The Front Bottoms Look Back at Their Year From the Top
To say the Front Bottoms had quite the year would be an understatement. The group dropped Back On Top last September, and they’ve hit nearly every major U.S. festival, including Coachella and Lollapalooza, supporting the record at sold-out shows across the country, with a European and Australian tour to top off the year. Oh, and they’re marking the record’s one-year birthday with a run supporting Brand New and Modern Baseball — scene staples that color the scene into its contemporary form — come October. Overwhelming? Maybe.
“It was like, if you played little league baseball or you played high school baseball, and then one day somebody was just like, ‘You know, people really like the way that you play baseball. Here’s a contract and you’re going to go play for the Yankees,’” says frontman and guitarist Brian Sella. “Obviously, it’s not as insane as that, but that’s really what it felt like.”
And while this release is insane, at least in comparison to the band’s previous releases, it’s not as though the record drove them to the top without anything to prepare them for it. Back On Top is the group’s fifth studio album, and it took the four-piece — Sella on vocals / guitar, Mat Uychich on drums, Tom Warren on bass and Ciaran O'Donnell on keys / trumpet / guitar — across the country to work in “a million dollar recording studio” to put everything together.
“We worked with a big-time producer [Joe Chiccarelli], and it was so crazy,” Sella says. “It’s sort of hard to even think about. Even now, a year and a couple months later, it’s just like, ‘Damn, what a weird experience.’ I probably won’t be able to really comment thoughtfully on that experience for like 10 years because it was insane.”
Beyond simply highlighting the album’s one-year anniversary, they’re still trying to comprehend the series of firsts that came along with it: first record after signing to Fueled by Ramen in 2015; first time working with a major producer; first time spending weeks recording and producing an album.
Back On Top’s creation was distinctly different from the recording process during their rough-around-the-edges, DIY days. Their punk rock upbringing is responsible for the same impassioned vocals and sentimental lyrics based in everything from getting older and not knowing what’s next to relationships and all the shit that comes along with them. But their original process was jagged all around — there wasn’t full production (“There was no bass guitar in a lot of it”). It was simply a drummer/guitar duo with not much else besides a passion for music and some spirited songs that needed to be written.
In comparison, Back On Top is noticeably more polished, with fine-tuned versions of Uychich’s punchy, rousing beats, Sella’s anthemic acoustic guitar and animated vocals, and the addition of howling horns for a completely saturated sound. But it's still evident that the guys continued to embrace the poppier side of the emo-rock genre, with distressed vocals that nod to Say Anything’s Max Bemis and a sound as anchored in rock and indie-folk as the Promise Ring. This mangled approach all comes as an ode to the band's roots. Sella and Uychich spawned the Front Bottoms for the hell of it. Because, really, there’s no better way to go about it.
“That punk, DIY [thing], that was what we based it all off of,” Sella says. “It was very much finding who the punks were in the community and then crashing on their couch for a few days. That was our main thing. That was really what we wanted. We wanted to have that experience.”
So, they chased that experience — living life on the road, crashing wherever they could — to make touring a possibility. The duo’s early recording experience wasn’t much different. Putting out music simply meant recording a track and sharing it online the same night. Nothing complex — it was all about the emotion. “We were like, 'All right, let’s make some songs in the basement and not mix them or master them or anything like that,' because we didn’t really care too much about that,” Sella says. “We just wanted to put the music out so that people could hear it and then book tours.”
It was a cycle:
Write some songs.
Book some shows.
Tour the East Coast.
“Me and Mat were just kind of just like, ‘Hey, let’s figure out how to do this. Let’s just put on good shows,’” Sella says. “We really wanted to put on good performances. We wanted to set small goals for ourselves and then just see if we could get there. And they would be really small goals. Like, you know, get 15 people to come see us. We would just take it step by step.”
Each step brought with it something new: a 2008 self-released album, I Hate My Friends, followed by 2009’s My Grandma Vs. Pneumonia. A signing to Bar/None Records in 2011, and the release of their self-titled album that same year. The two-piece became a four-piece in 2012, followed by the release of Talon of the Hawk in 2013 — the first record with the full lineup that helped build the band’s name for their current release.
Even their gigs progressed slowly up through the musical rungs. The duo started at small venues, which sometimes meant they were stuck putting on a show for the bartender and a stray few who would wander in. Maybe, if they were lucky, 15 people would show up to hear the gig. It didn’t matter, though. Concertgoers got the full performance. No matter how many people showed up, the Front Bottoms left it all on the stage.
Gradually, the band’s tours up and down the East Coast began to bring out hundreds, then thousands. Now, they find themselves playing sold-out shows across the country, signing to Fueled By Ramen (the powerhouse label responsible for records from Jimmy Eat World, Yellowcard, Less Than Jake, the Academy Is … , just to name a few) and hitting the road with the likes of emo legends Brand New and TFB’s punky cousins Modern Baseball, which is the tour for any band in the genre.
And though these small steps have gradually taken them to the top, the Front Bottoms haven’t lost their edge or humble beginnings. At the end of the day, these songs are just as much the Front Bottoms as they were on every previous release. Their genre-bending, part-indie / part-rock sound, sprinkled with a bit of emo and dusted with folk, still blend with Sella’s tongue-in-cheek lyrics and ready-to-dance-to vocals. It’s still a mix of “Get your ass up and dance” and “This shit is deep.”
“We would always say, if the songs are good, it doesn’t matter the quality they’re recorded at," Sella says. "Let’s just get people to hear them so that they can sing the words when we go and play. It all feels very validating now, and I would say it developed naturally, which is a good feeling when you’re doing something with art.”
Their natural growth is the reason why the Front Bottoms are still drawing in crowds show after show. The rocky, do-it-yourself production style may be gone, but when they take the stage, it’s hard not to feel like you’re at a house show with 30 of your closest friends — even if you’re at a sold-out show surrounded by thousands. The stage productions aren’t overly complex. The guys have always been there for the performance, for the music. When they hit the stage, they aren’t worried about anything except putting on the best show possible.
“For the past eight years or whatever, when we would play, not all the time people would show up," Sella remembers. "Sometimes there would be no one there — literally, no one there. But for the bartender and the sound guy? That’s who we were performing for. It didn’t matter if there were one or two people there; we were going to try to put on an amazing show, and that was just the bottom line.
“Now that there are more people showing up, it’s still the same attitude. Whether that be, you know, five or a thousand people, let’s just make sure they leave saying, ‘Damn, I can’t wait until they come back to town.’”
Back On Top has given the guys the chance to hit cities across the country — a dream for a band used to living on the road. Couch-surfing days behind them, the Front Bottoms are living the lifestyle that the punk duo starting out could have only dreamed of. Maybe that’s why this year is so mind-boggling for the guys who started out creating their own tunes in a basement.
But really, no matter how big the shows are, or how long they’re on the road, the Front Bottoms are still as agile and open for anything as they were when they started. They’re growing right alongside their sound.
“It’s a living art project that changes album to album, tour to tour, silly idea to silly idea,” Sella says. “We go on these tours and all these notebooks are getting filled up because of all these new experiences, meeting all these new people. It’s very inspiring.”
After their whirlwind of a year with this record, it’s clear that these punk rockers aren’t going to lose their place on top — or run out of inspiration. “The next one we’re working on, that’s probably going to be totally freaky and different. We’re just gonna keep getting freaky with it.”
Pick up 'Back On Top' here.
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