The Front Bottoms: Back on Top, for the First Time
One day in New York with the band, who went from sitting on paint buckets behind the drums to touring in an actual bus.
Photos by Katherine Alex Beaven
It’s a little after 5 PM in New York City and The Front Bottoms’ Brian Sella is sitting upstairs in Irving Plaza. It’s the first of two sold-out shows the band is playing here and, if the line of waiting fans that has stretched around the corner for the last hour is any indicator, things are about to get crazy. Later, during the show, the inside of the venue will be heaving, full of sweaty bodies desperate to get closer to the stage and have their voices heard by the New Jersey band.
“You know,” says Sella, “you go from touring in a car to a van, and then a van with a trailer. But this is going to be different. When we would go on tour, we’d go on tour for what would feel like years. And it was a grind. You didn’t have a place to sleep. You were waking up and 7 o’clock in the morning so you could go make the show 12 hours away. It was a total fucking hustle. And I’m not proud to say this, but the way we kept sane on tour was with drugs and alcohol.”
This time around, for the first time ever, the four-piece—completed by drummer and co-founder Mat Uychich, trumpeter/guitarist/keyboard player Ciaran O’Donnell, and bassist Tom Warren—has graduated to a tour bus. This comes after the band signed to a major label, Warner subsidiary Fueled By Ramen, in the summer. So despite having a name that means vagina, The Front Bottoms are clearly onto a good thing, and Sella and Uychich are far, far away from when the pair started the band in 2006.
“I feel like this is the just the next step,” says Sella in his typically relaxed, understated demeanor. “We always try to develop at our own pace, which is why it doesn’t really feel that flustering. There was never a time when it was like, ‘Holy fuck! There’s a thousand people here tonight!’ It was ‘Holy fuck! There’s a hundred people here tonight.’ And then it was, ‘Oh my god! There’s 300! There’s 700!’ And now it’s like a thousand. And there’s a lot of moving parts. But Mat is on his A-game. He basically manages the whole thing. I don’t know if I ever thought that we would play such big venues, but it just feels now like there’s a responsibility to be even more entertaining. These people are here to see us and be entertained, so let’s do the best we can with that. I tried to make a big papier-mâché dragon to hang onstage but I didn’t finish in time. It was a little upsetting, but it was like, ‘Okay, that’s fine.’”
There might not be a dragon tonight, but the band has still taken matters into its own hands, decking out the venue with its own DIY lighting rig—strings of orange lights that hang above the crowd from the balconies and sound desk. Merch has to be set up. The band not only needs to soundcheck, but also run through songs with The Uptown Horns, a four-piece brass band who’s toured with The Rolling Stones, played with Bruce Springsteen, and who have appeared on records by Tom Waits (Rain Dogs) and Billy Joel (River Of Dreams). Uychich met one of them through a friend called Dancing Tony, with whom he rides mopeds, They got to talking and the Horns agreed to play for “a couple of hundred bucks.” Then, there are friends and family to greet, girlfriends to hang out with, decisions to be made about the setlist, an interview to conduct, and a huge banner, which currently lies crumpled on the venue floor, to hang in place. It used to be that Sella and Uychich would just spray paint the name and logo on a sheet. Now, in addition to the professionally made banner, there’s a professionally made cornhole set that features the new album artwork on both the boards and the bean bags.
“There’s so much downtime on tour, it’s insane,” says Sella.“You go crazy if you don’t have some shit to do. So we were like, ‘Let’s get some cornhole sets.’ I think we actually got two of those, believe it or not. So we’ll set them up before the venue opens and if there’s ever kids hanging out, they can come and play.”
Of course, the band can afford to chill out a little bit these days. While it still runs as much of a DIY operation as it can, it’s a far cry from those early years when Sella and Uychich were doing absolutely everything themselves. These days, it’s more of a well-oiled operation. There are people to help them do all these things. It’s not just a two-man musical operation anymore either—O’Donnell and Warren have been in the band since 2012, and both played on 2013’s Talon Of The Hawk. Both joined with zero expectations, and both are blown away by what seems to be happening.
“I thought joining the band was just going to be a bit of fun,” says Warren, minutes before the band is due onstage. “I knew they’d gone to Europe one time and I thought, ‘Cool, maybe I’ll get to go to Europe one time!’ But it’s crazy! I wasn’t expecting anything like this.”
As their venues have grown and expanded, so has the band’s sound. While their first two self-released full-lengths (2008’s I Hate My Friends and 2009’s My Grandma Vs. Pneumonia) are raw and sloppy affairs, crude recordings of crude songs, they’re nevertheless full of Sella’s distinctive, trademark blend of humor, pathos, and heart-on-sleeve passion. It’s a combination that found its proper footing with the band’s first record on an actual label (Bar/None Records), 2011’s self-titled album, 12 songs that were cobbled together from the already-released Slow Dance To Soft Rock EP as well as the tracks from a cancelled EP called Grip ’N’ Tie. Its impact wasn’t immediate, but it was the start of the band’s snowballing popularity, something which has only continued. Talon Of The Hawk expanded both the band’s sound and confidence, while Back On Top is, by far, the most accessible and radio-friendly set of tunes to date.
As with every band that gets big, The Front Bottoms have picked up a few naysayers who have accused them of selling out and changing their sound, but to watch Sella, O’Donnell, and Warren run through four songs with The Uptown Horns for the very first time, it’s evident that the essence of the band is totally intact—they are full of inspired energy, bruised heart passion, and their trademark happy-sad emotional extremes. It’s just the next stage of The Front Bottoms’ natural evolution.
“We always wanted to be a band that people grew with and developed with,” admits Sella. “I want to be a band that has a career and a story and puts out a shit-ton of albums and sometimes people fall off and then they jump back on two albums later.”
Talking in the currently closed and empty upstairs bar of Irving Plaza, Sella seems incredibly relaxed about the way his band is blowing up. Already, just a few months after its release, Back On Top has sold almost as many copies—around 30,000 and counting—as Talon Of The Hawk, and the majority of this tour’s dates sold out well in advance.
“We have a lighting guy,” says Sella, and you can almost hear his disbelief of that fact. “We have a sound guy. Even the stage is set up with two risers—that seems so ridiculous to us. Mat used to sit on a bucket when we’d play. For years! All he had was a fucking paint bucket to sit on. We’d have to wake up and drive and hustle, hustle, hustle, and now we have a crew. I’ve never been on a tour where I didn’t have to get my own shit off of stage. That’s going to be totally different now. It’s the first time for a lot of things.”
“I think it’s wild that we were able to do this,” Uychich says. “I love how our band’s risen to the next thing, and I love how it’s going. What I see in the future might be not what it’s going to be, but it’ll still be something.”
As far as fan bases go, The Front Bottoms have one of the more rabid ones out there. They’re the ones lining up outside as he speaks, the ones he lovingly refers to, with his tongue firmly in his cheek, as “crazies.”
“We did an instore in Kutztown, Pennsylvania recently,” he remembers, “and the guy was like, ‘There have been people waiting in line for the past six hours to see you play this acoustic set.’ And then we play the set and it’s like, ‘Now let’s shake some hands and set up a table and sign autographs, and two and a half hours later, there’s still people waiting.”
There are, of course, numerous reasons why people feel so connected, and have such an overzealous emotional attachment to The Front Bottoms, but for Sella, it comes down to one thing.
“I believe,” he says, with a cheeky smile on his lips, “it’s the fact that people can see us onstage and say, ‘Oh, okay—I think I could do this.’ Because I always liked music when I was a kid that sounded great but there was also a sense that it was maybe the kid who lived down the street that made this, or the kid at college, or something like that.”
He’s doing his songwriting skills a bit of a disservice. What really hits home with The Front Bottoms is the ragged honesty and raw wound emotional urgency of the songs. Much like Sella in person, his lyrics and his vocal delivery constantly cross the line between sweet and silly, forever trapped in a state of warm nostalgia, that state of simultaneous happiness and sadness.
“How many times have people been only happy?” Sella asks. “So people can relate to that. There are so many different things that people could take away from us. At the very beginning, when we’d play a song like ‘Father,’ someone would come up and say, ‘Oh my God, that song means so much to me, thank you for writing it,’ almost in tears, and then right after that person, someone would come up and be like, ‘Holy shit, dude! That’s the funniest fucking song I’ve ever heard in my life! That’s hilarious!’ And that’s great.”
“I just want to make people feel good when listening to The Front Bottoms,” adds Uychich. “It’s definitely still a release for us, and I feel good when we make a new song, but I think the goal of the band is to make other people feel good.”
There will be no doubt, a few hours later, that they’ve succeeded. There won’t be a dry T-shirt left in the house by the end of the night. But right now, as the volume of The Smith Street Band’s soundcheck drowns everything else out and brings and end to the conversation, it’s just a waiting game. Once doors open and the crowd files in, the band members hang with friends and family, watch the support acts for bit, and then prepare backstage for their big entrance. Minutes before they’re due onstage, the small dressing room is a clusterfuck of people saying hello and hugging them and wishing them well, waiting, like the eager audience downstairs to be made to feel good. And the band damn sure pulls it off, too.
The Uptown Horns go over as a treat with the crowd, as does a cameo from New Jersey rapper GDP on “Historic Cemetery,” the song he appears on on Back On Top. And while the amorphous moving blob that is the crowd does go utterly crazy for “The Beers,” which ends the set, the new songs get as vociferous a singalong treatment as the older ones. It’s pure euphoria, both onstage and in front of it, one which pulses like electricity long after the crowd has started to shuffle off and head home. Hanging out afterwards, the band members are once again surrounded by the swarm of friends and family. One of those people is Emmy Black, who signed the band to Bar/None in 2010.
“They’re my favorite band,” she says, “so I signed them because I wanted everyone to hear them. I went to college with Brian. They were playing basements then, but they’re the same band tonight. They’d be successful regardless of anything. There’s no denying their music. It’s a one-in-a-century band.”
That might sound like hyperbole, but as the venue shuts down and the band winds down, it doesn’t seem too removed from the truth. There’s a whole gang of people waiting outside, desperate to get their posters and records signed or just to talk to the band, and the sense of impassioned urgency that propelled and swept through the crowd during the show has made its way outside. The night itself might be over, but its energy and excitement still lingers, flickering like electricity as it hangs in the calm night air.