For our first “Ya Herd” series post of the new decade, we heard from Checkmate, a DIY rock band out of Maryland. Checkmate released their self-titled debut in August 2019 — while it has heavy emo influences, I was drawn to subtle details that made it feel like much more than just a traditional emo record. I exchanged messages with Billy, their lead singer and guitarist, and got the chance to learn more about the group and their music.
First off, can you guys introduce yourself? Who’s in the band and who does/plays what?
We are Checkmate. On stage we are made up of lead singer and guitarist Billy Beitz, bassist Tony Capuano, lead guitarist Tanner Campos and drummer Chris Smallwood. We consider everyone to be part of Checkmate. All of our friends have constantly been so supportive and have done so much to keep this alive. They are just as responsible as any of us for everything we’ve been able to do as a band.
How long has Checkmate been in existence? How did the group come together? How long have you all known each other?
Checkmate has existed for about 3 years now. It started out just me (Billy) recording songs on my phone in high school. Chris also makes music independently so we started jamming and he helped track drums for the demo tape we put out in 2017. I’ve known Tony and Chris since freshman year of high school, but Tony didn’t come into the picture until the summer after junior year. he didn’t play any instruments but had shown me some songs he’d written and I told him that Checkmate needed a bassist so he just taught himself how to play bass and it’s been kind of crazy to watch. Tanner joined in the Spring of 2019. We had already been playing shows for some time and I knew at that point that Checkmate needed a lead guitarist. I’d seen Tanner play and produce for a couple of other bands in the area and I originally only contacted him for mixing and mastering but we decided to invite him to a band practice to jam and we immediately realized that he would be a great fit in the band.
You recorded your first album yourselves at home, but the production quality is really impressive — especially for a debut. Can you talk us through the setup of the home studio and your recording process? What do you see as some of the biggest benefits, and challenges, of recording a full length DIY record?
Everything was recorded, mixed and mastered by our guitarist Tanner Campos. We started recording for the album in early 2019 and we started with drums. Drums were recorded in a wood-floored room at Billy’s house and tracked through some outboard gear as well. The bass and guitars the whole album were recorded through direct input which meant extreme flexibility with tones and easier time recording. Vocals were very fun to do and were recorded under a blanket at Billy and Tanner’s houses with an MXL v67 microphone. As far as benefits and challenges go, the main benefit was that we had the availability to track an idea we had at any point for the lowest price possible. The biggest challenge we faced was the deadline. We really wanted to release this record during our first mini-tour with Trash Bin Stench and Lake Alden the first week of August 2019 and thankfully everything aligned and was ready by that time.
What inspired the songwriting for this album? Is there an overarching message, or perhaps an audience you think will relate to it?
Prior to recording I had most of these songs written for about 2-3 years. Writing music has always been therapeutic to me — it helps me make sense of everything going on in my life. i think almost all of these songs can be attached to certain traumas and different battles I’ve had with mental illness over the years that I am still learning to deal with. Listening to certain music has always been able to help pull me out of dark places when i needed it too and I’m hoping our music might be able to do that for someone else.
Who is that a drawing of (on the album cover)?
I actually didn’t know until the album had been out for a while but that is a self portrait made by my uncle, Michael Beitz. That’s him in like 3rd grade or something. We use a lot of his art in everything we do. He’s one of my favorite artists and I grew up around his art so it just feels right. He’ll send me drawings every once in a while and it always makes my day.
I must say, I was pretty surprised when the horns came in toward the end of “Being Selfish”. I really enjoyed that unexpected change of direction. Can you talk a bit about why you decided to incorporate that?
So since I started making music, I knew I wanted have at least one song with brass instruments on the album. I would see Foxing perform live and just think “holy fucking shit that’s beautiful.” Trumpets and other brass instruments sound amazing and are just so powerful in person and I’ve always wanted to do something with them. When I would play “being selfish” live it always felt like something was missing after the tempo change. After we recorded everything we added a midi trumpet that we were happy with but then Tanner linked up with Patrick Dougherty through an ad he posted on Facebook and Patrick went beyond what we expected and sent us really amazing recordings with harmonies and everything.
“Quit” also has a really interesting dynamic. It starts off heavy and low, builds up to a brief scream, then ends with some higher/lighter notes and actually sounds kind of cheery. It feels to me like experiencing a mood swing — it starts with sadness, which leads to fury, but then that release of fury leads to euphoria. Were you guys trying to convey a range of emotions through the use the changes in pitch and tone?
This question honestly blew me away it’s crazy to see this put into words. I’ve never actually given it any thought but that really says it all. This song is about the day I finally quit the shitty job I had making pizzas at Ledo’s. I was severely depressed at the time and I can’t even remember what exactly I was dealing with at the time but i just know it felt like hell. That song is a very accurate description of how that day went, not only in the lyrics but like you were talking about, the dynamics fit perfectly. I really had no idea until you said something. That’s a great observation.
“Voidrealm” is another really interesting track. It’s got a trippy vibe to it, like a fusion between trap and chillhop. Was that more of an afterthought / bonus track, or are you looking to work in a variety of electronic beats like that in the future?
We’ve been wanting to do something with that ukulele riff for a while. Tony and Tanner finally got together one day and came up with the beat and all that. I almost cried hearing that for the first time. That song is very important to me. I think we also included it on the album because we don’t want Checkmate to be confined to being a typical emo band. we all are influenced by so many different styles and I would like to see what we can do with that. The goal with our next full length project is to incorporate different elements and more genres into something that could still be called a solid emo album.
A more broad question — What does emo music mean to you guys? Obviously a lot of people still associate it with the pop emo stuff that was on MTV in the 90s and early 2000s. We grew up in New Jersey, so that particular brand of emo was a big part of the culture when we were younger. Can you talk about what kind of artists got you into emo in general, and influenced you to go in that direction with your own music?
Yeah so some of the bands I was really into when I started Checkmate and who would be considered “emo” would include Old Gray, Foxing, Modern Baseball, and Touché Amoré. I grew up seeing bands like these perform and it would be almost like a religious experience for me every time. They’d just put out so much cathartic energy and raw emotion and I’ve always been drawn to that. I feel like that’s what makes a live show worth attending and that kind of energy is what I want to bring to our shows. I think that’s why we chose to identify as an emo band with other influences.
What’s Waldorf, Maryland like? Do you often go to see shows in nearby DC?
Waldorf Maryland. It is cool I guess. Growing up there was a small music scene and a venue that all of our older brothers and sisters would go to, but now everything is shut down. I’ve gotten away with a couple nice house shows but those are hard to make happen. We didn’t really find a music scene until we linked up with Lake Alden and played the Old Stone Warehouse in Fredericksburg for the first time. Since then Fredericksburg has kind of been like our second home. DC we don’t have so much luck with. We’ve played a couple shows and they have gone alright, except that the last time we were there, Tony’s car got broken into and all of our equipment got stolen so I mean there’s that. But we’ve been mostly playing in Baltimore recently. We’ve got a lot of friends up there and Baltimore is becoming one of my favorite places to play.
Are you touring currently or have any upcoming dates?
We are currently finishing up our winter run of shows. We played a couple weekenders in Fredericksburg and Baltimore throughout December and on January 18th we’re back in Fredericksburg with a really sick band from Chicago, Hospital Bracelet.
Lastly, can you give a shout out to a few other artists you think we should be listening to?
YES omg this list is long but Trash Bin Stench, Lake Alden, and Moon by Moon have been like our best friends when it comes to making music and getting inspiration. They’ve been around since the beginning. These are some of the most talented musicians i know and are all great people. Please listen to their music.