The Front Bottoms’ early folk-punk songs were Brian Sella’s explosions of emotion. His angsty lyrics about love and mundane matters drew crowds that cherished singing along to every diaristic word.
But when the New Jersey band started ten years ago, Sella admits, “I had no idea how to write a song.”
Not that that stopped him. The results, bordering on unhinged and a bit too confessional, were powerful.
The band has come a long way from the days when Sella and Mat Uychich would videotape themselves performing songs and upload them to YouTube without bothering to edit or mix them. Young fans would watch the videos over and over.
“I wasn’t writing songs. I was just totally feeling an emotion and getting with Mat and high-fiving,” Sella says. “I didn’t even know what I was doing.”
Sella’s creative energy and imperfect voice have provoked many critics to compare him and the Front Bottoms to the Mountain Goats and its frontman, John Darnielle. And like Darnielle, Sella has become more calculated and experimental over the years.
Over the past decade, he’s schooled himself in the craft of songwriting and musical production, and while his songs still come off as unabashedly frank, the newer material is more self-conscious in its construction.
But the old days are still front and center in the Front Bottoms’ music, especially on the band’s newest EP, Ann.
Named after Sella’s grandmother, Ann comprises five old songs from the YouTube years and one new song, “Tie Dye Dragon.”
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Sella is somewhat ashamed of the song’s opening lines: “I was on LSD when I saved that family/And I was on LSD at all the talk shows after/’Cause Jackie slapped me at a family party last year/He mumbled something/I mumbled something back/Neither of us said anything after that.” After all, talking about being on LSD and slapping a family member isn’t exactly grandmother-friendly material.
“I didn’t even think about it, but as I was playing it live, I thought I shouldn’t have put it on there,” Sella recalls.
But it’s the rawness of lyrics such as those that draws fans to the Front Bottoms.
Ann is the second in the band’s grandmother series, the first being Rose, an equally nostalgic effort named after Uychich’s grandmother.
“Doing Ann was like, ‘Okay, let’s go back to these songs that we made ten years ago and try to polish them up a little bit but not experiment,’” Sella says. “Let’s just make the songs kind of the way they naturally developed over the years.”
Ann, which has been well received, is a balm to fans who might have been irked by 2017’s Going Grey, the Front Bottoms’ foray into a more experimental pop style, with multi-layered instrumentation and high-end production.
“With Going Grey, it was such an experiment,” says Sella. “I was trying to make a modern pop album. I like the forward kick drum and everyone singing along; it was experimental and it was freaky. I felt like if I want to be a songwriter, I have to get freaky with it. I have to try to be a songwriter and freak out.”
He based his strategy for writing Going Grey on something an old friend told him: “The best songwriting advice I got was that you should make it sound really familiar but also different. You want people to hear that there is something familiar happening here, but it’s interesting.”
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The band is playing two sets on its current tour: First it covers the grandmother albums, then there’s an intermission, and afterward it covers Going Grey.
At the Westword Music Showcase, however, Sella and Uychich will deviate from that formula and instead play a mix of songs from over the years that they’ll probably pick a few minutes before they go on stage.
Whatever the set list, the Front Bottoms have a simple goal: “Everybody on stage is having a lot of fun, and that’s hopefully the vibe that everybody catches,” Sella says. “I want everybody in the audience to have a good time and take a vacation.”