Jon Simmons admits he’s trying to be more direct in 2019, but it doesn’t come naturally. The Balance And Composure frontman carefully admits to the one criticism he’s taken to heart over the years — that his lyrics can run a bit vague compared to the stylish, slegdehammer alt-rock of his band.
Likewise, Balance And Composure allowed themselves to exist in a state of self-imposed ambiguity throughout 2018, frustrating their diehard, hoodied fans. In December of 2017, Simmons let slip during a podcast that a short run of 10-year anniversary shows in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York would be their last US tour. And yet, whether that constituted a hiatus or a final bow was unclear to their fans and even themselves.
“We didn’t know how to answer that really for a while,” Simmons admits. And during our phone conversation, whenever he tells me he’s about to get honest about this situation, it always sounds like he’s asking for permission — in particular, when he talks about his move to Los Angeles this past April, citing a “mental breakdown,” accompanied by a slight, disarming chuckle. “I thought we were done, so I moved.”
Simmons goes on: “The band broke up and I was kinda depressed in Philly. As one might be able to guess from his new home, the depression was partly due to the weather and also the anxiety of being in a city where your social circle really starts to shrink if you haven’t settled in with a family by the age of 30. Guitarist Erik Peterson and bassist Matt Warner both got married in the time since Balance And Composure’s sleeker, more electro-leaning 2016 LP Light We Made, while guitarist Andy Slaymaker will be hitched in October.
All of this made soldiering on an even less attractive proposition for a band already traumatized by their near-fatal touring experiences. About a month after the release of their 2013 breakthrough The Things We Think We’re Missing, Balance were involved in a catastrophic accident where their van skidded through a construction site in the rain and through a 10-foot rail opening.
“We flew off the side of the road and it just dropped straight down into a ravine,” drummer Bailey Van Ellis told Entertainment Weekly in 2016. “We fell 75 feet and ended up 120 or 125 feet from the side of the road.” The band miraculously suffered few physical injuries, but the financial and emotional toll steadily accrued with interest.
“There was a really ‘on edge’ feeling any time we got in the van for a whole year after the accident,” Simmons says. “And then we hit a deer a week after the accident, real hard. You get beat the hell up over the years.”
Throughout 2017, Balance And Composure would continue to play shows with ringers filling in on bass and guitar, and those that remained grew increasingly exhausted re-teaching the same songs to each new lineup.
“I saw it coming to an end the last tour, but we didn’t make a statement because we truly didn’t know until we met up a couple months ago,” says Simmons. “I didn’t want to break up. I like performing, I like writing, but you can’t be touring for three months straight when you have a family at home. That’s how it always goes, it seems.”
Balance And Composure had also reached a familiar commercial pivot for rock bands in their position — popular enough to justify continuing if they really wanted it, but the stress increasing at a faster rate than their success.
After a pedestrian debut with 2011’s Separation and years’ worth of unglamorous opening gigs, exponential artistic growth resulted in the justified and unexpected success of 2013’s The Things We Think We’re Missing. Released on the modest Huntington Beach-based label No Sleep, it debuted at #53 on Billboard’s Top 200 and I’ll argue that it was one of the major turning points in emo, pop-punk, and post-hardcore media coverage in the past decade. Rolling Stone premiered the video for “Tiny Raindrop,” and it’s one of Simmons’ proudest memories of his career.
Another ostensible peak came when they played a frazzled but rewarding set at Jay-Z’s Made In America Festival in 2013. “We were debuting The Things We Think We’re Missing, my guitar was broken for like two songs, and we only had 30 minutes,” Simmons recalls. Any given year, the lineup will include a few selections from the upper echelon of post-hardcore: recent bookings include Basement, Touche Amore, Code Orange, Turnstile, and Into It. Over It. And all of them play the Skate Stage, a notoriously under-attended sideshow compared to the Tidal and Rocky Stages, clearly bigger priorities to Roc Nation in Philadelphia. Says Simmons, “It’s cool to see your name on the lineup, but I want to warn [prospective Skate Stage bands], ‘yo, this might not be worth your time.'”
In retrospect, Simmons sees Made In America as an omen for Balance’s time in the big leagues. The shows got bigger, the press got better, and the band eventually signed to Vagrant, a label that launched Dashboard Confessional, the Get Up Kids, and Alkaline Trio from their humble emo roots onto MTV at the turn of the century. Lacking any kind of promotional push, however, Light We Made didn’t accomplish much more than The Things We Think We’re Missing, cracking Billboard at #137, receiving lukewarm praise, alienating old Balance fans with its softer, wavier tones, and not presenting as indie enough to be fully embraced by the industrial complex of festivals and critics’ lists. “I think signing to Vagrant was the first sign that it’s not gonna last forever,” Simmons sighs.
The uncertainty surrounding Balance was compounded by Simmons’ involvement in the emo-trap “boy band” Misery Club, all of which led fans to repeatedly speculate that “I quit Balance to become a SoundCloud rapper, which isn’t true at all,” Simmons laughs. In addition to Misery Club, he’s working on a solo project with Andy DiDio of nu-metallurgists Vein — despite the aggro roots of each man’s main gig, Simmons describes it as “R&B-influenced indie rock.”
It’s clear that Balance And Composure’s farewell tour will almost certainly be the last time you see Simmons play rock music, even if Balance And Composure will continue to exist in spirit. The farewell tour is meant as a celebration — scene figureheads Touche Amore, Tigers Jaw, and mewithoutYou will serve as openers — but also as a something of a makeup call for the last show and really the last year.
“I hated the way the last one ended,” Simmons concedes. “I was super sick for the very last [of the 10-year shows] in Boston, I had no voice, and it was the worst show I had in forever. So we need to make [this tour] mean something for the people who listened to us for those years. And for ourselves. We’ve been through a lot together, friendship-wise and band-wise.”
STEREOGUM: Over the past year or so, a number of bands in your peer group have either celebrated 10-year anniversaries, broken up, or gone on hiatus. Did that cause you to reflect a little more intentionally on where Balance And Composure were headed?
SIMMONS: Big time. Just growing up in the Pennsylvania scene when Title Fight were coming up — and Tigers Jaw and the Menzingers and Daylight/Superheaven… we grew up playing shows together, even in other bands. I’ve known the Title Fight and Tigers Jaw guys since I was 15. We’d always look to each other for what to do next or how to handle certain situations or even just [for] encouragement. We had a little support system, which was really cool.
STEREOGUM: Going from a “scene” label like No Sleep to a major is a rare accomplishment for a rock band in the current day, but were your expectations met by Vagrant?
SIMMONS: Do you want me to be honest, Ian? Because I’m gonna be. I would’ve stayed on No Sleep forever. We should have. We didn’t get any attention [from Vagrant]. We signed, they made some post on their social media, and that was it. We weren’t in one store, we weren’t promoted besides their social media posts, we felt completely forgotten. And Chris [Hansen] at No Sleep is one of our oldest friends, he believed in us since our demo, which is atrocious. Labels are tricky — I don’t know how I feel about them right now. It wasn’t a good experience and we just got no love from [Vagrant] besides money to record with Will [Yip], but we could’ve paid for that ourselves, honestly. He would’ve cut us a deal. That’s the worst part about being in a band — the business aspect of it.
STEREOGUM: It didn’t seem like Light We Made was able to boost Balance And Composure to that “next level,” but what does that even mean for a band like yours these days?
SIMMONS: I dunno. We dream big, we want to be a bigger rock band. Radio play, bands want that. Bands want to flex on their parents. The main goal really is to get more people to hear your music in any way. We just wanted to expand our fanbase.
STEREOGUM: But how does that even happen? I’ve discussed similar things with bands like the Wonder Years and Joyce Manor who can sell out huge venues but still feel like radio or late-night television are as far-fetched as playing the Super Bowl halftime show. I think of Manchester Orchestra finally getting major airplay with “The Gold,” but they’ve been making major label records for basically a decade.
SIMMONS: I heard them in Whole Foods the other day.
STEREOGUM: Even as you were starting to get traction with The Things We Think We’re Missing, how was Balance And Composure developing a fanbase then?
SIMMONS: I don’t even know. The rock game is hard, especially now. I can’t imagine completely starting over as a rock band. We did 10 years of work to get the fanbase we had and it’s a lot of fucking work, that’s all it is. It’s starving yourself, getting evicted from your place…
STEREOGUM: What specific sacrifices come to mind for yourself?
SIMMONS: The van accident. We were on tour with Title Fight and we were doing good, even financially, thinking, “we’re actually gonna come home with money.” Then we get in the accident and have to buy a whole new van and trailer on the spot to continue touring. We didn’t think there was any other option, “that’s what we gotta fuckin do.” You think you’re doing good and you take hits like that.
STEREOGUM: What were the highs that kept you going after the accident?
SIMMONS: I remember when we got offered our first full US tour with Bayside. Title Fight were also on the tour and we thought that was the coolest shit in the world. We got to play the Electric Factory for the first time — my first concert was [seeing] Relient K there as a young boy [laughs]. We sold out the TLA on our tour with Seahaven [in 2013], it was one of the biggest accomplishments in my life. I just remember how proud I was of my friends, like, “we did this.” Which is pretty insane to think about still. But that’s why we do it — for the highs. Even just playing a good show, that’s a high, that’s what I live for.
STEREOGUM: So where do you go from here?
SIMMONS: I got my toes in a couple things. I’m doing Misery Club with Wicca Phase Springs Eternal, Zubin, and Fantasy Camp. It’s R&B-influenced stuff, completely different than Balance and I’m having fun with that. I’ve always wanted to do that, it’s the main music I listen to.
STEREOGUM: How does the performance and songwriting process differ in the context of an R&B-influenced collective, as opposed to Balance?
SIMMONS: Misery Club is Nedarb and Foxwedding, who are producers, and us four singers — it’s kind of a boy band, we just sing over beats. We played our first show in Wilkes-Barre a couple of weeks ago. We’re using AutoTune and it’s more challenging than you think. Not being able to hide behind a guitar is hard to get used to. I feed off Wicca Phase and Fantasy Camp and Zubin, who’ve been doing this for a minute. We just finished our second EP, which comes out in a week or so, and we want to do an LP this year, but Wicca Phase is gonna be busy as hell for the first half of the year. I do think Wicca Phase is a genius, he took the most heat when he quit Tigers Jaw and he’s really becoming a big deal. His new album is incredible, I love it.
STEREOGUM: I imagine the biggest challenge about transitioning to rap and R&B-influenced music from rock is that the former moves so fast and there’s always skepticism surrounding that move — you really run the risk of sounding dated if you adhere to the same two-year album and touring cycle.
SIMMONS: I don’t think we’re trying to be current, we’re just doing what we think we’d listen to and I’m obviously getting tons of flak for it from Balance fans. I was never allowed to have a solo project in Balance, so I’m just wildin’ out and enjoying it. I did this album Coward with Wicca Phase at the end of 2017 and I consider it the punkest thing I’ve ever done. I don’t think other people get it, but it’s one-takes in my bedroom, just capturing pure emotion and I just don’t think Balance fans will catch onto that. And that’s fine.
03/21 – Denver, CO @ The Summit Music Hall
03/23 – Los Angeles, CA @ The Regent Theater
03/24 – Pomona, CA @ The Glass House
03/25 – Pomona, CA @ The Glass House
04/05 – Brooklyn, NY @ Warsaw
04/06 – Boston, MA @ Paradise Rock Club
04/07 – Boston, MA @ Paradise Rock Club
05/09 – Philadelphia, PA @ Theatre of the Living Arts
05/11 – Philadelphia, PA @ The Fillmore