Burbank, California-based post-hardcore/screamo outfit Touché Amoré have become one of the most interesting, refreshing, and exciting bands in the entire punk spectrum. Most people would agree that their 2013’s album Is Survived By was, at that point, their biggest artistic statement, an album that thousands of people simply couldn’t forget. What follows such brilliant piece? We talked with vocalist/songwriter Jeremy Bolm about Touché’s brand new album, Stage Four, and all the misfortunes that made the album what it is.
I know that West Virginia was the only state that Touché Amoré hadn’t played yet a couple of years ago. Have you managed to play there yet?
No. [laughs] It’s so frustrating. It’s funny… I think we’ve played around 840 shows and if we could make it work to that be our 1000th show then it would fantastic, I would love it. Maybe on this album cycle we can make it work. [laughs] Even if there’s only 10 people there. I don’t care. [laughs] I will play in a parking lot or in someone’s living room. It doesn’t matter. I just want to know that our songs are being played in West Virginia at least once.
Is Survived By seemed to be, at the time and to this day, such an important moment for Touché Amoré. Would you say its creation and existence change, in some ways, the band?
Not that I can really pinpoint, to be honest with you. I think we were following such a steady path of just album-touring-album-touring-album that it sort of felt very routine… Not in a bad way, just in a way we felt we were working very steadily. I just think that every year that we’re together and working we are just sort of building a stronger foundation. I feel that all of that sort of culminated for making this album now where, since there’s so much personal things on the line, I think everybody worked extra hard to sort of get to where we are now.
It’s the first Touché Amoré album where you sing. How did it feel to expand your sort of vocabulary as a vocalist for this new album?
Huh… scary! [laughs] For a lot of reasons. I never considered myself much of a singer and I toyed with the idea… Touché Amoré did a couple of cover songs in-between Is Survived By and now where I sing. I sing on a cover of a The National song [“Available” for 2014’s compilation A Comp For Mom] and we did a cover of a Nirvana song [“Lounge Act” for 2015’s compilation Whatever Nevermind] where I’m singing throughout most of it. I think that was a good transition for people who liked the band, so they could be prepared and maybe it wouldn’t be such a surprise. But that’s also hoping that people pay closer attention to our band, since these songs are not on an album. When it came the time to write this album, we were writing music that I feel didn’t make sense for me to be screaming over all the time. It was a lot more expansive, melancholic, big, and all of that where if I would be screaming over it I wouldn’t be doing the song any justice. I feel like it’s an appropriate amount on the album where it’s not in every song, it’s only in a few songs. That being said, if we were to make another album I feel I could do it more so and it wouldn’t be a shock. I feel like that’s just continuing the growth of the band.
Sonically there are some changes. Did the writing process change for this album?
No, honestly. We have such a strong foundation when it comes to writing music, where we are a band that’s very lucky of being in a position where we are where all five of us can play guitar, all five of us know how to explain parts to each other really well without causing too much drama… of course every band will argue and bicker and things like that, but we do it in a way that’s very… well, we’re from Los Angeles, so admittedly we’re very passive-aggressive. [laughs] But we figured out a way to handle it. The writing process goes very smoothly, but I will say that this album we worked on much longer than any other album. I think writing the record we did it in about a year, where in the past… I think we wrote Is Survived By in four months. That’s definitely the big change but there’s reasons for that. My mother passed in October 2014 and there’s a lot of time of grieving and things like that. We did minimal touring, but then we got home – I believe from Australia, a little run that we did with Every Time I Die – it was when we really tried to start writing more often. We would write a song or two and then take a month or two off and we would start again. Then we decided to write an album and that’s where we started practicing more often, and then we played a few shows in-between… We spread it out so that we never got writer’s block whereas I feel in the past we hit those moments, where we came to practice and we would just stare at each other and try to come up with ideas. For anyone who’s ever played in a band before and has experienced that… it’s the worst thing.
You wrote Is Survived By in such a good moment in your life, while Stage Four was written in a very hard one. How was to face that shift in regarding to writing the album?
After everything happened I knew that… it became very clear that this album was going to be about my mother and her disease, ‘cause I had nothing else to write about. That was it. It still is such a huge impactful thing in my life that when it came time to really write the record, I didn’t want to start writing lyrics until we had a lot of music written. Because I didn’t want to open those floodgates, start thinking about it, and whatever. To be honest, I don’t write lyrics or words unless there’s music. I’m not one of those writers that’s just constantly writing in a notebook. I waited until we had about five or six songs written musically before I sat down and put pen to paper to get some of these feelings out, because there’s just so much an endless supply of things to write about. I don’t know if you ever lost anybody in your life before but there’s so much you can say, so much you can think about, and so much different aspects to that story that you can tell. The hardest part was figuring out what the first song was going to be about like, “Where I even begin with this?” The first song that I wrote for it was “Benediction” and then the second song was “New Halloween”… I just started there. I had recently driven across country to bury my mother’s ashes with my brother so that was very in my head, that whole experience. Writing the words for this album was definitely… as much as it was hard it also, once I started going, came pretty quickly. I just wanted to make sure that I got everything out just right. I rewrote a lot of songs pretty often and all of that just because I wanted the details specifically correct.
One of the things that really impressed me with this album is that you seem to change your style of writing throughout the album. I don’t know if you would agree or even if you have noticed it.
It would be interesting to hear someone’s take on that. In my mind, I have to imagine that it just comes with the maturity of something like that. I would be curious to hear someone explain like that they feel the differences are. In the beginning it was very angsty. Our demo and our first album are very, you know… I mean, ok, our first album, …To the Beat of a Dead Horse, was titled that because it’s me sort of singing about problems that everybody has and goes through and I’m not doing anything to make it better. I’m just… beating a dead horse by just singing about it. I’m not helping myself, I’m just going through what everybody else goes through. I didn’t even know if anyone would even hear that album, and people did and that felt very lucky. I definitely have been pouring my heart and soul. I took writing a lot more seriously after that album, and I challenge myself a lot more. I will say that I feel the difference could be that I write more words now, compared with the other material. [laughs] I think with every album the songs become a lot more detailed, and that’s because I feel I have more to say now, if that makes sense.
“I think that everything we do is such a personal outlet that I just try to get out as much as I can about the subjects whatever the album is based on or what I’m going through at that moment.”
In the midst of all the madness, you were also involved in four-car accident. Did it get to the point where you were asking yourself, “What’s next?”
[laughs] Yeah! That came at the end of a series of other tragedies. A good friend of our band passed away from a drug overdose a couple months before that. Two of my pets died, a dog and a cat that died, and then I got in that car accident where it just felt like [nervous laughter] nothing was getting better. Thankfully that car accident was the last thing for a really long time that was terrible, but yeah… From my mother’s passing away up until that point everything felt so relentless and I just had a dark cloud above me that didn’t want to let me go. The silver lining is that it gave me a lot to write and think about. [laughs]
Normally songwriters agree that most songs ask more questions than give answers. Stage Four seems to be the kind of record that works the other way around. Does it feel that way?
I think that everything we do is such a personal outlet that I just try to get out as much as I can about the subjects whatever the album is based on or what I’m going through at that moment. I just try to get out as much as I can. I think I’ll know more once we start playing it live.
Lyrically speaking, these songs are not in chronological order. Was there a discussion to decide if whether the musical side or the lyrical side would decide the final running order?
Not necessarily because I feel to tell the whole story in chronological order to how it happened I don’t think the record would flow very well. It would sound a little chaotic and confused, but I feel that in the order it is in you sort of understand everything that happened. I feel like the opening track, “Flowers and You”, is a pretty good introduction to the idea of grappling with the guilt of things that you may have been reflecting on with how you handle certain situations and then how you’re sort of process grief… I think that also ties in with that first song and then from there the story sort of develops with all the different aspects to what happened and what I’ve been through.
It seems, reading the lyrics, to exist a huge conflict within you with faith and religion. Would it be fair to say so?
Definitely. I was raised Christian, I went to a Christian elementary school, I went to church with my mom basically… kind of when I was a teenager and then I just slowly stopped going as much, and then once I moved out of my mom’s house I went even less and less. As you get older you meet people that were not raised in it and you hear other sides, or you get into different kinds of music and movies that sort of expose you to the other side and all that sort of stuff. As I got older my faith and all of that started to dissipate, but I never felt like an anger or anything like that with religion. In a way I almost feel… I’m kind of thankful I was raised in it, because I think it has set a good sense of values, morals, and things like that. What’s so hard for me is that my mom was always so devote, such a Christian, and was never mad at God for anything whereas I’m looking at it like, “You’re the least deserving person of everything you’re going through right now but yet you can still praise God.” I can’t understand that. It’s just absurd to me. So, her and I… I would try to avoid it as much as possible talking about it because I knew it would just upset her whenever she tried to talk to me where I was in my faith and throughout the years I would avoid the question and I would go the church with her on Easter and on Christmas’s Eve just to appease her and make her happy. That would just avoid the actual discussion as much as possible and then we would have those discussions it would get pretty negative pretty quickly because I didn’t want to lie to her and say, “No mom, I still totally believe in God”. And also I feel if you’re raised in that there’s always that sort of religious guilt too. I know the bible but when I say it out loud, “I don’t believe in God,” in the back of my mind there’s always that little sense of feeling bad even saying that. But then you see how horrible the world is and how terrible things happen every single goddamn day and you’re like, “How can I believe that exists?”
Do you still have a hard time listening to Sun Kil Moon’s “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love”?
Yeah. I mean, it’s a great song, it’s a beautiful song but it’s not the easiest song to listen to but, you know… It’s pretty straightforward. It says a lot of things that I’ve been through and wherever he’s singing about his fear about experience that and I’m listening to it as I have experienced that.
Talking about Mark Kozelek and the way he approaches his lyric… “Benediction” seems to be a track where we can feel some of that biographical, rich-in-little-details approach that Mark uses in his lyrics. Is it fair to say so?
Yeah, I will completely say that. I got very, very, very influenced by Sun Kil Moon. I probably… Benji was the record that really got me into him and then I became obsessed with everything he had done, and then Universal Themes came out and that was all I listen to while we were on tour in Europe. His writing, confessional style, and all of that, was a huge influence. I wouldn’t say I want to be like Mark Kozelek, but I appreciate his honesty and directness, and the way he tells stories that it definitely would play a part in what I was writing. That completely makes sense.
“As I got older my faith and all of that started to dissipate, but I never felt like an anger or anything like that with religion. In a way I almost feel… I’m kind of thankful I was raised in it, because I think it has set a good sense of values, morals, and things like that.”
There’s an extremely memorable and remarkable moment on the album – because you can’t forget about it after you heard the album – which occurs on the song “Palm Dreams” with the singing of “on my own”. It seems to be such a pivotal moment, not only because that’s maybe how you felt during this process, but also a great point of connectivity between you and whoever is listening to you and maybe is going through some of the same problems. What do you make of that specific moment?
I don’t know. I understand what you’re saying and it’s funny, because our manager once pointed out kind of saying a similar thing. That he feels that part and understands the emotion behind. I think for me I was just trying to write a really nice… [laughs] To be honest with you, I had all the words written, but I think I became so focused on trying to get that part right that when it came to the singing… for me was about trying to convey the singing and have emotion behind it, when it comes through the second time around and it’s like the louder harmony, I wanted to have it sound impactful. As for the “on my own”, I’m sort of just talking about how I was forced to go through my mom’s things and clean out from the house I was raised in, and I had to do it by myself. To me, it’s just another line on the album.
On “Softer Spoken” you say, “A city named catharsis and the other called empty / In one I feel so common and the other I am royalty”. Which is which?
I think it depends on the day. That’s one of those lines that I wrote with the idea that I feel differently very often, so for me that would depend just on the day that song is being sung.
The final track, “Skyscraper”, features Julien Baker. How did that collaboration happen?
We’ve known Julien for a very long time. She is one of… we toured with a band called Dads and their bass player Ryan is one of her best friends. And Ryan gave us the album that is now Sprained Ankle, like probably two years now. Some of us became very obsessive with it, we loved it so much. We gave the album to Joey [Cahill] who runs the label 6131 Records and he fell in love with it and so he find her and put the album out. So, she’s been our pal for a while now. With that song in particular, going into it knowing that it would be primarily singing I wanted to take a page from Leonard Cohen where… Leonard Cohen operates in a way where he has a very deep sort of a grey-area-sort-of-voice where he doesn’t have a lot of range, but he makes the song so impactful because often times he has a gorgeous female voice singing over or behind him. It sort of amplifies the melody in the song. I wanted to take a page from Leonard Cohen’s book and be like, “If I’m going to sing this one I want to have a beautiful, angelic female voice behind me or on top of it.” I couldn’t think of anyone better than Julien. I’m so proud of her and the success she’s been having that it felt awesome to involve her. I sent her the song and she recorded it in two hours and sent it back to us. [laughs] She did a great job and I’m so thankful. We’re all unbelievably proud of her. She’s doing really great things.
Did you have any doubts about including the voicemail message that you mother left on the album?
Yeah. I went back and forth with it. I didn’t know if it was the right thing to do. It felt I was just giving away this personal thing and all of that but… I also didn’t even look into the voicemail until we were done with the album. I had it on my phone, but I waited we were done with it to actually listen to it to see if it made sense to have it there. Because I obviously reference it in the second song and I think that in a way it kind of ties the album together. The way I convinced myself was that the album in a way is sort of… it’s a bunch of songs that are basically a grieving process and in a way it’s like an acceptance, so at the end of the album it shows that I did get the courage to finally listen to it. It’s sort of tying that all together and that’s what made me feel it was the right thing to do. And it also wasn’t… it is a very casual message too. She didn’t say anything too personal that I would hate myself for sharing with the world. That voicemail was from like about two months before she passed away. It just happened to be the last voicemail I had from her on my phone that I just never ended up listening until that moment. I mean, I feel like parents are the only people on Earth that can leave voicemails. [laughs] She would call me and leave me a voicemail and I would just roll my eyes and call her right back. [laughs]
Can you please talk about the concept behind the cover? I know it was created by collage artist Anthony Gerace.
We have a photographer friend name Ryan who has done all of the photos on all of our albums – he’s a good friend of the band. The photo is taken from my mom’s house where… He came to my mom’s house and took photos all around the house before it was emptied and cleaned out, and then he took the same exact photos in the same exact positions after it was cleaned out. So it is the before and after photo and then the collage artist just did the mix of the two of them. We have a deluxe version of the album coming out with it and in that book it will be photos from all around the house. All the different images of the before and after. And that photo in particular is right by the front door. It was… looking through all of the photos and deciding what the album art would be was definitely a pretty heavy experience. Just looking at them in that way, but that photo in particular really felt the strongest. It stood out really well and Nick [Steinhardt] who plays guitar in Touché and does all of our album arts, he was most impressed with that one and agreed that should definitely be the cover.