"This record is about the black clouds inside my mind," says Saves the Day frontman and songwriter Chris Conley of his band's new record Sound the Alarm. "It was these intense fears and paranoia and diluted thoughts that were eating me alive. It was utter insanity."
The insanity Conley is referring to began in 2003, when Saves the Day released In Reverie, their major-label debut, on DreamWorks Records. This was supposed to be the New Jersey punks' big break -- but fate had other plans. Within weeks of releasing the album, DreamWorks was absorbed by Interscope, and the band found themselves a small fish in an enormous pond. After a string of successful indie releases -- including 2001's Stay What You Are -- Saves the Day found themselves selling fewer copies (less than 200,000) on a major. Conley was devastated.
"The album was pronounced dead three days after it came out," he says, the disbelief still apparent in his voice. The night the band were playing their largest headlining show ever, to 4,000 at New Jersey's Asbury Park, Conley got a call he'll never forget. "It was our A&R guy at DreamWorks, and he said, 'None of the programmers at radio are biting at the single, and MTV doesn't want to play the video, so we're going have to start thinking about the next record.' I had a total breakdown. I was like, 'How is this possible? The album just came out!'" Within weeks, the band was dropped from Interscope and Conley promptly hit "rock bottom."
Without a label, the group decided to make a bold move: They put all the money they had left into building their own recording studio.
For Conley, it was all about ignoring their short-term plight and committing to making music for the long run. "We knew that we could keep touring because we have dedicated fans," he says. "And as long as we can keep touring, if we have a place to make cheap records, we can keep the band going for years. That's what's fun for us."
But as Saves the Day hunkered down to forge ahead with new material, Conley found himself crippled by self-doubt. "I completely lost faith in myself after In Reverie," he confesses. "I've always second guessed myself and was always self loathing, but when that happened, a chamber got opened up inside me, a vault of seething despair. And there were all these voices. It was swallowing me -- I had so many fears. Like, I should just call it quits, and the whole world would be way better off without me." His self-confidence was further hindered by what he took to be the complete creative disinterest of bassist Eben D'Amico. (D'Amico was replaced just before the Sound the Alarm sessions by former Glassjaw bassist Manny Carrero.)
Eventually, Conley locked himself in a room and forced himself to write. The resulting tracks are some of the darkest and most aggressive of his career. "During In Reverie, that was a time during my life when the band continued to have success and things were going great and I didn't have that much to vent about," Conley explains. "And then all of a sudden, the shit storm came. And there was plenty of material -- just frustration and rage and desperation, just the fear of losing everything. Tons of fuel for the fire."
He adds, "The two titles say it all. In Reverie is like you're in a dream-like state, and Sound the Alarm is 'wake the fuck up.'"
The album opener, "Head for the Hills," sums up the overall mood, with the line: "Burning the door in the back of my mind." "It's those thoughts that creep up and swallow you, and you can't ignore the negative, the hell inside," says Conley. In the gory "Shattered," Carrero's crunchy bass line leads into the singer wailing, "I took a wrench to my chest cracked all my ribs/Let the blood run over my hands." And the title track, driven by drummer Pete Prada's dance-like beat and guitarist Dave Soloway's melancholy lead, clearly reflects the "paranoia" Conley struggled through while at work on the album, relating "They're all out late at night, sitting by the fireside/Planning how to bury me alive/And when I'm gone they all will laugh about how I died."
But, ironically, the album's slowest number, "Don't Know Why," is closest to Conley's heart. "That one's my blues," he says. "It's one of those songs that keeps me off the ledge personally. I sing it to myself all the time when I'm at home alone."
Having faced certain defeat and bottomed out, Saves the Day are finally releasing the revealing album this week -- and on their old, indie label, Vagrant. "Vagrant was always comfortable and felt like home," says Conley. "We're just consistently doing our thing now. We have our little fan base, and we don't aspire to much else."
"I learned so much about myself," he adds with some relief. "Just being able to accept that I'm a twisted ball of mess makes it livable. I can walk around carrying all this shit now."