After their legendary Fest 18 set, Rob Mair catches up with Boston’s Future Teens about the importance of having the right chemistry.
by Rob Mair
Future Teens may sing about ‘Kissing Chemistry’, but there is a much more profound sort of chemistry on display while we chat over a coffee at Florida’s Fest.
We’re sat outside Volta Coffee, a Gainesville staple and probably the only place where five people can sit around and chat without being blasted by punk rock during Fest’s three-day stint. It’s the morning after the Boston quartet played a rapturously entertaining set to a capacity crowd at the Atlantic – a prime spot for up-and-coming bands – sitting on the same bill as Origami Angel, World’s Greatest Dad and Insignificant Other amongst many others.
It’s the group’s first time in Gainesville, and the experience has so far surpassed their expectations, with vocalist/guitarist Amy Hoffman commenting that they did not expect the “Fest magic” to extend to the 30 minutes which they were jumping around on stage.
Yet 2019 was a banner year for the group, completed by guitarist/vocalist Daniel Radin, bassist Maya Mortman and drummer Colby Blauvelt. The release of stellar second full-length Breakup Season (their first on Triple Crown) has won over countless fans, as well as earning them a prime slot opening for The Wonder Years. While Hard Feelings was an underground gem, Breakup Season is a serious big-league contender, demonstrated by its placing in numerous end of year best of polls.
And while Hard Feelings pointed to the group’s potential, a change of personnel between records – with Mortman and Blauvelt freshening up the rhythm section – kicked things into gear for the follow-up. As I said, it’s all about the chemistry…
“We didn’t know Colby and Maya when we made Hard Feelings – they joined the band a little over a year ago – but they made all the difference,” says Hoffman. “They brought every arrangement to life in a way that we didn’t have before.
“But the other thing that made a big difference was that they were both very vocal about the band,” they continue. “They were both like, ‘I like you guys, I believe in this music, I want to be a part of this.’ That made us feel A, thrilled and B, safe about doing this with them.”
It’s a positive insight, providing a glimpse into the dynamics and inner workings of Future Teens. Hoffman and Radin might be the longstanding members, but all four people are equally invested in the project.
“It felt a bit like dating,” laughs Mortman. “They had mentioned they were only after a temporary bassist, but after I tried out I was with a friend, and I remember writing this text saying something like ‘I know you’re only after a temporary bassist, but I really wanna do this full-time!”
“That really sealed the deal,” counters Radin, to much amusement.
Of course, dating is also a significant theme of Breakup Season, making it a rather apt comparison for the group. For someone out of the dating scene for a long time, it’s the group’s abilities to tell these stories of love and loss that struck hardest. Every single one of Breakup Season’s ten songs is so well-rounded and packed full of emotion and vignettes that it’s impossible not to get sucked into Future Teens’ world.
Of course, not all these songs are simply about love, loss and longing – there are also much bolder things going on. Stories of self-discovery, hope, anxiety and more. Yet they all possess a romantic heart and soul, and come from a place of honesty.
“I think, except for certain hyper-specific references, there’s a lot of emotions you go through in a breakup – or any difficult moment in your life really – and those things are kind of universal,” says Radin.
“So, even if you’ve been with someone for a while – Colby and I have talked about this as he’s been with his person for a long time – there are still elements to the lyrics and the music that you can get, like waking up from a nap that was too long, or just crying in public. I think there are elements that people relate to that way. And like, half of the album is about romantic breakups, and half is not…”
“I think that’s about endings in general though,” says Hoffman, jumping in to finish the point almost telepathically. “It all sort of just circles around similar feelings. The record sounds romantic – and in a lot of ways it is – but endings in general hurt in similar ways, no matter what kind of ending it is.
“But yeah, I think I’m writing from a place of like, ‘This is what I’m feeling right now’ in the most honest way I can manage and in the most honest way my friends can pull it out of me.”
There are undoubtedly many moments where this honesty turns into raw emotions, especially on Breakup Season. Opener ‘Happy New Year’ is one of the saddest and most intensely moving songs of 2019, a lament to the previous year and an acknowledgement that the coming winter still has some shit to throw in the way, like a sick dog or homesickness. It’s sparse and haunting but builds to release of frustration and despair, yet is also a rallying call for all those struggling with similar feelings and emotions.
‘Frequent Crier’, meanwhile catalogues all the places Hoffman has cried (in traffic, in the fridge, in a restaurant, the break room, etc.), its serious lyrical tone offset by the fact that it’s the finest pop song this side of Radiator Hospital’s ‘Our Song’.
Consequently, it was hugely exciting to see songs like these taken to heart in the stuffy confines of The Atlantic the night before. There’s no doubt they have the power to resonate on a personal level, but watching 200 people sing along with the group’s infectious hook-heavy indie-pop while also acknowledging the lyrical depth was jaw-droppingly special. Doing it night after night has also allowed Hoffman to re-evaluate what these personal songs mean – especially ‘Frequent Crier’.
“I think playing these songs has been so cathartic,” they say. “The first few times I played that song it was really upsetting. Especially the time when I had to play it in front of the person that it’s about. But it has been a really cool exercise in learning that I’m not an island.
“Playing a song like that, I get to remember how far I’ve come and how, although I feel very, very exposed, I also get to see that what I felt while writing that is a more common feeling than I thought it was when I was living it. It’s an odd feeling to explain. Like, it hurts, but not in a bad way.
“I guess, instead of continuing to sink into it and continuing to publicly cry across America, I get to feel happy at how far I’ve come as a person and of how far we’ve come as a band. It’s more a marker of healing than of continued sadness anymore.”
Indeed, the set at The Atlantic might be the best thirty minutes of music I’ve seen at four Fests. There’s something special about seeing a room when everyone is on the same page, sensitive and supportive of the band, but intent on having a good time. It helps, too, that people are invited to take part.
The “Boston sucks” gang vocals on ‘In Love Or Whatever’ has taken on a life of its own as the band continues to blow up, and there’s a palpable sense of excitement in the room as that rolls around. At the same time, the wildly infectious guitar solo in ‘Frequent Crier’ feels transcendent and euphoric in a room full of strangers. Understandably, each member of the band has learned to embrace their own set highlights from a high watermark year:
“Our manager the other day, when we get to that ‘Boston sucks’ moment, said he was looking into the crowd thinking ‘these are our friends now’. I really like that. I mean, that bit gets weirder and longer every time, but I think it’s really funny,” laughs Radin.
“It’s kind of an interesting question,” continues Mortman. “It’s like ‘what’s the most cathartic for me to rock out to?’ When you look out, and you see people singing along – and recently it’s been a lot to ‘Frequent Crier’ and ‘Kissing Chemistry’ – it’s really moving.
“I also love playing ‘So What’ live, adds Blauvelt. “It’s really slow, and it’s got a slow build to it so I can really go into a place in my head. Especially when you’re on tour, and you’re missing people at home. I try to go there if my brain will let me, while I’m playing certain songs, and that one gives me space to do that.
“Mine’s that quiet chorus in ‘Kissing Chemistry’, concludes Hoffman. “The last few shows especially, that bit has been so surreal.
“There’s been a really wild crowd connection in that moment of the song, to the point where I happy cry and lose a beat. Like I ALWAYS lose a beat. Last night, I literally stopped playing! I was like ‘What happened?!’ It was beyond anything we could have imagined. We thought there might be a couple of people at our set.”
It’s interesting watching Future Teens while this discussion is going on; they all nod appreciatively and in affirmation to each of the points raised, showing that such sentiments stand for the whole band. For now, the chemistry in the group appears a lot less like simple science and more like bottled lightning.