Currently tearing up the UK in support of their new album ‘True View’, Orange County’s Stick To Your Guns have become the heroes of the melodic hardcore circuit for their uncompromising and ever-evolving approach to hardcore, and dedication to it since 2003. This is the story of how they came to be the institution they are today.
The Early Days
Growing up in Orange County, California, Jesse Barnett quickly found himself inspired by hardcore. Attending Ignite and Death By Stereo shows as a teenager, Jesse learnt the values of self-expression through assertive energetic music, and knew it was the path for him. This would sow the seeds for Stick to Your Guns.
Around the same time, Jesse regularly attended Saddleback Church, where he played guitar and sang every Sunday for the church’s worship band. It was during this time playing softer songs of praise that he befriended Casey Lagos, who played drums in the band. In 2003, bonding over a shared love of hardcore, the pair decided to form a group of their own with Jesse on vocals and Casey on drums. Enlisting local guitarists Justin Rutherford and Curtis Pleshe, and Noah Calvin on bass, the first incarnation of STYG was born.
Quickly gaining a local reputation for their live shows that took place everywhere from venues to friends’ garages, the band released their debut EP ‘Compassion Without Compromise’ in 2004. Built upon the rapid pace, brutality and pushing a positive message of unity and tolerance, the EP caught the attention of This City is Burning Records, who specialised in hardcore and deathcore groups including Carnifex, and Liferuiner.
In August 2005, STYG released their full-length album ‘For What It’s Worth’. A number of tracks from ‘Compassion Without Compromise’ including ‘Badge a Brand’ and ‘There’s No ‘I’ in Team’ were re-recorded for the album, but seventh song ‘This is More’ quickly became the album’s standout track for it’s catchy gang vocal calls and gargantuan breakdown spurred by Jesse’s guttural cry of ‘Move!’ It quickly found itself being shared across MySpace music boards and soundtracking skating videos being uploaded by teens to a new video sharing site called YouTube.
Live performances of the song also began racking up views on the website, as grainy cameraphone footage captured hordes of kids jumping onstage to perform with them at Anaheim’s iconic Chain Reaction venue. Soon, their reputation was becoming known to more people outside of Orange County and after witnessing a STYG performance at Anaheim’s House of Blues, Ash Avildsen, CEO of Sumerian Records signed the band to his label where they would re-release ‘For What It’s Worth’ to a bigger audience in 2007.
In 2008, with a renewed and expanding interest, STYG signed with Century Media Records for the release of their second full-length ‘Comes From the Heart’. Numerous lineup changes left Barnett and Lagos as the sole members again, so they wrote and recorded the album together playing a variety of instruments, while iconic engineer Zeuss (Terror, Hatebreed) handled production. ‘Comes From the Heart’ stayed true to hardcore roots of ‘For What It’s Worth’, but it’s production and improved vocal performance from Barnett made it a significant step up from it’s predecessor.
During this period the touring lineup felt interchangeable with Reid Haymond, Ryan Nelson and Jesse’s brother Alex Barnett acting as guitarists for different shows and Daryl McFadden on bass. However, the lineup remained stable enough for the band to tour across the US on Warped Tour, and the then-annual Thrash and Burn tour, alongside headliners Darkest Hour, a then-breaking Parkway Drive and many others. Two months later, they embarked on a European tour with Walls of Jericho and Evergreen Terrace, where they would get to know future guitarists Chris Rawson and Josh James.
In December, at a show in Iowa supporting Every Time I Die and The Bronx, Casey Lagos confirmed his departure among numerous rumours circulating his place in the band. In a quick statement, he said “I’m not going to be playing in Stick To Your Guns anymore, but do wish them the BEST, and will always love the guys no matter what.“
The night Casey announced his departure, Jesse approached George Schmitz, who was selling merchandise at the show and asked if he could play drums. After a brief conversation about different bands Schmitz had played in and demos he had recorded, Jesse asked “Do you want to come on tour with our band? Things aren’t working out with our drummer.” Two days later, Schmitz learned all their songs and became a full time member.
‘The Hope Division’
In 2009, Walls of Jericho’s Chris Rawson joined Stick To Your Guns as a full-time guitarist, while his old band went on hiatus. With the addition of Rawson and Andrew Rose on bass, STYG finally developed a stable lineup and became a tighter unit. With this lineup, they returned to Sumerian Records, who would release their third full-length ‘The Hope Division’.
‘The Hope Division’ was released in June 2010 and introduced listeners to the Stick To Your Guns sound that we recognise and love today. Written largely by Barnett and Rawson, the record’s was a callout to “a division of people who still give a fuck about problems that are still very prevalent in not only the world, but right here.”
Undoubtedly, the highlight of the record was third track ‘Amber.’ In an interview with Bare Bones Music Network, Jesse explained that ‘Amber’ was written about a family friend who committed suicide at a young age after living with depression. The song’s signature message ‘I just wish she knew she didn’t have to be alone’ resonated with hundreds of fans going through similar personal issues. ‘Amber’ quickly spread among the American hardcore scene and beyond, and became a new fan favourite alongside ‘This is More’.
As their musical style developed, the lasting impression of STYG’s live shows started to make a bigger impact with hardcore fans and musicians alike throughout America. “I saw Stick To Your Guns play Baltimore in 2011 with Terror and Trapped Under Ice”, Lauren Kashen, frontwoman of Sharptooth reflects. “I heard Jesse talking between their set and explaining what their songs were about. That’s something that when I started going to punk shows in high school, bands would do. They’d tell you what their songs were about, and I hadn’t heard that in a really long time.
“The fact that it was so important for him to take time out of their set to say ‘this is what we’re all about and I need you to understand that,’, that was really huge for me.
“It really took you from thinking ‘oh I’m going to see a band to thinking ‘this is like a communion of people, you’re not just there to beat the crap out of your friends in the pit. This is about something bigger, and it can be bigger.”
‘Diamond’ and ‘Disobedient’
On the November 20th 2011, Sumerian Records published a video for ‘Bringing You Down (A New World Overthrow)’, which featured guest vocals from First Blood frontman Karl Schwartz. The song itself was released in connection to the Occupy Wall Street protests that had shaken New York two months just before. “I understand that there are a lot of younger people out there who look at this and say to themselves, "I don’t see how this is affecting me?”, an accompanying message from the band read. “The fact of the matter is, it is affecting you. Our mothers and fathers are being ripped from their homes. They are having their jobs taken away from them. This is a time to stand for what is right and to show that integrity and a mutual respect for each other will reign supreme over all of this bullshit that these fuck heads have fed to us and our families for so long.”
With a new reputation as the band at the heart of the American hardcore zeitgeist, and with this bold statement of intent unleashed, Stick To Your Guns went to record their fourth full-length record ‘Diamond’, an album that would turn them from one of the best modern hardcore bands to the most important. Before the album’s release, Evergreen Terrace’s Josh James replaced Reid Haymond on guitar. In an interview with Of Core’s, James stated that the day he left Evergreen Terrace due to “internal problems”, he also received a phone call from STYG asking if he wanted to play guitar. Without hesitation, he said, “sure.”
Upon it’s release, ‘Diamond’ debuted on the Billboard Charts, achieving more commercial success than the band had ever experienced. It appeared at the top of the Heatseekers albums charts, #11 on the Hard Rock chart and #30 on the Rock Chart. At the time of release lead single ‘We Still Believe’ was constantly airing Active Rock radio stations throughout the US.
2013 was another year of constant touring for STYG on a vast range of different bills, opening up for skate punk icons Pennywise on their 25th anniversary tour in February, before taking the then-rising talents Stray From the Path and Hundredth to decimate clubs on a Canadian Tour during October. However, it was their stint on that summer’s Warped Tour where they really picked up new fans and got large crowds moshing stage diving and crowd surfing to their music, whether they’d ever heard a note of their back catalogue or not.
With a decade of experience behind them and the biggest audiences of their career supporting them, STYG released ‘Disobedient’ in February 2015. Working with hit producer John Feldmann, (Blink-182, The Used) ‘Disobedient’ continued the streamlined songwriting of ‘Diamond’ with tracks like ‘Nobody’ and the irresistibly catchy ‘The Crown.’ While the album may have pushed the pop side of their songwriting further than previous records, there was still enough muscle in tracks like ‘What Choice Did You Give Us’ and ‘Revolutionary Mental Attitude’ to stop them losing track of the aggression that got them there in the first place. Plus, guest appearances from H2O’s Toby Morse, Terror’s Scott Vogel and Walter Delgado of Rotting Out paid tribute to the number of peers that paved the way for them.
‘Better Ash Than Dust’ and beyond…
After a year and a half of touring ‘Disobedient’, the band released the five track EP ‘Better Ash Than Dust’ in September 2016 via Pure Noise Records.. While holding on to the balance of melody and aggression, a rawer production style felt more reminiscent of the sound on ‘Diamond’ the the polished moments of ‘Disobedient’ as evidenced by lead single ‘Universal Language’ which featured Counterparts’ Brendan Murphy. Fans in the UK were given a chance to get to know the EP before the band returned to the shores as the opening band on Architects’ tour.
Fourteen years since Jesse decided to start a small time band at his local church, and Stick To Your Guns have become an integral part of modern hardcore’s foundation. In a society where modern political discourse is turning different factions of people against each other, their latest album ‘True View’ is a challenge for listeners to look inwards towards their personal guilt and flaws as a means to change their own world and understand others. In fourteen years, touring the world, and using their music as a social commentary of the injustices and turmoil they see in society, a matured group of people who have experienced every high and low of being in a hardcore band have given the most powerful message of all. If you want to change the world, you have to start with yourself.
In many ways, Stick To Your Guns’ message has been clear since day one: “Rest assure, that with a heart that’s pure, we’ll be victorious and not their their hate get the best of us.” Move!
The Essential Album: ‘Diamond’
‘Diamond’ is one of Stick To Your Guns’ biggests successes, both commercially and artistically. It introduced us to to the lineup we know and love today, and continues from the sonic pummeling and immense melody of ‘The Hope Division’, only to sharpen the craft they developed to create an iconic set of songs. Singles ‘We Still Believe’ and ‘Against Them All’ are now essential parts of a STYG live show, and have likely become gateways into hardcore for kids unfamiliar with the genre, inspired by their message preservation for one’s self and values.
The rest of ‘Diamond’ is a hotbed of socio-political discourse, from ‘Beyond the Sun’s’ heart-wrenching narrative of a domestic-abuse victim who favours death over her living situation, to ‘Life in a Box’s’ tirade against America’s prevailing homophobic attitudes. The beatdown masterpiece ‘Empty Heads’ even gives STYG a chance to protest against bigger bands whose lyrics serve no real world value. (“You say fuck the world, we say fuck you.”) At a time when Asking Alexandria and Emmure were playing to their biggest audiences in America, this message had a profound reference point.
‘Diamond’ sees Stick To Your Guns find the perfect balance of merging commercially accessible punk rock structure with the visceral carnage of underground hardcore in a way that flows naturally and doesn’t compromise one style for the other. They found their true potential here and ran with it.
For Die Hard Fans: ‘For What It’s Worth’
For fans like myself whose entry point to STYG came from later material, hearing their 2005 debut album comes as an unexpected shock, which shows how far they’ve come. Released on the the deathcore specialist label This City is Burning Records, ‘For What It’s Worth’ is a much denser and bludgeoning album, though it still upholds the messages of personal strength and tolerance in it’s lyrics STYG are known for today. Most striking is the difference in Jesse’s vocal technique, with little to no singing, and deeper growling that resembles the acts they shared their label with. It also contains die-hard fan favourite ‘This is More’, with it’s signature breakdown preceded by Jesse’s now iconic ‘MOVE!’
One to Avoid: ‘Comes From the Heart’
In short, ‘Comes From the Heart’ is not a bad record, but it captures STYG at a cross-roads in their career between being a brilliant live band and a brilliant all round band, and just isn’t as iconic as any of their other albums. This is the sound of Stick To Your Guns in between the all-out-war that is ‘For What it’s Worth’ and the improved melody craft that would define ‘The Hope Division’. However, as the title suggests, this record does have a lot of heart and that same meaning felt in each STYG album is here too, but it does feel undeveloped in places, and choruses in tracks like ‘Enough is Enough’ feel flat due to Jesse’s then underdeveloped singing technique. Plus, the chances of hearing material from it live now are extremely slim, which is a shame because the breakdowns in ‘Impact’ would decimate any venue. So if you really want to skip any STYG album (though you shouldn’t), this would be the one.
If one was to dissect the members of Stick To Your Guns into the bands and projects that came before them, one could link guitarist Josh James to his work in Evergreen Terrace, one of the most underrated names in melodic hardcore, whose 2007 album ‘Wolfbiker’ should be listened to by any STYG fan as well. James is also the brains behind straight edge hardcore project Casey Jones featuring members of Evergreen Terrace and Anchors Away, who released three albums, before James disbanded the project to focus full-time on STYG.
Those looking to hear the more sensitive side of Jesse’s vocals beyond interludes like ‘Erida’ and ‘It Starts With Me’ need look no further than Trade Wind, his mellow indie side project formed with Stray From the Path’s Tom Williams. Their 2016 debut album ‘You Make Everything Disappear’ is a collection of delicately written rock songs that sound like if The Fray made more post-rock inspired music. With Jesse also playing guitar, it showcases the versatility of the man as a performer and even gives him a chance to use the musician skills he learnt playing in his church band to full effect.
While Stick To Your Guns have never released an official documentary or live performance, their three part ‘Warped Tour Survival’ diary created for US publication Alternative Press while they toured on 2013’s Vans Warped Tour perfectly captures both the challenges and hardships that come with touring in a band, while showing the monumental impact of STYG’s live shows at a time that they were really making a name for themselves.
‘True View’ by Stick To Your Guns is out now on Pure Noise Records/End Hit Records.
Words by Andy Davidson (@AndyrfDavidson)