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Escape Velocity

Sunny Delights: Free Energy Interviewed
Oli Simpson , May 25th, 2010 09:01

Power Poptimist and Free Energy frontman Paul Sprangers talks to Oli Simpson about Coldplay, conspiracy theories and the importance of being earnest

Meet Free Energy, the Power Pop mob with that oldest and most deceptively simple of aims: to have a good time, all the time. A serotonin-spiked Philly five-piece formed around the core partnership of singer Paul Sprangers and guitarist Scott Wells, the band formed in 2008 following the demise of the pair's previous outfit, Minneapolis retroid rockers Hockey Night. Swiftly enlisting auxiliary axeman Evan Wells, bassist Geoff Bucknam, and drummer Nick Shuminksy, they were soon befriending DFA Records chief Jonathan Galkin and had landed a deal with the label 12 short months after their inception. The ink having barely begun to dry on their contracts, Free Energy found themselves swept into the studio with DFA partner and LCD Soundsystem's resident zeitgeist-botherer James Murphy to record their debut album Stuck On Nothing. Not afraid to wear influences - and ambitions - firmly on its sleeve, the record is an exercise in pleasingly route-one anthemeering that's neatly arrived just in time for summer, propelling them upwards alongside fellow buzzworthy East Coast upstarts The Morning Benders and Dum Dum Girls.

A gloriously unrestrained leap forward into the classic rock past, Free Energy's music pays you the compliment of being blunt: firing off a fine line in Weezer-channelling-T Rex bluster flush with arena-sized riffs and more preening swagger than a coked-up peacock. Like all the best things in life, it leaves you feeling warm, fuzzy and ever so slightly nauseous. The group's recent single 'Dream City' and impending singalong juggernaut 'Bang Pop' gleefully grab wallflowers by both ears before dragging off towards the dancefloor, chirpily nailing smiles to faces amid a relentless blast of 70s FM RAWK! and heady blue sky thinking that bangs away with all the subtlety of a priapic Ron Jeremy. It's a trick neatly repeated over the course of Stuck On Nothing, flying in the face of indie's prevailing winds of feel-my-pain seriousness and giving the very concept of cool detachment both barrels of shamelessly anthemic glam firestorm.

But it doesn't do to be seen enjoying oneself too much, and despite the largely thumbs-up reponse Free Energy have so far elicited Stateside, there's been an awful lot of apologising amid the plaudits. Fearful of the act that no one looks good while having fun, the arch hipster contingent have declaimed their starry-eyed sincerity as an Andrew wK-shaped guilty pleasure, cock-eyed earnestness in dire need of a knowing wink, or at worst, lumping them in with those most ill-fated pariahs of irony, The Darkness. Mind you, along with a herd of cowbells, liberal lashings of handclaps, unabashed on-stage fist pumping and, that last outpost of dubious indulgence, the periodic inclusion of wailing sax; between them they may have the stirrings of a point.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Here comes Paul, crackling down a phone line from the US, to begin from the beginning.

Hey Paul. Where are you? What's going on?

Paul Sprangers: Heeyyy, doing good man. We're in Milwakuee, Wisconsin, just got some tea and we were supposed to play a bar but it sounds like it fell through so we're going to play some kind of roadhouse instead. Tour's goin' good!

Let's start with some back story. How did you go from Hockey Night to Free Energy?

PS: When Hockey Night ended, Scott and I kept demoing - we had been talking to DFA before the last record, Keep Guessin, came out. DFA and Lookout! Records were the only record labels who showed any interest, returned our emails and stuff. Although they weren't ready to put out that record. So when Hockey Night broke up, we kept demoing; we kept them sending them recordings, demos, and just kept in touch. Then eventually this guy John Galkin - who runs DFA kinda day-to-day - signed us, just on the promise of those demos. Which kinda took us up to here...

Most features on the band seem to namecheck Thin Lizzy, T Rex, Springsteen, Cheap Trick, a bit of Pavement - what are some of your biggest non-musical influences?

PS: Oh man, that's a big question and nobody asks that... [genuinely flummoxed] I dunno, books? We read a lot of non-fiction; psychedelic books like Carlos Castaneda and the sort of people who write about mushrooms and altered states of consciousness... Spiritual books as well. Scott is the record digger, he listens to everything, but I don't really listen to as much music... [summarising] So I feel books, weird shit you find in thrift stores inspire as much as any music. YouTube clips as well, music videos, weird old VHS tapes - y'know stuff like that... weird informercials. Old American, crappy TV show theme-songs. Marginalised aspects of culture can be inspiring.

War. Earthquakes. Economies on the floor everywhere. Even volcanoes are making a comeback. How come Free Energy are so positive? It's much harder to write a happy song than a sad one.

PS: I agree. I mean, a lot of influences we are pretty forthcoming about. We take the best parts of what we like and of all the music, not just classic rock. The stuff that inspires us tends to be bombastic, really melodic, edgy stuff. So when we process all these things and piece them together in our songs you get this amalgamation of all the good parts of all the things we listen. Something that is dope, positive and celebratory.

Is it more important for music to aim for the head or the heart? Is 'having a message' important?

PS: I think the heart, I think that for me...stuff that's too maybe, intellectual? A lot of times it's kinda hard to connect with. Certainly stuff we used to listen to in college, like Math-rock and even stuff like prog rock is too intellectual and for me, I really like The Ramones and Joan Jett - I feel it takes a high level of intelligence to make really dumb things. Comedians like Will Ferrell too. I mean, you have to be kind of a genius to make really good fart jokes...

Some bands seem to be afraid and/or dismissive of writing music with big choruses and hooks that is consciously aimed at the radio. As if it's somehow not sufficiently 'worthy' an aspect of artistic ambition...

PS: Yeah, I agree. I mean, we're old enough now not to give a shit. We make exactly what we want to hear and aren't worried about being cool or making whatever aesthetic choices are currently popular. We listen to a lot of old man rock... I love choruses, it took a long time to be able to realise that it was okay to use these old types of formulas, using stuff that is very simple but to make them inspired. We used to smirk and laugh at the idea of verse/chorus/verse when we were younger, like it was something you had to defy and try to avoid. But there's a reason why these things work...

Why do you think indie/rock people in general have such a problem with music that isn't scared of being fun or uncomplicated and direct?

PS: I know it's true in the UK, and certainly over here too, that when things are really popular it just gets tagged as Stupid Shit. There are very rare occasions... Beck, The Beastie Boys or Nirvana... that [artists] were able to become big and still maintain a sense of cool. But I know nowadays that anything that tries to be big or to be poppy is considered... Not. Good. And that's a shame. Just because something is accessible doesn't mean that it is bad. I know people in the UK probably hate Coldplay, but I honestly think their last record is really, really good. I feel like most people won't listen to it because they just hear 'Coldplay'... like they know what it is before they've heard it. But I mean, it's fucking good! Bottom line.

It's time for the obligatory James Murphy question. What's he like to work with?

PS: He's awesome, man. He's very down to earth and a real dude who really, really, really cares about music and is just a complete music fanatic and production fanatic. Insisting on everything sounding good, almost obssessive. Like us...It was really inspiring because once you commit to something, he doesn't question it. Once we started work on the record he just totally dove in and just helped us make those choices maybe we wouldn't have been super-confident to do on our own - like, making sure the choruses are super big and simple and direct. Just encouraging us to simplify everything and believe in what we were trying to do. It was incredible...he was this dude who was supposed to be like super cool and y'know, he's actually good too. He deserves all the accolades he gets. Would I work with him again? Absolutely, he's just so fuckin' busy! But yeah, there aren't many people who can negotiate the waters between huge pop and innovative production.

You're back in the UK from mid-May. What can people expect from a Free Energy show?

PS: Um... well, from the band you can expect a few jump kicks, some blistering solos, an audience... um, people ready to have a good time. Maybe bring a change of underwear because uh.... you'll probably shit yer pants! Because of all the fun.

The reality of 'free energy' (thanks to perpetual motion machines and other such oddball 'advanced technologies') is supposedly being suppressed by oil companies and nuclear energy providers ,because otherwise we would all be running our cars and 3D TV's on cups of water. What's your favourite conspiracy theory?

PS: Well... I don't tend to give guys who think that - like the world is run by a cabal or some elite - much time. I don't buy any of that. [Warming to the idea] However, I do believe that energy is completely free and always available, and I think that it's inevitable that one day... [Changing tack]. I don't really know too many conspiracy theories, I know the ones like 'oh, electric cars have been buried' and that huge oil interests that make sure that alternative forms of energy aren't available... But that's gonna end pretty soon and I think that eventually there will be free energy available to everybody that we won't have to pay for, and that once the world is run on free energy and all industry is automated and everybody loses their jobs, then eventually people will have to be freed up to do research, or make art or do whatever they want to do. It'll take a few more shocks to the system before that happens, but I totally believe one day the energy of the sun will power the entire world. It's only a matter of time until we harness that, it's just that politics is so antiquated that we can't deal with the way we're evolving. But that'll break down and things will work out.

Phew. What's the future looking like for Free Energy?

PS: Keep touring our asses off. Try to become more visible. We just make a video for [new single] 'Bang Pop' that I'm super, super psyched about. It's based on 'Rock N Roll High School' by The Ramones - Free Energy takes over this old school and lead the kids to rebellion. They put on all this psychedelic war paint and trash the school and just take over. It's cool [chuckles].

Any last words? Something for people to walk away with, a bit of take home info for the troops?

PS: Try to avoid fried food. Eat your greens. Any kind of fermented vegetables are good for digestion. And general health. I want your readers to know that.