Hindsight really is always 20-20, isn't it? Hop Along—a Philly quartet trading in the sort of scrappy, ferociously anthemic punk-rock that can leave an audience spellbound, in tears or without a voice (or all three at once)—are one of those bands that seem predestined to reign at the top of a city's budding music scene and countless best-of lists. The road the group took to get there though, was anything but easy or straightforward.
Before Hop Along, there was Hop Along, Queen Ansleis, the lo-fi, freak-folk solo project of frontwoman Frances Quinlan. Her urgent, expansive (and only) full-length under that name, Freshman Year, came all the way back in 2005, and—while putting her unconventional, deeply moving narratives directly in the spotlight—only hinted at the true scope of her abilities. Years would go by before Quinlan teamed up with her brother Mark and bassist Tyler Long, jettisoned the second half of her former stage name and made the transition from singer/songwriter to frontwoman of a thrillingly dynamic rock band.
Even then, the band's raggedly beautiful, combative 2012 debut, Get Disowned, flew largely under the radar, forcing the band to rely largely on word of mouth. So, the band picked up former Algernon Cadwallader guitarist Joe Reinhart as a full-time member and toured constantly. Meanwhile, the band's devoted fanbase began to—with the help of some famous admirers—rapidly expand. After signing to venerated indie label Saddle Creek, and with a groundswell of momentum behind them at last, the band finally connected all the dots with 2015's Painted Shut, a visceral, staggering rock record powered by Quinlan's captivating tales of the forgotten, the downtrodden and the powerless. Stirring, all-encompassing and incredibly catchy, it was the perfect album at the perfect time, earning the band critical adoration and an opening slot with indie giants Modest Mouse.
The band's newest offering, Bark Your Head Off, Dog, feels liberated; the work of a group that can finally stretch their legs and truly act like themselves after years of tireless work just to get a seat at the table. It moves from gnarled, razor-sharp pop hooks ("How Simple") to glossy, infectious dance-rock ("Somewhere a Judge") to intricate folk-pop ("Not Abel.") Read on to hear a couple of the album's tracks, and see our discussion with Frances Quinlan and Reinhart about how the album came to be.
Bark Your Head Off, Dog is the third album in a row that you guys recorded at The Headroom in Philadelphia, but you decided to produce this one yourselves. What made you want to go that route?
Frances Quinlan: Well, Joe’s already produced us before. Joe produced Get Disowned, so it wasn’t a totally foreign task. He technically wasn’t in the band at the time, but doing this latest record didn’t feel like too much of a departure from that approach, except that we’re a lot better now. So I guess you could say it was easier, but new challenges spring up as you get better I guess.
Joe Reinhart: Totally. Yeah, I think also we just kinda know what we want for the most part. I think we know when [things are] right.
Quinlan: We’re also four very different people with strong feelings about music [so] there’s plenty of nuance there to sort through. Also, our friend Kyle Pulley, who co-runs The Headroom with Joe, engineered the record with Joe.
After the success of Painted Shut, did you feel any urge to change things up, and try a different studio, or go somewhere else to record?
Reinhart: I think it wasn’t so much where we recorded. Like, in a fun world it would be fun to go to the Bahamas and record a record there, but the reality of it was we just needed a lot of time, and the only question was if somebody was going to produce it or not.
Quinlan: Yeah, I thought initially that it would be cool to leave Philadelphia and just get in a different headspace but above all, we will use up every ounce of time given to us, so it made more sense, as Joe said. It’s [The Headroom] a great studio also! I like being there, it’s a nice place. You’ve got a nice place there, Joe. [laughs]
There are a ton of strings on this record. Who did the arrangements for them?
Quinlan: That would be Sarah Larsen, accompanied by Rachel Icenogle. Yeah, Sarah had some wonderful ideas. They were a boon to the album.
Were the strings something you envisioned when you were writing the songs? Or did they start to fit in more later in the recording process?
Quinlan: There were a couple songs that, right away, we all agreed would be great with strings, and then a couple where [it was more] ‘Hey, you guys are already there and you’re set up, and we’d love to try this,’ and it worked out. There were a couple that right away we felt would really be easy to do for them.
To move to “How Simple,” that song is so twisty and personal, but so catchy and accessible at the same time. How did that song come together?
Quinlan: Well, it was recorded twice. Joe recorded it the first time, and we agreed that the original version moved a little fast, right?
Reinhart: Yeah, I think the only difference is you attacked some of the vocal phrasing a little differently but structurally, I think we slowed it down by two bpm and we made the chorus go one more time at the end. We had a pretty clear vision of what we liked and didn’t like about that already, because that was demoed to the point of almost being releasable.
Quinlan: Initially it was for a film that didn’t really come to be, so we did a finished version of it the first time, but yeah, it’s funny how just the speed of something really can change, even the slightest shift. It’s a lot more disco-y now than its predecessor. The other thing is that we’ve done songs, in the past, with heavy lyrics and heavy instrumentation and it does tend to beat people over the heads a little bit. I really liked that, musically, we approached this song from a totally different angle than trying to hammer the lyrics home. I mean, sometimes there are moments where we’ll maybe shift the mood a little more to be right behind the lyrics, but generally I really like the twists, as you said, where you’re hearing one thing but you’re feeling something else.
It almost sounded like a love song to me at first, and it was only after I listened to it a lot more that the kind of deeper themes, like mortality and aging, sank into me.
Quinlan: That’s great! With our songs, people feel good first and then bad later. A potpourri of emotions!
Reinhart: A night out with Frances! [laughs]
Quinlan: No, but I like that! I’ve told people many times that I’m not a pessimist. You know, I am optimistic, but for us to pretend that we’re gonna live forever is just a doomed venture, but also at the same time, I like that it is celebrating relationships even though it has a dark tone to it, ‘We will both find out, just not together.’ It still says don’t worry! That’s nice, right?
Reinhart: And the other song we demoed for the movie [“Somewhere a Judge”] is practically unrecognizable to what it ended up being on the album. Like, “How Simple”’s got a similar vibe for sure, but the other song is not even the same in any way, shape or form.
Quinlan: I really like how that can happen. I mean, it’s definitely a frustrating thing to be in the middle of a song that you just inevitably have to tear apart and almost start from scratch [on], but seeing the germination of that song was one of the most exciting things about making the record for me. None of us knew that it was going to be dancier than “How Simple,” in a way.
Reinhart: It was the last week of rehearsals where that song made the huge turn before recording, and there was still a lot left to be hashed out when we went into the studio.
Quinlan: We took a long break from that one, right? Like, we kinda didn’t touch it for a long time after we recorded it the first time, we needed a hiatus for a minute.
Reinhart: Yeah, and I feel like it was on the chopping block for you for a minute too and then that last week of rehearsals when we were practicing it, Tyler and Mark came up with this groove and then someone suggested that the bridge [become] the chorus and we all just went ‘oh shit’!
You use a vocoder on that song. What drew you to using that sort of effect on your voice?
Quinlan: Well as Joe was saying, Tyler and Marc were playing this beat and I think I even mentioned at that practice, wouldn’t it be cool if it was kind of akin to that Daft Punk song, “Instant Crush,” that features Julian Casablancas on vocals? He’s got vocoder all over that.
Stylistically, this album is so diverse. Was there anything you were listening to or reading that inspired the record?
Quinlan: I was reading this book called A Time for Everything, and that came up a lot in the record. Also, Joe got me listening to this excellent podcast called Hardcore History, he was driving us on some tour, I can’t remember… Maybe it was 2015, on the Modest Mouse tour. Yeah, Joe was listening to it. How many hours is it? It’s several episodes and many hours long.
Reinhart: The World War I [series] was like four hours each and there were five different episodes.
Quinlan: Yeah, so that inspired me. I went to the library for a day and wrote a few passages, and some of them got into “One That Suits Me,” which is inspired by world history and World War I. For some reason there’s a World War I song on the record!
Reinhart: It’s kind of disguised because it’s set to this mid-tempo, Wilco-y, feel-good kind of pop song, but the lyrics are intense.
Quinlan: I’m kind of just like this wet blanket that’s thrown over the band.
Reinhart: Yeah, but Frances, remember when I fixed the van with a shoe?
Quinlan: That’s right. [laughs]
Reinhart: You’re the shoe! I mean, you probably threw the wrench in there to begin with, but then you also fixed it. You made it work!
Quinlan: That’s right. And that’s what songwriting is!
Frances, you’ve said that Painted Shut was about power, and that’s a theme that definitely seems to come up a lot on this record too. How did you approach that theme differently on the new record?
Quinlan: Well, I think I just came to a point in my life, personally, where I realized that the way it seemed to be “working” didn’t work anymore. The way in which I view relationships and how to properly be there for people and need people. I mean, power’s such a loose word, it’s an ongoing search, the sense of personal power and value, and I think it’s far less simple than it sounds.
I mean, what gives a person a sense of power, whether they be strong or meek? It’s certainly something I was thinking about, just as [someone] who’s in general a very fearful person. It’s just a lot of spending more time alone and writing, I mean I always write the lyrics alone, but walking around alone and just thinking about relationships in a more...I don’t know, I don’t want it to be bitter. I didn’t want the lyrics to end in a bitter or rageful way, but there is rage and bitterness here and there. I think it just comes up in the search. I’ll search the rest of my life, I’ll never have an album that’s like ‘Here it is! Here’s the answer!’