On a dreary November evening, Poison Ruïn’s Mac Kennedy, Will McAndrew, and Allen Chapman (sans member Nao Demand, sick with COVID) are sitting comfortably in the ass grooves of musty, sinking chairs, listening to trains pass by in their West Philadelphia jam space. I make my way through the clutter on the floor just before McAndrew rudely thrusts in my direction a Smirnoff Ice, disguised in a crumpled paper bag. (Surely you are familiar with the term “being Iced”?) They all crack a beer while I awkwardly fiddle with the field recorder. Labeled by Chapman as “jeans and T-shirt guys,” the three bandmates are a bit goofy. Their collective aesthetic screams “friendly, stoop-smoking neighbor,” or “off-duty mailman.”
Poison Ruïn have established themselves as one of the more exciting bands in modern punk in the nearly three years they’ve been together. They’ve developed a signature style that will continuously roll around in your brain: haunting piano intros, Wipers-influenced guitar riffs, and medieval artwork that feels definitively their own. Initially, Poison Ruïn were a recording project of Kennedy’s with no real intention of becoming a full band due to personal time constraints. But when March 2020 hit, everyone had nothing but time. The concepts, themes, and imagery were developing to the point where Kennedy thought it was time to finally explore their live potential, and McAndrew signed up as bass player without hesitation.
As long-standing staples in the Philadelphia punk scene, Kennedy and McAndrew had started hanging out a lot right before the first wave of COVID-19 lockdowns. They could often be found listening to Judas Priest really loud in McAndrew’s living room at 3 a.m., smoking each other’s cigarettes—a classic Stand by Me camaraderie. McAndrew persuaded Chapman (former drummer for Philly rockers Sheer Mag) to play with them, which made a lot of sense considering his talent, and also the fact that he and Kennedy live in the same house. Kennedy was bashful about looking around for another guitar player because, having written all of the music himself, it felt like a big ask. “Once I was in the practice space and Nao was down in the courtyard with another band,” Kennedy says. “He yelled up to me, ‘That new stuff—it’s cool, if you ever need a guitarist...’ And I was like, ‘Well, you said it, you fucking said it.’”
During the lockdown era of the pandemic, the four stooges could do nothing but practice every week and wait for shows to return. By the time that happened, in 2021, Poison Ruïn had released two demos and amassed a fair amount of hype online. Throughout the spring and summer of 2022, Poison Ruïn did not stop touring. The guys tell me about one particular late-night show in Tijuana, Mexico. They were on tour with the NYC indie band Hotline TNT and had to take a 5 a.m. flight out of San Diego in the morning. At this point in the interview, Kennedy, McAndrew, and Chapman are all loudly yelling over one another—a regular part of their band dynamic, I’m beginning to realize. “The show was late, we were drunk, and then we had to cross the border into the States,” says Chapman. “Hotline TNT drove us to the airport, and someone said, ‘The airport’s closed,’ and I said, ‘That doesn’t exist.’ But the airport was closed—so we hung out outside and did poppers for three hours.”
Kennedy cuts in: “We were sitting cross-legged on the concrete in front of the San Diego airport doing poppers, peeing everywhere, cackling, truly trying to do anything we could to pass the time.” Meanwhile, the first wave of bleary-eyed airline employees heading into work got off a shuttle bus and were greeted with the scene of plastered, grown men acting a fool.
They’re full of goofy-ass stories: The first show Poison Ruïn played in the Pacific Northwest was in clown town Olympia, Washington. They played with a high school band who wrote a Facebook message before the show saying, “Come dressed medieval-style or get turned away at the door.” Lo and behold, five to eight teenagers showed up in tattered robes and/or elf ears. The band has often been described as “dungeon punk,” and this pointy-eared turn of events only served to strengthen that label.
“Musically, I wanted to try to throw in some archaic-sounding, modal shit,” Kennedy says of the “dungeon punk” title. “It’s sometimes hard to add that stuff into music without it being proggy or annoying to listen to. I like classical music and composition, so the piano seemed like a slick way to be able to do that. The dungeon label mostly came from [our piano] intros, and I thought: ‘You can fight this, or you can lean into it.’”
And fighting it would be kinda corny. “It’s something that we just went with, rather than having it be a label that we’re super into,” he continues. “It’s kind of nice that it’s a reference to the aesthetics of the band as well, instead of some weird, invented micro-subgenre music-referential thing. People think, ‘Okay, you have a fucking mace on the cover, so, dungeon punk.’ And it’s like, ‘You know what? There is a mace on the cover. You’re right, man.’”
Poison Ruïn’s artwork is laden with beautiful medieval imagery, but the stars of the show are the knights with obscured faces who appear on the first two demos and their 2021 LP. They unofficially became the mascots of the band and are layered with symbolism. The warriors are actually Kennedy dressed up with drumheads that he painted to look like shields. Kennedy isn’t a LARPer (although he doesn’t knock people who are); he says he was trying to convey a specific message through the image of the warriors.
“The knight or medieval warrior has been long appropriated by the right as a nationalist or supremacist symbol of power,” he explains. “It glorifies an outdated and dangerous ‘hero’ mythology. The warriors on the album are purposefully faceless so that any person can project themselves onto them. It’s not about Eurocentrism or glorifying the past. The void of the empty face is also meant to represent a feeling of oppression, as opposed to the glory or heroism of the traditional knight.”
We are definitely more the orcs than the men, if you catch my drift
The amount of thought put into the aesthetic ideology of the band can seem quite astounding, considering the beer cans piling up in front of us and the potential for rats to crawl up my pant leg at any moment. When dealing with album art, most bands think, “This skull looks cool, give it a mullet,” and call it a day. But the best minds (anyone worth listening to—or hanging out with, for that matter) are laden with multitudes. Kennedy continues: “The face-less warriors don’t wear glistening armor and their banners are not crosses, fleurs-de-lis, or other nationalist symbols. Those are the tools and uniforms of the oppressors. The traditional knight in shining armor is the cop, the soldier, the purveyor of state-sanctioned violence. We are definitely more the orcs than the men, if you catch my drift.”
With all this talk about knights and weapons, I had to ask: “Are you all nerds?”
McAndrew and Demand appear less interested in nerddom, but Kennedy and Chapman play a ton of video-games and have been entrenched in a lifelong love of fantasy RPGs of different flavors. “Seeing comments on our YouTube videos of people being like, ‘This is the soundtrack for my next Dark Souls run’ makes me very happy,” Chapman says. “Mac and I are obsessed with Dark Souls—we love that shit and embrace it.”
But the YouTube comments on Poison Ruïn’s videos have also focused on something other than a proximity to video-games—they’ve focused on the proximity of the band members’ hair to their heads. At the time of interview, these guys did not have a ton of hair among them.
There are two YouTube comments in particular that stand out:
“As a bald man, I am very pleased with the hairlines. As a music fan, I am very pleased with the performance.”
“I listen to this when I go roller balding.”
While on the topic of this particular phenomenon, Chapman—silently winning in the hair wars—is given the floor to speak. Before he can brag, Kennedy promptly runs across the room to compare hair with Chapman, while the balder McAndrew starts screaming, “NEXT QUESTION, END OF INTERVIEW!”
Everyone takes the teasing in stride. “We’re older,” Kennedy says with a laugh. “Usually a band appears and they’re all 22 years old. We’re, like, fucking 30 and it’s a miracle anyone gives a shit about us.”
Despite the defined medieval aesthetics of the band, you won’t find their live shows filled with costumes or Renaissance Faire theatrics. Chapman jokes, “If anything, I would take it as a compliment because we’re like a, uh, working-class band. This one is for the BALD GUYS, you know? This is for regular people, we’re not going to come out on stage in face paint and chain mail.”
The future of Poison Ruïn shines bright like a stage light reflected on a receding hairline. They have another LP in the works and a European tour planned for the spring. With their insatiable drive and a collection of new songs, they will most likely be playing in a town near you very soon. You can leave the elf ears at home. Or don’t—it’s your world, too.