For some bands, making the bigger-label jump might not look the way you’d expect. Take the case of the Philadelphia-based Hop Along: Last month, singer and guitarist Frances Quinlan released the second single from Painted Shut, the group’s Saddle Creek debut. “Powerful Man” is a too-real tale of schoolyard abuse between a boy and his father — and a scene Quinlan took in with her own eyes at the age of eighteen. Nearly a decade later, she hasn’t shaken the image. “Down came the fists/Hard upon your head,” she sings, unpacking the details. Lyric by lyric, her own friend convinces her to find help. A teacher refuses to act on the word of two teens. From the teacher’s p.o.v., Quinlan sings, “How should I know? The man you just described could be anyone.”
That’s one of the hardest things Quinlan’s had to write — so much so that she called the aforementioned friend to talk before the song was released. “It took me ten years to talk about that,” she says. “But I think those are the most important words I’ve ever written.”
Frances’s penning of “Powerful Man” was a bittersweet accomplishment, in that it’s her strongest set of lyrics to date. And signing to Saddle Creek? Frances shares her memory of her first demo, which she sent to the Omaha-based label — the imprint responsible for plucking Bright Eyes, Cursive, and other indie greats from the Midwestern ether — while she was still in high school. “It was called Synthetic Fly Paper,” she laughs. “It was really bad. I thought it would be like, ‘[They’ll call] any day now!’ They sent me a postcard back, which was really nice.”
A new label, a fan base that grew to sing along with the group’s sets following the drop of sophomore release Get Disowned, a slick new LP boasting the touch of a widely respected producer (John Agnello, who’s worked with Dinosaur Jr, Kurt Vile, and more) — these are conditions that could accelerate the rise of any band. But Frances and Hop Along drummer Mark Quinlan (Frances’s brother) are telling me all this from an empty house that just doubled as the band’s crash pad. Not to say the place was abandoned — it’s beautifully restored — but, touring at this level, the band’s had to call on the help of fans to put them up.
“When you play to a thousand people and put a note up that says, ‘We have nowhere to stay,’ you get some super-interesting people coming up to you with strange circumstances,” Mark laughs. In this case, one fan owned a house that wasn’t quite ready to go on the market. “We had three beds that were about to be given away to Habitat for Humanity. It was pretty cool.”
And maybe that’s a scary thought for timid travelers, but this style of getting by has spread the emotive gospel of Hop Along across the U.S., from evenings at thousand-seater venues to this morning in an empty house in Tulsa — or, when they’re really lucky, to a gorgeous farm in Knoxville. “They had fifty acres, a trail, and a donkey,” Mark says. So many stories within Painted Shut come from that same industrious place, one of simply making it work, whether that’s scheduling nationwide tours with Against Me! in 2013, sitting down for lunches with record labels, or working day jobs in the time between. Frances penned Painted Shut while waitressing, working retail, and painting houses. Mark split his time between Philadelphia and Brooklyn, where he relocated with his wife. As a result, there’s something more true-to-life in this most recent offering.
Frances’s work life might have trickled into Painted Shut — most obviously in the lead single, “Waitress” — but it’s easier to think of the LP as a collection of short stories, not a confessional journal.
“It’s working with characters who can’t be touched or contacted,” Frances says of the title. The work does contain plenty of those characters — nine, by Frances’s count — but, like most good tales, that’s just a starting point. The songs on Painted Shut are wide open to listener interpretation. “I don’t want to force people to see [Painted Shut‘s songs] how I thought,” Frances says. “I appreciate it more and more when people come away with different stories. So far, many people have described ‘Waitress’ as a different story, but those descriptions haven’t been my experience. I don’t think it’s meant to be a piece of journalism, really. It’s just a document.”
That knack for storytelling — that’s been with Frances for decades. Starting at seventeen, Frances worked in creative-writing programs through college, but she found a necessary outlet in short-form storytelling. “I slowly began to realize that writing a novel would be even harder than most of my other aspirations,” she laughs. “I really respect someone who can just sit in a house alone for two years and write.”
But if Painted Shut is any indication, it was a collaborative three years for Hop Along since their last studio effort. These songs weren’t any less fussed over than Get Disowned‘s — in fact, the time spent writing these tracks was on par with that LP’s meticulous process. The difference was the studio time, which was a lean month working with Agnello, compared to Get Disowned‘s months-long tinker sessions. While that smaller window had the potential to be jarring for the band, it wasn’t, partially thanks to Agnello’s laid-back process.
“At the end of the day, he would say, ‘It’s your record, you need to do what’s right for you,’ ” Frances recalls. “And the fact that he was with us the whole way, that it was our vision — it was like he was another band member, not just a producer.”
Painted Shut is less a vast departure from what Hop Along have created previously than a confident leap forward, in terms of musicianship, storytelling, and studio mastery. Here we have thicker sounds (see the sitar-laden “Waitress” intro), guitarist Joe Reinhart’s layers of reverb and tremolo on “Texas Funeral,” the expansive piano of “Horseshoe Crabs,” and more.
“The record is everything we had at that point, as far as making sure the songs were as good as they could be,” Mark says. “It’s an honest record, and we poured our hearts and souls into it.” And on the verge of Painted Shut‘s release, those aren’t stars in the members of Hop Along’s eyes — though they’ve produced a knockout
record. They’re not gunning to quit their day jobs. In fact, Frances says, “I’d just like to see what the album does over time.
“I’d love to see it grow.”
Painted Shut is out May 4 on Saddle Creek Records. Hop Along are set to play Rough Trade NYC on May 5.
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 28, 2015