Fern Roberts Plays Upbeat Rock That's Kind of Sad

Josh Tryan of Fern Roberts.
Josh Tryan of Fern Roberts. Adeline Fiore
Fern Roberts guitarist and vocalist Josh Tryan says he's not a "singles guy.”

“I always needed to listen to a record to understand the story and explore a band's whole catalogue,” he explains. “I’ve always obsessed like that. I joke that even as a kid, I never wrote songs — I only wrote records.”

Tryan started making music under the name Fern Roberts as a way to conceal his identity when performing at open mics around Denver over the past few years.

“I was always pretty insecure about my ability as a singer and guitar player,” he says. “I just hid in the background of every band I’ve ever played in. In 2018, I kind of reached a breaking point and said, ‘If I don’t do this now, I’m never going to.’”

Tryan posted on Craigslist that he was looking for bandmates. He eventually met bassist Todd Spriggs in late 2019, and the two began jamming. Drummer Amos Chase came on board in January 2020, cementing Fern Roberts as a trio. The band played its first show in February. Then COVID hit, and they've been waiting to return to a stage ever since.

Meet Them at the Door, the debut album from Fern Roberts, marks Tryan's first step out of the shadows, with Spriggs and Chase joining on bass and drums. Tryan credits his bandmates with helping him overcome the “profound insecurity” that hampered his creativity for years. The album offers ten tracks of upbeat, catchy, psychedelic rock and roll, with esoteric lyrics that convey a light sense of melancholy.

So what makes the project an album and not just a collection of songs? Tryan says the lyrics are highly personal, more so than he ever imagined committing to posterity, even if they are abstract to the listener and he is intentionally obtuse about their meaning. He’s excited that people are listening to the songs, but also a tad freaked out at the prospect.

“If I can be somewhat vague, the overarching arc of the album is the process of overcoming personal crisis,” he says, adding that he’s been working on the songs for several years, and that the lyrics have changed over that  time. Initially, he found them too cynical and pessimistic, so he reworked them as he went along.

“I didn’t want to be glib with it,” he says. "I wanted to find words that I find to be true. It’s a little trite to use the word 'meta,' but the process of making the album made the words true for me, overcoming personal catastrophes. Ultimately, the arc is moving from anger to acceptance.”

Mostly, he wants listeners to take away a sense of hope.
click to enlarge Amos Chase and Todd Spriggs of Fern Roberts. - ADELINE FIORE
Amos Chase and Todd Spriggs of Fern Roberts.
Adeline Fiore

“Stuff is terrible right now,” he says. “I didn’t want to add any more to that. I wanted to provide real, honest reasons for hope and redemption and, I suppose, reconciliation. It’s a lofty goal, and I’m not sure if I always accomplish it, but that’s always my goal.”

Tryan takes inspiration from artists who can tell a story and emote well — bands like The Cure and Talking Heads — but when speaking of the sound he strives for, he also mentions Arcade Fire, the Beatles and ’70s-era David Bowie.

“I’ve always been inspired by this big, almost orchestral sound,” he says. “As a singer and guitar player, that was never something I could do. It’s a sound I’m always chasing. I just do it with guitar and guitar effects.”

The sound on Meet Them at the Door is indeed fuller than one would expect from a three-piece. On the song "Alone," for example, Spriggs lays down a heavy, fuzzed-out bass line while Tryan’s guitar and vocals — reminiscent of David Bowie if he were moderately depressed and part of a ’90s alternative group — float above it.

Tryan says the trio format wasn’t intentional, and he would have been fine with additional players. He acknowledges that the pursuit of a bigger sound is sometimes a challenge.

“The limitations of the three-piece have been integral to our creative process,” he notes. “We’ll have ideas about what we’d like songs to sound like if we were able to incorporate more pieces, but we can’t because there are just three of us.”

The bandmembers, who played only a handful of live shows before everything shut down, look forward to taking the stage at HQ this week. They're also working on a followup to their debut, and Spriggs says everyone is contributing ideas to the development of the Fern Roberts sound.

“This extra year, we’ve had time to really just dive in on album two,” Spriggs says. “These new songs for the second album are sounding really huge. … I'd say it’s a little more groovy and more dance-y.”

Having recorded the bulk of their debut in about five days, they're taking their time on the follow, which doesn’t have a release date yet.

For his part, Tryan says, “I feel like I’m twelve years old again. I think I always had the capacity to do this, but I attribute my confidence and my output directly to Todd and Amos. I’ve already written a third album. These guys have pushed me so much to play and write.”

Fern Roberts plays with the Pollution and Crittrr at 9 p.m. Thursday, July 8, at HQ, 60 South Broadway; tickets, $10 are available at Meet Them at the Door is available on multiple streaming platforms; learn more at
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