by Elia Alovisi
If a band is labelled “progressive rock”, you usually picture this. Or this. Or this. Ok, I’ll stop. But I’ll add that I actually really, really love Yes. Almost as much as Rush. Anyway, the thing is – the term “prog rock” is often associated with huge bands from the 60s, bunches of virtuosos, or just straight-up vacuous guitar noodling. It was thrown around a lot when it came to describing the sound of bands that tried (and managed) to steer away from formulaic early-00s-emoish-post-HC: Circa Survive, RX Bandits, Closure in Moscow, The Sound of Animals Fighting. But even though you could definitely hear technical prowess in their songs (I mean, come on), it wasn’t only about that. In the words of The Dear Hunter‘s main man Casey Crescenzo: “That’s what I feel like a lot of people miss out on when they see somebody’s labelled prog. They don’t understand that all that really means is a band is progressive, and that’s what all art should be.”
September 4th, 2015 was a huge day for Crescenzo: it was The Dear Hunter’s first ever gig in London, but it was also the release day for Act IV: Rebirth in Reverse – the fourth chapter in the old-timey epic saga the band has been telling for the past fourteen years. But Crescenzo’s beginnings in music were with a completely different beast: The Receiving End of Sirens, whose Between the Heart and the Synapse is, in my opinion, one of the most perfectly-crafted concept albums the 00s ever gave us. It was all over the place – three vocalists! Electronic interludes! Shakespeare references galore! Screams! Clean vocals! Solos! It felt clumsy at times. But it was just so freaking heartfelt – at least, according to seventeen-year-old-me. Its narrative about self-acceptance, its healthy use of alliteration and its complex framework resonated with me – and listening to it today evokes the same feelings. Come 2006, Crescenzo was asked to leave the band. He started a solo project, which would then naturally become The Dear Hunter – his strong vocals still there, his guitar work ever more precise, his songwriting skills getting better with each album, his idea of progressivity slowly but steadily making itself clear.
Act IV comes after a six-year break from the concept. Between 2009 and now, TDH released a series of colour-based EPs, a strong full-length album called Migrant and a live album. Crescenzo also composed and released a symphony, Amour & Attrition. Actually, the announcement of Act IV was somewhat of a surprise: Crescenzo seemed perfectly comfortable in his non-conceptual output. Which is the reason why I chose the following question as a starter.
Why did you decide to restart telling the story of The Dear Hunter?
“I started writing a record. I was like in this extreme funk where i was looking at my career and I was thinking – “I’ve been doing this for so long, I don’t know what I really have to show for it”. It’s like, we had stopped touring for a little bit, I was home long enough to kind of go crazy, and I was like, “What am I doing? Should I go and make a pop record? Should I make a bunch of songs that are totally marketable and should I work with a big producer? Should I play the game and see if I win it? I started writing a few songs, I started playing the game and sending songs to managers, and the label, and getting feedback… Playing the game, of like “Ok, I’ll change the song basing on the feedback from my label and my manager”. And it was soul-crushing. I had this moment, I hit a wall, I was talking to myself: “What the fuck are you doing to yourself? You’re not a pop musician. You don’t even know how to write pop songs. You never started this so you could have other people dictate your own creativity”. Not their fault, ’cause they’re trying to help. But you just become a puppet. And how fulfilling of a creative life would it be to be a successful puppet? The best puppet there is? Wouldn’t be nearly as good a feeling as being the worst puppeteer. I hit that wall and it was over. “What the fuck am I doing?” I called up my manager, I said I’m not doing this, I can’t do this, it feels terrible. And this was only like a month of time. And he was like, “What do you wanna do?” I said, “I wanna do Act IV“. And it was the knee-jerk reaction to having almost tried to be a pop songwriter. It was like, “I have to go to entire opposite way. I’m going back to conceptual music, I’m doing the thing that actually makes me happy.”
The album wasn’t planned at all, then. ‘Cause I was reading through some of your old interviews and you were like, “Act IV isn’t coming”.
“That was true for a long time. I also told some people, while I was recording Act IV, that it wasn’t gonna happen. Because I didn’t know if I’d finish, I didn’t know if it would be good. I wanted to wait to make sure that it actually happened before I was like, “Yeah, Act IV is coming”. Honestly, it was just that I needed to do the thing that really excited me again. Migrant was a record that I needed to do. It was always things that I take, like, some reflection and think, “What is it that I am supposed to be doing right now.” And it just happened naturally, even though the chain of events leading up to the decision were chaotic and dramatic, it was like chaos and all of a sudden a perfect light that said, “Let’s do Act IV“. I knew it was time.
How do you feel you have changed as an artist and as a person since The Dear Hunter started? Is present Casey different from 10-years-ago Casey?
“Totally different. And it impacts the album the exact way it should. The Dear Hunter is an evolving concept. It starts with a child and eventually has to end with somebody at the end of their life. So, for me, it has to be that I write these records as I get older. The most important gap of time for me was between Act III and Act IV. Because emotionally, physically and creatively I ran myself to the edge with Act III. And if I was gonna write about Act IV it would’ve been insincere. And now having been through a lot of relationships falling apart – I went through a divorce – seeing so much of the world, touring, all of those things. That all made it possible for me to have more experience. To have a more enriched life, whether it was through pain or pleasure. And that enables me to write music that I feel more and more confident in. Instead of just going off the far end of fictionalisation, I can learn more, I can experience more and I can pull from that to write the story more heartfelt than just imagining things. Cause everything in there is romanticised from my own life. But then again, Act II – this character’s falling in love with a prostitute. It wasn’t that I fell in love with a prostitute, it’s that I fell in love with somebody who I felt was a negative person enough that I wanted to just demonize them. So I called them a prostitute, and that’s a very bitter thing to do. If I was given the task to write Act II now it would be drastically different. I should write Act IV now, because of where I’m at in my life, it literally perfectly parallels what that story needs to be about. And getting over those bitternesses. Getting through it. You know, there are things that are alluded to in this record that are looked at from new perspectives because of being older”.
Let’s do a quick recap – what happens in Act IV storywise? So, Act III is “The Dear Hunter goes to war”…
“Act III is The Dear Hunter goes to war – but he meets his brother. Who doesn’t know he’s his borther. He finds out and also meets who his father is and becomes, not in a violent way, but becomes very spiteful and coincidentally his brother dies at the war. And his brother trusts him with the task of being sort of the middleman to all of his loved ones, to his fiancé, to his mother, to his friends, to his family. Then his father dies as well, so he looks at his life, he looks at his brother’s life, they look identical and he kind of sets himself to rest in the battlefield and says, “I’m going to go back as this other person. My brother didn’t die on the battlefield, I died and I’m going back as him”. In Act IV, it’s about him years later returning finally to the city as somebody else because he feels that he can do more as that other person. Everything about his life will be better. And then it’s about seeing how that does and doesn’t work. And specifically it’s about seeing the way that he interacts with both new people and people from his past while simultaneously trying to maintain this elaborate ruse that he is who he says he is. And then it comes somewhat to a head right at the end of the record.”
There’s a line in Waves that goes, “I thought that I knew love / But it was just a wave crashing over us”. Is this negative idea of love just a storytelling device or something else?
“I think that it’s not an overarching negativity of love. That songs represents a cross-section both for me and for this character, in that it’s the desensitizing to it. And it becomes harder and harder to convince yourself of it. It’s more about feeling like your heart cries wolf after too long and that you find yourself in the middle of something, and you’re passionate, you feel like it’s the end of everything in a good way, you’re never gonna have to think about love again. you were there forever. And then the rug gets pulled out from under you and you feel like you’re back at ground zero. But that lyric is about the first time you feel in love and it falls apart. The best thing I think you can do is obviously learn from it, but in this instance it’s more that he did the wrong thing, and in times I’ve done the wrong thing, where love failed, so love doesn’t exist. And I thought I knew what that was, but really It was just sort of a passing trend. But it isn’t the way that I necessarily view love, it’s just the way that I view the bitterness of love as inability to convince yourself that when something fails it’s because you don’t have the capacity for it, or that it can’t happen for you. And what’s important for this character in the story, is that he views love now as sort of a passé, and not real, so he looks at his relationships going forward, and he looks at women going forward, at the idea of romance going forward and he sees it more as means to an end than he does as what it really is, which is an unfathomable experience that you can have with another person.”
When you are writing, do you already know that you’re writing a new part for The Bitter Suite or do songs just happen to become part of it? And what does that song represent in the context of the story?
“This time I did. I absolutely did not know that I was going to make Bitter Suites IV, V and VI this way. But the point is that in Act II, the way that the Bitter Suites play out – it’s the meeting of somebody, it’s sharing in the experience with somebody and then it’s the aftermath in Bitter Suites IV, V and VI. He’s seeing this character, the Pimp and the Priest character, he’s seeing him as the priest for the very first time. And he’s meeting him, he’s sitting there for his sermon, and I always viewed that to be a parallel of sort of what Ms. Leading had to offer him in the realm of physicality. So they marry each other in that sense, and I knew that that was sort of what the Bitter Suites would be. The whole idea of these are, they are the inceptive moments, the ground zero of the mistakes he makes. The Bitter Suite in Act II is the moment he sort of throws himself head over heels into a situation blindly that ends up being his undoing in that record. In Act IV this is also the moment that he throws himself into this scenario blindly and it will be his undoing”.
What do you think is the value of storytelling and concept albums? And what are some of your references when it comes to writing?
“I’m very stupid (laughs). I am very unread. I just think the value of storytelling depends on the story. Some people write stories purely for pulp and that is amazing, and people need that. Every song is telling a story. Especially pop music, because those people they don’t write their own songs. They’re just telling somebody else’s story that was written for them. For me, I have a moral to the story. And it’s heartfelt, and it’s organic. It’s not about wiling people that I pulled off a concept, it’s not about people walking away from it and being like, “Wow, it’s so cool that he did this or did that”. At the end of the day, it’s just a method for telling a story like any song is. But for me, the way that I can convey the thoughts and feelings that I have, the most comfortable way and the way I feel that I can actually do it the best is through a story. And so, I think that concept records provide a really wonderful foundation for songwriters and storytellers who want to create something that a listener can dive into further, and whose moral is larger than the single story, and whose ideas are larger than the single story. One song, while it can be awe-inspiring and earth-shattering, can only have as much dimension as that one song can have. If you had a 3000-hour song you could tell the story of the Universe day by day, but when you have three and a half minutes it can only go so far”.
Are there any landmark concept albums that helped you strengthen this idea?
“I have albums I think are concept albums that I really love. Mr. Bungle’s California. Honestly, the second Coheed and Cambria record, I think it’s a phenomenal concept album. Sgt Pepper’s was supposed to be a concept album and it kind of got halfway there, still one of my favourite albums of all time. Brian Wilson’s Smile is a classic, and that’s one that actually, when I first heard it, it was like the light being turned on. I heard that when I was still in my last band, and that record was the one that made it click for me, and made concept music click for me. In the sense that it doesn’t have to be 70 minutes of prog-rock, sort of mechanical music. That’s a concept record and, while the musicianship is astounding, it’s not a technically astounding record. But the way that it flows, and the way that motifs are established and then manipulated, and the way that songs come and go, and the lack of adhering to a traditional verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus mentality – that record made it happen for me.”
By the way, I’m glad you mentioned the Beatles and Brian Wilson. I’ve always heard a strong 60s influence in The Dear Hunter. I mean, just listening to Smiling Swine…
“Huge. Huge 60s influence. It’s a huge part of it. It is the decade. It is the inception of all things that we still do. You still hear people writing songs that sound like The Beatles. You still hear people ripping on Stevie Wonder. You still hear guitar players doing everything they can to sound like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. You hear all of those things still. It’s impossible to deny how huge that was. It’s the music that I was raised on, it is permanently ingrained in me as an inspiration.”
On the subject of concept albums – 10 years on, what does Between the Heart and the Synapse mean to you now?
“Looking back on that record feels a bit like looking back on the artwork you make and put on your fridge as a child because it’s, for everyone who was involved, it’s really immature. But we all did it together and it was such a joint effor… At the same time, I look at it as exactly what it is, which is music I wrote 10 years ago and I’ve learned so much, and I feel much more comfortable as a creative person. When I heard that record last, which was a few years ago and I was learning songs to play with them, I remember thinking, “What the fuck was I thinking? Like, why did I sing like this? Why was I screaming like this? Why did I feel the need to play fast guitar everywhere?” But then, it carries an obscene amount of nostalgia for me, because I can feel exactly what I felt back then. When I heard it, I thought of all the things I would change, the things I wish I could have done differently. But it’s good that i can’t and George Lucas my way through the record and add CGI to it (laughs). But I look back on it with zero negativity. That record is why I can do what I do, that is how I got any sort of headway in the music scene, any sort of opportunity, it’s all because of that album. So the last thing I wanna do is trash it.”
Did your experience as a composer change the way you see songwriting and performing in any way?
“It did. Writing a symphony for me was like the difference between seeing a painting and having somebody separate every single pigment in the painting and show you the depth to it. It unlocked my songwriting. It was another light-going-off moment for me, when I saw how deep the polyphony of music can really go. The complementary cross-talk between instruments and tambours and rhythms. And just the power of an ensemble, it was so interesting to be in a place where I was writing and I didn’t play a single instrument. It put me in the seat where I was only a composer, which I have never been. And that was enlightening because it allowed me to be so much more scrutinist of my own songwriting. Because I wasn’t wearing all of the hats – producer, singer, performer. I was just a composer. I probably spent about four weeks writing the symphony and then I spent three days in Brno recording it. Which was hectic. But the Brno Symphony Orchestra are virtuosos beyond anything I can fathom. It was obscene watching them. Honestly, it was amazing. A ton of work.”
Does touring still take a toll on your personal life?
“Yes. It absolutely does. I don’t think, when anybody grows up and they have their concept of relationships, that within it is being away from each other for months on end. It’s just not very natural but, that being said, we all are in a tremendous position of luck that we should be grateful for, our girlfriends and significant others – wives, are six of the most supportive people. But it would be a lie to say that at some point, during every day, everybody doesn’t think that God, I wish I was at home with her. And it has nothing to do with disregarding the amazing experience that we get but it’s tough. I mean, I love travelling, I love seeing the world. But, ten years in, sometimes you’re just like, “Man, wouldn’t it be great if I could just be on my couch doing nothing”. But that’s not how I feel tonight.”