Behind “2 Stressed 2 Be Blessed” With Gatto Black

I first discovered the musical genius of Sal Mastrocola through the sad-indie-whatever project EXNATIONS. I was enamored enough that I suckered a friend to drive a four-hour round trip to see them live on a Tuesday night, and it’s still one of the most memorable concerts I’ve been to in a while. And while EXNATIONS has taken a break as members have shifted their individual focuses, Sal has not slowed down a bit. His latest project is high-energy post-hardcore that unashamedly drips with emotion. And while it’s decidedly a different animal, there’s the same level of strong songwriting and compelling honesty I’ve appreciated from past works.

His debut EP under the Gatto Black moniker goes live next Wednesday (10/12) and I had a chance to talk more about it music, collaboration, life changes, and more below.

After your time in EXNATIONS, a hardcore project feels like a 180. What specifically prompted you to go this route and start this project?

Remember when people used to list “Everything” or “Everything but country” under the Music section on their Myspace? I never was that guy, but I do genuinely find every genre of music fascinating. There are a few genres that have completely swept me away to the point that I obsess over them and want to figure out “how to do it”. I grew up on punk and hardcore, it’s really the origin of my obsession with music, the first music that I found that felt like it was my own. I was in a bunch of terrible punk & hardcore bands in high school as a drummer, before I was a songwriter. We played our hearts out at those church and basement shows but I never felt ownership over the music. I didn’t understand songwriting at that time in my life, when bands like Minor Threat, Thursday, and Modern Life is War were sweeping me away. Now, as someone who’s been writing songs for around 12 years, I feel like I can finally make the aggressive, heavy music I have always wanted to make – but never had the tools to execute properly. And I get the benefit of having it shaped by all the stuff I’ve come to love since I first discovered it back in high school.

You’ve released a couple standalone singles that mixed the intensity of anxiety and interpersonal tension with a bit of levity and even humor. Even the forthcoming EP’s title isn’t too serious. What’s the driving factor for this tongue-and-cheek approach? How do you think it impacts the listening experience?

The artistic answer it’s because it adds a unique dynamic to the lyrics and shifts the tone of the songs toward something that’s a little bit unexpected. But truthfully it comes mostly from insecurity and my conflict-avoidant nature. I find it very hard to be direct and confrontational without it having some sort of sardonic bend. 

Imagery is a big part of this project, visually and written. There’s an intentionality with mood and movement that pairs with your description of showing the anxious side of hardcore. Who has all contributed to this aesthetic, and what other plans do uou have on this front moving forward?

After writing great songs, the next most rewarding aspect of being a musician is building the world that your songs inhabit. I have a background in design and art direction. My job is to make cool shit for my clients all day, which is a privilege, but is rife with constraints and compromise. Creating visual art for my music is the place where I can create unencumbered. Just do whatever the fuck I want. The aesthetic flows because I genuinely love bringing it to life almost as much as I love making the music itself. Shoutout to Sam Tilkins aka PrismaVice for shooting most of my photography, my wife Erin Bagwell for directing my videos, and Joey Goergen for creating the illustrated world of my new EP, “2 Stressed 2 Be Blessed”. More on that below…

You recently collaborated with Taylor (purextc) on a track. What was it like working with her again, now that you’re both in different types of projects?

Taylor remains one of my great friends to this day. From the day we met we’ve had a strong creative bond and chemistry, which led us to years of us collaborating across state lines in EXNATIONS to create some of the coolest music I’ve ever been a part of. When we decided to work together again, it came naturally. We were free of the stylistic box we created for EXNATIONS, and we had the added tool of Taylor’s newfound singing voice in our toolbox – it made for a really interesting result that I’m really proud of. 

There are some interesting merch options for this release. What are you most excited about?

Earlier I spoke about building a world for my music to inhabit. The visuals for the new record, 2 Stressed 2 Be Blessed, were created by visual artist Joey Goergen, aka Joey’s World. I discovered him through the work he had done for bands I love like Sunstroke and Anxious. When I started to think about the world I wanted to create for this record, I knew he’d be the perfect person to help bring it to life. He created the drawing that we printed on most of our merch items. If you look closely there’s a ton of cool easter eggs related to lyrics from the record. The more you look at it, the more there is to discover – I love pieces like that.

Also gotta shout out Triple Hammer Records – without them the merch and cassette press of the record would not have been possible. Torsten, Mandy, and Jake are doing the work to amplify the voices of artists and they put in blood, sweat, and tears to make it happen every day. They are wonderful people who truly give a damn. I’m honored to be a part of this special thing they’ve created.

You moved from NYC to Buffalo last year. What was that process like? How is the local scene and is there anyone you want to shout out?

Buffalo is a fantastic city. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some incredibly talented songwriters up here who have become my close friends. There’s a strong music culture here, lots of bands doing their own thing and creating on their own terms. I’m born and raised in New York City and played music in Brooklyn for about 10 years, but I feel more connected to the community and supported in the two years I’ve been here than I ever did back home. That’s not to throw shade on the Brooklyn scene – there’s just a level of care, ownership, and community in Buffalo that gets lost in all the hubbub that comes with New York. Gotta give a shoutout to Hotel Etiquette. Mike Hansen is a bit of a songwriting savant, he also played drums on the Gatto Black record. Other projects that are made up of incredible people doing really cool shit include Rosie Quartz, Fake Space, Freak the Mighty, Spaced, and Tyler Bagwell. 

Share us a family recipe.

Man. There are lots. My favorite thing to make at the moment is cacio e pepe. I do it with some roasted broccoli. You’ll want to crank the oven and get the broccoli to the point where it’s browned and super crispy. For the pasta it’s quite simple – melt some butter in a pan, toast a bunch of black pepper. Add pasta water, bring to a simmer. Lower the heat and add a bunch of parm. Introduce the pasta in and stir to combine. Top with the broccoli, some toasted seasoned panko, hit it with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. It’ll blow your mind and it costs next to nothing.

Any plans for live shows down the road?

We’ve got some gigs coming up in Buffalo that will be announced soon. Would love to do some weekend runs in the future as well, definitely gotta make it back to NYC and would love to hit a few other spots where I’ve made friends back in the day on tour with EXNATIONS.

Anything else you’d like to share?

Check out the new Gatto Black EP, 2 Stressed 2 Be Blessed, wherever you stream your music [when it releases next Wednesday]. Check out the Triple Hammer Records website for limited run GB merch and cassettes.

And finally, shout out to you Casey for putting together these questions and continuing to show up for me and support my music year after year. Waiting with bated breath for you to release your alt-country-post-rock-etc project ;). Appreciate what you do. 

Follow Gatto Black on Instagram.

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