“Never say never” is a high risk, high reward way to live. For Finch, that fluidity and flexibly has lead to lineup changes, two hiatuses and a breakup. It also led to a bit of controversy when they put out a new record that didn’t sound exactly like their first full-length, What It Is To Burn, and, as is the nature of the beast these days, a place on the rosters of one of the most successful indie labels (Drive-Thru) and largest major labels (MCA).
But “never say never” is also the reason Finch were able to gather (most of) their original members a decade after What It Is To Burn – the album that, for many, defines the band – and start touring again. A decade on, they’ve decided to come together to give fans the ultimate listening experience of such a monumental record. Lead guitarist Randy 'R2K' Strohmeyer spoke with Alter The Press about the tour, growing up, and how he never imagined this is where he’d be today. But hey, never say never.
Alter The Press: Obviously we’re going to talk about the 10 year anniversary of What It Is To Burn. So what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
Randy Strohmeyer (guitar): Off the bat, I think it’s already happening. I think the wheels have been in motion for a few months, so we’re kind of preparing for this next few shows we’re doing. We did four shows at the Glasshouse [in California] at the start of February, and now I’m just kind of sort of tying up loose ends here. Things that you do if you’re a band, like get a better petal board and fix my guitar and stupid things like that. There’s nothing to distract me. We’re going on tour again, that’s amazing. I’m just working through that, quite literally. It’s hard. I'm sure once we kind of get into the routine again I’ll be relaxed and really enjoy it. But so far it’s been really enjoyable and we're really happy that people still care. This is the most amazing thing about, it is that there’s not a lack of interest.
ATP: A lot of your shows are selling out.
Randy: Yeah, so it’s exciting. It’s something I never thought I’d have again, to get to go back and do it how we wish we could have done it, in a way that we like. When this album came out we didn’t have any expectations of what the album would do, and we didn’t have any idea how to present it or do a live experience because we were always just playing the material that we had and trying to write new stuff at the same time. So the shows were testing new stuff out and playing stuff of the album. When the album came out the band took on a life of its own. Now we’re gonna play the album, so let’s really do something special with it and make it so it’s like the best listening and viewing experience we can get and bring both worlds together. It’s been a challenge to get to that point but it’s really great. We’re really focused on bringing together the best show we feel comfortable with and we feel comfortable presenting to people coming out to the shows.
ATP: You guys actually chronicled what it was like to have to, in a way, relearn some songs and prepare to play this album front-to-back. How long did it take to actually prepare for all of this?
Randy: Well we were only able to practice two day a week so we started practicing every Thursday and Sunday, and it was mainly first the four guys - Alex Pappas [drums], Alex Linares [guitar] and Daniel Wonacott [bass] and I - all kind of working on the routine of running a lot of loops and things that we’ve never done live before. So that was the whole idea, to make it like a super alien experience, like you're listening to the album. I want them to experience the album live in the best possible way. Then we brought in Nate [Barcalow, lead vocals] and then we started working on vocals. For me I’ve never been a good singer. I’m always embarrassed of my voice, I feel like a Muppet. Nate is such a good vocalist. He’s great and I’m a Muppet. So to try and train myself to get better, I did whatever I could - vocal warm-ups and vocal lessons on my own, not settling for being a Muppet. It’s been pretty interesting to go back to something and then instead of settling like, ‘fuck it we’re a punk band, we’re kids let’s just go on the road and fuck shit up.’ We still have that mentality when we’re on stage but it’s much more focused and concentrated. But I don’t think it’s boring. We're a nice listening experience. People say that we suck live people are goanna just have to come out to see it.
ATP: Actually reviews of the show have been stellar across the board.
Randy: Yeah I don’t think there’s any suckage!
ATP: When you guys formed this idea to get back together for the tour, whose idea was it in the first place? And how did you get Alex Pappas back on board to do this? [Pappas left the band before Finch’s second album, Say Hello to Sunshine.]
Randy: Well it was all Andy Harris, our manager’s idea. We had a falling out - it was just a weird time in the band when we were recording Say Hello To Sunshine, we ended up departing with a lot of people we worked with. Some for the better some for the questionable-worse. Anyways, back to Andy. He was one of the people we felt like could have really worked, for one reason or another, on continuing on this new album cycle we were going on. So for What It Is To Burn, Andy worked the entire way and it’s really special to him. His wife is also a manager, she does New Found Glory. And I think she brought up the idea to him because they’re doing their Sticks and Stones anniversary, 10 years of that, and she’s like, ‘you know, I bet you can get Finch to do this.’ And Andy probably laughed a little and then thought about it, he sat on it for like two weeks, and then he called us individually one by one. I think he called Alex first and then me, and went down the line, and he asked Pappas – we made efforts to patch things up in the past anyway. We never had any ill will towards him, it just didn’t work out for that second record. But for this it was a great opportunity to get back to the roots of that record and I think his drum sound is a big part of it. It’s a nice thing that it actually worked out that everyone said yes because here we are and we get to have that camaraderie again, it’s almost like it sort of never happened, which is weird because it did happen we just feel older now. We’ve learned from our mistakes and we have a better world view.
ATP: This album kind of defines Finch for a lot of fans, especially as there was some controversy that your sound was different on Say Hello to Sunshine. What does What It Is To Burn signify to you?
Randy: Well it’s much more than a definition of a musical style than it is an experience. I still don’t know how we got so lucky. We were just doing this thing that we never heard anyone else do, being isolated in this small town, and we all had different music that we listened to and really strange influences. What we did was we became friends with what we like to bring to the table and then we warped it all into this cohesive thing. That’s how we’ve always done things. We’re not genre-chasing or doing anything that we feel is contrived or un-organic, we’re just always going to want to have our own voice. That’s the only thing for our band. Signing to Drive-Thru was a dream come true, being on the able when I was 17 and recording my album with Mark Trombino, he was a hero on so many levels. It’s a big honor. It was amazing. It was just the smoothest, most amazing thing ever to happen.
Things get more complex as you grow up and you start seeing things from an outsider’s perspective. People are going, ‘oh what are you gonna do next?’ Everyone wants you to do the same thing. We’ve never been able to do that. I think we just kind of lived in the now, and whatever emotions are happening or whatever feelings that we’re dealing with or whatever musical influences that we might have in the back of our heads are just going to pop through. We’ve always been about trying to get all of our shit together enough to bring to the table, to four other people, and then working it out. With What It Is To Burn it was super smooth and then complex as we got older. We were just like, ‘fuck it, why don’t we just keep doing what we do?’ There’s no way we can write What It Is To Burn Part 2 because we’re not that young anymore. We don’t know how to do it. And there’s people that like What It Is To Burn and it’s okay, that album’s not going anywhere.
I feel for people who want the same thing – a good consistency. I’ve unfortunately been one to like a band that you would grow up on and like styles or something and you think, this is cool. Then, why is the dude singing fucking weird now? This happened to me with Jimmy Eat World – I was obsessed with Clarity and all the EPs and everything, and when Bleed American came out I’m just like, Fuck. This. But at the same time I was just a super fan of that particular era of the band and I just moved on. And I stopped listening to it and sometimes something will come on and ill be like, oh God. It’s the same thing with Weezer! I loved The Blue Album and there are a handful of decent songs afterwards, but it’s not the same. It’s fucking embarrassing!
Randy: Well I can see the other side, I get it. The band wants to do what the band wants to do. It’s not about what the fans want the band to do, and I think any band that’s aiming to please anyone besides themselves first probably is doing it the wrong way. People can say what they will about the second record, it’s fine. I know a lot of people that really like the second record and there's many more people that like the first one and not the second one at all. But that’s ok. It’s just a part of growing up and musical styles changing. It’s not like I listen to the same stuff I listened to when I was 13 still. Some of it, yeah, but its like much older music. But it’s not like the punk rock I used to listen to in high school or middle school and I was like, fuck yeah it’s bad ass and fast and they’re cool and yeah! You start to want a little bit more in your palate. The people that are coming to the What It Is To Burn show, they’re probably listening to bands like Radiohead or Coldplay or something. It’s more expansive and as you grow up so do your musical tastes.
ATP: Tracing your music and the ups and downs of the whole Finch era, it’s obvious you guys are not afraid of change, which is pretty cool. You guys have a pretty fluid way to go about things. When you first recorded WIITB it didn’t have the title track on it, you added it later. There are two studio versions of that song – why?
Randy: Yeah one we recorded with Chris Fudurich, who did our EP and we devised the whole album title, we came up with this song and we’re like, we have to practice this song. We went and recoded it and we took it to the label and I remember going to Disneyland, and we sat at Space Mountain eating pizza and we were discussing what we could do. We were like, how cool would it be if we called the album What it is to Burn and then put that song on it? And they’re like, that's fucking amazing lets do it. Then that title track started gaining steam so when people took a liking to it, I guess the label that we got transitioned to after with was doing really well on Drive-Thru, we got picked up by MCA and they were like, let’s re-record the song. We had Mark do it and he had a string section and we hammered it out in like two days and gave a proper recording to it. And yeah, that’s the other version of it. But it’s still just kind of tagged on there at the end, that’s the weirdest thing. The album is supposed to end with 'Ender' but What It Is to Burn comes in after nowhere.
ATP: I remember the first time I listened to the album in full I let it play through, and it does come out of nowhere.
Randy: Yeah that’s the funny thing about 'Ender' to me too, is it has is own meaning to me than it does to other people in the band. It’s from a musical spot, a sound collage spot, but its very visual, too. When you hear it, it takes me to a strange place in my head. It wasn’t a concept album but it was a first album we’ve done that we started with 'New Beginnings' and we ended with 'Ender' and to me 'Ender' is some sort of death, and chronicling it with these sounds. It wasn’t supposed to be spooky or overtly weird, it was supposed to be interesting and then when were just like, that’s pretty rad but let’s put that song on the end anyway. There’s no where else to put it.
ATP: So you guys have been playing the entirety of 'Ender' live?
ATP: That’s going to be insane!
Randy: Yeah right after Nate's done singing they're gonna have to bear with the outro which is pretty long! And that’s part of the fun, is the re-creation of this experience and making it as true to the album as possible and getting to the nitty-gritty of it. It’s just pretty cool, the idea, to bring people back to right at that time of getting into the album and actually being able to feel all of the parts. Listening to 'Project Mayhem' with everything there except I’m sorry if I sound like a Muppet. But it’s cool to be able to put the things in and know it’s not alien to the What It Is To Burn listener. That’s really exciting.
There are things that we’re like, should we keep this under the hood? Or should we just let it ride?! I’m kind of like an avid keep-it-as-true-to-it-as-possible believer. I think that people will have a sense of going back in time with us and being able to have something so comforting there as an album that you listened to when you were at whatever age you were, and it had an impact on you, and that’s probably why you were at the show. I don’t want people to worry about the other shit. This is a live event show and it’s to be treated as that, too. We’re going to go fucking crazy just like we used to, but we will be playing better, and I would love it if people could just leave behind any self consciousness and get out of their heads and be free of that and just have as much fun as possible. Because if you’re hurting the next day, trust us, were hurting just as bad, or worse! So don’t let the age take a toll on you, have fun. Fucking, sing all the words and go crazy...
- Words by Carolyn Vallejo