Putting out a Free Energy record in late January makes about as much sense as synchronizing the release of Sufjan Stevens’ latest Songs for Christmas box set with Memorial Day weekend, or cross-promoting a Godspeed You! Black Emperor LP with “Iron Man 3”. Few bands, if any, make music as methodically engineered for barbeques and pool parties, trips to the beach in lowered convertibles, endless summer nights – whatever images you associate with being young, drunk, and not wearing sleeves. A fellow child of the Midwest once boasted of his ability to “cook up summer in the winter,” but, really, some music deserves warm weather.
But independent agents get to release their music whenever they please, and when it came time for Free Energy to follow-up its riff-heavy, cowbell-happy debut, Stuck on Nothing, the band found itself on its own, having parted ways with DFA Records – a label that came with something more tangibly valuable than well-deserved cred, mainly a distribution alliance with EMI Records (or, what remains of it). The partnership with DFA extended beyond distribution too: In a conversation with BYT, frontman Paul Sprangers described adopting the label’s “philosophy,” as well as the pros and cons of working with LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, who produced Stuck on Nothing in full. (The band would merely swap one venerated soundman with another for this year’s Love Sign, working with John Agnello, a producer who has been behind the boards for the likes of Sonic Youth, The Hold Steady, and Kurt Vile.)
And now spring is upon us, and in the months it took to get here, each handclap, succinct guitar solo, and candy-coated backing vocal from Love Sign has held up remarkably well. Plus, the change of seasons matters a lot less when you’re in perpetually sunny Los Angeles, California, which is where I found Sprangers a few weeks ago. While he and several of his bandmates hail from Minnesota, and most of Free Energy still calls Philadelphia home, Sprangers has been shacking up in Los Angeles since September, whenever the band isn’t on tour, however infrequently that is.
What led you to L.A.?
It was crazy. I came out here when we were waiting for the album to get done. Actually, it was done in the summer – last summer – and I was kicking around Philly, and I had these demos. I sent them to this kid, Eric Broucek, who was James Murphy’s engineer and had moved out here to do his own stuff. We did some demos, and one of them ended up on the record – a song called “True Love”. When I came out here, it was an epiphany. I was like, “I gotta live out here. It’s so incredible.”
What does the rest of the band think about your relocation?
Nick was already out here, living with his girlfriend. The other guys are slowly getting into it. We just did some shows out here at the start of the last tour. They’re all fans of L.A.
It’s one of those cities people have a strong reaction to. It’s either “I want to move here immediately” or “Get me the hell out of here.”
Absolutely, man. And I was definitely in the latter camp for a long time. It took awhile.
You said Love Sign was done last summer. Was it tough sitting on it until January?
I look at it as an opportunity to exercise patience. [Laughs] Because it can be pretty tough. It was kind of like that with the last record too, where it was done for a long time, but we would do some tours and it would keep getting pushed back, which was ultimately a really good thing. With this one, we were trying to figure out what to do with it. I’m not going to lie: It’s hard to sit on something that you’re excited about.
As I read interviews though, it seems like that’s kind of common – for anything. If someone finishes a movie, it could take a year or two to come out. There should be a balance, right? In this day and age, you’re able to put out anything you want, whenever you want, but there is something to be said for that process of letting it sit and gestate and letting it find its way. Given that everything’s accessible, maybe it is important to hold on to things and not put them out into the world right away.
How has the decision to release the record interdependently played out?
It’s gone really well. Our management effectively helps run the label. There are, of course, good things and bad things. I’ve found that there are some practical things that have gone better, like, for example, just sending posters to clubs, dude. That’s something indie labels probably due pretty well, but major labels? If your band isn’t, like, huge? We would go into shows and there would be nothing. Now, we can keep tabs on those kind of day to day things better.
But when you’re on a major label, there’s this muscle that gets thrown behind everything. There’s attention that you can demand. Like, if it’s radio, they have to promote you. You’re essentially guaranteed a slot. If you’re in a city, you can just roll in and do a session. That’s not to say that people get bullied, but there’s just more of an established presence. It’s hard to compete with that when you don’t have those kind of resources.
That said, I also learned that I took for granted being on a major label now that I’m not on one. It makes you allocate your resources more effectively when you’re the one looking at all of the numbers and budgeting everything, which we are. Scott and I and the band and our manager went through what we have and what we need to do and made a budget. When you’re on a label, someone’s doing that for you. It’s just happening, while you’re out in La La Land.
Were there things that you learned in making the last record with DFA that you wanted to apply to Love Sign?
Totally, even down to the songwriting, I think. It’s about just being more economical at every stage of the process, which is kind of the DFA philosophy: Less is more. It’s about leaving space between sounds and all of the elements. Even the artwork reflected that kind of bare aesthetic. We kind of absorbed that and applied it in our own way. This album is the most produced thing we’ve ever done – it has the most sound and ideas and melodies and overdubs – but it’s something we always wanted to try. I don’t think we’ll do that again, though. We’ll do something a little more simple.
We learned the economy of performance [from DFA]. It’s so obvious, and it sounds so stupid to say aloud, but it took us so long to figure out. [Laughs] I think that growing up, listening to sloppy indie rock kind of messed up a little bit. Worshiping at the altar of lo-fi, willfully messy rock skewers you. It took us a long time to appreciate craft, and want to do that ourselves. Like, that’s where it’s at. Doing that record with James certainly set us on that path. We didn’t understand it when we first worked with him, so I don’t think we were as effective, but we’ve definitely applied it to this record and will do so going forward.
Were there things that you wanted to do differently this time around?
Yeah, man, we wanted to work more. By which I mean, most of the day with James was spent in the basement, watching him check e-mail. You can print that – I don’t care. Scott and I would sit with a book and wait until he was ready, and then we would do some stuff, and then we’d go get a coffee. It was a very slow, arduous, jerky working process.
With John [Agnello], we would work pretty consistently for, like, twelve hours a day, for six or seven days a week. The guy is a fucking machine. Is that because we are able to apply what we learned from the last time? I don’t know. But it’s so satisfying to work all the time, which we didn’t with James. [Laughs] You can probably hear it. This record sounds like an explosion to me, and it’s because we got to put so much more in. We got to work more. [Laughs].
Every song on Love Sign really swings for the fences. Is there a conscious effort to make each song an anthem?
The hope is that every song can stand on its own. That’s always what I shoot for. I’m sure that Scott would agree. It’s always, like, life or death. We’ve gotten better as the years have gone along about not making every decision be life or death. It used to be like, “This little turn around at the end of this verse – fuck!” We’d spend hours fighting over what it should be. A week later, you don’t really care.
Free Energy played the inaugural Weezer Cruise. What was that experience like?
I thought it was really fun. But it’s, like, such a novelty. Here’s the thing: Weezer fans are super nice people. I mean, I’m one of them, but I haven’t been actively following Weezer for a while. I think with The Green Album, when they came back, they lost me. “Hash Pipe”? I was like, “Nah.” But the first two records changed my life. So it’s pretty surreal to play their cruise.
The fans are awesome. They’re just, like, real people – people you’d be friends with. That’s kind of like our people too. It was really good for us, because we still get Weezer Cruise people that come to Free Energy shows. Like, consistently. That exposure was really valuable. You’re in this enclosed space, kind of like this floating festival, and it turned out that every show we played, more people would come. Word spread around the boat. People told us this. They were like, “We heard about you at you dinner,” and then they spread the word. It was this cool little enclosed music world, where word could spread really fast, and we benefited from that.
As far as the other stuff goes, I didn’t really party. I look at it like a job. I would just go swimming or read or watch other bands. The day-to-day is really boring, I guess. I know people go pretty nuts, like that’s there one time of the year that they’re going to party. [Laughs] People are going pretty bonkers. It’s super fun. It’s a good idea. I don’t like actual cruises. I think they’re really wasteful and kind of gross and excessive, but if you get past that, you know…