“We’re Not Businessmen, We’re Musicians”: A Conversation with Acid Tongue

Acid Tongue © Jake Hanson
Acid Tongue © Jake Hanson
Recently Acid Tongue says they have committed to a “separation of church and state,” as drummer Ian Cunningham describes it. With a new record on the horizon, Acid Tongue are primed to tread new ground.
Stream: “Suffering for You” – Acid Tongue

I was figuring out kind of like the bull***t of working at a venue and nightclubs, dealing with agents, you know, a lot of the kind of crap that doesn’t have anything to do with music but you need to know to be successful at what you’re doing.

– Guy Keltner, Acid Tongue

I’m quite sure Ian Cunningham and Guy Keltner thought this interview was for a podcast when we began. There’s just no other way to explain the guitar mimicry at the beginning of this one. But this seat-of-your-pants comedy begets a simple truth: Acid Tongue have always gone by the seat of their pants.

Bullies - Acid Tongue
Bullies – Acid Tongue

From the formation of the outfit, to the live streamed release party of their ill-timed Bullies, to their confident live performances, Acid Tongue is a band that very much would like their listeners to live in the moment of moments. At the Neurolux, Keltner joined the pit to close the show. At the Mad Swede, the whole band joined guys on the floor, amid the madness. For their final set at the sun-baked Hidden Stage, they cooked the crowd into a frenzy state.

Moreover, they never seem afraid to add a new wrinkle to their live performance. Be it a cello-accompanied all acoustic live stream or their saxophone-infused performances at Treefort 9. The result is a rock show as classic and multi-faceted as their influences. The core duo wear them their sleeves, literally. Without being crude, Keltner could play the title character in the next Jim Morrison biopic. Cunningham reckons himself a stock car for rock bands, having ostensibly tattooed every iconographic classic rock reference possible. And this translates to the Keltner’s vocal performances on their latest works.

Blossom (EP) - Acid Tongue
Blossom (EP) – Acid Tongue

He employs a Jaggerian “ooh, ooh” on “Follow The Witch,” a song used to equally open Bullies and close out shows. “Home” follows a New Wave-inspired vocal confluence to set the tone for Blossom. Finally, “All Out Of Time” adheres to Ziggy-era production, with slight plastic soul influences.

This common affinity for music makes it easy to understand why Keltner and Cunningham became musical partners. Not just for Acid Tongue, either. They also run the Freakout Records label, a rising star in the independent music scene of Seattle, featuring some great rock acts like Smokey Brights and the Grizzled Mighty, major costars during the label’s Sunday showcase at Treefort. In the second weekend of November, Acid Tongue played the Freakout Festival in Seattle.

Acid Tongue © Jake Hanson
Acid Tongue © Jake Hanson

Recently however, they they have committed to a “separation of church and state,” as Cunningham describes it.

Their latest EP, Blossom is self-released and they plan to make their next record a self-release as well. Written during trips to The Arboretum in Seattle, Keltner remarked that this next record will see them mature in leaps and bounds.

Of course, I knew none of this before I interviewed them. Hadn’t even seen them live yet. And while I liked some of the stuff on Babies and Bullies and Blossom, it wasn’t like I had time to give theses records the deep listen they deserved—it was a last minute arrangement. But our conversation covered miles of ground from where it started. We interrupted some. We swore a lot.

And, holy shit, one live show later and they made a believer out of this writer.

Acid Tongue’s new LP Arboretum is set for release December 3, 2021 via Freakout Records.

We had a lot of time to learn how to do the studio thing ourselves and be self-sufficient in a way that I don’t think we ever really knew we could do from like a production and mixing and engineering standpoint.


Bullies - Acid Tongue

Guy Keltner: (literally imitates a podcast introductory jingle)

Atwood Magazine: So why don't you guys introduce yourselves?

Guy Keltner: I am Guy Keltner: AKA Acid Tongue, AKA Tongue Easy.

Ian Cunningham: I’m Ian Cunningham, I’m the other half of Acid Tongue. I got no other nicknames, that’s it. That’s all I got.

Guy Keltner: No, he does. We used to call him La Putana Americana.

Excellent. He's got the Creedence Clearwater Clearwater Revival shirt on.

Guy Keltner: Yeah, that’s actually says La Putana Americana on it, he just can’t read it.

(laughs) What have you guys been listening to recently?

Guy Keltner: Man, I made the band listen to so much Northern Soul on the way over that they were gonna blow my brains out. I don’t know if you’re familiar with it.

Ian Cunningham: It’s good, old, Sixties, Seventies soul.

Guy Keltner: Yeah, the British rediscovered underground, solid music from the States. The ships weighed themselves down and coming back from the States with shitty vinyl that we didn’t buy. And the Brits would find like specific singles that were “crap” to us and they would spin them at dance halls. It was always up tempo stuff and they take speed and go dancing… It’s kind of pre-rave culture.

Ian Cunningham: I’ve been listening to that new Meatbodies record a lot. We just played a bunch of shows with them. And then I’ve been listening to this record I just gifted [Guy] which is the Trojans Records story.

Guy Keltner: It’s amazing!

Ian Cunningham: It came out in the 70s. It’s a compilation that just got rereleased digitally, but it’s like the first Jamaican reggae label from back in like the 60s. And so it’s kind of like the best of Toots and the Maytals and stuff. It’s so good. So I’ve just been listening to that nonstop lately.

Awesome. I like this question because it gives other people now a list of what to listen to. (laughs)

Guy Keltner: It was a good gift from him because when I was little, my guitar teacher taught me how to play guitar on some of those songs. He was a big ska, reggae, rocksteady fan. He played blues and shit [but] he would teach me [reggae] because it was all about rhythm.

Also something that kind of translates into your EP because “Home” was like a Madness and Dexys Midnight Runners record.

Guy Keltner: Oh, that’s cool. I like that.

Basically has a little bit of that New Wave, kinda ska sound.

Ian Cunningham: That’s cool awesome. We actually were going for that late 70s vibe.

Guy Keltner: It’s like Some Girls.

Ian Cunningham: Yeah, it was very Pinups, Bowie-inspired production.

Acid Tongue © Jake Hanson
Acid Tongue © Jake Hanson

I was listening to Bullies and the first song, you reference Rolling Stones' “Sympathy For The Devil.”

Guy Keltner: Yeah, yeah, we’re all over the references. That’s this whole band is just us overtly referencing everything that we love. [Ian’s] the biggest Stones fan.

Ian Cunningham: Yeah, I got two, three tattoos.

You also have the leg lamp.

Ian Cunningham: I got the leg lamp, I got I got New York Doll, I’ve got Warren Zevon. I got Rick James, that’s my Thai Taco Woman in LA, I’m basically like a NASCAR for rock bands.

Guy Keltner: Wait, what’s the one I kept making fun of?

Ian Cunningham: My Gatorade David Bowie tattoo.

What is the story behind Acid Tongue? When did you guys meet, how did the name come about?

Guy Keltner: I was working with Neumos and Capitol Hill Block Parties festival… and [Ian] would play all these places, all these events and my band would too and then we started playing together. At the time he was figuring out sort of social media, artwork and graphic design and things and then I was figuring out kind of like the bull of working at a venue and nightclubs, dealing with agents, you know, a lot of the kind of crap that doesn’t have anything to do with music but you need to know to be successful at what you’re doing. We started hanging out and my band was shooting down all my like good songs at the time and I was like “What the f***, dude. You guys, these are cool songs!”

They wanted to play cock rock garage shit, but it was just not kind of my thing. Acid Tongue are still a garage band, I feel, but I just wanted a different kind of music. And so you know, Ian and I started playing together and —

Ian Cunningham: Then everybody said, “We like this better than what you guys are doing right now.”

Guy Keltner: 100% you know, 100% both bands just kind of dissolved within like, I think within six months, everybody in the other bands hated us because—

Ian Cunningham: Well, they were fizzling out.

Guy Keltner: Yeah, they were fizzling out. We were tired of it. We were burnt out and we were just like let’s take [Acid Tongue] seriously.

Ian Cunningham: Yeah. And then it’s been six years and we started Freakout Records.

You guys also helped Skyler start Freakout Records?

Guy Keltner: Actually…

Ian Cunningham: (laughs) Skyler helped us.

Guy Keltner: I started Freakout Festival about 10 years ago and I met the two of them later. Skyler had his own thing going. And so they came in, I think year three or four of Freakout Fest with me to help me because I was more focused on doing drugs and partying and was not very good at running a festival. And Skyler’s got the money-minded side. And Ian’s really good thinking about the bigger like publicity and outward facing side, like what do people see? And so they helped me kind of like turn this thing into more of a real destination.

Ian Cunningham: A real festival?

Guy Keltner: Yeah!

Ian Cunningham: And then were like, “Well, what do we do the rest of the year?” So we started the label at the same time, but yeah, Guy, Skyler, and I started all that together.

Guy Keltner: I think the label was always a vehicle for Acid Tongue to have some legitimate reason to put out our records.

Acid Tongue © Jake Hanson
Acid Tongue © Jake Hanson

You guys released the Blossoms EP as a self-release. Why self-release rather than via Freakout?

Ian Cunningham: The EP is gonna wrap up into the album that we’re putting out in a month and a half of those songs will be accompanying a few new songs and a few more in a month.

Guy Keltner: Freakout has gotten wrapped up in so many other agreements that the deals now have to be really specific with what we do with artists, which is good. We’re getting better. Before we were a sh** label, you know? Now I feel like we [have] a little indie thing going but we’re very particular with how each thing happens. Ian and I [said] “let’s just do our own thing.”

Ian Cunningham: We’re at a good point right now where it’s time to kind of branch the two things a little bit… We are kind of that level [where] we would like to be on a Domino records or something sooner rather than later. And I think when you’re on Freakout all the time, people are like, “Oh, they have their own thing. They’re in their label, they’re there, they’re fine. They don’t need any other help.” We’re kind of ready to kind of take that next step band-wise and Freakout is doing its own thing with the festival. It’s just church and state; it’s a little bit easier to keep things separated, you know.

You guys released Bullies a week after the pandemic, right?

Ian Cunningham: No, we released Bullies the Friday the pandemic started. It was Friday, the 13th of March. It was the worst possible day to ever release a record.

Guy Keltner: We’re not businessmen, we’re musicians; we don’t know what we’re doing.

We’re not businessmen, we’re musicians; we don’t know what we’re doing.

How did you guys support it during the pandemic?

Ian Cunningham: So we were supposed to tour, we were supposed to do KEXP in studio, we were supposed to do all these things. We had big plans to go to Europe; we were literally talking about our first Australian tour—

Guy Keltner: And Japan!

Ian Cunningham: And Japan!

Guy Keltner: We lost Japan! I was so bummed. The last year and a half sucked.

Ian Cunningham: I think Bullies is gonna go down for us as a very slept on [record]. It’s a good record like I feel really confident and it came together really well but I think like you know 5-10 years from now it’ll be that like underappreciated record because it dropped at the wrong time but it’s a good album and now it’s too old and you just got to move on and kind of do the next thing.

But I’m really proud of this new record and I’m proud of the songs on the EP. The new stuff was fully self produced during COVID so it was just Guy and I in a studio winging it ourselves… I think we finally found our footing musically these last two albums. I designed the album cover for [Bullies] and the vinyl packaging and I probably put like 100 hours into all the Photoshop and editing and stuff and then I feel like no one saw it.

Guy Keltner: Like it’s a great package. We shoulda brought you a copy.

Ian Cunningham: We actually ended up, ironically, being one of the first live streams I think of the pandemic. Our venue kept getting moved around for the release show and the state of Washington was changing the guidelines every 24 minutes and so like one minute it’s a 200 cap room, the next minute they can’t have more than like 50 cap. Then some friends that are videographers helped us like put together the live stream rig that day and we ended up doing a full YouTube live stream of our release show on the first day of the pandemic, basically, but that was kind of it. We had to move on.

Guy Keltner: We had a lot of people texting us from home like, “You sound great!”

Ian Cunningham [The footage] is still up on our YouTube page and I watched it this March, a year later and like just it’s like a weird time capsule to look back at like the first day of COVID and no one in the room really understood what it was yet. Every joke is like we’ll be over this thing in a week kind of a thing. A year and a half [later] you’re just like “you guys don’t know anything.” It’s like that “Imagine” video of like Gal Gadot and all the celebrities. That was like a month into the pandemic!

Guy Keltner: Yeah, here we are a year and a half later and like it’s not even the same band anymore. Half the members are not the same. I stopped doing drugs and drinking; I’m still a little bit of a pothead but we cleaned up, you know. COVID made us realize our mortality. We’re getting older and we don’t want to be at the same level we were at in terms of abusing our bodies. It was also how we just treated the band, the business, everything. We’ve started taking things way more seriously. This [new] record is going to be that maturity record.

How did the COVID-19 change your approach to writing and recording?

Ian Cunningham: We just had the time. We had a lot of time to learn how to do the studio thing ourselves and be self sufficient in a way that I don’t think we ever really knew we could do from like a production and mixing and engineering standpoint. Do I think a like great producer could come in and definitely help us still? 100% I would love for like a Mark Ronson to come help us make a song. But there’s just a nice confidence in [the new record] and I’m really happy with where the sounds at. The reception we’ve gotten from “Home” and from “All Out of Time” and just those couple of songs this summer has been definitely more verbal feedback from people then I think we’ve gotten on the other records.

Is the album going to continue the B-themed names?

Ian Cunningham: It’s not B-themed, this one’s A-themed.

Guy Keltner: Arboretum. There’s a place in Seattle, the Arboretum. Well, Arboretum is a type of place, period, but I was going there a lot and I was writing really spastic. I didn’t know I had bipolar disorder so when I started writing this record—

Ian Cunningham: Should’ve just called the record Bipolar.

Guy Keltner: (laughs)… So one, you know, one week I’m feeling one way and writing in a certain mode and, you know, a month later I’m suddenly down. We kind of pulled together the best nine or 10 tunes from that stretch of time for me and said these are going to be a great record. What they have in common is how we’ve produced them and presented them but they represent very distinct slices of that manic depressive state I was in. Our previous records all focused on death and dreaming and dying and it’s very psychedelic sounding but [Arboretum] is just straight up life shit. There’s no f***ing around with these songs. It’s just like, here’s how I feel right now; I feel terrible.

Ian Cunningham: “Home” is literally about the pandemic, but I’m very grateful that we’re not one of those bands that named their song COVID or something. There’s so many bands that just put out—like quarantine’s on the title or something and I feel like ours hopefully will age a little better than that and not be so on the nose.

Guy Keltner: I feel like if any song on this upcoming record is gonna nail it, there’s one called “I Won’t Walk Back…” The song’s about kind of pulling away from your vices and really figuring out like, “oh man I’ve been through so much in life, I’ve actually seen some shit you know, I know I’m still young but I’ve been through the wringer and now I’m gonna make a decision to stay away from this part of my past, this part of my behavior.”

What do you think is different nowadays when it comes to artists getting big?

Ian Cunningham: We’re all just too stupid to stop doing this. (laughs) I’m just kidding. I think it’s—

Guy Keltner: Money!

Ian Cunningham: Money.

Guy Keltner: Money, money, money. There is a certain amount of, like, this thing blows up and it’s always bizarre because it’s not necessarily the music, but it can be—I hope it is, sometimes.

Ian Cunningham: Yeah, Olivia Rodrigo is a Disney star. I lived in LA for the last three years, I’m moving right back. It’s just a lot of rich kids with rich parents that buy them 700,000 followers, you know, buys ’em a TikTok influencer.

Guy Keltner: We’ve seen how the sausage is made. We both have worked in the back end of the industry. So we know, I mean, why do you think all the psych bands that you listen to… are a bunch of white dudes from the Los Angeles area? Yeah. Because your parents are in show business and they got money. Like I can’t tell you how many people actually had a hard life that I play with. Yeah, you know, if you want to listen to people with tough lives, listen to hip-hop, listen to country, listen to everything else but rock and psychedelia and things like that, you know?

Ian Cunningham: I don’t know, there’s a lot of there’s a lot of white privilege in country right now. Country’s just Nashville rich kids.

Guy Keltner: But that’s it, you know. I think we’re trying to take some really meaningful songwriting and get it out there. And it’s not easy. It’s never gonna be easy, because people actually have to listen a couple times to hear the lyrics and what we’re singing. They might like the melodies, but we’re not going for the corn ball…. we’re trying to be tasteful about it. I want this music to be just as good in 25 years.

Ian Cunningham: Well, I mean, just because the Beatles were 16 years old or whatever, living in a whorehouse in Germany, everybody holds themselves to that standard, like you’re failing or something. Charles Bradley didn’t break until he was 60, you know what I mean? Like, there’s no rules.

Guy Keltner: What’s success anyways? We’re starting to get happy with where we’re at in life. I think that’s half of it, too.

Ian Cunningham: We’re more balanced. He’s married and sober, I got a kid and am sober. I’ve got a job that I like, for once in my life. I just think there’s so much more balancing us out in life.

Guy Keltner: … We covered a lot of ground.

We did cover a lot of ground and I think that's just a beautiful way to go.

Ian Cunningham: Give [Guy] three hours, we’re gonna do a pep talk. (drunken imitation) And another thing!

We’re kind of ready to kind of take that next step band-wise and Freakout is doing its own thing with the festival. It’s just church and state; it’s a little bit easier to keep things separated, you know.

— —

— — — —

Bullies - Acid Tongue

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