Browse the track list of Love Sign, the new LP from Free Energy, and it's clear that no momentous shifts in the band's aesthetic have occurred since its 2010 DFA Records debut, Stuck on Nothing. "Electric Fever," "Girls Want Rock," "Dance All Night": the Philadelphia group is still enthralled with the kind of power-pop party anthems of such forebears as Cheap Trick, AC/DC and Weezer.
Love Sign is an improvement over Stuck on Nothing, though. The songwriting is tighter, and it's more cohesive sonically. Also, the band has left DFA and is self-releasing Love Sign through its own label, Free People. We recently chatted with frontman Paul Sprangers about this new phase of the band. Free Energy's tour stops at Czar Monday.
The Pitch: So you guys started your own label. I sometimes wonder what exactly record labels even do anymore. Can you enlighten me?
Sprangers: [Laughs.] Dude, that is such a good question. Thank you for asking that. I've learned so much more about what a record label does now than I did when I was actually on one. I'm starting to realize everything I took for granted: the ways that labels are good, but also the ways that they're inefficient. I think labels now, for the most part — it's maybe about cred? Maybe a label has some connections, maybe it has a certain distributor, maybe it has certain relationships? But at the end of the day, it's kind of like — actually, I don't know how much you want to get into this stuff. I could really go on for a while.
No, go on. I like this stuff.
OK, yeah, I love this stuff, too. I geek out on this stuff. Because, I mean, I used to totally worship labels: Matador, Sub Pop, Merge. I was such a fan of records as entities and rosters, and I'd listen to everything that certain labels put out. And DFA, of course, was like a dream come true.
That said, we're so particular about our music and our design and aesthetic that we want to control everything. Even down to, like, how posters are put up at the venue before we get there. Like, with the street team — we would always complain when we'd get to shows and the EMI street team would have just thrown up a hundred posters the day of the show. And it would look crazy! I mean, this is a small example of how anal we are. But it was, like, fuck it, why don't we get our own street team and have them put up fliers all over town two weeks before the show? And so, that's what we're doing now. Our management helps a lot with day-to-day stuff, arranging logistics, things like that. Scott [Wells, lead guitar] designed the cassettes. Scott's older brother did the art for the new record. My friend finished the design. We put together the posters.
So it's really liberating doing the whole label thing yourself. And, also, you can't blame anybody when you're doing it yourself. Which is good. I think when you're on a label, you can become babies. And we definitely did that sometimes. You kind of bitch and moan about things that you don't like, and you feel like you don't have much power to change the way things are going at the label. The label is this big bureaucracy, and you have to wait for answers.
Do you feel like being on a bigger label can slow you down as a band in some ways?
Sometimes kids would ask us to use our songs in, like, their movies, and EMI would have to confer with their lawyers and shit. And it's like, come on. They're out of touch — all the old barriers, the old guard trying to protect everything, that's all done.
Also, financially, we didn't want a label taking half of our publishing. The way we funded this whole new record is by saving the money we got from licensing our songs to commercials and stupid movies. That money just went into a pot and then right back into our business. I feel like you don't have that freedom when you're on a label. We'll see, I guess. Talk to me in a year. And, you know, I hate to come down on labels because I'm still a huge fan of certain labels, like I said. And I think they're really good for some bands. But for us, where we are, we wanted to try some of this stuff by ourselves.
It used to be, if you were a new band, that the goal was to get signed to a record label. Now it seems like it might be more important to get a good booking agent or a good publishing lawyer, or something. Do you have any thoughts on this?
I feel like lawyers and professionals are kind of like fertilizer that you can apply to a plant. But if the plant isn't ready or fully grown, sometimes the fertilizer can hurt the plant. Apologies if this is a bad analogy. There are a lot of things that can bring attention to a band, but if you don't have it all together, the attention will go away just as fast, if the attention even comes at all. And that can be really damaging. So I think the best thing is to really focus on yourself and what you make and on yourself as a person. Lawyers just hop on whatever's hot.
But to answer your question, my advice for young bands starting out is just to keep writing songs and meet whoever books the coolest shows locally, wherever you go see shows you like. And I'm talking smaller cities, not New York or whatever. Whoever writes for your weekly, try to get them to come to a show, send them artwork, show them why you're psyched about what you make. That's the most fun way, to make connections with people who care about what you're doing, because those are strong and those last. Those connections last longer than whatever fuckin' lawyer gives a shit about you for 10 seconds.
Are you guys cool with DFA, or is it weird?
Totally cool, it was a very amicable deal. It ended kind of like how it started. It started very slow and very, like, "Eh, OK, let's do this" — not a lot of fanfare. And it ended the same way, like, "Eh, we like the record" — but we didn't push them, they didn't push us and, in the end, we decided to make our own label.
I feel like there are some bands that are pop purists and really only into other bands that write super-tight, hooky pop songs. And then there are pop acts that listen to a lot of, I don't know, Jim O'Rourke — acts that are maybe more esoteric and whose influence on their pop songs isn't quite as obvious. What camp do you fall in?
Absolutely both. I totally loved Jim O'Rourke back in the day — I mean, Tortoise, Gastr Del Sol, the Sea and Cake, Joan of Arc. I was into a bunch of stuff that Jade Tree put out. We definitely listen to a lot of pretty confrontational, aggressively avant-garde music. Scott and Evan [Wells, bass] are into a lot of world music and reggae. We listen to a lot of new-age music. And we grew up listening to Pavement and GBV. It's weird because I think some people think we're, like, meatheads or something. Which is so strange because we're total nerds. We're just these huge, huge nerds. But we moved on and dug deeper and grown, and now we're really concerned with craft. So we listen to bands where we see that present, and for us right now, that's Fleetwood Mac and the Boss, these masters that made these incredible statements.
Do you feel that there are any other misperceptions about Free Energy?
I think maybe — and it's partly our fault — that we let the press take the Camaro-driving, beer-swilling, mullet-dude image of us too far. Because it's certainly not our life. I mean, I've read things where people think what we do is this nihilistic party music. And that, to me, is the furthest thing from the truth. I think it's idealist music that encourages people to look at themselves and the world and try to wake up. I see it as very spiritual. I know that sounds pretentious, but I really do. That's why we make it. Everything we make is trying to celebrate the world. But we also really like smart people who make dumb things, like Will Ferrell or AC/DC. I think people who are unafraid to be dumb — I'm so inspired by them. I think they're geniuses. Whereas I'm always turned off by overly talky, dense art because it tends to indicate a self-consciousness or some kind of fear. There's an overly intellectual part of the culture that doesn't appeal to me at all. I find that the simplest things are often truest, and things that are really contrived and wordy are often hiding something. That's a generality, but I find that it applies a lot.
Are you happy with the way the new record is being received?
I'm happy that it's getting a reaction. We were just laughing — we read the worst review today. It said something like, "This is the worst piece of shit recorded in pop history." [Laughs.] But I think that's good. I think that when there's some kernel of truth in something, hopefully people respond to it and they really connect with it, or it turns them off and rubs them the wrong way and makes them really angry. But either way, it means there's something in there that's meaningful. I don't know if I had high hopes for it to be very critically acclaimed, but I'm glad the fans like it. On Twitter, you're in contact with fans, and everyone really likes it and agrees that it's better than the last one.
Yeah, I think it's better than the last one, too.
Thanks — yeah, I think it's way better, like light-years better.
But I'm not surprised that it wouldn't get an amazing critical response, because it's not a huge departure from Stuck on Nothing. It's the same general mood: fun, party-time pop.
That's a good point. I think the core of the feeling is very similar to the last one. But I think the production values and the way we perform has grown. I think the singing is stronger. The guitar playing is stronger. But, yeah, that's a good point. I agree with you. I think our story is kind of the same: What we're trying to do with our bands is this big, idealist, ambiguous, optimistic thing that we keep trying to tell in different ways, with different imagery and sounds and melodies. I think you just keep trying to tell the story you're interested in, but in slightly different ways. That's all we're really interested in doing.