Barely Civil Are Figuring It Out
There is no version of 2020 where Barely Civil aren’t a nervous wreck. As drummer Isaac Marquardt helpfully reminds me: “We’re all early 20-year-old people in an emo band,” and a quintessential Midwestern one at that. Their 2018 debut We Can Live Here Forever reflected the concerns of four teenagers spread out at satellites across the University Of Wisconsin system, equally infatuated and enervated, anxious and ardent, flaunting its obvious influences like stickers on a laptop. “With a title like ‘Eau Claire? Oh Claire.,” it’s pretty easy to surmise what Barely Civil are going to sound like,” James Rettig wrote of their lead single two years ago, as if the Corey Purvis artwork and the album title’s allusion to the World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die’s Harmlessness opening track weren’t enough.
“2020 was gonna be our year,” Marquardt sighs, thinking about how he was going to graduate from college, go out on tour with his friends, and take his skills in Foley sound and documentary production out into the job market. But the 2020 in which we all exist has been nobody’s year, with life continuing on as a more underwhelming, lo-res version of itself: classes were shifted online, gigs were cancelled, career prospects dwindled, long-gestating projects became sunk costs. And in the cruelest irony, frontman Connor Erickson is stuck in his apartment trying to drum up excitement for Barely Civil’s sophomore LP I’ll Figure This Out — an album that’s almost exclusively about how uncomfortable he feels being stuck in his apartment.
It could be worse. Marquardt and Erickson are lifelong friends and now roommates in Milwaukee, though they admit it’s out of economic necessity; neither is employed right now. Throughout our Zoom conversation, the two touch on the importance of sophomore albums for emo bands, especially since they’re often created in a transition from high school to college or college to young adulthood, or at least the point where a band has grown out of weekend tours and house shows into something that resembles a “career.” They specifically mention From Indian Lakes’ Able Bodies and Harmlessness, which is again an obvious template — I’ll Figure This Out was recorded by TWIABP’s Chris Teti at his Silver Bullet Studio in Connecticut.
I’d also throw in Into It. Over It.’s Intersections, Foxing’s Dealer, and maybe You Blew It!’s Keep Doing What You’re Doing as spiritual predecessors — like those late-revival touchstones, I’ll Figure This Out manages to be both the requisite “darker, more introspective” second LP and also the requisite “leveling up” second LP at the same time. It’s a grand, sweeping sound you don’t hear much in contemporary emo these days, downcast and lush in the manner of major-label Death Cab For Cutie or later Frightened Rabbit. It’s an archetypal autumnal emo album in any year but this one; seniors at Big Ten campuses should be contemplating lost loves and uncertain futures, staring off at the turning leaves in the middle distance as “North Newhall” builds from a bare, possibly John Mayer-inspired riff towards its windswept finale.
Despite holding back on the gang vocals and immediate hooks that thrust them beyond the Great Lakes DIY scene, Barely Civil meticulously tested I’ll Figure This Out with a live show in mind — even if that means writing songs that will never be a part of the set. Single “North Newhall” is one of Erickson’s proudest moments and the best demonstration of Barely Civil’s newfound sense of scale. They’ve also ruled out ever playing it live. Conversely, Erickson knew immediately the penultimate rager “I Woke Up Laughing” was, “a song where people are gonna go hard,” immediately revising to say, “but now I guess people are gonna go hard in two years.”
Like every other band of their ilk, Barely Civil are still grieving the loss of live music — not just as a primary source of income but as an opportunity to recast their songs with an interactive, communal spirit that doesn’t always translate to the studio. More pointedly, how can a band like Barely Civil continue to connect with listeners in new ways once I’ll Figure This Out is released? Even as a listener, one of the more demoralizing parts of following music in 2020 is realizing that, without announcements of tours or people tweeting about last night’s gig, I’m liable to momentarily forget about records that I love mere weeks after they stop getting reviewed. Imagine what it must be like for bands. “It’s great that people like what they’re hearing, but how do we keep people talking about it without going to their state?” Erickson muses, unintentionally shifting the original intention behind his album’s title. “I think every band is trying to figure that out.”
STEREOGUM: So what does the day-to-day look like now for Barely Civil with the album finally about to come out?
ISAAC MARQUARDT: Neither of us have jobs right now. I didn’t [before COVID] but Connor did. So lately, we’ve been watching a lot of Survivor, started on Season 1 and we’re at Season 3 now. We play a lot of board games. I’ve been watching a lot of Smallville but no one will watch Smallville with me.
CONNOR ERICKSON: Outside of that, we’re in a weird spot with this album release where it’s so close that there’s not much we can do right now, but I still just feel like I have to be doing something. I get on the internet and check numbers and count down the days. I just want the whole record to be out so I can stop stressing about it.
STEREOGUM: What are some of the things you’ve seen bands do that’s pointed a way forward for fan interaction?
ERICKSON: I think live-streamed shows where bands are just figuring out how to actually put on a performance, whether it’s through Instagram or piecing something together with other bands. It’s also really difficult. We live in Milwaukee, where the only place we can really afford is an apartment. You can’t really put on a show in your apartment without pissing off your neighbors. On a personal level, Twitter and Instagram are just great ways to keep your name in people’s minds; we take pride in the fact that we never stop talking about ourselves.
MARQUARDT: One of things I’ve seen in quarantine that I really like is pronoun. doing an Instagram livestream when they had bands they toured with come on and tell their favorite tour stories. Our friend Amy [Hoffman] from Future Teens was the guest, so I got to watch and think about the time we toured with them. It was a fun little thing that wasn’t necessarily a livestream performance.
STEREOGUM: I don’t think many bands have said this publicly, but I’ve heard quite a few privately express relief over not having to go through the physical and financial grind of touring.
ERICKSON: I think there’s a monetary safety in not having the ability to go out on tour. When we went on our first tour, we each personally lost between $400-500 on gas, food and housing. But recently, we’ve been consistently coming back from tours even, so that feels like a win for us. We were never too beat up about breaking even — that was a cool thing that we weren’t used to, and it just recently started happening. But while there’s a lot of cost that comes along with touring, there’s nothing I find more enjoyable about being in a band than being on the road. As difficult and frustrating as touring can be when you play a show to 10 people, it’s still an experience that not a lot of people get, and we’re really lucky to do it in any capacity. So now, with the world telling you you can’t do it, it’s really daunting and sad.
MARQUARDT: And I’m at a point where I’m not making money anyway right now, so I might as well be not making money on the road with my friends.
STEREOGUM: To be fair, I think most of the ones I’ve heard it from are further along in their careers — it’s probably harder to justify giving up the day job to go out on the road and barely break even when you’re over 30. But what were the things that happened with We Can Live Here Forever that gave you the motivation to keep going?
MARQUARDT: The big one for me was a festival we played two summers in a row in Cleveland called Summer Bummer. It took place in a bowling alley, and we played downstairs both years. It was a small, 150-cap room. The first year we played it, there was a full room and we went into our first song, which was “I’ve Been Getting Headaches Lately,” with the gang vocal part. And the crowd was doing the gang vocals, which was really cool to see. The next year, we played that same stage and you literally couldn’t get into the room because the stairs were overflowing with people trying to see us. And the gang vocal part was even louder. It made me feel like people actually cared about what we were doing.
ERICKSON: One of the coolest things for me, just as a lover of music and a lover of bands in this scene, has been the fact that we’ve been able to tour really consistently with our favorite bands. Most recently, we were on tour with Mess. Before that we had the Future Teens/Sonder Bombs tour; those are still two of our favorite bands. Whether we played a good show or a bad show, it’s always been super cool to consistently see these songs that you really love every night for a month and a half.
STEREOGUM: Reading into the lyrics, there isn’t much in the way of truly celebrating life on the road, and the songs themselves tend to have fewer group vocals and slower tempos. Were you writing these songs from a “home” or “tour” mindset?
ERICKSON: We wrote this record sporadically over two years right when we finished We Can Live Here Forever. Every year, I was on a new lease, living with different people, working my way through college… It was a space that felt very isolating. I think being on tour during those times was a bittersweet thing because it really solidified that I feel comfortable when I’m away from home and I feel very uncomfortable when I’m at home. I think a lot of this record is trying to navigate, well, then where is home? What does that mean? And if I can’t consider the places where I’m living to be my home, do I have a sense of home?
STEREOGUM: I’m thinking specifically of “Graves Avenue,” with the line, “I’ll find myself getting lost on my front lawn, shaking fists at my neighbors.”
ERICKSON: That’s all an examination of, “Well, if I’m in this space and I pay to live here, but I don’t feel comfortable, then what am I even doing here?” And do I know this place as well as I know the backseat of a van? But when I’m in those spaces, does it make me feel more comfortable or is it more eye-opening to how uncomfortable I feel elsewhere? And that’s what a lot of this record is about. When it comes to lyric writing, I tend to write up until I do them for a track. I finish my lyrics maybe 10 minutes before I track them, and it’s because I want them to be as true to that moment as possible. While I’ll have an idea of the melody and the lyrics written out going into the studio, they change constantly until I can’t change them anymore. While this record was written over a long two years, really, the heart of this record comes from the 10 days we spent in Connecticut making it and me reflecting on the last two years and chopping up what I had written into what I was feeling at that moment.
STEREOGUM: Do you have any temptation to revise the lyrics from older songs, especially since they were written in your teens?
ERICKSON: It’s definitely tempting. I’ve never played a song from We Can Live Here Forever and changed the words, but I’ve definitely thought, “That could’ve been a better line if I had just said this word instead of that one.” What I tell myself is that if I were to alter those words, then it wouldn’t be a time capsule. When we wrote We Can Live Here Forever, I was like 18 years old. I’m not 100% stoked on all the lyrics, but I can’t beat myself up too much about that.
STEREOGUM: There are noticeably fewer in-jokes, puns, and, for lack of a better term, Midwestern emo-isms, in the song titles here.
ERICKSON: When it comes to titling the tracks, we write all of our music collaboratively, bust out a phone and record whatever we’re playing, and slap a title on it real quick. On the last record a few of those titles hung on. This time we were like, “No, we need to think about this.”
MARQUARDT: Which is kind of a bummer, because I did like some of the demo titles.
ERICKSON: We have some conventions we stuck to, like street names because they feel true to the music we’re writing and what we’re writing about. But then we get to the opener and closer of the record and that was an idea I had immediately. Once we named the record, I was like, “OK, I want this track to be ‘…For Now,’ and this one to be ‘…Forever.’ I want them to be continuations of the title and that’s gonna be a cool thing.” Naming songs was a huge thing where we agreed that we can’t do it the same way. And then when it comes to lyric writing, I also am super stoked being in this band because no one tells me, “Hey, these lyrics are bad.”
STEREOGUM: Do you wish they did give more feedback?
ERICKSON: I know when a lyric is bad — if it’s dumb, I know it. But in the same way I never tell Isaac, “It’d be cooler if you did this,” nobody ever says to me, “I like this lyric, but you should say this word instead of that one.”
STEREOGUM: It’s interesting to see a lot of bands that started to pop up in 2018 — yourselves, Sonder Bombs, Retirement Party, and such — start to put out follow-ups. That really seemed like a year where a more clever, pop-based style and sound of emo emerged after the bigger bands of the revival quieted down. How have you seen things evolve in the scene since then?
MARQUARDT: Maybe this is more from my experience as someone who was booking shows in a smaller Wisconsin town for a while: A lot of young bands in the scene right now, they love Mom Jeans and they sound like Glocca Morra but they’ve never heard Glocca Morra. I think that’s cool, but that’s kinda bad news for Barely Civil. When you look at a band like Short Fictions, I’m hoping more people latch onto that. You remember back in 2014 when all the emo bands really liked post-rock?
STEREOGUM: I certainly do. Then everyone really got into grunge, and then emo kids acted like Turnover and Title Fight invented dream-pop and shoegaze in 2015, then two years later, every band in Philly was covering Sheryl Crow and Tom Petty.
MARQUARDT: I think with bands like Short Fictions and Harmony Woods, music like that will make a comeback and that would be good for us.
ERICKSON: We were 16 when The World Is… put out Between Bodies and 17 when Harmlessness came out. I was just thinking about how crazy it is that this band that we grew up with…
MARQUARDT: …is tweeting about us.
ERICKSON: It’s also this band that we grew up with and adored is now one that bands, including us, are citing as an influence. They’re not that old of a band! We’ll always say that Death Cab is a massive influence on our music, that was a band putting out music in the late ’90s. And then we’re also gonna say, The World Is… is a massive influence. Every band says, “This is our influence from a long time ago and these are our contemporary ones.” And it’s really cool to see how the contemporary realm of influence is constantly shifting. You’re seeing bands that sound like the one that you loved as a teenager come up. That just makes Isaac and I hope that more people rip off A Great Big Pile Of Leaves, because that needs to happen.
STEREOGUM: The World Is… really isn’t that old of a band, all things considered, but I still think they’re viewed as scene elders at this point. Did Chris Teti give you any guidance about how to work together as a band based on his own experiences?
MARQUARDT: When quarantine first started, he did an AMA on his Instagram and someone asked him what his favorite bands are that he’s working with — and he said Fiddlehead and Barely Civil, and that working with us reminded him of when he was our age and starting out. We were talking with him in the studio about how their whole thing started, and working with bigger management companies and agents and he gave us some industry guidance in that way. But he failed to give us industry guidance when he told us, after we finished recording, that the singer from A Great Big Pile Of Leaves lived 10 minutes away from the studio and we totally would have had him on a track.
STEREOGUM: Chris tends to be the “metal guy” in The World Is… and I hear some pitch harmonics in “Bottom Of The Lake” and flashier leads on “Box For My Organs.” Did he steer you in that direction?
MARQUARDT: We definitely subdued that on the last record.
ERICKSON: Alex Larsen, our lead guitarist, he’s dummy good, and he’s also just a massive guitar historian. When it came to writing, he never brought it up, but something about Chris pulled it out of him. Chris was super open to all of our ideas, so when it came to additional guitar layers, he would say, “Just try something,” and Alex would think, “Now is the time.”
STEREOGUM: When you say “guitar historian,” does that mean Alex is into Guitar World stuff like Yngwie and Dream Theater?
ERICKSON: He’s not doing anything crazy, but he’s just got a massive range of influence from his childhood and pulls from all of it. As hard as it is to admit, he’s a massive John Mayer fan, and I think you can hear that influence on certain tracks. He grew up on a lot of Green Day, so that’s where you get the grittier, chugging portion from “Bottom Of The Lake.”
MARQUARDT: I’m definitely going to take a little bit of credit for his metal chugs. I showed him Hum and O’Brother and Frail Body and he got super into that. The next practice, he came in with, “I got these riffs and they’re too heavy.”
STEREOGUM: When you started brainstorming about the kind of record you ultimately wanted to make, was there ever a model for “this is our…”?
ERICKSON: I think ultimately — and this is probably going to seem like such a shitty answer — we really want it to be a record that we can walk away from and feel like we put something out that people give a shit about. It sounds simple but it’s incredibly hard to get people to listen to your music and care about it and especially care enough to keep listening to it. We want this record to be something people feel connected to, especially in times that are this weird. That’s the most you can hope for.
MARQUARDT: If we’re gonna bring it back to sophomore albums, I would really hope that this record makes someone feel like Harmlessness made me feel.
I’ll Figure This Out is out 9/4 via Take This To Heart Records. Pre-order it here.