San Jose hardcore moves fast. Two thousand people came to see Sunami play their second show. Three years after releasing their first album, Gulch have already announced their final tour. And Spy—a very new band with no music videos and only a four-song, seven-minute EP to their name—has somehow amassed over 17,000 monthly listeners on Spotify.
“I still can’t wrap my head around the numbers,” says singer Peter Pawlak. “How is it 17,000? That’s a lot. Especially for, like…punk music.”
This Friday, Spy release their sophomore album Habitual Offender via Raleigh, NC extreme music label To Live a Lie Records. Already, the hype has been high. After premiering on Brooklyn Vegan, lead single “Exceptional American” received write-ups in both Stereogum and New Noise—on top of thousands of plays from listeners.
“There’s definitely an excitement around Bay Area hardcore right now that people in other areas are feeling,” Pawlak says. “I think the fact that we’re from the Bay has been a massive help for the band.”
That may be the case, but there’s more to Spy than just locality. Even for hardcore, the band are gritty—an aesthetic laid bare in their tattoo flash sheet art style, piercing feedback and Pawlak’s esteemed array of vocal barks and pukes.
“There’s something about the sound when it’s all blended together, it’s kind of…sinister or something,” he says. “Part of that is the anger coming through.”
Anger is clearly a motivating force in the band, though Spy are about more than just unattached rage. Before forming the band, Pawlak earned an MA in Sociology at the University of British Columbia. In Spy, he channels—among other things—much of the frustration, fury and pain those across America have felt over the issue of police violence.
“The lyrics were originally written before everything that happened in the summer of 2020,” Pawlak says, referring to the weeks of protests which followed the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Here in San Jose, those protests sparked a broad push to defund or highly reform the police after scores of protestors were gassed and shot with rubber bullets, some left permanently maimed.
“I wrote those lyrics and then everything that happened last summer, it was like, ‘damn, here we go again,’” Pawlak says.
On the title track from Service Weapon, Spy lyricize the terror of police violence with the brutal quatrain: “show me your hands / put that phone down / get on the ground / service weapon is discharged.” On Habitual Offender’s restless, riff-packed lead single “Exceptional American,” Pawklak strikes a more observational stance, calling out police “overreach, abuse” before sarcastically applauding American exceptionalism:
“What a model citizen / Such a good American / Full of blind and thoughtless pride.”
Like their first EP, Habitual Offender was recorded at Fremont’s Panda Studios, and produced by Charles Toshio of Sunami. If the band sounds bigger this time around, there’s a simple reason for that: this time, the whole band was involved. Spy’s first EP—recorded in April of 2020, during the earliest, most uncertain days of the pandemic—was recorded entirely by Pawlak and drummer Cole Gilbert.
“We thought we were being responsible by only putting two people in the studio,” he says. “That was the era of social distancing and very early COVID stuff, so we just thought it would be smart to record with as few people as possible.”
Understandably, Pawlak describes the new album as “more of a team effort,” Spy’s guitarists Cody Kryst and Drew Satterlund not only chipping in parts to the songs, but performing together on record for the first time. Thrashy guitar leads—like the one in the worker-solidarity moshpit igniter “Labor Dispute”—expand the band’s sonic palette nicely, adding some color to the onslaught of merciless riffs. On all levels, Habitual Offender is bigger, louder and uglier than Spy has ever been before.
“We definitely have a particular sound,” Pawley says. “You know when it’s Spy you’re listening to.”
And though it has been billed as the band’s first LP, Habitual Offender is still only six songs. Total runtime: ten minutes.
San Jose hardcore moves fast.
To Live a Lie Records