Making Friends, Melting Wax and Following Sparks
Philadelphia’s next great band, Fire In The Radio
One of the best albums of 2017 was just seven tracks long. It was a record full of romantic longing, of gritty but poetic narratives that encompassed love, loss and politics, of catchy songs that felt like they’d been waiting a lifetime to heard. It was an album that exploded with light from the moment it began but which tempered that with an underlying sense of trauma and devastation. It’s an intense listen, one that shakes you to your core and makes you wonder how you got through life without these tunes soundtracking at least some of it. After all, that’s what music is meant to do — it finds you as much as you find it and it stays with you — inside your heart, your head, your blood — long after you first hear it.
New Air is the album in question. The second full-length by Philadelphia’s Fire In The Radio, it’s a record that should outlast any of the end of year lists it made (a few, from those in the know) or didn’t (the majority enough, given the corporate, homogenized whitewashing of these things). The follow-up to 2015’s debut, Telemetry, it’s a record that bursts with heart and soul, a record full of inspired nods to the past that also keeps its eyes on the future. There are, as has been pointed out, nuanced nods to latter-day Jawbreaker — or, perhaps, more accurately, it’s a cross between latter-day Jawbreaker and Blake Schwarzenbach’s last band, forgetters — but there are a wealth of other influences, too. This album’s reach extends way beyond any notion of a scene, its songs always seeking to push, if not demolish outright, the boundaries of what punk or emo or good ol’ fashioned rock’n’roll. Whatever this music is, and whoever this band nods to, these songs are very much all their own.
“New Air was leaps and bounds from where we were in the creative process and — probably — personally as well,” says co-vocalist/guitarist Richard Carbone. “It felt like we were continuing on the trajectory we were on with Telemetry, but because of the current state of affairs with the country — and even where we were personally — a lot of these songs took a darker tone. As the process went on and the clay started to be formed as far as these songs were concerned, we were really proud of it and proud of each other — it means a lot in terms of where we’ve come to over the past couple of years.”
One of the things those past couple of years instilled in the band — completed by other vocalist and guitarist Jonathan Miller, drummer Adam Caldwell and bassist Ed Olsen — is that they wanted to make something that mattered from beginning to end. Not that Telemetry didn’t, but the four-piece wanted to absolutely ensure there was a sense of cohesion to its successor, that it was as good and as concise and as powerful as it possibly could be.
“There’s only seven songs on this record,” says Carbone. “We said that we weren’t going to write a song just for the sake of writing a song and have it be just garbage. We wanted to release something we really were proud of and we wanted to keep going down that route.”
“For us,” adds Miller, “music is very much like a conversation or a relationship, and as you continue the conversation you get more confident and the conversation gets deeper. And I think Rich and I felt more comfortable on this record getting into more personal issues and talking about them.”
That deeper conversation is fully ingrained in those seven songs, the torment of both being alive and living in the current world flowing through — and out of — their veins. It’s a record that doesn’t hold anything back made by a band that doesn’t have anything left to hold back set in an America that — even before Trump was elected — had gone to hell and has only gotten worse since his election victory.
“The record’s title and that title track was a very conscious choice and reaction to what’s happening in the world,” says Miller, who sings that song. “It tells the story of what we see within the confines of a relationship between two people falling apart. We tend to take those bigger themes and apply them in the context of things that are more relatable — at least in our eyes and mind. And I think “New Air”, probably more than the other tracks, is the most political song, referencing that particular state and what the country is going though.” He pauses, then adds: “But it’s still hopeful at the end.”
“I agree with that,” adds Carbone. “Of course, everything is open to interpretation and we really welcome that for anybody who’s listening to these songs. I’m always interested to hear how people interpret them, but we all grew up with punk rock and that’s a really important part of the ethos of our band. It’s almost impossible for us to separate that from who we are, because it is who we are.”
To that end, Fire In The Radio have always been a band who write songs because they need to write songs — it is, as this kind of music usually is, a form of catharsis, an unapologetic pronouncement of feelings and vulnerability that are both cerebral and visceral, personal and political. For while New Air marks a subtle but powerful evolution in terms of the band’s sound, it’s also stained by that heavy, ineluctable darkness previously mentioned by Carbone, but one which the band worked hard together to reconcile and transform into art.
“I feel like one of the things that really helped between Telemetry and now,” explains Miller, “is that that we have things we want to say and write about and things that are important to us collectively. I’m in the band with these guys because everyone’s so thoughtful and cares a lot about the world and cares a lot about people, and there’s catharsis in being able to talk about personal experiences that we’ve all had or share in our lives.”
“There’s certainly a form of it I felt working with the band and putting these songs together,” adds Carbone. “For example, “Drug Life” was written from the perspective of a friend of mine who I lost to drug abuse. “Vacant States” was the falling out of a relationship in the current state of America, trying to figure out how to rebuild something when you’re already drawing lines in the bedroom. And it was one thing putting it all together, but another form of catharsis has come through seeing the reaction now that it’s out there in the world.”
“There’s a connectivity that happens with other people,” says Miller. “One of the most powerful parts of music when you make it and release it is that you can connect with other people. And in this day and age of technology, music is still this thing you can have a really personal connection with.”
That’s no understatement. New Air isn’t just a great record because of the music, but also because of its lyrics. In much the same way a band will work out and on their music together, Miller and Carbone also work on each other’s lyrics, helping each other’s ideas take shape and spring to life fully. The result is poignant and poetic narratives, windows into their own lives, but ones which are often inspired by those of other people. The result is a collection of stories and vignettes which convey a variety of base emotions but also have multiple layers of meaning and narrative for the listener to deconstruct.
“Lyrics are really important to us,” confirms Miller. “Rich named the band after a Bukowski poem — he’s a literary guy, and I studied English. I like stories and I like to tell stories and I know Rich does too. A good example on the record is “Lionel Hampton Was Right”. I’d read about a woman who kept a diary in the 1930s during the time of the Jim Crow laws about a relationship she had with an African-American and how jazz was the great breaker of segregation. So the title and the whole concept of that song were borne out of that, and inspired by a divided race relationship and the difficulty in that.”
“We put our hearts into this and into the way this music sounds,” says Carbone, “so if someone anchors on to a certain verse or a chorus or they like the way the lyrics are done, that’s great. No matter what piece of a song or this record someone anchors onto and really likes, it’s awesome. It’s great that they’re listening at all.”
Just beneath the surface of that statement lies the harsh and hard reality — that it’s increasingly difficult to make a living, let alone a decent one, from being in a band. Not least an alternative/punk/emo band that’s not prepared to sacrifice integrity or jump on whatever bandwagon’s in vogue in order to sell more records or accrue more fans. But Fire In The Radio have decided to make the best of a bad situation and use that harsh reality to their advantage.
“In terms of having a band be a way of making a living,” says Miller, “it’s very challenging. But it’s also freeing, because I don’t think we feel the need to have to do anything we don’t want to. We just want to be able to continue to create music that we think is honest and that we can get behind, to tell the stories that we want to tell and have a small little platform to do something positive. That in itself is enough of a goal.”
“Nothing else matters,” says Rich. “We have a great time doing this, and that’s all we could ever wish for.”
That they happen to have made one of the most remarkable albums in recent years, then, must just be the icing on top of the cake.