We Were Teen Suicide

My name is Sam Ray, and I’m the singer in the band American Pleasure Club. We weren’t always called that. I started recording music under the name Teen Suicide in 2010, and continued doing so until 2017, with a rotating cast of musicians by my side.

I named the band Teen Suicide—I want to cop to that right away. Though I’m embarrassed, now, by the old name, I don’t look to excuse it. Nor do I want to shift the blame off myself. I chose it, alone, when I first formed the band. Context is important, for why I chose to use the name in the first place, why I kept using it, and why I changed it. I know, now, that it’s absolutely essential to rename your artistic project when it becomes clear the name has the potential to be harmful, triggering, or damaging to anyone, for any reason. This is an exploration in my experience of doing exactly that.

When I came up with Teen Suicide, I was nineteen, and the band was a mostly-solo project I kept up with infrequently, when not busy with work and attending community college. My sole bandmate was my friend and drummer Eric Livingston. Together, we delighted in play-acting the punk and garage rock singers that we grew up listening to, and found ourselves inspired by—icons like the Germs’ Darby Crash, Lydia Lynch, and Iggy Pop, as well as more recent works by NoBunny, Jay Reatard, and Shannon Shaw. Lacking the songwriting prowess or the practiced charisma of any of our idols, we tried to emulate their shocking, often apocryphal behavior. Our adolescent fantasies were entirely that—we recorded washed out, artless rock songs in the kitchen, basement, and attic of our parents’ houses. We talked about our dreams of playing shows in basements and art galleries and focused more on what we would wear and how we would behave than our musical performance. The name, once I thought of it, was a no-brainer—something blithely confrontational—controversial only in theory, but not enough to draw anything more than an eye roll from my mother or our girlfriends at the time. We were punk rock in the same sense that PaRappa is a rapper—we were cartoons.

There was, however, a genuine ambition hidden in our goofing off. While I didn’t feel confident in my work, I always wanted to find a way to make a living through music, having played a smaller role in a handful of bands since I was young. I was happiest playing the foil to my more talented friends, and as a multi-instrumentalist, I had a true knack for knowing how reshape their best songs from shambling, juvenile indie-rock to fully arranged anthems, adding harmonies and backing vocals, layers of guitars, piano, keyboard, drum machines and strings. Afraid, still, to put the spotlight on my own songwriting, I hid my music behind distortion, heavy reverb, and a half-serious aesthetic, always able to dismiss the criticism that deeply affected me by saying “You can’t tell this is just a joke? We’re called Teen Suicide.”

I also knew that if we chose a name that drew attention—even for the wrong reasons—we had a much better shot of actualizing our goofy fantasies and reaching a real audience. It was cynical, but all art is cynical. And it worked. It was slow, but by the end of our first two years as a band, we’d been given more attention than was fair for a band of our caliber, especially one with very few live shows to speak of, no label support, agent, or publicist. As time went on, the name became something of a non-factor, something that was always worth a cursory mention when we’d get written up on a blog, or added to another basement show.

But the music became shaped, incidentally, by the name, as Eric and I started using our songs to explore and cope with our own struggles at the time—with heroin addiction, and with the intense, suicidal depression that affected both of us. The songs we released right before Teen Suicide broke up for the first time, in 2012, reflect this emotionally ravaging period in our lives. After we split, we both (eventually) got clean, and the band we’d left behind started to take on a life of its own in our absence, much to our confusion. I still don’t know what happened to expose us to a wider audience, especially while I was working as delivery boy and Eric was a bar back. Still, just like we’d always joked, the name attracted attention from a growing population in a way that live shows and songwriting couldn’t on their own.

When we reformed in 2014, having signed to indie record label Run For Cover, we found that a whole new audience was there with us, one that was predominantly younger, and in many ways, struggling with a lot of the same stuff that plagued us years prior. There were fans who told us they found solace in our music, many who revealed the name is what attracted them to it. In many cases, issues surrounding depression and suicide had led them to discover our music. Our catalogue, it seems, our raw, emotionally charged performances and lyrics, opened up a space for them to work out, reflect on, or escape from problems that plagued them day-to-day. That was a wholly unexpected thing and one I’ll always be glad for—it helped me grow up from a privileged teen play-acting “punk” to an adult who worked hard to understand their place in the world. It helped me become better aware of something I’d long shrugged off, or tried to hide from—that many of the ways I’d acted toward people in the past had caused unintentional, but very real pain, and the band name I’d chosen so thoughtlessly had done the same.

I’d first worn the band name with a certain smug sense of pride, even when I had a record label behind me that was unwilling to put the name on our own merchandise. Teen Suicide, instead, sold shirts featuring variations on our best known artwork or images excerpted from our releases and the zines and comics that would accompany them. Eventually I began devising a way we could unburden ourselves of the name without shirking responsibility—or, as many people around us worried, setting ourselves backwards in our career. There was always a nagging and genuinely selfish voice in the back of my mind reminding me of my reputation, that the longer we released music under Teen Suicide, the longer we avoided directly answering questions about when we’d finally change the name, the more I would look like a callous asshole.

No one around me was trying to push us to keep it, but considering how much other people had invested in us—well before the name issue was ever addressed by me—I couldn’t help feeling a responsibility to a lot of people, including my bandmates, to come up with not only a fitting replacement, a proper transition from “Teen Suicide” without irreparably destroying our record sales, venue relationships, and so much other baggage bands accrue. I decided that the best way to do it was to get back to our roots, releasing as much music as we had recorded, for free, both in new projects (like 2016's dandelion) and as one-off-singles on our social media sites. Inspired by the way Lil Wayne built mixtape-goodwill before dropping his monumental Tha Carter III record, I figured that at the very least, those who worried about us changing our sound, or, God forbid, “selling out” (I hate this term and concept) would hear and recognize so much of the scuzzy, poppy-rock band they fell in love with in new, free songs and decide to stick around—even with a new name.

Art by Angelica Alzona
Art by Angelica Alzona

I’ll always be glad for that experience, but I have absolutely no desire to keep working under a name that has the potential to harm anyone. I truly don’t understand bands who learn people are offended by them, yet, they keep going on. I wish I’d wised up sooner, and it took a long time for us to release our final album under the name Teen Suicide and to think of a new one everyone involved agreed on, but it was an incredibly gratifying thing to do, even if every single day I get messages about how we’ve sold out, how our new name is “fucking gay,” or that I’m spitting in our fans faces by doing this. Whatever.

I’m ready to have the spotlight purely on our new work’s merit. I’m finally ready for that and no matter how it works out, I’m happy about it. Music is fucking stupid anyway.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter