Interview with Chris Bailoni of Grapetooth

Grapetooth

Chris Bailoni, one-half of Chicago synth-pop/new wave duo Grapetooth, discusses his musical beginnings, modern new wave, and what’s next for the band.

What do you think of when you think of Chicago? The windy city is known for its deep dish pizza, its two Major League Baseball teams, and its Prohibition-Era history of organized crime. Music wise, Chicago has produced countless notable musicians that span many genres: Muddy Waters, Kanye West, and the Smashing Pumpkins all hail from Chi-Town.

But despite acting as a musical melting pot, a genre that Chicago isn’t particularly known for is synth heavy, ‘80s new wave dance music. The modern resurgence of this kind of music, inspired by bands like New Order and Tears for Fears, is even less associated with the area. However, the wine-fueled partnership of two Chicago-based musicians is changing that.

grapetooth (n.) one who consumes copious amounts of red wine, to the point that their teeth are frequently stained crimson.

Grapetooth is also the name ascribed to the musical collaboration of producer Chris Bailoni, also known as Home-Sick, and Clay Frankel, vocalist and guitarist for garage rock band Twin Peaks. After bonding over a mutual love of wine and Japanese new wave, Bailoni and Frankel began experimenting with making music together in December of 2015. “There was some night when we were out and Clay was talking about wanting to make some music that’s not rock music, like Twin Peaks. We were drunk at this bar, just chatting about it,” Bailoni, now 26 and gearing up for Grapetooth’s headlining tour this June, recounts. “So he came over the next day and we just started making music. That’s kind of how all that started.”

Grapetooth played their first show in 2016 before they had even released a full-length record. They’ve been selling out venues ever since, gaining a reputation for their rambunctious live shows, which are half frenetic mosh pit, half wild dance party. Bailoni admits he wasn’t initially comfortable with performing on stage, and he credits their song “Violent” with helping him get over any stage fright he felt. “That was the first time I felt like we both broke through the nerves and got more comfortable with how the shows would go live, just because it was so fun to yell [“are you violent?”] so loud,” Bailoni recounts, when describing their first time playing the song at a show in Chicago.

Grapetooth’s bright, high tempo sound wasn’t necessarily intentional and it took some time to find. Bailoni described their first attempts at recording as “pretty strange”: “I guess the drums were dance-y and new-wave-y, but we pitched down the vocals and made them sound like horror movie soundtrack songs, really scary. Weird stuff, dissonant sounding.” It wasn’t until the spring of 2016, when the two wrote Grapetooth’s first single “Trouble”, that Bailoni thinks they really hit on something special. “That was probably the first song we made that we were both like, ‘oh wow, we’ve got a sound here and now we know what we’re doing’”.

Despite finding what Bailoni described as the perfect mesh of his production style and Frankel’s, the two didn’t always have serious aspirations for what they’d created.

“We still hadn’t really planned on releasing it or doing anything real or ever playing a show with it,” Bailoni continues, when asked about their initial plans for Grapetooth. “We were like, let’s maybe make a small EP and put it on Bandcamp for free or something like that.” Despite their modest intentions in their early days, Grapetooth released their first self-titled record in November of 2018. The majority of the ten-song tracklist is in line with their influences, which include synth-punk duo Suicide and Yukihiro Takahashi of Japanese electronic band Yellow Magic Orchestra. However, the curiously country-sounding closing track, “Together”, sounds a lot more like Frankel’s Twin Peaks work than a New Order song. Including that on the tracklist was no mistake. “I think we just wanted the record to be eclectic of genre and style, but still somehow fit together,” Bailoni explains, when asked about the disparate song’s inclusion. “It just sounds like two friends making music together in their bedroom, which is what the whole thing is.”

When asked about how Grapetooth fits into the Chicago music scene, Bailoni agrees that his city isn’t synonymous with the style of music he and Frankel are creating. “It’s definitely more rock based. Rock, and then obviously rap and hip hop. But all those worlds are so tightly connected – everyone in Chicago knows each other because it’s such a small community, like any community in a city of arts,” he says. “But yeah, I suppose there’s not too much synth/dance stuff coming out of Chicago.”

Maybe being a bit of an outlier in the music scene is one of the reasons why Grapetooth enjoyed such success before even putting out their first record. Personally, Bailoni thinks the combination of his and Frankel’s individual styles is what sets them apart from other bands that have a similar sound. “I do feel like there’s not too much stuff coming out that sounds like us,” he says. “But I feel like Clay’s vocal style kind of separates [us] from the pack and gives it more of a grunge punk sound. Because if you take away all the vocals, we just sound like we’re copying any New Order song or any new wave Japanese music.”

While a lot of musicians were seemingly born with guitar picks or drumsticks in their hands, Bailoni didn’t start dabbling into music until his second year of college. He credits his friend Kevin Rhomberg, known to many as producer and musician Knox Fortune, as his inspiration for getting into music production. “I remember him showing me all the music he was making on his laptop in his bedroom, just with shitty speakers,” Bailoni explains. “His ability to make songs that sounded like they were produced by a full band on his laptop kind of inspired me that you didn’t really have to have a lot of equipment or anything expensive, or any real [technical] musical knowledge, to be able to make songs.”

While a lack of musical knowledge might hinder some facets of the songwriting process, Bailoni thinks there’s a benefit to being less experienced with the technical aspects of music. “I think there’s definitely a positive aspect of not being too musical if you’re a producer, because you tend to lean more towards what sounds good emotion-wise versus what would make sense musically,” he says, when discussing his process for creating music.

“The lack of knowledge tends to force more outlandish, creative ideas, I suppose.”

Bailoni may not have started making music seriously until he was nineteen, but he had a different artistic outlet before that: filming and editing skateboarding videos. This skill would later benefit the band when it came time to make music videos, particularly the video for “Trouble”. “We just kind of grabbed a camera and then went out with a couple of weird outfits with our friend Jackson, who filmed it,” says Bailoni. “It ended up being kind of fun, just the mentality of how you film a skateboard edit: go out with your friends, edit it afterwards, and see what comes out of it.” Keeping with the band’s spirit of experimenting and seeing what happens, Bailoni explains that neither he nor Frankel aim for any kind of narrative in their videos, opting instead for videos that resemble “visual collages”.

What’s next for Grapetooth? For now, they’re proceeding in the same fashion as they always have: taking things as they come and having fun with it. “As far as what’s gonna happen in the future, we don’t really know. […] I guess we’re just gonna keep making music whenever we do, as we always have, and then actually put out a second record.” In the meantime, Bailoni thinks Grapetooth may put out a few singles or an EP this year. But rather than working with any big-name producers, he and Frankel will continue to employ the do-it-yourself method to create, as he puts it, the feeling of two friends making music together in their bedroom. “Just keeping it fun and simple,” Bailoni reiterates. “Us and friends.”

Grapetooth is currently on a headlining tour with support from Ian Sweet and James Swanberg. Catch them in Los Angeles on June 21st at the Echoplex, in Vancouver on June 25th at the Fox Cabaret, or anywhere else that fine concerts are sold. Tour dates can be found here.

Written by: Andrea Renney

An Interview with Andrew Ross McMahon from Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness

Andrew McMahon

KCR’s Jacob Stephens had the opportunity to talk with Andrew Ross McMahon from Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness.

Read on to see what Andrew McMahon said, especially regarding some of his biggest influences, favorite moments touring, and to gain further insight into one of his songs!

Jacob Stephens: How did you get into music and singing?

Andrew McMahon: I was 9 years old when I started playing piano, and singing, and writing music. I was making songs and finding ways to record them. Eventually, in high school, I started my first couple of bands and started to play shows around the town that I grew up in. And yeah, I was really fortunate. Within a year after graduating high school, I had built up a really good following with my first band, and then we got signed and the rest is history from there. Honestly, I never really looked back and just kept making music.

JS: So you’ve always loved music then?

AM: Yeah. Truthfully, it’s the only thing in my life which has consistently motivated and inspired me. And from a spiritual standpoint, it drives me.

JS: You recorded one of my favorite songs “High Dive” so I’m just wondering, what went into that song? Was it a flashback into your childhood or was it something entirely different?

AM: It’s funny, I wrote that song with a good friend of mine that co-produced the first wilderness record, Mike Viola. Mike is a beautiful singer/songwriter in his own right, and we had written a handful of tunes together at that point. I remember what motivated the writing was when I was on the way to the studio; I had heard “The Boys of Summer” by Don Henley. In my opinion, it’s one of the most well written, well recorded songs of all time, and I remember going to the studio and just thinking “We really need to dissect “The Boys of Summer!” I want to understand the anatomy of that song and really understand why it’s so great and what makes it so special.”

There was a mandate when I sat down during that session to try and figure out what the DNA of a good track had, which is something I don’t usually do, but I just felt inspired to do that time – almost as though it were a little writing assignment. After we listened to “Boys of Summer” a bunch, the thing that struck me about that song was how vivid the imagery is and how personal it seems, but somehow that specificity still drives it to feel nostalgic. For me, I approached the lyrics as a kind of sliding door situation. I looked at a handful of scenarios and choices in my life that lead me to my wife, the enduring love of my life. I looked at a couple of those moments and thought “What if instead of going right in this moment in life, I went left? What if my wife and I didn’t get back together after that time we were broken up?” That’s what drove the inspiration of this song. This concept of what could have been, or maybe even should have been. A moment in life you “missed the boat on,” and how that would feel and what that would look like. For me, it was this guy just passing the house of his old girlfriend and catching a glimpse of her in the window, listening to the music of some other person that no longer was me. That was the head space I put myself in for that song.

JS: That’s very insightful! So what has been your craziest moment on tour so far?

AM: Oh my gosh. I had one show in the Something Corporate days that the police tried to shut dow. We refused to leave the stage and almost got arrested but we have had a couple of those moments. Also, in the last several years I’ve enjoyed crowd surfing through the audience on various different inflatable pool toys and things like that. There have been a couple of fun rides that have taken me farther into the crowd than I anticipated. But I think some of those early shows when we were playing with a lot of punk bands and the antics that go along with that were always pretty interesting. Like jumping off of ten-foot-high speaker stacks, and things like that.

JS: Do you look up to someone? Or is there someone you aspire to be?

AM: Ummm… I mean look if there is an artist whose career I have admired in a profound way, it would be Tom Petty. He always managed to write great music no matter what era or genre was popular or trending at the time. And he seemed to approach it with an ethic and appreciation and respect for his fans. I think that is something I have always been really moved by. But on the other side of that coin people like Trent Reznor and Randy Newman have managed to not just have their artist careers and records and what they do on stage, but also gone on to compose and write for other projects. I find myself looking towards them as these artists that have diversified their careers, and create not just for themselves, but for other artists’ projects as well.

JS: Do you feel like you’re a role model now that you have made a name for yourself in the music world?

AM: I don’t know if I feel like I’m a role model. I think that in my career, there’s a lot of things I am proud of. I’ve been able to launch a lot of other projects and start a foundation and charity that does legitimately very good work for a lot of people who need it. I’m proud of these things and I hope that if someone is going to model their life or career after the things that I have done, then I would point to those as being the things I’m the most proud of. But, I would not say I go out of my way or try and put a tremendous effort into trying to portray myself as a role model. I’m certainly as flawed – if not more flawed than most human beings. I think there is a danger to putting anyone on a pedestal because then you’re bound to be disappointed.

JS: Speaking of your foundation, you founded the Dear Jack Foundation, which is a cancer foundation. How can people get more involved and help with that? 

AM: There are a lot of ways. If you got to DearJackFoundation.org, you can learn about the mission, which is to try and support survivors and patients who are diagnosed with cancer from ages 15-39. This is a very under researched, and underfunded demographic of cancer patients that I’d say more so than any other demographic is in serious need of attention and help. The best way to get involved is to send a donation or to sign up for the bone marrow registry. I’m alive because my sister was a match for my bone marrow. A lot of people do not have those matches and I’m trying very hard to make sure people are aware of what the bone marrow registry is and to get people on the list. Also, if you look online there is a program called the Life List which is a program where cancer patients make a list of things they want to accomplish or obtain during their cancer treatment, and you can see the list of the patients and help fulfill the wishes of the “Life List Warriors” as we call them.

JS: Awesome, I’ll have to do that! How does it feel being able to perform and write your own songs?

AM: Because songwriting has been such a fundamental part of my existence, and since I get to answer questions for myself while communicating to people – and the fact that I get to do that professionally is pretty remarkable and I’m very grateful for it. I think though, and this applies to anything that is a job, to some extent that some days I feel like “man I don’t want to write today” for whatever reason, but the overarching feeling attached to the fact that I’m able to write and perform music for a living is one of deep gratitude. However, getting to play concerts for the last 18 or 19 years is the best part, because truthfully, as much as I love writing music, I love to perform. I love being in front of a crowd and I love the energy that you get to be a part of when you can put on a show. It’s a real gift to get to do what I love.

JS: What part of your life has inspired you most within your music career?

AM: For me, the greatest inspirations tend to be my personal relationships. My interactions with the people that are close to me and the world as a whole are what drives a lot of my song writing. My songs are very story based, and to be able to tell a good story you have to live a good story. I try to stay inspired by keeping myself spiritually fed by being around people I care about, and traveling to places that excite me and keep me from stagnating and doing the same thing over and over again. Listening to great music and reading great books and consuming art and culture is another way for me to stay inspired.

JS: How did you end up meeting the openers for your tour [Grizfolk & Flor]?

AM: The Grizfolk guys have done shows with me in the past and I have always been friendly with them and I love their tunes. As for the Flor guys: we did a thing when we were looking for openers where you reach out to other agents and they forward you music from clients that are interested in the gig. With Flor, truthfully, I just fell in love with an EP they put out that they sent in as part of a submission list for our tour and I was like “Tell me about these guys!” When I have the ability to pick up opening acts, you want to bring people that move you and are excited about their music. Oftentimes, I just need to look at the fanbase I have built that has been so passionate and supportive of me that I take it really seriously to try and provide them with a new artist who they can be as excited about as they were when they started listening to my music. So, such was the case with Grizfolk and Flor, that they were interested in the tour and I loved both their bands and their music. They have really proven to be amazing support acts and super talented.

Written by: Jacob Stephens

Interview with Black Lips’ Jared Swilley

Black Lips’ Jared Swilley discusses covering the Beatles, the importance of music videos and radio for connecting with fans, and the band’s upcoming venture into country music.

Atlanta‘s Black Lips have proven to be a resilient force in the tumultuous and challenging world that is today’s music industry. Despite numerous changes to their lineup, the band is known for seemingly endless tours which established their reputation for rowdy live shows (including a 2012 tour of the Middle East). Meanwhile, production on their own records with assistance from big-name producers such as Mark Ronson and Patrick Carney from the Black Keys haven’t managed to slow down a band that’s been in the garage rock scene since 1999.  After 8 full-length studio records, a live record recorded in Tijuana, various side projects (The Almighty DefendersThe Gartrells, and Crush, to name a few), and the creation of a new genre dubbed “flower punk,” the band’s legacy and influence upon younger musicians is undeniable.

Now, almost twenty years since their inception, Black Lips seems like a completely different beast. Only two founding members remain (bassist Jared Swilley and guitarist Cole Alexander), the wildness of their live shows has been toned down considerably, and the band has now set their sights on releasing their interpretation of a country album. Despite the group’s departure from the violence and rebellion of their younger days, the punk ethos which Black Lips was founded upon still shines through in their work.

KCR’s Andrea Renney recently spoke with vocalist and bassist Jared Swilley in advance of their November 13th show at the House of Blues San Diego. The following interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

KCR: So your next tour starts next month. I was kind of surprised to hear that you were co-headlining with [Danish punk band] Iceage, since Iceage isn’t really a band that I would associate with Black Lips. How did that come about?

J: Well, we’ve known each other for a long time, and we have some mutual friends. We had met them in Denmark before. They were going out on tour around the same time as us and I like them a bunch. I kinda like going on tour with bands that are a little different; it just changes things up. We don’t really have the same sound at all, but I think they have a really great live show. Every band that we end up going on tour with is just from us hanging out and talking and saying “Oh yeah, we should tour sometime.”

KCR: I guess Kesha’s a good example of that; not someone that you would necessarily expect [Black Lips to tour with]. But I do think that there is a certain similarity there. I know Kesha has her roots in Nashville, and she is, despite being so pop, kind of rock and roll. It was something that was surprising, but at the same time, it made sense.

J: Yeah, she has really good taste in music. I was surprised when I first met her years ago; we started talking about music and I just thought she was this pop star or whatever. But she was really into Dead Moon and all these bands that I like… We’ve been on tour with bigger bands that are rock bands, and we’ve gotten heckled by their fans. Their fans didn’t really like us. But with Kesha, it’s all really young kids that are really stoked to be there. They’re just there to have a good time.

KCR: I think Black Lips are the perfect band for Kesha’s fans. Like you said, they’re just there to have a good time.

J: Yeah, they were all real sweet.

KCR: It’s been over a year since Satan’s Graffiti or God’s Art? came out, so I’m not gonna ask a bunch of questions about that. I feel like you’ve already discussed that record at length. But I do have one question — I wanted to know about your cover of “It Won’t Be Long” [by the Beatles] and how that kind of came about? Did Sean Lennon [music producer and John Lennon’s son] approach you guys with doing a cover, and was it that one specifically?

J: I never would have been like, “Hey, can we cover one of your dad’s songs?” but he really wanted us to do that. When we were playing it at the studio we were doing it exactly like they did it, but obviously they do it a ton better, and ours just sounded like a carbon copy of it. So we kind of started messing around with trying to make it sound like an evil version of it. I would never in a million years have thought to bring that up or try to do that, but [Sean] did a lot of the arrangement. We didn’t try to do a Beatles copy, we just did a sinister version of it. I was happy with it. And Yoko gave us the blessing to do it so that was real cool to hear her say “Yeah, you should do a Beatles song.”

KCR: Yeah, absolutely. What an honor, really.

J: Yeah, that was pretty cool. Overall, it was pretty surreal. But it was awesome.

KCR: On the topic of records: Satan’s Graffiti or God’s Art? came out last year, and now all I’ve really heard is about your forthcoming new country record. I haven’t heard too many details, but is that still the plan?

J: Yeah, yeah. The whole thing’s written and we’ve already done a couple songs. We did a session in Berlin this summer with King Khan [of King Khan and the Shrines, The King Khan & BBQ Show, and other projects], and we did another one at Oakley [Munson, the current drummer for Black Lips]’s house. But yeah, the whole thing is written. We’ve got tons of songs, and we’re just right in the middle of finding what label’s gonna put it out and what studio we’re gonna go to. But it’s definitely gonna be out by spring next year.

It’s not, like, serious country. It’s definitely all country influenced, but it’s kind of our take on country. It’s different, but we’ve always been into kind of twangy, southern style stuff. For this one, we’re more focusing on that. There’s not gonna be synthesizers on it or anything.

KCR: I know that some people were surprised about the whole country record thing, but I feel like on every record you’ve ever done, there’s always at least one song that’s pretty obviously influenced by country. On the last record, “Rebel Intuition” – that’s pretty country. And songs like “Workin’’’ [from 2005’s Let It Bloom] and “Drive By Buddy” [from 2014’s Underneath the Rainbow] – definitely. So to me, it seemed pretty natural. But what made you decide that now was the time to do this one?

J: I guess just because we’ve done so many garage rock records and stuff like that. We just kept talking about it, like, “Yeah, let’s do a country record.” It kind of worked out real good with having Jeff [Clarke, also of Demon’s Claws] in the band, because he’s great at writing songs like that. He’s really good at playing those kind of things. So it just felt like a natural thing for us to try out. Kind of like us doing our “mature” country record. But it’s not all that mature.

KCR: Growing up and becoming country stars.

J: It’s easy to age gracefully in country music.

KCR: Definitely. While we’re on the topic of changing sounds: you’re still in Atlanta as far as I know, but Cole and Zumi [Rosow, saxophonist] are in LA, and you said Jeff’s from Alberta, while Oakley’s in New York?

J: Yeah, he’s in the Catskills. And Jeff’s been in Germany for the past couple years, but I guess he’s kinda living at my house in Atalnta. But yeah, everyone’s scattered all over now.

KCR: Do you think that spreading out has been helpful for changing your sound and keeping things fresh? Or does it make it difficult to reconcile all those different perspectives?

J: No, it kind of didn’t change anything… I mean, Cole still has a house here so he’s back a lot to visit his family. But we never really practiced before, like at all, unless we were just about to go in the studio or had new stuff to work on. So really, I haven’t noticed that much of a change. I guess we’re usually in Atlanta before a tour, and then we leave from there. But as far as music scenes, I’m not really all that involved in the Atlanta music scene at all. I don’t go out too much when I’m not on tour. I know Cole and Zumi are pretty involved in the LA scene and stuff like that, but not me.

KCR: Just working on your own stuff?

J: Yeah, I’m mostly a homebody when I’m at home.

KCR: I think that’s pretty typical for people who are on tour as often as you guys are.

J: Yeah, going out’s like… I do that for a big part of the year. So when I’m at home, I hang out with family a lot, friends.

KCR: So, I’ve always loved your music videos that you guys put out. Most recently I loved the one for “Crystal Night;” About music videos though: obviously music television isn’t really a thing anymore. So why do you guys still continue to release videos? Do you think it’s just an artistic expression, and do you still want to keep putting out videos like that?

J: I still like watching videos. If we’re in hotel rooms and stuff, I’ll watch the music video channel. Even in Europe, where I don’t like any of the music, I like music videos. And I like making them. We always direct our own videos. I mean, there’ll be directors, but I did the treatment and everything for “Crystal Night.” And the other one we did was “Can’t Hold On,” and Cole did that treatment. It’s just fun. I enjoy the video aspect thing. It’s harder and harder to get money for that stuff nowadays, because there is no MTV. But we’ve been lucky with Vice [Records], because they have resources to let us do that. And sometimes, like, I think we had Ray-Ban help fund a video for us. But yeah, if we can find the money for it, it’s just a neat little tool to have.

KCR: And I think fans appreciate it too. It’s interesting to see what the artist interprets as the visual side of their music.

J: Yeah, me too.

KCR: I know I mentioned this earlier, but I’m calling from KCR College Radio. It’s the college radio station for San Diego State University, and I think that it’s such a cool thing that we have. So I just wanted to know – obviously music streaming services have kind of become the primary way for consuming music, especially for young people. Do you think that radio is still an important resource for getting your music out to a new audience, even your current audience, and reaching new fans?

J: Yeah, I think it’s still really important and a good thing. In Atlanta we only have half of a college station now – it only becomes music after 7 or 8 now. During the day NPR bought it. And we lost our cool AM station, so that kinda sucks. But there’s still KEXP and KCRW and WFMU. I mean, I still listen [to radio]. I don’t stream music, but I guess I could figure it out. I’ve just never done it. I just pretty much listen to WFMU out of New Jersey because they have everything up on their site. I mean, it’s important for me, but I’m 35 years old, so obviously the kids are listening to something else. College radio was a big thing, especially growing up. I never went to college, but me and Cole had our own radio show, and it’s actually still going on.

KCR: Really?

J: Yeah. We started it fifteen or sixteen years ago, and there’s still students doing it with our same format. So that was always awesome for me – I got my own radio show and I didn’t even go to the school. I was really proud of that. So I think that’s still real important and I think that it makes a big difference. Because people are loyal to their local stations, which is now usually almost always college stations.

KCR: I just joined it this semester, in September. And it’s actually kind of crazy how well-regarded it is. In the major newspaper here, it won best station in San Diego, even against the commercial stations. Like, this college radio station did. So it’s pretty clear that people really do appreciate college stations and even radio in general.

J: Yeah, I love the format. And I think it’s good for record sales and promotion and things like that.

KCR: I did an interview last week with Zac [Carper] from FIDLAR, and I asked him the same question. We were talking about how the cool thing about radio is the curated aspect of it. How you don’t really get that with streaming, or with just finding music on your own.

J: Yeah, you don’t get that at all with streaming, really. I guess you can do the algorithm thing.

KCR: Yeah, but it’s not the same. You know, you can look ahead and see what all the songs are. It loses that aspect of wondering what the next song is gonna be.

J: Yeah. I got into so much music when I was a kid that really turned me on. When I was in middle school and high school, there was this show called “In the Aquarian Age” on 88.5, which is the Georgia State station. At that’s how I got into so much cool, weird, old ‘60s music, through that.

KCR: I think radio’s good for stuff like that, a genre or a time period that you’ve never listened to before. It’s hard to just jump into that. So radio’s great for guiding you and guiding your taste.

J: Yeah, you definitely don’t get that on streaming.

Catch the Black Lips at the House of Blues on November 13th on their co-headlining tour with Iceage, supported by Brooklyn’s Surfbort.

Written by: Andrea Renney
Photo courtesy of: Grimy Goods

Interview with FIDLAR’s Zac Carper

FIDLAR is Zac Carper, Max Kuehn, Elvis Kuehn, and Brandon Schwartzel

FIDLAR’s Zac Carper talks new music, the benefits of college radio, and getting recognition as more than just a “party punk” band

Los Angeles punk rock band FIDLAR is well known for their songs about beer, skateboarding, and drugs. Their live shows are loud and raucous affairs, a place for kids to work out their aggression and energy in the mosh pit (including the band’s famous “girls only” mosh pits). However, despite the hard-partying image they’ve cultivated (the meaning behind their name’s acronym, “Fuck It Dog, Life’s a Risk” is a skater’s version of Nike’s “Just Do It”), the members of FIDLAR are not the slackers many make them out to be. The band has released two records (2013’s FIDLAR and 2015’s Too) amidst years of constant touring, while their third record, Almost Free, is slated for release in early 2019. On top of all this, they’ve managed to keep the same original members, while facing personal issues such as drug addiction and death. The fun-loving, party band reputation may not be entirely undeserved, but their work ethic and dedication to sticking together is something that ought to be admired.

KCR’s Andrea Renney recently spoke with lead singer and guitarist Zac Carper in advance of their October 18th show at the North Park Observatory. The following interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

KCR: So you just finished the first leg of your fall tour at the end of September, over on the East Coast. Then you’re about to start the second leg on Thursday [October 18th] here in San Diego at the Observatory. How was the first leg of the tour, and how was the response to your new music?

Zac: It was super fun. We tour a lot, you know. We haven’t toured America in a long time. We were doing Europe for a little bit and I just forgot how fun it is to play in America, you know what I mean? Especially bigger cities like Chicago, New York, Philly. And the band that we took on tour was super fun, this band called NOBRO. They were awesome. And this band called Dilly Dally. So it was just a good time, good vibes, and everybody was getting along.

KCR: Awesome. Dilly Dally’s coming on the second leg too, right?

Z: Yeah.

KCR: And what was the other band that you mentioned?

Z: NOBRO. N-O-B-R-O.

KCR: Okay, cool. Are they gonna be on the second leg?

Z: No, they’re from Montreal. We were doing the East Coast, which is closer to them, so it would be easier for them. And then for the West Coast we’re taking this band called The Side Eyes.

KCR: Right.

Z: But NOBRO is this all female punk band from Montreal. They were hilarious, they were awesome.

KCR: Oh sick, that’s really cool. I’m actually from Canada myself, but I’m from Vancouver, so the other side.

Z: Ah, other side, other side.

KCR: Yeah, west side. So other than that, you’ve been releasing some new music throughout 2018. I know “Alcohol” came out earlier this year, followed by “Too Real”. Now “Can’t You See” just came out last week, and you’ve got your new album [Almost Free] coming out in January, is that correct? Next year?

Z: Yeah.

KCR: So, I mean, it’s been three years since Too came out. Has this album kind of been in the works for that entire time?

Z: Unfortunately, yeah (laughs). It just takes a long time now, man. You know, I always say the shitty part about DIY is you have to do it yourself.

KCR: Yeah, I feel it.

Z: And that’s kind of the reality of it. We’re not on a major label, we don’t have those kind of budgets to rent out fancy studios and go work. Like, for us to pay our rent and for us to sustain a living, we have to be on the road constantly, you know?

KCR: Definitely.

Z: And being on the road is kind of like a different shift of the brain. You have to focus on the road. Sometimes I’ll write on the road. Like that song “Alcohol”: it took a while to write that song. I think I wrote some of the vocal melodies and lyrics in Australia, so it’s kind of like piecing things together. It’s just a different way of doing things nowadays. And on top of that, when Too came out, the first year we toured we did something like 32 flights, and 12 of them were in Europe. In one year. You know, it’s just a lot. It’s a different thing. And this was before we were really doing things comfortably. We were still touring in vans every now and then and just going for it.  So we didn’t have the comfort of having a bus and being able to play guitar on it. We were just stuck in this van.

KCR: I get that. Coming off of tour and then going back to the studio and back and forth for years, I can imagine that it would be hard to sort of switch between those two ways of living. It makes sense that an album would take a bit longer when you’re having to go on tour all the time.

Z: Yeah. And we wanted to change it up, too, you know what I mean? I feel like sometimes time just makes you change things up, you know?

KCR: Oh, absolutely. Moving on, would you say the new album is going to be quite different, to the point where people are going to notice it?

Z: I think so. We’ve only had two records out, but those two records are pretty different from each other.

KCR: Yeah, I would agree.

Z: I mean, that’s kinda the whole point for us. We don’t wanna stick with one thing too much, you know?

KCR: No, definitely. I feel like that’s pretty common, not even related to music. Everyone changes, it’s a way of life. And kind of as an example, I know that you produced The Frights’ last two records. Those two records are very different. So there’s another band that’s very much reinventing themselves and always changing.

Z: Yeah. I think for fans of music, there’s two sides: where they don’t want the band to change, but then people also get mad when the band doesn’t change. Because then it’s just the same thing over and over again. And there’s no winning in that scenario. That’s something that I’ve had a conversation with Mikey [Carnevale] from The Frights about. Like, you can’t think about that shit because then you’re not writing music for you anymore, you know what I mean? You’re just trying to please an audience, and that just doesn’t last long.

KCR: Yeah, absolutely. Then the music probably isn’t gonna turn out that well and it’s really not genuine if you’re just trying to please people. You just can’t win. I’ve definitely felt that before with bands and I feel bad about it but, you know, sometimes you just form a bond with a record and then the next one’s different, and then you’re kinda sad. But you have to be happy for the band.

Z: I know (laughs). I’ve done that since I was a kid. I remember when Modest Mouse came out and I was like, “This is the best!” Then another record came out and I was just like, “I can’t do it anymore”, you know? But I still support them. You know what I do? I go back and listen to the record that changed my life. And that’s the thing that I present to people that call us out for changing. It’s like, what are you guys complaining about? Just go listen to the record you like!

KCR: Right? It’s still there!

Z: Yeah. It’s basically free on Spotify, go for it!

KCR: You don’t even have to pay for it, we’re not even getting money!

Z:  What else do you want from us, man? Like, what do you want… It’s just funny.

KCR: I agree. So I read that you worked with Ricky Reed to produce this new record, is that correct?

Z: Yeah.

KCR: Who, as far as I know, is known more for producing kind of pop-oriented stuff. How was that experience, and what do you think he brought to the table regarding the sound of your new record?

Z: It was extremely weird because when I met with Ricky, I didn’t know he wanted to do a FIDLAR record. I do some writing sessions on the side, so I thought that he wanted me to work on some pop stuff. I was like, “What am I doing here?” and he was like, “Oh, I wanna work on a FIDLAR record,” and I’m like “Why?” (laughs).

KCR: So he approached you?

Z: Yeah. And he’s just one of the most talented people I’ve ever met. The way he works is just so unique. The past year I’ve produced a couple bands, so I know how to record and I know how to do the production aspect, and he was willing to just use the demos that me and Elvis have been creating, and then build on top of that. So it was just a different way of working, a different style. He taught us that there are no rules in this thing, you know? Like, most of the stuff I wrote was on my laptop. I got into drum machines and stuff like that, and he was like, “Yeah, why wouldn’t you? Why wouldn’t you try that stuff?” It doesn’t always have to be guitar and bass and drums and vocals. Let’s get weird, let’s try stuff. We even got into adding horns to songs.

I know people label him as a pop producer but I think he’s just one of the most brilliant producers in general. And he’s the most fuckin’ punk rock dude I know, man. He’s the most humble person ever. There are a lot of producers in LA, you know, and a lot of them are pretty sleazy and flashy. They all drive fancy cars and are just kinda weird. That motherfucker’s driving a fucking beat up Prius that he still has, lives in a super modest house, has an amazing family. The way that he does everything, I was like, I really respect this guy and I feel like we can get on a level, you know? And when we started hanging out, literally all we were doing was cracking each other up. And that was kinda the point. All the other people that I’ve worked with, everything was so serious. I’m like, I don’t think you guys are getting what FIDLAR is. FIDLAR has always had that humor to it, that we have to keep because I don’t wanna take this shit too seriously. We do take it seriously, but… I’m not fuckin’ Tom Yorke here, I’m not trying to fucking reinvent the fucking wheel, you know what I’m saying?

KCR: Yeah, you can take things seriously but also still have fun and not take yourself too seriously in the process. To me, that’s the perfect way to be.

Z: Yeah, so that’s why me and Ricky got along really well. Presenting him to the band, they were all like, “Ah, he’s a pop producer, how is this gonna work?” But then once they met him they were like, “Oh my god, this is awesome.” It was a cool thing, it was very unique.

KCR: It sounds like it ended up being a perfect match.

Z: Yeah. And even with our second record, the producer we used was a pop/country producer, so it’s kinda always been a weird FIDLAR fashion to be like, okay, maybe with the last couple producers, it made the most sense to use that guy. But then at the same time, we’re already a punk rock band, you know what I mean? What if we offset it with something different? And something cool would come out of that.

KCR: Exactly. And, again, you don’t want to just keep making the same stuff. You should be trying new things and seeing what comes with it – why not?

Z: Yeah. See, you get it (laughs).

KCR: Yeah, I think I get it. On the topic of FIDLAR always being kind of humorous, the song “Too Real” seems pretty serious to me, pretty political.

Z: Yeah, I know. People in interviews, they’ve been asking me questions about that song a lot. The thing about it is it’s not choosing one side or the other. It’s not talking shit on one side or the other, it’s literally just saying what I hear going on. All this input that’s been happening over the past couple years, whether it be politics or social media or the left and the right movement, I’m just kind of writing lyrics that point those things out. It’s not like I’m taking a side or anything. It’s just like “Yo, you guys, you all sound fucking ridiculous”. That’s what this is. And that’s me included, you know what I mean? We’re all fucked up.

KCR: No, absolutely. And I think that comes through pretty explicitly that this isn’t some right-side bashing song. It’s commentary on the state of the world.

Z: Exactly.

KCR: Was there a specific incident where you thought, “This is messed up, I need to write this song,” or was it more of a general response to the government and our society focused on things like social media and always being politically correct?

Z: You know what, I don’t really quite remember what it was. I do know that I made the music of it, like the beat and the track of it, after doing a session with these guys called GTA. They’re an EDM duo. And I was blown away by how they work, how they use their laptops. Their laptop is like their guitar, you know? I was like, I wanna learn how to do this stuff, so I went to my studio and just made this beat, and that’s what that whole track is basically. Then I think I just let it sit for a while and then I had to lay down lyrics for it, and… I think I was probably fighting with my girlfriend at the time or something (laughs).

KCR: It’s funny that it kind of stemmed from that EDM group, since you have that line in the song pretending that EDM never happened.

Z: I was talking to them about EDM, and they’re like a huge EDM band, you know? And they were saying musicians and bands don’t treat them like they’re musicians. I totally understood that, and I felt that when FIDLAR started. I felt like people weren’t treating us like musicians because we would just get drunk and play three chords and yell. So “let’s pretend that EDM didn’t happen at all” is not a bash on EDM, it’s like a bash on-

KCR: The people saying that EDM isn’t music?

Z: Yeah, exactly. It’s the old people, I call them “rockets”, as in they only like rock music or a certain thing. But that’s the whole point, like “let’s pretend that EDM didn’t happen at all” –  that song is basically an EDM track (laughs). I used the fucking kick sample, the drum pack – all the samples are from an EDM pack. So that was kinda the joke about it, but I don’t think people got it. I think they just think I’m talking shit on EDM.

KCR: Yeah, that’s what I thought.

Z: Yeah, yeah.

KCR: Well I’m glad I know that now. Anyways, let’s move onto some trivia. On the topic of a song like “Too Real”, where it’s a bit more serious, you’ve said yourself that other musicians wouldn’t really view you as musicians. You’re just getting drunk, a “party band.” But “Too Real” is a great example of a serious song, while even something like “Stupid Decisions” is pretty personal. Do you think that FIDLAR is misunderstood in their reputation as a party band, and is it something you’d like to change? Or are you kinda just okay with that?

Z: I mean…look. Half of it’s our fault, writing songs called “Cheap Beer” and “Wake Bake Skate” and “Cocaine”, you know what I mean? Like, okay, I get it, we get it. Half of it’s our fault. And maybe it’s the name of the band, or our whole image or whatever – the goofiness of it – and for us in the media we really try to go for this party punk band, slacker punks, burnouts, that whole thing, you know?

The reality is, we wouldn’t be where we are if we were slackers or burnouts. We work really hard at what we do. Elvis [Kuehn] and Max [Kuehn] have been playing music since they were so young. I believe Elvis is a once in a lifetime musician, you know. He’s one of those savant dudes. He plays piano, he plays every instrument so well. So I feel like we do get discredited a lot for being musicians. A lot of people have labeled us as this party punk band, but we work really fucking hard at what we do, and we’re constantly working.

KCR: That must be tough. Obviously the music’s gonna get whatever label it’s gonna get, but it’s still unfortunate that you then get that sort of reputation. Like, “Oh, they’re just slackers,” or whatever. But you’ve released two records, kind of on your own. Obviously you’re working hard – this stuff doesn’t just happen.

Z: Yeah. And all while dealing with life shit. That’s the other thing that people don’t realize: we’ve been a band for almost ten years now. And it’s been the same members, the exact same members the entire time.

KCR: Yeah, that’s rare. When does that happen?

Z: That’s fucking RARE, dude. When does that happen, exactly. And it’s like, we have to deal with life shit. I got hooked on heroin, Elvis is going through some shit, Brandon [Schwartzel] is going through some shit, Max goes through some shit. We have to deal with life shit and we’ve had to learn how to talk to each other, and how to settle our differences and build our bond stronger. It just doesn’t really fucking happen that much. Musicians like to blow things up, like “Fuck this, I’m outta here.” But nah, that’s the easy way.

KCR: Yeah. The fact that you didn’t even break up given a serious addiction, and that you’ve remained the same members – I don’t know, I think you should get some recognition for that.

Z: Yeah, it’s been a lot harder than people think it is. And I think the press and media and stuff like to label us as “These guys just like to smoke weed and go to the studio and make music.” And, like, yeah… but we do it smart.

KCR: Yeah, you’re like “We’re doing that, but look at what we’re producing.”

Z: Yeah. We’re doing that every day and working hard at it, that’s what we’re doing.

KCR: Exactly. Everyone does different things, but at least you’re working hard at it. So just last week, “Can’t You See” came out. Can you tell me what it’s about? I was kinda getting the vibe that it was about the superficial side of the world in general, but maybe more specifically Los Angeles these days, with the whole “gluten free” thing and “meditating” and “getting rich quick”.

Z: Yeah, totally. It’s totally about that. To me, that song is like that dude at the party that’s just coked out of his mind. Maybe he’s a musician, or maybe he “makes beats”. He’s a producer or something like that. He’s showing you his band through his iPhone speaker. Like, “Listen to this, isn’t this cool?” And you’re just like, “Fuck, I feel like I’m trapped in a cage right now.” That’s kinda what we were channeling with that song.

That song wouldn’t have happened without Ricky though. Elvis had that riff and he had the verse to it, and in FIDLAR fashion we would’ve made it super loud and grungy. But then Ricky was just like, “Let’s do a song that’s just mellow.” And we were like, “Whoa, we’ve never done that before.” So we tried and we just had so much fun doing it. And we learned something in that process, that it’s actually harder to play quieter. Because you have to lock into the groove more. It’s easy to just turn shit up and strum hard.

KCR: Yeah, absolutely. And if you’re quiet or slower, people might notice mistakes more, whereas when you’re just playing loud and fast, your attitudes shifts into “Whatever, just do it.”

Z: Exactly, exactly.

KCR: That’s awesome. So I have one final question, and it’s related to radio. FIDLAR was somewhat recently added to KROQ’s regular rotation, which is really cool. Congratulations.

Z: Thank you.

KCR: You’re welcome. With music streaming services being the primary method of music consumption these days, do you think that radio is still a really important service for reaching new fans and getting your music out there?

Z: Yeah, I do. I really do. Not everybody can look on YouTube, you know what I mean? I come from a place where the only radio station was college radio, and that was literally where I found all my music. On Sundays, on this radio station, these guys had this three hour block and they played everything from Wu-Tang to Beastie Boys, whatever. They just played whatever and that’s how I learned about music, to be honest. Not everybody has the internet. Most people do, and a lot of people have smartphones and things like that. But I just think there’s something to be said about curated music instead of just having a whole library of shit to get lost in, you know what I mean? Because then you’re just like, “What do I listen to?” Having a DJ or specific songs picked out, I think that’s such a unique perspective.

KCR: Absolutely. And I know you can get curated playlists, but it’s not really the same. You don’t get that personal touch, but you also don’t get the commentary on the songs. That’s why I like listening to radio, for the curated aspect of it.

Z: Yeah, and with radio you don’t get to know what the next song is. I think that’s the joy of the radio thing for me, you’re just like “Oh, what’s gonna be next?” you know? It’s not a fucking list.

FIDLAR’s third full-length record, Almost Free, drops on January 25th via Mom + Pop Music. Listen to their newest single, “Can’t You See”, here.

Written By: Andrea Renney