Interview: Barely Civil

Barely Civil

Recently I was able to schedule a Zoom call with one of my favorite up-and-coming emo bands in this scene, Barely Civil, who are gearing up for the release of their highly anticipated third LP. The record will be called I’d Say I’m Not Fine, and it was produced by Chris Tetti. In this interview, I asked the band members about the exciting new direction they took on this new LP, what they looked towards for inspiration, and much more. I’d Say I’m Not Fine will be available on March 22nd via Take This To Heart Records, and pre-orders are live.

So thank you all for your time tonight. First of all, let’s talk about the lead single called “Coasting Mostly” which came out before the new album was announced. I think it is a great transition from what you guys have done in the past and then moving the needle forward in your music. So can you talk about how that one came together?

CONNOR ERICKSON (HE/HIM): Yeah, that one came together very much in the way that all of our songs come together. We write everything very collaboratively. Nobody really comes to practice with question ideas. And “Coasting Mostly” was one of those that we were coming to the end of a pretty long practice, and Alex just kind of started playing the riff. And we kind of like to try and figure things out on the fly. And that one came together really, really quickly. It was one of the more natural tracks we had written. It was also one of the first tracks we’ve written for the new record. And so I think it really set the tone for how we wanted to approach this most recent record. It’s aggressive, punchy and loud. And I think we kept a lot of that same energy throughout the writing process, and I think this record has been shaped a lot by “Coasting Mostly.”

And can you talk about the lyrical process of putting that track together? And also, if that was typical for how you do your lyric writing?

CONNOR ERICKSON (HE/HIM): Yeah, so when it comes to lyric writing, I’m revising and reworking lyrics up until we track them. But “Coasting Mostly” was one where that first line of, “you feel so small, it almost feels like you’re not there at all,” that was one that came out when we, for Lent, that was the first thing that I said, when that riff was shown. And so, thinking about this sort of unreciprocated care that we put into everything we put it into the relationships we have, the acquaintances that we have, we put that same care into our jobs and into all these places that sort of hold power over us. And I think that sitting down and thinking about that, I really felt like this song…all of our songs have the same sense of sincerity and of truth to the moment. But that song was a culmination of emotions that I had been feeling for years. We had to, obviously, take a break when everybody else did for COVID. And the sort of pent up frustration and aggression, that came with losing your job, and losing the friendships that you have, and sort of trying to pick up those relationships, virtually over phone, and then try and figure out how to how to piece those back together, I started to feel like a lot of the people that I cared a lot for sort of stopped caring about me. And not in a way where I’m bitter about it, but in a way where it was just like, wow, this is the reality of the world we live in. People have moved past these friendships and moved past these moments. And so I really felt like I was getting a lot more care in a world that didn’t care how I was doing or didn’t care about how present I was at any given time. And yeah, so I think thematically that that was a really big driving force behind the rest of the record. I think it put me writing those lyrics out, and put me in a place of feeling confident again, feeling like, “Okay, I know where I am. I know where I want to be. I know, lyrically and musically, what I want to do.” So it was a confidence booster for me, and I think it was as sincere and as honest as we always are. 

That’s awesome. I’m glad you kind of found your voice again through that process as well, too. So I believe you guys work with producer Chris Tetti on the new record, right? What lessons did he show you guys with writing the new material, and also can you walk me through any examples that kind of stood out from this recording process? 

ISAAC MARQUARDT (HE/HIM): Yeah, he was more hands on with this record than he was on the last one (I’ll Figure This Out) in a way that we really appreciated, where we kind of took the time to kind of break down every part that we had written. And in some cases, there are one or two of my drum parts that were completely rewritten from what we came in with. And at least on my end, he kind of taught us, or taught me, the value of space in a part. I really appreciated it, there’s a song specifically on this record that we completely rewrote the entire drum part for in a way that just sounds so much better than when it came in. That was the big thing for me. I don’t know about others…

CONNOR ERICKSON (HE/HIM): Yeah, I think I think sort of, ironically, he taught us a lot about brevity and a lot about restraint. Which is ironic, because with the latest release, half of the runtime is in the last two tracks. <Laughter> But there were moments on this record, I think “invading space” is one of those, where we came in with this idea of just this really spacious, kind of long track that we wanted to really have to breathe and be this kind of pause in the record. And Chris was very blunt with us that, if you approach it this way, people are going to get bored of this track. And it’s going to make them not like the back half of this record. And so he, it’s always nice to have those second set of ears who can look at what you’re doing and go “yeah, this is not working how you think it is.” Because, and I think having done one record with Chris prior, it really made him feel comfortable and confident in telling us, “Hey, this isn’t good…”

Or, this part isn’t working, or whatever else…?

ALEX LARSEN (THEY/THEM): Specifically, with “invading space,” when it goes to the instrumental part, at the very end, there was supposed to be a lead. Chris and I spent, gosh, probably four or five hours trying to figure something out, we eventually just gave up and just leaned into building the track. I’m over here building from one section to section two. And then just really, once those really big power chords come in at the end, just letting that sit and breathe. And I think it really did wonders for that track, specifically. Otherwise, “shifting blame” was one where the choruses were very different. In our chorus, the song was a lot more aggressive going into it. And we were saying in restraint, a lot of things got pulled back, I think he’s become a lot less aggressive. But I think it became one of the best songs on the record because of it. 

ERIC DOUCETTE (THEY/THEM): And speaking from a personal standpoint, I’m playing bass for these songs, and I’m trying to write them out, but I come from more of a guitar background. So I understood the idea that like when you approach bass as a guitar player, you need to step away from trying to play the bass, like a guitar player. I realized that for a long, long time, but there are other things that I had come to realize were a very big part of being a bass player. And one of them is to follow the kick drum, but also, I remember getting in the studio, and when I was doing the baselines that I had been doing, where I was mainly following the kick drum. There were times where Chris was like, “why are you doing that? That’s not part of the five,” and it’s like, okay. It’s like the musical way to look at it, with the rules of music theory or so. There’s the feeling aspect of it, and I get that but I think I was a little too. I had blinders on for just trying to just play like a bass player. But also Chris kind of helped me realize that, “No, you got to still feel it too.”

CONNOR ERICKSON (HE/HIM): Well, a huge thing that I took away from that was spending time in the studio with Chris, but also from being fans of Chris’s work for years, is that in that restraint and in that space, that’s where you can really convey the most emotion, the maximum amount of feeling that you can put into it.  Shifting Blame is one of those songs where the chorus is so airy and so light, but  the words behind it, and the themes of that track are so bitter and so full of a lot of bitterness. And it’s very aggressive. And if we had just sat there screaming at you, and we didn’t have this space, where it’s just like, everybody’s holding one chord, and it’s just like, “Wow, you really have to steep in it.” I don’t know if it would have had the same effect. And I think that’s something that from sitting in the studio with Chris, but also just from being a fan of his work for a long time, I’ve learned.

Sounds like he was almost like a fifth band member at that point, too? So he’s very much a trusted voice in the room.

CONNOR ERICKSON (HE/HIM): Yeah, he even contributed some guitar parts. So some, some tracks too, like “floating again,” we really wanted if you’re going to work with a producer to make your records, make your record, whatever it is, you have to let them in. We did it a lot on, “We Can Live Here Forever” with Matt Riefler. And then “I’ll figure this out,” and “I’d say I’m not fine” with Chris Teti. It’s part of being an artist is taking in criticism and taking in thoughts and opinions. But it can be really tricky when you find people that you’re comfortable with, you have to let them be a part of that process. Because if you just go into the studio, and you go, “No, these are the songs, and this is how they’re written, and you’re just going to track them, and I don’t care what your feedback is…”, you’re doing yourself a massive disservice,

Especially with somebody with the expertise that Chris has. I got the advance of the new LP from Joe Urban, and there’s some themes of space, time, restraint, and other kinds of dramatic things going on there. Was that intentional, or did that happen throughout the writing process?

CONNOR ERICKSON (HE/HIM): I think it happened throughout the writing process. I think that as we sort of evaluate the place that the world is in, and how that sort of manifests in the little microcosms of our lives. I think that it’s tough right now to not to not be frustrated and to not feel held back. And so, like I said with lyric writing especially, it’s shifting right up until it can’t anymore. Because I want it to be as true and authentic to how I’m feeling at that moment. And I think that the music and the instrumentation really lends itself to a lot of those themes. And so I think it’s fascinating to me that there’s never really been a time in which I’m feeling a certain way about my life that these folks aren’t feeling about theirs. And it’s because we’re so close. And because we’re so tight, but it’s also because it’s just kind of tough to not feel those ways. And so I think that naturally, in our instrumentation, as well as in our lyrics, we end up in these spaces and it can be really cathartic to put words to music and have them align. But it can also be really cathartic to put words to music and have them clash in a way that is interesting and engaging. And I think that that lends itself to those themes of restraint of space of space versus place. And I think that is that it’s always been something that we’re actively in pursuit of.

And can you talk about how the record opens with a lot of gang vocals in there, at some parts, and offers more of an aggressive side of the band that you maybe didn’t show as much on the last two albums. So, what went into the sequencing of the album? 

ERIC DOUCETTE (THEY/THEM): Yeah, I just kind of feel like it kind of just fell into place. Yeah, we didn’t really spend a whole lot of time figuring out the sequencing too much. We kind of followed the age old rule of peaks and valleys, and it just kind of fell in where it’s at, and we ended up liking it! 

CONNOR ERICKSON (HE/HIM): I think there’s always tracks that we write with the intention that they are going to flow directly into each other, especially with our opening tracks. On every record, each one has an opening track with gang vocals that leads into the next track. And so when we were writing, I’d say I’m into “floating again” I think it’s, as far as sequencing goes, it’s just what makes the most sense,even if we don’t approach it from the sense of like, this is a concept album about XYZ…It’s like, every album is, in theory, a story from Point A to Point B. And where does the story make sense to go next? So you have that opening track that is bitter, angry, and loud. And then it goes into this song that is entirely about these same exact feelings that you’re given in the first one, but in a more analytical way. That first track is just like, here’s everything I’m feeling right now. And if I could say anything, I’d say I’m not fine. And here’s how we got to this point. And then that’s how the rest of the record plays out. And so there is sort of a narrative arc to it. I don’t know if it’s one that we ever deliberately said, “this is the story of this record,” but it’s very much a base feeling. We talk about it every record, and the conversation about sequencing has been a maximum of half an hour…Yeah, it’s just like, what makes the most sense?

Wow! A lot of bands will struggle with that <sequencing>, too…

ERIC DOUCETTE (THEY/THEM): I feel like we really kind of took a humorous approach, at least in terms of some of the sequencing. We thought, I mean, it just kind of fit this way, but we also thought it was kind of funny that “Better Now” is right after “Not Fine.”

ALEX LARSEN (THEY/THEM): We also think of sequencing in terms of flipping the record over. We’ve always loved thinking about it that way, and that was starting all the way back with We Can Live Here Forever

CONNOR ERICKSON (HE/HIM): Yeah, when we first approached writing this album, the idea was that we were going to do two EPs that would sort of fit together. And so essentially, we wrote the album, and we had the intention of splitting it up into two EPs. Due to just some unfortunate circumstances, things got delayed a little bit. And so we were like, “Well, no, let’s package it all together. This is LP3, no matter how we package it.” And so it was kind of nice, because we do always approach from the side of, “Okay well, the midway point, record flip, and now how do we want to go into the second half of this record, and how do we want to make the second half feel different? And just as motivated as the first half?” And so, yeah, we knew what record what tracks were going to be on which EP and there was some flip-flopping. But for the most part, half-hour conversation <on sequencing>. It just turned out better as a complete piece.

Yeah, and I’m glad you kind of realized your vision for that to see that through! The new record is called, I’d Say I’m Not Fine. A great title, by the way, but what’s the meaning behind it?

CONNOR ERICKSON (HE/HIM): Yeah, so I had, coming out of COVID, and coming out of sort of isolation, both Isaac and I graduated in May of 2020, which was probably the worst time…

Well, congratulations on that achievement!

CONNOR ERICKSON (HE/HIM): Thank you! And so I had about a year and a half where I wasn’t in school, and finding a job felt near-impossible. And every day, I was just frustrated and having conversations about that frustration with these folks, but also with other friends. And I had a really long conversation with a good friend of mine. Talking about where we were at, how we felt and what our sort of aspirations were for the future. And I just remember having a conversation where it just was very bluntly, “how are you doing?” Well, I’m not fine. I’m really not cool. I’m not okay. And so, we had a moment where we had written about half the songs for the record. With EP one, we were like, well, “what do we call this thing?” And I was like, “Well, what if we called it? I’m not fine. Or I’d say I’m not fine…” And then we have this idea that it was like, “Well, what if every song was a way to complete that sentence? What if every track title finished that sentence?” And how do we take these ideas of what it would feel like to be this way? What does it feel like to be this way? And how do we make that a song? And so, I’d say there is really the titular track on that record, and it sets up everything. And I think, cumulatively, I’d say I’m not fine is the most fitting, but we’ve all had moments where if someone were to ask you, how are you doing? What would you say? Well, I’d say “I’m coasting.” I’d say I’m “floating again,” I’d say I’m “finding time.” So that was the approach with the titling of the record, and the titling of all the tracks.

That’s really cool. I’ll keep that narrative in mind when I go back and listen to the album again. To hear your vision come to fruition, so to speak, is really remarkable. So I definitely commend you guys for that. The newest single comes out in January, called “Better Now,” which coincides with the album announcement. What makes that single so special?

CONNOR ERICKSON (HE/HIM): We were actually just talking here, also just behind the scenes, we had a band practice. We’re still in our practice space now. And we were playing “Better Now.” And it is the most unique song in our discography. I think it is. It is about as different a sound as we have ever had. But it is, I think, a very, very strong “thesis statement” for this record. The chorus on this of, “I’m sorry, all I want to do is speak / But I can’t  / These nights all I want to do is sleep / But I can’t.” And sort of this nagging question of like, “Well, it’s been a while, Are you better now? How are you doing?” I think it sets up this record in a really unique way. I think it follows up “Coasting Mostly” in a really contrasting way that we’re really excited about. And I think ultimately it’s a banger. It’s a fun track that we’ve…we’ve been playing a lot of the songs live, but we haven’t played “Better Now” live yet. We’re saving it for when people know the words. 

ERIC DOUCETTE (THEY/THEM): Yeah, it’s definitely one of those songs that we’re hoping people learn the words to and will scream along to. Yeah, and that’s because it may not be the happiest of a subject for a song but it is like it’s got the unity aspect in the gang vocals and having a roomful of people sing that along with us would just feel amazing. 

ERIC DOUCETTE (THEY/THEM): This is the most aggressive batch of songs from this band that I’ve heard. And it’s cool to hear that progression. This is the first album that I’m a part of. And I know the previous backlog as well, of course, but knowing that and hearing the new record, it’s like, “wow, I can’t believe this is where it’s gotten,” and not in a bad way at all. 

I believe that it’s the logical progression for where you guys have gone, where you may have been hinting towards those aggressive tones, but maybe it didn’t fit thematically on the past two albums, or whatever. But yeah, it absolutely makes sense from a writer’s perspective.

CONNOR ERICKSON (HE/HIM): Yeah, and I am particularly proud of the opening line of “Better Now”. And I think as a way of announcing the album, alongside that release of “Better Now,” I think it is just perfect. In that opening, “this is growth erased, or overthrown.” That is, I think when it comes to thinking about this record, and thinking about how it feels and how it’s shaped, it does feel like it feels emotionally regressive in a way of who I am. So I’m at my capacity for just being polite about how I feel, and people may perceive it as, as a regression of growth, a backpedaling of learning how to be a more polite individual. But I think that this record isn’t necessarily meant to be a polite examination of what it feels like to be a person in your mid-20s, in 2023 America. Nothing about existing right now is polite. And so I think that’s a really perfect way to frame out the experience of listening to the record.

Yeah, and I think people are gonna feel something with this with his new song. Whether it be good or bad, they’re gonna get excited about your band again, for sure.

ERIC DOUCETTE (THEY/THEM): It definitely feels like reiterating, in a way, what Connor was saying…there really isn’t a whole lot to be polite about, with social media, and all the things that we’re able to see about how messed up the world in this country can be. And seeing that nobody in power seems to really want to do anything about it. And we’ve been seeing that in much more vivid detail over, especially over the last three years. And I think a lot of us are at, like, some form of a breaking point. And I think maybe this record is the expression of that.

That’s a good point. The last question I have for you guys is what are the touring plans for next year?

CONNOR ERICKSON (HE/HIM): I think we’re definitely looking at touring as it fiscally makes sense for us. I mean, just as this record is about real life, we all live real lives and it’s really tough right now for touring artists. When you see venues taking 25% of their merch sales and actively trying their hardest to monopolize entertainment, only to benefit those who already make millions off of their music, it’s getting exponentially more difficult to be a self-sufficient band in this world. But that being said, we love touring, and we are going to make something happen. The extent of which is always up in the air. But yes, if you live somewhere that is not Wisconsin, I can confidently say you will see Barely Civil at some point. 

Awesome. Well, if you come anywhere near the DMV, which is DC/Maryland/Virginia for people that don’t live in this area, I’ll definitely be there, cheering you guys on. Any last words for fans or anything else for a teaser of the new record?

CONNOR ERICKSON (HE/HIM): Thank you. Honestly, we’ve been very, very fortunate to get to this point in our lives where we can have conversations with people like you, and talk about our music. We appreciate and care deeply for people who take their time to listen to our music. We don’t take it for granted and we were so excited for everybody to hear this record. 

Yeah, that’s great guys. You definitely have your heads and hearts in the right place, and I’m rooting for success.

Barely Civil: Thanks, Adam!

Photo Credit: Carrie Bergen