Artist Interview: Brian McTernan of Be Well
Posted: by The Editor
Brian McTernan is the go-to guy in punk, and he has been for the past two decades. He’s produced music for everyone from Thrice and Circa Survive to Fireworks and Balance & Composure to Hot Water Music and Strike Anywhere–and his own band. In 2020 Be Well, the melodic hardcore outfit McTernan fronts, dropped their first full-length, The Weight & the Cost. Two years later the band is about to release Hello Sun, a six-song EP that pulls the band in some completely new directions. The Alternative sat down with McTernan to discuss his career in production and the future of Be Well.
How’s it going? How was COVID affected the way you make music?
It’s been wild. The last Be Well record was slated to come out right when COVID started. Then we pushed it back a couple months, like, “Let’s let it die down” and now here we are two years later. [laughs] Shit’s still crazy. It’s been–production side of things, it’s been interesting. I’ve been doing a lot of preproduction and writing over Zoom with bands, and it’s nice. We’ll set up a Dropbox and then hop on Zoom and discuss. I’ve always liked to strip songs down, as a producer, to the most basic form–a great song should be a great song even on an acoustic guitar. What I’ve realized is a lot of what I like to do with bands works really well over Zoom–and it annoys bands less. [laughs] It’s worked well. The Hot Water Music record, we did it for eight months. We got all the arranging and preproduction done that way, or mostly that way. Then we just got together and recorded.
You’re the first person I’ve spoken to who’s said anything positive about the way COVID affected their process.
It could be that I’m in a different place, that I’m not doing a lot of records anymore. I think, in a perfect world, I’ll do two, three records a year, doing all of it–I do a lot of mixing, vocal tracking, bits of things with people. I will say, I hate being in the studio with a mask on. It’s hard and you realize there’s so much you pick up–you’re talking to someone and you pickup a lot of facial cues you miss in a dark studio when you can’t see what someone’s thinking. [laughs] Is it ideal? Far from it, but for the hand I’ve been dealt, but I’ve made the most of it. With Be Well, I try to write everyday. Otherwise, I was losing my mind. We’d book things and things get canceled. So many bands are getting COVID even now. We hate to cancel things–there’s a lot of financial risk, and I don’t think people get what it’s like for bands. Even for us about to head out on this New Found Glory tour, we have to be super conservative on what we order for merch, say. It’s a weird time.
I wanted to ask. That’s a big tour–how did that come to be?
I don’t really know them. I think our bass player–they’re all hardcore kids, and I think that early pop-punk scene, they all were hardcore kids. A lot of those guys know each other. They all played with Bane. Me, I was in the studio that whole time. Aaron knew them, I think. They originally asked us to play their festival in Nashville and then they asked us to do the first half of the tour, then the second half. I think their fanbase is a little hardcore adjacent, and they’re older. I think Be Well content really connects with people who’ve got a little bit of life behind them. Those guys have just been so rad, so supportive. Some of these tours, you have these requirements where you can’t do this or that, right–but we got the Avail/Hot Water offer, and they told us, no, we had to do it. They’re very down to earth.
You mentioned that you just kept writing when things would get pushed back. Based on the press around The Weight & the Cost, I was under the impression it was gonna be this one and done deal. Was that the original plan and then it changed as you kept writing?
No, actually. I think that everyone thought that, though. I thought we’d tour and play and do 7″s and eventually a record. I think this record–the intention was always to be a band and tour and make lots of records, hopefully. You never know. I’m not young. I look at all of it like everything can be the last record. It’s weird, because my wife gets really mad when I say that, but I find it very inspiring. I feel like when I look back at when I was young everything was about the next thing. I never took the time to enjoy what was actually happening, which was unbelievable. I did my first tour when I was fifteen with Sense Field and Gameface–all these amazing, amazing bands, but it was always “what’s next?” One day, when I was twenty, all my bands broke up and I didn’t play another show again until I was twenty. It only hit me later, and so now, it’s fully about what’s happening now. We might make ten more full-lengths–or we might never make another record! It’s not about that. It’s about doing it while we can, while we love it. And if we stop loving it, we stop doing it.
What was it like jumping back into it after twenty years?
It’s fucking rad to be honest. It was a necessity in some ways–I had actually stopped doing music, even producing, in 2013. I was very burnt out and–I was doing records that I fucking loved, and I was losing money on all of them. My daughter was born. The lifestyle of–bands wanna work late, wanna start late, wanna get drinks after. When you have a kid, you don’t. If you wanna be part of their life, it’s hard to do both. I felt like my heart wasn’t in it. I felt like it wasn’t fair to bands to–when you’re producing a record, it’s a defining moment in that band’s lives, those people’s lives. If you’re gonna sign onto that, you have to be 100% all in. I felt like I couldn’t do that anymore, and like I’m not happy, and that’s tarnishing amazing memories of that. It was inspiring, but instead I became a data entry person. If you’re in a band and I care more than you do, I have no fucking interest in it. So I decided to take a break. I needed a break. Before the break, I did three of my favorite records–Firework’s Oh, Common Life, Angel Dust’s AD, and Turnstile’s Nonstop Feeling–and I loved it. They were three of my favorite experiences in the studio, three of my favorite groups of human beings, and three of my favorite records. I think I still needed a break and it was the right thing to do. I was honestly fucking miserable and hadn’t fully processed–I’d spent the prior twenty years of my life surrounding by some of the most inspiring people you could hope to know, and then I was running a construction company with a bunch of people I hated. I think a lot of untreated depression and mental illness caught up with me without having something to pour myself into. I had been in this band Battery as a kid and we’d been getting offers to play in Europe for years. I always said no. When I was producing records I had no interest in playing live. When I wasn’t doing it anymore I thought, “fuck it,” and then all of a sudden I had this thing to look forward to. It had been so long since I had something on the horizon I was super excited about. Then suddenly our guitar player got this new song and I just started sitting down and writing lyrics for the first time in twenty something years. The song came out fucking awesome, and I was like “Fuck, I can still do this” and then it was “I have a lot to say.” I realized the amazing thing about music is that it’s such a good vehicle to say things that are difficult to say otherwise. I had no intention of doing a band but missed writing. I said, “I’m gonna write something everyday. I’m gonna exercise that part of my soul.” The more I wrote the more it started to consume me, and that’s what became Be Well eventually.
Was the intention with Be Well always to be a hardcore band, based on your backgrounds?
That’s hard. Everybody in the band grew up in hardcore. If I was being objective, there’s parts of Be Well that don’t line up with what people describe as hardcore. To me, hardcore is Turnstile and also Seven Seconds. There was never any intention to say, “Let’s make a band that sounds like this.” Realistically, some of what’s on Hello Sun–like the song “Hello Sun,” which was actually the first song I wrote. The songs that preceded didn’t fit well with it. We recorded it when we were doing The Weight & the Cost, but it didn’t come out the way I was hearing it in my head so we didn’t put it on. I do everything I can when I’m writing to not think. There’s no thought like, “I want it to sound like this.” I think, if there was any goal, it was a feeling. I wanted it to have the energy of what Battery felt like to me live, but I wanted the songs to be well crafted songs, like what I do with bands as a producer in the studio, and then I wanted the sound of it to be colorful and layered and not one-dimensional like the early hardcore bands I was in sounded like. It’s an interesting thing because I love super fast music, and I also love super melodic, really catchy melodies, and more than anything, my biggest lyrical inspirations are personal, introspective, going from Rites of Spring to Elliott Smith. It’s not–the lyrics that get me are the lyrics that translate what I feel inside that I don’t have words for. Not to say I do that, but when writing lyrics I really do try to say the thing I’m feeling and not mask it in metaphor and imagery. It’s been really touching how people have responded to the lyrics, especially because when The Weight & the Cost came out, I was afraid people would be like, “What the fuck?” Especially the bands I work with. I think I was most worried about that, especially because a lot of your role as a producer is to be in charge–not in a drill sergeant way, but bands need a captain of the ship in the studio, because it’s such an emotional experience for them. There’s so much coming out of them that you just have to be a steady hand. I think there’s a vulnerability with the lyrics in Be Well that I definitely never showed in the studio. I didn’t want people to feel that I was hiding some part of myself from the bands I worked with. The thing is, the reception from the people I’ve spent my life working with has been incredible. When Be Well played Furnace Fest, we played at like twelve and I was–I think there was sixteen bands I produced playing that, and I was thinking, “No one’s gonna wanna see us.” I go on, and I look on one side of the stage is all the guys in Piebald, Anthony Green, all the guys in Turnstile, and on the other side, Hot Water Music’s there, The Bled’s there, and I was thinking, “Wow, this is fucked.” [laughs] I didn’t know how I was gonna do this in front of all these people–but it meant a lot to me too. It’s special to have this experience after having such a different experience in the studio.
What I really like about Hello Sun is that there’s some songs on here, like the song “Hello Sun,” that are really different from your other work. I wanted to talk especially about the closer. I think it might be my favorite Be Well song ever.
That is for sure my favorite Be Well song I’ve ever written. Thank you, by the way. I appreciate that. I’ve never been able to sum up so distinctly exactly how I was feeling ever before than that song. I also like that it’s super different, sonically, from anything else. It feels like it ends things well.
That one and the title track are different than what I’d expect a Be Well song to sound like. I know said you don’t go into it writing for a certain sound, but that one and the title track definitely move outside of the normal Be Well mode.
I feel like those songs are bridges to where the band’s gonna go next. We actually have another full-length’s worth of stuff–have since we recorded this, but it felt like this collection was the right next chapter. It felt like the appropriate next step to where we’re going, and it’s interesting you point out “In the Shadow of Who You Thought I Was,” because when we were recording that one I realized “Hello Sun” fucking works. The balance of it works–I just think it’s cool you can have “Treadless” and that song on one album and it’s not weird.
Yeah, and I think the flow of it helps all that.
Yeah, and the thing is I hate this whole way records roll out. I would think of music as like cooking or architecture–the balance of things is really critical, the salty and the savory. We decided to do this six-song thing instead of doing another full-length because, to me, it felt like a complete piece. It felt like a release, like the next chapter. And I think the band will continue to grow and I think the EP shows us stretching out creatively–like, I don’t see us as a Thrice-type band where every record is a new book. It’ll always be the next chapter in the Be Well book, and I’m alright with that. I love when bands do, but I don’t see us as that type of band.
I have to ask now: are you already planning a follow-up?
I mean, we have–I love writing music and making records and I hope there’s more Be Well records, but like I said, I have no idea what the future holds. I have been in bands I thought were about to take over the world–I’m just trying to savor the experience. The songs exist for another record to happen. And I’m still writing. I just hope this keeps happening. I love my bandmates and the people around us, they–we’re all friends, the community around us. It’s kinda nice being–we’re big enough to do cool shit, but small enough to know all the people who care about us really well. That’s fucking awesome.
I guess that’s the goal, right?
It for sure is for us. I want people to fall in love with the band, but we’re not trying to get fucking huge. We wanna–my professional goals are to be able to headline with rad bands we love and be able to draw enough people that our friends don’t just take us out on tour as a favor. [laughs] I get so fucking psyched when I see what’s happening to Turnstile–and it couldn’t be happening to better people–but I wouldn’t want it for me. That’s not a goal to be big on that level, and honestly, it’s going way farther than we’d think. It’s very hard to start a new band when you are our age and have people care. But they do. I think there’s probably more Be Well tattoos than Battery tattoos in thirty years. I love how people love the band and it means a lot to me. I was really nervous to put this out–not just for the lyrical content. I feel really good about my professional accomplishments in the music industry, so it’s not in that regard, but when this came out, I needed to get this out, to communicate these feelings I didn’t have the means to communicate otherwise. Part of the reason I feel so good about dedicating my life to people is that I think music is that for so many artists and it translates inner turmoil for fans who can’t describe it themselves. When I think about how I gave up a lot for my life to be in the studio, I also helped amazing people create records that will exist forever. I just think it’s fucking rad. Not a lot of people get the opportunity to make things people can’t take away, but I got to spent my life doing that.
If you went back to Brian in Battery, and you played Hello Sun for him, what do you think he’d say?
I would be psyched. It’s funny you say that–I always think, “What I would’ve given to be in this band when I was twenty-two.” It’s exactly the kind of music I love. The energy of a Battery and the crafting of the stuff I love–when I was twenty-two, I couldn’t write this music. I didn’t have the skills or the experience. I would’ve loved it. It’s the melting pot of all the shit I’ve spent my life loving.
Hello Sun is out May 20 on Revelation Records.
Zac Djamoos | @gr8whitebison
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