Frontman Tim Skipper talks about the themes and musical progression on Suburba, how the record rejuvenated the band and kept it from breaking up, and finding freedom amidst life’s setbacks.
So how are you doing today?
Well, I’m a little angry with myself today [laughs]. I booked some flights for us about a month ago, and I made the mistake of booking them at four in the morning or something like that when I was exhausted. So I totally put the wrong name for one of the passengers. Now we’re having to eat like $800 because of it.
Ouch, that sucks.
Yeah, but you live and you learn, I guess. Right?
Well, congratulations on the new album hitting No. 48 on the charts. That must have been pretty cool.
Yeah, thank you very much. We were stoked, man. We kind of had a number picked out in our head of what we’d sell, and we almost doubled it. That was awesome.
I know probably a lot of that came from the Amazon deal of the day. Obviously, that’s cheap enough where you probably don’t really make any money off of that, but it is a great way to get the music out there.
It’s a fantastic way, definitely. The way that that works is Amazon actually pays out as if you were selling the record for $7. They take a hit, but their research shows that pretty much any new customer that comes to the website ends up spending about $20, so it’s worth it for them to get new customers there.
I’ve heard a lot of the time it’s their call on what they discount. Is that true?
Totally it is, yeah.
On the last album you had some distribution problems, but this one everything seems to be going smoothly. So that must be pretty good, too.
Yeah, definitely. That was a point of focus for us, to make sure everything came out on the same day. It worked out well.
So the first thing I wanted to start out with is what the biography on your website starts off with: “It has been said that there are three things wrong with rock music, currently: One, most bands sacrifice originality for ‘safe’ marketability. Two, most bands place fashion over great songwriting. Three, most bands think production trumps heart. But then, House of Heroes is not most bands.” Then it describes you guys as “fearless, uncompromising and heartfelt.” I was wondering if you could unpack that a little bit and go into what that is talking about.
Well, let’s see. The bio writer wrote that, but I definitely feel like in a lot of ways that’s true. I definitely feel that, especially in pop music these days. People talk more about Lady Gaga’s fashion, her antics and that sort of thing more than her music, you know? I think she’s actually a very talented musician. I’ve seen those videos on YouTube of her just playing the piano and singing. It’s like, why do you have to do all that crazy stuff in order to get press? Why can’t you just write good songs? So, I definitely think that’s true.
For us, honestly, the way that we write music and the mentality that we take comes from having a lot of years of setbacks and a lot of years of things not really working out the way we wanted them to, which gave us the freedom to play whatever we felt like. Yeah, we can take a few more risks than the normal pop band who was successful from their first record on would. I feel like we’re more comfortable in doing that because it’s like, “Well, for 10 years we didn’t really care what other people thought. Why should we start now?”
I understand that Suburba originally started out as a conceptual coming-of-age story about this guy who had some run-ins with the law. How much of that made it onto the final album and do you still consider it a concept album?
I don’t know if I would necessarily consider it a concept album. I would say it’s a little more thematic than being a concept album. From the original story that we kind of had outlined, I would say five songs made it onto Suburba. We changed the lyrics around a little bit. “Relentless” was one of them, the first track on the album. That’s the introduction to the whole story about the summer between your junior and senior years of high school where you’re on top of the world. You don’t feel like anything could stop you. There’s a lot of youthful energy to it.
“Independence Day for a Petty Thief” was supposed to be part of the story album. That was the introduction to, yeah, we are on top of the world, the sky’s the limits, but we’re starting to make bad decisions here. So yeah, there’s still some pillars of that original story on the album, but they don’t really quite tell the story like it was supposed to because we changed them around enough.
The suburban, youthful, coming-of-age theme has obviously been done a lot in music, film, literature and all that kind of stuff. What kind of approach did you take about touching on that topic?
We really wanted to write from personal experience because the last album, The End is Not the End, all the songs were about wars that took place before we were even born. We started researching some of our favorite songwriters. Bruce Springsteen said, “The best songs come from what you know and what you’ve known in your lifetime.” So we kind of said, “Well, let’s write about what we know. We spent all this time writing about stuff we didn’t really know about, making up characters, so let’s try to write about what we know.”
All the songs have to do with either stuff that happened to us, how we felt at certain times or stuff that happened to people very close to us. It’s slightly embellished, of course, but for the most part it’s very much from personal experience and our lives growing up in the suburbs. It’s trying to figure out, “Do I want this really safe life where I’m going to work 9-5 doing this? Or do I really want to pursue my dreams and these things that will make the world a better place, even though they’re risky, they’re dangerous or whatever?” It’s definitely been done before, but we felt like if we could write from our direct personal experiences it would be a little more genuine.
Did you grow up in the suburbs of Cleveland?
Have you heard the new Arcade Fire album by chance?
Oh, yeah. I pre-ordered that the first day I could.
Their whole album is about the suburbs as well. How do you compare that to what you did?
I didn’t really like that album at first. It’s grown on me big time these past few days. I would say as far as our album versus their album, I think ours is a bit more youthful. I think our approach was different than theirs because theirs feels to me to be a lot more cynical and jaded. A lot more like, “Yeah, this was what I knew back in the day, but this is what I know now. I don’t like what I knew back in the day, and I don’t want any part of it anymore.”
Whereas ours is more of, I have an appreciation of that and where I came up. My family still lives there, and my dad still goes to a job that he hates to support his family. I feel like our album is a little bit more on the side of youthful energy and excitement, whereas theirs is a little further down the road where you’re a little more jaded and cynical towards the whole idea of a suburban life.
Also, I’d add that theirs is resigned to being stuck in that phase, whereas yours is a little more hopeful of being able to get out of that.
Definitely. You’re exactly right 100 percent.
The last album had its share of songs about death on it and this one has a lot about youth. Usually, most people start with youthful themes and then go to death, while you did the opposite, writing about death first and then youth. Can you talk about how that came about?
To be honest, I think a lot of that had to do with, and this might sound crazy, but in Ohio you get all four seasons here. Emotionally and physically, you feel them all. In the summertime it’s really exciting and fun, but in the wintertime it can get real depressing, cold and drab. The last album we wrote in the fall and winter, so I feel like that whole depressing vibe was hitting us at the time. There was a war going on when we were writing it, the war in Iraq, and that’s how we were inspired to write about war, like, “Man, this is so bizarre that we can watch the war on television.”
So for the first time ever we wrote this album during the spring and summer, when life picks up again. Then we recorded it in the winter, which was weird because we’d never done that before, either. So we’re recording these songs about life, and youthful energy and that sort of thing during the winter. It was a pretty rough time for the band when we did the record, so it was kind of a juxtaposition of sorts. It’s weird how that influences your writing.
You chose to end the album with a few acoustic lines from “Disappear,” which is a song from earlier in the track listing. How did that come about?
We actually recorded small acoustic versions of a couple of the faster, more rocking songs, and that was the only one that ended up being something that we liked. We felt like it would be a good way to end the album. There’s no super significant meaning behind it. It just feels like a resolution to the whole thing with the lyrics and stuff like that. It was more of an afterthought than an intentional thing.
Also on the album there are several references to kings and to lions. What are those supposed to represent?
“God Save the Foolish Kings” was one of the first songs we wrote for the album. That song is about two rival high school gangs and it feels very West Side Story, ‘50s, where you had greaser gangs. That was actually something that was going on. The lions and the kings, I’d have to ask A.J. A.J. wrote the majority of the lyrics. I don’t think he had necessarily any real ulterior motives for using those specifically.
Those are two very powerful forces of nature. A king has a lot of power over the land that he rules, but he also has a lot of responsibility with that power. The lion is seen as the king of the jungle, and even metaphorically it seems a very strong, powerful animal among animals. I think at the end of the day, it’s about that. It’s about growing into a role of being strong, self-sufficient, powerful, but also being responsible with that power.
I have no idea if you are fans of Lost but was “The Constant” at all influenced by that show?
Yeah, well, it’s a little bit, to be honest with you. We’re all huge Lost fans until the last episode completely ruined it for me. We’re all split on that as well. A couple of the guys really liked the ending, and then a couple of us hated it. I guess it’s kind of about that. The idea of “The Constant” was definitely taken from that episode about Desmond, so I guess it could be translated as such, but it’s really more of a worship song.
In the context of the album, it ties stuff together where it’s, like, man, things didn’t work out the way I planned. I’m pretty devastated about this. As far as our experience, God has been the constant in our lives and has been what has kept us together, kept us sane and kept us together as a band as well.
The thing I’ve been most amazed about is how you’ve progressed musically from your first album to where you are now, and then on the acoustic EP you even did some folk stuff. What’s is been like to go on that musical journey?
Well, thank you for saying that, man. That’s really cool. It’s been awesome. We always talk about this, but it feels like a lot of bands get stuck in the style of music that they play. It feels like since we’ve had the freedom to go on that musical journey, and write different kinds of music and still have it received very well, that we can continue making whatever music we want to. We can make some really folky stuff, but we can also do balls-to-the-wall riff rock or really quirky type stuff.
It’s been a lot of fun, and it’s been really liberating as well. It’s like, hey, I’m really getting into this new kind of music. Whereas a lot of bands can’t say, “Let’s try to play something like this.” We can kind of do that. It’s fun, man.
You also throw in a lot of guitar solos here and there. How did you first pick up playing the guitar?
When I was young, I wasn’t allowed to listen to rock music. Then once I finally discovered rock music, there was a kid in my class who made me a mixtape of AC/DC and Metallica. I just fell in love instantly. I kept begging my mom to get me a guitar, and she’s just like, “No! No, no, no!”
We were over at my uncle’s house one day, and he was like, “Hey, I used to play guitar when I was your age.” I was like, “You did?” He was like, “Yeah. I still have my guitar if you want it.” So he just gave me his guitar, and then ironically my mom taught me the first three chords that I learned [laughs]. I just picked it up and kind of taught myself from there.
What age was that?
I think I was 12 or 13, just about to start middle school.
There’s also a lot more harmonies and choral type stuff on this album than you’ve done in the past. What was that like for you to work with?
I feel like that’s become our signature sound. That’s the funnest part for me, and I think for the other guys as well. When I was in high school I was in choir. I was actually in a barbershop quartet as well, so I’ve always been a massive fan of huge harmonies and huge vocal stuff. The same with Jared Rigsby, our guitar player. He was a musical theatre major in college, so he has a background in very dramatic stuff.
We started to explore a little bit on The End is Not the End. Our producer, Mark Townsend, said, “I’ve always wanted to work with a band that is vocally good enough to sing just standing around one mic together. I really feel like we can do that.” So we did that on The End is Not the End.
Then on this album we had gotten so used to it, and our blending with each other had gotten so much better, that we were going to try it again and keep it subdued. We got in and did one song and were just like, “Dude, that sounds too good. We have to just go over the top with this stuff.” That’s kind of how it happened.
Were there any specific influences you looked towards?
Yeah, definitely. I think for every album that we do, I feel like it’s different, but it’s very concise. It’s so funny because when we started to write for the album, we were like, “Let’s make this a really American rock record.” So we started to talk about bands that we wanted to sound like, and we started listing off bands. “OK, you have the Beatles. OK, you have the Who.” We started listing off all these bands, and we were like, “Man, these are all British bands trying to sound American.”
So that was kind of the basis of it, those two bands, and Queen, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen. All those bands that we grew up listening to, we wanted to mix them with kind of a more modern sound. Guitar wise, I kind of went back to when I first started playing and the bands that I loved, like Smashing Pumpkins and Soundgarden. I think that’s why there’s a few more guitar solos and riffy stuff in there.
You briefly mentioned working with Mark Townsend, and I’ve always been a fan of his from his Relient K stuff. What’s that relationship with him been like over these last two albums?
It was really awesome. When we first went into work with him we had our boxing gloves on from day one. We heard that he was going to try to change everything about us, so we fought him on everything. Even if it was stuff we agreed on we would still fight him, just to show we’re not going to be pushovers. The first album we spent about five months recording. It took forever. By the end of it we had earned his trust, and he had earned our trust, and we all came out with something we were all very proud of.
On this one, we all knew each other really well. He just said, “Hey, before you come in you better be really well rehearsed this time around.” We said, “All right.” We practiced all the time, and went in. This time it was so easy because we knew each other and we trusted each other.
I think we recorded the meat of the record within 10 days, or something like that. It went so fast because he was like, “All right, here’s what I want to change. What do you think about this?” We’d talk about it for 10 minutes and then just go do what we had to do. It was awesome. I would love to work with him again.
You also have developed the habit of releasing a bunch of mini digital EPs. Do you have any more of those in the works?
Not currently. I would like to at some point. I think maybe springtime next year we might release one because there were about seven songs that we all really liked and were really proud of that didn’t end up making this record. We’re still thinking about how to get them out somehow, but we’ll just have to see what kind of time we have to get into the studio and that sort of thing.
At one point, man, this record we were going to break up afterwards. There’s just been a rejuvenating kind of spirit going on within us, and I think we’re just going to keep going. I really hope so. I’d love to get some more music out sooner rather than later.
I hope so. I’d be really bummed if you ended up calling it quits after this one.
I know, exactly. I would, too. I think everybody was just trying to figure out their place in life. Colin was about to have a second kid. Jared had just been married, so he was like, “I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how to be on the road and have a wife.” Everybody just needed to figure some stuff out on their own.
What are you going to be doing this fall as far as touring wise?
In September, we’re doing an East Coast tour with the Almost. Then in October/November, we’re doing a West Coast co-headlining tour with the Classic Crime. Shortly after that, we’re doing a small run I think with Red. Then we’ll do some Christmas shows around Ohio, and that’ll be our fall.
Would you like to do more Christmas recordings at some point?
Yeah, I think so at some point. Last year it was just kind of thrown together last minute, and none of us were too terribly excited about it. We wanted to do it because we were doing a Christmas tour, so we wanted to have something to be able to promote that. I think at some point we’d like to do some more Christmas songs. There’s actually a Jackson Browne Christmas song that I really, really want to cover. It’s a really cool song.
With Suburba, what is the one impression you’d like to leave someone with?
Since we wrote it from such personal experience, I really hope people can find themselves in the songs on the album and be like, “Man, I can totally relate to that. I can totally relate to having my hopes and my dreams not even go close to the way that I wanted them to.” I hope people hear that, and then hear that, hey, it’s OK that that’s not the case.
It’s like that John Lennon lyric where he says, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” Which is to say that it’s all about the journey and not about the destination. Just enjoy things for what they are. It’s not always going to look the way you thought it was going to look, so don’t be bummed out about it. Just go with it.
Originally appeared on Decoy Music