Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sought A Band, We We’re Bored: The Friendly Foes

Detroit's "power-pop" trio puts out an album this week...

The Friendly Foes: The Deep Cutz Interview

words -Jeff Milo

It was getting cold. People’s cars were falling apart, gas was going up and it seemed like nothing was going on… It was late 2007 – Detroit’s famous jostle-punk-pop organization, Thunderbirds Are Now! had just finished touring their latest album, Make History – a fairly straightforward alt-rock-pushin-pop record, albeit with ambitious structures and a few more sashays into the “epic” territory of neo-art rock and more theatrical sensibilities.

Autumn turned to winter. Thunderbirds singer/guitarist, Ryan Allen was spending his days working retail and his nights writing and tracking demos for an undetermined project. Which, 10 months later has turned into a “power-pop” trio with a debut album ready to be released 9 / 26 at the Berkley Front.

Now, on a rare rainy night in the dying summer of 2008, I walk into the practice-space of the Friendly Foes, stored away inside some old factory-flat-storage-slab that smells of old church closets and looks like some dreary pre-school from the Nixon Administration and the trio, Allen, bassist Lizzie Wittman and drummer Brad Elliott, sit along a couch with my awkward self setting up a shabby arm chair and leaning in…

“I have multiple personalities in songwriting,” said Allen as he regards his two main projects side by side. “I think Make History, as a record, is very reflective of my attempts to marry those ideas. Thunderbirds has always been looked at as a weirder band or a crazy band, not maybe so much anymore, but put us up against Child Bite and they out crazy us any day of the week.”

I give a knowing nod Lizzie’s way at this reference – as her husband Christian Doble joined Child Bite a year-n-a-half ago – but the deeper brief blitz of history there is that Lizzie and Doble formed another fine, beloved pop band, Kiddo while living in Cleveland 5 years ago.

Allen, continuing, “I just wanted to do something that really played into what I actually listened to…” This included the aristocracy of rough hewn indie rock and pop bands from the early to late 90’s, including Guided By Voices, Pavement and a little bit of Ted Leo –who by their extension drew some from esteemed power pop acts like The Cars or Big Star, or fuzzy romantics like R.E.M. or streetwise reflective singer-songwriters like Elvis Costello.

“I feel like I, personally, have been…similar, since I was little,” says Allen. “I’ve grown a lot, of course, but, I’ve kinda been the same dude for 28 years and never really felt the need to alter the way that I am, for anybody.” Allen also played through the early 00’s in local pop/rock act the Tiny Steps and the synth-n-rhythmic pop-n-punk of Red Shirt Brigade—with his brother Scott, Paul Bissa and Zoos of Berlin’s Trevor Naud.)

“I don’t feel the need to change my personality depending on what situation I’m in – I am who I am.”

And that can just as easily be extended to Friendly Foes, as Lizzie says, soon after, “It is what it is…”

“We are who we are,” Allen continues gesturing to his mates, “I think they feel the same way. We’re not doing something fashionable right now. We’re playing power-pop…or whatever. The band was born out of this radical idea, instead of being weird…because that seems like what everybody wants to be…, let’s just write 2 minute pop songs…maybe being totally not-radical—is [being] radical.”

“You’re blowing my mind…” quips Elliott, looking over at Allen faux-bleary eyed with his characteristic witty overtures that steadily salved the conversation. Later, Brad tenured in the Satin Peaches, adds of the Foes, “We never tried to sound like anyone.”

“This isn’t the music that you make to be popular, especially here,” says Allen – who has never in his 10 years on the scene ever dabbled in the gritty grime of garage music.

Allen met Elliott through a mutual friend – and conversations soon led to Allen revealing those (soon-to-be-Foes-)demos he had lying around. Elliott soon offered his skills on the skins, as well as a practice space. Elliott, meanwhile, had recently met Wittman and Doble at the music store where he works – and at one point wound up sitting in for their band, Kiddo on drums. When the loose formation of Allen and Elliott started brainstorming bassists – Wittman was immediately suggested, for her abilities, stage presence and her sweet singing voice.

“We got really close, really quick,” said Allen. “We didn’t really know each other until we started playing together. I think initially, right off the bat, I feel like we just had a good rapport. We could easily joke around…”

Wittman excuses herself for a moment and the two boys chide a few jokes about finishing up without her. “Assholes,” she scolds back, with a hint of tenderness.

I ask if there’s somewhat of a sibling vibe between the three and they somewhat agree.

“We basically compete on who can be a bigger asshole,” says Elliott, referencing their aggravating Wittman.

“Yep, it’s quite fun,” Allen shrugs, “Brad always wins…”

“That’s not true!” he comes back, “…at all!”

“Lizzie is like the mean old aunt,” Allen starts in when she returns.

“I am not!” she shouts, “[I’m] the poor, innocent, bystander.”

“I’m the drunk dad,” Allen willingly offers.

“I’m the drunk son,” Brad brilliantly counters…which leads to the two going into a Breakfast Club-esque recreation.

“For me,” said Wittman, “I hadn’t been in a new band in 5 years – so, to learn new material and get to know different people was super exciting.”

Wittman had been playing in bands since her late teens – including singing for popular late-90’s Cleveland-based rock group Tender Blindspot – which Allen gleefully pokes fun at to her dismay.

“Hey, my band in high school was called Sugar Tunes,” laughs Allen, comforting her.

“Mine was called Renegades, so I fuckin’ win,” says Elliott. “It was pretty cool – I was making $100 bucks a gig sometimes.”

“Yeah, well I opened for Jimmy Eat World,” ups Wittman.
”So, you both are great…” Allen suggests.

“Yeah, whatever,” Elliott returns to Wittman, “I was getting hit on by white-trash girls!”

Allen turns quickly to Wittman, “You lose!”

The trio started rehearsing in November of 07 and had 8 songs ready by early December, riding the high of that fast-friends phenomena that hit from day one. They booked their first show in mid-December at the Pike Room in Pontiac.

“We were like, let’s just do it – let’s not think about it too much. Our songs are simple, we weren’t writing these sprawling statement songs. It was – okay, a verse, a chorus, let’s just repeat ‘em, fuck it; two minutes, that’s a song. Cutting the fat. If we don’t need it, let’s not have it. Plus, as a 3 piece, we’re totally working with the barest of essentials right there.”

“We’d all been there before,” said Wittman of those early days in band-life where the members try to gel and try to lay out goals or styles or push too far for something. “Let’s just do this and have some fun,” she said, echoing the vibe of the first month.

“If you guys would’ve been like, ‘let’s practive for a year and then play a show…’ – I would’ve been like, ‘alright—see ya!’” said Elliott.

The sound is an unabashed pop – with the clear residue of the punk ethos that each member had been involved with in their formative years; the drums are pounding and fierce at times, but other times they whirl swing with a big grin; the bass drives with roused and rising grooves and the guitars are blitz and burn with devastating shreds to sweet and hooky-strums. The rhythms, the riffs, the hooks – the unrelenting drive and unavoidable fun-n-fury of the sound, simply never lets go…or even rarely slows down…but never blurs in some white riot torrent of punk tantrums – it’s a lucid sunny glow of pop-energy.

From December to May, their live-show trajectory reflected the drive of their sound. They made it to a stage nearly once-a-week, headlining some modest weekday shows first, then playing the Blowout in March and eventually playing the Majestic for Detour’s Rock City Fest.

They forged on, embracing a bare-bones / don’t take it too seriously motto. Realizing that, with some bands, “there’s no risk involved,” said Allen. “[Some bands] are so concerned about being so perfect. I’ll use Fountains of Wayne as a perfect example of a band that just plays it safe. You’re gona go see them and they’re gonna be amazing every time. I like the fact that you can go see us and we might suck, or we might be awesome – there isn’t this perfection thing going on…”

“We did have one bad show,” Elliott admits. “But…it was cool.”

“I was sunburned!” Allen jokingly shouts, mocking discomfort, then after a minute, “It rocked us, in a good way.”

“That attitude,” said Elliott, of embracing a let’s-just-do-it, fuck-it-drive-on motto, “almost got ahead of us.”

“We were kinda thinking like…” Allen nods and, admits candidly, “’we’re kinda sweet!’ Not to say we were getting a total ego, but things were going really well.” Indeed, attention came fast from the city – here we were in the dead of winter and a group of talented, established locals had forged something dynamic – it was a nice jolt.

“We were all pissed at each other,” said Elliott, referencing this one-bad-show, a show in March at the Pike Room. “We were like, fuck it, whatever – we’ll go out there and do our thing. It was just a weird situation.”

“It was a nice reality check…” said Allen of the combination of not practicing, slight-exhaustion and just a weird, brief funk in their chemistry. “I think at that point we were taking it a little bi too seriously. It was good to be shaken a bit, to not think that everything is gonna go well all the time.”

May turned to June – and the band went into the masterful Dave Feeny’s Tempermill Studio to record the debut, Born Radical. “It was a really easy process,” said Wittman, continuing this trio’s streak of fluidity. “We recorded really well together. We had demoed the songs at my house and when it came time to, we just did our business.”

Guest musicians include New Grenada / Copper Thieves’ John Nelson, Tbirds Scott Allen, Child Bite / Copper Thieves’ Doble, Feeny and Allen’s wife Angela.

Referencing the band’s name, Allen said, “It was definitely important to us to have friends play on the record.”

My own first spins had me coming away struck by the lyrics – anecdotes about surfing couches and sleeping on floors, making it big, getting decent reviews, being promised wings to fly, looking back to the days of basement shows where no one cared about looks – and one all too literal account of early Thunderbirds days of loading the van and hitting the road. “We’re a band, let’s get outta here,” the wavy vocal melody rolls into the chorus of “Full Moon Morning.”

“I wanted to write songs that were about me but…” pauses Allen, “I didn’t have a lot to draw on. Do I want to talk about politics? Uh, not really. Do I wanna write love songs? No, I’m not good at that. What do I know about? I know that I lived in a van for 5 years and slept on a bunch of fucking floors and drank a bunch of beers and fell down a lot and got into fights. The theme I think of a lot of songs are reflective in a way where they’re about certain times in my life but at the same time, it’s not like those times have to be over.” (More samples, “up all night, is it right? What do we care / so let’s drink now and run around with all of our friends….”

“It’s not definitive, it’s not like those times are behind me and I’m moving on and I’m older now…and my tie is tighter and my shirt’s tucked in. I would hate for it to be taken like that. Those things happened, they were cool, maybe it’ll happen again, maybe they won’t. It’s a good little bit of a window into something.”

Inevitably, I come back to that flare of attention – and the brief babble of blogs wondering about this possible Thunderbirds-side project.

“I never thought of it as a side project,” Wittman clarifies quickly. “I was coming from Cleveland so I didn’t know anything about Thunderbirds. We just got thrown in together into this situation and it just worked.”

And the subject goes quickly back to the album, particularly the centerpiece, “Epic Jamb,” clocking in at the longest, an ambitious jaunt that swings into key changes and switches time signatures with wave-crashing guitars and big booming rhythm that slides into intricate sinewy strums and then bolstered by brass, back-up choruses and some pedal-steel. All the intricate supporting instrumentation is kept subtly in the background, not in your face – to “compliment something that really does come from three people.”
”It’s an economic record, for sure,” said Allen. “It’s not an Arcade Fire record, there’s no fucking church organ on it. Why would we put that on our record?”

“Having only 3 people,” said Allen, “opens the door to have your friends join you and play with you – that’s a new element, so it keeps it from getting boring. It’s the 3 of us and it could only be the 3 of us. I’ve been accused of being in bands where people come and go and it’s worked out because I ultimately think that the music that Thunderbirds made or make(s) could be played by more people. But with this band it’s different. If Lizzie left or Brad left, I would not want to do this anymore. The 3 of us are super integral to the end result and it would not be the same band without them. People looked at this band as my side project or something, but it’s very much the opposite. I would almost give them more credit than I would give myself, by any means…without them, the band is nothing.”

What's next?
“The next record,” Wittman says, quickly.

“Don’t be over zealous,” Allen says, clarifying their refined motto. “Don’t try to be more than what you are…back to that whole story about that (bad) show. We kinda thought we were hot shit at that, but we got knocked back a little bit. And, I think things like that are really important.”

Who knows where you’d have gone had your egos not been in check, I offer…probably inevitably to some church organs…

“We’d be playing the Palace with a church organ,” quips Allen, agreeing, “having Fountains of Wayne open for us.” He pauses then surmises, it’s about “…thinking small, thinking smart and not thinking that you’re too big – that you’re bigger than your britches…to use 1928-references for ya….Here’s looking up your old address.”


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