Interview! Jonathan Diener of Baggage

“After over a decade in touring punk band, The Swellers, drummer Jonathan Diener moves from the back of the stage to the front. The songs being written at the time were for nothing more than self-medicating and moving on from the band’s breakup, but eventually the project was all about leaving your comfort zone and doing what you’ve always wanted to do with no expectations. Doing it for fun again.

As a freelance writer for several music publications, seeing things from the business side as well as creative side just fed more fuel to the flames. The idea was to embrace feelings of self-awareness and distance one’s self from the toxic feelings of romanticizing nostalgia. Letting the past finally be the past. The formation of Baggage was inevitable.”

– From Baggage’s Facebook.

Tell us about the new lineup with Baggage?  How did the band come together?
The original intention with Baggage was to start from a clean slate. I didn’t want shreds or expectations of The Swellers lingering in the music or the lineup other than me. I contributed to that band for 13 and loved it, but again I wanted this to be all on me. I wanted to find my friends who were just solid people that I would love traveling with and being around in a creative environment. People who lived near me so we could practice regularly and it didn’t have to be a production to play a local show. My buddies I worked with at Guitar Center ended up being the people I was usually around and just felt like a good fit. Currently it’s my buddies Dan, Shane and myself rounding out the group.

I noticed you’re all from the Flint, Michigan area. One of the most dangerous cities in the country and decades of hard times, yeah? How has that impacted your music and how did you get your start as a musician?
I always preface talking about this with I’m currently living in a suburb of Flint called Grand Blanc. It’s a few miles from Flint township. I moved to this side of the state when I was in eighth grade and it was a huge culture shock for me. If you drove a foreign car you were the enemy. A lot of people were living under hard times and the whole General Motors situation really did touch all of the families in one way or another. It’s an automotive area and when the jobs were lacking, especially when the recession hit everyone and my parents had to me, that’s when we really started to feel it. The inner-workings of the city government have not been helping the people living in it. The bad parts are still bad, if not worse. Our terrible governor, Rick Snyder, appointed an “Emergency Manager” to run our town who decided to stop using Detroit’s water and rely on water from the Flint River… which resulted in Flint being in a State Of Emergency due the water virtually being poisoned, tons of families getting sick and now there’s irreversible damage to most children with incredibly high levels of lead in their blood. It is definitely a factor in the music I write because it’s very rarely about sunshine and rainbows. I witness a lot of people struggling and it’s hard learning to react, grieve and respond. Usually music is the way I feel most comfortable dealing with it.

My brother Nick and I started playing drums and guitar when we were 9 and 10 years old. We took lessons for a few years and then jammed with each other, went to shows and tried to get as good as possible. My parents were huge motivators for us and as we progressed they would help us with better gear and push us to excel. I was already advanced for my age so The Swellers had a nice advantage over a lot of young local bands which I think helped us get our start. Supportive parents, good role models and early training were pretty crucial for us.

Was switching from drums to bass and lead vocals always the plan?  What’s it like being a frontman and how did that come to be?
When I was younger I always wanted to be a singer. I have a tape of me singing a Spice Girls song when I was a kid and I was so passionate. My Mom would always push me to try things I loved like that, and playing guitar. I took a guitar lesson before Nick and if I didn’t complain about my fingers hurting, I have no idea where I would have ended up. I cared more about action figures and my imagination than instruments. Finally when I got drums I had something to work on and I was getting really good. My brother ended up singing for our bands because we needed someone and over time I learned how to sing harmonies while drumming. Then on tour years later a drunk friend gave me his old beat up acoustic guitar and I learned how to play simple chords on guitar, which is still mostly what I know. I started writing parts of songs then full songs for The Swellers and finally was confident enough in myself to do it on my own. I always loved bass and it was easier to play, plus the grooves and rhythms were similar to drumming so it was natural for me. I had to push myself to stop being terrified of fronting a band and being in front of people without my protective drum shield. When we finally played our first show I started to get the hang of things. I still am, but it’s starting to feel much more natural.

Pretty solid recording. Where did you track? Who did your mixing and engineering?
We tracked with Marc Jacob Hudson at Rancho Recordo in Fenton, Michigan. It was the strangest thing having the guy that recorded and toured with Saves The Day and Taking Back Sunday live in my hometown. We met through mutual friends then once The Swellers recorded with him I became Marc’s adventure buddy. Whenever he was home from tour I was one of the only people nearby that shared the same experiences so we would travel around to check out gear, new restaurants or just hang out. Whenever either of us are home we hang out a few times a week. He’s an awesome guy and while we were tracking, Laura Jane Grace from Against Me! was hanging out in the other room. That’s the vibe there. It’s very open and comfortable.

Was this a self-release? Are you guys shopping record labels?
I want this EP to be easily accessible to everyone and I didn’t want to spend my personal money on physical copies. As of right now, it’s self-released and in digital format only. I am definitely open to talking to record labels, but I want to sure we’re ready. I want to play more shows and grow into our skin as a band. There’s no rush for once which is nice. You can download the album for free or any donation given will help our friend Ron Luczak repair his house damaged by an arsonist.

Any full length album plan in the works?
I’ve been a songwriting machine lately and it feels good. I need to get the guys together in a room and start plowing through ideas so we can get some more material for live shows and start stockpiling for another EP or full length. I was always a fan of the 10 song Weezer full length model, so I could definitely see that happening eventually. The EP thing is also great because you don’t have to whip out songs to fill space, you only include the stuff you love, like the songs on Cheaper Than Therapy.

What’s in store for Baggage in 2016? Will we be seeing you in San Diego, or Southern California anytime soon?
Right now we’re jamming as much as we can, getting ready to book a bunch of shows and start doing small, but smart tours. I don’t see California happening in the near future, but if we get a package tour with our friends bands and get the financial means to make it to Southern California, you bet we’ll be there in a second. I’ve played in eighteen countries and that’s still one of my favorite places in the world.

Baggage links:


Interview by Larry West

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