Four Year Strong’s Dan O’Connor Talks Riff-Heavy New LP, Band’s Vocal Style + Why They Have Beards
It's not often in pop-punk that you find a band with enough ferocity to bridge the gap between its younger demographic with a harder, more metal sound, truly finding a niche suited for nearly any contemporary rock fan.
If you haven't heard of Four Year Strong, well, that's exactly what they do.
Formed in 2001 in Massachusetts, amongst the bustling New England emo-pop insurgence, they exploded onto the scene with a number of studio albums before really hitting their stride with 2010's Enemy of the World. Now they're back with a brand new self-titled album due out June 2 via Pure Noise Records that promises to be more riff-heavy and as hard as ever.
We had the chance to chat with frontman Dan O'Connor about everything from the new disc's recording process to how their vocal style has progressed, and even why they all have beards. Check out our exclusive chat below:
You guys formed right around the time that your genre was hugely popular, before it faded out for a bit and later became popular again. How did you survive that brief pop-punk recession?
Well, it recedes and comes back all the time ... but when we first started in 2001, Drive-Thru [Records] was the big thing so pop-punk was doing really well at the time. But we actually weren't touring much then, we were just kind of a high school band, just playing random local shows and doing our own thing, trying to figure out how to write songs. When we first started touring it was 2004, 2005 and it was a time where the whole "emo" thing was really big like Taking Back Sunday and Thursday and all those type of bands were out, so it wasn't really huge for us but we just kept trucking along and doing our thing and trying to build a fanbase. It was kind of cool because as our band grew, pop-punk started to come back in style, so it worked out timing-wise for us.
Why do you think a lot of people are hearing about you for the first time now?
Well, so we did Warped Tour in 2012 and then after that we made a decision to take some time off and go home. We had been touring pretty heavily for almost five straight years and we had hardly been home at all. I had gotten married and a couple of us had bought houses and we just wanted to go home and enjoy our families for a little while. We hung out with people we hadn't seen for awhile and we all got dogs and just did all of the stuff we wanted to do but just weren't able to do. We didn't really have an amount of time, we just said that when we wanted to start doing stuff again, we'll just start doing stuff again. It ended up being about a year and a half before we decided to get together again and start writing music and all that. We started touring and put out our EP and just started to go. So I think we missed a whole generation of middle school-aged kids during that year and a half.
What kind of themes do you play around with on the new record?
We've never really been a band that plans things out as far as our writing. We've always kind of been a "fly by the seat of our pants" kind of band -- we just start writing a song and let it go where it goes, let it take its own shape. So that being said, we have never tried to do a themed record, but this one definitely deals a lot with things we've experienced. You know, we're a lot older, between 27 and 30, so we don't write about the same things we wrote about when we were writing songs at 18, 19 and 20; there are definitely a lot more adult situations, but at the same time we make the songs open so that other people can find their own meanings and relate to them in whichever way they want. They're definitely every day situations that every person goes through and even though I'm 30 years old, I'm still growing up, I'm still learning new things about myself and changing, so I think that's always something that Four Year Strong has dealt with ... just a sticking through hard times kind of vibe and I think there's a few songs that deal with that as well on this new record.
How was the recording process any different from previous records?
We worked with a producer and engineer named Kurt Ballou. He's from the Massachusetts area and he plays guitar in a band called Converge. Him being from Massachusetts and him being someone who deals with heavier music, his recordings are more raw and in-your-face. They sound different in this day and age -- they're not cookie-cutter like a lot of the other recordings that are coming out nowadays. We wanted to go to him not only because it was easier for us -- I mean, it was 20 minutes from my house -- but he also has really interesting and different recordings and since we wanted this to be a real in-your-face heavy record, we just thought it was a really good fit to go with someone like that.
How does it match up to Enemy of the World?
When we wrote Enemy of the World we didn't really have any idea of the impact that it was going to have and we kind of have the same feeling about this record. We have no idea of the impact it's going to have, but it's shaping up to have a similar one -- a lot of people, at least of the songs they've heard, are saying it sounds like Enemy of the World. After that album, we put out In Some Way, Shape, or Form which some people felt was too big of a jump for our band. What we tried to do with the EP before this record was to bridge that gap and write something that felt like it came between those two records, so it feels like a more gradual direction.
I think this record is kind of more of the same, but also it was not intended to be. We didn't go in there and say, "Let's write a record that falls in between these two things" ... we just decided to write a natural record and this is where it's at right now. It's high energy and in-your face at the same time. It's probably the most "riffy" record we've ever written because we're a lot better guitar players than we were before. We understand writing guitar lines even more than on Enemy of the World, so I'd say it's probably a lot more of a guitar riff-heavy version of that record.
Are your beards part of the Four Year Strong brand or is that style just the new face of pop-punk?
Yeah, it's definitely becoming a big thing now. We've had them for so long, but mostly it kind of came from being on tour and just not wanting to shave. We'd be sleeping in a van and doing all this stuff, and it would just be like, "Well I'm not going to shave, ever, since there's no time or place and I just don't care." So we'd just make ourselves look presentable with a beard and we've had them since like 2004.
Actually, the main reason I first grew a beard was, not to take the interview in a weird dark place, but in 2003 my brother had leukemia and was in the hospital and he passed away from that, but the last two weeks of his life when I was in the hospital with him I didn't leave, so I didn't shave or do anything. When my brother passed away, we had the funeral coming up, and I knew if I had shaved, I was going to be super broken-out and have a crazy razor burn rash, so I decided to just trim it up and make it look nice and I've had a beard ever since then.
Are there any heavy metal acts that are big influences for you?
Yeah, for sure. We all grew up listening to hardcore and metal music stuff that comes out of New England's underground scene, bands like Hatebreed, the Hope Conspiracy and Converge, Suicide File and American Nightmare, bands like that. But we're also big fans of bigger metal bands like Shadows Fall or Lamb of God. We also all grew up listening to Metallica and Pantera, bands like that, so we're all over the place with our influences. We're not really the kind of guys who listen to one type of thing and stick to that. Pop-punk is actually the genre that we probably listen to the most, which I think is why we have a different take on it when it comes to writing it than a lot of other bands.
What bands have influenced your vocal style the most?
I think what really influenced our vocal style is just the amount of touring that we've done over time. If you listen to our earlier stuff, our voices are a lot cleaner, we were obviously a lot younger, singing higher stuff. Now that we're older and have been touring for so long, our voices have naturally found this raspy tone, but with notes, kind of a half-scream, half-singing kind of vibe; that just comes from trying to put the energy in it when we play, growing up and touring. It didn't damage our vocal cords at all but it's just kind of how we developed as singers. We can still sing very cleanly but when we get behind the mic to sing Four Year Strong stuff, that's just kind of what comes out.
Make sure to grab details on Four Year Strong's upcoming self-titled disc, set for release on June 2, at their official website.