Hop Along on “Bark Your Head Off, Dog”

Restraint Abounds

Apr 05, 2018 Web Exclusive
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When we connect to talk about her band Hop Along's new album Bark Your Head Off, Dog, Frances Quinlan is calling from Independence Hall, a leading historical attraction in her native Philadelphia. It's a fitting location given the band's extensive ties to the city, but there's just one problem with it-it's making her impossible to hear. "There's some construction. I'm getting away from it," she explains before relocating to a much quieter, clearer space.

This introduction provides an oddly apt metaphor for Bark Your Head Off, Dog. Even though fans and critics nationwide adored the queasy, toppling, chamber-inflected rock of Hop Along's 2012-released debut album Get Disowned and its more streamlined, but still vicious, 2015 follow-up Painted Shut, Quinlan, in retrospect, felt that her voice, her vision, her songwriting were obscured by imperfect use of loudness, vigor, disorder. For Bark Your Head Off, Dog, she removed herself from the racket and explored restraint, dedicating an extended period to working with her bandmates (bassist Tyler Long, guitarist Joe Reinhart, and drummer Mark Quinlan) and other collaborators, including producer Kyle Pulley (of Thin Lips) and new touring member Chrissy Tashjian (also of Thin Lips). The resulting album is an unexpected and welcome new iteration of Hop Along that smoothes out its signature jagged edges without removing two of its foundational qualities-Quinlan's deft hand for precise narrative details and roundly humanized characters, and her one-of-a-kind voice, a beacon that's somehow at once sharp, rough, urgent, inviting, raspy, nasal, and dynamic.

When talking about Bark Your Head Off, Dog, Quinlan often refers to its conscious restraint, its forays into pop and even dance music, and her game-changing decision to focus on singing more than on screaming. Each of these factors seems to have a cause and effect relationship with the others; it's impossible to understand how much more lush and approachable these new songs are without acknowledging the album's less obviously explosive nature and the newfound comfort heard in Quinlan's singing (as in, her deliberate non-screaming). Bark Your Head Off, Dog is a work rife with opportunities for discovery, both in the ample crannies and nooks its songwriting and structure provide and in the way of the listener's own Hop Along-supplemented introspection. Over the course of a fascinating conversation with Quinlan, which is here condensed and edited for clarity, it becomes clear that this newest presentation of Hop Along is the one its frontperson has been working towards for ages.

Max Freedman (Under the Radar): I would describe Bark Your Head Off, Dog as softer overall, but even when your voice is the sort of rough that I've always heard it as, it's still soft in a pillowy and welcoming way.

Frances Quinlan: We came at it with the idea of restraint. We're four pretty expressive people as far as what music pulls us, how music pulls us as individuals. I've certainly been thinking increasingly about the music I've listened to over the years and how much restraint is exercised. For this record, we all wanted to come at it with the idea of, "What does it absolutely need? What does a song absolutely need to express the mood that needs to be expressed?"

I can hear that in how lush overall this record sounds. It's generally less bombastic, but I still find that it sticks just as hard. I realize that you all self-produced and -recorded this album. How does that distinction relate to how much less forceful Bark Your Head Off, Dog is?

We're used to self-producing. Really, working with John Agnello [on Painted Shut] was the first time we really departed. In this case, the record was recorded by Kyle Pulley and Joe [Reinhart, band member]. Even when we worked with John Agnello, we were still right there at the wheel with him to make decisions creatively.

In the past, we've thought of songs as more of a delivery of pure energy. For Bark Your Head Off, Dog, we thought a lot more about the particular mood of each song. We felt more intellectually and emotionally equipped to focus on a part of a song and on [questions such as], "How much of these? Do we need more than an acoustic and some strings here? Do we need more than the band plus a piano?" Even though there is a lot more on it than there is on Painted Shut, there's still less than there is on Get Disowned. With Get Disowned, we threw absolutely everything at it. [Laughs] There's a steel drum on that record, and a chicken screaming.

The restraint that you're talking about manifests as a really polished album. I remember thinking when Painted Shut came out that it was way more polished than Get Disowned. How conscious has this path towards more and more cleanliness been?

We don't go for polished at all. It's funny that you would say that Painted Shut is polished.... I hate certain effects on my vocal that make it sound polished.

When I say restraint, I really just mean subtlety. Less is more. Adding all these effects and filters...can add clutter to make a song sound more far away. I've always liked the idea of getting the listener to feel that they are in an environment with the band. A perfect example of a record that does that for me is [Neutral Milk Hotel's] In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. I don't think anyone really describes it as polished, but it's certainly a finely made record. That's all we really care about: how we're playing and coming across.

On "Somewhere a Judge," there's a moment among the most profound on the album when you sing "I don't know why I'm so mean each time I come to visit/I don't know why I'm so mean each time I come around." It doesn't have the clamor of clang of so many of your previous songs' emotional zeniths, but it's possibly more striking than many of my favorite previous Hop Along moments. Tell me about that contrast.

It was really exciting-that song went through so many changes. It used to have a different title. We recorded it for the first time in 2016, in the summer. It had no purpose. It had no direction. It was just there for a while. We came at it again over a year later...and we started playing it like a pop song, like a dance song. All we had to do was take a step away from it and edit down how much we played.

We came to [that song] with a new sensibility, like, "Okay, I guess this is a dance song." I never want to feel pinned to any particular genre; I don't think any artist wants to be pinned to any genre. I would agree with you; it's certainly a departure from anything we've done in the past, but that just made it all the more exciting to us to make it.

With "Somewhere a Judge," the lucidity of it, versus the shrillness of some of my old favorites of yours, feels inviting to me. How much would you say that growing up relates to how much more calm this record can be at times? 

I'm not screaming. I don't think I scream on this record at all. I really did not want to feel that I had to revert to that. In the past-and I'm proud of everything we've done; we worked hard on every record-we've done our best with what we've had. I've done my best with my tools, my voice. I did what I thought I had to do, but after these past couple of records, I couldn't help but think, "Do I have to scream? Why am I screaming? Is it because this song really demands it? Is it because the lyrics demand it? Or is it because we're all building up and I don't know what else to do?" I don't mean to sound like I don't know what I'm doing, but I'm certainly figuring it out as I go.

I still hear the signature roughness and ability to spontaneously shift your voice half-a-pitch in your singing, despite the fact that you're not screaming.

Cool! I'm just writing for my own voice.... When I think about songs I've written, I think, "Is this written for my voice? Did I really write this with my voice in mind?" I don't mean to dole out any advice on anyone, but.... The very fact that my voice is going to go away someday [makes me] want to do as much with it as I can while I have the time and ability. I just started writing for myself. It's a lot harder when you're younger, because you might have an idea, but a) it might be really hard for you to get there because you're not quite equipped yet to make it translate, and b) there's been times where I've written songs and I didn't really know how I wanted them to feel. To have both of those feelings fade a bit over time has been an asset for me.

On "What the Writer Meant," when you're using that imagery of the rabbit being cut open, I can clearly hear what you're saying, and it comes as a shock over the course of the song. And then you ask the question, "Isn't this for kids?" right after you sing about the rabbit being cut open, and that's somehow both really beautiful and kind of funny, even though you might not have meant it that way. 

I'm happy for songs to be funny. I try to let go a little bit of how people interpret anything, but it is a funny moment. I was watching the cartoon version of Watership Down with someone I was very close to, and in the middle of it, she was just like [laughs], "Isn't this for kids?" [laughs], because it's a pretty vicious piece of animation. It is funny. [Laughs]

With that song too, there are some strings that I hear faintly ringing out in the distance. I wanted to talk about you and Hop Along's relationship with strings-you can hear them a fair deal in Get Disowned, but on Painted Shut there aren't really any strings there. What about these songs made you want to bring strings back into the fray?

Painted Shut is essentially a document of a band. There are some keys here and there, and backup vocals, but the songs are pretty simply translated to the stage. At that time, we had such difficulty making some songs on Get Disowned translate live with just four people, that we really didn't want to do that with Painted Shut.

Also, we just didn't have time. We had less time than we've ever had to make a record. Whenever I hear about bands who are like, "Oh, we made it in a week," or "Oh, we made it in a weekend," I'm floored. We take a lot of time. I think we're all somewhat of perfectionists about our parts, and when you have four people that feel that way, it's gonna take a bit longer. With Painted Shut, there just wasn't even time to consider strings. There was so much pressure on that record. We had just signed to a label [Saddle Creek, which is also releasing Bark Your Head Off, Dog]; I didn't want to fuck it up. With Get Disowned, we didn't have to worry about that at all. We took two years on that record.

With this record, we said, "We want to make a studio record. Let's not worry about how we're gonna do it live. We'll figure it out; we're better musicians now." That's also why we self-produced. We wanted to have that extra time to add whatever we wanted and mess around with it and see if things went in other directions.... I really like that these songs can stand on their own instrumentally in a way that previous ones don't do quite as strongly.

I hear that in moments like "The Fox in Motion," which to me is the peak of everything you accomplish on Bark Your Head Off, Dog. There's something about that rolling and palm-muted guitar riff that just makes the verses' backbone into pop candy, and then the chorus is this tension-relieving slab of pureness, and your voice manages to be as jarring and impactful as ever before, even without you screaming. How did that song specifically come together?

We were jamming on that song a while ago, and the verse is very simple. The palm-muted parts that I'm playing are very simple. I'm doing the simplest work, I would say, aside from singing.

Initially, the outro was the chorus, and it just wasn't working. So much of what we do is editing. I have to do a lot of writing off on my own, as far as the core structure [goes]. It's the only way that I can really understand how to play and sing it. I just have to go off by myself and work that out, even if it's just a 10-minute break. But editing, we very much do that together, and arranging is a collaborative effort.

It's hard to [recount] exactly how it goes because it basically took two years for us to bring all of this together. I can't even remember when the chorus [came together]; I think it was the last part to be written.

You all have taken meticulous amounts of time to go over this and make it perfect, and that's related to the way you're singing on this record, the way you're making these songs feel more limber than ever. It's more about making something that stands on its own instead of going right for the throat. 

There's different ways to go, as you said, right to the throat. Music has such a great capacity, and it takes a lot to trust in that. A lot of [these songs], for a long time, were just a verse, or just a chorus, or played in an entirely different rhythm. "Somewhere a Judge" was originally an entirely different rhythm; it was certainly more bombastic and [reminiscent] of our former selves that we were in the process of shedding.

We all had time to go off on our own a little bit. While I'd be working on my vocals in one room, Joe would be in the other...elaborating on the guitar part he already had. We'd come together and it would just be a whole new song by the end of the day. The beginning of "The Fox in Motion"-Mark came up with that drumbeat off on his own.

I've read that among the people you have in the studio with you are Chrissy Tashjian from Thin Lips. Where can she be heard on the record? A lot of the time, the harmonies on the album sound like you're singing them, but at least to me, you don't have similar voices.

This is the third record we've had Chrissy on. She sang for the first time with us on Get Disowned; we'd been friends for a couple of years by then. I met her in 2009. I've always loved her voice. She had a band called Dangerous Pony before Thin Lips, and we did some tours with them years ago.

For "Somewhere a Judge," it is just me. She's on at least half the record; on "How Simple," that's her and I on the backups. The backups are generally Chrissy and I together; I do love how our voices sound together. Her voice is incredible...and she's an incredible shredder! She's such a shredder on guitar.

I'm really interested in seeing how collaborative this record is. With some bands' trajectories, more mature and refined albums tend to be more collaborative efforts than the things that came before them. Although I was interested in that, it seems like the amount of collaborators you've worked with has remained steady across these albums.

If anything, I've become a better collaborator. I've never seen myself as a leader-as a person, I don't have those qualities-so it was funny to find myself in a situation where it dawned on me: I am the leader of this band.

We value each other. My bandmates are better musicians than I am. That's just a fact, and I don't mind saying it. I'm proud of myself as a songwriter, but I've only gotten incrementally better at guitar. I have to be aware of the value of great musicians and arrangers and editors. Half of making something really is editing. It's the drafts that come after that will shape what you're working on. 

At the same time, stick to your guns, too. If you have an idea and no one's really behind you, having the ability to say, "That's the vision, it's gotta have this feeling," and to have the ability to stand behind that even if you're alone in that feeling is a tough thing to grow up enough to be able to properly do while being able to listen to people and not be big-headed. For a long time, I didn't even want to consider that.

[Hop Along is] four different people. Our lives will change and complicate things, I'm sure.... We're almost like a family at this point, and obviously my brother is in the band, but I've known Tyler and Joe quite some time. I love them, I love my bandmates, and that love complicates things too, you know! [Laughs]

I wanted to ask about the Bark Your Head Off, Dog album art. To me, it registers more in the way that Get Disowned has stuck with me than Painted Shut has. With the Painted Shut artwork, there's a clear image, and I can see what's on the cover. With Get Disowned, every few times I look at the artwork, I see it differently, and then Bark Your Head Off, Dog is just this incredibly abstract cover that I can't wrap my head around. How did the album art come together? What, if anything, does it represent to you all?

It's funny; it's the simplest artwork of all those three records in that it pretty much stays the same. The cover of Get Disowned is actually a piece of a window book that I was making. I wanted it to be a window book, and then I found out that it would be, like, 30 bucks to make one record. There was no way we could get away with something like that. I remember Mark suggesting, "Why don't you just photograph one of the pieces?" I remember saying, "I worked so hard on this! How could you?" And then that's exactly what I did. [Laughs] I photographed it on top of a manila envelope. [That's why it has that] yellow-y sunset look.

Painted Shut is a collage of several different paintings of fruit that I was doing over one summer. It was very labor intensive. For Bark Your Head Off, Dog, that's just a watercolor that I did. I was sitting on our tour manager's father's patio balcony in the woods. I just did a watercolor over a couple of hours on one of our days off, and all I did was saturate the colors and shift it to make it a little bit warmer. I wanted it to look a little older. I messed with the hue a little bit, but otherwise, it's just a painting. I didn't cut it apart or do anything to it, and it was kind of nice to just let something be essentially as it was.

That's a nice contrast to how you're recording. You've been talking about how the recording process for this album has been a lot of going back, revising, and working collaboratively, taking things apart and rearranging them; with this album artwork, it's just you freely painting something, and you got it right on the first time.

Yeah! When I was painting, I had absolutely no intention of that being the album art. I probably would've recoiled if someone had said, "There's your cover!" I don't think I would've been happy with that at all.

Was there one particular moment during songwriting or recording that you look back on particularly fondly? 

The very first night, I remember we were jamming on the song "One That Suits Me," and I'd been nervous building up to this. Just building up to it, I thought, "Are we ready? Am I ready? Am I gonna fuck this up?" The very first night, we got together and started jamming, and I couldn't believe how right it felt. I don't really like to jam, because I'm not a great guitar player, and I just don't come up with vocals on the spot that way generally...[but] the more we played, it was almost like meditating. I felt at exactly the right place, finally; it had been so long since I felt that way, that I was doing something I was supposed to be, and that was magical for me.

The very last night, it was Joe and I basically getting every last bit recorded that we could, because we were leaving for tour in a couple of days. We were up until 5 a.m. working on different songs...at one point, he was adding mandolin to "Not Abel," and he just looked down at his hands and saw that he was holding a mandolin, and he was just like, "We need to go home." [Laughs] Every record, there's always a night where Joe and I are up all night recording. On Get Disowned, we were playing around with some crappy organ that was sitting around in a warehouse. With Painted Shut, we were more strapped for time, but with Bark Your Head Off, Dog, we found that place again where we were playing and just having a good time with the song, like, "Oh, how would mandolin sound here?"

This is the closest I've ever come to saying what I've meant to, and I think other folks in the band are of that mind as well. I'm very proud of everybody that was a part of it.

www.hopalongtheband.com

 

 

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