Interview: A Will Away

Posted: by The Editor

Dinner is served. After a fresh first course of Soup at the tail end of 2019, A Will Away have plated the main meal in the form of their new LP, Stew. Dynamic rock and roll stirred up with melodious harmonies, in-the-pocket drumming and a dash of dramatic theatrics, the ingredient list alone certifies Stew as an incredibly filling listen. I took some time not too long ago to talk to the primary songwriter of the group, Matt Carlson. Carlson is well known for concentrating his heaviest hitting writing into condensed but balanced moments, like in one of the band’s lead singles, “I’ve Got a Five.” In a move representative of many of the album’s most memorable lines, Carlson applies fairly simple lyricism in a crushing sentimental tone: “You think you knew better, and I called your bluff. I’m pretty sure that I thought I was enough.” 

I had the pleasure of getting on a call with Matt to discuss a wide variety of things affecting the A Will Away camp, like their pre-pandemic landscape, the production and conceptual progression from Soup to Stew, Americanism, and the perpetuation of a band’s style. 

We started at the beginning (of the end). I asked Matt how the pandemic had affected the group. He explained, “We had to cancel our tour with Microwave in the middle of it due to the pandemic. Because of that, we actually lost a ton of money. We were really uncertain about our future plans, given that the end of our agreement with Triple Crown Records was closing in. Our guitarist, Collin (Waldron), had given us a heads up on his change of long term plans, and he wasn’t sure if he wanted to run through the whole release cycle with touring and everything else. He stepped back from the band, but still records with us and we all hang out. It was very amicable. When it became clear we were going to do another LP, we talked to Manny from fellow CT-based band, Palindromes, and after a few sessions it all clicked and we asked him on full time.” 

After the cancelled tour and the end of the Triple Crown deal, the group weighed their options for the future. They had the material and the means of recording (at Steadfast Studios, their own soundlab in Naugatuck), but had to decide if the determination to continue was there as well. The uncertainty of the music industry has always been precarious and omnipresent, but with the changes of the last few years, it has become an ever more looming threat to independent artists. We get some of this perspective in the upbeat, catchy anthem “Re-Up,” an analogous track that exemplifies tour losses as drug purchases: “I could still re-up; I could feel just fine… If I give you up, does it mean that I am always fair to you.” 

Through seemingly arbitrary intervention, a period of unreliability and indecision gave way to a rare and lucrative opportunity for the group. Enter Rude Records, a 22 year old label based out of Milan, Italy. A relevant name in the industry with ties to almost every major market on the globe, Rude has surprisingly held a “stagehand” role in the DIY scene. A lot of pop punk classics have gone through Rude (Knuckle Puck, Man Overboard, The Maine & many more), but the company has eluded immediate recognition among the independent community. 

Speaking on their connection with Rude, Matt told me, “They contacted us maybe late March/April of 2020, but we didn’t know much about the label. We got to talking and had a lot in common about how to produce and release a record. We used some of the money for studio stuff, paying Dom (Nastasi) to mix in house and for the mastering by Billy Mannino (Two Worlds Studio). The bulk of the deal with Rude was honestly used for the actual gear and gathering a team, as well as food and hospitality. We did meal prep and stuff for the length of time we recorded and got to go about our daily lives while tracking without stressing where or when we’d eat that day, which was a huge benefit.”

One of the things about stew that I’ve always appreciated is how long it takes to get right, and how it’s often a collection of bits and pieces from leftovers. Long-time fans of A Will Away will find that Stew is just as much fan service as it is enticing to new listeners. Theatrical banger “Karma” gives us some callbacks (“Old drama still making me sick– you think I’m full of it!”), but the music is a massive step up in production and hooks to draw in any fringe audiences. Like a well seasoned meal, there needs to be balance between familiarity and freshness; we seek comfortability in the things we recognize, but are reluctant to take a risk on something new despite coming from somewhere we trust. A Will Away’s latest introduces us to a band we could hear over the radio for the first time and love, as well as something to be nostalgic over. 

In a separate conversation, we had been chatting and I learned that Matt also did all the artwork for the last few releases. I asked about the common theme of the heads having houses on them; a reference we get in “Settling” from Soup, “Twenty pounds hidden in my head again.” He responded that, “There are a lot of overlapping themes in our records. We aim to accomplish continuity through certain life experiences. We want to curate a sense of familiarity for the listener across the discography. As songwriters, we all find common recurring themes in our work. I find that acknowledging those themes is positive for the experience. “Sea Hag Blues” (from Soup) is obviously connected to the newer track, “Montezuma Blue.” To not reference that we’re the same people writing those songs feels disingenuous. The human experience and internal narrative thrives on development. With the artwork, we want that continuity to be worn on its sleeve. We want that nostalgia to strike you as soon as you see it—distinctly different but seemingly familiar. With Soup, we stepped out of that continuity because we kind of feel that Soup is a separate thing in itself. Also, the kids from Here Again and Stew are symbolic of childhood and innocence. Even the dog from Soup is innocent in a way. When I write, I tend to write from childhood innocence or from the past.” 

The past has often fueled A Will Away’s canon; whether it’s longing in “Here Again,” a figure in history like in “Caroline” (a reference to Caroline Kennedy), or previous mistakes from “10 or 11.” Stew is no different in its relationship to yesterday. Even from the artwork alone, the LP gives me “American Classics” vibes. Taking something mundane and trying to build a bigger story out of it is very Mark Twain or Upton Sinclair. Even though it’s not a concept record (or is it), the album feels set in the Gilded Age to Progressive Era of America. I asked Matt if this was an intentional influence or more of a happy accident. He said that, “Stew wants to be reminiscent of the past. From a theoretical standpoint, it’s looking backward at what it wants to be; what the nature of creative art is in the first place. Immediately during songwriting, I knew I wanted to twist nostalgia. I wanted to take these classics and voice them in our memory or our personal human experience. My personal experience of witnessing the sort of decay of Americanism is all I’ve ever known. That style is about utilizing nostalgia, about conveying the last time people were progressive, about shouting back in time to say ‘What’s happened?’ I want the record and the artwork to stand alone and say something not only separately, but together as well. If not in conversation with more art, why do we make art in the first place?” 

There are many layers to Stew. “Parachutes” is lilting and gentle like a square of cloth settling to the ground, relying on long, sweeping vocal melodies to carry you through it. “Spittin’ Chiclets” is ethereal and poignant, yet the chorus rocks around with crunchy call and response guitar parts. Besides the elevation in songwriting, this record is another big improvement in production value and techniques. “Karma” comes to mind, with its Queen-esque chorus harmonies. I remember being impressed by the same factor when I heard Mat Kerekes’s “Diamonds” for the first time. 

We discussed the challenges and chances the band took recording the new project, where Matt explained,“The drafting process this time was very different. When it came together as a full project, it was during the pandemic. I did a lot of that writing on my own at home, which I haven’t done for quite a while. With Soup especially, a lot of it was created when we were together at the studio. Stew was put together much more like a puzzle—or like a stew. We tossed in a medley of ingredients from shitty demos and old ideas. It’s very real. There are a lot of songs that are live takes of guitar and vocals that we then built on top of, really layering it all. That method had challenges like fitting tempo and not being able to just slot things into the right beat for easy quantizing. And building those huge vocals and arrangements– it’s not hard to write, but it’s hard to execute. I mean, there must be like 15 or 16 different harmony tracks on “Karma” alone. It’s a very daunting process to pick through so many of those harmonies and pull out the right stuff. Diving into those harmonies really makes your hair stand on end and fills out a song, so we really wanted to lean into the things our band does best. So much of that is high end performance and execution, especially with vocal arrangements.” 

Before the release of Stew, before even the release of Soup, there had been talk of an encompassing theme and a possible double EP/LP project. Matt and I had spoken before about the concept of Soup, then Stew, all circling around the larger concept of “feel better.” I’ve always attached that concept, that phrase, to this phase of the band that started with Soup. We touched on this again during this conversation, where he told me, “The title of Stew obviously speaks to Soup and looking inward, like ‘How did we get here, where the world is changing under your feet?’ and adapting to that as it comes to a halt around you. We have human growth and we question our decisions. Stew is like taking a deep look back at the most memorable period of your life so far and connecting the dots to figure out how you got here and how those times shaped you. Those memories are just helping you identify things about yourself; those things that sit inside you and marinate there in separate but combined ways. You become the sum of your parts, and Stew is meant to acknowledge all those parts as something beautiful that can help you ‘feel better’ now and ‘feel better’ in the future.” 

Having sat with Stew for a while now, I recognize the complexity of it. A Will Away is a band that began in the basement, but is reaching for stadium seats and streaming licensures. The more you listen, the more layers you uncover simmering underneath the surface. There’s the same grit and harmonies that fans have loved since the start, but now there are catchy hooks, meticulous compositions, ripping guitar tones and leads; everything fit to catapult a band to relative stardom. I said (almost exactly) two years ago to save your appetites for Stew, so I hope you’re hungry because A Will Away is getting the check.

Luciano Ferrara | @LucianoRFerrara

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