Let The Record Play: Cold Fronts returns, wiser and more adventurous, on Fantasy Du Jour

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Cold Fronts | photo by Dominic Episcopo | courtesy of the artist
Cold Fronts | photo by Dominic Episcopo | courtesy of the artist

When I first was introduced to Cold Fronts, it was undeniably a band – four young dudes making rock and roll in a West Philly basement they dubbed the Rathaus. It was 2010 and they had an impossibly catchy fuzzrock / power pop song called “Catch” that I’m pretty sure I first heard streaming on their MySpace page. The song fit nicely in an era of my listening where I missed The Strokes of the early aughts, and the LCD Soundsystem and Broken Social Scene records of the moment weren’t quite scratching that itch. I reviewed the track in City Paper, and the elated guys dropped off a couple soft pretzels as tokens of their appreciation. Technically I’m not supposed to accept thank you gifts, but I reasoned that – in addition to being a very Philly thing to do — two $0.79 soft pretzels are not going to sway me on a band I already liked.

Then things changed; Cold Fronts became less of a band, and more of a focus on singer-guitarist and primary songwriter Craig Almquist. It began when they signed a deal with Sire Records – my wife and I caught a Johnny Brenda’s gig where we turned around midway through their opening set to find legendary A&R guy Seymour Stein seated at a high-top table behind us, bobbing his head to the beat. The process of recording, then releasing the band’s debut album on the industry’s timetable was taxing for all involved. Band members quit; new players joined, and left. All the press imagery showed Almquist and Almquist alone. He estimates that over a dozen people have been involved in Cold Fronts over the years, with the most difficult of those years being the four that it took for Forever Whatever to ultimately see a release in 2015.

These days, though, they’re back to their roots, but significantly wiser for the wear. The band’s sophomore album, Fantasy Du Jour, is out on Friday via Sire. It has classic Cold Fronts rock-out moments like “Stayin’ In,” a rifftastic two-minute jam about getting stoned and ordering Indian food. But there are also moments of greater nuance, depth and maturity – the atmospheric dream-pop tones of “Let The Record Play”; the subdued Big Star-esque fingerpicked acoustic ballads “Lightning Storm” and “Back and Forth”; the uplifting vocal harmonies on “The World For Sale.”

Most significantly, Cold Fronts has gone from being a scatterbrained rotating cast project to a solidified unit once again, something we hear a nod to on the reflective title track, where Almquist sings “love’s no fun when you’re the only one.”

Below, we’re happy to give you a first listen to Fantasy Du Jour ahead of its April 20th release date, as well as the accompanying pop-up pop-up gig we hear the band is playing somewhere in Philly. (They also have an album release party that night at Mercury Lounge.) Take it for a spin as you read my interview with Almquist, who I caught up with on the phone on a sunny day last week. He was chillin in Rittenhouse Square on after getting done with his shift doing bike delivery, and we talked about the evolution of Cold Fronts, the making of the new album, his thoughst on the major label experience and how he wound up in a swimming pool canoe at SXSW.

The Key: Cold Fronts has gone through a lot of changes over the past eight years. What was that process of growth and evolution like for you creatively, who is your current crew, and what do you love about working with them?

Craig Almquist: There were a couple periods where I thought the band was solidified. Like, I thought we were never going to have another drummer, it would definitely always be me and Al Smith, then two really good friends joined. We did our first record together, tried to build towards becoming a band, but it was a lot of songs I’d written over the previous four years by myself to various degrees, even though it’s always a bit of collaborative effort when making a record. Then the band dissolved, we got a new drummer before the record could even come out. It was super tough – it’s been tough every time someone quits the band.

My ultimate goal was I really want a solid group of people to bounce ideas off, to tour with, to be on same page with. There’s literally been 15 different band members since we started! Once Joe Killian replaced Al Smith, Alex Luquet joined. We were still looking for a guitarist, Dom Angelella sometimes played with us. Eventually my buddy Max Steen moved from Brooklyn to Philly, and even though I only met him once, I knew we had very similar senses of humor, knew he could play guitar and needed a job. I asked him, and he was hesitant – he didn’t want to play songs from a record had nothing to do with. But he was down with idea of going on tour, and then being able to dip out. When he joined, it felt like we had four dudes who all got along! The missing link was we were still playing this old record.

So I started bringing them new songs, and they liked what I pitched. We began writing stuff together, and Max started pitching instrumental pieces. The title track, “Fantasy Du Jour,” me and Max wrote it together; he wrote his part very quickly, started singing “nobody wants to dance with me” and it took off from there. The other guys helped finish it, wrote melodies. It instantly became our favorite to play, since everybody had a piece in it, everybody had some ownership in the band, had more to contribute than just playing in a live show.

That’s when it started to click, and everybody became invested. We had a really fun year, went on tour with Hinds and The Weeks, and that really boosted everybody’s morale, and we became more of a unit. It’s the first time since the band started where it feels like shit is stable. It’s an unfamiliar feeling but it’s refreshing.

TK: It seems like the new album tries new things, sonically. There are still the kind of classic Cold Fronts rocker songs, but then there are more left of center moments and quiet parts as well. How did they come to you?

CA: There were just things we’d done on our first record, Forever Whatever, that felt like a little naïve. I listen to the record now, and I sound like a little kid. What life experiences did I even have, really? My whole up until that point, I was singing about being in a band. And since we had six weeks to record [that album], we tracked everything separately – some of those songs had never been played live.

On Fantasy Du Jour, we were all playing together in the studio. It was very refreshing to know that we’re doing something that when we play live, it’ll sound the same. The goal was to make it less of a production and more of the sound and aesthetic we like.

Also, I feel like on the first record, in the back of our heads we were swinging for the fences, we felt like we should probably make something that sounds big and should be on the radio. But every song tried to be that. That’s what I mean when I say it feels like a young record, wet behind the ears. This time, we didn’t consider any of that, we just said let’s make whatever sounds cool, whatever we ‘re going to be happy with ten or 20 years down the line.

TK: Do you feel that you’re a different songwriter then the guy who wrote Forever Whatever, and if so, how?

CA: I feel like there’s definitely a common thread between the two albums, just in terms of songwriting. I feel like both records sound like they have my voice in there, it feels honest. But the last record had a built-in guitar solo in every song, and every song felt like it was having a big hook. I wanted to make sure there were songs there this time that felt like demos, that weren’t finished and had some quieter more vulnerable moments. After we got everything mixed, the whole thing was 11 or 12 tracks, and still only 30 minutes. So I was like, I still want to include some acoustic demos, recorded at my house, to connect the dots in the flow of the record. Last record, I don’t think I’d ever considered doing that. It feels more mature, more in touch with who I am as a person and as a songwriter.

TK: You talked about swinging for the fences the first time around. Did you feel pressure to do that because of your record deal with Sire?

CA: I think I did without even really noticing it. You’ve heard the band from the start, it legit began as a basement-feeling project, and the fact that all of a sudden, we had a distro deal and big label throwing some funding into it… Like, I didn’t think we had this long to make a record. I was like we probably should only take a week to do it, and then it was like “oh, we have six weeks to experiment.” I think having so much time and working with a bigger producer who’s worked with, like, Modest Mouse and The Hives, bands that developed into these bigger acts, and you’ve never even done a record, I think that def had an effect on our sound and our direction back then.

TK: I remember when you first got signed, things didn’t move as quickly as anybody in the band anticipated. Eventually the album came out, and you’re still with Sire for album number two, so is the relationship still good? What did you learn from that experience?

CA: You saw it from the ground up, I think if you would have talked to me three years ago, I would still say this: If you’re a new band, definitely never sign to a major label. That’s what everybody told me, and I didn’t listen. That said, it’s been a super positive experience this time around, but it was a fight to keep our head above water and to get an album out.

I used to think it was the label’s fault, and I realized it’s the machine itself, it’s no one in particular. Everyone at Sire is rooting for all the bands on their roster. It’s just, if you don’t have clout, and you seem to move slower than they expect, you are going to get lost in the shuffle. I was getting very impatient on our first record. And rightfully so — it took three years for the record to come out! It got spaced out over an EP, which we toured on for a year and a half. By then, the band had dissolved. Then another EP we toured on that for a year and a half. These were songs I wrote between 18 and 23 years old. You feel committed, you feel like you’ve got to follow thru, but the songs become really stale. And especially when the record doesn’t have commercial success, and it fucks up friendships, you grow to resent those songs.

But now that I had space between those songs, I can look back and say “you know what? These were growing pains, and ultimately these were all really cool experiences, I shouldn’t complain.” I can’t see a world where I’d turn down an offer to do a record with Sire, I was so excited about it! I just don’t think I had realistic expectations. I’m amazed and flattered that they picked up the second record. We finished it at end of last March, and the record coming out within a year is pretty standard, so I’m really happy with that. All I care about, is putting out music frequently. And in the time since then, I convinced the label to let us put out songs that were not going to be on the new record, that had been stockpiling – I felt like we should strike while the iron is hot.

TK: Looking at the spring tour, it seems like there are a mix of 21+ bar / venues as well as all ages spaces and galleries – you’re playing Everybody Hits in Philly. Can you contrast gigs in either setting?

CA: I definitely prefer shows where everyone is welcome. You get used to this bar cycle, which is fun — it is nice to be able to walk around with a beer and not have security tell you that “you can’t bring that out.” That’s maybe the only benefit of playing bars. I’d much rather play Everybody Hits, or other DIY spaces. We played awesome spot in Greensboro, North Carolina — it felt like the Rathaus kind of vibe, except they had their shit together more than we did, and had a nice recording setup. Our agent is a big fan of booking venues with no age limit, so most of the places that we’re playing are actually all ages or 18+, there aren’t very many 21+ venues.

Cold Fronts at SXSW | photo by Rachel Del Sordo for WXPN | racheldelsordophotography.com

TK: Last thing I want to ask is about this photo I saw of you from SXSW. You’re in a canoe, in the middle of a swimming pool…

CA: [laughs] That’s when we went to go see our friends Hinds play. We’d toured with then, and their showcase was at this sick spot called Pearl Street Co-op. It has a big courtyard, a pool — it looks like what you’d imagine a college party would look like, it’s straight out of a movie set. So there’s a big canoe in there, and our friend who tour manages for Hinds was like “I’m getting in that canoe.” And I was like “Same.” And we spent a while just rowing around party. A bunch of people were standing with their phones and cameras and it reached the point where we pretended to keep rowing for their pictures.  It was nice, the show was so insane, and we had our own personal boat ride.

Cold Fronts’ Fantasy Du Jour is out Friday, April 20th on Sire Records; grab a preorder here, via iTunes.

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