At the end of last year after finishing their sold-out performance at Oslo and a sweaty set supporting The Decembrists, John Bell met with Hop Along’s frontwoman and founder Frances Quinlan to chat about lyrics, wisdom, familial love and short-term joys.
2018 was arguably the most important year yet for Philadelphia band Hop Along, with their third full-length record Bark Your Head Off, Dog bringing the friendly four-piece a justified weight of acclaim. This year already hints to be bigger, with a performance on CBS This Morning and the announcement of a double-weekend billing at Coachella.
At the end of last year after finishing their sold-out performance at Oslo and a sweaty set supporting The Decembrists, John Bell met with Hop Along’s frontwoman and founder Frances Quinlan. Much like her songwriting, Quinlan’s conversational style was strikingly articulate, warm, humbling (if not self-deprecating) and meandered and flowed in a characteristic stream of consciousness.
On Bark Your Head Off, Dog’s opener ‘How Simple’, the lyrics seem to relate to personal life – looking at yourself in the mirror and feeling a bit older and learning about your own heart. But it also neatly related to the perception of Hop Along for those who have just caught you. The record has definitely enjoyed wide acclaim, so I was interested to know if it feels like there’s been a change for and within the band?
It’s difficult. I’ve been thinking about this, that just as a person and also at my age, change is frustrating. If you think of a film and there’s a montage that shows personal growth, that’s a widely used trope right? Improving and growing and evolving. But the problem with that is that in reality change happens so gradually that I certainly didn’t realise it until one day you just notice “oh we don’t really do that anymore,” or “oh, now we have to deal with this instead,” you know? In every aspect of life, that includes the band and our reception. In a lot of ways I do think that we are fortunate that it’s been a slow burn. Mark and I have been playing together for ten years, and I don’t think many people would consider ten years a blip, especially in music. Some people might feel like we’ve come out of nowhere but it doesn’t feel that way to us.
What do you mean by the steady pace as a blessing?
Well, we have the blessing of experience. We’ve experienced sleeping on floors covered in cat hair and human material. At the same as I say that, we’ve had the experience of people being kind to us and letting us sleep on their floor and just the immense generosity that’s been shown to us and the band over the years. We would put a note out on the merch table and someone would say “yeah, come stay with us”, and that is incredible.
I suppose there are two levels to it: you love it enough that you want it to become your career, but at the same time on a day-to-day basis there are so many short-term joys from it, meeting new people and new bands and creating art.
There’s plenty to take for granted, plenty. I’m sure that goes with lots of passions that people follow as careers. When a passion becomes a career it can’t help but change, and there is a compromise. It’s one thing when you have a job and when its five o’clock or so put away and go and live your life, because you have a job to facilitate your life. It’s a little different if it means so much to you, it doesn’t really ever turn off. I don’t go home and say “OK I’m going to live my life now”. It sounds a little bit melodramatic, and certainly I’m not trying to minimise the work other people do, but I think there is a level of compromise when you say “I love this so much I want to do it all the time, I guess I should make a living off of it,” and then when you go down that road, you have to make compromises.
“you don’t realise, a lot of the time, That the last moment you have with someone is the last moment – in a relationship, lets say, you don’t realise that your last night together is your last night together.“
The song also contains a kind of wisdom; it sounds like you’re calming someone down, maybe yourself, about the uncertainty of life.
Well I like that! I was really nervous that this album was going to sound bitter to people. I mean there is bitterness in it, but I think all emotions should be explored and be seen for what they are. See bitterness for what it is, which is poison really, but still observe it. There’s a lot of observing of uncomfortable emotions.
So where does the bitterness come from?
Well I think the bitterness in that this will all end. I was watching a movie and they were talking about how you don’t realise a lot of the time that the last moment you have with someone is the last moment – in a relationship, lets say, you don’t realise your last night together is your last night together. I think maybe this song observes that moment of realisation.
“ I really have difficulty writing positive love songs…“
You’ve said before that you’ve never been good at writing about relationships in the normal sense…
In the romantic sense, yeah I really have a difficulty writing positive love songs, not because I don’t believe in it, it just doesn’t feel genuine. I find usually when I am trying to write a particular kind of song it really fights with me. I just have to work with what’s true. Again, not to say grand or romantic love isn’t true, but so many people have just done it so well, you don’t want to do a lesser version of that.
When I mentioned wisdom, I didn’t mean a kind of smug wisdom, because later on, for example in ‘What The Writer Meant’, the speaker is seemingly dependent on this character Elizabeth for answers in a childlike way. What do you think you’ve learnt in life that has imparted itself on this record since Painted Shut? It certainly feels like you’ve learned something.
I hope so, because my greatest fear would be that I have learned nothing. You can never be sure, right? We all regress, I think we all have moments where we fall back. We have a setback and then there’s that worry, “oh, am I the same?” I have kept journals for years, and there are old journals I’ve gone back to and thought “I still have those anxieties, that’s troubling I should have overcome that by now”.
Sorry if I’m going off topic but I’ve just had this thought. I am really trying to open myself up to the idea of what love is. I think that word has been branded very heavily, and I’m trying to escape that, and think “what is love?” The more I learn about love, love is a pain in the ass. It’s very complicated, it’s demanding. Especially familial love. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to stop writing about the family, it’s an inexhaustible outlet.
“The more I learn about love, love is a pain in the ass. It’s very complicated, it’s demanding.“
Well that’s interesting, given your drummer is your brother. Are there ever points where that challenges that dynamic?
I would say I’ve learnt more from my brother than I have from most people in my life. It’s a challenge to work with anyone in your family as I’m sure many people would attest. But he has brought me out of certain patterns in ways that I don’t know another person could. When we first started playing together he would make us practice and I hate practicing, I can’t stand it. But now when we play I think “thank god he made us practice!” I’m better for it. I think there was a time when I would make declarations about how I wanted to be known, but there’s a real pain to being known. And at the age I am now there’s a certain sense of feeling trapped by the feeling known.
There’s this line that I used in one of the songs about the humiliation of being understood; humiliation really interests me and it’s something I wanted to explore a lot more, because it’s a teacher. Humiliation is a great teacher. There’s an amazing Bill Callahan line he used in his project Smog: “humiliation is good, it means you believe in something”.
What meanings did your line about humiliation take on then?
I really do hope whatever I have to say people will still listen to the songs and enjoy them in whichever way. Whatever I have to say, it might not even be correct, really. I mean a song, once its out, should belong to everyone to use in whichever way they see fit. In one song it’s a little more two-dimensional and the characters are a little more cartoonish. I think when you speak about a figure negatively in any case they have to be in caricature, because people are so complicated. Now there are people who run our country who make caricatures of themselves, but that’s a whole other thing.
I’m aware of the irony of asking what the writer meant with ‘What The Writer Meant’, but it’s my favourite track on the album, and there’s this hook ‘God is the one’ which is so engaging but also have no idea what you meant. I’m not asking you to spell the song out but maybe you could tell me where you were coming from with that track.
That song references a book that the person I’m referring to as Elizabeth–that’s a recurrent character by the way–someone I deeply care about, and this person over the years has given books as gifts to me. One of them was Time For Everything by Karl Ove Knausgard, a Norwegian author. It has to do with the idea that angels are real and they fell to earth and that we believe that men became wicked over the years more and more so and had to be punished by god, but the author of this book suggests that God’s opinion on man changed over time and that change was the real cause for these bouts of wrath. And this person and I had one of those really good night time conversations where we hashed it out for a while and I really valued that, so the song came out of that.
It seems like there’s a patchwork of references throughout the record. What strikes you as good material for songwriting?
I don’t think “this would be good for a song”, but more like “wow, that’s powerful”. I don’t really write songs too immediately after a happening, something has to sit there for a while. I mean I read Watership Down when I was in sixth grade, but I found a copy in the street a couple of years ago and read through some passages and thought, “god, it’s good for any age”. I could re-read this book and it wouldn’t feel childish; I can’t believe it’s a book for kids in some ways. They should read it though. There’s death everywhere, kids should know, why would we hide death from children? And my niece! OK, so my brother Mark had his daughter about a year and a half ago and her two favourite movies are Coco and Moana. She loves Coco, and it’s gutting; not only does it deal with death, but it deals with the fact that we forget the dead and what happens to them. It’s dark. That movie’s dark.
You’ve half joked in other interviews that no one’s really interested in the music of a 30-something year old; what did you mean by that?
I guess what I mean to say is that: insane stuff is happening around the world all the time. I’m not somebody who’s a journalist, or in any field that puts me in the centre of human struggle. I live in a city in America, and there’s certainly poverty and struggle in Philadelphia, but I’m outside of that experience. So I’m just trying to observe that, I guess; it’s not to say that my ideas don’t matter, but there’s just so much going on, you know?
Your songs have always expressed deep emotion with poeticism and a sense of mystery. But you’ve always said with Get Disowned and Painted Shut that, to some extent, you’ve never felt properly equipped to really express what’s going on inside. Do you feel like that’s gotten better with this record? It definitely feels a lot more direct and piercing in its own way.
Thank you for saying that. I think again there’s that gift of experience. We’ve only been the formation that we’ve been from Painted Shut onwards. I mean Joe [Reinhart, guitarist] was of course heavily involved on Get Disowned as the co-producer/engingeer/mixer, but he wasn’t in the band yet. And then he joined and all these things happened at once: we got a record label, we were a four piece and then had a producer that we didn’t really know very well (who ended up being absolutely lovely, John Agnello is just a wonderful human being and great producer).
But all of these self-imposed pressures made us feel a bit more serious about it, and we made a document of the band we were. I’m very proud of that record and it is very much a document of us live, but we all agreed with this new album that it should be its own thing. Bark Your Head Off is covered in strings and the vocals are all over the place but we just had fun with it. We wanted to have time to use Joe’s studio for all of its wonderful tools and qualities.
“I’m a huge fan of bands like Electric Light Orchestra, The Beatles, even Bright Eyes, who use that orchestral element so well.”
In which part of the process did the strings come in?
Early on we were talking about it. I’m a huge fan of bands like Electric Light Orchestra, The Beatles, even Bright Eyes, who use that orchestral element so well. We just wanted to leave room for experimenting. Our friend Eric plays drums for Doctor Dog and few records ago they worked with this woman Sarah Larsen and she is phenomenal. I met up with her and we talked through ideas, and then she arranged the strings with her friend Rachel, who played the cello too. Of course later I realised there’s this language regarding strings that I don’t have, but should probably develop if I’m going to pursue more of that.
So Saddle Creek welcomed the idea?
Oh god, yeah. I mean I sent them a demo when I was 18; I wanted to be on that label for years, and they are certainly a label from my experience that embraces the artist making the creative decisions, and that’s just the way it should be.
I’ve always found with Hop Along that on the face of it, especially on the new album, your songs are quite accessible and engaging to hear, but if you listen, the melodies meander a lot and they’re quite difficult to map out and predict where they’re going to go next, you know what I mean? It adds to the sense of a ‘grower’ that your albums have, and I think there’s real merit in that.
Sure, well even by very fact that we’re not a huge band, I know we’re not for everybody. I’m very conscious of the fact that I do not have a voice that everybody’s going to love.
But that’s not what I meant…
Oh I know, don’t worry, but like, I’ve had people say to me ‘can’t you just sing a little straighter or normally?’ Because I can sing normally, but… OK, so one of my favourite bands of all time is Neutral Milk Hotel and I remember I was 18 and I put In the Airplane Over the Sea on in the car, and that Jesus Christ song came on, and my friend who I really respected, this painter who I thought was so brilliant and talent, I was playing it for him, this music that I found so gut-wrenching and beautiful. It was one of greatest things I thought I ever had ever heard. And he was listening and then said ‘what is this god-awful music’, and it just tore my heart out! So what I mean to say is, I don’t want to sound like I don’t hear you. It’s not pop. I think it’s a mistake to please other people because first of all your perception of what other people are going to like is faulty. I think I heard from somewhere that Bjork said she’s always striving to write the perfect pop song, but you wouldn’t think that about her, do any of her songs sound like pop songs? I don’t think most people go in thinking ‘let’s write a hit’. I certainly think there are artists and big machines behind those hits, but when there’s just four of you, you have your own sensibilities and what you four can agree on works. We have to play these songs every night, so we better write something that we feel will be fun to play. I really meandered a lot there, too, sorry.
Bark Your Head Off, Dog is out now, via Saddle Creek.