Brian Sella, lead singer of The Front Bottoms, plays songs that don’t belong to him.
Well, to clarify, they’re both his and not his, he tells me. Let’s start at the beginning though.
Ten days ago, The Front Bottoms – a Jersey-based indie pop-punk duo composed of Sella on vocals and guitar and Matt Uychich on drums and a few other instruments – dropped their latest EP, Rose, which is a compilation of a bunch of revamped numbers from their pre-label days. Friends since their days at Pascack Hills High School (in Montvale, NJ), the two started making music under their band name in 2007, pumping out two self-released albums – I Hate My Friends in 2008 and My Grandma vs. Pneumonia in 2009 – before they signed with Bar/None Records in June 2011. That first few years of self-released music can’t be bought anywhere these days, but those were the songs that gained them a following.
“Those songs are all out there,” he says, and the way he does, the words ‘out there’ have never sounded so large. “There’s nowhere to buy them. You just gotta kind of download them. It’s kind of awesome. I think it’s a cool back story, but people would always ask us to play ‘em at shows, and we’d kind of forgotten how to play ‘em.”
Those early songs went underground after they got picked up by Bar/None, mostly because those songs had been released almost completely without any post-production – back then Sella, Uychich and Uychich’s brother Brian recorded songs in just one take and then put them up on the internet without mixing or mastering them at all.
“We stayed pretty true to the roots of the song,” he says. “We weren’t trying to impress anyone. We just wanted our friends to be able to hear the music.”
Their two Bar/None releases – The Front Bottoms in September 2011 and Talon of the Hawk in May 2013 – were both extremely well-received and are likely responsible for the immense growth of the band’s fan base. However, as we all know, fans love to dig up their favorite artists’ old music, and requests kept coming in for them to play the classics at their shows. Finally, Sella and Uychich gave in: They posted on Facebook asking for recommendations for songs to rerecord. That post got almost 900 comments with song suggestions.
Rose was underway – not named after the grandma in Titanic, by the way, though Sella did get a kick out of that idea: “That’s good. I should just tell people that’s who it is.”
But in actuality, the new EP was actually named after Uychich’s grandmother, who passed away around the time of the decision. The EP is the first in what Sella refers to as the “grandma series,” in which they hope to slowly rerelease their older music over the course of four EPs, each one named after one of their four grandmothers. Not because they’re particularly close to their grandmas – Sella described his relationship with his grandmother, who also recently passed away, as “pretty standard” – but because it seemed like a “fun idea” and a “nice way to do that.”
But while that’s well and good and fun and fascinating, the part that really gets me about all this is Sella’s response when I ask him how he feels revisiting those old songs that have been tucked away for so long. After all, a lot changes between your high school years and your twenty-somethings.
At first, he talks generally about the song-writing experience: Although never surprised by his teenage emotions when revisiting an old song, he says the musical decisions he made as a kid do strike him as “interesting” and even “weird.” But he’s still proud of them, he admits, because – how could he not be? He doesn’t listen to them anymore, he explains to me, but other people listen to them. People like them. Who is he to judge? At the end of the day, they’re more a part of them than they are of him.
“They’re not really ‘my’ songs anymore to be proud of,” Sella says. “‘Cause they’re out there in the world” – ‘out there,’ again, in that big, big sort of way – “and if somebody wants to listen to them, that’s theirs.”
He speaks in an awkward, clumsy voice that wanders in and out, drifting about the conversation uncertainly before dwindling down to nothing more than an inaudible whisper murmured against the receiver. Listening to the sound of him talking – like listening to his music – somewhat makes you want to smile, though you don’t know why, and it’s a little heart-breaking in the best sort of way.
He goes on to explain his experience of music in general and the importance of personal interpretation when listening to it. For anyone unfamiliar with The Front Bottoms’ music, their lyrics are filled with a sort of blunt sincerity and alarmingly candid confessions of the teenage spirit, accented by that bumbling yet entrancing cadence in Sella’s voice. Sella himself, who writes the songs, lives at the cross-section of where the swirling mass of all your messiest, most visceral emotions meets the feeling you get when you wake up in the morning, naturally for once, with no obligations forcing you out of bed, and you just lay there, existing, simple and uncomplicated and with a tacit acceptance of the world as it is. So you can imagine what the music sounds like.
But as expressive and pointed as the songs seem to be, Sella believes a lot of it is up to interpretation.
“At the end of the day, some people come up and are like, ‘Dude, these songs are so funny! These songs are hilarious.’ And I’m always like, oh, that’s cool,” he says. “And then somebody else comes up and be like, ‘Oh my God, I cried the first time I listened to these songs.’ And like, that’s cool, too. That’s why I say the songs don’t really belong to me anymore – because I had totally different emotions from both of those people when I was writing the songs, you know?”
We’ve hit that sweet spot in our conversation, where I don’t need to ask him so many questions, and he continues on, unprompted and free. From the lazy drawl of his voice, I quite frankly had expected him to be a careless, good-for-nothing bumblefuck when he first answered the phone. He’s none of those things.
After we’ve simmered down, he asks me: “So where – what, uh… where are you at right now, in the… country, I guess?” (Not in the nebulous ‘out there.’ Closer, thankfully.)
The Front Bottoms will be playing at the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, NJ, tonight at 6:30 p.m. and tomorrow at 7 p.m. in New York City’s Best Buy Theatre. Both shows are sold out. For more tour dates, Facebook is your friend.