Scott Wells and Paul Sprangers formed Free Energy in Minneapolis in the wake of their band Hockey Night’s breakup. After relocating to Philly, the band worked with LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, who not only produced their 2010 debut, Stuck on Nothing, but also released the album on his own DFA label. The record generated buzz and left fans and critics praising the band’s large sound and links to ’70s and ’80s power pop artists.
Two years later, Free Energy have returned with their second album, Love Sign. Since last March, the band has been teasing the album’s release, leading off with its singles “Electric Fever”, “Dance All Night”, and the more recent “Girls Want Rock”. In anticipation, Consequence of Sound caught up with vocalist Paul Sprangers to discuss the new album, working with producer John Agnello, and the importance of a properly placed cowbell.
You released the first single, “Electric Fever”, last March. “Dance All Night” dropped months months later. Now, the album’s here in January. What caused the delay?
Well, the delay was really us determining whether we would try to work with a record label again to put this record out or whether we would do it ourselves, and we were kind of weighing the options. We determined that this is kind of the future, and we wanted to do it now. We have really good management; we work with really awesome people. It felt like it was time to try it. So, that’s really what it was.
So you’ve created Free People Records.
Well, the way I see it, DFA is one of the best labels in the world. I’m realizing now that it doesn’t totally make sense to work with any label. We’ve had some offers with labels. But DFA was my favorite label, and the fact that we got to be on it was pretty much a dream come true, but it doesn’t really make sense. It seems like the next step is to go forward, which is what a lot of bands are starting to do, which is self-release, and the management is kind of the hub now as opposed to the record label.
The decision was based on moving forward into unknown territory as opposed to trying to stay in a comfort zone. There’s no lack of awesome labels right now; that’s for sure, but for us… we’re kind of weirdos; we don’t quite fit into any genre right now. This is just the way we have to go; it feels like, just kind of into the unknown.
A lot of the early feedback that I’ve seen so far – from Rolling Stone, “It fucking rules,” and Pitchfork calls it “unbridled ’70s rock of epic proportions.” When you hear all the ’70s rock comparisons, do you just sit and count the seconds until someone mentions Thin Lizzy?
[Laughs.] Yeah, I mean, you know… it’s usually under 10 seconds, so… [Laughs.]
“Electric Fever” and “Dance All Night” cover a wide spectrum already.
You’re absolutely right. It’s definitely not quite as immediately identifiable as like ’70s, I don’t think. I would argue that probably [laughs] it will be more ’80s. Yeah, I don’t know. A lot of our references came from the pop music that was on the radio when we were growing up. Late ’80s, which includes Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, Michael Jackson’s Bad, Fleetwood Mac’s Tango in the Night, Def Leppard, AC/DC. Even like the Stones putting out records then. Steve Winwood.
These old rock ‘n roll/classic rock dudes that are still putting out records in the ’80s and starting to use synths and digital technology. That really fascinates us. There were a lot of components of what those artists made that we were able to draw on for this record. And I think that the songwriting, too, has become stronger. Just trying to be real clear was a goal for us.
The quality of the material on your first album is undeniable, but it’s also noted for being produced by James Murphy as well as being released on DFA like we talked about. Love Sign was produced by John Agnello. He comes from an era that many critics link your band’s sound to like we just talked about. How did you go about choosing Agnello and what did he bring to the table?
The un-sexy answer is that his kids go to school with our manager. But the truth is that we were more excited. We knew he did The Hold Steady, who we know and love, and all the indie rock he did in the ’90s, which we grew up on, but the stuff that excited us was that he had worked on a Cyndi Lauper record in the ’80s, The Hooters, which was a Philadelphia new wave rock band, and The Outfield, which was another huge reference point for us. The production on those records is incredible and very much something we were trying to reference, if not emulate, so it was really exciting to work with John, to bring that experience to the recording.
Also, we did a test song with John and immediately clicked. The guy is absolutely a genius, and actually there were a lot of similarities between working with him and James in that they’re both game for anything. Their ego just isn’t there. They’re just open to try things, and they’ll go into something completely, no questioning. That’s really helpful when you’re making music and you’re self-conscious and you’re sometimes unsure about yourself, to have somebody supporting you like that. That was huge for us. And not to mention that the dude can make guitars sound epic. The guy knows how to record rock bands. I think people will notice on this record that it sounds pretty epic.
You mentioned him working with The Hooters and The Outfield and how those bands inspired you somewhat. Are you saying that this album’s a little softer on the edges compared to your first? Not saying “soft rock,” but not necessarily as abrasive.
No, I would say, well actually, [laughs] soft rock is definitely a reference. I think there is more of a disparity. The heavy songs definitely hit harder and are punchier because of John’s production; meanwhile, there are some lighter, more ballad-y songs than there were on the first record. I guess the extremes are greater.
After your first album, Free Energy was on many best of lists and lists of who to watch for next. Did that create any pressure or expectations when you all set down to begin Love Sign?
No, because we just don’t really feel that. The short answer is no. We know what we want to do and where we’re going. I think we’re old enough where that kind of stuff doesn’t really matter. We believe in what we want to do so much that we’re aware that we don’t fit in. We’re not making pop songs that are going to be on the radio, so it’s kind of like you don’t really give a shit what people are saying. All we know how to do is what we do, you know what I mean? Does that make sense?
It makes it easier to stay true to yourself.
What led you all to move to Philadelphia? Minneapolis-St. Paul is known for some pretty heavy rock bands throughout the years.
Oh, yeah. Minneapolis is awesome, and St. Paul. It really was a practical move that turned out being really good. A good friend of ours lived in Philly, and when we were making the record with James, he showed us around Philly, and we kinda fell in love. We found a place to rehearse. We just stayed and met really good friends. It’s been amazing. We’ve been there four years.
Jokes and references have been made about it, and history has shown that there is a fine line between just enough and too much. You use it on both albums. Let’s talk about the cowbell.
[Laughs.] That was a good setup. Yeah, man, I would say we fall into the “not enough” camp.
You guys use it well. It’s not like it’s in your face. It’s actually applied in the way it’s “supposed” to be applied.
Thank you. Yeah, that’s the idea. [Laughs.] Use it as an actual percussive instrument and not a uh…
Will Ferrell comedic tool?
Whose idea was it to first bring it to the group, because I’ve heard it on a few songs? It’s not a once in a while thing but almost as if it’s part of the drum kit.
Oh, it is. It’s there live, yeah. Well, on “Free Energy”, obviously, it’s featured prominently. It was really the kind of thing that it wasn’t thought of. It just has to happen. This is the only thing that makes sense here, so, yeah…