When rock ’n’ roll lifers and truest of true believers Jesse Malin and Danny Sage talk about their hometown of New York City, the past and the present are never far apart.
One recent July evening, when the pair met at Niagara on Avenue A to discuss Nothing Is Anywhere, the fantastic new album by their reactivated glam-punk band D Generation, tales of yesterday and today rubbed up against each other like the kids in the giant photo hanging on the back wall. The black-and-white shot was taken circa 1982 at a hardcore show held in the very same room, back when the place was called A7. Malin himself is in the picture, standing next to a teenage Adam Yauch, later known to millions as MCA from The Beastie Boys.
Inspired by the groups they saw at clubs like A7, Malin and Sage started playing music together in the early ‘80s and formed D Generation in their 20s at the turn of the next decade. Although the Ramones were on their last legs and drab and dreary grunge was gaining strength, the trashy, punky, makeup-smeared quintet made a pretty decent noise. With Malin on vocals and Sage on lead guitar, D Gen toured with the likes of Green Day and KISS and released three killer LPs before calling it quits in 1999—right before The Strokes and Interpol hit, and New York City rock ’n’ roll became a thing again.
“A lot of those bands broke the New York curse,” says Malin, 48, who turns up for the interview in a snug, stylish, totally stage-ready black vest and matching button-up, even though he’s just come from rehearsal in some basement a few blocks over. “When we went out in the ‘90s, it was still at a time people weren’t just into everything. We’d get on stage, and it’d be like a war with the audience sometimes.”
“What does New York represent? All of this left-leaning stuff,” says Sage, 51, who also goes through life dressed like a Bob Gruen photoshoot could break out at any moment. “I think of it as really good. But you’d go play Peoria, and people weren’t into New York. They all want to live here now because of Sarah Jessica Parker.”
And with that Sex and the City reference, we’re back into the present, more or less. (Girls comes up later in the conversation.) In these streaming, smartphone-powered days, Malin says, people don’t swing dog chains at bands they don’t like. In fact, nowadays, everyone likes everything—and worse yet, they don’t even know why. Even in New York City, there’s a troubling lack of character and passion. That’s part of what D Gen—which also includes Howie Pyro on bass, Richard Bacchus on guitar, and Michael Wildwood on drums—sings about on Nothing Is Anywhere.
“The record is about now,” says Malin, a Queens native who’s spent his post-D Gen years cultivating a solo rock-troubadour persona pitched somewhere between Paul Westerberg and Bruce Springsteen. “It’s dealing with things we’re confronted with in 2016. There’s a lot of disgust, but there’s also the story of where we came from. The history of the band is a subplot to us singing about all this stuff in the world now.”
Sonically, the mix of old and new is the result of how Nothing Is Anywhere came together. With Sage producing, the band recorded in freezing Avenue A basements with little more than a couple of mics. They mostly kept first and second takes, capturing the vitality that had been missing during an earlier session in Los Angeles with Ryan Adams.
“Spiritually, not to be corny, he’s very much like we are,” Sage says of Adams, who had better luck producing Malin’s 2003 solo debut, The Fine Art of Self Destruction. “You don’t know what you’re going to get. It could be brilliant. It could also sound like the end of the world. He’s like us in that you don’t really know what’s going to happen. But I think that’s rock ‘n’ roll—or should be.”
Nothing Is Anywhere is what you’d call graceful aging for a group whose fan base once consisted of drag queens and skinheads. There’s not a lot of the apocalyptic Johnny Thunders Les Paul howling heard on 1996’s No Lunch, and Malin doesn’t yelp like a dude with a sinus infection and too-tight brothel creepers. But “Apocalypse Kids” has the anthemic feel of a “Capital Offender,” and “Militant” chomps like a mouthful of rotten teeth. If most of the songs are only a hair more aggressive than Malin’s feistiest solo recordings, this ain’t a bunch of ex-punks going politely alt-country for the NPR crowd.
“This band has a definite sound,” Malin says. “I hear that sound in this band, and I hear it on the record. It’s a progression, everything you do. Hopefully, you get better. I’m a better singer, but I’m a different singer.”
Another difference is that when the album drops on July 29, it’ll won’t be on a behemoth like Columbia, one of the majors D Gen did business with in the ‘90s. With this second go-round, which began with some reunion shows in 2011, the band is calling the shots via its own label, Bastard Basement. All five members are free to pursue other projects and come together whenever their schedules and temperaments allow.
“Maybe I have more appreciation,” says Malin, “of music and focus and dedication. I was a little more carefree and callus and fucked up and maybe self-destructive about the band back then. I’ve learned from my solo stuff to appreciate that I have an opportunity to get up onstage again and people will show up.”
Not everyone still has that chance. The album’s final song, “Tomorrow,” tells of four real-life friends who’ve come and gone. Among them is Bob Stinson, who Malin and Sage saw play with the Replacements way back in the day. They could’ve just as easily written a song about The Ramones, or The Stimulators, or Joe Strummer, or any of the other legends they hung out with over the years. D Gen’s connection to NYC’s storied rock ’n’ roll past makes them the proverbial last gang in town—a “born endangered species,” as Malin sings on “Apocalypse Kids.”
That’s especially apparent on this July evening, which comes one day after Suicide frontman Alan Vega died at 78. Of course, the D Gen guys knew him, and before the interview is done, Malin gets an email from Vega’s wife with details about his memorial. As the ‘70s again come crashing into the ‘10s, Sage thinks about how Suicide would dodge bottles chucked by listeners not ready for their haunted-factory take on ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll. D Gen has a bunch more songs in the can and five members whose hearts are still beating. The critics say guitar music is over, and St. Mark’s Place is full of Japanese ice-cream shops, but maybe there’s reason to believe in tomorrow, as that closing song says.
“We’re still here,” Sage says. “We get to play rock ‘n’ roll today. We get to sit here and have a beer. There’s something great about that. Let’s go forward. As long as you can do it. Maybe it’s a New York City thing. Our upbringing. There’s stubbornness, and there’s a survivor mentality. That’s in us. That’s always gonna be there.”