In the 1975 cult classic film, “Switchblade Sisters,” a gang of female high schoolers engage in a series of violent confrontations with a rival group of males called the Silver Daggers. The boys use guns, knives and brute force to carry out a litany of horrendous assaults throughout the over-the-top exploitation film, which notably influenced director Quentin Tarantino for riding the line between gratuitous absurdity and gut-churning impropriety. After watching that movie together, Capital Region musicians Ben Fredette, Matt Bradley, Richard Keefer and Jason Ex decided to name their new rockabilly hardcore band Silver Dagger as a cheeky reference to the fictional troupe of ruffians.
However, as the band light-heartedly chats with The Collaborative while cozily eating pancakes, drinking coffee and merrily reminiscing about their childhood love for Green Day, their recent decision to change their name from Silver Dagger to the non-threatening Spell Runner begins to make a lot of sense. The good-humored, affable 28- and 30-year-olds don’t quite carry themselves as gnarly street rats, but their origin story does involve the formation of an outsider alliance.
“We definitely wanted to separate ourselves from the normal, traditional heavy Albany hardcore scene,” Ex says.
The guitarist’s mother dated local hardcore promoter Mike Valente (who runs Upstate Black N Blue Productions) in the 1990s, so Ex was introduced to hardcore at the unusually young age of 8. “I just had to go to shows by default as a child,” he says. Naturally, he became entrenched in the scene as a teen and eventually began running sound for heavy shows at the now-defunct Albany venue Bogies. However, as someone who fell in love with Minor Threat and the punkier sound of Boston hardcore as a teen, the types of bands he worked sound for at Bogies—predominantly metalcore, deathcore and metallic hardcore—weren’t usually his cup of tea.
“Out of every 10 shows that I did sound for there, nine of them were metalcore and one of them would be a decent hardcore show,” Ex says.
Fredette and Bradley’s old bands were part of the 10% that Ex felt connected to, and eventually he and Keefer—who’d known each other for years—convinced the two of them to start a new project. As Ex tells it, the vision was clear from the get-go: to combine greaser surf-rock with aggressive, full-bodied hardcore.
“At the time I was obsessed with a bunch of rockabilly guitarists like Link Wray, Duane Eddy, Dick Dale,” Ex says. “I just had a thing for surfy, tough greaser shit so I kind of wanted to mix that in hardcore punk and just kind of see what came out.”
After a couple years of stop-start momentum that never yielded any recorded material, they decided to reboot in 2019 with a new name and a refreshed approach to the band. They landed on Spell Runner after an arduous marathon of unloading names in the group chat that eventually led them to combine two words from a list they compiled.
“It seemed like every day there’d be a few hours of the day where we’d all start throwing random names in,” Fredette says. “And once you’re just staring at that list of names and words, if you say the same word 500 times in a row it starts to feel really abstract and weird. And then you’re sitting there at work like, ‘Are we really arguing about Baby Jacket as a name for this band right now?’”
They liked Spell Runner because it sounded kind of mysterious and reminded them of the neo-noir film “Blade Runner,” a genre of cinema that’s a huge influence on the band both visually and lyrically. Ex will listen to noir-adjacent artists like Artie Shaw and Nancy Sinatra to psych himself up for a writing session, and the artwork for the band’s debut, Always on the Cool, has an unmistakable noir sensibility. Bradley’s a professional graphic designer, and he developed the black and white art from Fredette’s concept of an atomic bomb exploding.
“[It] emulates us cradling the bomb and accepting our impending doom,” Bradley says. “Accepting and staying cool, holding this giant thing that’s just going to melt us down.”
That idea of “staying cool” during times of existential panic is the record’s main motif. Over rumbling hardcore songs flush with gothy, atmospheric intros and interludes, Bradley bellows semi-satirical lines about giving a helpless thumb’s up in the face of our society imploding and our planet melting. “Every new year is 1984 / no sweat, always on the cool,” he huffs during the frenetic “Doomsday Intro.” “Firewalk in the sunshine / pool party at the igloo / stab wild at the ozone / swiping right in the fumes,” he howls during the kinetic “Burn Rate.”
“The ‘always on the cool’ thing is definitely a sarcastic play on how we feel about everything going on now,” Ex says. “Because you know it’s the same old bullshit more or less. Politics, world problems, and this record I feel is a nod to the apathy. . .”
“It’s one of those things where there’s such an existential sense of gloom and dread,” Fredette says. “Of like, wow this is really a bad thing that’s happening, the world seems to be dying, there’s all this terrible shit going on. But I still have to go to work today. And you still have to deal with everyday micro-scale problems, and it’s hard to get pissed about everything you should be pissed about.”
“To the point where you’re just kind of like, ‘Welp, always on the cool. I guess I gotta get up and go to work again.’”
The tightrope they walk between wry humor (“We write some of these lines with the hope that people will get a chuckle,” Ex says) and straight-faced anger is reflected in the music itself. In a song like “The Phantoms,” the band sets up the outro for a great two-step riff but they pull a bait-and-switch with a boogie-down surf-rock lick. There’s a ton of energy in the music and plenty of fodder for push-pits, but the band say that promoters often have trouble figuring out what to do with them. They mostly play hardcore and punk shows, but they’ve also been placed on bills with industrial, new wave, noise and grind bands.
“I feel like we have the potential to fit in any micro scene in Albany,” Keefer says. “At the same time, we kind of don’t fit anywhere in the sense that I don’t think kids really understand what to do with the music we play. It’s a weird situation, to be honest.”
They suggest that the new material they’re planning to record this winter is more aligned with the bubblegum hardcore sound of Pop Wig artists like Angel Du$t and Big Bite, though they promise that their eeriness will remain intact. But regardless of the sound or style they’re compared to, Spell Runner seems perfectly “on the cool” with being the outsiders.
“I always love being thrown for a loop with the music I listen to,” Ex says. “So that’s something naturally I think that I want to do. I want to keep the ear guessing.”