Artist Interview: Tigers Jaw

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Photo by Rebecca Lader

Tigers Jaw’s sixth full-length album, I Won’t Care How You Remember Me, has been eagerly anticipated by fans of the beloved Scranton, Pennsylvania foursome. But as the album drops on Friday, fans may not realize just how long the band has been ready to release their newest LP, how many delays they’ve encountered along the way, and how it’s all been worth it to get to where they’re at now. 

Tigers Jaw—Ben Walsh (vocals/guitar), Brianna Collins (vocals/keyboards), Teddy Roberts (drums), and Colin Gorman (bass)—finished recording I Won’t Care How You Remember Me in August 2019, with plans to release in the beginning of 2020. Collins, who generally handles the band’s art direction, finished photographing the album art in February 2020, when it was supposed to be “go time”—she was actually running behind, but she works best under pressure, she explains. 

Very suddenly, however, there was no pressure at all, as COVID-19 exploded around the world and indefinitely disrupted the album’s planned release schedule. 

“There really is such a structure to how it’s typically done; you release the record and then you get to tour and it’s so gratifying to finally be able to play the songs live,” Collins told me by phone. “Not knowing what was going to happen in March, we decided to push to August, and it ended up getting pushed again to March [2021].”

DIY is more accurately described as an ethos surrounding making music rather than a style of music, but Tigers Jaw is probably one of the first bands anyone would think of by either definition. From their basement origins in Scranton, Tigers Jaw have always embraced getting their hands dirty, leaving their fingerprints on everything they touch, from their 2006 debut LP Belongs to the Dead  to I Won’t Care How You Remember Me 15 years later. 

“We’ve been itching to have these songs out and to share them, but we did the album justice by waiting and using it as an opportunity to really put our efforts into the rollout and making music videos and doing so much of it ourselves,” Collins said. “It’s definitely been an active time, which is funny because with everything we can’t actually play shows, but we’re still trying to do as much as we can for the rollout of this record, so it’s been busy nonstop since August. It’s all worth it; it’s art that will live forever.”

For Collins, art is a multilayered expression. Having earned a bachelor’s of fine arts degree in photography from the Tyler School of Art and a master’s degree from the College of Fine Arts at Boston University, she is a certified Pennsylvania teacher for art education K-12 and gives private art lessons. For Tigers Jaw, “I’m not the only one who comes up with ideas for stuff,” she says, “but I do the art direction most of the time, and the actual creation, I end up doing a lot of that.”

Look no further than the album covers for 2017’s spin or I Won’t Care How You Remember Me. They’re striking in their differences, but both are the product of Collins’ artful eye; the former, an acrylic painting, the latter, a photograph. The new record, Collins says, is perhaps the most conceptual of Tigers Jaw’s entire catalogue. 

“The one thing I really wanted to consider for this record was making it cohesive; it’s the first record where I made a logo and I knew this would be something we could use for the duration of the record cycle,” Collins said. “For the album art, I really wanted to make a beautiful image. It kind of reminds me of a perfume ad or something, referencing the themes that are on the record without having it be too direct—a lot about reflections and mirrors on the album art. I wanted it to be subtle and more conceptual in that way. And I just really love that color palette.”

The I Won’t Care How You Remember Me album art, which features lush, silky, peach-colored fabric draped over a mirrored surface and surrounded by faceted glass vases and science classroom prisms, is only the second time a Tigers Jaw album has featured a photograph; the first, was, of course, the now-iconic melty slice of pizza from 2008’s self-titled (perhaps the epitome of DIY). 

“I wanted it to be a very clean image, and then have a logo that was very clean, because I feel like a lot of our other records were a lot more gritty feeling to me,’ Collins explained. “With spin, it’s an acrylic painting and you could see the texture. The self-titled reissue for Run for Cover is meant to be more like we took that photo when we were all hanging out.” Collins shot the album art for I Won’t Care… on her Mamiya Rb67 120mm medium format film camera. 

“It’s also the difference of a decade and my own aesthetic and interests,” Collins said. “I did end up going to art school, and that makes you think about the word conceptual. I had never used that before art school. I wanted it to feel right for the vibe of the entire record, but not super obvious. I just hope that it feels right in juxtaposition.”

Once you listen to the 11 tracks on the new album, the interplay between the songs and the concept art become clear. On “Body Language”: “Shatter a mirror / Pick up the pieces / Seeing your face a thousand times is not enough.” On album-ender “Anniversary”: “The medicine cabinet and the mirror that is hiding it / Reflecting everything that I don’t think you look for / And I’m fine with it.” And on single “Cat’s Cradle,” which Collins says is about a failed friendship and the passive aggression and bottled feelings that can accompany it: “Lost your luster / No glitter in the light / Fickle friend with an axe to grind.” 

In addition to her visual art, Collins also took on songwriting when the band was faced with the prospect of having only one songwriter, Walsh, when former members Adam McIlwee, Dennis Mishko, and Pat Brier left the band after 2014’s Charmer.

Being a primary songwriter wasn’t something Collins felt she was missing in the early days, and she loved the songs that Walsh and McIlwee were writing. But “it did end up being a natural progression,” Collins said. Walsh encouraged her; “He told me, ‘If you wanted to try writing, we could do stuff together,’” Collins said. 

Walsh wrote “Hum” with Collins singing it in mind, and asked if she wanted to write the lyrics for the second verse. “I didn’t know I would love songwriting and feel that need to be a songwriter until I did it, and now I feel like there’s this whole new part of myself that’s still very new and I’m really excited to be able to grow,” Collins said. 

The band’s songwriting process is very collaborative; Collins comes up with a “skeleton idea” for a song, sometimes on the keyboard, and then asks Walsh or Gorman to play what she’s thinking of (she doesn’t play guitar). It’s further refined from there. The lyrics often end up being the last component, “which is the opposite for a lot of songwriters,” Collins says.  

Sometimes, her inspiration is purposeful; other times, it’s subliminal. For “Cat’s Cradle,” she recalled the song “Shimmy Shimmy Quarter Turn (Take It Back To Square One)” by Hellogoodbye, with whom Tigers Jaw played at a festival, and how the vocal melody follows what the synth is doing. “This was one of the first songs I wrote on keyboard,” Collins said. “I wrote the riff first, playing around with different ideas, then adding harmonies and coming back to it.” 

Occupying the No. 2 spot on the album, “Cat’s Cradle” is the clear banger. I remark to Collins that it has a great, ’90’s-tinged, Smoking Popes driving pop sensibility—like something that might have been featured on the Clueless soundtrack—and wondered if that was a conscious inspiration. 

It wasn’t—but, believe it or not, Collins has a Smoking Popes tattoo (!) and “all of the vibes you’re getting definitely are something that would be influential in my songwriting process as a child of the ’90s especially,” she said. “That is such a vibe. The Clueless soundtrack is mostly that type of driving pop sensibility, indie punk music that could be on the radio but also you could never have heard in your life.”

That, of course, is also a pretty perfect encapsulation of Tigers Jaw, who have been aptly described as “the middle ground between Fleetwood Mac and Saves the Day.” Though their sound has changed drastically from their early basement shows in 2005 to this lushly produced new album, at its core it is always eminently and perfectly Tigers Jaw. 

“The way that I understand all of it is every time we’re working on a record or doing a record, it’s very much a symbol of where we’re at as a band at that point in time,” Collins says. This time around, for I Won’t Care How You Remember Me, the band took a back-to-the-basement approach. 

That doesn’t mean the album sounds like it was recorded in a basement; quite the opposite, in fact. The benefit of being a foursome now is that Tigers Jaw can write elaborate instrumentals and vocal harmonies and layer them knowing that the sound will be easy to achieve on tour, which wasn’t always the case when Walsh and Brianna were a duo. Roberts is one of the elusive drummers who can also sing, and he’ll be doing third harmonies in live performances.

In the case of this album, going back to the basement meant focusing on demos and getting to know the songs. Walsh and Collins practiced and demoed for spin, but it wasn’t as in-depth as this process, Collins explains. In early 2019, Walsh and Collins met in her basement and began playing through the demos over and over, slowly finding more nuance along the way. 

Producer Will Yip, a frequent Tigers Jaw collaborator, knows the sound well, and the band has also entrusted him to shepherd it from album to album. 

“He knows our band,” Collins said. “He always says when we’re in the studio, rather than being the producer, he tries to think of it as being another member of the band. Working with Will is always a really great experience, because he’s one of our closest friends and we’ve known him for so long as this point, almost a decade if not a decade, and I like working with him because he’s always coming up with ideas to challenge and maybe think of the songs or the structure in a way you haven’t, but he’s also so receptive to any pushback. It feels like a really good working relationship where everyone is contributing these ideas and the collaborative nature is what makes it so much fun.”

Tigers Jaw calls the phenomenon of getting too locked into what a demo sounds like and being unable to envision a song in new ways “demoitis.” “The songs benefit from being challenged by someone who wasn’t part of the writing process for the first eight months,” Collins said. 

One thing the band always tries to do, especially when they’re working with Yip, is be open to trying things, and if something feels right, it’s kept, but whatever feels right to the band is what is honored. “That process is so easy,” Collins said. “It’s never a tense thing, which I feel like it could be. Songwriting can be very personal.”

Touring the new record remains up in the air for the time being, but it’s been such a long time in the making that the band wanted to do something to mark its release and celebrate finally being able share the songs with fans. 

“We typically tour six months at least out of the year. It’s such a huge part of my identity; it feels strange to not get to do that,” Collins said. What they will do this Friday, March 5, is put on a full album live performance of I Won’t Care How You Remember Me via YouTube at 8 p.m. ET. The band will be hanging out and answering fan questions in the YouTube chat during the show, which will be free. If fans want to support the band, they can purchase raffle tickets via their webstore to try and win an autographed test press ($5 per entry, unlimited entries, with the winner selected on Monday, March 8).

Like their live performance to kick off Yip’s “Live at Studio 4” livestream series last summer, this performance will also be engineered by Yip. In that performance, the band shied away from the popular livestream experience employed by so many other musicians of bantering between songs and talking to the camera, instead breaking their set up into four parts, with an intro and three interludes (“we wanted to do the interludes to give ourselves a break to drink water without having the audience watch us drink water,” Collins laughs). 

“It’s something that ended up feeling so right for us,” she added. “There are bands that can talk to the camera without audiences, and it’s just not necessarily natural for me personally. I’m sure Ben could do it—he could do anything. It was a really fun challenge to think of how we could do it, and it was much more our vibe.”

The band is treating Friday’s performance in a similar manner. “I want it to be cinematic and artful and see us play the songs live,” Collins said. After all, perhaps more than any other Tigers Jaw record, I Won’t Care How You Remember Me was written with how it would play it live being top of mind…and now it’s anyone’s guess when that will be. 

But the fans will be waiting, and when shows return, having the songs from the new album slide into the setlist with fan-favorites will be nothing short of chill-inducing. Having been in the 15-year-old band for 14 years, Collins listens back through the band’s discography and thinks the progression and growth of Tigers Jaw is so evident in the music. 

“I feel like the evolution of Tigers Jaw has been an ebb and flow,” Collins said. “It started with just two people, Belongs to the Dead with just Ben and Adam, and there was a point where it was just Ben and I as official members, with spin. It’s all still Tigers Jaw; it’s all the same purpose and energy. And that’s what was so exciting about having Teddy and Colin join the band. They understand it; it feels so right for them to be in this band, it doesn’t feel forced.”

Every time the band sets out to make a new record, Collins says, there’s no decision made beforehand of what it’s going to sound like. The music reflects where the members are in each stage of their lives, and over 15 years, from high school into their thirties, it’s a lot of life stages. But the themes—self-reflection, painful friendships, falling in love, growth—are a constant through every album. 

“We’re making the music we want to make because we love doing it,” Collins said. “I don’t know if we could make a record that sounds like self-titled now because I’m almost 30. We still play songs from that record, and how we play them live feels right to me at this age. I hope it feels that way forever.”

Michelle Bruton | @MichelleBruton

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