When I was a freshman in high school, I was completely enamored by the theatricality and storytelling of bands like Panic! At The Disco, My Chemical Romance, and The Dresden Dolls. This holy trinity of freak-punk existed at the intersection of camp and cynicism; the sting of every dark, unforgiving lyric was often alleviated by snide delivery or a thinly veiled punchline. They made sure to employ the art of songwriting in a way that allowed them to create worlds that were larger, and often more inviting, than life. It’s been almost fifteen years (yikes) since I’ve actually heard a record that kept me just as engaged with the characters and the story that was unfolding in front of me as it does with the music itself, but that’s all about to change thanks to Sarah and the Safe Word.
Let’s get the formalities out of the way. Sarah and the Safe Word have signed to, what should be everyone’s favorite label, Take This To Heart Records and will release their incredible new album Red Hot and Holy on May 24th. Now, this record is exactly the kind of world-bending album that made getting through being a teenager possible for me. There’s glamor and gore, camp and cynicism, and macabre stories with sweeping highs and lows that match the flux of life in a way that reality just can’t. My first listen through Red Hot and Holy immediately brought me back to the cafeteria at Cairo-Durham Jr/Sr High School. I’m seated at a long table at the front of the cafeteria with a group of kids that would be referred to as the Vending Machiners because, well, we sat by the vending machines. It was the weird kids in trip pants and Jack Skellington hoodies with pink hair, swoop bangs, snake bites, and wrist bands. It was a family of misfits, but those misfits got each other through the daily melodrama relatively scot-free.
I’m so excited to be able to share the music video for the album’s lead single, “Formula 666,” with y’all today. This is the perfect selling point for what you can expect from Sarah and the Safe Word on Red Hot and Holy. There are huge pop hooks and verses that add depth to the story at large, weird bits of speak-sing interludes, and a video that marries the worlds of camp and punk rock effortlessly. Once more, the album will be available on May 24th via Take This To Heart Records. The music video for “Formula 666” and a brief interview with the band can be found below.
First, I want to thank y’all for sitting down to talk about the new record/single with me! Congrats on signing with Take This To Heart! I’m a huge fan of what y’all are doing and I’m so excited for such a breath of fresh air, for both the label and the scene at large.
Let’s talk about the theatricality of this record. I’ve heard my fair share of rock Opera and concept album, but never anything that feels as effortlessly conversational and other-worldly as Red Hot and Holy does. What’s the songwriting process like for an album where everything feels so connected to each other?
Kienan (guitar): It’s so funny you say that because this record actually started as a collection of separate singles, i.e. the first 8 songs on the record were written and recorded with the intention of being released individually. Once we decided to make it a record we were able to make it cohesive, but it was really freeing to begin in that spot where each song could stand on its own. Sometimes we would begin with the idea of what type of song we wanted—for instance, we wrote “Dead Girls” because we specifically wanted a pirate adventure song—and other times we would begin with a fragment of a musical or conceptual idea, I would make a rough demo, and then the rest of the band would take that fragment and expand it into a full song.
Maddox (bass): We never intended for this record to be—well—a record. It was sort of brought together as a platter of all of the sorts of things we liked to do. We lovingly called this group of songs our “buffet” of sorts. We had fun with it and wanted each song to stand alone and stand out as singles. Some songs were written in the same little writing getaway, but most were genuinely done independent of what the next one would grow to be. The fact that they all fit together I think comes from how we set out to do a record full of everything we wanted to do and we managed to put our twist, our humour, and our quirks into each one which ended up making it cohesive.
Beth (keys): While we intended them originally to all be singles, all of our songs tend to bring the same message to the table–which is to not be afraid to be yourself. We try to fully embrace our weird selves on every track, whether through telling a story about a demon drag racer (“Formula 666”) or promoting a healthy perspective on intimacy and relationships (as in “Red Hot & Holy”. We all feel very strongly about that message and it inevitably comes through in all of our songs. As Maddox pointed out, our humour, quirks, and our strong belief in supporting others to unapologetically be who they are is what makes this record cohesive.
Sarah (vocals): I’ve always loved albums that feel like a storybook – and we tried hard to make the experience of listening through Red Hot and Holy feel like journey through a different world in each song. When we were making this album, the “real world” felt really dark and bleak – and I think all six of us were committed to creating something fantastical and ethereal that a listener could escape to.
Is there a ton of character work that goes into something like Red Hot and Holy? Everything feels so real and full of life that just hearing it is as powerful as watching it unfold in front of you — especially on tracks like the one we’re debuting today, “Formula 666.”
Maddox: To me it’s a really natural thing that we build as the song progresses. It’s not so much something we set out to do on purpose but just us riffing off of each other and having fun in the studio, practice, or wherever we’re writing. We’re all insanely creative and love to just play around and make up insane stories and scenarios to entertain ourselves. It definitely seeps into the music a lot when there are songs like “Formula 666”. But also Kienan is an incredibly talented songwriter and nothing in these songs could progress to their final form without the intricate foundation he always lays.
Kienan: Thank you! We tend to think of our songs as cinematic, and we frequently visualize the characters or stories as we’re writing and recording. We’re definitely the kind of band where if we announced that we wrote a full stage musical, our fans and peers would be like, ‘…OK yeah that tracks.’
Beth: Sarah and Kienan are both such natural storytellers and once they have an idea for a theme they want to tackle the story comes together pretty quickly. Kienan and Sarah usually lay down a foundation for the songs, and “Formula 666” was no different. In fact, if I remember correctly Kienan came up with the original riff, sent it to Sarah who said, “It reminds me of drag racing!” and off they went. They’re both incredibly talented songwriters and not only is it really entertaining to watch them bat an idea back and forth until it solidifies, we as a band have a great time coming into the songwriting process to write the parts for our instruments and add a bit of ourselves to the song.
Sarah: It’s weird how the process of writing certain songs will bring ideas and characters to life for me sometimes. When we first started working on “Formula 666” and I heard the riff that Kienan was playing, the only thing I could think of was demonic 50s drag racing. Not sure why. From there, the image in my head of a racer who sold her soul to the devil to save her girlfriend just seemed like the kind of grindhouse movie plot that deserved a rock song. I actually got down to giving the characters names and backstories, which happens a lot when I write lyrics. Fun fact: there’s definitely hints in all of our records that everything is happening in the same storytelling universe.
The track is dark, but in a playful way. It walks the fine line between horror and camp so well that it feels impossible to separate them. Would you say that’s a fair indication of what readers should expect from the album as a whole?
Kienan: Absolutely. I would hope nobody tries to separate them, because without humour to balance out the dark themes it would be easy to get lost in the sadness or anger that we explore in some of our songs. Horror is one of my favourite movie genres, but it can become pretty one-note if the director or writer aren’t trying to say something about the human condition or explore anything deeper than fear.
Maddox: The album can definitely go dark but also follows a broad spectrum. We like to keep things goofy in tracks like “Sneaky Boy” and then go into a good mixture of the two as you’ll hear in “Lit Cigarette”. It’s a very cathartic album as far as storytelling goes. I say definitely expect the album to mix a lot of different things that you wouldn’t quite expect to go together. We’ve got everything from Pirates to tangos to, as you’ll hear in 666, drag racing demons.
Beth: I would say “dark but playful” is actually a pretty good description for our band and who we are as people, and it absolutely applies to the album. Especially in the political atmosphere we’re currently experiencing in the U.S., it’s important to be able to laugh at yourself and laugh at the ridiculous horror situations unfolding. We want our audience members to know that our music and our shows are a safe space to be themselves, and that we will get through the horrors around us together. We hope this album offers an eclectic collection of music in which diverse communities can find hope, love, and a little bit of spookiness.
Sarah: There’s always an undercurrent in our songwriting of finding the humor in things—I think that comes through especially on tracks like “Formula 666” or “Sneaky Boy”. In between all of that, though, there are definitely some pretty heavy, personal subjects that we tackle on the record. We make no apologies for being a band that has a fascination with dark subject matter and imagery—but we’ll always be the first people willing to laugh at ourselves in the process.
Thanks to Sarah and the Safe Word for sitting down with us today to talk about their new album Red Hot and Holy, which is now available for pre-order, and allowing me to share the music video for “Formula 666” with y’all today.