Armor For Sleep's 'What To Do When You Are Dead' Ten Year Retrospective
We talked to Ben Jorgensen what it was like to be at the center of the scene in 2005.
This article is part of 2005 Week on Noisey, where we revist all the best and worst pop culture relics from a decade ago.
When we talk about 2005, we have to talk about "the scene." Major record labels realized that kids across the world were actively getting into a changing pop-punk landscape that started getting kids into emo. In this huge onslaught of new bands that quickly dissipated, not many had an effect like Armor For Sleep did in the span of three records. Their second record, What To Do When You Are Dead most actively captured the attention of new fans, combining moody but vibrant pop-punk with poignant concept writing.
What To Do When You Are Dead encapsulated everything about being a bummed out kid in the mid 2000's so succinctly. Few records carried such a narrative element in both a lyrical aspect and in its musicality. The quiet prologue of "One Last Regret" sets off the moody feeling of the record, setting the stage for the first track "Car Underwater." The record takes the cliche of dying for someone, and putting it into motion with a record about somebody who actually goes for it. We follow the protagonist realizing the mistake and regrets, pleading to some outside force to come back to see his lover. It's rife to interpretation; some even projecting the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief. Beyond its lyrical content, it introduced atmospherics and a wide array of different elements in a scene where everything seemed stale. If there is any record to define pop-punk and the scene at that time, it's this album.
This fall, the band will be embarking on a ten year anniversary tour in support of the album, their first in three years. It will be an emotional, intense but fun experience and you should attend.
We talked to singer and songwriter Ben Jorgensen about everything.
NOISEY: What was your first band?
Ben Jorgensen: My first band was a band called Random Task that I played drums in in high school. I was in sixth grade and I wanted to be in a band so it was called Random Task. To make a long story short we played through high school, and I wanted to have a CD done before our senior year was over, but we weren’t getting the songs done in time. So even though I was the drummer I started picking up the guitar they would leave in my basement and wrote most of the songs for the album that we did. But anyway, this band Random Task, we started as basically a really bad Propagandhi rip off band and we just played in New Jersey for many years.
When Armor For Sleep got going, did you realize you were going to be in that scene that sort of developed?
No. It’s weird because I don’t know if we ever fit into that scene, I feel like we were always a weird fit. I feel like still to this day people are like I guess people can categorize us as another emo band that fit in there but we didn’t really fit as neatly as those other bands. But yeah, I guess from the beginning we knew we were going to be associated with those other bands, I don’t think we had any illusions that we were going to suddenly be considered outside of that whole thing. But we had weird fans. They weren’t like Fall Out Boy fans at our shows, they weren’t Taking Back Sunday fans. It was always different kids that didn’t really go to the other scene shows. We were a scene band, but it was always kind of strange.
What do you think you were like back then?
I was way more antisocial and less self assured than I am now. And I think that definitely contributed to why I wanted to get– I had something in me that really wanted to communicate with people because I just didn’t communicate with people as much as I wanted to. But interestingly enough through all my experiences in the band which came from those songs I wrote I became a more social person and a more self assured person. In a way that kind of was an antidote for something I was missing.
So let's talk about What Do Do When You Are Dead. When did you first think about writing concept albums?
One of my favorite albums of all time was OK Computer by Radiohead, and I guess it’s a concept album but it’s not really a story from front to back, it’s just a very cohesive thing and I’ve always loved that. Honestly, the first couple songs I wrote for What To Do When You Are Dead had that theme of me being dead because it was a very weird time for me in my life. Because both of those songs, the lyrics were about a similar thing and then I started thinking more that it would be cool to string this idea together and just develop it from there.
Was it directed at a situation or a person?
There was a bunch of stuff going on. For me, our first album came out. We had a lot of people who were excited about it, excited about us and it was a big life change for us to be four kind of kids from Jersey who played music a lot to being on tour all the time. And then we felt like nobody really liked the album when it came out and then we were on tou,r and we were still on these really small weird tours. I think I was in a pretty messy relationship at the time, just dealing with being on tour for the first time in my life. When I was 20 years old, I felt like it was one of the most depressing times in my life even though it seemed like an exciting time, getting to tour, but I think my life had taken a weird turn. All my friends were in college at the time. I was living in my mom’s attic, and I had put out this album that I didn’t really think anyone liked and I was in a place where I thought I’d found a solution to being happy by living this life and putting out this record and it was actually kind of the opposite. So it was a little bit of a dark time for me. And being around that mental place was the perfect recipe for writing an album about being dead.
How did the writing of the lyrics go?
There was a point where [the band] didn’t want the concept at all. Where they thought it was a little too out there. I had to convince them that it was going to be really good and I think it took until I showed them the album cover that I had gotten together mid-recording where they were like “okay this makes sense, I can see how this would be a concise thing.” It’s kind of the same way we did it, I would basically write the songs and then at practice and work out the drum parts and the bass parts and fill in the blanks, but I would always go into my little hole and basically do as much as I could to complete the song and bring it to them and then we’d collaborate to finish it off. So the lyrics were written in isolation and maybe I should have asked for help but it was something I wanted to be from me completely.
Did you feel like you were on to something big with it?
I thought we were on to something pretty cool, but I didn’t know it would resonate the way that is has over the years. I don’t think I saw that at all.
I think I told you this, but next week we’re running this for 2005 week. 2005 seemed to be the year where indie broke in the sense of like really became a marketable thing and a commodity. But it also spread to the scene, where labels noticed Taking Back Sunday or Armor For Sleep or The Used and wanted their own band.
Yeah, totally. I remember when we were just starting out we had people from major labels- it sounds like it’s from the 70s or something They were parked in cars across the street from the studio and we would get out when I was 18 years old to drive back to my mom's house, and these dudes from labels would literally walk out of their cars like “hey I’m so-and-so from Island Records” and I was like “how do you even know we’re a band here?” It was right around 2005 that all these labels were thinking emo was going to be the next grunge. All these dudes, they would go to shows like “Emanuel is going to be the next Nirvana” “Recover is going to be the next Nirvana.” I guess it kind of happened a little later with My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy. I think Fall Out Boy kind of transcended because they’re kind of a pop band, but I think all these people thought the scene was going to be the next big thing in music and it never really became that in the major pop radio sense of the word.
Did writing the record help you deal with the things you were going through?
Not really. I feel like it’s such a reflection of who I was at the time. Just like the first album once I was done I really kind of tried to sweep it under the rug, and like I said it was still weird for me to listen to so I just didn’t really listen to it that much. Once it was recorded I feel like the last thing I wanted to do was keep listening to it again. So I didn’t really listen to it that much.
Were people worried about you when it came out?
Yeah I feel like I had to preemptively talk to my parents like “Hey, I don’t want to get you freaked out but this is the name of our new album, and it’s all a joke guys, don’t worry about it.” So I feel like I went around and made sure everyone closely around me knew I wasn’t in peril. They trusted me.
What do you think you got out of the headspace, the really low points on the record and stuff?
In a weird way there was a low point for that record and there was a low point for the next record and then after that record came out and then when the band was done so [laughs] so it kept being low for a few years. I don’t know, maybe I truly got happy a few years ago. As cheesy as it sounds, I think maybe it was when I got together with Katrina who is now my wife and found happiness in a very real spot in my life where it wasn’t revolved around what other people think of me at all, it was just around something really real and I think that’s when I truly became happy.
What was the shittiest part about that time?
You know, I don’t know. I think there are goods and bads with everything. I don’t know if this is a shitty thing, but sometimes with CDs and whatever it takes people a little bit for people to be aware of it, and I guess at that time I maybe wished people could have been aware of it right when it came out. But of course there’s a few years lag that happens, and that’s fine. I understand that’s how things work.
I went to the American Football reunions last year and the band only played like ten shows in their existence and they come back and sell out the biggest venue in the city almost. It’s interesting how it takes a while for music to catch on.
Totally, yeah. I mean, we did pretty well when we were a band around that time, but people are quick to write off bands and people love going on forums and ripping bands apart. I feel like that happens a lot more when bands are active, and then when they’re gone it’s like “That was the best band ever!” I don’t think that’s unique to us, but it’s definitely funny to see all the love for you once you’ve gone away.
What did you want out of the band aesthetically? What did you want to present?
I always wanted to present something cool and I was able to do that in the beginning. As time went on and we signed to a major label for instance for the last record, I was pretty convinced by the label that the more easily digestible message is usually best They’re very good at watering down your content and your message so after it goes through that kind of major label filter, what comes out is the McDonalds version of Armor for Sleep. That was never my intention from the beginning but at the same time that was the road we decided to go down. I don’t regret it, but that’s what happened.
I always thought that was kind of a myth. The major label putting their fingers in everything, but I got the feeling that they really tried to sculpt the band in a weird way.
I think that’s just the nature of any business that you try to bring to a level where you try to get more people in. You just lose obscurity. You try and make it the most accessible to the most amount of people and that’s always a more simplified message. Unless you’re a band that already sold a million records where they were just like do whatever the fuck you want, but we weren’t in that position. We were too small of a band to really have the power to be like “no we want to make the most interesting thing possible” because they would have been like “well you’re not going to release music for the next 20 years” which is what happens a lot.
What do you think would happen if Armor for Sleep never broke up?
If we had never broken up it would have been tough for us because Warner Brothers, I don’t think would have been stoked on us doing another record.
When your own label is like please. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Honestly the tour we just came off of right before we broke up, we were on tour with Linkin Park. It was the biggest rock tour that was going on and I was just kinda like, this is not that interesting to me. You know what it was? It was the rinse and repeat cycle. It was getting on stage, and being like “What’s up we’re-” I felt like such an advertisement of myself and like I said that’s not who I ever was. I just didn’t want to be that person, I didn’t want to be a walking billboard trying to get people to come look at me. I felt like opening up on that tour was the epitome of what our lives would have been like. So, I don’t know. I probably wouldn’t have been too happy if we had to stay a band for longer. I would have rather been a little bit further away from the spotlight
Do you consider yourself a nostalgic person at all?
I really try not to be. I think that I know a lot of people who are very nostalgic and I feel like they live in the past too much. And always I think I’m someone who is always looking forward to the next challenge and what I can do. I look back fondly on things, but I never miss them because that’s just being angry about something. What’s the point? It’s not productive at all to be nostalgic. You can look back fondly and learn from something, but to be nostalgic for me feels like you’re stuck in the past and you’re not happy with where you are now. I’m always trying to look forward.
Do you miss anything about that?
I’m happy with my life now. I think it was really cool, and the stories that I have being around the other bands that had such a big part of that scene, I think it’s awesome I have a lifetime worth of stories being around those other bands that were forming at the time. I’m happy to have been through it, obviously it shaped my entire life and changed the course of my life. But at the same time, do I want to live as that version of myself from 2007 forever? No.
This is John Hill's favorite record, ever. Follow him on Twitter - @JohnXHill