Brandon MacDonald, lead vocalist of Florida emo band Home Is Where, remembers what it was like to introduce the group at shows before the pandemic. “We were from Palm Coast–nobody gives a shit about Palm Coast,” they say. “It’s a marginally small town compared to, you know, anywhere else, really.” But among showgoers, that disinterest would die as soon as the band started to play–MacDonald screaming and throwing themself into the crowd, completely given over to the moment, backed by guitarist Trace George, drummer Joe Gardella, and bassist Connor O’Brien.
“We had literal hardcore bros with the x’s tattooed on their knuckles, they’ve been shaving their heads since they were 14 and they’re 42 now–old head hardcore dudes–and they’re like, ‘Yo, that was amazing, dude.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, Jesus, I’m very small, don’t hurt me,'” MacDonald recalls with a laugh.
Whether you’ve heard of their hometown or not, it’s hard not to give a shit about their music, especially with their new album, I Became Birds, coming March 5. The record earned early support from critical emo stalwarts and Florida punk heroes alike. It sold out its initial cassette preorder on Knifepunch Records and a second on Solidarity Club, partly on the strength of the single “The Scientific Classification of Stingrays,” which inspired comparisons to loud, chaotic forbearers like Cap’n Jazz.
Then there’s “Assisted Harakiri,” a one-in-a-million single so wild and propulsive that, in retrospect, it may be the reason sweaty club pits were invented. Beyond that, it hints at the folk influence that underlines the project; MacDonald’s harmonica playing comes in to put a shiny little bow on the song’s outro, but on the record’s deep tracks–coupled with some spectral singing saw–it gives Home Is Where an entirely different dimension.
Ahead of the release of I Became Birds, one loopy morning at 3:30 a.m., MacDonald spoke to The All Scene Eye about their long-held obsession with Bob Dylan, their devotion to emo culture in all its forms, and the process of coming out as genderfluid to the DIY community.
This is the first time I’ve ever done an interview at this time of night. When did you start working these odd hours, and what has that been like for you?
What I do is, I’m dorm staff for a deaf and blind school. For five days out of the week, a good chunk of kids will sleep on campus, between the ages of kindergarten up to mid-college. I make sure they’re safe while they sleep, they don’t sneak out, if they have a medical emergency or anything, make sure that I’m there and I can take care of them until whatever needs to be done needs to be done. I help them get ready for school, I take them to breakfast–sometimes I’ll make them breakfast.
I’ve worked night jobs in the past. I worked in a gas station for a long time–for about a year. I actually wrote most of the songs on our new record [laughs] working at that gas station. I’m resetting my schedule now because I was back in the day world for about two weeks. I got exposed to COVID and had to quarantine until I could get an accurate test. Thankfully, I’m negative.
[laughs] Yeah, thank god. I can go back to work on Monday, but because of me being out for two weeks, I figured I can switch my schedule and get to hang out with my girlfriend normal hours. We only get to see each other when I’m waking up and she’s going to bed, and vice-versa, so that’s kind of rough. But yeah, I’ve always been kind of a night owl. I’ve come to miss the sunset though, quite a bit [laughs] working night shift.
How did you end up doing what you’re doing now?
I’m 25 right now, and I’ve been working on and off since I was about 13, so over ten years. I’ve done everything from bussing tables to working at a call center–I worked on a dredge, and most people don’t know what a dredge is. It’s like–it’s not exactly a boat. It’s a machine that kind of acts like a boat, where you put it in water and it tears up the seafloor so in residential water areas, people’s boat propellers don’t get stuck in the sand. That was a terrible job. I hated it with a passion. Thankfully, a hurricane sunk the vessel, so I didn’t have to go back to work after a hurricane, which was fun.
Thankfully, I got this job because I have some qualifications working with kids doing other things, and it was kind of a right place, right time situation. I was working at a Chinese delivery food place with my girlfriend right before I started working here over the summer, and she still works there.
Your last EP, Our Mouths to Smile, came out in 2019. When did you start working on the songs for I Became Birds?
I have a pretty bad habit of working on a new project when I haven’t even finished the old one, so I started writing these songs right around the time we started recording Our Mouths to Smile. It was 2018, but I don’t remember if it was winter or spring–that kind of escapes me right now. We finished it in autumn. No, I’m sorry, we got it done, like, two weeks before the album came out. [laughs] We took a while.
But this actually isn’t an EP. It’s super short, it’s easy to be confused as an EP, but we’re calling it an album because we put a lot of work into it. I’ve had this idea, ever-changing concept, I guess–I don’t like that word too much, but these themes have stuck with me for about nine years now.
I started working on the last song in high school, and it’s been edited a million times. When I brought it to the band, it was, like, 20 stanzas long after years and years of writing, and Trace, the principal composer, was like, “I’m not doing this.” And I was like, “I understand.” So I kind of gutted it and kept what I thought was the best parts of that, and then I unfortunately lost it. [laughs] I lost the rest of the stanzas, so, eight years of work fuckin’ down the drain.
I can’t imagine how that feels, to work on something that long and just have it vanish.
It’s alright, I got the best part out. That’s all that matters.
So tell me about the idea–what is it that brings all this together into one project for you?
It started out as a bunch of different things. [laughs] I originally wanted this to be a concept album about Rolf from Ed, Edd n Eddy, and somehow it got turned into being inspired by Scientology escape stories, and right around the time I started getting into watching all of these people talk about how horrible Scientology is, I also was having a pretty heavy gender crisis.
One I couldn’t avoid anymore, because it’s been something I’ve been dealing with since about high school. Senior year of high school is when I really was like, “Oh, something’s not right,” but I was consistently going through so much that I was like, “You know what? I’m just gonna put this in my pocket. I have so much other shit to figure out before I even get to that mess.”
With COVID happening and going under quarantine, I really couldn’t escape it anymore. It was just one of those thoughts that was like, “You gotta deal with this right now.” I started writing the record before quarantine, but the gender stuff was definitely weighing on me. From the start of the band, it was something I was really thinking about, about being perceived masculinely, and performing–I don’t know how to put it into words, but I was going through some kind of crisis and didn’t really know it at the time.
I was having insane panic attacks. Like, 2018, when we went on our first and so far only tour, it was intense. I guess subconsciously, while I was writing these songs–and looking back on it, it’s clear as day to me that like, “Oh, these lyrics are about me screaming into the void, ‘What the fuck? What’s happening? What am I?’” [laughs]
Where are the moments on this record that stand out to you most in terms of looking back and seeing different things than you understood at the time?
“Assisted Harakiri” was very obviously a very gendered song to me. I mean, they all are, to a certain degree. The first song too, “L Ron Hubbard Was Way Cool”–this is where I’m really bad at interviews, is when it comes to asking where in the song. It’s like, “I don’t know, it’s the whole song.” It’s even in the guitar. It’s even in the bass tone, to me. I just–I hear it. Maybe it’s just because I’m so close to it, it’s almost intrinsic to me.
“Assisted Harakiri” is where the album title I Became Birds shows up. Where did that phrase come from, and how did that become the name of this group of songs?
I’ve always been a sucker for when the album title is the lyric of a song, but it isn’t the song title, so it just pops up, and you’re like, “Ohoho! There it is!” I’ve kind of made it a trope for Home Is Where to continue that. I don’t think we’re ever going to have, like, an unrelated album title or a title that’s a song or anything. It’s always going to be a lyric.
No title tracks.
Yeah, never. Never. I think that’s kind of lazy, if I’m being honest. That should have died out in the 70s. Like, come on, just come up with an album title. Number ’em, for all I care. [laughs] You know, just something.
But the “I became birds” thing, I’ve read a lot and I’ve heard a lot in transgender art, like, birds as a metaphor. Antony and the Johnsons has the album I Am a Bird Now, and Jordaan Mason uses a lot of aviary imagery [laughs] in their music. I was thinking about that, how important birds have been as a symbol of freedom and change, almost like a more bittersweet caterpillar-to-butterfly effect. You know, the bird–is it free, or is it chained to the sky?
[laughs] I’m a little loopy, but yeah, “I became birds” was like, instead of me deciding–because I’m genderfluid, so I don’t have a steady mode of operation, for the most part. “I became birds” was a liberation thing, like, I’m not becoming a woman, or a nonbinary person, or a man, god forbid. I am birds.
I was going to ask, is there something significant about being “birds” plural?
Yeah, it’s kind of like a joke. Like how old people, when you tell them they/them, they think it’s multiple people–so I’ve become multiple birds.
When did you take up the harmonica, and what inspired you?
I think I took up the harmonica my freshman year of high school. I’m a huge Bob Dylan fan. He’s my all-time favorite musician, writer, artist, whatever–I worship him, so I took up harmonica. I got an E harmonica, it was the first harmonica I ever got, and so I looked up on the internet what Bob Dylan songs had an E harmonica.
To this day, I still don’t really know anything about music theory. I couldn’t tell you what a G chord was from an A chord. I mimicked Bob Dylan songs, essentially–you know, parroted it on the harmonica. I could play them pretty okay, and from there I learned rhythm and time and things like that by ear.
Me and Trace write the music together, and I tell him, “I want it to feel fuzzy. I want it to feel ethereal.” And he’s like, “What?” And then I’ll describe colors or tastes or something, and he’ll be like, “Oh, okay,” and he’ll do it immediately. And I’m like, “Yeah, this is how professional musicians do. I want it to sound like blueberries.”
Do you have a favorite Bob Dylan record?
Yeah, Highway 61 Revisited is my all-time favorite album. We have a promotional version of the [I Became Birds] album cover where we literally take the exact font, color, format for Highway 61 Revisited.
That was a reference?
Oh yeah, we’re filled with ’em. The Our Mouths to Smile cassette is a borderline ripoff of Bob Dylan’s Desire cassette, which is a really good record too. But yeah, Highway 61 Revisited is the one album I couldn’t live without. If I had to choose one record to listen to for the rest of my life, it would be that one. I wouldn’t have to think twice about it.
You wouldn’t have to think twice, it’s alright.
Okay, I’m going to enjoy this interview. This is going to be fun.
[laughs] What is it about that record in particular?
I think it’s got his best lyrics. It’s all killer. Like, there’s no filler on that album. You could argue “From a Buick 6” could be filler, but that song slaps, so it’s pretty good filler. I think it’s the first full Bob Dylan album I listened to, too. Because I got into Bob Dylan fairly young. I think 13 is when I heard my first song by him. I didn’t really get hooked until I was 14, and back in the day, I didn’t know how to Torrent music or anything like that. You didn’t have Spotify and I didn’t understand The Pirate Bay. I was still on dial-up until, like, Obama’s second term, so it took me a while to get internet savvy.
Back in the day, iTunes wouldn’t let you buy a song that was over ten minutes by itself. Somehow, I listened to “Desolation Row,” and I wanted to buy that song, and I couldn’t unless I bought the whole album. I already had a few of the hits, you know, because I was listening to random songs that I liked, so I downloaded the whole album. I’ve just been listening to it nonstop for, like, 12 years now.
When you said that you wrote 20 verses to a song, my first thought was a “Desolation Row.”
Yeah, Bob Dylan has a funny story where instead of 20 verses, “Like a Rolling Stone” was originally 20 pages, and the band was like, “the fuck are you doing to us?” [laughs] So he was like, “Alright, I’ll figure it out.” So I kind of had my “Like a Rolling Stone” moment with “The Old Country.”
What was it like taking these songs into the studio setting? You worked at Matt Goings at Killian Studios, I know.
It was really organic. We met Matt–we played two shows with his band, All Gone Grey, and I don’t think he had heard us before. I don’t think we had any released material other than the iPhone demo on the Bandcamp. They put on a really good show, and I think the second time we played with them, Matt helped us with the sound, and Matt was like, “Yo, we should work together at some point.” I was like, “Yeah, yeah, that’d be cool.” Then we were thinking about who could produce this record, and I was like, “I think Matt Goings is, like, a really good producer.” because I listened to the All Gone Grey EP, and then the I Met A Yeti release that he produced, and I remembered that being really good.
The person who had produced Our Mouths to Smile didn’t live in Florida anymore, so that was out of the question. If he didn’t move, we probably would have just gone back to Cole [Helman]. But we listened to the I Met A Yeti and the All Gone Grey release all together in the room, and we were like, “Holy shit, this sounds like it was produced out of Columbia Records or something,” you know? Like, people who had a budget to spend. [laughs] We hit him up, and it just worked out. Matt was really helpful. He understands the genre. He just kind of understood what we were going for from the get-go.
He was like, “Give me three songs to understand what you guys are going for,” and I sent him Cap’n Jazz, Beck, and I think I sent him Pet Sounds, like, “As close as you can get to this [laughs] is good for me.” I was actually talking with Alex from Dogleg the other day, and I showed him the record, and he asked me, what were we thinking when we were producing it? And I was like, “I was in the mindset, like, what if Fugazi made Pet Sounds?” That was the main idea, production-wise, for the record. It’s pretty layered. Layers are pretty important to me, and I’ve always liked walls of sound, whether it’s really beautiful, like, Phil Spector Wrecking Crew people, or even when it comes to harsh noise. I just like big, dense walls of sound when it comes to well-produced records, and Matt can do that.
When we fucked up, he wasn’t afraid to tell us that we should probably do it again, and when we had ideas–like, that synth part was just in the moment. I really wanted a synthesizer, and we were gonna have somebody come in with a whole rig and do some weird chiptune-y kind of stuff, but they couldn’t do it, so I was like, “Matt, is there any chance you could do anything for it?” And he gunned it out in like, two seconds. It was amazing. So yeah, Matt was a very pivotal part. He definitely played the role as the fifth Home-Is-Wherer [laughs] on this record.
What’s your experience been like coming out as genderfluid in the DIY community?
It’s easy to handle online ’cause there’s nobody to come up to you and harass you, and the minute somebody does, you can just block ’em. You don’t really have to worry about your life. That’s one of the reasons why I did hold off from coming out for a while, because I’m–you know, I’m clearly not a masculine person. My fluidity ranges from feeling nonbinary to feeling like a woman. I’ve never really felt like a man, so that macho bullshit never hit me at all.
I’m pretty tall, but I’m very skinny. Not in a braggadocious way–in a way where it’s kind of inhibiting. If I do get accosted on the street, I’m not coming out unscathed, and then I have incredible social anxiety. It’s crazy ’cause the moment I’m on stage in front of that microphone, I totally lose myself to what I call the spirit. I let the spirit flow through me, and then I’m not me until the set is over. It’s like a primordial, weird spirit–I don’t know how to put it. The spirit, you know? It’s like those weird preachers who smack bibles against people’s heads, like, “Do you feel the spirit?”
Very Charismatic, kind of.
Yeah. [laughs] It’s all subconscious. There are moments where I find myself writhing on the floor, and I’m like, “What the fuck am I doing?” And in the moment I get off that stage, I’m the most self-conscious, like, looking over my shoulders–and this was before I came out, you know?
The photo shoot that I’ve been uploading as promotional photos for the record was the first time I ever went out in public–like, I drove to Joe’s mom’s house, where we practice in her garage, with my makeup on, with my hair styled, and the–the fuckin’ thing in my head. I forgot what it’s called ’cause I’m still learning women’s clothes stuff. [laughs] But just driving in the small Florida town I live in, people were lookin’ at me real fuckin’ cock-eyed, and I was terrified. I was like, “What if one of these people decides to run me off the road or do some crazy shit, throw something at my windshield or something?”
But the minute I got to Joe’s house, I felt this huge sense of security. I’ve been there a million times, you know, I have some of my best memories there, and the band was super supportive. I wasn’t expecting anything else from them because they’re all pretty, you know–whether or not they truly understand what gender fluidity is, I gave them resources to look it up on their own time. I feel like if I explained it, it would make them more confused. [laughs] I can’t even explain what my songs are about to them, ’til like, well after. They’ve been more than embracing, and a lot of people in the DIY community have reached out and been like, “Yeah! Slay, queen!” Or [laughs] something like that, which is very sweet.
I reached out to Sammy Heck and Hit Like A Girl, and I was like, “Yo, you guys just being you made me feel a lot more comfortable being open with my audience about what we are.” And then from me coming out, we’ve gotten a shit ton of queer followers and people hitting me up like, “Yo, this is really cool, to see a trans person–” because I know some genderfluid people don’t identify as trans for their own personal reason, but I do. I just like that term. It makes sense to me, so I identify as trans, genderqueer, and a bunch of people have hit me up online, being like, “I support you. This is really cool that you’re just being you, being open about what the record’s about.” Because my whole plan was to veil it behind this weird Scientology comparison. Like, coming out or realizing your gender identity is almost like leaving a cult.
The idea of this record obviously shifted a lot over time. What is it like to have the finished thing in hand now and see what’s happened to it?
It’s pretty crazy that if I was able to, I can go back in time to my high school self who was going in and out of mental wards at the time–I was pretty fucked up [laughs] in my early years of high school–and I could be like, “Yo, these songs you’re writing now are terrible, but they’re going to evolve.” [laughs] First of all, just mercilessly bully myself. In all seriousness, I’d be like, “Yo, there’s a lot of people who are pretty excited to hear these songs,” and maybe that makes my high school self smile, because it’s not that far away. It’s only like, ten years ago.
That’s the other thing we have to talk about, is that a lot of people are very excited to hear these songs. It’s been cool to see the momentum build around this release.
It’s insane. I have no idea what I’m doing.
You sold out a couple runs of the cassette already on multiple labels, Laura Jane Grace played your music on her Florida punk DJ stream–
[laughs] Yeah! Yeah, that was nuts.
What is it like having this sudden attention?
It’s weird. It’s like something that I always pictured in my head when I was a kid and I was obsessively watching Bob Dylan and Kurt Cobain interviews. You know, like, “I’m gonna be in that seat one day! People are going to ask me really specific questions about songs I wrote, and I’m gonna be annoyed by it.” And lo and behold. No–not in this exact instance.
But yeah, it’s very weird. My main goal with all of this is just to make a really good record to me. To us. You know, Home Is Where started out as a band that was specifically for people from Palm Coast. Our first record is undeniably about how fucking terrible it is growing up in Palm Coast, like, how strange the conditions are here socially, materially–[laughs] this is a fuckin’ weird place because it started out as a retirement community. Eventually, kids started getting born here, and all the kids here are fucked up because there’s nothing to do. There’s nowhere to go, so all they do is do drugs–not even, “Oh, yeah, they smoke weed.” They do stupid shit and they drink themselves to death. There’s nothing to rebel against because it’s literally just god’s waiting room in here.
I’ve never met anybody like Palm Coast kids, and I love them, but they’re weirdos. That first record was definitely like, “I want all my friends in my buddy’s garage to sing these songs with me.” This album, I was like, “I want to reach.” Not in a pop music sense, like, “Oh, I want to widen my audience,” but I want to talk about things that are as personal as they are universal. I didn’t want it to be as hyper-specific as Our Mouths to Smile, even though a lot of people really like Our Mouths to Smile too. That’s been getting some attention ever since we dropped the single, which is nice–you know, the little album that could. But this particular record is like my baby. Like, I don’t plan on having a child the way the environment is. I feel like it’s pretty crazy that people are just bringing new kids into the world, but whatever.
I cannot imagine. [laughs]
I can’t either, so other than my kitties, this is like my baby. I’m treating this thing with the exact care that a good parent would treat their child. It’s a couple tiers below a sacred thing. I can make fun of it. It’s been meme’d a little bit on Twitter or whatever. Like, Ellie from The E Word did this little screenshot where my name cuts off, and it says “Home Is Where I Became Bi,” and it’s the funniest shit in the world to me. There’s obviously humor in it, and there’s jokes. I have the lyric about, like, a seppuku food fight. I know it’s not Hamlet or anything, but it’s really important to me, and to see people really liking it and excited to the point where they’re bothering me to hear it is pretty cool.
I’m super into emo music. I have a really huge digital collection of the most mainstream shit that you know about to some obscure band from buttfuck Iowa that had, like, four views on YouTube, it’s probably still sitting on their 7″ in their frickin’ mom’s garage. But I love it. What I wanted to do was contribute to that emo culture that means so much to me. Whether I’m bankrolling off this becoming some kind of cult classic or something–that’s the dream. I don’t care if I make a dollar off this record, but if random emo nerds 40 years from now on the internet are talking about it, that’ll make me really happy. All I care about is affecting the culture in a positive way.
Outside the canon of emo, what are the things that have impacted you, or that you wish more people knew about?
I’m really into this band called The Snacks. Their only release is with a band called Tipping Canoe, who, if you’re like me, you dig through the most random emo bullcrap on the internet, you’ll find Tipping Canoe at some point. But The Snacks, their half of the split just is explosive. It’s feminine as hell, which is something that I really appreciated about 90s twee emo. Tweemo, I guess some people call it. It’s not a real genre, but it’s one of those things that if you’re talking about a band like Rainer Maria or Everyone Asked About You, people will comment, like, “tweemo.” I don’t know shit about twee music, but I like stuff like that a lot.
Also, when it comes to emo, it’s not just midwest emo for me. There’s screamo, emoviolence, emocore, all the waves–you know, for the most part. I’m very third-wave skeptical. [laughs] I like this band called Goodbye Blue Monday from the 90s. They have members that were in a band called Franklin that’s kind of popular. It’s one of those things, like, if you know, you know. I like a lot of Florida music too. Bands like I Have Dreams and Don Martin Three, who’s from St. Augustine–which kind of blew my mind when I found out that there’s a really good emo band from a couple miles up the road from me.
There’s a revival band that I think is criminally underrated and underappreciated called Family Might, and god, that band’s so freakin’ good. It’s everything I like about the revival sound in one record. That’s one of those records people find and they’re like, “Holy shit, this is a piece of gold right here!” I want those people to, I don’t know, get back together or something? [laughs] Like, do a reissue. Put that shit on wax.
Emo is a treasure trove of really, really good punk music and really, really good indie music, and hardcore, you know? I think a lot of people forget that’s where it comes from if they’re kind of casual–they listened to Modern Baseball and Title Fight in high school, they check out a new record every now and then if it’s got, like, a lotta lotta hype, Fantano reviewed it or something–you know, this is my thing. I’m more interested in genre than I am artists for the most part, because I like sounds and certain ethos or aesthetics. There’s just something about emo that speaks to me on a cellular level. I can’t look at a house now at a certain angle without getting sad, you know? [laughs]
Right, how many album covers?
The back CD for Our Mouths to Smile is the house I grew up in, and our profile picture is us in front of Joe’s house because we have to evoke those images. People need to know as soon as they look at us we’re an emo band. “Oh, Home Is Where, that’s an emo sounding band name. Oh, they’re in front of a house. Yeah, that’s pretty emo-sounding.”
It’s the iconography.
Yeah, you know, I’m not trying to bullshit you. I want you to know what’s up.