I initially talked about Charleston, South Carolina-based A Fragile Tomorrow over a year ago, when I first heard and reviewed their (at the time) newest album, the splendid Be Nice, Be Careful. This album resonated with me from the get-go for several reasons – first and most importantly, the songs were so tight, catchy, full and realized; they were the kind of quality power-pop that I’ve always loved. And for a band of young men, they played with a maturity and skill not many others have. It seemed like they had been students of the same teachers as I: Big Star, R.E.M., The dB’s – any band who knew how to work hooks, jangle and melody around well-thought lyrics – subsequently, I was right. The album had been recorded and co-produced by one of the masters of the “jangle resurrection”, Mitch Easter of Let’s Active, The Sneakers and of course, producer of R.E.M.’s first three records. They cite the aforementioned bands as influences, amongst others, and most importantly, they’re music fans, which so many bands and performers seem to forget how to be. Now Dominic, Sean and Brendan Kelly (yes, they’re brothers – and Dominic and Sean are twins) and Shaun Rhodes have just released their newest single, “Waning” and have announced a multi-album deal with MPress Records. So A Fragile Tomorrow are, as I suspected they would become, a band on the rise. And deservedly so.
I want to thank Dominic (drums) and Sean Kelly (guitar, lead vocals) for taking the time to speak with me – our conversation was held on the eve of their signing with MPress. I also want to thank their bandmates, Brendan Kelly and Shaun Rhodes for making this such a great band. Now let me introduce you to A Fragile Tomorrow:
Popdose: So let’s start with the band’s name – it’s an interesting moniker and a memorable one, at that. Where did it come from? And when did this all begin?
Dominic Kelly: I had written a song called “Fragile Tomorrow” and we were looking for a new name – it was a terrible song; it was just really bad (laughs) but we were “oh, I kinda like the name”, so… I think our dad may have suggested it as a band name and it stuck, so… We started doing some block parties and we did a graduation party and we were young – we were like 12, 13 – just doing parties and doing some local stuff. We were trying to branch out as much as possible and then wound up meeting probably ten years ago the Hootie guys, which is how we met Peter Holsapple, Susan Cowsill, Danielle Howle and all those people – that’s how we started to get involved in that circle and started doing some touring with a lot of them. And we were still young – we were 14 or 15 when we were playing with them. Our parents wound up home schooling us so we could tour; that was about 8 years ago – around the time Shaun Rhodes joined the band as bass player. He dropped out of college to become a rock star (laughing). We met him through a newspaper ad; we’d put an ad in the newspaper and met him; he was 19 and from there it just took off. We’ve been this four piece ever since and just kept touring. You know, what started in our basement as 11 year olds – Sean and I were 11, just writing songs. Shitty songs, but… (both laugh)
For such young men, and I say that with a great deal of pride and admiration, you guys are quite an accomplished band. I mean, you’re going on what I presume is your fifth studio album at this point – you’ve got the new single, “Waning” dropping (editor’s note: it has since been released) – you have the live e.p. out right now. That’s pretty substantial work for a band that’s only just coming of the proverbial legal age! I think it’s fantastic; I admire that a lot – to be honest with you, I wish we’d stuck to that kind of work ethic when we were younger and first playing – we might have gone further with it.
But let me ask you – in the genesis of the band and over time, you’re very broad, musically speaking; you have a great deal of musicality and musicianship within the ranks of the band as you all play different instruments and you seem to have this incredible pool/love for different types of music. Would it be unfair or arcane to say that there’s one particular style that you follow? Or is it a culling of all of your influences from the time the band got together? Or is it picking up as you go along and injecting those flavors into the mix to make A Fragile Tomorrow the band that it is?
DK: You said it right – we have a lot of different influences but we’re all power pop guys; we’ve all been influenced by R.E.M., Let’s Active, The dB’s, Big Star and those kinds of bands. It’s our core, but we also all like very different things – and I think you can hear that in our music. We are a pop band, but we strive to be something more than that – sort of eclectic, too. I think it even shows through the people we’ve toured with and collaborated with over the years and they’ve influenced us even though they’re not in that kind of power pop world. But we are a power pop band and that’s why we admire so much those bands that came before us – way before we were even born (both laugh) – that we grew up listening to. We really did grow up listening to all those bands, so I do think they helped make up who we are. We do call ourselves power pop but I don’t think we’re exactly like the bands we followed – I think we might fall into a slightly different category or sub-genre. Certainly, a lot of the songs are all different; like “Intentions” on our last record is an Americana kind of thing but it fits; it fits with the poppier songs like “Kernersville”. At our core, we’re a power pop band for sure.
I think it’s really a tip of the hat to you guys that you wear the badge of “power pop” and acknowledge it with pride. It seems like it’s becoming a dirty word again, which I find amazing since I think power pop is the staff of musical life (both laugh) as far as I’m concerned. And it’s much appreciated to hear another musician say “no, we are what we are – we don’t follow it strictly but we are definitely part of that scene.”
DK: Yeah, absolutely.
It has so many meanings and you can go strength to strength – you have Big Star on one end and The dB’s on the other; you have Cheap Trick and Dwight Twilley on a different bracket. Or The Flaming Groovies. So “power pop” is so big and so embracing; it can be for all. But it’s great to see another generation’s group of musicians doing well-structured, well thought out, musically shaped and developed songs. In those influences, do you ever include anything that’s not just musical? Like a book that you’ve read – you’ll put some of the ideas of what you’ve read into the lyrics or a movie or a painting and in writing the songs, who does the main extent of writing for the band? Is it one of you or all of you?
DK: I’m going to pass the phone over to Sean because he’s the primary songwriter! Is that alright?
SK: Hey, how are you, man?
Doing great – good to hear you.
SK: It is mostly by music – but since I started reading a lot about Irish history, so a lot of the new stuff I’m working on is a little more political and writing about something that’s really fascinated me. In terms of something like “Waning” or the last record, I like reading lyrics and sometimes I’ll read poetry. And definitely with movies; a line will pop out at me and I’ll start thinking about a lyric. Actually, when I write, I usually write music first – lyrics come later. I try to approach it almost backwards – since I’ll write music; you know – structuring a chorus and verse – then I start to sing the melody using some kind of phonetic. So when I start lyrics, I’ll write a line that fits into the melody in terms of the phrasing and that’s how I usually shape my lyrics. I try to find words that work with that initial idea but will also fit with the structure of the melody.
Subject matter starts to come out in the lyrics almost stream of consciousness, at first. Then I’ll find a line that I can connect with and figure out what I’m trying to say – then I can go from there. Lyrics take me a good while to really get down and craft. A lot of the time the subject matter will actually be influenced by the song I’d be writing – I can almost feel there’s a certain mood or whatever and then make sure whatever I’m writing makes sense with the melodies and the music. It all happens, coinciding with the music. Sometimes, I’ll have an idea for a subject and put it to music, but it is rare – music comes first usually.
Even with the song “Waning”, lyrically, it started with me thinking about relationships I’d been in and you see the other person waning, fading. I write a lot about that; analyzing those situations. And I had this image of a waning moon and the idea of associating that with relationships was really appealing to me. So that’s where the title came from and the image led to the idea and I just went from there. I had most of the music written already and then I came up with the title and lyrics and shaped it with what I already had for the melody. Short story long, anyway (both laugh).
Well, no – the great thing is that I’ve noticed in a lot of the lyrics from the last album is that they’re very personal. I think that’s a big factor in what I feel makes me, as the listener, connect with the band. And connecting is everything – obviously, there’s a universal emotion that comes across and that’s the automatic thread that ties the writer to a possible new fan/audience member.
As the singer and frontman, when you’re up there singing in front of an audience, what is your main function? Is this something you want to turn into an intimate moment and make it a really tiny room or… just to get into the mindset of other fellow musicians who perform live – do you try to make it a bigger, more communal feel – what’s your vibe? What’s your take? When you’re on stage, are you trying to connect with the individual – I’m curious about your perspective, especially since you’re such a seasoned road band now.
SK: It’s funny – it’s been a really long process in getting to the point where we take the live thing more seriously, in putting on “a show”. Where I’m at now is that I really like the idea of is that my role, when I’m on stage, is of the visual center, since I usually wear the pork-pie hat when I’m up there. It may be a little oddball, but the main thing to me is to be a little eccentric and pull the audience that way. With the songs, I like transitions and I like to be more of a show and I think it’s in part because some of the bands we listen to put on “a show”. If you see old videos of Jellyfish or whomever, they always had an aesthetic to them and it seemed like their shows always flowed in a certain way. R.E.M. was the same way – that’s the kind of thing we’re going for, so I always like it to be an experience and not to be just a band playing songs.
I like the idea of taking that being more of a show and then adapting it to the different kinds of rooms; different kinds of venues that we play at. We know that if it’s a smaller room, we can tone certain things down and if we’re playing a bigger show, we can expand on certain things. We’ve even started – to a degree – started rehearsing the banter in between and having a general sort of outline. We really like to make it a show; to me, being the kind of band that we are, I think that’s the only way to really get the songs across in a live setting. Make it a high energy experience – I always think of a band like Cowboy Mouth, whose shows are almost like a spiritual experience, which is something I always want. Cheap Trick, too – you go to see them and it’s a whole other experience, right down to the guitars they play… Every aspect of it is planned and well thought out; it’s very deliberate to put on even more of a show instead of just “going to see a band play.”
When I’m up there, I have that sort of mindset, even if we’re in a little club – I tend to treat the shows the same: I want to give the audience the experience, not just playing songs for people and it’s taken a long time for me to get comfortable and become that person and become more extroverted in that way. I’m somewhat introverted in general but when you’re on stage… I’ve had to dig deep and figure out where that energy is coming from and how to bring that out as the frontman. I also try not to think or feel that I have to carry all that weight all of the time – we’ve had meetings about that, too – we all know what our roles are but we all pull each other along during a show; it’ snot just one guy pulling the band through. I think that’s really important to note – that all four of us are equally as responsible in making the audience enjoy us. But I definitely do know that being the frontman, there’s going to be more focus and I do have to stay aware of that. I’m thinking about making sure I remain energetic and enthusiastic and at the very least, look like I’m having fun! (laughs) Even if we’re in Madison, Wisconsin and we’ve driven fifteen hours to be there and we’re all exhausted. You have to forget that and put on a show. It’s the same anywhere you go. It had gotten to the point where we had to focus on that, pretty intensely, I might add, for a while. But the more we did it, the more comfortable we became being more extroverted and more energetic and now it’s natural for us to be that kind of band and put on that kind of show.
It’s a full band presentation. Which is great and a really encouraging thing to hear because you don’t often get to hear about a band’s evolutionary process from the one person who’s at the front and doing the work of having to sing and being the focal point to being able to sit down with his bandmates and say “we need to open this up a bit – that way, all of us have a share of the physical performance and the audience will know we are a band.” And then you can deliver the best kind of show possible to the audience because that is what they want – they want to see “the band”.
SK: Exactly. And I think that it’s also been really important because, as you said, we want people to know we are a band; it’s not just a frontman and they’re the musicians. Everybody gets to be represented equally and we realize the necessity to talk about coordinating ourselves – like our outfits for shows and little things like that – it all makes it so that we’re all pulling the weight. It makes people want to focus on all four of us and not just one of us – and that’s really important. When I saw Cheap Trick, I wasn’t just focusing on Robin Zander or Rick Nielsen – I was watching all of them because they all catch your eye; they all have something about the way they’re playing and engaging with the audience and presenting the songs that made them a group and not just Robin Zander, frontman, or Rick Nielsen, the guy throwing picks out…
We had to sit down and talk about that – to know that we all had to work as a band to win an audience over… The biggest thing for us is getting all these opening slots; if we were doing an Indigo Girls tour, we had to not think “oh, let’s get Amy up during our set to sing with us and that’ll win the audience over”; you can’t think like that – you have to do it yourself and put the work into it – engage their audience and put on a show and make them want to come and talk to you. Hopefully, they’re like “that was amazing; I’ve never seen a show like that” or… It was really important for us to treat the live show as more of a show and really work it during those opening slots. It’s always a work in progress, but it’s really fun to do that.
The fact that we haven’t been playing much this year has been really good since we’ve been sending set list ideas back and forth and song ideas and analyzing every part of our show – figuring out how best to play some of the songs that we haven’t done before live – trying to replicate certain parts on the records – that’s something we’re constantly working at now and not taking lightly as we may have when we were first starting… I think every band – hopefully – goes through that kind of progression; when you realize there’s more value in the live show – when a young band might think it’s just about getting up and playing songs. You can really win an audience over if you put the work and more thought into it. It’s been really good -we’re all on the same page as far as that goes and it’s been awesome.
It shouldn’t surprise you – that it’s a very forward thinking way to be. Especially with all the detail that you’ve gone into because there are a lot of bands that don’t think about it. I’m sure you know this – you’ll be watching a band that gets up there and is on autopilot. Or the guys in the band will be content to let the one who’s singing do the heavy lifting. Which some bands may be able to function better and the egos have to be in check with one another – I guess they can do that with ease – but I like hearing that this is a group effort; that this is a thought process and that you guys sit down and you meet and think about it and share your thoughts; I appreciate that a great deal. It says to me “this is a band that cares” and not only about the audience but about yourselves because you know you want to present the best thing that you can for the audience – for your audience and your possible new audience. What you said is something that so many bands tend to forget – if you’re an opening act, part of that job is to win over a) the audience who wants to see the headlining act and b) gain new fans and friends in the process which will, of course, hopefully translate into moving units somewhere along the line. So it’s a very heartening thing to hear.
So let me ask you – or both of you – whoever wants to take this one – you’ve got the new single coming out; you have the live e.p. already out – I’m presuming the direction is now the 5th studio album. Talk about what’s coming out from the band and what’s on the horizon, as I strongly feel – as a fan of the group – that things are happening; there’s a lot more to come, heading down the road. For the balance of 2014 – what can we possibly expect to see and hear?
SK: That’s a really good question, since we’ve mainly been focusing on the writing and the overall musical direction for the next record. I think the main thing is the focus on getting this record going; I think the biggest thing for us is that we made a lot of progress with the last record and we’re really proud of what we did on it – not just the fact that we worked with Mitch (Easter, producer and owner of Fidelatorium Studios, where Be Nice, Be Careful was recorded) but just everything about that record. It was a really big step up for us – now the focus this year is taking that forward and try not being daunted by having to follow up on that. Just working on and crafting the songs and figuring out what kind of direction we’re going in. We’re looking at the highlights of our sound and what is it that we do – and harmonies are part of it. 12-string guitars have become a major part – so right now, we sit down together and focus on arrangements and song structures. For the rest of the year, I think that’s what we’re going to be doing. We’ll start recording in the fall and maybe do a little touring, when we’ll playing some of the new songs. Our biggest goal is to have a really good set of songs done that when we start touring again, behind the new record, we’ll be able to present them along with songs from the last album so that the set will flow and hopefully make it a great show.
As far as the sound of the new record, I think this one is going to be even more involved. I mentioned them before, but you listen to the old Jellyfish records or the old Big Star records or Automatic For The People in terms of string arrangements and that sort of thing…
Something broad and lush.
SK: Yes. I’m actually working on doing string arrangements for some new songs; we’re expanding more, sonically. And I’m excited by sitting down and trying to figure out how that’s going to translate live. Do we bring on an auxiliary player to tour with us? Strategically planning a re-emergence – that’s the biggest thing on the horizon, this year. I think doing the single is a really good way to bridge the gap between the last record and this upcoming one. And we intended “Waning” to be this big, jubilant sounding song and it is , with the horn section… It’s grandiose and it’s what we were going for, so I think it’s a good way to move people into this next phase of our band. “Waning” is the blueprint, if you like, for what’s ahead and gives us a good sense of where we can go with the next record.
I think overall, this is going to be our most productive and musically exciting year. We’re doing the most pre-production we’ve ever done; the most we’ve all ever been together in crafting and shaping things… While we won’t be touring as much, making things lighter in that sense, we’re busier than ever with the production for this upcoming album. That’s about the best way I can describe it!
And I wish you guys nothing but the best of luck with this – I’m sure it’s going to be fantastic.
“Waning” is out now and available