Strike one for an indie band forming in 2009: playing “really bad, wussy emo rock 10 years after it was relevant.” Strike two: doing so in Willimantic, Connecticut, a city commonly known as “Heroin Town” in a state whose most renowned rock band to that point was probably Hatebreed. Strike three: call yourself the World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die. Mind you, this was a time when subgenres like witch house, chillwave, and shitgaze loomed large: “I remember being on tour and playing to two kids and three touring bands in the middle of Kentucky,” guitarist/producer Chris Teti recalls. “And I thought that was the epitome of everything. I thought that was the highest I could go, but it was great as long as I was out there doing it.” Suffice to say, the only thing more bemusing to singer David Bello and Teti than their band’s success is that younger ones ask them, “How do you go about doing this?”
The easy answer is “make records too brilliant to ignore.” While emo’s fourth wave generated plenty of classics before 2013, there isn’t an inkling of mainstream coverage for the scene prior to TWIABP’s game-changing debut Whenever, If Ever — even beyond its delirious merger of spastic, Cap’n Jazz dynamics and post-rock majesty, it somehow managed to crack the Billboard 200 and its leak was an actual event. 2015’s Harmlessness topped it in every conceivable way, an astonishing redirection of indie rock’s trajectory that ties the experimental and expanse of late 90’s Pacific Northwest to the grandeur of mid-00s Canadian indie, leading up to the “emo revival.”
Going into their bracing third LP Always Foreign, the once undefinable and thrillingly unstable TWIABP have evolved into a band that’s almost … normal. Like seemingly 95% of all indie bands right now, they’re from Philly. Or at least the majority are — four of the seven members live in Philadelphia, including Bello, bassist Josh St. Cyr, guitarist Tyler Bussey, and synthesist/vocalist Katie Dvorak. And like most indie rock artists in Philadelphia, they’re in other bands — St. Cyr plays bass in Who Loves You, while Bussey moonlights in Bad Heaven and was formally in Portland act Snow Roller. Meanwhile, guitarist Dylan Balliett resides in New York, drummer Steve Buttery in Columbus, Ohio, while Teti is the lone holdout in Connecticut, attending to his Silver Bullet Studios where he’s produced fantastic recent albums from People Like You and Posture & the Grizzly.
Moreover, Always Foreign taps into an influence that thousands of bands have been namedropping in press releases like it’s Can or something. “Definitely Donald Trump — 100% he did that,” Bello explains, regarding the newly political, polemic tone of “Marine Tigers” and “Fuzz Minor.” Born to Puerto Rican and Lebanese parents, Bello yells, “Call em A-rab, call me a spic, I can’t wait to see you die” over the latter’s nasty churn.
And then there’s “Hilltopper.” The writing process for Always Foreign coincided with both the election of Trump and the dismissal of guitarist Nicole Shanholtzer — she was once married to Dvorak, who is currently roommates with Bello, whose partner Sarah Cowell fronts For Everest, a band produced by Teti that was once signed to Shanholtzer’s Broken World Media, which now appears to be defunct and is a target of Always Foreign’s harshest lyrics (“Can’t seem to erase you/ I threw out all the records you’re on”; “I hope evil can see this, and you get what you deserve”; “Can you still call it a business if all you do is steal?,” on “Marine Tigers”). The situation is ugly, it’s complicated, and it makes the Taking Back Sunday/Brand New beef look quaint by comparison.
Yet these traumatic events have resulted in a clarifying effect on TWIABP’s vision. Whereas previous albums were offbeat and abstract musings on community, mental health, and creation, Always Foreign is streamlined and direct. “When a band’s on tour, for the first few nights you’re kinda shaky and you don’t really know what’s happening,” Teti says, regarding their earlier work. “Week seven of your tour, you feel like the tightest band possible and it felt that way with this record.” Think of it as their Good News For People Who Love Bad News; there’s almost no way they could make an album as expansive and sprawling as its predecessors, so they challenge those lofty standards and discover they’re just as good with punch and concision — Teti described lead single “Dillon And Her Son” as “Mates Of State with Marshall full stacks,” and while “R.E.M. on Dischord Records” presumably describes “Hilltopper,” it’s also applicable to Balliett’s hypermelodic turn on “The Future.”
While Bello feels that themes of Harmlessness have become inescapable to the point of cliché, Always Foreign is both more global and also more personal, focusing on identity that he’s been hesitant to explore before. The album’s massive peak “Marine Tigers” carries on the tradition of TWIABP not only making seven-minute songs but releasing them as singles. It shares its title with a book written by Bello’s father José, a reminiscence on the hostility he faced coming to New York City in the 1940s on the S.S. Marine Tiger, which soon became a nickname for Puerto Ricans in the neighborhood. “I thought it was a great title for his book and after writing the song, I thought, I’m gonna steal that for me,” Bello jokes. With the exception of a year and a half in grad school, Bello spent the first 25 years of his life in West Virginia, and “Gram” and “For Robin” reflect on the economic and opioid-fueled deaths of despair that plague the region.
Despite the heaviness that surrounded TWIABP while making Always Foreign, as well as its professionalism, one gets the sense that the past year has resulted in a unifying effect on the band as well, inspiring them to rediscover why a seven-piece band called the World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die that still gets shit for the name keeps going. “Even though TWIABP will play the Troubadour [in Los Angeles] or Union Transfer [in Philadelphia], I don’t think we’re too good to play a small show for people who really care or friends,” Teti says. “It’s something we just grew up with.” In the past several weeks, TWIABP have been as good as their word, playing a free gig at a small college in Mechanicsburg, PA and a “hella secret philly basement show” whose video footage looks like it might as well be from 2010.
Bello admits this type of itinerary isn’t as sustainable as it might’ve been in 2009. “I’m 31, so I get tired at like 11 o’clock when I slept for three hours,” he jokes. “It’s hard to deal with that when we want to watch six bands play really loud in a tiny little basement. You want to be there and it’s awesome, but sometimes, I’m like…’ah, I need to lay down.'” Nonetheless, they recognize the importance of elder statesmen showing the kids not how it’s done, but that it can be done in the first place. “I remember meeting Brett [Gurewitz] at Epitaph, he made me feel jaded,” Teti says. “I know he’s significantly older than me, but he was like a 16-year-old kid just finding out about bands, talking about them so passionately. I had to check myself, like … holy shit. I have to remember to stay excited about stuff.”
STEREOGUM: Did Harmlessness accomplish what you were hoping for as a band?
CHRIS TETI: Aside from, “oh, the tours are getting better, we’re on a bigger label, there was better press,” it was a bigger step for us personally. I was really bummed out on [Whenever, If Ever] after touring on it for a couple of years. It just felt like a glimpse at a time that we passed very quickly artistically in some realms, and there’s some factors that went into it: I wish it sounded better, things like that. It was all spread out pretty far time-wise, we were really grasping on figuring certain things out, it was a new experience for all of us. But when we did Harmlessness, we focused on trying to improve that. It helped us grow as a band and we became much more of a unit that experimented more. We kind of went over the top with some of the layering on Harmlessness and we still do that on elements here. But it was cool to say, “we’re just gonna have an acoustic guitar and a live vocal and maybe a horn comes in.” But it’s not gonna be eight guitar parts at once.
STEREOGUM: Was there any consideration of working with an outside producer?
DAVID BELLO: I don’t know if I can speak for everyone, but working with Chris is the ideal situation because even something like, “do you think this part is good?” How do you respond to the question? It can either be two hours of seven people trying to figure out if something is worth keeping or it could just be ten seconds of “yes” and “no.” We all know each other so well that there’s no wasted time on, “well, I want to say this but I don’t want to say that.” We communicate super easily with each other. I’ve never really worked with anybody but Chris as far as professional studio stuff. It could be as easy, but I wouldn’t expect that.
TETI: I feel like on our first album, there was always this push. We want to add this extra part here, we’re trying to reference this kind of band or this kinda music, we want to add an extra guitar here, and it was always a struggle. Witnessing that was, like…terrible for me. And I promised myself, 1) I don’t want to do that with a band that I work with outside of us, and 2) with the World Is…, I can’t stand to see someone else screw it up, if that makes sense. There’s so many personalities in the band, it’s a real summer camp. But because we have this DIY thing and are self-contained in that realm, it helps out and streamlines it.
STEREOGUM: What were the most contentious moments making Always Foreign?
BELLO: “Faker,” we went through three or four different versions of that. That one took a while because we’d all come at it thinking of it differently than it ended up being, then we all decided together, this one is the best way to go for it.
TETI: Part of it was that we were in some new territory, especially in the first half with the electronic elements. The second half is a rock thing, but it was a very delicate situation to figure out and try to get everyone on the same page. We have a trust of one another and usually that works out.
BELLO: None of us ever leaves a situation being upset with how it ended up. We talk about it until it’s figured out.
STEREOGUM: It’s interesting that the music of “Faker” made it more contentious than the lyrics, since that’s one of songs that’s naturally going to be interpreted as being about Nicole. Did you have any hesitation addressing this situation on record?
BELLO: It came super naturally. It just felt like I couldn’t write anything else until I’ve done that. If I just ignore it, it’s gonna seep in there anyway, so I might as well confront personal stuff in these songs. Otherwise, every record is gonna have a weird subliminal message or something that’s driving me insane. Any time I write lyrics, there’s always this super-specific, hyper-personal thing that, most of the time, nobody knows what the hell it is. No matter what our intent is with what a song means…the wish is for people to hear it and not tie it to a specific thing. This is a broader understanding of circumstances in general.
TETI: Certain stuff just feels like a release of those feelings. Which songs should be anyways.
BELLO:We had been writing stuff right before Trump got elected and right before [Nicole was dismissed from the band]. That whole time period when we were writing new songs, I was in a weird state. The furthest thing from my mind was my personal life or anybody else’s. But I feel like those personal things reflect bigger things. Smaller-scale, individual situations conveniently were representative, it’s kind of a cheesy ripped-from-the-headlines thing.
STEREOGUM: I recall the band having internal conversation on Twitter asking for honest criticism of your new music — are there certain aspects of the record which you feel are going to be more subject to scrutiny?
BELLO: I was kinda worried about how the song “For Robin” would be taken. For me, a lot of that is about trying to care more about people in my own life rather than people in greater pop culture. I don’t want people to think it’s…you know, like the guy from Linkin Park…
STEREOGUM: It’s easy for people to slip into exhibitionist mourning on social media when celebrities pass away.
BELLO: Robin Williams was the first celebrity where I realized, “these people don’t know him,” y’know? No one really knew him personally. Obviously, it’s horrible and the world would probably be a better place if he was still alive. I’m sure most people have friends who’ve committed suicide, but everyone probably spent so much more time thinking about Chester Bennington and Chris Cornell. Even myself. I remember when Harris Wittels died, I was heartbroken for so long. And I was like, “you know what, I had three friends die last year.” It was horrible, but why do I care so much about these people I don’t know?
STEREOGUM: So why do you?
BELLO: I don’t think I’ll ever really understand it. They have an impact on your life in some way, regardless of knowing them personally. Those things do matter, but I would like to make sure close friends of mine are safe too. I don’t know if there’s an easy way to do that. It’s always hard to see when someone’s going down a bad path and it’s hard to know how to help those people, I have no experience with real mental health, I have no training, I have no therapy or counseling background. It’s a matter of being present. All I really know how to do is talk to them a lot, anything, tell them if they need it, they should go seek professional help. Just talk to them, send them funny pictures or if they like a movie and you see a YouTube parody of it.
STEREOGUM: While the politics of TWIABP seem pretty obvious if you follow the band’s social media accounts, they’ve rarely made it into the music itself until now.
BELLO: [“Marine Tigers”] is the sort of thing I would’ve put into a solo song or on Facebook or Twitter in the past. But especially after the election, I can’t not write about this stuff. If I tried to write about whatever else there could be, I would just come back to “what the fuck is going on?,” the fact that ICE is a thing and people are being kicked out of the country. As time went on, it just got more intense. I came up with the first draft of the lyrics and showed them to everyone and months would go by and I’d make all these changes as things in the news would just be getting weirder and scarier. And so the lyrics just got weirder and scarier.
STEREOGUM: “Marine Tigers” is interesting in light of how the TWIABP is most often viewed a “white” band, how has this perception affected you?
BELLO: It bothers me and it’s not something that I’ve really confronted. That’s one of the main reasons I was glad everyone said we should name the album Always Foreign. I look like a white guy but there’s no white blood in my body whatsoever and it’s like…I don’t feel particularly at home in any community because of that, I’m de-territorialized. I get it, I get why people say we’re white people, but to me..it’s like, alright.
STEREOGUM: One particular lyric that stands out is, “there’s nothing wrong with José/there’s nothing wrong with Moses/there’s nothing wrong with knowing,” which at least to me ties the immigrant experience back to biblical times.
BELLO: It has these other connotations — like Moses parting the sea — but my mother’s maiden name is Moses and my father’s first name is José. It’s just a literal thing. It’s not as deep as it sounds, but it sounds deep because it’s super personal and hyper specific. When I said earlier that I say things that are super specific that no one really knows [the meaning of], it’s not a secret or anything. But it’s something I assumed people won’t know I mean. I’m OK with that.
STEREOGUM: This record also addresses your roots in West Virginia in a specific way for the first time. Especially since the election, it seems like I’ve read more about that state and what makes it tick than I have in the past two decades combined.
BELLO: And I’m sure none of it’s good news.
STEREOGUM: Given that your father originally landed New York City, how did he end up in West Virginia?
BELLO: My mom’s family ended up there because a whole lot of Lebanese people moved there a long time ago. There’s a pretty big Lebanese community. I don’t know why, I think it originated in coal mining, but I don’t think that’s why their family [went there]. I never got an answer as to why they came to West Virginia of all places. It’s a strange place to live. It’s super backwards in a lot of ways, but … I don’t wanna say progressive, but strange in a good way?
STEREOGUM: Have you been back since the election?
BELLO: We played Morgantown, and it doesn’t seem to have changed with the election. I feel like it’s never going to be different than it’s always been. I’m sure so many people voted for Trump, but so many people are not going to see any improvement for doing that. I don’t think they’re unique in that, I see a lot of hopelessness around America, but in West Virginia especially. I was reading about a county that lost its only Walmart so no one has fresh food at all. When the Walmart came, everything else shut down and now there’s no Walmart. It’s shockingly hopeless.
TETI: We stopped at a gas station in West Virginia last year, I don’t know what town. I think it was outside of Beckley and the cashier was in his 20s. He figured out we were a band and said to someone, “I wish I could go with you and start my life over.” He expressed desperately wanting to leave this small town which was literally one gas station and like a construction yard and I don’t even know what else.
BELLO: There was nothing around.
TETI: Maybe an auto body shop.
BELLO: Going on tour, there’s so many places like that throughout the country, like, “this town is a rest stop.” I personally know a ton of West Virginians who want more out of life than doing heroin, but didn’t have much of a choice. I feel like the only real light at the end of the tunnel is moving away. But then if they move away, there’s so many other challenges.
STEREOGUM: Where does one try to find hope?
BELLO: Personally, it’s playing music. I think everyone has that their own thing that fills that role in the way playing music does to me. There’s so many people in West Virginia who just spend so much time on the internet and they live good and happy lives, but they have to do it talking to people from elsewhere or talking to each other online. One of the coolest things is working with friends on various art, whether a friend is a good illustrator and wanting them to help out with design or help them make designs for other people or bring our friend on tour and the joy it gives them to pursue something they really love. I think people can have a positive role for each other in making art or even just reading, it’s just about surrounding yourself with other positive-minded people.
Always Foreign is out now via Epitaph.