Burbank, California's Touché Amoré are at something of a crossroads. Their fourth album Stage Four, released in the summer of last year, saw the post-hardcore band musically create their most accessible and palatable yet, but it coincided with their lyrically most difficult and challenging to date. Stage Four refers to the stage of cancer the band's vocalist Jeremy Bolm's mother was diagnosed with while he was touring his band's previous record Is Survived By.... She died while he was on stage at Gainesville, at Florida's world-renowned Punk festival THE FEST, and Stage Four details Bolm's grieving process.
While tragic, the story behind Stage Four gives it a vitality which the band themselves, through recent interviews, feel was perhaps slightly waning on their previous record Is Survived By.... Musically, there has been a constant progression from Touché Amoré. From their heavier, punkier roots, the band broke out with their second full-length Parting The Sea Between The Brightness And Me bothering the mainstream indie scene while also appeasing their hardcore origin. Over the course of each album, Touché's influence has grown wider and "cleaner", only progressing their wider appeal, even if Bolm's vocal style remains largely "screamed". Stage Four however, sees both the band's music and Bolm's vocals move to something closer to The National, amongst others, and all this has led to the band's finest full-length to date.
DiS met up with the band's vocalist Jeremy Bolm ahead of their Glasgow date on their current UK tour with Angel Dust and Glasgow's Departures (who's vocalist suffered a minor heart attack during this tour) to talk about his and the band's influences, changing approach in an oft-cynical genre, and how singing publically about his grief over his mother has been on this tour.
DiS: How has the response to Stage Four been so far?
Jeremy Bolm: It seems to have had a resonating effect on "people" in general. It's something that a lot of people have been through or almost everyone fears going through and it intrigues them. They can either find themselves get very attached to it or the opposite effect, where it's a little too close and personal. But overall, response wise, we've had the best response probably ever, other than perhaps (our second record) Parting The Sea...
Did Is Survived By... (the band's third album) not quite hit that for you?
I wouldn't say that, it's just a third record is always a difficult record to write. I feel it's a record we needed to make but we didn't take as much time with it as we did with Stage Four, and so I think there are some compromises we made with it which we didn't think would matter at the time but in retrospect has had a bit of a negative effect. For instance, when coming up with set lists we noticed we were struggling to include much of Is Survived By... with Stage Four or Parting The Sea... tracks (which we struggle to choose out of) in our set lists.
Were you tempted then to just play the new record in order?
I would love to, all of us would actually, but we're aware many of our fans wouldn't really be so into that as many of them still come to see us for our older material. We always try to be aware of our audience but it can be confusing too, like the title track of Is Survived By... is one of our favourite songs we've written, but it never seems to connect when we play it live, which amazes us because we consider it to have every element of what makes us a band in this epic two and a half minute song! You can't make up people's mind. On the other hand, we'd happily never play our very old song 'Honest Sleep' again but it's always such a staple for our fans... however, this tour appears to be the first where the response seems to have lessened, so many we can finally retire that one.
And has anyone come up to you and said Stage Four is just too difficult to listen to? Especially as it's something you reference on the album with other music being too close to the grieving process.
Oh yeah absolutely, there's a lot of people who say "I get it." And yeah, when they say that to me it's relating to the response I had to 'I Can't Live Without My Mother's Love' from Benji by Sun Kil Moon, because it is Kozelek spelling out everything that he's afraid of and it's exactly what I went through. I still love that song and can listen to it, but it certainly still strikes a nerve.
And so like Sun Kil Moon, I was also interested in what other slightly "less expected" influences you guys have as you've had a progression over the course of your work which still retains your original sound but generally has moved towards a cleaner, more "indie" sound. Is that fair and has it changed your writing process?
Yeah, certainly there are a few things at play when we came to writing Stage Four. A) When you're a band who have been playing together for as long as they have, you would trust that they are able to evolve and be more confident in what they do. They're constantly adapting the way the play together and try out new pedals and amps to progress their sound but also keep it fresh and exciting for them. Meanwhile, I have to adapt to them as I quickly realised when we were writing 'Skyscraper' I wasn't going to be able to do my usual "barking". And B) is that yeah, we constantly have a wider range of influences. We covered Nirvana's ‘Lounge Act’ and The National's 'Available' just before we went into writing Stage Four and so, as a result, I was considering starting to actually "sing" in the band for a while. All my personal musical heroes are not people who "scream" in hardcore bands but are people like Leonard Cohen, Conor Oberst, and Matt Berninger. So although I'm still not the most confident singer in the world I am trying, using mostly those three as my references, because none of them even really have "classically" trained voices but they're all so distinct and full of character that you can distinguish a song by any of them instantly, so that's what I'm trying to achieve now too.
There seems to be a clear National/Berninger influence on tracks such as 'Benediction' and 'Skyscraper', both musically but also in your vocal style.
Absolutely, although it wasn't easy. I heard Conor Oberst say in a podcast recently that he always hated listening to his voice and how he wishes he sang a little deeper but knows his voice works for his music. That's exactly how I felt recording those tracks, thinking I was going too deep with my vocals and it sounded wrong, and I fought hard for a long time about it until I was finally convinced that actually it really worked. It was nice to hear that people I admire go through different things.
Was the plan for 'Skyscraper' to always be a duet?
Oh yeah certainly, I couldn't carry that off by myself.
And was it always Julien Baker you had in mind as the other voice?
I don't remember a specific time when we decided but I remember never really having anyone else in mind. She's a close friend of the band and I knew she would knock it out of the park. This is where Leonard Cohen very much influenced me as he often put these gorgeous female melodies to counterpoint with his, so I felt it made this song a lot more palatable with Julien on board. The only problem now is if in the future I want to have every song with female vocals... we might need to enlist a female keyboard player and vocalist!
And what about the rest of the band's influences approaching Touché?
Well, we're constantly joking about how between the five of us there are maybe... six bands we all can agree on completely. Many of them are 4 out of 5 but there will always be someone who vetoes it. And it's not exactly consistent... if I had to guess I think the six would be Rancid, Envy, Converge, Jimmy Eat World... and after that maybe Nirvana and The National but even then not everyone is as completely into them.
And given those examples, do you feel that's partly an age thing given they're all bands, I'd argue, people get into at a very particular time of their lives and that's influenced Touché Amoré’s music?
Yeah, we often joke about how if you smashed Envy, Converge, and Jimmy Eat World into one band... you’d kind of get us? We use a lot of jangly guitars and themes like Jimmy Eat World, we use big post-rock builds and crescendos like Envy, and the explosiveness on Converge and... somehow, it works! Although that's probably the building blocks of our band, we are always trying new stuff with that formula. The idea of verses and choruses used to be hilarious to us but now here we are!
Do you think expectations towards your music has changed at all?
Well, I certainly was aware of fans saying "Oh can't wait for Touché to write a shoegaze record!" as that's very trendy right now. I think in the future, certainly writing a song like 'Skyscraper' has opened up potential new avenues, but our music will always have that basic heavier edge to it, we wouldn't want to have a completely bi-polar set list. Not to say it can't be done; Ceremony, for instance, manages to play a few songs that sound like Television and a few like Infest and make it work, but they're a much cooler band than us.
And do you think there's a trend within the genre/scene that American post-hardcore bands that feed that expectation?
Yeah absolutely, we made a decision very early on that we didn't want to follow this shoegaze trend. However, that said, I have a lot of trouble with that term anyway because although bands like Title Fight and Balance and Composure are certainly influenced by shoegaze, they are definitely not shoegaze bands or records as that word means something so specific to a certain time and place in the early 90s. So I laugh that if we lean on our post-rock Envy references too heavily, people will confuse that with shoegaze. We made a couple decisions based on that but in general, we try not to let it bother us.
Finally, how has it been for you performing these deeply personal songs on this tour?
Like anything, it depends on the show really. It has been a lot harder to have a bad show on this tour, but if something is not right I'm much more susceptible to it. If there's a poisonous mood or event pre or during the show either from the band or the crowd, I'm noticing it a lot more given how deeply personal these songs are to me. I can be numb to the content of the songs on a good show when the energy is right, but it can take something very little for me to become aware of where I am again. But it's enlightening to see a fan's physical reaction that clearly shows they are feeling the same thing I went through; that for me is the true meaning of catharsis.
Do you feel more vulnerable this time around as a result?
Only in the sense that because I've made this personal story public, it's hard not to feel like a charity case, like: "Aww, there's the guy whose Mom died." But it depends on the show. There are plenty of places, like tonight in Glasgow, where we've always been welcome, where we don't need be aware or self-conscious, so more times than not it's still a very enjoyable experience even if very emotional.
Stage Four is out now via Epitaph Records. For more information on the band, please visit their official website.
Photo credit: Sean Campbell