Hymns and Confessions: A Conversation With Casey Crescenzo of The Dear Hunter
Crescenzo is proud yet humble, blunt, and occasionally enigmatic in discussing Act V, as well as the past and future of The Dear Hunter in general.
Although he started as a member of the already successful The Receiving End of Sirens, Casey Crescenzo is known as the mastermind behind The Dear Hunter, an ambitious, distinctive, and multilayered sextet that continues to astound fans with each new release. Although The Color Spectrum (2011) and Migrant (2014) are wonderful efforts in their own right, it’s Crescenzo’s elaborate and eloquent Act saga that entices fans the most. Last month, the fifth entry in his planned six-segment series, Act V: Hymns With the Devil in Confessional, arrived, and it proved to be yet another fine entry in the band’s catalog. Unsurprisingly, Crescenzo is proud yet humble, blunt, and occasionally enigmatic in discussing the record itself, as well as the past and future of The Dear Hunter in general.
The title of the new record is a bit cryptic. What exactly are you referring to with Hymns With the Devil in Confessional?
It’s a bit difficult to convey without stumbling over my words, but the heart of it, for me, is the idea of embracing your flaws in an effort to move beyond them. For me, the devil in my life has always been my seemingly endless list of personal shortcomings and idiosyncrasies. In the past, the easiest way to move ahead has been turning a blind eye to them. A large theme of this record is accepting what you’ve done wrong, embracing it as a part of you, and looking to evolve beyond it.
That’s an interesting perspective, and you guys did a great job of exploring it in the music. On a more narrative note, can you explain what’s happening in the story at this point, as well as how it connects to Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise? For example, who is Mr. Usher and how does he connect to the Boy?
Acts IV and V are intertwined. They essentially represent an excessive rise and tragic fall of this central character [the Boy]. Act IV shows him in all of his ambition, under this stolen identity of a hero; [he’s] finding success in the realm of public service, but doing so with the ambition of crushing who he considers to be his enemies. At the end of Act IV, you find that his seemingly clear path is obstructed by reality, and his only choice now is to play the game of politics with the very person he was hoping to destroy.
In Act V, you see the fracturing of his emotional and physical life as a result of this duality; the man he feels he truly is versus the man he finds he has no choice but to be. [As for] Mr. Usher, [he] is a character who shows up as a sort of catalyst for the end of this particular story. He sees a shaky foundation of power, and wants a sort of controlled demolition to pave his way in, effortlessly usurping control.
Wow, that’s intense and powerful. There’s always been an element of cognitive dissonance in the story, I think. I wonder, then, if you have a favorite song or two from the album. Also, and on a larger scale, what are some of your favorite DH songs overall, and why?
My favorite song on Act V is "The Moon/Awake". Lyrically, it spells out the core of the album: looking at who you were in your youth -- almost as though it's a separate person entirely -- but recognizing how much you owe to this other person. Their innocence, passion, drive, etc. because of these attributes; you are who you are. It’s a hard idea for me to vocalize, but it’s something that has been very present in my life over the last few years. I have to do right by the person who did right by me.
I know exactly what you mean.
In the past, some of the music I really enjoy has been the more intimate moments, like "Things that Hide Away" from The Color Spectrum, “Sweet Naiveté’ from Migrant, and “Remembered” from Act IV. [There’s] something about the delicacy of those moments that really mean a lot to me. You would think that the louder you are, the more passionate [you are], but it does take an equal passion to swing the pendulum the other way and be still.
It seems like the most powerful tracks are often the most unassuming and soft. Aside from moments like those, though, the Act records are known for their conceptual continuity and references to previous entries. What makes this trademark so crucial to what you’re trying to achieve? How do you decide which moments to reprise, and how to reinterpret them?
I never really pictured this element as a trademark, but always felt it was necessary in painting the correct picture of the story. When you’re reading a novel, there is a great opportunity for the author to build the world. I like to take a similar approach, but instead of relying on the lyrics themselves to remind of setting, character, tone, etc., I find it to be more gratifying and more vivid when the music is in charge of these things.
Motifs can help with that approach to world building, at least for me. Deciding which moments to reprise comes down to a few different things. If it’s a character’s motif, sometimes it would be used to suggest the character is there, or that the main character has them on their mind, or that a tonal element of the story should be reminiscent of that character.
That makes perfect sense, and you’re quite good at entwining those references within the framework of the new material. Of course, there’s been a fair amount of surprise to your statement that Act V will be the last “rock album” in the series, and that “presenting [Act VI] in the same form as Acts I-V would be short selling the creative opportunity it presents”. Can you elaborate on what you mean and what fans can expect from this final entry?
Truthfully, I would rather not.
To be honest, I expected that answer. I had to ask, though.
When I “announced” I was going to someday be working on The Color Spectrum, it was too early. It became this sort of running question: when? After people were tired of asking, some turned to the estimation that it would never happen. It did happen, of course, in that situation, but if I now go about saying what it is that I really want to do [with Act VI] -- and at some point that becomes concretely unrealistic -- the fact that I had mentioned it, then not done it, would become a sort of “failure”. Truly, what I would rather do is finish it however I can, and then tell people what it is once it’s done.
That’s probably the best course to take. I must ask: to what extent do you let fan expectations affect your vision? How do you manage the pressures you might feel to live up to their (and your own) expectations?
I can’t let any expectations weigh in at any point in the creative process. It would be a complete dismissal of what it was that attracted people to the band in the first place, and that was me, for better or worse, authentically representing who I am through the music.
That’s not an uncommon way to look at it, actually, and it surely leads to the best results. Take Mikael Åkerfeldt and Opeth, for instance. He always writes for himself first and foremost. Moving on, can you at least reveal anything about the tone and outline of Act VI narratively?
Narratively, it’s intertwined into the story, but it’s also far removed from the story. It's an absolute conclusion.
Well, that’s very mysterious. It makes me even more eager to hear it, though. Going back to Act V, this past June you rewarded fans of the lifetime membership with a postcard that contained a message from Mr. Usher, as well as a portion of Act I’s “City Escape”. Where did this idea come from, and how does the message relate to the storyline of the record?
The idea originally came from our management as an interesting way to announce the album. They asked if there was something we could do that was connected with the story, and the first thing that popped to mind was an introduction of this character, Mr Usher. I spoke to Alex Dandino, the writer of the Act comics, about drafting something to be spoken as a sort of radio address, and he was game, so I asked him to narrate as well. I think he did a great job.
Me too, and it definitely helped build anticipation. So, while each Act has its own identity, IV and V feel more connected musically than either does to the first three chapters, at least to me. Obviously, this is due in part to them being worked on together, more or less. Still, was there an intention to make them sound, say, more theatrical and orchestral than the previous three? They almost sound like Broadway soundtracks.
I think I would inherently disagree with this suggestion.
[The first two] were recorded within very close proximity, and with Act III: Life and Death, and specifically tracks like “The Tank”, “Mustard Gas”, “Son”, [and] “Father”, I find that those to have more of a Broadway feel than Act IV and Act V. Those two may include more orchestral elements, and perhaps I would agree with the idea that they are more cinematic, but if you go back to Act I, you can see how cinematic I have been trying to make things from the beginning.
Oh, totally. That’s what makes all of the records so remarkable.
The opening of that album is a cappella, followed by an instrumental track lead by brass and piano. I would also disagree with the tonalities of the albums being as similar, as you’re suggesting. You won’t find [tracks like] “The Moon/Awake”, “Most Cursed of Hands/Who Am I”, “Cascade”, “The Revival”, “A Beginning”, “Mr. Usher”, or “The March” on Act IV; likewise, you will not find a “Night on the Town”, “Waves”, “Is There Anybody Here”, “King of Swords”, “The Squeaky Wheel”, or “If All Goes Well” on Act V.
I see what you mean, and I didn’t mean to imply any lack of originality between the two, because both are quite distinctive in their own ways. Although the last two Act LPs arrived sequentially (and quickly), there was a six-year gap between Act III and Act IV, during which you released two unrelated studio works. If you can say, will the next record be Act VI, or will there be something unconnected in-between?
The next record for The Dear Hunter will be something unrelated to the Acts. At this point, I view Act VI as more of a personal project and less of a project of this band.
Interesting. Again, you’re only building my anticipation for whatever it turns out to be. As you know, 2016 marks the tenth anniversary of Act I. Looking back over the last decade, how do you feel about how far this project has come, both in terms of musical / narrative growth and critical / commercial success?
The thing I try to consistently remind myself is the fact that this music grew from a place where commercial or critical success was never on the agenda. This was the physical place that I could put my heart, starting as a side project while I was in another band. Having my foundation stem from such a freeing place is something I never took for granted, so while I watched the band grow, it was easy to keep my sights set on what this is supposed to be: a very organic and honest outlet of self-expression. I am incredibly grateful for the fact that some version of commercial success has been juxtaposed to that mentality, but it was never the goal.
That’s a very humble way to look at it.
What really gives me chills is [when] someone else who is writing music tells me that The Dear Hunter was a main inspiration for what they do; it makes me feel even more excited when I hear their music and can tell that the thing they took from The Dear Hunter wasn’t some stylistic choice, but a devotion to doing what they love and keeping it from the heart.
I bet. I can’t imagine how gratifying and surreal that must be. So, the Act series has already shown such great ambition and scope, with a complex and heartfelt storyline at the core. Would you consider adapting it into a formal novel or film?
That would truly be a dream come true, but I don’t know how possible it would be without some lotto money.
Ah, good point. We discussed The Color Spectrum a bit earlier. It was such a massively striving and thorough endeavor. How do you feel about it now, several years later? Would you ever attempt to do something similarly daunting and expansive?
Writing and recording The Color Spectrum was definitely one of the most creatively rewarding periods of my life. I would love to find a concept that spoke to me on that level, and try to leave myself open to that possibility. Looking back on it, I recognize it as the right kind of cross section of where I was at during that time in my life.
It’s good that you’re always receptive to where your inspiration takes you. Along the same lines, you released your first symphony, Amour & Attrition, in 2014. How do you feel about it in retrospect, and are you interested in doing a follow-up?
Amour & Attrition was a real turning point for me. I was expressing myself purely through writing, not performing in any way, as well as through the filter of symphonic music. It was very special. When I first heard the orchestra performing my music, I was overwhelmed and had to fight back tears to keep myself ... professional [at least on the surface]. I have written a few symphonic works since then, but am waiting for the right one before I try and have it recorded.
I’m not surprised that you’ve got more under your belt, and I hope you do find the perfect one to put out. Speaking of your own goals, The Dear Hunter started out as a solo outlet for your ideas, yet it’s now a full, official band. How much creative control do you retain, and how much input does the rest of the band have?
I have always been, and feel I will continue to be, the captain of the ship. For Acts IV and V, the line-up of the band really broke out of its shell, and the process of making a record became much more collaborative. My brother, [Nick, drums], has always been integral in the rhythm of the albums, but this was the first time other members really jumped on board, nerded out over the concept, and helped elevate the record to a place that would have not been attainable on my own.
Narratively, the band doesn’t play a role. This is something that I have had on my mind for the last decade, and they trust that I know where things have come from, and where they’re headed.
As do the fans, I’m sure. On a more personal side, how has family life changed you as an artist? How do you balance your personal and professional lives?
This is the first time in my life that I am completely happy at home. That provides a bit of a struggle when looking at things like potential tours, [and] now the decision also means leaving a place where I feel safe, secure, loved, and happy in order to enter into a place where I am usually in survival mode. That isn’t to say that love, safety, and happiness can’t be a part of tour, of course. It’s just incredibly enabling to have it at home.
It’s well deserved, as is your continuously expanding group of followers. In fact, The Dear Hunter seems to have a very devoted and celebratory fan base. I, for one, have bonded with a lot of people over our shared love of your work. How important is your relationship with the fans?
It's the most important thing. The people who listen to and support this band are the catalyst for this music leaving my studio. Without people who were eager to listen to and support this band, I would not have any reason to move tracks from my hard drive -- although I’d still be writing.
In my last band, I learned what a “fan” can really be. [They] aren’t faceless numbers who you hope to hock your product to in order to stay afloat. Fans are people, many of whom are infinitely more talented than me, who take time out of their days, which are just as important as mine, if not more, to listen to and support this band. That fact is not lost on me in the least. Everything that I have in my life as a result of this music is truly owed to the fan base of this band.
It’s nice that you’re so appreciative and aware of such things. Sadly, that perspective isn’t as ubiquitous as it should be in the industry. Anyway, in addition to your impressive LP output, you’ve also issued a fair amount of EPs and bonus tracks/demos. What typically determines if a track makes the cut for a record or if you decide to leave it off and/or include it somewhere else, later?
A good bulk of what ends up as a bonus track or demo is something that was written without total purpose. Something written outside of whichever concept I was working on at the time. Conversely, The Migrations Annex was a set of songs that could have been on Migrant, but when I turned in what Migrant originally was, the label and management were not interested in it. They asked me to write additional songs, and as a result of that, we had a large enough pool of songs to divide into what became Migrant and The Migrations Annex.
I’ve heard of situations like that happening a lot from other artists, so I’m not surprised. Of course, the next step after releasing an album is going on tour to promote it, which is what The Dear Hunter is doing now, alongside Eisley and Gavin Castleton (who’s now a part of the band, obviously). How’d they come to join the tour and what makes them such good fits?
Gavin is someone whom everyone in the band has known of for some time, and we’ve always recognized his incredible talent, songwriting, and voice. I reached out to him to ask if he would be interested in playing keys for us, and when we met, it felt like I was just visiting a best friend I had for some time.
That being said, having him on this tour would be amazing whether or not he was a friend or a member of The Dear Hunter. Eisley is also a band we had all known of and enjoyed for some time. I truly love their records, and think they’re incredibly talented, so the opportunity to have them on tour was a no brainer, as long as they said yes. Luckily, they did!
That’s great! I just reviewed your recent set in Philly, at Union Transfer, which seems to be your venue of choice when you come to the city. What makes Union Transfer, and Philly, special? What other venues / cities stick out to you?
Philly in general is incredibly meaningful to me. The Trocadero balcony was a show that I refer to in any interview where I am asked a similar question; it was a turning point in the bands career when I first really recognized the kind of reaction that people could have to this music. That’s something I get to relive every time I come to Philly, and something I never take for granted. Union Transfer is an incredible venue [because it has] incredible sound, incredible staff, and a wonderful stage. Everything about this place ... is perfect, and the opportunity to play for people here is amazing. (I’m actually there, in the backstage area, at the moment.)
Are there any places you’ve yet to play that you’d like to? How about artists you’ve yet to tour with?
We would love to get back to Australia, and I would love to try Japan and some other regions we just haven’t had a chance to get to yet. As far as artists, I’m truthfully not that aware of many modern bands, so it’s a bit up in the air.
Yeah, those places must be amazing for touring. You’re missing out on modern bands, though. There are so many great ones. If you could work with any artist(s) in the studio, who would it / they be?
Nick Crescenzo, Max Tousseau, Rob Parr, Nick Sollecito, Gavin Castleton, Judy Crescenzo, Phil Crescenzo, Azia Crescenzo, Tivoli Breckenridge, Awesome Orchestra, [and] Mike Watts.
Ah, I should’ve expected as much. So, any last words for readers and fans?
Expect more from bands and music in general.