by Jade Curson
If there’s one thing we can be grateful for in the last decade of bad things happening, it’s that people have started to move away from performative shitheadery and the affected detachment that was all the rage just a few years ago, and have instead begun to embrace things with slightly softer edges. The last few years have been such an endless bombardment of soul-destroying news that we’re desperate for a glimpse of anything wholesome. We’re starving for a crumb of unmitigated joy, to experience something that is not tempered by cynicism or an inevitable reminder that things are quite terrible, actually. If that sounds like you, I have a recommendation: it’s time to get into Telethon.
Telethon are earnest in a way that you don’t often see. Friends since high school, the group came back together to start making music together in 2015, when frontman Kevin Tully visited his hometown of Milwaukee for the holidays. The band exude a consistently positive attitude that isn’t quite in keeping with the alternative punk and emo scene in which they’ve found a home. Musically, their upbeat persona and riff-laced pop energy feel more in keeping with bands like The Weakerthans or They Might Be Giants, though Tully isn’t sold on that association: “I think that’s because we’re just nerdy caffeinated people. But I like the comparison!”
When we meet at Fest to do some filming (an unrelated but revealing aside: while we are setting up to film, the whole band are distracted for a couple of minutes when guitarist Jack Sibilski spots a lizard on the wall), the band have come directly to Gainesville from Universal Studios – and are heading straight to Disneyland the following day. Their song ‘Great America’ makes some big claims about the restorative properties of a trip to Six Flags. The more you get to know Telethon, the more it seems possible that the formation of a band was just an elaborate front to facilitate as many theme park visits as possible.
A few months earlier, when we first talk, I am already struck by Tully’s effusive positivity. He seems genuinely delighted to have an opportunity to talk about his band and his work, and receives my observations enthusiastically, even when they seem to be completely off base. I ask how Telethon manage to be so prolific while all the members hold down day jobs: “There are certainly bands that move faster, so I won’t say that we’re prolific, but I appreciate you saying so.” When admiring the way their latest record has such a cohesive structure, he responds “it’s the first record where we truly didn’t think about track order. So to hear you say that it flows well, I’m happy to hear that…” It would be annoying if it weren’t so genuine.
The five-piece released their fifth record, Hard Pop, last year – 36 minutes of jaunty, earnest, often-funny… well, hard pop. The transition from ‘Loser / That Old Private Hell’ is a 60-second dopamine hit, and the first of many throughout the record. Telethon have an incredible knack for writing catchy-as-hell pop songs and then weaving Thin Lizzy-esque riffs into them. This is an overly-simplistic description of their sound, though; in truth, their influences are so far-reaching that you can pick up snatches of many different bands in one listen. It’s notable even now, when bands are much more willing to draw influence from beyond their own genres.
“I remember in the early days of Telethon hearing Jeff Rosenstock’s solo stuff,” says Tully, as we start talking about the artists that have inspired the band. “That gave me permission to write music about the completely nonchalant, mundane shit in my life and how I feel about it and how it makes me feel… and it’s okay, and that’s valid. His DIY ethics really inspired us. You don’t have to overthink it.”
My heart suddenly sinks as I realise that I have, once again, fallen into the trap of spending a significant chunk of allotted interview time talking about Jeff Rosenstock. In a bid to avoid the despairing sigh of my editor, (ed: we’re cool) I ask what other artists Tully draws influence from. Given the genre-smorgasbord vibe of Telethon, his first answer (“a million-cajillion others”) isn’t surprising. But then he homes in on an artist particularly important to his songwriting that I did not see coming but makes total sense once it’s out in the world: “The Randy Newman discography is a gift that keeps on giving, and he doesn’t get the credit he deserves. Every time I listen to basically any Randy Newman record I am just in awe.”
It tracks. Tully has a real knack for storytelling in his writing, mixing profound contemplations on life with everyday observations in a way that captures the frustration of being stuck in a job or a place that feels too small for you: “Sent home early for a cluster headache / because boredom and dissociation / making eight-fifty an hour makes me sound like such a scab.” From working in the service industry and house-hunting in a relentlessly difficult rental market to longstanding anxieties and insecurities, he presents these feelings through a narrative lens – it feels like a story being told rather than a reading from his diary, which allows the upbeat nature of the music to stand proud rather than feeling jarring or counterintuitive. That skill was honed in Telethon’s earlier work, most of which is less explicitly autobiographical.
“I’ve always written from the protection of a character and a story,” Tully says about their earlier records, “whereas with Hard Pop, I wasn’t doing that.” The benefit of writing from a third-person perspective is obvious – distancing yourself allows you to sidestep the inherent vulnerability of writing about your own experiences. You can put your art out into the world to be loved while avoiding the mortifying ordeal of being known. And in keeping with Telethon’s earlier work, Hard Pop did begin life as a concept record: “It was from the perspective of a couple of people who lived in a small town where there had just been a drowning. And mostly it was from the viewpoint of a person who just couldn’t let go of the idea that it was some kind of conspiracy or murder – somebody trying to solve a mystery that may or may not be there,” Tully explains.
But shortly before the band were due to head into the studio, he realised writing these characters had become too stressful an endeavour and rewrote the majority of the songs from his own perspective. “I had this crisis where I was like, is any of this really new? Like, am I going to be saying anything interesting? And also that character, that couldn’t give up the ghost of the mystery, was kind of a misanthropic person who just didn’t trust anybody and didn’t seem to really learn from mistakes. That’s a very Randy Newman sort of character and at first, it’s fun to write as somebody who’s just so oblivious. But at the same time, it took a lot out of me to enter that headspace. It was exhausting to embody that and write from that voice constantly. I hadn’t written from truly my own voice since Citrosis came out in 2016, and those are some formative years of my life I hadn’t really put to paper explicitly yet.”
Throwing out an album of carefully-crafted lyrics to rewrite the whole thing a month before recording sounds like a lot of pressure to voluntarily put on yourself, but Tully is no stranger to a challenge. In 2017, Telethon released The Grand Spontanean, a – wait for it – double album conceptual rock-opera about the disastrous juxtaposition of internet addiction and a website that predicts the end of the world. With nods to their rock-opera forefathers Meatloaf and Green Day, the record is split into five distinctive acts, has a ‘choose your own adventure’-style ending, and features contributions from Chris Farren, Laura Stevenson and Franz Nicolay. It’s ambitious, it’s complex (both in terms of story and stylistic construction), and it manages to be end-to-end enjoyable without a hint of pretension – which is quite a feat for a concept album about an internet-driven dystopia.
And while this may seem like the most obviously distanced-from-reality narrative of their catalogue, Tully insists that the narrator of Grand Spontanean is in fact mostly an exaggerated version of himself. “Oh yeah, I think it’s pretty thinly veiled,” he says, “I would say it’s the version of me that is acting like an exclamation point on all of the worst traits or the worst thought patterns that I could have.” Chief among those worst traits? Being too online. “I read a really good book once called Breathing Machines and it’s a memoir told through vignettes from [the author’s] early online presence. And I think that planted a seed where it’s like, ‘Jesus, this machine has been such a constant in such a huge portion of my life’. That was an important realization. If I’m telling any sort of story about myself, there needs to be the aspect of sitting at this fucking device or standing, lurching over this small device and it affecting my mood.”
If it seems like we’re approaching boomer-level discourse, in which we cast our hands towards the sky and blame technology for the problems with kids these days, fear not. While Tully does express some reservations about how easy it can be to live in an all-encompassing internet bubble, he recognises the importance of finding a balance. “I actually take a lot of joy in Twitter,” he explains. “I would say the positive outweighs the negative. I won’t lie to you and say that something on Twitter hasn’t fucked up my day… I’ve tried to set stoppers in place in my life where it’s like ‘dude, it doesn’t fucking matter. If these people didn’t like that joke that you made, you’ll never meet them’.”
In another sense, though, it could matter. With a well-curated Twitter feed having the potential to be as effective PR as actually having a PR person, there has been some discourse about the merits and downsides of being a Twitter Personality – namely, is it a problem that some artists may progress further in their career as musicians based on their memes instead of their music? It’s an idea that Tully has grappled with before: “I hate that. I agree. But I do not appreciate that aspect of making music in 2019, because it’s music that’s meant for listening to first and foremost. We talk about that a lot. I really love that we have gotten more acclimated to Twitter, and there are people on there who I think are really great. I love talking to people, and I like that I can share a weird thought I had and cast it out into the ether. That feels good. But at the same time I want people to know the names of our songs and appreciate the music first.”
With five records under their belt and just over 800 followers at the time of our interview, no one could accuse Telethon of coasting on Twitter personality, but it definitely feels as though their feed is a cogent accompaniment to their music – evidently drawing on real feelings and experiences, but presenting them in a specifically stylized way that is entertaining and heartfelt but also carefully filtered to present narratives in a particular light.
“Usually I guess my stance on Twitter is that I’m not taking stuff seriously, but in doing so you can kind of read the subtext that I am taking it seriously or that it did bother me,” Tully says. “I think that’s me controlling the narrative that’s being cast out from me about my own life. I think we all do that – I don’t know what it would look like if everybody was writing 100% authentically at all times, I think it would be kind of disturbing or just boring. This is a totally worn out sentiment, but joking about the things that we suffer through and from is often the only way that we can make it through them. And Twitter is a kind of very hyper-specific way that you can do that.”
What next for Telethon? While there’s nothing officially in the pipeline right now, Tully does hint at the possibility of new material: “For the first time in the history of being a band, I don’t think we have anything right now. We have ideas we’re tossing around but we’re not totally sure what it’s gonna be yet.” If things are quiet on the Telethon front, it’s safe to assume the members are throwing themself into other projects. Sibilski, drummer Erik Atwell and bassist Alex Meylink are involved in a hardcore project, Intolerable Swill. Sibilski and Meylink are also members of Brave You. Gene Jacket, who plays keys and synthesizer (and sometimes runs with abandon into crowds while carrying a full-sized glockenspiel which is either delightful or terrifying to behold, depending on your proximity) is working on a solo project. Releases from all of these bands are put out by Halloween Records, a “label co-op thingie” run by… yes, several members of Telethon.
Started originally as a means to self-release their own music, the label has grown to accommodate various side projects and records that may not otherwise have seen the light of day – including the stellar Barely March album from 2018. While Telethon themselves have since signed to Take This To Heart, they continue to release other projects: “Halloween Records has way less of a survival of the fittest vibe now that Telethon are signed and have a responsible real label” Tully laughs, “but I’m sure it will continue to survive. I just assumed we’d do it forever by ourselves and front the money ourselves. I always say some people buy boats with the money they make from their job, some people buy random shit, and what we do is make and support records.”
Sustaining a band and a label is a lofty goal in this economy, but Telethon seem to be experts in finding the right balance; between hard work and having fun, between lyrical angst and pop sensibilities, between absurdity and vulnerability. And while it can be hard to take a positive approach to anything, taking into consideration the unfathomably huge shit sandwich of news we are collectively forced to consume every day, Kevin Tully is determined to remind people to take in some good along with the bad: “I didn’t notice this as it was happening, but on all the songs on Hard Pop, there’s kind of an end cap to all of them where the narrator is learning a lesson – by the end of it, they kind of come to a sense of closure or being okay with lack of closure. Like, learning from lessons and figuring out what’s the state of things now and how can we be okay with it?
“And I think… either consciously or subconsciously, I wanted it to be a beacon of empathy for people and like, ‘I feel this way too. But also, here are some of the ways that I stopped feeling shitty today’, too. I tried to include some of those details, ways that I have found solace in the fact that I feel just down today or angry at the world or whatever I’m feeling. Whatever negative emotion. There’s always a throughway. And it doesn’t have to be hard to find.”