Like any band following up a successful debut album, the members of the Los Angeles-based garage-skate-punk group FIDLAR knew they had a tough task ahead when they started work on their sophomore release. According to bassist and backing vocalist Brandon Schwartzel, so much had changed for the band, it was like starting over.
“In a lot of ways it was a brand-new experience for us,” Schwartzel explained in a recent telephone interview. “We did the first record when we were all in a different place in life. We were just young and wanted to party. We had a ‘Yeah, whatever…’ approach. We didn’t know that the record was going to end up being anything. Then it ended up being moderately successful and we toured for almost three years straight behind it.
“When you come home after that much time, you don’t really know what to do with yourself,” he added. “It’s post-traumatic tour disorder. You get home and you realize that you’re not leaving again for a while because there’s nothing booked. It’s time to make the second record.”
Schwartzel and his FIDLAR band mates – lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist Zac Carper, lead guitarist and backing vocalist Elvis Kuehn, and drummer Max Kuehn – eventually did make that second record. Entitled “Too,” it was released at the beginning of September. On the road in support of the album, the band will play an all-ages concert at Philadelphia’s Union Transfer on Thursday, September 24. Dune Rats open the 8:00 p.m. show. Tickets are $15 and are available through the Union Transfer website or at Ticketfly.com.
FIDLAR got its start in 2009 when Carper and Elvis met at an L.A. recording studio where they both worked. They tried working on songs together and hit it off. Soon after, Carper brought his friend Schwartzel into the fold and Elvis brought in his brother Max. Both Schwartzel and the Kuehn brothers had previous band experience. The Kuehn brothers’ father Greg plays keyboards for the Long Beach, California-based punk band T.S.O.L. (True Sounds of Liberty), and both Elvis and Max had been playing in bands since middle school. Schwartzel was the bassist for power-pop band Rooney, known for the songs “I’m Shakin’” and “When Did Your Heart Go Missing?”
Taking its name from an acronym for a popular skater motto, FIDLAR (“F— It Dog, Life’s A Risk”) released its self-titled first album on the independent Mom + Pop Music label in 2013. With song titles like “Cheap Beer,” “Stoked and Broke,” “Cocaine” and “Wake Bake Skate,” FIDLAR’s debut played like a slacker diary in the party-punk tradition. In an AllMusic.com review, writer Jason Lymangrover said that a “fresh-faced, born-in-the-’90s, “Jackass” mentality permeates their 2013 debut of 14 quick songs that revel in getting baked, getting drunk, surfing, and skating.”
The group hit the road even before the album was released, and their reputation for sweaty, beer-soaked, free-for-all concerts quickly spread via word-of-mouth as well as through pictures and videos posted on social media sites like Tumblr and YouTube. Their notoriety led to gigs opening for bands like The Hives, Wavves, and The Pixies.
“I definitely was the one in the band with road experience when we first started touring,” Schwartzel says. “I had toured a lot and I knew how it all worked. Max had toured a little bit with different bands, but Zach and Elvis really hadn’t toured that much. So there were things that I was able to contribute because of my experience.”
Unfortunately, Schwartzel’s touring experience didn’t help when FIDLAR came off the road to start work on its second album. Schwartzel calls the making of “Too” a learning process for the entire band.
“We tried to build our own studio,” he says. “We spent about two months doing construction on the studio, but that fell through. Then we rented a rehearsal studio and tried to write with all four of us together, but because we had just spent so much time together on the road, we weren’t all really ready. Everyone seemed like they needed space.”
Lead vocalist Carper also needed time to deal with some personal demons. Addicted to meth and heroine, he checked into rehab to get clean before he could start to contribute to the band.
“We never intentionally tried to glorify partying in any way,” Schwartzel says. “It was just that we were writing songs about what was happening in our lives. On the first album, we were all partying together a lot, so it was like, ‘Let’s write songs about what we know.’”
If FIDLAR songs that describe getting wasted sound celebratory, Carper insists that’s not his intention. In an August interview with Stereogum, Carper said, “If you listen to those… lyrics on the first record, those are just… sad songs with a happy hook. I was basically this crazy person on drugs. On this new record, I’m just a crazy person. I stopped doing heroin, I stopped doing meth, I stopped smoking crack, so now all I’m left is with is just being this crazy person who’s trying to deal with it … and the way that I dealt with it was writing songs.”
Carper and his bandmates wrote so many possible songs for their second album, the band hired producer Jay Joyce to help sort things out. “We knew we needed help; we needed someone to guide the process,” Schwartzel says. “We had like 45 demos of songs that were all over the place. Some sounded very first album, others were way out there – they were written in all kinds of different directions.
“Some were old songs that we had been playing on the road, like ‘West Coast’ and ‘Punks,’ he says. “We’ve been playing them live for years, but had never really done a proper recording of them. Some were ideas that were never fully realized. Someone might have had a riff that they had been messing around with for a while, but never quite came together until we got to the point where we were tracking the record. Other songs were brand-new, written about a month before we went in to the studio to record them.”
Reaction to the album from both critics and fans has generally been very positive. Advanced by the first single “40oz. On Repeat” (and its hilarious music video send-up of the TRL era of MTV), “Too” debuted at the No. 1 position on Billboard’s Heatseekers Albums Chart, which tracks the week’s top-selling albums by new or emerging acts.
Of course, not everyone was happy with FIDLAR’s slightly more polished sound. A few longtime fans posted internet comments suggesting that the new music was “too pop” and accused the band of abandoning its punk roots.
“You’re always going to have that guy that says, ‘You guys used to be real punk and now you’re not.’” Schwartzel says. “It’s really easy for a fan to say ‘they sold out,’ or ‘they’re just trying to make a big.’ But we do this for a living, and we work really hard at this. It’s not that we’re doing it to make money, but we want to be successful. We want to grow. We don’t want to do the same thing over and over again. That would’ve been boring for us. I think doing the same thing over again would be selling out more than trying something different. But that’s how it’s always going to be. After we make our next record, someone will say, ‘The last album was the real FIDLAR.’
“The real FIDLAR is whatever we want to be at the time. We’re always the real FIDLAR,” Schwartzel says.
While the band members are a little older and a bit wiser, Schwartzel says that one thing hasn’t changed since the group started – FIDLAR’s high-energy live shows.
“When we toured with the Hives, they told us, ‘You guys have got to not play with so much energy, because you’re going to get older and your fans are going to expect it,’” Schwartzel says. ‘You have to set the bar a little lower; pace yourselves a little bit.’
“I don’t know what it is about our show, how we play, or the reputation our shows have gotten, but it seems like everywhere we go it’s just wild,” he adds. “I think kids see videos of our shows on YouTube, and it’s just a natural response to how we play and the music that we play. There are rowdy, sweaty kids everywhere in the world we perform. It’s awesome.
“We are lucky to even be on the road playing shows, so we want to deliver the best show that we can every time,” Schwartzel says. “You get tired toward the end of the tour when you’ve been driving all night, but once you get on stage and you see kids’ faces light up and they are screaming in your face, you can’t help but get pumped.”