FIST IN THE AIR, CRAWLING THROUGH DIRT:
An Interview with Feral Conservatives’ Matt Francis
by Chris Wolford
Feral Conservatives released their latest LP Better Lives on November 2, 2017 via Egghunt Records. I recently sat down with drummer and co-founder Matt Francis to talk about promoting and recording the album, how to escape Virginia Beach, and the future of music in the era of Trump.
INTERVIEWER: So before we dive into anything else, tell me the backstory on the fragrance line videos used to promote the new album.
MATT FRANCIS: Well I had wanted to start off by saying this will make more sense as part two in a weekly video series (of which part one is here, albeit as a more straight forward promotional push for an audio release) that, with some absurdity, lampoons different ad/brand categories. But then again, it may never make sense (except that, apparently, fragrance is all sex and French avant-garde cinema).
I find it to be pretty interactive, as well. We're trying to tap into a category where fans feel compelled to comment at our media, even providing their own punchlines as a way to engage with or finish it on their own social feeds. If that involves showcasing my 30-something, beer-loving body, well...
Ultimately, if someone leaves with the basics of the album titles and the release date, I'll consider it a success. Actually, if someone leaves grinning — that's worth it.
INTERVIEWER: They're some of the most unique music marketing pieces I've seen in a long time. They definitely make you stop and watch. What've been some of your favorite responses to the videos from fans?
FRANCIS: I think my favorite in the responses overall is the good split between straight appreciation and then "What did I just watch!?" I like that it's weird enough, or different enough for an album promo, that it elicits some confusion at first.
INTERVIEWER: Moving on the new album, what inspired the title Better Lives and what were you able to accomplish on this record you hadn't been able to on previous ones?
FRANCIS: The phrase "better lives" is from the song "State Lines." We were trying to find a succinct title to represent the album as a whole (as bands do). A lot of songs dealt with life or problems as modern post-adolescents (or whatever category older generations put us in) — things like poor self body image, self-hate or anxiety, wondering how your father sees you, student loan debt, marriage problems, even political apprehension. Obviously, that's a lot of negative stuff — but very true to our lives. We sort of spun it and found through-line to be hope, or a call for a better life out of what we've been given. I think we kind of took some of the negative aspects and made it more about rallying above it — fist in the air, crawling through the dirt — you don't do that stuff because you want to stay where you're at.
The title itself hit us when we were recording the vocal for "State Lines." Our engineer, Mark Padgett, was comping vocals and he said into the talk-back to Rashie in the booth: "We just need 'better lives'" referring to the line "There are state lines that lead to better lives." I was sitting in the control room at the time and was right on it, saying "That about sums it up, doesn't it." And it sort of stuck with me. It was so simple, even obvious but poignant in its own right. The line and the song itself is about how change can lead to better lives — moving to a new state, saying a hard goodbye — but is ultimately about reconciling with someone that you love, and making that change together.
This record is a definitely a more complete, fully-formed BAND album from our previous. We have a habit of picking up a new band member each album. The band started with Rashie and I as a mandolin/drum duo and we were both writing songs. We picked up Dan (our bassist) on 2016's Here's to Almost, and even though most of the songs were written and arranged, Dan was really able to elevate the material and leave his mark. Kind of like Entwistle — a lead bassist. Being a trio really worked well for that sort of showcase. We picked up a Zach on guitar between the two albums, and you can really hear the difference in having another chord instrument, and having hashed out this record together — as a four-piece — instead of trying to flesh it out in the studio. It's a different interplay. It allowed Rashie to make the mandolin sound more like a mandolin (at times) and ultimately gave more depth and space to the record as a whole.
And for the first time this album features entire song contributions by Dan and Zach — when before it was a pretty even split between Rashie and I. In every sense, Better Lives, represents four unique songwriters. It's varied, but there's still a cohesion that makes it a really satisfying listen — which is also a credit to Jon Auer who co-produced and mixed the album and played here and there.
That's another thing we were able to accomplish — we've been fans of Big Star and The Posies for a long time, so it was a great experience to work with someone whose body of work we admire as much as his. When I first heard his voice mesh with Rashie's on the rough-mix of the "Angels" single, where they duet on the chorus, I was so giddy and proud — I just kept replaying it and replaying it. I couldn't sit down. The Posies were so integral to the power pop/indie rock of the 90’s. It really felt like a milestone in the band and in my songwriting, personally, to have the careful ear and even mentorship from someone who — well, you can see him singing with Jeff Tweedy (Wilco) and members of REM on some of the Big Star reunion/tribute shows.
INTERVIEWER: The band's hometown is Virginia Beach. Tell me how Virginia, and Virginia Beach in particular, has influenced you personally and the band as a whole.
FRANCIS: That's a good a question. Virginia Beach isn't much of anything but a town to want to get out of. That's a theme throughout some of our songs. Norfolk is where there's an alternative music scene and there's some venues that are really working to build a scene and host touring bands — weekends, weekdays. It's really exciting and you see a lot of Richmond bands coming on down, Norfolk's really opened their doors which is great because some cities are so insular and it's really hard to book a gig.
The best part of our home base in Virginia Beach is its a good launching pad to tour. You’ve got a lot of markets about three hours away (South to Raleigh/Chapel Hill, North to DC/Baltimore/Alexandria) and we've definitely driven to those and back in a night. Especially heading North you can hit up DC, Philly, NYC, and have a lot of the East Coast and New England just a short hop from each other.
That really helped define the band and our ambitions and DIY spirit, especially when we were just starting and struggled to even book a hometown gig. We just loaded the station wagon and booked a week of shows up to Boston and back. It really put things within our grasp and helped us reach beyond ourselves, make cool connections along the way and challenged us to appear an exciting, forward-moving band even when we didn't have a lot of outlets initially.
INTERVIEWER: Where did the name Feral Conservatives come from initially? Has it taken on any new connotations for you as a result of our country's current political climate?
FRANCIS: he name started as an inside joke. We were the Fucking Conservatives initially because, before Rashie and I started the band, we were in a power trio with a dude who hated swearing. That's fine, but he hated swearing so much he wanted to call our band "The Dead Eff's." The "Eff's" being people who say the "F-word." Now I can respect anyone's personal inclinations in regards to profanity, but for a rock band, that was fucking funny to us. So we called our band, a side-project at the time, the Fucking Conservatives. The oxymoron was more pronounced. We changed it to Feral because we didn't want to be some overtly edgy band with "fuck" in the name. I think it made more sense as a side project.
And yeah, we do feel like it carries a lot of baggage and certainly got worse in the era of Donald J. Trump as Commander & Chief as the political divisiveness reached a critical mass. I can't imagine how many spam folders we ended up in emailing from our official account. Our music is largely apolitical, but we did add a simple disclaimer to our bio stating we value equality in our art, lives, and applicable legislation. Basically to say we're not the hateful conservatives — no walls; we value all skin colors, genders or non-binary, and certainly our LGBTQ friends. We're anti-police and anti-ICE, but our lyrics don't hit you over the head with it. The good thing is the scene for our style is pretty progressive. But yeah, the name is just a joke. But we're not accepting a mainstream award-show trophy anytime soon.
I do laugh when it leads to these sort of interactions:
Obviously just a bot (probably Russian) but no doubt hitting up our Facebook for the dirty word in our title. Unfortunately for the "Stone Cold Truth" account, no one on our page thought Trump is cool.
This actually leads to a little story about our video for "Twenty-Eight" if you want to hear it. We shot the video during the primaries, when there was still Kasich and Cruz in the race (and Clinton and Sanders). So Trump was just a punchline at the time. He didn't exist in real life — to me, in my bubble — he was just an internet meme. The guy who started his presidency by calling all Mexicans rapists and criminals. So it's funny to remember that time in our lives and politics when Trump was just a punchline, and we made a soft political statement thinking it was the safest political statement we could make "What? Are we gonna offend the racist rednecks?" because you gotta remember, this was February 2016. He had no chance, right? So the first thing that happened in my real life was I saw a TRUMP bumper sticker where I work, and I about fell over. Someone not only supports the dude, but supports him publicly?! And then those handmade signs popped up over time, on every utility pole in Virginia Beach.
So it's actually really funny to revisit that video with the hindsight of the election results — first the Republican nom, and then winning the electoral college while losing the popular vote. So much of his childish behavior has been normalized. We had actually stopped making Trump jabs in the banter of our shows because it was too easy. We started joking about Jeb's $75 guacamole bowl because we wanted a better challenge than the low-hanging fruit. What a difference a year makes.
INTERVIEWER: How do you think this administration and everything it has bred will influence music moving forward over the next three years?
I think it's a tough call because, well, the positive effect is you have people coming together in support of marginalized groups and immigrants. I know that's been a cool opportunity for our band over the past year to be more philanthropic -- we've played benefit shows for the Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood, Hope House, various disaster relief. So I think bringing more awareness and more inclusiveness to the scene is going to be the positive result. We're seeing a lot of push back against sexual assault from people in power in the music/arts community (I'm thinking Weinstein, Spacey, PWR BTM) so I think we've reached this point that we won't tolerate it anymore, we won't brush it under the rug...we're saying no, that's a career killer. And I think that hard line stance is a long time in coming. If only we held our politicians to that same level...
When we had the chance to play some of those aforementioned benefits, we pulled from some classic protest songs — "Ohio" by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and we found "Gimme Shelter" to be timely enough. Almost scary the relevancy 40, 50 years on. So it's interesting that a band like us — I feel our stylistic tendencies to be stuck in the middle between writing full on angry protest music, or writing some fluffy song about giving the whole world a Coke but then you realize how politicized everything is. And you feel nudged to take up the mantle because silence is complicity in a lot of ways. And it almost makes it hard to focus — how do you write about a broken heart during the Trump administration with police killing black people at an alarming rate with zero accountability, or struggling with depression with the real threat of nuclear war. It makes your problems seem a bit silly. Too inconsequential to have problems, as a white person, in this era. It makes me feel selfish, personally. So mostly I just want to elevate minority voices and get a different perspective at this time, play diverse shows and kind of act as a combination of escapism and activism. That's speaking for us personally.
But in some ways it's almost easier to protest...in the W. years it was almost working in a jab at foreign oil. In this era, just being accepting, just having a "Coexist" bumper sticker, ya know, it's crazy how politicized everything is. I feel like it's so much easier to write a song about tearing down walls or open borders from an artist and humanitarian perspective than a more heavy-handed lives-for-oil metaphor. So I don't know, you don't even have to name names and it can be a potent political statement.
And if someone asks us to contribute to a Rock Against Trump comp...well, we wouldn't say no.
INTERVIWER: Now that Better Lives is out in the world, how’s it feel?
FRANCIS: I'm super proud of the record. It's a good feeling to finally have it out there. It's also very bitter sweet.
It's crazy to think about where this band started — in a basement, tow (inexperienced) songwriters just trying to make a sound. I think this was Rashie's first band and so it's super humbling to see the support we've had over the years, in finding a label to share our vision, and finding some other musicians to join the journey and expand our sound...but to also remember it all started out with a guy and girl in a basement — a mandolin and drum pairing — when no one else would touch our songs or songwriting.
Mostly I'm just thankful anyone cared to listen along the way.