Quirky New Jersey duo The Front Bottoms have upped the ante for their latest LP, venturing out of the basement to record in a proper studio for the first time and even cracking the Billboard 200 with Talon of the Hawk, a record brimming with catchy melodies and evocative first-person narratives that walks the line between indie rock and pop-punk. For the latest edition of Tell Me About That Album, we chatted with Front Bottoms singer and guitarist Brian Sella about the album, how Twin Peaks inspired its title, and the band’s similarities to Everclear. The Front Bottoms play The Vera Project on Wednesday, June 19.
Your lyrics have a stream of consciousness feel to them and I’m wondering if that’s actually how you write. How much of what ended up on the record was a first draft or something that just poured out naturally? It’s definitely more of a first draft sort of deal. I just let the good vibes flow and if the lyrics that come out make sense to me with the energy of the song, I’ll usually just keep them. I usually don’t write one complete song. I write like a bunch of 15-second songs and then I’ll mash them together. I’ll write a chorus or verse and I won’t know what it will be at the time that I’m writing it, but I’ll have a bunch of little parts and I’ll see which ones work together the nicest.
Does that mean you’re always writing in the same key or having to change keys to fit the pieces together? I don’t know anything about how to read music and I kind of keep it that way because of the way I write. It seems like it would be difficult if I had some sense in my head and was trying to figure out what key I was in. Instead I’m just sort of like, “Well this sounds good. I’m going to keep this like this.”
Are ideas formed when you’re not at the guitar though? Do you get ideas when you’re driving or in the shower that you’ll eventually come back to for those 15-second parts? I will very rarely sit down with my guitar and say, “Let me write about this.” I’m usually driving or hanging out with friends and I’ll get an idea and write it down in my cell phone. Then when I pick up a guitar I’m going back to all these flashes. And it may just be a quote from a friend that would make a cool line.
Making Talon of the Hawk marked the first time you worked with a producer and recorded outside a home studio. Why did you decide to change up your process and what did you find Chris “Frenchie” Smith brought to the recording process? Me and [drummer] Mathew Uychich went back and forth on the decision to use a producer. We felt like we have so much time to make records in our basement. We have the recording equipment to make a little demo but we might not always have the opportunity to travel to another state and work with somebody who makes their living doing this. The songs were 90% written, so we had a lot of time to sit with the songs and play them over and over and over again. By the time we were ready to record, it was like, all of the ideas we have are already in the song so why don’t we go to someone we feel comfortable with and see what they can add to the songs. And I’m glad we did it.
Is it true that you painted the cover art in the back of your van? Sort of. I had painted a very crappy version of the album art at my girlfriend’s house on the couch one day. And then I threw it in the van and it was in there for a long time. We were cleaning the van out and we were debating what to call the album. I found it underneath the seat and I was like, “This just feels very good. We should use this.”
Talon of the Hawk was just a phrase you had written at the bottom of this knife painting? My girlfriend was watching Twin Peaks, which I don’t know anything about, but there was a police officer, and I looked up right when he came on screen. I asked what his name was and she said Officer Hawk. That stayed with me and when I finished the painting I just put Talon of the Hawk. I thought that’d be a cool knife company name or something. I like it because if you hear the name you kind of have an idea what type of music it’s going to be and I don’t think it’s the kind of music that we’ve made, so I like that whole aspect of it.
Do you worry about being tagged a jokey band and somehow limited by that notion? It’s definitely something that I hear sometimes and it used to be something that confused me because I feel like there are a bunch of different ways you can look at our music. Either way, I don’t really care. If you’re listening to our music and getting anything out of it, then it’s a positive thing.
Do you not intend the lyrics to be funny? I’ve definitely written a few songs that are more funny than anything else but I don’t usually put those out as Front Bottoms songs. I don’t think I intend to write funny songs really.
One of the lyrics on the album is, “I just want this to mean something to anybody even if they don’t know who I am.” Who was that for you? A lot of them are these kids we used to play these basements with up in New England, these kids who made this folk-punk music. There’s a band called Big Wilson River that we went on our first tour with and they didn’t care at all about who was listening to their music. They were just going into these basements and ripping them apart, and that was the attitude that I looked up to when I was growing up.
You seem to walk the line between punk band and indie act–do you associate yourself with one scene more than another? I have a hard time putting us in either place because I feel bad when I describe the music to someone. “Oh, we’re kind of an indie band.” And then they automatically think they know what that means and I’m not sure we would fit into whatever they’re thinking. I usually say whatever the person looks like they would like. If I see some kid with a Black Sabbath shirt on and he’s like, “What’s your band sound like?” I’m like, “We’re pretty metal.”
There’s a song on the record called “Santa Monica,” which is also the title of the biggest hit by Everclear. What else do you have in common with that band? Oh, we have a song about my father! Wow, until this moment I never realized. We’re basically an Everclear cover band. I’ve got to bleach my hair blonde like him [Art Alexakis]. My friend said he saw him with all these bands like Sugar Ray and Gin Blossoms, and he said the guy from Everclear came out pretty drunk and the whole first song he just held the microphone out to the audience and didn’t sing anything, which sounds like a nice rock star move I’m going to have to try.