A well-regarded record producer once told a band, “If you knew who you were making a record for, you probably wouldn’t want to do it.” ARMOR FOR SLEEP never met that dude, but they made a new record, anyway.
Story: Emily Zemler
Photos: Chris Crisman
Whenever Ben Jorgensen’s cell phone receives a call, it begins to play the theme to Star Wars. It’s a fitting soundtrack for a discussion of a rather epic moment in the life of his band, Armor For Sleep. The unassuming suburban New Jersey quartet formed in 2002 and have been doggedly touring and working to build a fanbase since. Now, they have taken the giant leap into the great unknown. Not outer space, but Warner Bros., the major label the group signed with last year in hopes they would parlay their music into something huge. The experience of ascending from indie imprint Equal Vision to the major leagues has been a lesson in upholding the preconceived notions regarding corporate labels, as well as shattering those very misconceptions.
Jorgensen (vocals/guitar) says the reason his band’s transition to Warner Bros./Sire in April 2006 was so smooth is simply because the time was right for Armor’s jump. When it came time to record their major label debut, Warner shipped the band to Los Angeles, hooked them up with temporary housing and sent them into the studio with a pre-selected producer. After the four-month psychic roller-coaster ride that was recording the follow-up to their sophomore effort (2005’s What To Do When You Are Dead), the band had an epiphany. While the rest of Armor For Sleep-bassist Anthony Dilonno, guitarist PJ DeCicco and drummer Nash Breen-returned to the East Coast for the winter holidays, Jorgensen stayed in L.A., solitary and pensive, and arrived at a difficult conclusion.
“I was sitting there thinking, ‘Wow, we could turn into a radio rock band right now,’” Jorgensen says. “I think I had a moment during that time when I didn’t want to continue on that path. A lot of people got caught up in the possibility of our band and what we could be. They thought it was an easy equation and that they had it all figured out. They weren’t giving us the amount of credit in our sound and they weren’t challenging us. The people involved in making the record we didn’t [release] just wanted a quick hit record and we didn’t want that.”
After a period of re-evaluation and a conclusive band meeting, Armor determined both the slow-moving, unfamiliar climate of Los Angeles and the unsolicited molding of their music by outside forces were turning them into one of those generic radio-rock bands they disliked so much. AFS elected to abandon L.A. for the comforting territory of Hoboken, New Jersey, and the production skills of Machine (Every Time I Die, Lamb Of God), the man who had also helmed the controls for What To Do. In the studio, they took a fresh approach to the songs they’d written and demoed in and out of tours over the past few years, recognizing that sometimes moving forward doesn’t have to involve the complete desertion of what has worked for you in the past.
“To have that band meeting and say, ‘We’re leaving L.A. and going back to Jersey’ was hard,” Jorgensen admits. “There was some relief in it because L.A. is such a messed-up place to make a record anyway. I think we just needed to get home and start over again. I think that it all worked out for the best. The amount of time we spent on the songs [with] Machine really brought us to a point we couldn’t have imagined with these songs [while recording in Los Angeles]. The label was completely supportive of what we wanted to do and was behind [our] artistic direction. I think we wouldn’t have made this record if we hadn’t gone to L.A. first because we found out a lot of things we wanted to avoid. We weren’t making it interesting enough. The album we have now doesn’t sound like a stupid, meathead rock record.”
The final product, Smile For Them, emerged 10 weeks after Armor entered the studio with Machine for their second take. The disc stays true to the group’s talent for writing compelling songs as established on previous releases, while slowly creeping into new territory. Following in the footsteps of Dead-essentially a concept album from music to lyrics to album art-Smile examines a broader version of Jorgensen’s world, ultimately making what he hopes is a conclusive observation about the current state of existence.
“The last record was a story of this guy who died, and [he was] looking back on the people who were still alive,” Jorgensen says. “So this time, what was liberating for me was separating myself from that record because these didn’t have to fit neatly into a story. [They’re] about completely different subjects. There’s an umbrella of ideas that [cover] all the songs on the record, but each song is about something different lyrically. That was the most exciting part about this album. I could finally break out of the box and tell a bunch of different stories. A lot of it is about living in this time we’re living in, which I feel is a really bizarre reality. I think it has a lot to do with being disillusioned with living in 2007.”
Putting the present reality under the microscope-whether it be our overwhelming dependence on the internet, the wild obsession with reality television and the MySpace mania where access into the personal lives of musicians is seemingly desired more than the music they make-solidifies Armor’s commentary on the state of their generation. Rather than just lament the loss of girls who probably never mattered anyway or bemoan the harsh nature of life on the road, Smile is a communiqué from Jorgensen’s fly-on-the-wall perspective. He decrys Brooklyn hipsters with the declaration “This city was the blueprint for hell” (from “Williamsburg”) and makes pessimistic predictions of apocalypse (“End Of The World”). But for the most part, as the disc’s title gently insinuates and as the opening salvo “Smile For The Camera” slams down, Smile is intended as a critique of the celebrity-centered nature of our culture, where everyone is either in the spotlight or desperately wants to be.
“When we started, being in a band meant going on tour,” Jorgensen remembers. “Now everything’s changed; MySpace and YouTube are huge, and it’s just different. It seems like all my friends’ bands are living in their own reality TV shows and everyone is so obsessed with being famous and making it. Since I’m on tour, that affects the people around me. I’m at a weird place in my observing all my friends doing this; so part of the album is looking at the people in my life, looking at my friends and looking at me being in a band right now. This album is me opening my eyes to everyone around me and how they are living.”
One of Smile’s more important distinctions, when placed in contrast to When You Are Dead and the band’s 2003 debut, Dream To Make Believe, is its mostly un-pessimistic approach to its subject matter. Jorgensen (who readily admits his love for all things melancholy) believes Smile offers a more realistic personal sensibility, maintaining a necessary balance between emotional highs and lows.
“I think there’s a lot on this record that’s a lot more optimistic than any other record we’ve ever done,” he notes. “I’ve kind of opened myself up to that. There aren’t only negatives on this. I feel like it’s more of an open-ended thing than about how depressed I am. I don’t think anyone’s completely happy, but right now I’m happy with what’s going on with my life. There’s always going to be issues, but I’m content right now.”
He should be. With a record that dissolves that preconceived idea that signing to a major means signing away the right to your own ideas alongside a burgeoning fanbase awaiting its release with open ears, Armor, who are touring once again, seem poised to be the band the suits at Warner had hoped they would be. As the band continue to gain momentum on their current tour with the Academy Is…, the Rocket Summer and Sherwood, they’re not entirely sure what’s sparking both fans and industry-types to their side; but they’re willing to take that leap of faith.
“I taught myself how to play guitar and how to sing,” Jorgensen says. “I probably don’t know how to do those two things properly, by the book. When I started this band, it was just about writing songs I thought were cool and putting them out there. So if someone liked us, it was just because we sounded like the four kids we are who made music in a garage. Personally, some of my favorite artists are the ones who also don’t know what they’re doing but are trying to express [themselves] in some form or another. I would hope the people who like us see that we’re something real.” ALT
REMEMBER TO FEEL REAL
Everyone has a list of bands they feel have left a lasting impact on music. Ben Jorgensen hopes Armor For Sleep can become a musical force to be remembered in the years to come. We asked him to discuss three bands who have significantly shaped his personal musical worldview.
“First and foremost,” Jorgensen says. “I think what they did is messianic and untouchable. I could go on forever about how important I think they are and what they did. ‘Lithium’ is probably my favorite song: It’s almost like [Kurt Cobain] doesn’t want to be saying anything with his lyrics, but you can tell he’s saying much more than that.”
“For me, OK Computer is a huge album [that’s simply] genius. It changed the way I listen to and make records and how I think about music. There’s a song on there called ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien,’ which is no one else’s favorite Radiohead song, but I find something very relaxing about it.”
SUNNY DAY REAL ESTATE
“Everyone says Sunny Day’s best is Diary, but I thinkHow It Feels To Be Something On is their best. I really don’t have [a third choice] for this, but I think Sunny Day Real Estate, Saves The Day, At The Drive-In, Jimmy Eat World and Refused are the five [acts] bands from the scene follow when they play music.” [EZ]