Standing under the violet glow of the Bug Jar’s stage lights, Brian Sella, one half of the Front Bottoms two man core, plucks the tinkering introduction to “Flashlights”. It is only a few measures before Front Bottoms partner and percussionist Matt Uychich chimes in with a pulsing drum beat and touring addition Drew Villafuerte escalates the song to its familiar indie dance-punk apex with alternating perfect harmonies and melodica bridges.
Rewind. Shortly before they take the stage, the Front Bottoms and I sit in the venue’s musty basement and discussion the differences between seeing the Front Bottoms live and in the flesh versus digesting its recorded counterpart. “When you see it as a show,” Uychich tells me, “you’ll really enjoy the songs more than you could if I was like ‘here, listen to this CD I made’, when you experience it.” It’s interesting then, that in addition to jump starting tonight’s performance, “Flashlights” also serves as the opening track to the group’s self-titled, major label debut, released in 2011.
“What the fuck is that expression? Two sides of the same face?” Sella tries to explain back in the Bug Jar’s basement. The two finish each other’s sentences or look to the other to articulate their thoughts regularly, so Uychich chimes in, explaining that the live performance and studio recordings are “two sides of the same coin”. Barely halfway through tonight’s version of “Flashlights”, I see now what they mean. Somewhere between slight lyrical changes, “When I am happy / oh god I’m happy” becomes the more confrontational “fuck off I’m happy” for example, and Uychich’s Muppet on a string drumming style, the live incarnation of the Front Bottoms accentuate all there is to love about the band that has dominated my iPod recently.
One of my personal draws to the Front Bottoms is the time capsule quality to their lyrics. The Front Bottoms uphold a long tradition of New Jersey songwriters by energetically documenting those familiar moments of suburban youth. Whether it be Sella singing “I will remember that summer / As the summer I was taking steroids”, or recalling that “You were high school / And I was just like real life”, the content within these songs feels rooted in a certain time or place and although the details are often awkwardly specific, listeners can instantly recognize themselves in them.
When I relate this phenomenon, Sella responds: “I hope so, I mean I really hope so. If it’s not relatable what the fuck is the point.” “We could just play in our garage,” he explains, “and we do that still because we’re trying to make this music for ourselves obviously because we enjoy it, but it’s for other people.”
During the concert, Sella cues the tune “Mountain” by saying “this is a song about buying drugs”, but nothing in this song really screams drug run. There is no mention of substances aside from fireworks bought over the Pennsylvania border, a contraband most of us here in New York have some experience with. A lot of Front Bottoms songs deal with edgier themes in this indirect manner, most notably the patricidal “Father”, but the band manages to make music that is overwhelmingly lighthearted. “You can take it as fun music that is fun to listen to, or you can see these lyrics are a little darker or a little deeper. It’s kind of up to the listener to take it how they want.”
On one hand, it is interesting to see that so much of The Front Bottoms music is up for interpretation. Sella is half right when he says “it’s not like we make extremely complex music.” At first glance, the lyrics can be pretty pedestrian, and the acoustic strumming remains pretty steady throughout the bands repertoire.
On the other hand, it is nearly impossible to pin these guys to any single genre. At its core is a pop-punk duo, until Uychich’s hyperactive drumming earns the label of dance band. Countless other effects and background noises provided by Villafuerte and a tracking system completely discourage any attempts to pigeonhole their sound. The Front Bottoms have never been afraid to experiment, adding, “As long as it’s natural we’ll pretty much go along with anything.” As a result, electric guitars, synthesizers, horn samples, even an extensive collection of personal voicemails bring a unique texture to every song the band plays.
The many layers to the Front Bottoms sound actually come from a recording process Uychich calls “very raw and natural”. The display of so many influences and musical accoutrements stem from a laid back, laissez-faire ethos, or non-ethos. In other words, “just having our friends come over and drink beers and saying ‘oh, you want to play music too? Let’s see what happens.’ That was just always how it worked.”
Sella sums up the group’s mentality simply: “I always wanted to make cool music. I didn’t give a shit what kind of music we were making.” As in his lyrics, he simultaneously flashes both confidence and self-deprecation when he adds; “When we say (influences like) (Dupstep artist) Dr. P, and dance music, or that we listen to hip-hop, maybe it’s not something that’s coming through in our songs but I feel like this is something that is cool… I would like to be like this. I don’t think I am, I really don’t think I ever could, but I would like to be. So maybe if I say they’re my influences, you know, it might help us out.”
Even with the added weight of a record label, the two will most likely keep things fairly simple. “We’ve never been sitting in a room, recording and really forcing ourselves to add more shit to the track,” Uychich says, “I don’t think we’ll ever be in a billion dollar studio putzing around for months trying to figure it out.”
The Front Bottoms first album under the Bar/None label chronologies roughly a year of the band’s life in more ways than simply lyrically content. “If you buy the double, 10-inch record you are able to see that it’s two separate entities and,” Sella says, “if you listen to the songs you can pick out where each song belongs in the album. There’s a certain feel, even a certain way the songs were recorded that you can say these were older or these were newer.” The album, they explain to me, is really two distinct parts. Six songs, including the single “Maps” were released independently as the EP Slow Dance to Soft Rock while the other six were intended to make up the next EP, Grip N’ Tie. When Bar/None came along, the EP was shelved to piece together The Front Bottoms. “It wouldn’t have been the same had we just released the next six songs,” according to the band, “all of those 12 songs on the album were written with the same themes in mind, in the same time period. It was nice; it was like a full package as opposed to ‘oh here are some more songs that we did.’ No, these were all together.”
The band’s next group of songs, which they tell me won’t see any daylight until at least the end of 2012, will certainly see the band in a different stage of their development. In recording their first music video for “Maps”, the Front Bottoms reached a milestone in the bands development. The video’s Spanish director Pablo Neito, reached out to them directly in one of those serendipitous moments the band knows come once in a lifetime. “I don’t think that experience of how awesome that guy was, and how awesome that whole experience was will ever come up again,” to which Sella adds, “which is good, you know.”
They have outgrown several little victories familiar to every band on the rise, “our first goal was to play some stupid venue by our house… It was kind of weird that we chose that but we just wanted to play there. Then I think the next goal was to tour to Florida, let’s get a van and tour and we succeeded in that and we just keep setting them.”
While Uychich says he’s not sure of next collective goal, the band has plenty of milestones coming up. Their spring schedule includes a nationwide tour with Say Anything and Kevin Devine, a performance at the House of Blues, as well as a headlining trip to California. Whatever the future holds, the Front Bottoms seem undaunted. Before our conversation sends me to the audience and them to the stage, the Front Bottoms share with me an anecdote passed to them by none other than Austin Powers, or a bottle cap from the night before, or both: “Wherever you go, that’s where you’ll be… Or something like that.”