Foxing should have been riding high come last Thanksgiving. The five-piece from St. Louis, Missouri—frontman Conor Murphy, bassist/vocalist Josh Coll, guitarists Ricky Sampson and Eric Hudson and drummer Jon Hellwig—was a month removed from a tour with Brand New, currently between legs of supporting Modern Baseball’s fall headliner, and doing West Coast dates with the similarly post-rock-influenced Gates. But even with the short holiday break looming the next day, at least one of the band’s members had internal strife coming to a head.
“I was crumbling from the inside out,” Coll admits from his lodging in Norwich, England, during a second conversation with Substream. (The first was a few days earlier at a youth hostel in Berlin, Germany, a Skype phone call fraught with disconnections from the shaky Wi-Fi and constantly slamming doors in the background.) It’s late August and the band is supporting Tigers Jaw in Europe. “I hit a point where we got to Los Angeles, I got out of the van and just started walking. For four hours. I didn’t even help load in. I just woke up that day and didn’t want to be alive. I didn’t know why. It was just a weird thing.”
Coll is vague as to exactly what transpired that day, or what was discussed between him and the band then, but the loneliness and exhaustion of touring six-and-a-half months out of that year had clearly hit home. “I got to a point where I was not communicating properly to the band and allowed myself to get stressed out,” he says. “I deal with depression as it is. I hit a really, really low point and they were frustrated. I think the others had been going through that, maybe a bit more silently and at different times, but I think it was happening to all of us and we were very unhappy. We weren’t talking. Once we [did], it was really dark. It was very humbling, and there was a lot of vulnerability between the five of us and a lot of anger we weren’t really dealing with, and a lot of that started pouring out.”
The band was also “dreading” the upcoming month they’d booked at a cabin just outside Stowe, Vermont, that following February to write Dealer after struggling with writer’s block as long as their first album, 2013’s The Albatross, had been out. “We were very nervous,” he admits, “because we were going into this place isolated for a month and we’re gonna fucking kill each other after going through all this stuff. We really didn’t feel good about the place that we were in, and we hit that low point in California, and it was really low. But from there we started building up.”
By the time they traveled northeast to Vermont for that cabin stay, they were in a better place, and the resulting month was productive despite circumstances: They never saw the snow-covered ground outside, and save one Ben & Jerry’s factory tour, only left the cabin for weekly grocery store trips to Sam’s Club, which took two-and-a-half hours each way.
“We didn’t really have downtime,” Murphy recalls. “We spent most of our waking hours writing. We were also super-focused and had a vision for what we wanted the record to be, and we were all determined to make the best of our time there.”
“It felt like there were stakes involved,” Coll adds. “Our label [Triple Crown Records] helped facilitate us being at that cabin, [so] we didn’t want to let them down in that regard. We wanted to have something to show for it.”
There the band managed to finally work out the songs that would ultimately be tracked with producer Matt Bayles and become their second album, Dealer, which blends delicately woven, atmospheric sounds into moody chamber-rock pieces with Sigur Rós-like craftsmanship, maintaining a bravely balladic pacing with careful restraint and minor emotional detonations. Gently integrated programming influenced by ’80s John Carpenter soundtracks provide synthesized orchestral moments, and Murphy’s vocal range is better than ever. Opener “Weave” is instantly gratifying, with an Appleseed Cast-esque midsection and a beautiful falsetto climax, offset ambitiously by the dark tension that immediately follows on “The Magdalene.” “Indica” musically nods to Brand New’s “Jesus” while hinting at possible episodic trauma, and though few bands yearn better, “Redwoods” is an especially strong display of how affecting their quiet, vulnerable desperation can be
Murphy and Coll shared lyric-writing duties as they’d done in the past, and both approached their craft with more confidence and openness than ever. “I was a lot more comfortable writing with not just Josh, but everybody in the band, to the point where I was able to talk to them about things I’ve never been able to talk about,” Murphy says. “Things that were extremely personal and fucked up for me. I think the same can be said for Josh with different situations, but this is the first time we’ve ever felt like we could write completely honestly, and we felt like we needed to. Both of us identified the darkest parts of our lives, the darkest stories from our lives, and we tried to focus on those things as, ‘Well, this is a confession.’ The whole album is kind of a confession.”
Murphy is a little more reticent in conversation with Substream to confess just what those “personal and fucked up” things are, but subtly points to Dealer as himself exposing it in his own way. “A lot of what I was writing [about deals with] sex, sexuality and religion,” he describes. “A lot of Catholic guilt kind of stuff. It’s certain situations that are really, really dark for me. I’ve been trying to figure out how to talk about that publicly in some way, but at the time, I just don’t know how I could, because it took me so long just to talk to the guys in my band about it.”
“When people talk about how honest and clear they feel The Albatross is,” Coll elaborates, drawing contrast, “I feel like a lot of Conor’s songs are that way. Conor at the time was really honed in, writing more of the accessible things and I was writing maybe a little more vague and poetic. [This time] I just really, really felt like I needed to own it. Be more forthcoming or forthright, and more open, and really own [my] voice. Be willing to put it down on paper. It doesn’t mean you have to reveal every aspect of yourself to people. You don’t owe the audience your entire self, and I think there are parts you still need for yourself, but how can it fit within these songs if I’m not willing to actually address those issues?” It’s nearly 1 a.m. local time in Norwich, often when people reach nocturnal vulnerability, but Coll manages to conclude with a restrained, reasoned stance on such a state. “For me it was about knowing when it’s okay to reveal parts of yourself to this thing.” S
A version of this piece was published in Substream #48.