Brian Sella is not an easy man to nail down. When Substream catches up with the Front Bottoms frontman, Sella and his bandmates (drummer Mat Uychich, bassist Tom Warren and keyboardist/guitarist/trumpet player Ciaran O’Donnell) are two weeks into a headlining North American tour that’s already taken them through New York, Connecticut, Vermont and Canada. And while the entire band no doubt already has plenty of touring tales, Warren might have the best story to tell thus far.
“We had to leave our bass player at the border,” Sella says during a phone call before the band’s Richmond, Virginia, show. “He got in trouble four years ago. We’ve been to Canada a bunch of times since then, but this time going in it was just the wrong [border guard] that we got. He was like, ‘You can’t come into Canada.’ It was pretty intense. [Warren] was like, ‘Let me go get my backpack,’ and the guy was like, ‘No, no, no. Your backpack is in Canada, and you’re not allowed into Canada.’ We had to walk to the bus and get his backpack for him. We gave him $200 and were like, ‘All right, man, we’ll see you in Rochester.’ So he had a three-day adventure. It was pretty wild.”
This past year has been a pretty wild one for the Front Bottoms. After releasing two well-received albums on indie label Bar/None, the New Jersey band made the jump to Fueled By Ramen for their newest record, Back On Top. Although the album title is a bit tongue in cheek, the band’s rise has been anything but a joke. Since forming in 2007 they’ve gone from playing basement shows to selling out 2,000-capacity venues. Their devoted fanbase, now known as the Motorcycle Club, continues to grow thanks to their communal live shows which are full of raucous sing-alongs and easygoing banter between Sella and the audience.
The main draw of the Front Bottoms is of course the music, which has always walked the line between funny and serious. While Back On Top follows this formula, it also veers from the path at times. Sella’s lyrics are still as sharp and relatable as ever, but he’s wading through different waters than he was when he and Uychich started the band. Sure, there are still songs about getting high (“Historic Cemetery”) and all-night parties (“Laugh Till I Cry”), but there are also songs about dealing with their growing success and the demands and personal tolls that come with it. After eight years of steadily growing popularity, the Front Bottoms are learning what it means not just to be a band but to be a popular band. Sella still remembers when that reality hit him.
“We had been on tour for probably five years straight, and we had just gotten home. I was sort of making the decision of, ‘This is gonna be my life. I’m gonna write another album right now, and then we’re gonna go back on tour for probably another fucking two to three years,’” he recalls. “I never really thought that this could be anything more than me and Mat playing in basements and people being excited. It was dealing with the decision that this is going to be my life and how do I feel about that.
“Of course the biggest thing is the relationships that I have and trying to balance this one life of me being on the road and being away and partying every night and then this other life—which really does feel like a completely different life—of being home and hanging out with the people I love and being able to relax and not drink a million beers every single night. It’s a little scary to think, ‘This is gonna be my life.’ That is the most insane goddamn thing ever,” he says with a laugh. “It’s so awesome, but it’s just a trip. It’s sort of unbelievable.”
If Back On Top is any indication, then the Front Bottoms are handling this unbelievable trip quite well. Fans who were worried the band’s sound would change as a result of jumping to bigger waters no doubt breathed a sigh of relief as soon as they heard the album’s opener, “Motorcycle.” Back On Top is very much a Front Bottoms album. Nostalgic numbers about former lovers and easier days (“Cough It Out,” this album’s version of “Twin Size Mattress”)? Check. Lyrics about being out of your element, paired with bouncy choruses just aching to be sung by a crowd of sweaty concertgoers (“HELP”)? Check. Like its predecessors, Back On Top is the perfect merger of opposing forces: humor and somberness; criticism (outward) and criticism (inward), slow and heavy and fast and light. It’s an album that makes you want to dance, but it also makes you want to stop mid-dance and say, “Wait a minute. These songs are kind of sad.” Sella laughs at the description.
“That is my style!” he says. “When we play live, I’ve noticed going into the chorus, people start to get hyped on that and push each other around and yell that part. And then the chorus comes, and everything sort of drops out and it goes back to being a slow song again. So it’s kind of a cool, tricky thing, like a balance of the audience. Everybody’s gotta be on the same page. As it goes, it sort of becomes what it is.”
The most noticeable change on Back On Top is the production. It’s a much more polished affair this time around. Some songs even seem to bleed into each other. That could be seen as a negative on other albums, but in this case, it makes for a much more cohesive end product. All of this is in large part due to the album’s producer, Joe Chiccarelli (the White Stripes, the Killers). The band spent a month in LA recording with Chiccarelli. The benefits of this working relationship extend far beyond the album, though.
“I basically learned how to make an album like a professional musician on a major label,” Sella admits. “In the past, I play the guitar part, I look at Mat and Ciaran and Tom and they’re like, ‘That was great!’ Then we moved on. That’s always how it’s been, whether it was sloppy or not. So now to have an older person—a lot of times I felt like my dad was in the room with us—say, ‘No, you could do that again.’ I realized very quickly this is part of the experience; this is part of the process. He wants the best performance. It was good because it pushed me. He started off as a stranger, and by the end of it he became a friend and somebody I look up to.”
The band wrote the entire album before recording began, but one song did go through a substantial change in the studio. Front Bottoms fans first heard the name GDP when the New Jersey rapper released a split for this year’s Record Store Day with the band. While in the studio, someone suggested asking GDP to contribute vocals to “Historic Cemetery.” The result is a low, throaty poem-like ending to a song that was already really good but has been elevated to something else.
“When we play ‘Historic Cemetery,’ he’ll come out, and he’ll do his last verse. Sometimes I look out into the audience and people have these blank stares on their faces, and sometimes people are super into it,” Sella says. “And it also gives me a chance to finish a beer.”
The Front Bottoms do indeed love their beer, as illustrated in their video tour diaries… and live shows… and Instagram posts.
“Oh god, it’s so embarrassing. I always forget my mom will show my grandma this,” Sella says of the videos documenting the band’s ongoing headlining tour. “Maybe one day I’ll grow up.” S
A version of this piece was published in Substream #49.