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I Feel Like We Only Just Got Here: How Hop Along Fell Into Place On 'Bark Your Head Off, Dog'

Friday, 14 December 2018 Written by Huw Baines

Illustration: Sam Davies
The train is late. The trains are always late. Table the lost minutes. I absent-mindedly scroll Twitter in a glass shelter as the December cold gets its claws in. Before skipping over a review of the latest Jungle Book remake I’m stopped mid-feed by an autoplay video. Julia Roberts dances in a subway carriage for the New York Times. She grins, the plastic chairs smile back with yellow and orange teeth. The sound is off—my headphones are still playing Hop Along’s Not Abel. The weird thing is, that song won’t yield the floor. Instead it steps in to lead.
And it works. It is just bright and stylish enough. It matches Roberts’ gliding feet, her tuxedo and the limitless space hinted at by the black edges of the frame. It suggests that Fred and Ginger would have found something to work with among its ringing guitar chords and soaring backing vocals. They might waltz as a background character gives the middle finger to a Kodak lens. 

Hop Along’s ‘Bark Your Head Off, Dog’ is full of surprises, but we actually already knew it could dance. The video for its lead single, How Simple, told us that. Their third LP, released back in April, is comfortably their most ambitious and multifaceted to date. At times its foundations groan under the weight of ideas, but mostly things swoop, glide and spin. It’s a pop record, and it’s the real deal. It’s a potentially great band becoming a great band in real time.

Both of the Philadelphia group’s earlier releases—‘Get Disowned’ and ‘Painted Shut’—are fabulous things, but ‘Bark Your Head Off, Dog’ is fully realised. Frances Quinlan’s exceptional voice delivers indelible words while sparring with Joe Reinhart’s intricate, twinkly-emo-via-Neil Young guitar lines, and the rhythm section, Quinlan’s brother Mark on drums and bassist Tyler Long, are locked in and unmovable from minute one.

“Mark and I have been playing together for 10 years but it took so long for us to understand each other musically and evolve,” Quinlan says a few weeks earlier, tucked on a sofa in the band’s dressing room at the O2 Academy in Bristol, where they’re opening for the Decemberists. “For a long time we were working parallel to each other and intertwining in moments. This album feels like one form, one living form. I’m very proud of it.”

That evolution has played out in public. From Quinlan’s early freak-folk days, under the name Hop Along, Queen Ansleis, through their first full band efforts and the economical ‘Painted Shut’, Hop Along have long been tinkering with form and trying to find an equilibrium that suits their strengths.

On ‘Bark Your Head Off, Dog’ they decamped to familiar surroundings—Headroom, the Philly studio run by Reinhart and Kyle Pulley, who served as co-engineer here—and sought something that was lacking on their previous record: time to indulge in the music. Everything here was agonised over, from each finessed lyric to every meticulously-planned interjection from a playful string section. It feels layered and open-ended where its predecessor was sharp and to-the-point.

“With ‘Painted Shut’ we didn’t want Joe to have to do two crazy jobs,” Quinlan says. “His parts are so intricate. He wanted to be free to work on his parts and have someone take the reins on engineering and co-producing. John Agnello was great for that record. ‘Bark Your Head Off...’, we knew that we wanted time. We sacrificed everything else to make sure we had time. We worked at Joe’s studio, which is a wonderful space, and we knew what we wanted. We wanted to produce ourselves and we had our friend Kyle engineer this album with Joe. Joe would be in one room recording his parts because he has the knowhow and Kyle would be in the main room with us. It was really cool—simultaneous creativity happening.”

Whenever an album is wrapped it’s an ending—the end of work, the end of living in each other’s pockets for a while, the end of a period of creativity. For Quinlan it’s also a case of making peace with what the band has done. She tends to mull over and interrogate her own performance, picking at takes and inflections. On ‘Painted Shut’ she was still entertaining the idea of going back to the studio to re-record sections when the thing was mixed and about to go to mastering. “And then one day I just had to let it go,” she says. “You can beat stuff to death.”

“The funny thing is, once you put an album out you never really sit down with it again,” she continues. “Before it’s out, you listen to it a lot, and scrutinise it. With ‘Bark…’ it was another very intense three months of disappointment in myself and knowing...we felt more certain about this one as to what we wanted to convey and that can almost be more frustrating at times. You just feel like you’re not getting it. I really had trouble feeling confident about certain things. I had to step away.” 

Something that is immediately apparent about ‘Bark Your Head Off, Dog’ is its clarity. Its ideas are all there, close to the surface and readily discernible, but you still have to invest a little effort in them for the full picture to take shape. There’s a hell of a lot going on. This time, Quinlan checked out altogether once the album was in the can—heading off on tour with Conor Oberst for a while before decamping to Iceland and Spain on holiday, where it began to make sense to her in its final iteration.
“That was really good for me, to just walk away,” she says. “Our friend Ryan Schwabe ended up mixing and mastering and did an excellent job. You learn lessons all the time. Before he mastered it for us, I went on this tour, and then I went away. I travelled with my friend, a wonderful privilege I got to have. I did a lot of painting and walking around and then she split off from me. I was by myself for a week and I heard the record at the end. I listened to Ryan’s mixes and felt much more confident about what we had done and what I had contributed. It felt ready. I’m grateful that feeling came.”

Quinlan’s work on ‘Bark Your Head Off, Dog’ also extended to the artwork and, first of all, a set of lyrics that took her into new territory. After largely sketching the lives of others on ‘Painted Shut’—the early jazz great Buddy Bolden and the folk singer Jackson C. Frank—here she sought to breathe life into vignettes from her own experience more often. She does so in the abstract, delivering phrases and non sequiturs that flicker in the back of your mind. 

It’s a new look for a Hop Along release, and a thrilling extension to Quinlan’s narrative writing. There is the repeated line, across multiple songs, that helps to define the record—“strange to be shaped by such strange men”—alongside an intern’s shovel covered in shit, vanilla sun creeping across a lawn, Quinlan asleep in the back of a car, mouth open, or checking her appearance in windows, spiders, pissed sheets. These lines hang in the air, like a novelist landing the perfect introduction to a character you’ll grow to love.

“I remember thinking about moments, rather than trying to encapsulate a person’s life,” Quinlan says. “Especially because the figures on ‘Painted Shut’ are based on history, and thinking about how I compromised those stories. I feel like I compromised Buddy Bolden’s story, there’s so much to that immense person. I don’t feel like I did him justice, or Jackson C. Frank, or the discussion of mental illness. There’s so much to absorb and think about. Maybe I didn’t want to try to define anybody, not that I was trying to define those people. With these songs I was thinking more about instances and occurrences in my life.”

There is a chance, with lyrics like these, that they will reveal more of themselves over time. Like Reinhart’s knotty guitars, there’s so much to untangle. In the months since releasing ‘Bark Your Head Off, Dog’, Hop Along have played a lot of shows, including some of the biggest headliners of their career, and these days they’re a slick outfit. Augmented by touring guitarist and co-vocalist Chrissy Tashjian (whose own band, Thin Lips, also put out an excellent record this year) they rattle off these complex arrangements with an insouciant flair. 

Watching Quinlan interact with her bandmates and banter with the crowd (opening line: “Hi we’re Hop Along from Philadelphia...Rocky.”) it’s easy to wonder what she makes of her words now that they have an entirely new context. The shapes she scratched onto a pad of paper might form the backbone of a jubilant singalong or crushing moment of quiet, but right now she’s enjoying playing with her bandmates too much to slip into that sort of self-analytical mode.

“Live, I think so much about my voice as an instrument,” she says. “I guess it’s the same with recording. I love sitting and writing, that part is very enjoyable for me and it’s something that only gets to happen once, in some ways. I edit songs, but there’s that initial time where you’re not worrying about what your voice needs to do.

“I used to do slam poetry when I was younger because that was a thing, it was especially popular mid-late ‘90s and early 2000s, and I wrote these poems that I would read very dramatically. I was listening to a lot of Ani DiFranco and it came out of that headspace. A friend of mine came up to me, and said: ‘That was a really cool poem but I had a hard time paying attention to any of the words because you said them so interestingly.’ He was complimenting my performance but I was really sad. You’d think a person who does slam poetry would know they’re speaking uniquely. 

“I was sad the words weren’t getting across yet I still continued to sing...my voice is hard to ignore in some respects. It’s very in your face. Especially on ‘Painted Shut’. After ‘Painted Shut’ I really wanted to try to pull my voice back so that the words could shine a bit more. Live, it’s hard to think about that. I’m listening to everyone else so much. I notice what everyone else is doing more, especially Mark. I’m more able to appreciate them playing.”

Albums like ‘Bark Your Head Off, Dog’ generally go down as waypoints for the best bands. They’re either a career-high, a launchpad or a curio. If Hop Along never play a note in each other's company again they could look back at it knowing they sent this particular ball sailing into the top deck with a clean swing. But they’re not done yet. “You can’t help but wonder, right? I really hope we keep going,” Quinlan says. “I feel like we only just got here.”

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