Story by Adam Daniels
Photography by Dorothy Hong
Breaking up is always hard to do. With your main squeeze, definitely. But with your band? There goes your job and your best bros. Most people would need some time alone to bust out their Belle and Sebastian records and mope around. Luckily, Paul Sprangers and Scott Wells aren't most people.
A few years ago, their band Hockey Night called it quits. And it wasn't one of those friendly breaks where you call each other on your birthday and grab a cup of tea together.
"The break up was really tough," Sprangers says. "Nobody was happy about it. Those guys were our best friends. It was really tough because it was just one of those things where we could tell it wasn't working. And that's what happens in bad relationships."
But the two of them didn't let the split derail their creative processes.
"And so that just kinda ended and we were not sure what we were doing. But the one thing that we just kept doing, the constant throughout our whole lives, was we kept making music and writing songs," Sprangers says. "That doesn't change. Whatever happens with our lives or the band, that always changes, but we're still writing."
These writing sessions bore the demo tracks that would eventually become the spine of Free Energy. Paul and Scott got in touch with old friends Evan Wells (guitar), Geoff Bucknum (bass) and Nicholas Shuminsky (drums) and soon after moved out to Philadelphia to get things moving along. And if these dudes were bummed out, they sure hid it well, creating a group of songs that pay more of an homage to classic, good-times rock 'n roll than the sad bastard licks mentioned previously.
"There's definitely an attitude of blasting ahead," Wells says. "And I don't think we could express that unless we understood the bad stuff, as opposed to when you make a record and you're just sort of consumed and distraught by all of that. I don't quite understand how people do that."
The first person to stop and take notice: DFA's Jonathan Galkin, who signed them on the strength of their demos alone. And while a Philly-based, Cheap Trick-loving fivesome signing with the New York label that revitalized disco sounds more like a '70s movie parody than a headline, it might end up being one of the wisest choices they made.
"We were aware and excited about the quality of music that comes out of the label," Well explains. "We understand that, to date, most of the exciting stuff that has come out of [DFA] has been really great dance and disco music. But they're not necessarily particular to that genre. It's just kind of a stream they were really into for a while. They’ve also had aspirations to have a label with a spectrum of different musical acts, and the one thing that joins them all together is the quality of the songs and the production. They really care about that most. So I think it's an anomaly in the music industry and it's hard for people to understand all that, so now it just seems like there's a rock band on a dance label, when it's not just that.”
The obvious connection between DFA’s production and sound trademarks is James Murphy, who produced the entirety of Free Energy's forthcoming debut album, Stuck on Nothing. Murphy is a man who serves as a logical metaphor for the Free Energy's relationship with the record label. Murphy, like his label, is known for creating innovative dance music as LCD Soundsystem. But this brand of dance requires as much knowledge and understanding of rock 'n' roll as it does of the disco scene he reinvented. This understanding makes him a huge asset in the studio.
"James knows what he's doing," Sprangers says. "He knows how to achieve whatever he thinks he can add to the sound. He's been a producer or recording engineer forever. He came up in the Bob Weston, Steve Albini, meticulous school of recording. He’s got a really strong knowledge of mics and amps and all that stuff."
This production wizardry gave Free Energy the most polished sound they claim they've ever had. The balance between the fuzzy riffs and the clean production is put on full display on their early single "Dream City", a track that many have aptly said would not sound out of place on the Dazed and Confused soundtrack. This song is quintessential last day of school music: the kind of thing that makes you want to drive around town carefree with no particular destination, sounds to help your car speakers find their purpose. The handclap riff starts off and then Spranger's voice comes in declaring, "Hey, we’re coming out, dancing downtown, free like whatever we dream about." He's so earnest you have little choice but to be right there with him.
It’s a glossy, clear-eyed brand of guitar rock few are doing these days, and their affection for riffs that border on cheesy has caused a few people to question if Free Energy is completely serious. Spending five minutes in a room with them makes it abundantly clear that they are. They just stopped worrying about doing what seemed cool a long time ago.
"I think we're sort of over, I mean, we're better than most bands maybe about being hung up on something that might be cheesy or something," Sprangers says. "Like you put a saxophone in a song. But at the moment it's like 'Oh my God. This is crazy. It sounds like Kenny G' or something. Then you come back to it and it's fine. It sounds pretty good. All those moments where you get past it, I think that keeps building, and pretty soon you get to the point where you're just not worried. I think we're getting there. I think we really don't give a shit anymore. I think we're older. You get to the point where ideally whatever you really want to express, you just do it. There aren’t any more considerations of what might be cool and what might not."
The decision also led them to embrace the music they admit they had been drawn to for some time.
"Also, although no one would ever believe this, we always thought it was this kind of secret, hidden, guilty thing to play big rock 'n' roll," Wells says. "Like I remember back when we first started playing in Renegades and we would come up with big two or three-chord riffs and we were just like blown away like, 'We can't do that.' And I just remember laughing and being like kind of self-conscious and kind of embarrassed that we were playing really big, really simple stuff before we'd complicate it or do something else."
While the classical, riff-heavy influence was something they had to come to terms with over time, the simplistic sound is something they've always felt pretty comfortable inside of.
“We listen to this wealth of music of music, and all these different things actually inform what we make," Wells says. "But our ultimate goal is to distill these things into something really simple and really easy to understand. It’s really important for that to be big and simple, and I think the masters of that were what we hear on classic rock radio. Springsteen used big, direct statements. There aren't a lot of other places to look right now in our culture for big, direct, honest expressions.”
It seems sort of funny that the band who claims their best sound resulted from ignoring what seemed cool hooked up with Murphy, a man whose been a symbol of new New York cool for nearly a decade, to produce an entire album. But the band paints a much less trendy picture of studio time with Murphy than you might imagine.
"It's a lot of watching YouTube videos, ordering food and making coffee," Sprangers says. “He has an espresso maker up in the office, so we make a lot of coffee." But afterwards there were no nights out on the town together. "He's married, so he pretty much just goes home. We're used to staying late. In that respect it was more business-like. We were usually done by 8, and then it was time for dinner with the wife. It was weird, but it was cool."
Maybe Murphy is losing his edge. Maybe espressos are rock 'n roll now. Maybe being cool means not caring about what cool is. Isn't that what the whole point of Dazed and Confused was in the first place? Regardless, the pairing ultimately seems to work because Murphy simply seeks to find great sound. In Free Energy, he met a band that understands exactly what that means and where it should come from.
"Whatever sounds good to you and just gets you excited or just sounds totally righteous, that's the right decision," Well says. "Otherwise, why are you doing it?"