That One Song: “Checks” by Dead Billionaires

“We’re all struggling through all sorts of different things.”

It’s not just a harsh reality of exceptionally uncertain times. It’s also what Warren Campbell, leader of Richmond-based punk band Dead Billionaires, hopes listeners will take away from his group’s new album, “Disaster Preparedness Coloring Book.”

That takeaway, the album’s title — you’d be forgiven for assuming Campbell is offering a somber assessment of the state of the world. But his acknowledgment of others’ suffering is circumspect, not pessimistic, and his songs have a way of blending darkness and light, illustrating the importance of looking at life from multiple points of view. “I try and think about different perspectives,” Campbell says. “There’s this very goal-centric mentality that’s forced upon us through capitalism, and it makes people treat each other shitty. We’re thrust into this position where it’s like, ‘OK, well I need to be looking out for myself, right?’”

“Disaster Preparedness Coloring Book,” released earlier in June, provides an antidote to that thinking via fast tempos, gallows humor and anthemic choruses that encourage participation. The set of seven songs follows a similarly strong three-track EP from 2021 that was mixed by Chip Hale, the in-demand Richmond bassist whom Campbell counts as an old friend. Hale assumed the role of [engineer] this time around. “I’ve known Chip forever,” Campbell says, “so it was nice to work in his house with a good friend.”

That familiar feel will extend to the album’s release celebration, which is scheduled to take place on Friday, June 9 at the Camel. Performing alongside Dead Billionaires will be Tyler Meacham, with whom Chip Hale plays bass, and Prabir Trio, whose namesake leader, Prabir Mehta, appears in the video for “Disaster Preparedness Coloring Book” track “Straight Shooter.” Style Weekly spoke with Warren Campbell about the upcoming album release show, as well as its fifth track, “Checks,” which Campbell calls “a companion song” to “Straight Shooter,” and which brightly and boldly declares: “Let’s use our welfare checks to play the lottery/ Use the winnings for our new frontal lobotomies.”

Style Weekly: What was it like working with Chip Hale as engineer this time around?

Warren Campbell: He’s definitely always super-level-headed, and would ask important questions, and ones that weren’t necessarily leading you different places in the studio. He was like, “Do you want it like this or like this?” We’ve been sitting on a good number of these songs for a while, so it wasn’t as if we were looking to make any drastic changes in the direction of them. It was a really good experience just being there. I’ve been to his house a bunch of times before — not to record — so [it’s a] very comfortable environment.

What was going on in your life when you wrote “Checks”?

WC: I [was] staying at an AirBNB that was sort of like a getaway from this terrible job I had at the time. I was staying out in the middle of the woods, and I was there for a couple of days, and it was remarkable to think back on how maybe I wouldn’t feel the way that I do at home, so stressed and desperate, and mind so jumbled, if I didn’t have to do that job. I read this kind of woo-woo astrology book that was in the yurt I was saying in, and it was very funny to read about the beginning of the world and the cosmos and all of this stuff, so that’s where the first line [came from]: “You’d think we jumped out of the ooze already wearing our wrist watches …”

It’s kind of a companion song to “Straight Shooter.” It has some of the same themes, [in how] we lean into our destructive tendencies. How can we get some dopamine delivered to us quickly instead of working to build a life in which we feel content all the time? Instead we have these moments of escape. I will say, at the time, I had never collected any money from the government [laughs] when I wrote that song. And then when the pandemic came around, that was when I was laid off for the first time and had to go on the dole for a bit there, as many did.

What terrible job were you working when you wrote “Checks”?

WC: I was working customer support through social media. All of the people that were angry-tweeting the organization that I was working for at the time. I would say, “Let’s go into the DM and have a chat about this.” It was pretty dehumanizing in a lot of ways because of how we can put this computer on my end and this computer or this phone on your end and then we’re having a conversation with each other — two complete strangers — and it’s like you’re playing a video game, and that video game is: “I am outraged at this multibillion dollar company.” So you don’t think of the person on the other side of that. I thought that if maybe you could just win the lottery that would be the way out. But the true way to stick it to everyone is if you get to use government money to win the lottery, and then you’ve truly beaten the system at that point, right?

“Checks” does a great job of weaving together heavy themes and a lighter feel. Is that a balance you aim to strike?

WC: I don’t know if it’s maybe, musically, I’ve always been interested in the sunnier side of things altogether. I feel like Dead Billionaires is a punk band, but I wouldn’t say that I’m particularly versed in classic punk or hardcore punk or whatever. I’ve always been interested in the sunnier side of — at least that genre. I realized that the songs that really hit me were the songs where I could recognize a part of myself in the struggle of what the singer was singing. That was what made me want to be a songwriter, and how I try and approach music. “How can I, being a depressed, anxious, not-so-wealthy person, how can I take a new turn on all of these struggles that everyone has, and how can we commiserate and hope that we can rise above?” That’s how I try and write a lot of music, especially the majority of the tunes on this album.

How does it feel looking forward to a release show with such close friends on the bill?

WC: It’s great. The situation I was running into recently was, “Oh shit, everyone who has worked on this can be in the room …” If you’re not making the art with your friends, it takes out a huge element of the fun of the whole thing. I came up with Chip and Tyler. I remember going to Cary St. Cafe open mic with them all the time, and then Prabir’s been such a good friend and mentor to me, and it’s been really sweet. It’s definitely a family affair.

Dead Billionaires perform at the Camel on Friday, June 9. Tyler Meacham and Prabir Trio will also perform. Doors open at 9 p.m. and music starts at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 in advance and $15 the day of the show and can be purchased at thecamel.org. To hear and buy “Checks” and the rest of “Disaster Preparedness Coloring Book,” visit deadbillionaires.bandcamp.com.

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