“We live like nomads,” says Free Energy frontman Paul Sprangers. “That's always been in our blood. But when the band became more successful, we became even more nomadic.”
Only two of Free Energy's five members still live in the Philadelphia area, where the band was based when it released its debut album, 2010's 'Stuck On Nothing.' Produced by James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, and released on Murphy's DFA label, that album put Free Energy on the rock map practically overnight.
A few things have changed since then. Sprangers is now in Los Angeles, where he's lived since last September. And when Free Energy's new album, 'Love Sign,' drops next week, it will be self-released on the band's new label.
Free Energy's still taking cues from the past -- last time, people made comparisons to the Cars and T. Rex -- but this album sounds more inspired by Bachman-Turner Overdrive and Def Leppard. The band is bigger and badder (thanks to producer John Agnello, whose credits include Dinosaur Jr and Kurt Vile), and Sprangers's songwriting is more developed.
But one thing's remained the same: Free Energy's still completely committed to the fun time party vibes that are its specialty. You can expect handclaps, cowbell and slick riffs.
We caught up with Sprangers a few days ago to talk about the band's decision to start its own label, the new album, and how he has a different crush every other week.
The band's debut album was released on DFA; the new album is coming out on your own label. Why did you decide to self-release this one?
DFA was our dream label. We talked to a bunch of majors about this new one, but doing it ourselves felt like the future to us. It's exciting and risky and it's a challenge. It's a way we can apply everything we learned from being on DFA and a major label, EMI: everything from being able to keep our publishing rights, to keeping the same team around us as the last album, and so on.
Everyone knows the music industry's in trouble, and nobody knows what's gonna happen next. So this is a way for us to forge our own path. And we still feel like weirdos -- the music we make doesn't seem like it fits in with anything else. So we might as well create our own label and go our own way.
"[B]eing on tour, and seeing babes -- man, it's crazy. I'm just trying to be honest about myself."
Has doing it yourself made it a much more rewarding experience, as you have so much more personally invested in the project?
Absolutely. When we were making this recent video, for instance, we had to book and pay for our flights, and all that stuff. We know exactly how much it all costs. In that respect, it makes everything more meaningful, and there's more weight on it than when you have a label doing everything for you. But, also, seeing all this for myself has made me incredibly grateful for all the things the label did last time that maybe we took for granted.
On 'Dance All Night,' you sing: “I got a different crush every other week.” Is that true?
Yeah, man! That's always been true for me. It's funny you pick out that line, because that's probably the most personal line on the record. I know other people feel the same way.
There's this whole culture now -- Facebook and the Internet and how it's so easy to look at everyone's photos -- that makes it so you see so many people all the time that it's hard to lock in on just one, and be present with somebody. And being on tour, and seeing babes -- man, it's crazy. I'm just trying to be honest about myself.
On 'Time Rolls On,' you sing, “I took the El and got a city wide.” For people not familiar with Philadelphia, the El is the subway, and a city wide is a popular drink combo that includes a cheap beer and a cheap shot of whiskey. Was this a typical scenario for you?
Nice! I'm glad you caught that line! I wasn't sure anyone would be able to catch it because I slur a little bit, and nobody really knows what a city wide is. That song's about getting dumped and heartbroken by that one girl you ever really loved, and then just going out and getting bombed. I did that for a while.
That's interesting, because the album gives the impression that you guys really don't have very many bad days. It's a very upbeat, positive vibe. Your biggest problem is too many crushes.
That's true. The irony about that is that I've always written songs that suggest happiness or some sort of idealism, but I think it's only because I've been so depressed and anxious and aware of how much darkness there really is. It's like a way to stay sane -- it's like I'm channeling this voice that says “It's okay, the world is good.” It's almost like I'm comforting myself, if that makes sense. Sometimes I listen to the music and I don't even recognize it -- it's like somebody else is signing these things. It reassures me.
That's how people frame the band, though: good time, party rock. But that's what it is, and it's supposed to be kind of dumb and simple. But I'm not a super party dude. I don't think everyone should just go out and get plowed all the time. This is party music, but we also hope that people can listen to this album with headphones and hear all the heart and love we put into it.
How do you think you've improved as a songwriter since the first album?
Scott and I talk a lot about what we learned from James (Murphy, of LCD Soundsystem) and the whole DFA experience. That taught us to be economical in structuring a song, writing a riff, using words and lyrics, and everything. We learned to be simple and direct, and to not hide behind effects and studio tricks. This started to become second nature, so I think we've been gradually simplifying the process.
One thing I did was listen to Lindsay Buckingham (of Fleetwood Mac) sing, and how when he closes off the ends of words. It makes him sound very strong and precise, so I tried to do that rather than let the words droop down at the end of a line. If you listen to the best singers, they do that. That sort of thing doesn't come naturally.
These dudes are all maniacal and thinking about every component of what they do. And that's so interesting, because a lot of times you just think that a band is awesome and that's just how it is. You forget that the best bands keep working and trying new things. There are so many small choices like this on the new album, and I think the sum of them all makes a big difference.
"That song's about getting dumped and heartbroken by that one girl you ever really loved, and then just going out and getting bombed. I did that for a while."
There was a ton of hype following your last album, and you've stated before that maybe the band wasn't quite prepared for it. Are you more prepared this time?
Honestly, I don't think there's gonna be any hype this time. But that's okay. Now I'm more grateful for every little thing that happens. Maybe there was more hype that first time, but now we're all more interested in people actually listening to the album, and listening to the lyrics, and getting something from it that's more meaningful than hype.
There was a time when we thought we really sucked, but people kept writing that we were really good, and that scared us. That wasn't a healthy situation. We're more humble now, and that makes us appreciate everything so much more. It makes it all so much more fun.