To coincide with the band setting out on their Violent Waves Tour with Touché Amoré today, UTG is extremely excited to bring you this exclusive interview with the one and only Circa Survive!
Between Anthony Green’s instantly recognizable vocal prowess and the masterful musicianship from guitarists Colin Frangicetto and Brendan Ekstrom, bassist Nick Beard and drummer Steve Clifford, Circa Survive have become a staple in any indie and post-rock lover’s collection. With countless sold-out shows, four renowned full-length records and two EPs, this beloved Philadelphia quintet have attained a cult-like following in their impressive 8-year career.
Frangicetto took some time while gearing up for tour to speak with UTG about going independent for Violent Waves, what fans can look forward to on their current tour and what has kept the band’s original lineup together since day one. Take advantage of this opportunity (and what may very likely be UTG’s longest interview to date) to get caught up with Circa Survive. Also, be sure to check out their brand new music video for “Suitcase” after the interview.
What led to the decision to go independent with Violent Waves?
Well, it was kind of a long time coming. I mean, it was something we’ve been kind of daydreaming about for a few years now, all the way back to the On Letting Go era. It was always in the back of our minds and I think as you kind of go through your career and you work with labels and you work with producers and you have all these people you rely on for various things, that that decision becomes harder to make. Especially as you get wrapped up in the cycle of everything, the idea of almost jumping out on a limb is kind of scary and would actually require more effort than it would to just stay on a label. Ultimately, fate kind of intervened and we were in the middle of writing this record. We hadn’t really had a sit-down with Atlantic yet about what was gonna happen. Basically, due to the industry and a lot of changes financially for them, they came to us and just said, “We know we put this in your contract as what you’ll get and the budget for this next record but seeing as you guys aren’t really looking to make any huge radio hits or #1 singles, we can’t give you what we promised you and we’d like to renegotiate and give you a lower amount.” At that point, our lawyer kind of let us know, “Hey, this puts them in breach of contract. You guys can totally renegotiate with them if you want but you have a full walk as well.” So we pondered that for about a day and basically decided that it was time for us to break away from the label, and at that point we weren’t totally sold on the idea of self-releasing; we wanted to seek out other options and see what was out there, took a bunch of meetings and really just felt even more overwhelmed that we could do anything that any label was gonna offer us and most likely do it in a way that was more customized for our own needs and desires as a band, and there was no better time to do it because we’re in a state where the industry is really just collapsing on itself, and also, every day there’s something new that can be tried. In general, the power is more in the hands of the artist and more in the hands of the fans, so we felt like why not just cut out the middle man and do it straight for the fans?
I’m sure you’ve noticed the recent Kickstarter craze. Did you guys ever consider using that type of site to fund Violent Waves?
Yeah, we did. I actually did a Kickstarter myself for an art project I was doing and it was amazing. I was really thrilled about that but ultimately as far as decision making, it was just too late in the game by the time we decided that we were really gonna go this route. We kind of felt weird about doing the retroactive thing that a few artists have done, and done really successfully, but we felt weird about having already paid for the album then doing a Kickstarter. We felt like it should be the opposite order of that if we were gonna do it. There’s so many different sites now that are doing this kind of model and we feel like these things are super inspiring and we basically emulated a lot of the aspects of that when we put up our packages, but for us, the timing just wasn’t right for us to do a Kickstarter this time.
Now that the album is out, what have you noticed being the major differences between self-releasing and being on a major label?
The most positive change is that really we’re the ones with all the expectations and we have lines of what we would define as success which is completely different than what a label is; completely designed to profit with this kind of steam engine mentality. The way we’ve looked at everything has been very modest and ultimately the bottom line goal was just to break even and make sure you don’t lose money, but this time around, it’s just been a real pleasure to put it out our own way and the responses to the album have been amazing. I think in general, the fact that people were informed about how we went about this and our feelings on it probably helped to maybe open some minds to what the record was gonna sound like. The biggest difference has been a lot more work on our end as far as being involved and decisions that normally we could rely on other people for. So it’s a lot more work and a lot more headaches as far as when things go wrong, ultimately you’re the one that people are gonna blame so there are downsides to it but the rewards are a lot greater because at the end of the day you can feel like we’re doing everything the way we wanna do it and at the end of the day it’s easy to feel satisfied and gratified.
Do the lyrics for “Sharp Practice” have anything to do with being controlled by a label and making the decision to go independent?
I’ve heard Anthony [Green] discuss this question before and I think it’s not directly inspired by any specific event or any specific party but it is an emotional response to the way our value system has kind of shifted over the past decade. When you’re also a creator of music that is eventually for sale and you’re also a purchaser of music as a fan, you have a unique perspective on these things. I think it’s easy to kind of feel frustrated by the fact that the way we see music now is a completely different value system where a lot of people right now are accustomed to never paying for an album and a lot of people see albums as not being worth anything. You can see that in a commercial level as well where a lot of albums are things that you get as add-ons to a cell phone plan and add-ons for a car that you just bought or you start a new bank account and they send you the new J Lo album. It’d be easy to be pessimistic completely about it but I think what creates that tension for us is that our fans are so passionate about what we do, so dedicated to supporting our art and helping us maintain our careers that we can see both sides of it. I think naturally there is a little bit of conflict there and for us there are times where any band that we respect and any band that we love will identify with the feelings that we feel sometimes where we’ll face the decisions that can completely directly affect our lifestyles, our families and the way we support ourselves and they very often can conflict with our artistic integrity and our ideals. Over the course of our band, we’ve made many decisions where we’ve put our artistic integrity and things that make us comfortable ahead of financial stability. That’s not something you hold a press release about every time you do it. There’s lots of times you’re offered a bunch of money for something and you feel like it could represent you in a bad way or it just makes you feel uncomfortable so you turn it down and then you still have people thinking you’re making millions of dollars or you have the occasional person call you a sell-out, it’s kind of like, “Well, fuck you. You have no idea what we sacrificed to do this the way we’ve done it. You have no idea what we’ve given up and you have no idea the things we could do if we really wanted to.” So I think there’s definitely involvement of that in that song and it reflects also just the creation of a song and how hard sometimes a label or producer will want you to make something make sense in a way that’s dumbed down. That’s kind of the notion of the lyric, “It’s up to you to make sense of it.” It’s kind of like, “We’re the artist in this song because it’s something we feel but we’re not gonna dumb it down, because we think you’re smarter than that. You figure out what this means and that’ll be the truth.”
You guys have commented extensively on the album leaking before the official release, explaining that you were only charging $5 for a basic download which could potentially be cheaper than a drink at a bar and likely more fulfilling. For those that take these situations for granted, what would you like to express as far as your feelings concerning a band needing support when trying to create something from their heart, on their own terms, for not only themselves, but the fans as well?
Yeah, I mean that was a really important sentiment to express but there was no way for us to kind of advertise that. We felt like it should be clear that this is why we’re doing that and ultimately that was me that responded about it on a forum in Absolutepunk. There was some kids going back and forth about, “Oh you know, they used to be so pro-download and now that it’s their money they don’t want you to” and I kind of had to set the record straight and say, “Our position hasn’t really changed that much. We’ve always felt that if you can afford to support our band that we appreciate it in every way but that there are some people that live week to week, and day by day, and month to month and maybe that’s not in their budget and they can’t afford it and we understand that. For those people, we’ve always stood by a pro-download stance, that is, if this is the only way you can get our music and you have no means to support us financially in that way, then that’s okay. We understand that.” What I was trying to express there is that music has become, like I was talking about earlier, a disposable good. It’s something they get for free half the time, they listen to it once and basically they delete it or they listen on Spotify and they never stream it again, or it just collects dust in a hard drive somewhere. My response to that is, “Okay, fine. You think it’s disposable but think of all the things you can’t download for free off the internet that are disposable, like a cup of coffee or a beer or whatever.” We feel that $5 is the price of a disposable good and if you want to be fair about it and you want to see us put out another record then maybe you should think about considering taking that $5 and supporting what we’ve worked really hard to make, and if you can’t, again, we won’t judge you for that but really search your soul and search your heart and think about how much an 11 song album can impact your life and if that’s worth more than a drink at a bar or something you know you’re gonna spend money on that week that’s just gonna be a five minute, ten minute, or even twenty minute fix. Maybe prioritize and do what I’ve had to do and think, “Okay, I’m only gonna get a $300 check. I better only spend $200 of it on CDs” (laughing). Basically, I used to prioritize music over food 90 percent of the time for most of my working life. Sometimes it’s hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that a kid thinks it’s totally fine to go blow $10 on junk food at 7-11 but it’s absolutely ridiculous to think about spending $5 on an album. Just trying to pose questions and make people think a little bit. I think we get stuck. We get very used to doing things a certain way and I think a lot of people are downloading thoughtlessly and not really thinking about who they’re affecting.
Do you have any regrets about going independent that would keeping you from doing it again with your next release?
No, not at all. With any new experience you have things you remember or like, “next time we’ll do this a little differently,” but ultimately there’s been no regrets at all. There’s never been an instance yet where we were like, “Aw, man, I wish we had a label.” Really, it’s been a huge weight lifted off us because it’s just so different, the way it weighs on your conscience at the end of the night and just the way we feel preparing to go play these songs live and really just every aspect of it. It’s been so much more enjoyable to not have this third party to worry about pleasing and impressing; stuff, that for a band like us, is really just interrupting noise, just static. We don’t need that anymore. It’s so nice just worrying about putting on a great show for our fans and people that love the band and even new people coming out. We’re not in that place where we’re trying to make sure we’re pushing units every week. It’s just not really where our heads are at and probably won’t ever be were our heads are at. Everything kind of matches up to our values now and I think there’s absolutely nothing regrettable about it.
So this is slightly off topic, but how did Geoff Rickly get involved to add vocals to “The Lottery”?
Him and everyone from Thursday are long time friends of ours, especially for Nick, Brendan and I. Our old band had toured and played shows with Thursday over a decade ago. These guys are guys that we look up to as artists and as thinkers and Thursday was among a very short list of bands that brought us out early on, probably because they knew us from This Day Forward but they really seemed to love the band and love what we were doing so we had done quite a few tours with them and established a really, really strong bond, with Geoff especially and they had some down time after they played their last shows and we made plans that he would come hang out with us while we were in the studio. Just to come check out what we were doing and come hang out for a bit and when he came down it just kind of made sense for him to sing on a song and there just happen to be this song that had a perfect part for him and he was all about it so it was just very easy, nothing really forced there. It just turned out great and now it’s just an excuse to badger him and get him to come out to shows and do it with us.
Circa Survive’s album art is some of the most interesting and impressive out there and it’s all done by the same artist as well. What have been the most predominant influences that have led to the designs?
I think it’s just all Esao [Andrews], ya know? There have been times where I’ll send him a list of images that kaleidoscope in my mind’s eye when I listen to the album but nine times out of ten, even if he’s taking some kind of reference from one of us like that, it just becomes this whole other thing and he has great intuition into what’s right for our albums and sometimes he doesn’t even know it yet and he’ll have something to show us and we’re like, “Oh my god, that’s it!” Nine times out of ten it’s just him feeling out this unknown territory. Now that we kind of have a history and he has this backlog of this cover and this cover and that cover, and this album meant this and that album meant that. Now we’re working with this whole world of imagery and characters and he just never fails. We’re very lucky to have someone that gets the band on so many levels and is just such a great person and really easy to work with and so accommodating with us with however our budget is. At this point, he’s practically a member of the band in a way that his contributions are so crucial and so important and represents the band visually. I think it’s taken our band through a dimension that a lot of bands don’t exist because their album art is all kind of scattered or all different, not that I think our album art is eclectic or anything. I just think that he’s brought a sense of unity to how we’re represented visually and it’s given people all kinds of different clues and ways to interpret the meanings of certain things and he’s certainly fuckin’ produced a lot of fan tattoos (laughing). It’s just unbelievable how many people have put his art on their bodies, either because a) they love his art b) they love our band, or c) because they love both, and we’ve come across quite a few every day.
Yeah, I’ve seen tons. It’s awesome.
Yeah, it’s an amazing feeling and again just another thing that makes us feel like we’re heading in the right direction always and kind of gives you the sense like, “alright, that was the right thing to do and I’m so glad that we’re still doing it.”
With each of your efforts since the beginning, I’ve heard and read fans saying that they couldn’t imagine the band creating something any better, but you continue to release albums and prove that the band has in fact managed to evolve. I read a piece where Anthony was quoted saying, “[Violent Waves] is the best thing we could have ever done.” With that being said, do you think the next album can be as good, if not better, than Violent Waves?
Yeah, I do. I think our band is in an ever present state of unraveling in a way and it’s always based on our relationships with each other and our personal lives and what’s happening with that, and this album is the best album we could ever make because honestly we’ve never had a better rapport with each other. We’ve never been in a place where decisions could be so easy creatively. Our sensibility of what represents the band are all so close and so similar that we don’t have any of those big conflicts or bashing of heads this time around. It’s very easy and very peaceful and exciting. Over the years, our personal lives have taken more of a precedent with people getting married and real life issues happening; you know, Anthony’s family that he started, and there’s just so many things that would make us grow apart but ultimately it just makes us appreciate our time together and our purpose even more. With each album, we get this kind of, “Oh shit, we did something that we always wanted to do” and you check that off the list and another thing’s right behind it waiting. Every time we release an album it’s instantaneous that we immediately start getting excited for the next one and it’s just the way we are. Until the band’s over, that’ll just always be the case. Now with everything in our own hands, I think our self image has never been healthier and the way we see success more, we see our goals so crystal clear and very untainted by things that don’t really make sense with our artistic vision and most of the time that has to do with the financial realm and the commercial realm. The way we handle ourselves in those arenas are not gonna change from this point on. We’re always gonna be a band that kind of flirts with accessibility but really only in a way that we grew up on The Beach Boys and on classic pop artists and we have a tendency to want to kind of flirt with that type of thing, but for the most part we’re interested in pushing boundaries within our own artistic circle and we’re interested in doing new things, things that make us happy and things that we know people that have supported the band up until this point will appreciate. We’re just really grateful for the audience we have now; it’s exactly what we’ve always wanted. It’s people that literally seem to understand us on a level that I never really thought was possible between fans and a band, at least not for a modern band I guess. I’ve seen that over the years, being a kid and looking at the way Pearl Jam fans are with them. There’s examples of it like with Radiohead or whoever but you never really expect that you’re going to be able to accomplish that in any way. That doesn’t mean that I think we have as much of an impact or are as large as those bands but we’re lucky in the same way that our fans truly appreciate us and I think that nine times out of ten, the people coming to our shows every night are just down to see what’s gonna make us happy that night and the setlist doesn’t really matter as long as it’s formed well and done in an honest fashion that let’s everyone in the room have this experience that we’re all kind of craving. That’s the unique position we’re in now and I don’t really see it changing.
You guys are all set to head out on this tour in support of the album with a great line-up. Why did you choose the bands you did to bring along with you and what are you looking forward to the most on this tour?
Yeah, it’s so exciting! I think we always try for a combination, just hoping for good people and half the time that results in us taking people with us that we’ve toured with briefly before or have met through festivals or mutual friends or other times you just hear things about people like, “Oh, they’re so great live and they’re great people.” That’s what we’re always kind of looking for in tour mates. Not just bands that we think will go out and put on a great show, but bands that we think our fans will gain something from; a great live show or great artistry or great musicianship. So this time around, we’ve had a growing rapport with Balance and Composure, they’re from the same town as us and we’ve worked with a lot of similar people and we’ve met them before on previous occasions and just loved them as people, so that was an easy choice. It was even easier with O’Brother because we’ve done like a mini tour with them and we’re such huge fans of what they do and just couldn’t possibly be a better bunch of guys to hang out with and travel with. Both of those bands have done stuff with Touché Amoré and we’ve heard countless good stories about that band live and I know Nick knows their singer really well and has known them for a very long time. We couldn’t really be more excited. It’s cool too because it’s kind of a heavy bill, like aggressive rock, hardcore acts. All of this in one show is gonna make for a really high energy experience for anyone that comes. Usually our bills are really eclectic and kind of all over the place so it’s cool to have just a complete barn-burner of a package.
I’ve actually seen you guys live more than I’ve seen any other band and you always put on a great show with an energetic presence and a lot of fun stuff for crowd interaction. What can fans expect on this tour as far as your setlist and general stage presence?
I can say that this is the first time we’re attempting to drastically change our setlist every night. We’ve dusted off the entire catalog over the past few weeks and brushed up on every song we could possibly relearn, so yeah, we’re really gonna make a huge effort in that way. A lot of our favorite bands do that; not to mention the same bands over and over again but like Radiohead and Pearl Jam do that and like all the jam band culture like the Grateful Dead. We always thought it was really cool that they would play different sets every night, and recordings of those sets, like bootlegs, would float around and kind of create this whole subculture of like, “this set is legendary among fans,” and you have no idea it’s gonna happen because you just put the setlist together that day. Led Zeppelin was kind of famous for that too; they’d have a lot of fucking amazing shows that were just mind blowing then they had a lot of “ehh, so-so” ones. That’s just what happens when you take on that mentality to roll the dice and it’s exciting for us and I think it’ll be exciting for fans that follow what the setlists are every night. The internet has created a great forum for that. It can be shared in a way that it never could before. We’re not really in an age where people are gonna be mailing bootleg tapes from their houses to each other but more so just sharing it online and that’s exciting for us. But other than that, just a collection of tricks we’ve been building over the years with lots of fun stuff. Inspiration by The Flaming Lips and other cool bands that use confetti and balloons and lights and all kinds of trippy flavor.
What are some of your personal favorite songs to play live?
Man, there’s just so many. It kind of changes by the day but I kind of love both extremes; I love the high energy stuff like “Get Out,” that stuff where you can’t even hear Anthony over the crowd, and then I really love the more somber stuff like the secret track off Juturna, “House Of Leaves” and similarly like a new song called “Brother Song,” “Lazarus,” these really slow-burning psychedelic, blues influenced songs are really cathartic to play. I love looking out at the crowd and seeing everyone sing every word as loud as they possibly can and I also love looking out and seeing a completely still room of people just sinking in music. I think both of those things are equally enjoyable. Given my mood, I guess it depends on what I’ll enjoy the most. As long as there’s people out there feeling what we’re feeling, it doesn’t really matter.
Are there any songs that you get tired of playing?
(laughing) Luckily for us, we’re not a band that has a “Creep”. We don’t have an “Even Flow” or whatever, you know? We don’t have one of those songs that everybody asks for and that’s all they ask for and that’s all they wanna hear, which is another reason we kind of count our lucky stars some days that we didn’t have some kind of big hit on the last album. We’re just lucky that every song kind of gets equal billing in a lot of ways, so no, no, there really isn’t anything that we get sick of playing. I think just in general when you play the same set every night for a whole tour it can get a little robotic I guess if you let it but even then at the end of the tour when you’ve been playing the same set every night, you’re kind of at top form, all cylinders are firing and you don’t have to think about anything. You’re just playing and feeling and that’s really enjoyable, too. So ultimately, I never get sick of it.
Between art and music, you yourself are very busy, juggling several projects. What advice would you give to any artists struggling to achieve success in many creative outlets like you have?
Man, it’s so weird to hear you say that because it’s always been a struggle for me. I know a lot of people that have that complex, wanting to have multiple outlets and wanting to be able to express themselves in multiple platforms and finding the time to do it if you have even one thing that’s really consuming. All I can say is that if you feel inclined to do something, if you feel inspired, then you really need to follow that all the way to the end. You’re not gonna feel the gratification until a year or two goes by. For me, I released a solo record and really didn’t have any expectations for that. I just felt really driven to do it and complete it and by the time that was out, it was just a complete success for me, just the fact that it was out and I completed it and now it’s just another thing that people know. It’s like, “Oh yeah, I did do that. Oh yeah, I did spend like a ton of time on that and a lot of effort on that.” There are days when I think I could have been exhausted and kicked my feet up and just been lazy. Well not even lazy, just human, normal. Like, “I did my work for the day. I’ve played loud music for 8 hours,” but quite often I would come home and then go paint for another 8 hours until I couldn’t see straight or stand, but shit, whatever you know? Sometimes people see that as excessive or really don’t have the stomach to work like that but really that’s the only way you can work across multiple formats when you’re busy, because you have to be thinking about that next gap in your schedule six months to a year in advance. You think about, “Oh, I’m gonna have this two month period, what can I do?” You can’t decide during that two month period that you’re gonna put on an art show. You have to decide six months before that while you’re working on something else. Same thing with putting out a record outside of your main project, same thing with writing a book or writing a screenplay. If you have something else that takes up all your time, you’re gonna have to make more time. You just have to make it happen. It’s the only way you can do it. Otherwise you can leave it up to fate and nine times out of ten, from personal experience from when I was younger, it’s like, “I should have done that. I had that time, what did I do with it?” Now it’s more like, “Why the fuck am I doing this?” because you’re going crazy in that moment like, “Why the hell did I decide to do this? Why couldn’t I just be normal?” But eventually, like you asking me this question, you’re like, “Shit, it’s working.” All that time has kind of paid off and it’s not so much about the recognition, but it’s more about realizing that these things you wanted to accomplish are accomplished and that it was a good decision to make the time to do it.
From writing and recording to touring and living together, there are countless aspects of being in a band that can cause complications for the members involved. It’s scarce in today’s scene for a band to stay together with their original line-up, let alone for the better half of a decade. What has made this rare feat possible for Circa Survive?
Man, well I would take it all the way back to the inception of the band; starting with Anthony and I who were coming out of other projects, and even more so when Brendan joined the band, we had this mentality that “We want this to be it.” We wanted this to be the final line-up of the band and we wanted to pick the members carefully and we wanted to pick members that could really handle everything that comes along with being in a collaborative project like this and especially handle everything that comes along with traveling and things working non-stop. Ultimately I think a lot of bands, especially when it’s all guys, (I don’t know many all girl bands so I can’t speak for them), but I know that for bands that are all guys, it’s very easy to drift into this kind of high school, kind of frat boy mentality where you make fun of each other all the time and there’s a lot of joking. Don’t get me wrong, we’re total goofballs and we joke around all the time, but we set our foundation on love and understanding and respect and support for one another and that stretches all the way into our projects outside of the band. That stretches into how we treat each other on tour and how we check up on each other from time to time. You never really know how important it is to have someone who is around you all the time, ask you how you’re doing, you know? You kind of take it for granted. When you see someone every single day, you kind of assume you know how they’re doing, but in a situation where you’re in a band and you’re living together, when we shared a house together, and were with each other 24/7 with the exception of a vacation here or there, you take it for granted. You forget the fact that people have internal monologues going on and they have internal struggles and they may have personal issues, and for us, the real key ingredient is love. You take your sense of understanding and patience and put it all the way to “max.” You have to just accept people’s flaws and understand that you have flaws and for the most part, any goal is always, “Are we happy? Do we wanna keep doing this? Is everyone healthy? Is everyone staying afloat? Do we have to change how we do this?” At the end of the day, the goal is always the same; keep this going in the most honest and efficient way possible and at the same time making sure we’re all still in it for the right reasons and all still wanting to be around each other and to do the things that come along, because it’s not easy and people think, “Oh, you have your own tour bus, you guys are playing huge crowds. You guys have it so good, it must just be cake.” Nope. Most of us don’t own houses yet, most of us don’t even own cars. We still struggle with a lot of things. We still have personal issues we struggle with but at the end of the day we help each other try to get through that and we try to just be an extended family to each other and I think it’s really about communicating and staying on top of taking that inventory; “Are we still happy? Are we still doing everything we ever wanna do? And do we wanna make another record?” Every time, the answer has been, “Yes, yes, yes!” Until there’s a “no” to any of those questions we’ll keep doing this and I think that anyone that wants to do that should put their priorities on a list. For us, financial success was never on top of that list. Worldwide fame and all that kind of stuff was never on that list. It was to be blue-collar, working class musicians and do that on a level that we felt was somewhat equivalent to what we always dreamed which was just to be able to do it full time. To be able to do it as our main job and none of us have had any other jobs in close to a decade now. Circa has been all of our main priorities and main jobs and in the beginning it was just all about humble goals and being good to each other.
Written and conducted by Brian Lion