Dollar Signs

Don’t call Dollar Signs a comedy band. That out of the way, there’s no guarantee the rip-roaring, horn-inclined punk quintet won’t be singing about running from a bumbling Paul Blart on the first verse of their new album Hearts of Gold. Or cracking a joke about being tired like Steve Buscemi’s eyes on the closing ballad of said album. Dollar Signs are extremely good at expressing the human psyche, which often entails plumbing some anxious depths. A little levity helps. Especially these days.

“Comedy is a defense mechanism,” says frontperson Erik Button, with a chuckle that comes off like a backslap from your best friend. “Sometimes we get labeled as a comedy band, but I use comedy as a tool so I can say shit that really matters to me.”

On that premise, Hearts of Gold is Dollar Signs’ most powerful statement to date. The Charlotte, N.C. band’s third LP — and first for Pure Noise Records — is a boisterous masterstroke from the Jeff Rosenstock school of punk: resourceful and scrappy, catchy as it is cathartic.

And they got jokes. Hearts of Gold feels like listening to an old friend recount some absurd anecdote that’s hilarious to you about three other people, like getting hit by a car outside Taco Bell, narrowly avoiding serious injury, and some cop shrugging it off by handing you a lollipop (the jubilant barnburner “Negative Blood”). Or having your first panic attack at a middle school dance soon after the DJ refuses to play Sum 41’s “Fat Lip” (the group therapy-via-shout-along banger, “Falling Off”). “Most of my songs take place in the present, but with that one I wanted to reflect on how much I’ve grown, figuring out tools any time I start to lose my mind with anxiety,” Button says. “When I listen back to it, I’m like, maybe that song’s not super positive. But when I first wrote it I thought it was one of the most positive songs I’ve ever written — because it’s about healing.”

Alongside Rosenstock, Button cites an eclectic range of musical storytellers — say, indie folk dynamo Laura Stevenson and the conversational confessions of rapper Open Mike Eagle — as inspirations on Hearts of Gold. “I think anything that happens to me or someone close to me will eventually bleed its way into the lyrics,” says Button. Such is the life of a songwriter constantly juggling 9 to 5’s and creative endeavors; for years, Button has MC’d an open mic night at the Charlotte venue Evening Muse. Among fledgling bands, poets, magicians, and noise experimentalists, Button would regularly workshop Dollar Signs demos to friends of the band, fine-tuning them for maximum resonance and minimum whiny-ness. “I always think about how stand-up comedians write all their jokes that way,” he says. “You’re peer-edited, with lots of feedback. If you can’t take criticism, it’s a brutal way to write songs. But I’m okay with that.”

All this started over half a decade ago, when Dollar Signs existed as a two-piece folk punk outfit featuring Button and multi-instrumentalist Luke Gunn. Gigs at Carolina DIY venues turned to national tours and at numerous appearances at Gainesville, Fla.’s annual punk institution, The Fest. As their lineup expanded and the tunes blossomed beyond the folk-punk purview, 2018 LP This Will Haunt Me turned heads through the underground and eventually caught the ear of Pure Noise. “We started touring as much as our jobs would allow us,” says Button, himself a video editor for an Emmy-winning production company in Charlotte. “There have been shows where we’re playing with a band we really like and want to hang out with, but we’ll have to sneak in and watch their set and then go back to the van and work on laptops. There have probably been bands that were like, where did Dollar Signs go? Well, we watched your set but we had to go answer emails!”

Nothing could have prepared Dollar Signs for the upheaval of 2020, but their sink-or-swim commitment certainly helped. They finished recording Hearts of Gold with producer Kris Hilbert at his Greensboro, N.C. studio early last March, just days before the COVID-19 pandemic sent much of the country into lockdown. Workshopping new tracks at tightly-packed clubs suddenly wasn’t an option, but with the quintet’s health thankfully intact, they brimmed with confidence behind their most collaboratively fulfilling work to date. “A lot of the chorus melodies started with stuff our horn and synth player Luke sent to me,” says Button. “A lot of the glitchy transitions, the production, and the personality of the record was built by [bassist] Dylan Wachman. With Arion Chamberlain, I really love the drum fills. And Tommy [McPhail] just rips on guitar. What else is there to say?”

Like countless other bands, Dollar Signs hope to tour behind Hearts of Gold as soon as conditions are safe for artists and audiences. Maybe that will happen before the end of 2021; maybe it won’t. But regardless of setting, an album so communal and charismatic just feels destined to find its way to those who need it.

“The record is a meditation on wanting to change,” Button says. “Not like, oh I started at point A and got to point B, but realizing how easy it is to not change. And choosing to want to start.”

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US & UK: Hayley Connelly
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