In going to interview the Front Bottoms
I wasn't sure what to expect. Sure, I'd hoped the guys were cool, but what if they didn't want to talk. What if they were sick of journalists asking them questions and they just wanted to be with one another, maybe partying before they go on or just having some down time. When I arrived at Rough Trade in Brooklyn, I saw the guys before they saw me as they were driving around looking for parking in their big white tour van. Since it was clear to me they weren't even settled in yet, I walked around for a bit and grabbed a coffee before heading back to the venue to interview them.
When lead singer Brian Sella was ready to talk, we walked around Rough Trade looking for a quiet spot, but with a sound check in progress and people in and out of the record store, we wound up leaning against a railing outside with a tape recorder wedged between us on 9th street in Williamsburg. As a pretty big fan of the Front Bottoms, I thought I'd choke upon meeting them, or forget what I was supposed to be talking about. But that wasn't the case. Brian was tall, relaxed, laid back and kind. He seemed just as interested in what I had to say as I was in what he was saying, which didn't really make sense to me. He was humble, at ease, and most definitely true to himself in every answer he gave me. This wasn't an interview; it was a conversation.
Brian's nature in the way he spoke with me was a reflection of who his lyrics made me think he was. It was like his music came alive in speaking to him, making the conversation all the more enticing. We talked about the release of the band's latest album Back on Top
, working with their new label Fueled By Ramen, as well as creativity and heartbreak.
When I asked him about working with Fueled By Ramen, I could tell that regardless of his gratitude to working with a label like them, it didn't phase his mode of creativity.
"I think the most important part for me, Mat, and the guys in the band was to be able to do this. Signing to like a bigger label is just...the next step in the process of a career, of an artistic career. Which is like...I wanna be able to be an artist for as long as I can, so. That's why we did it."
Brian and band members Mat Uychich, Tom Warren and Ciaran O'Donnell began this next step in their artistic careers with a bang. Brian told me they spent over a month in Los Angeles working on Back on Top
, which he admitted to being the longest time they've ever spent in the studio recording an album. The recording process was different because they were working with professionals, specifically Joe Chiccarelli who Brian called "Joey C," a music producer who has worked with The Shins, Cage the Elephant, The Strokes, Minus the Bear, and plenty of other high profile artists.
Brian said this time spent in the studio was foreign to him. Recording to him had always been a "discovery process." He'd play a song, like the way it sounded, and go with that on a whim. Before working with Joe Chiccarelli in the studio, Brian said his only critics were his band mates, if that.
"In the past I would just look at Mat, and he'd be like 'Yeah, it's great!' I'd just be like 'okay, awesome!' So it was different to have a third party in there being like 'Eh, that didn't sound that good.'"
Having a third party in the recording process actually forced him to be more confident in his writing. He didn't compromise his ideas; he became more certain of them.
"When you're working with someone who has worked with such famous, respectable people, it's gonna be your idea, or his. I went into it being a bit naive to that. It worked out in the end, I feel like we created something really awesome, but it taught me a lot about what I like and what I don't like."
Brian felt that -- opposed to his previous albums that were "art projects" -- Back on Top
was a "professional art project."
Professionalism resonates through this album from start to finish. The Front Bottoms are cleaner, tighter, and on point more than ever before. Though they have an entire catalog of crowd-pleasers, this album is by far the most interactive, crowd-pleasing work to date. They're catchier than ever before with arguably even more wit. When I mentioned this to Brian, he told me he was conscious of this in his writing process.
"I think that just being on the road for five years prior has kind of taught us as a band [that] these songs have to include an audience of people, and that's where that sort of came from. It had to be inclusive because the way that we make fans, and have in the past, and always have, moving forward, is going out and playing, for groups of people, who maybe don't want to listen to the music."
Though I can't imagine anyone not wanting to listen to their music at their live shows, Brian does his best to get the crowd involved in songs like "HELP," "Cough It Out," and "Plastic Flowers," where lyrical hooks and group chants are inevitable to sing to.
The Front Bottoms like to have a transparent, close relationship with fans. This nature of the band is clear in their music videos too. Despite signing with Fueled By Ramen, a subsidiary of Warner Music with plenty of resources, the guys still make their music videos with a GoPro camera and minimal plot. The music video to "Cough It Out" was just Brian and Mat riding their bikes around Liberty State Park in Jersey City, New Jersey. In the video, not much really happens. They ride their bikes on many bike paths, hang out by the water, and find a turtle on the side of the road. Though most music videos create a plot from the song, or give fans an imaginary vision of what the musicians are like, Brian's idea of a music video is really quite simple. Not only does he do want to continue making music videos like this because it's a style he enjoys, but he wants bands to feel that they can create music videos whether they are signed or unsigned artists.
"You can just make all this shit, and I want to continue to make all this shit...and people can't tell you what to do if you're going to take full artistic control," he said.
Their music videos from when they were a younger band have not changed drastically, just as their sound hasn't. Brian says that even though he has gotten some criticism for the videos, it doesn't change how he feels about the style. He even learned that the "Cough It Out" video actually directly connected to one of their fans.
"I was walking to Liberty State Park and there was this kid on his bike like riding, I was walking away from it and he was biking towards it and he was like 'Dude! Brian, I'm a huge fan of your band. I would ride my bike and listen to the Front Bottoms like everyday all summer around Liberty State Park and then you guys put that video out and it's you guys riding bikes around Liberty State Park,' and i was just like- success! Like, this kid got such a thing out of it."
The sound is more professional, but still true to their style. The music videos might be better quality, but you can still find Brian, Mat, Tom or Ciaran in their natural element. The video for "Summer Shandy," is just 15 minutes of footage of the band in Alaska, while "Laugh Till I Cry" is only the band sitting motionless in a room full of screens.
We also discussed Jersey rapper GDP, or Matthew Miller, returning to work with the Front Bottoms. Last year, GDP and the Front Bottoms released a joint EP, a set of four songs, two by each artist. Though they released this split single, it's not until "Historic Cemetery," from Back on Top
where we hear a collaboration with the two Jersey artists.
Overall, Back on Top is a happy, playful album that's true to the personality that drew me to the Front Bottoms in the first place. Even though the album definitely makes me feel happy, it somehow at the same time forces me to return to some of my innermost thoughts, some not always so positive. In "Cough it Out," Brian sings "It's getting harder and harder and harder and harder for me to call you a friend/ No matter how many times I say I won't, I'll defend you if I can," later singing "I am delusional with love." To me, this song evokes longing, or nostalgia about love lost despite how strong. To be "delusional with love," is almost always painful, but somehow this song makes me happier than most. Brian said that because of the release he feels in writing about sometimes emotional and intimate subjects, he quickly feels free of them.
"I was never a good speller. I didn't read, I didn't really know how to read...but writing, all of a sudden in my room, by myself, like with nobody checking my papers, or looking over, or saying 'you spelled that wrong,' or some shit like that, became this thing that I wasn't supposed to be doing, that I was finding such a vent and release in being able to just sit down and fucking write out why I was so upset cause I would get very emotional."
Luckily, you don't have to be the best speller to be a musician. Brian admitted that if he weren't a performing artist, he most likely wouldn't even leave the small town Jersey life.
"I'd probably working in a grocery store, you know, hopefully for the town as a garbage man or something like that. I would probably just be trying to make money like everybody else...I think this is much, much better."