Don’t let The Front Bottoms’ frontman Brian Sella’s acoustic guitar mislead you.
The New Jersey band has been generating buzz thanks to an album (“Talon of the Hawk”) on NPR’s Top 20 of 2013 and a string of sell-out shows. But despite the unplugged look on stage, it isn’t the second coming of Mumford.
Sella’s setup was born out of necessity.
“I got an electric guitar, but I never had an amp,” he says. When he first went to play a show, a sound engineer told him he could just plug an acoustic into the PA and go. A light bulb clicked. “From then on, (I thought), I’m just going to use the acoustic. I felt like that was a decision I made at that moment. I can play shows, and I don’t have to buy an amp.”
Those who listen to the record first may not even realize they’re hearing an acoustic guitar.
“I worked at a grocery store, and I wanted a bunch of days off to tour,” Sella says. “My manager asked me to bring him a CD. He said, ‘Oh ... you play acoustic guitar. Like Dave Matthews Band?’ Two weeks later, he came in and he was like, ‘Dude, it’s nothing like Dave Matthews.’ He’s been to several Front Bottoms shows since.”
The four-piece – which also includes Tom Warren, Ciaran O’Donnell and original member Mathew Uychich on drums – plays quirky rock ’n’ roll in the vein of hard-to-pigeonhole alt-rock bands like Violent Femmes, Weezer, or They Might Be Giants.
The words are based in folk music, with a detailed, storyteller style. But the music has a punk backbone bolstered by horns, electric guitar, and synthesizers. And Sella delivers lines in the deadpan style of Dinosaur Jr. or Jonathan Richman, with lyrics spiked with humor even when he’s singing of breakups or loss.
“Somebody will come up to me and say, ‘These songs are so funny,’ ” he says. “Then someone will come up and say, ‘These songs are so emotional.’ And they’re talking about the same song.”
He compares it to the balance of horror and humor that he digs in the writing of Bret Easton Ellis (“American Psycho”).
“Those books are intense, but the humor is some of the funniest stuff I’ve ever read,” he says. “You can write something that is emotional. You can throw the humor in there and it doesn’t have to be totally separate. It doesn’t have to be 100 percent one direction. I keep that in mind when I’m writing.”
Whether the attraction is his confessional writing style or the intense live sets, fans are flocking to The Front Bottoms’ shows, and singing along with the kind of devoted furor that builds lasting music careers. He noticed it happening while opening for other artists in 2012.
“We felt like people were reacting even though they weren’t coming to see us, and we were selling a lot of merchandise,” he says. “When we came back into their areas, there would be like 100 people where we weren’t playing for 15 people before.”
“When we started, we had business cards that read, ‘The Front Bottoms, you might like us.’ That was our attitude,” he says. “There’s a chance people will like it. I think people take to that attitude. Our vibe is very accessible, and the themes are universal. As specific as I may be writing, it is a pretty general theme. It’s (easy) for listeners to put themselves in the character of the songs.”
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