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Friendship Commanders marry heavy and accessible music on ‘MASS’

Anna Haas

"Mass," the new album from Nashville's Friendship Commanders, tells a number of compelling stories. The lyrics are refined enough that you might think vocalist and writer Buick Audra went through a deep revision in the writing process, but she says that's not the case.

Even in his email, he has stock things about what to expect when you record with him. He doesn’t have Auto-Tune. If you want any of that, you have to do that on your own. We don’t even track with a click track, so it was great for us. His stuff still sounds modern and hi-fi and punchy, but you’re getting real performances and real, organic energy.

“MASS” is the new LP from Nashville’s Friendship Commanders. The band performs at Kirby’s Beer Store on Thursday, Aug. 24.

The LP’s lyrics amount to a soul-searching exploration of isolation, friendship and self-determination that is supported by music that alternates between the cathartic weight of doom metal and the familiarity and resolve of pop music.

The unlikely combination results in a record emotionally rewarding and deeply memorable. (An arresting spoken word track that closes out the collection is worth the journey alone.)

Accompanying the release of the LP is guitarist and vocalist Buick Audra’s book “MASS: Essays on Memory, Language, & the State of Massachusetts.” That collection is out now while the LP arrives Sept. 29.

Audra and drummer Jerry Roe recently spoke with KMUW about the record, its themes and working with co-producer Kurt Ballou of Converge.

Interview Highlights

I’m curious about the story behind the new album, “MASS.” Mass refers to Massachusetts but there are other layers to it as well. 

Buick Audra: There are several definitions of the word mass, and I think they actually all apply in one way or another throughout the story. I am from Miami, but I was moved to Massachusetts several times when I was a kid and spent my early adulthood there as well, sort of aged into adulthood there. Started my music life there, playing in bands and doing all of that. I ended up in kind of a toxic faction of the music scene and got, like, excommunicated by someone who had a lot of social capital. It was a traumatizing time in my life.

When I moved away from there, I packed the memories up and kind of let it go. Kind of forgot that it happened. When a friend of mine from those days died in the summer of 2020 — his name was Marc Orleans; he was a noise rock guitar player in a bunch of projects — I started to look back at that season of life and wrote this record about it. About coming to terms with what had happened and how it informs who I am now.

One of the things I loved about the record is the lyrical content. Did you spend a lot of time revising the lyrics, sort of poring over them on a micro level? 

BA: No, it actually kind of flew out of me. Some of it was surprising. There’s a song called “Still Life” that wrote itself, and I thought, “What part of the story is this?” Then I realized that it was a composite of a bunch of things that were said to me. I feel like the album almost had a life of its own, and I got to bring it forward as a writer.

But I do love the lyrics and there a few that I think are the essence of the record: The bridge in “Vampire,” where I say, “All the odds aren’t the only crystal ball, are they?” That’s really powerful to me. It made me cry the first several times I sang it.

I wanted to ask about the song “Fail” because that was one that hit me on lyrical front and musical front as well. What can you tell me about it? 

BA: I wrote “Fail” about Marc, the friend I mentioned who died. “Fail” took the longest to write on the whole album. Musically it came to me in bits and pieces over five or six weeks. I think it was really me coming to terms with the fact that Marc and I had had this really easy relationship for a long time and it was so easy that I worried that, when he died, I hadn’t told him how much I liked him and loved him all our lives.

I had spent all this time fretting about all these other relationships that had fallen apart but ours never had. The essence of that sentiment was wrapped in the chorus: “We fail all the time/we fail who we love.” Marc died by suicide. I absolutely respect his choice to die, but I regret not having been more loud and proud about how near and dear he was to me.

Jerry Roe: That song got a lot of love and attention in the rehearsal and arrangement phase. It was arranged as it was written; it came out of Buick’s brain that way. Where the grooves and embellishments were, I feel like we actually put a lot of work into it. It was funny, when we were tracking it with [co-producer] Kurt [Ballou], we didn’t have vocals down and he had no idea how it went, so all the odd beat bars and everything? He said, “I have no idea what’s happening!”

BA: He said, “Why are the rhythms going like this?” I said, “It’ll make sense when you hear the vocals!” [Laughs.]

JR:  One of things I had fun with was butting crash cymbals in weird spots in the bars. They really matched up with the lines that Buick was singing but without the vocals they make no sense.

I was talking with someone today and explaining that I had this interview, and they said, “What’s the music like?” and I said, “Well, it’s like doom metal but with a kind of pop accessibility.” 

BA: [Laughs.] Thank you so much for saying that. Accessibility is a word that I have thrown around here and there as well. I’m a huge R&B fan, and I love pop writing structures and R&B writing structures. But I also think in heavy music, so I think, in my brain, some of that got merged and made almost like a pop/heavy record in places.

JR: I grew up in Nashville. I’m from here. This is a song town. Songs are very important to me.

BA: We’re definitely a song band, but we want things to be heavy, and we feel them heavily. But I can’t help but write things with big choruses. Big vocals and harmonies.

I predict that the material will go over well live. There’s this almost participatory quality to the music. Was that intentional? 

BA: No, it wasn’t intentional. But thank you for saying that. We have played some of these songs live in recent months and, actually, we played a handful of them, “Fail” and “High Sun” on a tour before we tracked the record. It was interesting to see people respond to them differently than they did the songs they knew from our older releases because the songs are more sort of pop-leaning. So, there was a lot of head-nodding. They do go over differently than the old stuff does.

Tell me about working with Kurt Ballou on this record. 

BA: We had actually worked with Kurt for years before we made this record, but we had only worked with him long-distance as a mixing engineer. The first thing that we did with him was an EP called “Hold on To Yourself,” which came out in the spring of 2020. We did a series of singles with him over the next couple of years. We had always planned to make a record with him but when the pandemic happened and things were so uncertain, it took longer than we thought. We met on year three of working with him, in-person at least.

I have had some strange relationships with male recording engineers. I love Kurt. I love working with him. I can’t wait to do it again.

JR: I had been a fan of his for a long time, especially as a drummer. I think a lot of modern heavy records sound very processed: lots of drum samples and in the box. Kurt’s records don’t sound that way. You’re hearing real performances.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.