Q&A: FIDLAR’s Zac Carper On Kicking Drugs, Staying Punk, And Sophomore Slumps
Next month, California pop-punks FIDLAR will release Too, the follow up to their much-loved self-titled 2013 debut. As evidenced by early singles “40 Oz. On Repeat” and “West Coast” and “Drone,” the new record doesn’t scrimp when it comes to giant hooks or appropriately buzzed-out guitars, but it does add an extra layer to finesse to the band’s reliably scrappy songs. And while the band hasn’t totally abandoned the bratty goofball charm that made the first album such a fun listen, they have taken — as frontman Zac Carper describes it — some “baby steps” toward growing up. For Carper, this meant not only getting back to his roots when it came to writing new songs, but also coming to terms with the substance-abuse issues that were threatening both his life and the future of the band. I spoke with him about the new record and how getting clean has affected both his life and his music, something clearly reflected in Too album tracks like “Sober” and “Leave Me Alone,” the latter of which we are premiering here.
STEREOGUM: How did you guys approach the idea of the second record? The second album is the one that often really trips people up.
CARPER: The hardest thing is, you get lost in the question of what do people want from me? And, after a while, it was just like, you know what? I think we should just do what we want to do. It’s all very psychological, that whole “sophomore slump” thing. That shit is all real. I wrote about 30 fucking songs for this new record, and the first 20 were fucking terrible because they were just trying to sound like FIDLAR. That’s all I was trying to do. I was trying to write songs to sound like FIDLAR, and then I realized that FIDLAR didn’t start like that. FIDLAR started from just songs for fun. So, I had to just step back and be like, okay, I’ve just got to write songs. And the new songs that I wrote didn’t really sound like the first record, so I was really nervous and scared. But I just had to say fuck it and just do it.
STEREOGUM: Well the record sounds really great and also it seems like a very smart step forward. It still sounds like FIDLAR, but it’s not a retread of the first one. Trying to do that would be pointless anyway.
CARPER: Yeah, exactly. You know, Max [Kuehn] was still in high school when we started. I’d just turned 21. I was buying beer for everybody. It was just a different time. I just turned 28 recently and I’m like, wow. There’s a big gap from early 20s to late 20s. It’s a weird psychological trip, and especially for a band like ours, where the media pinpointed us to be this party-punk band. But if you listen to those fucking lyrics on the first record, those are just fucking sad songs with a happy hook.
STEREOGUM: I feel like the lyrics on the new record take that a step further.
CARPER: The way that I look at it is through the whole first FIDLAR album cycle and the tour, I was basically this crazy person on drugs. On this new record, I’m just a crazy person. I stopped doing heroin, I stopped doing meth, I stopped smoking crack, so now all I’m left is with is just being this crazy person who’s trying to deal with it … and the way that I dealt with it was writing songs.
STEREOGUM: Being a “fucked-up party band” is usually not sustainable for very long.
STEREOGUM: And the kind of things you care about when you’re 21 — even if you’re 21 and in a band and just want to have a good time — they’re not the same things you care about necessarily 10 years later. So, it only stands to reason that something has to change.
CARPER: Change is as a good thing. A lot of people are scared of change. And you know what man? The fucking first record is always going to be better than the second record. I liked them better when they didn’t sell out. I liked them better when he was on drugs There’s always going to be people saying that shit. When I was a fucking teenager I was the one saying that shit. You’ve just got to roll with it. I’m not going to let that fuck me up and run my life.
STEREOGUM: From the beginning you guys had such a reputation for being totally wild and having these really crazy live shows. Did that ever get in the way of having people take you seriously as good songwriters and good musicians? Did it ever feel like an impediment in any weird way?
CARPER: Yeah, I think so. There is this idea that I’m just a fucked-up punk-rock frontman. I don’t mind being thought of as being punk — the whole thing for me, what it means to be punk rock, is just about attitude. It’s about doing whatever the fuck you want to do. The reason why we were quote-unquote “DIY” and the reason why we still have some kind of “DIY” aesthetic to us is because nobody else is going to do it for us so we have to fucking do it. Once there’s somebody who will do it for us in the right way, be my guest.
STEREOGUM: Most “DIY” bands are doing it out of necessity.
CARPER: This is just a totally fucking new age of kids who don’t really understand what “punk” is — or even the history of punk rock — but to them it’s just this attitude of doing whatever the fuck you want to do. If you want to go in the sense of completely “DIY,” pure do-it-yourself mode, then even somebody like fucking Diplo is punk. He doesn’t go through any label. He does everything himself. So the whole idea that the genre of “punk rock” music being two guitars and screaming … all that shit to me, that’s just a scene, and that’s different than being punk. Yeah, I think this new FIDLAR record is more punk than the first record. Truly selling out would have been just trying to make the first record over again, especially when I’m not slamming fucking heroin and sticking meth up my ass anymore. So, for me to just go out there and sing about these things and be like, “Oh, this is what I do,” and put on this front … well, I’m not going to do that.
STEREOGUM: It’s a losing game to worry too much about that stuff — those arguments about selling out and authenticity. Once you’ve made more than one record, if you’re really worried about authenticity in that way, you’re already fucked.
CARPER: With FIDLAR, of course, people are going to categorize us as some punk-rock kind of thing because our songs are fast and all that shit, but I really made it a point to be like, “No, we’re just a rock ‘n’ roll band.” We’re not a punk band because we’re too poppy for punk. We’re too punk for punk.
STEREOGUM: One of the great things about this record is that it really plays up to your strengths as a pop songwriter. The songs are catchy as hell.
CARPER: I grew up in a one-road town in bumfuck Hawaii and the closest record store was Walmart and all I had was one radio station that kind of worked and it was the pop radio station. So yeah, I listen to pop music. I write pop songs. It just comes naturally to me.
STEREOGUM: There’s an art to writing effortless-sounding pop songs that people don’t always respect in the right way.
CARPER: That’s how pretty much why FIDLAR started to begin with, because back when we were 20-year-old messes running around in Los Angeles, there was this huge indie scene. Lots of tuneless music that was just weird for the sake of being weird. We were at shows just being like, What the fuck is this shit? We just wanted to make classic “three chords and the truth” kinds of songs. Also — this may sound lame — but I love feeling good, and I’m always trying to chase the feeling of feeling good … and pop music does that.
STEREOGUM: I think it’s much harder to write about joy and happiness in a way that feels authentic and not ironic. It’s much easier — and it’s taken much more seriously — to be a miserable fuck.
CARPER: You know who does it the best, I think? Green Day. It used to be that everybody would reference Blink-182 in regards to us, but then I think the more kids are growing up listening to our music and they’re all just saying Green Day lately. It’s the happy/sad song thing. I think that’s probably a psychological thing for me, too. I’m kinda drawn to that. We’re trying to step up our game with our shows as well. I mean, all our shows are still going to be energetic, but we’re growing as a band. Maybe we’ll get a backdrop. We just recently got a sound guy. That’s been our new addition to the crew which is … We’ve never had a sound guy before. We just got a merch person. We’ve never had a merch person before. So, it’s just slowly growing.
STEREOGUM: Baby steps.
CARPER: It is baby steps, and it’s hard because it’s not the fucking ’90s anymore, you know? We hardly make any money. It’s just slowly but surely. We just got a trailer. Let’s put it that way: We just got a trailer. We couldn’t afford a trailer before, but now we just got a trailer. We’re still in the 15-passenger van, but now there’s a little trailer pulling behind it.
STEREOGUM: Did you always know you’d be a musician?
CARPER: Yeah. It’s weird. It was either being a musician or a computer programmer or a criminal. Those were the three things. I always played music growing up, then I got really into computers when I was in my early teenage years … and then I starting smoking crack and doing meth, which constitutes the criminal thing. Eventually I came back around and landed on musician out of all the things.
STEREOGUM: You’ve already done all three, so now you can tick the other two off your list and just focus on this music thing.
CARPER: That’s right, brother. That’s right.
STEREOGUM: Tell me about the song “Leave Me Alone,” which we are premiering today.
CARPER: The song is about my intervention, so it’s a pretty fucked-up tune. It’s just about telling people to leave you alone … and then, if you tell people that enough, eventually they will leave you alone. Then you’re alone.
STEREOGUM: Was it the intervention that finally worked for you? Is that what turned things around?
CARPER: Oh yeah, totally. I came home one day and everybody was sitting in a circle and I was like, “What’s going on guys? Is this … is this an intervention?” I was like, Wow, this is classic. After that I stopped and got myself together and I’ve been clean off of heroin and meth and crack for fucking a year now.
STEREOGUM: Wow. That’s amazing. That’s an important story to be able to tell.
CARPER: Especially with our band. Everybody is like, “Yeah, they just get fucked up a lot. That’s their thing.” It’s like, actually dude, I’m completely sober. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke weed. I don’t do anything and it’s not … I don’t ever want to be preaching it to people, but it’s just this is what I wanted to do, so I’m going to do it. I’m not going to stay fucked up just to fit in or because that’s what people want me to be. I don’t want to die when I’m fucking 28.
STEREOGUM: It’s good that you had that realization as early as you did. When you realize that you are basically on a collision course with this terrible thing, it’s better to just accept that you need to stop and then take the steps to do it. Too many people I know didn’t have that moment of clarity until much later in life, which resulted in a lot of wasted years just being a terrible mess.
CARPER: Yeah, especially with all the punk musicians and stuff like that I meet, they’re either really fucked up or completely sober … or dead now.
STEREOGUM: How hard is it to go back out on the road and stay sober?
CARPER: It’s routine; it’s just different things. After we play I go straight to the merch booth and I interact with the fans until the doors close, and then afterwards, when all the rest of the band members want to go party, I’ll just go back to the hotel room … or I’ll go with them and record the stupid shit that they say when they’re drunk and play it back to them the next morning. It’s really fun. Also, I exercise a lot now when I’m on tour and I read a lot … you know, instead of being hungover or dope sick. I know what I am. I know if I start drinking again, then like a week later I’m going to be slamming dope, so I just cut out drinking, too. I loved doing heroin, so if drinking is just the gateway to that, I’ll just fucking stop drinking. That’s what “Leave Me Alone” is all about.
STEREOGUM: Thank you for sharing that. I have so much respect for what it takes to do that. I know the touring kicks off again in September. Will you guys just be out on the road pretty much indefinitely?
CARPER: Pretty much. It’s fine though. I do a lot of writing on the road. I’ll write with other bands, and I’ll send out ideas. The internet is crazy. You can do that. I’ll make tracks on the computer while I’m on tour. I do a lot of that on the road. In a weird way, I’m actually more productive on the road than I am when we’re at home. All that time in between shows, you know? You gotta fill it up somehow.
FIDLAR’s Too is out 9/4 via Mom + Pop Music. Pre-order it here.