Interview: Telethon talk their genre-fluid rock opera, “The Grand Spontanean”

Posted: by The Editor


Telethon‘s The Grand Spontanean is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious albums of 2017. The buzz-wordy phrases lodged into the record’s press kit, “90-minute, 30-song, five-act punk rock opera about an impending apocalypse, compete with a playbill,” are certainly appropriate, but even more impressive is the sheer amount of sonic variety present throughout—ranging from pop-punk and emo all the way to anthemic classic rock, alt-country and ska.

As vocalist and guitarist Kevin Tully detailed, putting this project together was no easy task. “We were keeping track of it with this Google spreadsheet that got totally picked apart and mangled. We would have track number, title of the song, story plot point, sonic references, approximate length of the song, all spreadsheeted out,” he said. This process helped the band keep things straight in their heads and make sure both the story and the music fit together without any loose ends. “Without that we would have crashed and burned. It would have been a total train wreck.”

Like most albums, it all started with a handful of hooks here and there, demoed through iPhone voice memos. Once the thought of turning it into a true rock opera came into play, the band began to piece together the beats of the story. Tully expressed some understandable doubts: “just in terms of learning this amount of music and recording it.” The idea latched on, though, and they forced themselves to fully commit. “I think we even told some people so that we would stay true to our word. In an interview we were like, ‘we’re going full on Broadway musical with the next thing’ before the record was even written,” Tully said. “So we knew that we had to do it. And I’m of course glad, even though there were a couple anxiety-ridden nights.”

When it came to the storytelling itself, the plot came first and the musical parts were pieced together around it. Tully said that there were originally a more manageable 18 or so plot points with corresponding songs; “And then we realized if you try to tell all of this section of the story in just one song, you’re going to have a giant, kind of unwieldy song.” Necessity almost doubled the tracklisting, but The Grand Spontanean’s length is made up for with clarity. Telethon hoped to stay away from being too “obtuse with the lyrics or the way we tell the story” because “then nobody’s gonna understand it at all,”  Tully said. It was a balancing act, though. “If you’re too specific or kind of simple in your telling of the story, it’s not interesting at all. And we’d probably be able to tell the whole story in 20 minutes.” Tilly pointed to Fucked Up’s David Comes To Life as an example of what the band wanted to avoid. “Every review of that record was like, ‘this record tells a story, but you’re never going to understand it.’” Now the full, annotated lyrics for David Comes To Life can be found on sites like Genius and the story does make sense; “but the fact that it wasn’t apparent on first, second, third, fourth listen to these people” hurt that record, in Tully’s eyes, and was something Telethon wanted to do skirt.

Musically, the album takes listeners on a journey that jumps genres both between and within individual songs. Tully emphasized that Telethon is “not really intending for these things to happen, we just listen to a lot of types of music. There are five of us, which, if you translate that to writing music, you’re getting a lot of different influences. You’re gonna get elements of everything.” Tully pointed to “The Paranoid Blur” in particular as a song where the band’s varied inspirations come together in a unique way. “If you listen to that song, there’s an instrumental breakdown about three quarters in. Then it goes into this sort of Ryan Adams almost alt country sort of bridge/outro, and that was written before the intro and first verses of it. So we had this alt-country section, we didn’t really know where we were going to put it, but we liked it, and then we had this other kind of Jeff Rosenstock-esque section that was existing totally separate from that. And the second verse became sort of full-on ska, with full-on horns and everything. We were just like, ‘well, they’re in the same key… let’s combine them!’”

Telethon sees this versatility as a positive, allowing them to circumvent the boredom of becoming a genre band and allowing them to connect with their audience in a deeper way. Many people in this corner of the music world cite ska as an initial entry point, or even the classic rock records that their parents played. Following music from present day to its roots is easy to do in the internet age. “It doesn’t really matter what year something came out; if you heard it at an influential time it doesn’t matter if it came out in 1970 or 2001, or whenever. So it’s just the way our brains work and we’re happy that people are connecting with it.”

Outside of the music, one of the biggest surprises pops up right at the end with track 27, “A Choice!” This is where the listener chooses their own ending of the album. “If you’re feeling pessimistic,” the audio instructs, “move advance to the next track entitled ‘Firebrand.’ If you’re feeling optimistic, please move forward three tracks to the one entitled ‘Fruit Bat.’” Tully said that the original ending he envisioned was “Firebrand,” as it mirrors his state of mind during the writing process. “Fruit Bat,” the happy ending, comes from the idea of taking a step back, reflecting, and seeing that the world isn’t always so bad. “You could argue that it’s happening around us right now, but to me it hasn’t really come to the point of no return or the breaking point yet, where we’re going to have to split one way or the other. So who was I to say it’s gonna be good or it’s gonna be bad?”

As far as his personal choice for an ending, Tully said that he’s striving to view things in a more optimistic light, so he prefers “Fruit Bat.” He expressed his appreciation for Peter Hess, who recorded and arranged the strings on the album’s final ending. “The work that he does on that song is so completely out of this world to me, more than I could have ever thought would happen from the simple rock songs that we write. It’s just completely stunning and beautiful to me.”

At one point the band considered releasing each act separately as individual EPs, but in the end, Tully said, “It would kill me if someone discovered us on Act Three and didn’t listen to act one and two, or three and five.” The story is meant to be a full-on experience. “Every single line of every single song has some specific reference.” 

And what would a five act musical be without a playbill? They made a limited edition box sex, modeled after old-school PC game boxes, containing the album on two CD’s and a full-sized playbill with all the lyrics and additional artwork. The very same perks are available digitally as “name your price” downloads via Telethon’s Bandcamp.

Scott Fugger | @scoober1013

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