Addiction, Tragedy And Recovery: Why FIDLAR Are Back Stronger Than Ever
FIDLAR probably aren’t who you think they are. Since forming in 2009, the Los Angeles-based four-piece have been pegged as a party band – the kind who play boisterous, hedonistic punk rock designed to make you (and them) want to get wasted and forget that there’s anything other than the moment you’re living in.
After all, this is a band whose 2013 self-titled debut album had songs called Wake Bake Skate, Cocaine and Cheap Beer, and whose name is an acronym of ‘Fuck It Dog, Life’s A Risk’ – a phrase that vocalist and guitarist Zac Carper used to hear his skater friends shouting before they did tricks. Fun, frenzied and frantic, the songs on that first record were, for many, the sound of youthful abandon, of partying without consequences, of staying up all night and drinking the days away. That’s something that has always manifested itself in FIDLAR’s raucous, high-energy gigs, but Zac insists it’s never been just about that.
“The lyrics have always had more than just that surface-level thing,” he says. “The shows have always had energy, but there’s always been more depth to it than people might think if they haven’t read our lyrics. But if you actually read them, they’re raw and emotional and deal with certain things that we’re going through in our lives.”
That’s more noticeable than ever on FIDLAR’s third album, Almost Free. It’s a record that retains the musical vitality that’s always defined the band – whose line-up is completed by guitarist Elvis Kuehn, his brother Max on drums and Brandon Schwartzel on bass – but it’s also one that takes risks. It’s an album that understands the consequences of partying too hard, and comments more than they ever have before on the state of the world outside of the band. The aggressive, almost Beastie Boys-esque stomp of opener Get Off My Rock, for example, tackles the issue of rich people displacing those less fortunate when they move into a new neighbourhood. ‘Big fucking deal if you get gentrified,’ snarls Zac with a vicious and ironic sneer – ‘Back in the day it was called colonised.’ Elsewhere, Can’t You See’s psychedelic, bluesy swagger takes issue with an increasingly superficial culture, the gentle chug of Called You Twice – which features GRAMMY-nominated rapper K.Flay – is a poignant ode to lost love, and the caustic Too Real spits in the face of the current U.S. political climate. It isn’t just directed at the usual suspects either, but also comments on the holier-than-thou elitism that pervades the thinking of some who claim they’re fighting for equal rights. ‘There’s a bunch of white people calling white people white,’ implores Zac at one point, acknowledging the futility of identity politics and the self-defeating nature of white guilt, before later attacking ‘all the bullshit bands that are on the charts’ and people who have ‘gone so far to the left’ they’ve ‘ended up on the right’. It’s heavy and intense and indicates a growing sense of maturity in FIDLAR’s songwriting. More than that though, it holds absolutely nothing back. More than three years after the release of second album Too, it’s the sound of a band writing about whatever they want to, without worrying if they’re going to piss people off. It’s a band finally being exactly who they want to be.
“This album is a good representation of who we are as musicians and as people, at this place in time,” nods Elvis. “A lot can change in life. Max was 17 and I was 18 when we started the band – Brandon had to buy us alcohol because he was the only one who could. Now we’ve toured and seen what’s happening in the world. So this record is a reflection of what we’ve seen. A lot of it’s Los Angeles-themed and about the changes that are happening in our own home, but a lot of it’s about the shit that’s happening in the world.”
“We wanted to explore different ways to write and collaborate more,” adds Zac. “As a whole, there’s definitely less partying on this album, but we still fucking party, bro!”
He laughs. But behind the humour, there’s a dark and tragic past that explains why FIDLAR don’t quite party how they used to anymore. In the spring of 2013, as the band was riding high from the recent release of their debut album, Zac was struggling with serious drug addiction. While trying to kick heroin on tour, he received a phone call telling him his pregnant girlfriend had overdosed and died. That led him to heavy drinking, and that April he also overdosed three times. His perilous mental and physical state was explored in depth on Too, and drugs were still present on that record, but not without consequence or negative effect. Now, with Almost Free, they’re completely gone. Zac has been clean since 2014. Nevertheless, it’s still a part of his life that haunts him every day and which – inadvertently – helped the 31-year-old become the man he is today.
“I’ve learned a lot from it,” he says. “It’s not as black and white as everybody makes out, but I do know for a fact that doing drugs like meth and heroin is pretty black and white. If you’re doing those and you keep doing them, you’re going to die. That’s the bottom line – you either stop or you die. That was a realisation I had a while ago and it made me who I am today, but honestly I wish I’d never even fucking touched the drugs and learned how to deal with my issues in a healthy way.”
Of course, being in a band – especially one who seemingly celebrated hedonism the way people thought FIDLAR did – made dealing with his issues healthily almost impossible.
“This is probably the only job in the world where the person hiring you literally feeds you alcohol to do your job. You have record labels, media companies and other bands all doing drugs, and as a kid in my 20s I thought that was how you lived. Now that I don’t do that shit anymore, it’s mind-blowing that I’m still alive, given how many drugs I’ve done and my ODs. I’m so grateful to still be around today.”
That Almost Free is a triumph is an understatement. It’s a bold and ambitious collection of songs that really shows how tight the band are as a unit. They may have nearly broken up because of Zac’s addictions, but this record finds them at a brand-new peak. In part that’s down to their newfound clarity of purpose, but it’s also partly because they’ve been playing music together for so long. Before FIDLAR, Elvis and Max were in a band called The Diffs in their early teens. Music is something that runs in their blood, too – their father Greg plays keyboards in California punk legends T.S.O.L.
“The funny thing is,” chuckles Elvis, “that my dad doesn’t even make a living playing in a band. He makes his living doing music for TV and commercials and stuff like that.”
Elvis and Zac met while working at a recording studio in LA, while Zac and Brandon were friends from childhood. Their close relationships have not only helped see them through some tough times, but they’ve also galvanised FIDLAR’s attitude and resolve to follow their instincts and refusal to write or conform to one particular style of music. Rather, they’re a band – as Almost Free ably demonstrates – who thrive at fearlessly doing whatever the hell they want. And much to some of their fans’ disdain, FIDLAR simply refuse to make music for anyone but themselves.
“Writing music for other people is a very dangerous road to go down,” says Elvis. “Because honestly, that’s just not how the band started. We weren’t a part of a scene in Los Angeles – we were too punk for the garage-rock scene, and too garage for the punk scene. We were in this outside world and it was… weird.” He laughs. “We couldn’t play venues – we had to play house parties. So I think that’s kind of been the big theme of FIDLAR, and our mission statement ever since we started was just to do what we want to do. And sometimes that pisses fans off. You can get into our first record and be like, ‘Okay, these guys are a party punk band, blah blah blah,’ but our second record doesn’t sound like that. And if you get into our second record, our third record is not going to sound like the second. Any time that somebody tries to put us in this genre bubble, it kind of fuels us to keep expanding our musicality.”
Defying expectations is something FIDLAR are going to keep on doing. It’s who they are, as opposed to who people think they might be. While there’s a world of difference between those two things, Almost Free is an album that should finally set the record straight and establish them as one of the most intriguing, experimental and engaging punk bands out there. They don’t mind all that much if people still think of them as a party band, but they’re determined to keep marching away from the songs – and the lifestyle – that gave them that reputation.
“I think that’s still part of what we are,” says Zac. “We went into this saying, ‘Let’s start a rock’n’roll punk band.’ Where it gets kind of weird is that people were expecting us to keep doing that. And at that point we were like, ‘No, we don’t want to.’ We’re growing and changing as time goes on. We’ve talked amongst ourselves a lot about the idea of punk rock, and we still keep that attitude in our music and the way we operate in our band. But punk rock doesn’t have to be a genre anymore – it’s more of an attitude or a lifestyle that we’ve adopted. I feel the same about this band as I did back in the day. I still love playing music and it still blows our minds.”
“We started when we were really young,” adds Elvis, “and the fact we can sustain it is a really good thing. We’re all happy that we can still do it. Although the older we get, the harder it might be to keep the energy as high as it is. But this feels like a step forward. We’re putting ourselves out there a little more, we’re trying new things and we’re all proud of that.”
FIDLAR’s new album Almost Free is out now.
Words: Mischa Pearlman