I’ve been a fan of A Fragile Tomorrow for several years now. I reviewed their last two albums here on Popdose and had the opportunity to speak with/interview the twin Kelly brothers, Sean and Dominic, a few years ago as they were releasing their heart-stopping Make Me Over album. Sean has anchored the band for well over a decade, along with Dominic (drummer), their younger brother Brendan on lead guitar and Shaun Rhoades handling bass duties, but now he’s about to step out into his own light with his forthcoming debut solo album, Time Bomb, Baby.
In the two years since we last chatted and AFT released their last album, a great deal has happened – both good and bad – and Sean and I catch up as he prepares to unleash a very ambitious and musically-rich collection.
You’ve done a lot of recording, performing and touring over the years. Now you’re branching out with a solo album. What was the inspiration to take you in this new direction? In the preparation for this record, what drove you – musically or otherwise?
It was a combination of things, really. The biggest driving force was the fact that we had just done a band record that I felt encapsulated not just where we were at the time, but where we were trying to end up, musically speaking, for essentially our entire career. Because of this, I legitimately had a hard time picturing where we could go from there. Of course, I knew we’d figure it out eventually. But I think I really needed to step away for a little while and do something new before I knew what the band could do next.
At the same time, I was in an intense love affair with the Roxy Music record Avalon. It was always one of my favorites, but at that particular time I was obsessed with it. It’s everything I love about ’80’s production and somehow avoids all of the cliche aspects of it. For whatever reason, I was simultaneously on a Kate Bush kick and a Peter Gabriel kick at the time. Both of those artists were people I was truly fascinated by for years. I loved their ability to create interesting, groundbreaking compositions and turn them into provocative recordings that to me were sonically ahead of their time. They had that in common with Roxy and Avalon. I was also super into Bryan Ferry’s solo record Boys & Girls and Bowie’s Let’s Dance and really enjoyed how all of these artists approached dance and synth music. When I realized that I was ready to do a solo project, I immediately thought of the common thread among all of this music and knew what direction I needed to go in.
Talk about the balance between being both nervous AND excited about presenting a solo project after so many years as part of a band.
It’s a whole new kind of freedom in some ways, and the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done in other ways. I’ve been in this band for almost 14 years. I’ve always played with my brothers and I’ve played with Shaun for over a decade. Since moving from New York to Charleston, I’d started playing with other bands as a bass player, and I’d become the go-to keyboard player at Low Watt, here in Savannah, when bands would come in to record, so I kinda realized early on that I just wanted to do everything myself. I wanted to self-produce and compose and play everything. Just for the sake of having the freedom to control everything myself and not have three other people to consider in the production process.
I was most nervous about being a lead guitar player, and that was certainly a challenge at first. I knew I could write the solos because I’ve written some solos for AFT songs over the years, but it was more or less playing them in a convincing manner that I was concerned with — playing them like a lead guitar player! The whole thing was definitely out of my comfort zone, and it still is in the post-production phase because I’m navigating every aspect of this project myself. But I really am so excited to present this record! I definitely feel like I want to keep making solo records in between band projects and just have two unique creative outlets.
Was the songwriting process for this album different from your usual approach in writing for A Fragile Tomorrow?
In the sense of how the songs were written, it wasn’t much different. Just an extension of the process from the last band record. Everything was written and constructed entirely in the studio with this project, which was the case for 90 percent of the last AFT album. I had maybe one or two little riffs or ideas that I came in with for this record, but the majority of the music came from me sitting in the studio and playing for a little while, finding something cool, working on it for a bit and hitting record. Some of it even came from having one part solidified and hitting record, and kind of improvising what happened next. Then I’d obviously work backwards and flesh out the song from there, but most of these songs were truly rooted in improvisation and spontaneity.
The thing that was way different for me is that I made a conscious decision not to pack in a bunch of chords and instead really simplify the progressions in an effort to be faithful to all of that music the project was influenced by. It was totally against my nature because I personally have an innate desire when I’m writing for the band to explore chord progressions and look for the most interesting and unorthodox left turn. That comes from this mentality I’ve had for the last 5 years or so that for me, songwriting isn’t its own process. The way I work, it’s better to think of it as part of the production/recording process. I still had that mentality with this project, but I had to really go with my gut and try not to go down the rabbit hole of searching for left turns the same way I would normally.
The obvious: with you and your brother Dom having released solo albums, is there still A Fragile Tomorrow? Or is this as a means of exploring other avenues while the band is on hiatus?
There most definitely is still A Fragile Tomorrow. As I mentioned, after the last record I was having a hard time figuring out where we could go from where we were. We’d literally been doing nothing but the band, with the exception of a couple of side projects and more recently the studio work, for over a decade. Every creative project we’d done was as A Fragile Tomorrow. So I think it definitely felt like the time to step back and do some other stuff. To be honest, it wasn’t something we sat down and decided, it just happened. None of us are really fans of being out on the road for long periods of time, so that was never our lifestyle. We love playing live but we like to do it in smaller increments. After our West Coast tour, supporting the last record, we came home and just thought we’d not play for a while and live our lives a bit. We all were in serious relationships and our mom’s health was on the decline, and we just needed to be home. Then our grandfather died that May, and I think we just put the band on the back burner for a while after that. But Dom and I both started thinking about solo records around that time as well; just as outlets for what we were feeling, creatively.
As I was getting towards the end of the solo record, Brendan and I would spend the day recording (he engineered the solo record) and then the rest of the night just sort of playing together. We started putting down ideas and quickly realized that we were composing a band record. We started having conversations immediately and it became clear where we could take the band. Those conversations actually really started after Shaun Rhoades heard a little of what I was working on for the solo record and thought that our next band record should incorporate some of the more rhythmic, groove-based aspects of my solo project. A lightbulb went off and we took it from there. So I’m actually, at the moment, simultaneously navigating the launch of the solo project and the early stages of pre-production on the next AFT record.
There is an enormous amount of pressure for a musician to deliver something viable from a solo album. Did you feel this way or was it natural and “felt just right”? Talk about how it was going into the studio as Sean Kelly, solo musician.
There was certainly a fair amount of pressure in some way, but it wasn’t anything that was too different than what I was used to. As the songwriter in the band, I’ve always questioned the viability and quality of my work. Always. That was no different with this, but there was a difference in that I didn’t have other band members around me to let me know that I was just overthinking it! Having Brendan engineer the project was great, though, because it made it more comfortable. He didn’t play anything on it at all, but he would definitely let me know when I was being too insecure if I needed to hear that.
It honestly was great going into the studio under my own name. I did everything as it was in my head until I brought in my friend Josh Kean to play drums. Josh is by far my favorite drummer on the planet. He’s the most versatile drummer I’ve ever known. We were also in Danielle Howle’s band together for a few years and just clicked as a rhythm section. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced, even though I have this huge musical chemistry in my own band. It was different. So I knew he needed to be the guy for this record. It gave me the chance to have someone else interpret the material. I could compose all of the parts and songs myself and have them played exactly how I envisioned, and then have someone else put their rhythmic stamp on top of that. It was wonderful in that way.
I did have some other guests make “cameo” appearances on the record, including the great Gail Ann Dorsey (who played bass on a song and sang on two), plus, my friend Ted Comerford helped with production. The vast majority of the time, though, I was piecing this whole thing together myself.
In that realm of checks and balances, would solo songs of yours (as well as Dom’s) start to find their way into the AFT live show or are these mutually exclusive?
I think they would! I think we’ll probably integrate at least one from each solo record into the AFT show going forward. The exciting thing about taking a year off from the band is that we get to kind of reevaluate things when we finally come back together and assess how we’ve evolved individually as players while we were away. At that point we can sit down and figure out what solo songs fit really well in the realm of the band’s live show. It’ll definitely depend on how the new AFT songs are fleshed out in a live setting, because I can tell you that they’re significantly different from anything we’ve done before in almost every way imaginable. That’s about as far as I’ll go into the new A Fragile Tomorrow project. But yeah, it’ll be cool to figure out what solo songs work for the band!
This is a highly personal question and if you don’t want to answer, I more than understand. Did the recent events in your life become elements that informed and helped shape the lyrical scope of this album?
The interesting thing is that a lot of the more significant events in my life started happening after this record was done. My grandfather died before I started recording, and that influenced the song “Let Me Be The First To Find Out.” He was an atheist, as was I until I more recently evolved into what I’d call a spiritually agnostic Jew. I wrote the song from his point of view about dying and wanting to die before my mother, who was terminally ill while he was on his deathbed. All he wanted was to not have to bury his child, and about a month before he died mom’s health started to improve. At his funeral I kept getting people coming up to me saying, “It’s like he made a deal or something.” I’d like to believe he did.
I did get engaged during the making of the record, and the song “Gold To Me” is about my relationship with my now-wife. We ended up getting married early – right after the record was in the can – so that my mom could be there because she’d started hospice while we were mixing the record. Mom died in July, and it’s been a fucking whirlwind ever since, trying to get my head in the game, so to speak, with this record. But looking back, there was a lot I was writing about that was most certainly informed by the progression of life that was happening as I was making the record. I write a lot about anxiety, so there’s a healthy amount of that being dealt with, lyrically.
All in all, I’m really glad that this didn’t end up being my grieving project or my coping project, ya know? Had mom died or gone into hospice while I was writing and recording this record, I know it would have been much different. Plus, she got to hear the finished record and I think loved the dance-y nature of it, so it all worked out as it was supposed to.
Do you plan on touring this album as a solo performer?
I am touring a bit in the last few months of the year. Doing some CD release shows in South Carolina and Georgia in October, followed by some Midwest stuff and some Florida & Louisiana shows. In December, I’m working on a Northeast run, and that will most likely be it for the solo tour, at least until next year. I’ve always preferred going out in little bursts of time rather than long tours, so it’s all worked out really well in that respect. It’ll be nice to be home with my wife during the week and then go out and promote this thing sporadically.
Time Bomb, Baby will be released on Friday, October 13th, 2017