Aaron Gillespie explains how the new Almost record nearly didn’t get made
When AP gets on the phone with Aaron Gillespie, he’s still coping from the jet lag he went through leaving Australia while touring with Underoath. But when it comes down to discussing Fear Caller, the new album reactivating his band the Almost, he perks up considerably.
“In a lot of ways, this record feels like it was my first thing,” he says. “There was nothing like, ‘Oh, we've got to make it follow up to the first Almost record that was popular.’ This was like, ‘I’m gonna make this thing, and it’s going to be fun.’ I’m just telling the truth and not even trying to even make it sound nice in terms of vernacular or themes. I was just trying to tell my story with this thing.”
Today, the Almost shared the first single, “Chokehold,” their first since 2013. Appearing on the album made in six days in a rented house in Joshua Tree, California (a story unto itself as you will see), with producer Matt Squire (who helmed Underoath’s Erase Me), Fear Caller is both ambitious and textured.
It has moments of radio rock and traces of post-punk (“I Want It Real”). “Fire” has a psychedelic choruses that hints somewhere between Tom Petty and the Beatles. There’s an ambitious version of U2’s “In God’s Country,” and on “Tame A Lion,” Gillespie is shored up by a kickass sax break courtesy of Less Than Jake’s JR Wasilewski. (“The old Bruce Springsteen-like rock sax solo [is] something I've never done,” Gillespie says. “I called him up, and he obliged and did it really quick. He sent eight things that were all fantastic, and we just picked one.”) Clearly, the Best Records Of 2019 list has just earned a new entry.
After Underoath finish up their stint on Self Help, the band will take some time off prior to reconvening to write and record. Expect some Almost touring early in 2020, further past the Oct. 18 release of Fear Caller, which is available for preorder now. In the meantime, Gillespie talked to Jason Pettigrew about being studio-homeless, covering U2 and discussing the person he is today. Oh, and rabbits. Plenty of rabbits.
Straight up, Fear Caller is your best solo record. Actually, can I call the record that, or is it a band?
AARON GILLESPIE: I made this record alone. When I put out the first Almost record, I needed to put it together. [Fear Caller] is a return to that. Different guy, different music. Yeah, it's the same thing, but different.
The new album feels like a companion piece to Underoath’s Erase Me. That record was a whole new ballgame, melodic yet aggressive. What you're developing on Fear Caller is a different type of aggression that’s implied—the whisper instead of a scream. At points, there are textural, foreboding atmospheres couched within really strong songs.
That makes sense. Matt Squire did this record, as well. We rented a house in Joshua Tree in the desert and made this whole record in six days. We did two songs a day. I think we even did three in one day. You know, I really wanted to do something with that implied darkness you're talking about.
It’s not out of your character, per se: You didn't make a goth record or a doom-metal record. In some aspects, it could be considered a pop record, but not in terms of hooks and stupid production. It just sounds bigger, like you spent $3,000 an hour.
The story on the studios you have to hear because it's insane. My manager, his assistant and I found an Airbnb [in] Joshua Tree, California. That's where I wanted to be. I got there, and it ended up being a little more around houses than I wanted, but still like far, far, far, far, so the owners of the Airbnb knew what we were doing.
So at this point, I'm alone. I had rented a van and driven all this gear over from Salt Lake City where I live. I set up a whole studio myself, like build the baffles, the whole thing. I basically take the studio that I have here in town and moved it to an Airbnb house. I do all that. We start recording. And the cops show up within an hour.
We go to bed, and then we wake up, and then we start recording again. And within an hour, [the owners] kick us out of the house. So they're like, “You can't be here. You can't do that here even though we told you [that] you could. Here's your money. Get the fuck out of here.”
We drove around Joshua Tree for four or five hours essentially homeless because we couldn't find anywhere. We could’ve gone to L.A.: There are some really cool studios there, but I didn't want a cool studio and wanted this DIY [factor]. So finally we found another studio, and it ended up being where I wanted. This time I was like, “I'll just take this studio ’cause it's so cool,” but the guy was doing a local band and wouldn't let us use the studio. I asked if he would move the session for us. He said no. But he let us rent his house. So the dude moved out of his house and lived in his studio. So we ended up recording this record in the house. Of a studio that we weren't allowed to use. The guy ended up being super-cool, but I just thought it was so funny that he wouldn't move one day of a session.
Rock Journalism Question 101: The phrase “fear caller” sounds pretty dark. Like it could be a stark record of you recorded solo on a Sony Walkman placed at one end of an empty room, and you're in the other corner. It doesn't reflect the seemingly IMAX-style rock songs you’re displaying here.
Going into this, I had no idea what it was going to be called. I knew I wanted to bring back the Almost name to have that background of rock ’n’ roll with me. The first day before I got kicked out of the house, I go running every morning or ride a bike or something aerobic. Outside, there was a giant jackrabbit. The biggest one I've ever seen, preemptively ahead of me.
So we get to the next house. I'm setting up a vocal mic where I can look out at this rise of hills and Joshua trees through the windows. I’m sitting there, and there's another fucking rabbit. The next day, Squire and I were in the control room, and I would look out that window, and there'd be a rabbit. And then I'd go running at that house, and there'd be a fucking rabbit. So I was literally going to call the record Jack Rabbit.
At some point, we go to this bar, Pappy & Harriet’s, my favorite bar in the whole world in Pioneertown. Squire and I go out on the patio, and there’s a dude out there with a fuckin’ rabbit on his shoulder. He’s carrying a rabbit in a bar. I’m like, “Dude, this is getting so weird…”
So we started to look up what it means in Native American mythology and religions to see a rabbit. There's a section of Native American mythology where different animals mean different things—totems, if you will. So we looked at what a rabbit meant, and it’s me to a tee. And I'm grossly paraphrasing, but [it’s] someone who is anxious but finds creativity and these things that were such omens of who I am. So essentially the rabbit became my totem, and that rabbit guy in the bar is called the fear caller.
Your choice of covering U2’s “In God’s Country” is interesting. A good deep cut from The Joshua Tree.
I'm a massive old U2 fan. I had the cover of Boy tattooed on my arm when I was 20. I always wanted to do a U2 song, but there's certain songs you can't cover. Like, you can't cover “Yesterday” by the Beatles. So with U2, I wanted to do a deep cut, and because of where we were in Joshua Tree, we all kept thinking of that track. I literally played the song, just looked at the lyrics and recorded it. I think it came out in a really urgent, neat way that anchors that feeling.
Some of the record sounds pensive, while other parts feel very melancholy. What kind of real-life experiences came at you fast in the making of it? Besides actually trying to get it done.
I think I had finished writing this around January, February, March. I had written down the lion's share of this stuff on the Erase Me tour. That tour was like the biggest undertaking we'd ever done. We sold out the basketball arena, [Yuengling Center] in our hometown. We did all this stuff, and Underoath are really lucky. Things have been awesome.
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There is this old adage: No matter how successful you become in this business or how much a record sells—or how much it doesn't—there's a piece of you that always is craving that first thing you did. And I don't mean musically or stylistically or any of that shit. I mean that feeling you had when you made that first record, where the music made you who you are, made you stand out to yourself. For me, it I was chasing that feeling a lot in the last couple of years. And I think we all do it as people who get to be “professional musicians” or whatever. I’m trying to tie all that emotion with a bow..
Wanted to ask you about the song “Ain’t No King.” Is that Aaron checking himself at the door or demanding to be respected on his own terms? I thought that one was particularly resonant.
It is a check yourself at the door kind of thing. For me in my mid 20s, I really got wrapped up in the success of [Underoath]. And I think more than one of us in the band did. Now it’s like I pull that stuff with a grain of salt. We're lucky that we’re making music in 2019, so it is the former rather than the latter.
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Everybody playing music is chasing something. You could be chasing worldly stuff, you could be chasing trying to be famous and money or whatever. You know, in the ’60s with jazz they were chasing a sound texture. I think for me, I was chasing a feeling and a story more than I was chasing success. But with this record, I was really starkly trying to stay away from thinking, “This could be big. I'm going to bring this thing back that I had when I was a kid.” I want this to be a true snapshot of my heart, of who I am. I just had to make it, you know, for my sanity. As a man at 36 with a 7-year-old child, I’ve been blessed and lucky enough to have success in this business. And this is the piece of music that really tells the truth.
Mission accomplished. What's your big plan for Halloween?
[My son’s] favorite holiday is Halloween. He has a bin of costumes since he was 2 years old. My wife actually went to Hobby Lobby today and brought home, like, 10 bags, so she's transforming the house into a devilish schoolhouse for him. And, you know, numerous trips trick-or-treating and every festivity you can pack into one October is what we do. I always try to make sure I’m home for Halloween because that's my boy's favorite holiday.