Photo by JONATHAN MINTO
BY TOM BECK Right now, the Philadelphia indie rock scene is a gigantic freight train plowing down the Belt Line Railroad, whizzing by the ancient history of Philly rock’s past, leaving Hall and Oats, Bill Haley and the Comets, and The Hooters in the dust. There’s a boatload of bands on board, but without doubt, Hop Along are the crew members, and Frances Quinlan the engineer. The group’s latest release, Painted Shut, got bad reviews from pretty much nobody, leaving even Rolling Stone asking “What’s up with Philly lately?” There’s a certain unorthodoxy to their success; Quinlan, the band’s lead singer and songwriter, screams out almost every note she sings with the magnitude of a baby who’s just had its binky stolen by a golden retriever — a technique probably every singing teacher on the planet would advise against. But for Quinlan, it works. And it works very well. It works so well that the band catapulted from playing tiny Johnny Brenda’s this past New Year’s Eve to headlining the Union Transfer less than five months later. The band’s next hometown date is this weekend, where they’ll play 88.5 WXPN’s XPoNential Music Festival Saturday afternoon at Wiggins Park on the Camden Waterfront.
PHAWKER: You have the best voice in indie rock. Explain how your singing style came to be. What singers have influenced you? How do you decide when to go for the raspy/scream-y thing and when to back off and play nice?
FRANCES QUINLAN: Oh, thank you, first of all. I guess that side of things — my style — it’s really just me working with the voice that I have. And also, screaming’s fun (laughs). So actually most of the time, especially on this last record, I was really consciously trying not to scream all the time. Like, just not to go for it all the time. For some reason, I just tend to gravitate more towards intensity in singing. But actually, a lot of the vocalists I really love tend to be a lot more subtle and laid back. I guess some of the singers that push it more that I really admire — I mean, you know, Jeff Magnum kind of pushes it and god who else — one of the first bands I got into growing up was Radiohead, but I can’t really say that Thom Yorke goes crazy. I think he’s got kind of more of a croon. So, yeah, the thing that’s harder for me to do is hold back. And that’s not even that — when I say hold back — I think it’s more of a challenge to hold back and to be subtle and to not pull all the stops. It’s hard to not want to just pull all the stops and push every phrase as far as you want it to go. When I was a lot younger I was really into slam poetry for a minute, and I would — oh god, it’s so embarrasing, I have like a recording of me doing these slam style poems and the poems really aren’t so terrible, but the way I’m trying to pull all the stops on every word is pretty hideous. And one of my friends — I guess I was 17 at the time and one of my friends came up to me and he said “that sounded really cool. I have no idea what the poem was, like I don’t know what you were trying to get at” because I was trying so hard to sound intense. So anyway long story short, I think I am just trying to mostly reign in that desire to be so, I don’t know intense. It actually kind of frustrates me, because I would love to be able to sing quiet and have it come across with my voice, but I don’t know, I just seem drawn the other way.
PHAWKER: Well I saw you guys do the Tiny Desk Concert where you had to be quieter, and I thought you pulled it off pretty well.
FRANCES QUINLAN: Oh thanks! Thank you.
PHAWKER: Philly’s music scene has been getting lots of international attention, with some people calling it the capital of indie rock, and it seems like Hop Along is leading the pack. True? Who else in the Philly scene do you like/admire?
FRANCES QUINLAN: Well the thing about this whole — I got asked to comment in this article about that. And I have difficulty with that concept of Philly being the capital. I think it’s just a city that has really affordable rent for artists right now. So, you know, there’s been a lot of great bands in Philly for a long time, and some of them aren’t even bands anymore, but they influenced me years ago. And I’m really happy to be here. I guess I’ve been here since what? 2008. Late 2008. Which really isn’t that long, when you consider some of my other friends who have been around here for a while. I mean, a lot of great bands are coming out of here — I wouldn’t say we’re the forefront perfectly. I mean, there’s bands that are a lot bigger than us and have been around a lot longer. Who else? I mean there’s a lot of bands coming out now that I think are great. I’ve been mentioning that band Sheer Mag. I think they kill it. They are so good. But they’re pretty new. One of my friends, Eric, showed me this band Make A Rising. They’re not a band anymore, but they were from West Philly and they’re great. Really really strange, interesting band. And, you know, there’s more current bands. There’s Amanda X and Cayetana and Dogs on Acid. Oh! Spirit of the Beehive is great! I mean, Queen Jesus, Lowercase Roses, Thin Lips is also a great band. There’s plenty. It’s just — I just think — at some point the rent will go up and then everybody will have to go somewhere else, and it’ll be a shame. I mean, it’s a shame what’s happening to a lot of communities in Philly because of, obviously, beer gardens popping up where maybe a community center would be a little more useful. Anyway, I’m ranting, I’m sorry.
PHAWKER: Your brother Mark is the drummer in Hop Along. What’s the best thing about being a band with your brother and what’s the worst? Are you ever like ‘If you blow that drum fill I’m tellin’ mom’?
FRANCES QUINLAN: The best thing is that we love each other very much. And we will forever. That’s amazing. I mean, we all love each other and the band, but Mark and I just have this really beautiful history, you know? And the fact that we make each other laugh over very very silly stupid things, which is something I really appreciate about the people I’ve known my whole life, is when you can just be completely stupid and laugh hysterically. I would say the most difficult thing is that we’ve known each other our whole lives, so we can, you know, go at each other that — we have weapons against each other that friendships don’t have as ready because we’ve grown up together and know which buttons to push to upset the other fairly quickly. You know, when you know somebody your whole life, you don’t even know when you’re doing it sometimes I think. It’s just a reflex, you know?
PHAWKER: So what’s the best way to upset Mark?
FRANCES QUINLAN: Oh, I can’t tell you that [laughs].
PHAWKER: You started out as a freak folkie recording under the name Hop Along, Queen Ansleis — explain where the name comes from and why you decided to transition into a more conventional indie-rock configuration.
FRANCES QUINLAN: There’s a wildflower called Queen Anne’s Lace — it’s that white lacy looking, flat-topped flower — so I just took that and switched the letters around to make it a character, basically.
Queen Ansleis started because I was going away to college and I knew I was going to have to play by myself at least for a while because before that, I was recording a lot with my oldest brother Andrew. We had a couple projects that we started when I was like 14, 15, and we continued them on and off. We had one that was called Brother and Sister and then we had another that was called the Seven Year Difference, because there’s seven years between us. And he lived in this farmhouse about 45 minutes from my parents. And I remember just having my license and driving around the back roads in the woods at night to go to his house to record.
And I went away to college, and I knew I would have to figure it out myself. I got a computer and got this interface — my dad took me out for my birthday and got me this interface and I spent the whole summer making freshman year right after school and I had to, like, learn how to use Cubase that summer and it was very stressful. It was a really rough summer! And I tried to create a band on that record, but I didn’t have any other instruments other than my guitar really, so there’s just bells and whistles and this wooden frog that I hit the entire record. So I didn’t want it to be thought of as an acoustic record. I wanted it to feel more expansive. And I really envied bands when I would go on tour. It just seemed like they were having so much fun together on stage. So when Mark’s band broke up and I was graduating college, it just seemed like a good time to start playing together. And Dom from DRGN King and Lithuania joined at that time as well for a little while.
PHAWKER: What year did the band start coming together?
FRANCES QUINLAN: It started gradually coming together in 2008 when Mark joined. Then Tyler joined the following year. And then Joe produced Get Disowned and he played guitar on it so much. And Dom’s on that record as well, but Joe put a lot of — I mean he played a lot on that record. And after that it just, we just kept saying ‘we need you in this band.’ And he was so busy with his other band Algernon Cadwaller, but once they weren’t a band anymore, he had a little bit more free time, so he could join. And that was around 2010 he started playing with us and 2013 he officially joined. So it’s pretty scattered. It was pretty gradual.
PHAWKER: You guys went from playing Johnny Brenda’s on New Year’s Eve to headlining the Union Transfer less than five months later. Who the fuck does that?
FRANCES QUINLAN: [laughs] I don’t know! Anytime we play Philly I get really nervous because — I think [Johnny Brendas booker] Chris Ward said this at one point — It’s a hard town to win over. You know? I don’t know that a lot of people necessarily go out just because a band that Pitchfork’s been talking about is playing, you know? People go out whenever they feel like it. I don’t know how it works here. So anytime we play, I have no idea how it’s going to be, you know, we’ve played — for some reason we seem inclined to book shows right when it’s going to storm really bad in Philly. When Get Disowned came out, there was like a downpour and we were playing at the [First Unitarian] Church and I remember the side room where everyone keeps their instruments flooded and everybody had to like — anyway it was bananas and a lot of people the next day were like “I’m really sorry I couldn’t come. It was pouring,” and then another time we played Owls it was also pouring. So it’s just always been hard to tell, like, how we could really do, because the weather was just awful. And then the last time we played, we finally had some decent weather, so it was a great turnout at Union Transfer. It wasn’t my first time playing there, so I think they were more down to have us give it a shot. It was a gamble, I mean, The Replacements were playing that night too.
PHAWKER: I heard that a lot of people went to The Replacements show, and that ended early, and then they all went down to see you guys at the Union Transfer, which is a pretty awesome night.
FRANCES QUINLAN: Yeah! I mean those people are soldiers! I think my friend Dan Hughes did that for sure. He’s a good man. A good show-goer. I wish I was that good of a show-goer. I barely go when it’s nice. When I get home from work I’m kind of a big baby generally. I stay in.
HOP ALONG PLAY THE RIVER STAGE @ THE XPONENTIAL FEST SAT. @ 12:30 PM