by Mia Hughes
photo: Rachel Malvich
Connor Erickson is at the precipice of adulthood. Finishing college, cycling through living situations, wrestling with whether he’s approaching his life and relationships and thoughts in the ways that he should be; for 22-year-old Erickson, as for most others at the same stage of life, this has been his last couple of years. He poured all the anxiety and uncertainty of this monumental shift into his band Barely Civil’s second album, and titled it with four words that surely resonate with anyone who’s been there too: I’ll Figure This Out.
“This record has a lot to do with concepts of where I am and where I think I should be at this point in my life,” says Erickson. “The fragility that comes with not really knowing if you are where you’re supposed to be.”
Growing up in Wausau, a small town in Wisconsin, Erickson was influenced towards a love of music by his childhood best friend, and now Barely Civil drummer, Isaac Marquardt. “I remember back in elementary school, I would go to Isaac’s birthday parties and he would hand out mixtapes as party favours,” Erickson laughs. “He’s always been very stoked on the music he really cares about.” In high school, as the pair met guitarist Alex Larsen and bassist Ben Forst and began playing music as Barely Civil, Marquardt’s taste grew towards emo and punk and DIY culture, which he excitedly shared with his friends. “It was all we surrounded ourselves with, because Isaac was constantly sending us music and being like, ‘Check out this band’,” Erickson recounts. “Just as people who were always talking about music together, it really formed our interest in this scene.”
Unfortunately, the group’s hometown had no DIY scene to speak of, and the nearest big cities were a full day’s worth of driving away; it was only after years of enjoying the music that came out of those scenes that they were able to witness them for themselves. “We grew up in a space that didn’t really have this sort of DIY culture, but we were still really into this very emotive and expressive and deeply emotional music, and so we were making that in a space that didn’t care much about it,” Erickson says. “It was fascinating and eye-opening and warm to be able to enter into these shows, where people gave a shit about your music because they gave a shit about how you were doing, and how you were feeling as a human being instead of just as a music-creating figure.” Small-town adolescence influences Erickson’s writing to this day: “That feeling of seclusion or isolation or displacement comes through a lot in our music – it definitely is a huge thing”.
After graduating high school, the band relocated to Milwaukee and released their debut album We Can Live Here Forever in 2018. I’ll Figure This Out – recorded with The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die’s Chris Teti – is a deeper, darker, heavier experience than that debut, and one that showcases a new maturity in their writing.
The band started writing this sophomore record almost immediately after the release of We Can Live Here Forever, but the band members’ life commitments – including three of them being in college – meant the process became scattered, stopping and starting to fit around their newly adult schedules. “I’m almost thankful for that, because I feel like there’s sort of an arc to this record that travels from immediate, ‘This is what I think is going on in my life’, to a more reflective, ‘Okay, this is what’s actually going on and this is how I should actually approach it’,” says Erickson. “And I think that arc is essential to this record, and to making it something that feels like it has weight to it.”
Expanding on that arc, he explains, “The opening track is called ‘…For Now’ and the last track is called ‘…Forever’. Those titles are completions of the album title. So the opening track is really ‘I’ll Figure This Out For Now’, and the final track is ‘I’ll Figure This Out Forever’. And the record follows this path of me figuring out very temporary ways in which I can comfort myself to a point where I feel capable of existing, and then moving towards understanding that maybe those temporary solutions aren’t solutions at all.” He adds, “When I started to finalise lyrics for this record, I didn’t want the lyrics to feel too refined. Because my thoughts on my position in life were insecure and not refined.”
The record’s lyrics came largely from thoughts that Erickson would jot down in a notebook as they came to him, upon which he would expand when the band wrote what felt like a sonic match. The diary entry feel of these thoughts are not lost on the record, and it’s obvious that the journey they chart is indeed a deeply personal one. Through his words, Erickson documents himself as lost, confused and desperately trying to figure himself out, without ever really reaching a conclusion. Yet, the therapy and catharsis that the writing process brought him were – and continue to be – invaluable steps towards working through the issues on which he drew.
This feeds into one key tenet of emo music (a descriptor which Barely Civil happily claim) – that the artist, in creating something that’s painstakingly personal, unintentionally creates something universal, and the catharsis they pour into their work is replicated on the other side by the listener. “While I am an individual, there is nothing about my life that is particularly unique,” says Erickson. “So I definitely feel like there’s a universal feeling behind it – it’s not just me who’s experiencing these frustrations or insecurities or anxieties. And that is a very important thing for me, that I sort of latch on to when I put these records out.” He adds, “I think there’s a correlation between emo and coming of age. A lot of people in their early 20s are for the first time in their lives feeling a lot of things all at once. It’s a huge part of our writing currently, this idea of shifting into a new part of life.”
It creates (as is really another defining factor of emo) an immensely strong bond between Barely Civil and their listeners, similar to what drew the members to DIY culture in the first place. “I feel like a lot of the relationships and connections that we as a band are capable of making come from the fact that regardless of if any given person directly understands what I’m going through, that process of sharing and being vulnerable is a very connecting ability to have,” Erickson says. “I’m glad that I can connect with people that I don’t know, I’m glad that they can meet me through my words and feel connected to me.”
Guitarist Alex Larsen adds, “The music scene in the town where we grew up was all very macho tough guy stuff. We were kinda looked down upon by a lot of people because we were talking about how we were feeling. So it’s been really, really cool to see that people genuinely do connect with music about our emotions, even if people where we grew up didn’t.”
Importantly, part of the support system for the honesty and vulnerability in Erickson’s lyricism is within the band itself. The four members have the kind of deep, tight-knit friendship that is reflective both of the length of time they have been friends and of the bond that comes with creating art together. “We’ve always been very endlessly supportive of each other,” says Erickson. “We have known each other long enough and have spent enough time around each other to just deeply love and care for each other. Our connection as people is a massive part of what makes our music what it is, and why we’re still doing it. I don’t think we’ll ever stop doing it, because there’s nothing that we love more than just being with each other, and sharing and making something together.”
This care and support that the four members of the band have for each other is a sort of microcosm for what they hope to stand for as a band in the wider world. Erickson explains, “There’s two different ways in which we want to represent ourselves. There’s Barely Civil the band, and there’s the music of Barely Civil. And I feel like the music of Barely Civil focuses on how people can struggle, and can have a difficult time navigating being a person. And ultimately, through our music, we want people to know that that’s an alright thing to feel, and as cliché as it sounds, you’re not alone in feeling that.
“But Barely Civil as a band, as human beings who are travelling around and playing shows and interacting with other human beings, we want nothing more than to create a community and create a space that feels comfortable and welcoming and warm and inclusive to everybody. Because that is so essential to us, we want that to be something more commonplace.” This represents something incredibly special about Barely Civil and what they have created with I’ll Figure This Out. It’s a record built out of darkness and struggle, yet held up to the light as a means of comfort; a way of sharing in our difficulties and recognising that we’re never as alone as we feel. We all have to figure it out; but, Barely Civil suggest, maybe we can figure it out together.