Interview: Ben Jorgensen of Armor For Sleep

Armor for Sleep

Even though it’s been 15 years since Armor For Sleep released a new full-length, Ben Jorgensen never buried the idea of another record from the New Jersey emo-adjacent legends. After a handful of successful 15 16-year anniversary shows for their second record What To Do When You Are Dead, Armor For Sleep reunited with Equal Vision Records to release the band’s fourth album The Rain Museum, a 12-track collection that pushes the signature AFS sound to new boundaries. I recently sat down with Jorgensen to discuss the origin of the record, working with Equal Vision again, the emo revival, and the lasting legacy of What To Do When You Are Dead.

It’s been a really long time since the last Armor for Sleep record, 15 years to be exact, and really almost two decades since What to Do When You Are Dead. But I feel like, after I’ve made a few listens to The Rain Museum, it honestly feels like the band never left. It feels like all the emotional, spacey elements that the band’s known for is still there. But I think what’s crucial is this record doesn’t feel like it’s trapped in 2005.

Yeah. Thank you.

After such a long time of not being in that Armor for Sleep mindset, how did that happen? When did the time feel right to bring back Armor for Sleep?

Oh man, that’s a really good question. I guess on the first point, so I guess when I say me, I’m referring to myself as the songwriter for the band. But I didn’t have to put on a hat to… When people hear it, they’re like, “Oh my God, it sounds like Armor for Sleep. That’s cool that you put that hat back on.” But it’s almost like that’s always what’s come out of me anyway and that’s almost what made me not work as a… After Armor for Sleep, I had a bunch of people who were like, “Hey, why don’t you try songwriting with other artists?” And whenever I did, guess what it sounded like? It sounded like Armor for Sleep.

That’s just my style and what I gravitate to. So going back to this, I didn’t have to pull out the Armor for Sleep book about how I wrote songs, because it’s just how it always came out. So in a way, it’s funny when I hear people say that, because that’s just what comes out naturally for better or for worse. And then timing wise for this album, that’s kind of a loaded question, but when the pandemic hit and when everyone was sheltering in place and having their little pandemic projects, I thought it would be a cool opportunity for my pandemic project to write an album that I had wanted to write for a long time. It’s kind of like the album that got away that I wanted to do after What to Do When You Are Dead. It was this story that I had written and this concept that I always wanted to bring to life. So during lockdown, I was like, “Cool, this is going to be my project.” Unfortunately, something not so great happened in my life.

My marriage of a long time fell apart and I was going through a really dark time and a really bad breakup. And instead of stopping to write the album, I just kept pushing through and what I was going through, I think unintentionally, at first, started filtering into this concept album that I was trying to write. I was basically writing myself into it and then for better or for worse, I was like, “You know what? Instead of stopping or trying to separate these two things, I think this could be an interesting piece of art.” Because it was like what I was going through personally on top of something that I really wanted to see live in the world that I never got the opportunity to. And I thought there were some interesting parallels between bringing the band back together and also pulling this thing out from the past.

Yeah. I would say, I mean, obviously What to Do When You Are Dead is obviously a heavy concept record and even Dream to Make Believe was loosely a concept too. And it seems like the albums you always write, they always come full circle and every little thing, every little moment is absolutely deliberate. And I hear that on The Rain Museum as well, too, especially of how it begins and it ends. But yeah, you touched on that this concept album is different because it’s really personally tied to you as “the main character.” It’s the end of your relationship, dark moments of your life. Was it scary centering this record around some of the worst moments of your life and putting yourself out there instead of writing behind a main character that was created?

I think sometimes when you’re so deep in what’s going on in your life, I didn’t think about it in a way that was scary because it was just what I was going through. So I think maybe it’s a little bit scary after the fact, looking back at what I wrote, but like in the moment, because it was so real and it was what I was surrounded by, it’s just what I had to get off my chest and what I wanted to memorialize with this record. I think I also knew that I’m a little older than I was when I wrote What to Do When You Are Dead and I knew that what I was going through was only a temporary part of my life, like any trauma that people go through. So I knew it wouldn’t be forever, but I knew it was important for me to make an album out of it and part of that is.

Because I know people who are going through their own rough patches, sometimes it’s nice to hear an album if they’re listening to music that was written by someone who went through that and then came out the other side. So yeah, even though it’s very, very dark at times, I was just hoping that it might help someone else out in the world. And in a way that helped me get through what I was going through, just thinking about that this could potentially speak to someone down the road.

There’s some really cool tracks on it. I think the first half of the record has the angular guitars and it’s very upbeat and has that atmosphere, like “World Burn Down” and “In This Nightmare Together” are like vintage Armor for Sleep and they’re awesome. And especially “In This Nightmare Together” has that really cool breakdown in it that just only Armor for Sleep can do. Honestly, I was so happy to hear that. But there are a lot of interesting wrinkles throughout the record. I like how vital the keys and the synths feel throughout it, it’s very focused on the record. I made me think of going back to What to Do When You Are Dead. One of my favorite moments is “A Quick Little Flight,” how that breaks up that record and I was thinking about the other, because I was listening to it the other day and I was like, “That song is kind of like bedroom indie pop, before that was a thing.” It’s so cool.

(Laughs) Yeah.

It did feel a little ahead of a time and I love that song, but I like how it breaks up how intense and just how fast-paced that record can be, and “I’m Not Myself” kind of does the same thing. I don’t know if that was intentional, but it feel intentional to me. And I just love “New Rainbows” and “Rather Drown” and how “Spinning Through Time,” they’re Armor for Sleep songs, absolutely, but so many cool moments – the keys, the synths, different soundscapes you’re playing with. What inspired those sonic directions?

I guess it’s just a natural progression and I guess a lot of the progressions are from music that I personally like to listen to and again, I think it’s just expanding on the Armor for Sleep universe and stuff that I wish we had gotten to. It’s just basically, the more time with Armor for Sleep we spend in that world, I think the more we’re just going to try and elbow the boundaries a little bit. So, I mean, I think a lot of those sounds for me go back to thinking about the original concept of the record and where it came from. So in the original story, there’s a lot of desert imagery that I have and a lot of people wandering through this void and that’s also in the artwork. So I think a lot of the desert kind of Middle Eastern vibe, I think related to a lot of the Middle Eastern chord progressions. It’s like moving up in the half step world. So I think those flares of nuggets actually come from the visuals that I was thinking of for the album.

Yeah. I feel like after What to Do When You Are Dead came out, it impacted so many people and I feel like a lot of things happened really fast back in the Armor for Sleep camp and signing with Sire and releasing Smile for Them coming out and I feel like you, like you said, you had these concepts and these ideas, but you never got to execute them. Obviously, growing with age and having that time away from making Armor for Sleep music, this is the most prepared I feel like you’ve ever been for Armor for Sleep. You get to do what you want to do and you’re not being pulled into any one direction. Like even the sessions for Dream to Make Believe necessarily didn’t go how you want it to go and I feel like you finally have control on what you want Armor for Sleep to sound like. You’re finally releasing what you’ve envisioned after all these years.

It feels awesome and that energy was what I got from Courtney Ballard, the person who produced the album. I think Armor for Sleep is just in a place now where he respected what we built as a band. So when I came in with the songs, he was almost like, “I respect what you guys do and the sound that you’ve made.” And so he just wanted the record to be the best Armor for Sleep album possible. Where in the past, because we were younger and maybe because we listened to too many outside sources, people tried to fight the sound that we were doing and maybe they didn’t understand how people connected with the band. But I think just being in this place now, maybe if we had a different producer, it would’ve been different, but Courtney, he was just a fan of the band and he didn’t want to change my lyrics. He didn’t want to change my melodies. He just wanted to make it sound as good as possible and help make it as sharp as possible, so it was cool. I feel like I’ve never been in the studio with Armor for Sleep and felt so confident and almost so respected about the sound of the band. I feel like so many times we had producers that were scratching their heads, like, “Wait, but you guys aren’t quite My Chem, but you’re also not like Senses Fail. What are you?” And like it was just cool to be in a place where I felt that it was accepted for what it was.

That’s funny that you bring that up, because that mid 2000s era, that music coming out of the New Jersey scene. It was really cool, it was really thrilling, but yeah, every label was trying to capture one of two sounds and I can definitely understand getting in the middle of that, which is funny because now we’re having this revival during this time. Like My Chem’s touring and Senses Fail are still putting out records and there’s this renewed interest in a genre that really, even when you released those records, had to fight tooth and nail for coverage and respect. What’s the biggest difference between releasing an Armor for Sleep record in 2022 versus back then and just navigating that?

Here’s what I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to just make a record so we could go on tour again. And just because of this whole emo revival, like, “Let’s get together and just do some like half-ass Armor songs.” I hope – and I’ve been saying this for a while – I hope My Chem makes a new record. I don’t know if they have plans to, I think they should, but people would be stoked about it. But I didn’t want to go into this and just do that record because there is this emo resurgence. I know this record came from a very real place for me and I think it has some cool, current elements. I would love for this just to slot in with current releases, not like we’re the band that’s just doing a new release just to cash in on the emo nostalgia. You know what I mean? So far, so we’ve put out one song so far from this album and so far, it doesn’t seem like it’s been received as we’re just rehashing something. It seems like people are connecting with it as a new piece of art, which that’s literally the only thing I hoped for that it would be considered a new standalone thing and not just like, “Oh, Armor for Sleep is rehashing what they did.”

Yeah. I mean, I wrote for AbsolutePunk for all those years…

Yeah, I remember. I remember you were in AbsolutePunk.

And so I obviously heard anything and everything that’s come out from this scene over the years and when I heard the record I had an immediate positive reaction to it. And one of my biggest worries whenever a band comes back from a long hiatus and releases new music is it just being some phoned-in retread of the past. I mean, you can probably write songs in the vein of  Dream to Make Believe and What to Do When You Are Dead in your sleep and so it was just a pleasure to hear how Armor For Sleep put a fresh spin on that signature sound. It pays respect to the past of the band, but it’s still super fresh and I just love how diverse the soundscapes are this record. I like that each song stands on its own in a way. Nothing sounds rehashed.

Thanks, man.

And then the “How Far Apart” video, honestly, that really fucked me up, watching that video. It’s so…

Good. Mission accomplished.

Yeah. I was just like, “Oh, man.” Especially just having a kid and everything too, it was just really hitting me. But I feel like it perfectly encapsulates the entire concept and what you’re trying to do with The Rain Museum with being stuck in the past and trying to move forward And it’s such a cool video. It’s a cool concept. How was working with Jesse Korman on that video and how did that concept originate?

Yeah. So Jesse’s been my friend, my close friend for a long time. We both grew up in Jersey together. He’s the singer of a band called The Number Twelve Looks Like You. And I think he was the first person I sent the record to just as a friend, just like, “Let me know what you think.” And he just loved it off the bat, he flipped out and Jesse is, he’s a producer in the film industry now. He works on like eight movies a year and he also directs awesome music videos. So from the start, we had conversations about how it would be really cool if music videos were a big component for the rollout of the album, just because there’s a lot to talk about with the album. Well, it was a collaborative process, but I wound up writing the three music videos all together, in a way that does justice to the story of the album in that the videos all are related and intertwined. Because I always hated how we did music videos in the past, most bands do, where basically, you know you have to do a music video. You get a bunch of, basically directors pitch their ideas to the music video, and then you’re like, “Sure, let’s do this.” And then, when you do the next one, it’s a different guy and it’s completely unrelated and we never did music videos that made sense with the album and made sense with each other. So it was really cool that Jesse wanted to take on this task of doing three that were all connected. Yeah, so I’m really excited about the ones that are coming after “How Far Apart,” but “How Far Apart” was a really cool idea and Jesse pulled it off really well and it’s been awesome to see.

Yeah. I mean, it’s crazy that four minutes got me fully invested in those characters. It’s such a cool thing to pull off. And finally was Equal Vision always just the plan to do this record with?

Yeah, it was only Equal Vision. I guess this whole thing with them started for this record. I actually, I went to the, was it the 20 year… I think it was the 20 year anniversary tour of Through Being Cool. And I talked to Dan (Sandshaw from Equal Vision) out there and he was like, “Hey, would you consider doing a 15 year repress and possibly tour for What to Do When You Are Dead?” And I was like, “Man, do you think people would be into that?” I’m just in the fishbowl with myself and with Armor that I’m just unaware of if people would be stoked and he really convinced me. He’s like, “I think people would come to the shows. I think people would buy a reprint.” And he was right. So that jump started our conversation again and then, when COVID happened, I told him, I was like, “Hey, just so you know, I’m working on new stuff.” And he was basically like, “If you ever want to do a new Armor record, we’ll be here.” So it’s been really cool to work with Equal Vision again. 

An interesting wrinkle that I don’t know if everyone knows about is that it’s really cool that they wanted to work with us again, because after What to Do When You Are Dead, they wanted to do the third Armor record and we were dumb kids and it’s hard to say you regret the decision that you made when you were younger, because you were only making the decision based on everything that was leading up to it, but we decided to not go with them for the third record and to go with Warner and obviously, things didn’t work out the way that we wanted it to. But I could see a world in which Equal Vision was like, “Fuck you guys. You walked away from us when we wanted to put out the third record,” and they had supported us from the beginning, from before Dream to Make Believe. So I could see a world that they would be like, “We don’t want to work with you again.” So for me, to have Dan and the rest of the label open their arms to us at this point, it feels good and it just speaks to their character and the fact that they understand that we just made a stupid decision and it was nothing against them. We couldn’t be at a better home for this album.

That’s just really cool to hear. Even to this day, What to Do When You Are Dead still resonates with so many people. Obviously, anytime you put something out, you want it to do that and you hope it does that. But in your wildest dreams, were you ever expecting that record to resonate with so many people for nearly two decades?

Yeah. No, I don’t think I could have imagined that. Yeah, it’s been a very weird thing to see in my life. Right when it came out, when whatever, there was Fuse in the world and it was on MTV, it was cool for the first year. You know what I mean? But from after year one until now, just to see the interest in it over the years is crazy and we just did the 15 year anniversary tour. It was actually 16 years, once the shows actually happened, because of COVID. But there were so many people at the show. Kids who never got to see us back in the day, who only found out about the record five years ago. And it’s just nuts that there’s still that interest in it at that point. It’s a very cool thing to be a part of. 

Yeah. I think when the band announced the new record The Rain Museum and “How Far Apart” came out, I think later that day, I tweeted like, “I think What to Do When You Are Dead is the most under appreciated record from 2005,” because that was an insane year.

Oh, that was a big year. Yeah.

And I got so many replies to that tweet. A lot of ”Yes, I love that record. I still listen to it to this day.” It’s still just so cool to see how that record resonates so much and I can sense that excitement for The Rain Museum as well. I think “How Far Apart” has resonated with a lot of our members and there’s just this palpable excitement that Armor for Sleep is back in our lives again.

Thank you. I’m excited too. I’m excited about the next two videos. I think we’re doing some cool shit and it gets interesting. But yeah, I’m stoked to be back too. I’m excited that the rest of the guys are all on board with this and hopefully we’ll be able to play some shows around the album, if people want to hear that in a couple months, once it’s been out.