It's been four years since the release of FIDLAR's last album, and in that time, it's clear that plenty has changed in the landscape of music. Streaming has boomed; the lines between genres have melted away almost entirely. Figureheads of 2000s punk aptly fell with the rise of #MeToo or slipped into the world of pop with increasingly radio-friendly releases, and audiences opened up to a much more fluid, experimental sound, one that didn't necessarily fall on either end of the Warped Tour-to-Bushwick punk spectrum.
FIDLAR has changed a lot, too. The band's first two albums, FIDLAR and Too, were intrinsically linked to the personal struggles, like diving too far into drugs and pulling themselves back out. For a band whose name is an acronym for "Fuck It Dog, Life's A Risk," the "slacker-punk" label is an easy assumption. But they've done a lot of risk-taking, and learned a lot of life lessons (most notably, Carper lost his girlfriend and unborn son to a heroin overdose while on tour and trying to kick his own addiction, and subsequently turned to alcohol, before getting completely sober), and have now channeled it with intention into their lyrical work, even if it's often buried within a chaotic wall of sound. Maybe that's why the slacker-punk sound always worked so well for them; fuzzy and fast and loud can make anything, even dark musings on the loneliness of sobriety and existential dread, seem indifferent.
Today, they return with Almost Free, and, with it, attempt to shed their inferred slackerpersona. On first listen, fans will immediately notice that the chaos is gone; the angst is more acute, perhaps a bit more palatable to pop sensibilities but still maintaining the essence of their DGAF sound. They're still yelling, but now we can focus on what they're saying. They're paying attention to the world that is going up in smoke around them, and offering commentary on the ultra-rich and gentrification and "performative wokeness" (per the press release).
Whether meant as intentional allyship or just happy coincidence, FIDLAR has championed the riot grrrl ideals and brought women to the front, by holding a women-only mosh pit at shows and bringing women-led supporting acts on tour. They're making concerts safer for women in this way, and offering a platform to women in punk and rock to reach audiences that they may not have had the chance to otherwise. The band cites their growing up on grrrl punk bands as their reasoning for testing out the moshing and for their feminist lineup. It's a move that should, and hopefully will, happen more often as a result in the punk world.
Ahead of the release of Almost Free, vocalist-guitarists Elvis Keuhn and Zac Carper chatted with NYLON about what was going through their minds when they made this album, the pain they notice in the world around them, and how they want to continue to challenge themselves. Read the full Q&A below.
It's been four years since your last album. What's changed for you guys during that time?
ELVIS KEUHN: I think in the past four years or three years or whatever, the music industry has changed so much, and the way people consume music is totally different than the way they did like a couple years ago. Back in the day, there was more genre, defining stuff, like, "Oh this is rock music, this is da-da-da-da," but nowadays a lot of music is a big blend of stuff, which I think is pretty unique and pretty rad.
It sounds like you are kind of sonically growing up. It's a bit cleaner cut. Was this is a deliberate choice to keep certain things more acute, rather than fuzzier, or were there sounds you wanted to experiment with when writing?
ZAC CARPER: I think so. I think we got used to making things super-distorted and loud, and it was actually a challenge to turn things down, you know?
What made you want to take on that challenge then?
EK: Yeah, it's just something different. Focusing more on a drumbeat and one guitar versus having everything be layered with a wall of sound.
What does your writing process look like? Where do you start?
EK: They usually start with either in Zac's studio or my studio, like our personal home studios. Or laptops. Wherever we are. Most of these songs started that way. They were ideas started in one of our studios and then opened up in the studio with Ricky Reed and kind of like a lot of the songs kept a lot of the original elements of the demos and then we layered on top of them and then some of the songs were written in the studio.
What are the issues you are trying to tackle? Because you're definitely taking on big topics, even if it doesn't come across at first listen.
ZC: I think it's mainly what we've been experiencing in the past couple of years. Like every time I think about how to answer this question—like what are we trying to say—especially for this record because there's been a kind of next-level of collaboration that we didn't really have before. It's the experiences we've had over the past couple of years and the deeper songs, like the political stuff, was what we were going through during that time because it was just a turmoil type of era of American politics.
And on top of that, just the rest of [the world]. We tour so much in Europe that we got to see firsthand what's going on over there… [it's] just as fucked up as America. I remember the last time we were in France there was another terrorist attack. It was like every time we were in France, we were there for all those terrorist attacks, so when we started writing and collabing, it was just talking about how fucked up the world is. And, where we grew up—Los Angeles—has changed so much, too. There's a lot of L.A. stuff in the record.
Is it cathartic, to be able to channel these observations into the music? Is that why you chose to take them on in this way?
EK: It's like songs, in general, are a cathartic, therapeutic sort of thing. Whatever you were thinking about or feeling in the moment, you kind of work through it with the song.
What do you think you bring to the table? What, to you, feels necessary about adding your particular voice to these tough conversations?
ZC: What's our skin in the game? I guess, for us, it's just like, Why not? I don't think we started this band to be like, "Okay, we're gonna be this style, we're gonna limit ourselves to this thing." People change, people evolve. I think, with us, we didn't have the thought process, What are we gonna bring to the table? We're at the table, we're there already. We're just doing our thing.
EK: I think a lot of it is commentary about things we experience and see happening around us. So to the point about L.A. and gentrification, it's a weird thing because we don't need to have day jobs—we make money—but we're really not on some higher echelon. The cost of living has gotten really crazy here. And you see neighborhoods just get totally fucked by developers. Like people get totally fucked and families get pushed out. You see people affected by that in daily life. And I think there are bigger things politically that we aren't affected by on a day-to-day basis, but, when you see all these things going on, you can't help but to seep into the writing process.
Your first two albums came out surrounding some pretty serious personal shit, but, on this, the serious shit is entirely external. Does this shift change your mindset or creative process at all with music?
ZC: I think it's just the way we do it. I'm not gonna try to come up with some grandiose explanation of the inner thoughts of why we're doing this or anything. The reality is we write music and sometimes... a lot of the stuff on this record is personal, but I guess we're trying, we're learning. Songwriting is a process of learning. If we were, after our first record, to go and be like, "Okay this is our formula, this is what we're gonna do..." I don't want to do that, Elvis doesn't want to do that.
We want to learn from each other, learn from other people, get inspired by other things and be like, "Oh this guy is talking about something super-serious but is doing it in a weird funny way." That's kind of where we're living right now: challenging all of us as a band to be like, "Okay, how do we write songs in a different way?" What we were saying about, let's start with a drumbeat and a bunch of guitars. Or let's start with a vocal melody. It's not like, "How do we appeal to the masses?" Because if we were going to do that, then we would've just made our first album over again. Everyone seems to like that one.
EK: And lyrically, too, and as far as production goes, it's about being more comfortable not hiding behind the music as much. On past records, we'd hide behind the music more, bury them a little more. So with this, it's kind of more a combination between challenging ourselves to write about different things and be more vulnerable in terms of putting ourselves out there I think.
How has that been for you guys?
EK: It's been great. When it comes to making music or art in general, I think you want to challenge yourself. You don't want to stay in your comfort zone all the time. I think it's harder work, but the payoff is better. It feels like I push myself and reach a different level, and I think that's how it felt for all of us with this record.
Now that this record is ready to be put out in the world, what do you want to do next? Is there something you didn't get to dive into enough on this record? Or something that's kind of spawned from it that you're interested in?
EK: I want to stop touring. [laughs]
ZC: What's interesting is that every record we seem to learn from whoever we're working with. For this one, working with Ricky Reed, one thing I took away from it is technology has caught up to itself as a musician. The only thing getting in the way of the musician is themselves now. You have Auto-Tune, sample pools. You have all these things you can do now. The possibilities [are endless]. You can make a fucking orchestra on your laptop, you know?
And I feel like knowing that now I'm really excited to see what happens in the future because we were labeled as a slacker-punk—you know, "these guys just smoke weed, hang out on the couch, get fucked up"—like for the longest time and, with this record, it kind of takes this limit off, so I'm excited to see what happens in our songwriting now, moving forward. But maybe with the next record we're gonna go back to three chords and the truth, you know, but at a certain point, especially for this record, it's trying to think of music in a different way instead of thinking it has to be like "this," especially our music.
What was the conversation or the moment that happened that made championing the riot grrrl ideals of putting women in the front?
ZC: I think we all grew up listening to female-fronted music. We don't, like, look at it like that. With girl mosh pits or whatever it is, it's just kinda the moment to… I think for a time we tried doing short people to the front, small people in general, and that didn't work out. So just looking at our shows and being like, "Wow, there's just a bunch of dudes in the mosh pit"; it was just like, "Maybe we should try to change that." I have a sister who's fucking crazy, and I love her, but she loves to mosh sometimes, but I don't want some fucking dude knocking her out, you know?
EK: The mosh pit has a masculine vibe, for sure. So it also kinda just disarms people a little bit where it's kinda like, "Check yourself for a minute," 'cause it can get kinda aggro in there.
ZC: Except I would be scared for any fucking dude that tries to punch my sister. My sister would fuck you up, for sure.
Who are some of those women that you grew up listening to?
ZC: Fucking Sheryl Crow. For me, it was like with my sister she would always play Jewel, Sheryl Crow. Alanis Morissette, all the '90s stuff. I remember one band we bonded over was The Slits.
EK: Yeah, The Slits are amazing. Lorna Doom just passed away from the Germs. She was really cool, amazing bass player. And me and Max's old band got to open up for them a few times when they did the reformed Germs thing. X-Ray Spex.