the label Mind Over Matter's subscription series, it felt like a good excuse to get back in the studio.
"If anything, it seems like we were better songwriters this time around," Mank says of the new recordings. "We just know how to work with each other really well and anticipate what the other person is going to be doing next. And we're not trying to play a million miles an hour — we're old, so we slow it down a little bit."
Both tracks retain the thrashing, pulverizing energy the band was known for. A-side "Bright Eyed and Bushy Tailed" reintroduces the group in a flurry of cymbal crashes and metallic, atmospheric double-stops; B-side "A Secret and a Truth" has a slower build, helping Finoch transition from a banshee howl to a Vincent Price horror-show delivery.
"I feel like, not so much on recordings but in our live shows, Todd felt like he was more of a showman than a singer," Mank says. "His live shows are wacky and people don't know what to expect from them. I think this recording, that definitely came across."
As for future plans, the band is setting reasonable expectations; the obligations to family and work come first, though future recordings are not out of the question.
"The original goal was to write a full-length and we're all pretty busy with work and kids and stuff," Mank says. "We're still not playing a ton of shows; there's no plans to tour. We just kind of figure it out as we go."
In a nice twist of serendipity, Mank is planning to pick up where he left off when Not Waving But Drowning was first getting national acclaim: He's going back to college to finish his bachelor's degree.
"I dropped out to tour, and when I got back I never finished it up," he says. Now, it seems, Mank is able to juggle work, family and school, with a little time still left for a hardcore band that never fully sank beneath the waves.