“Wanna try a hard one?”
Hop Along have been rehearsing in a windowless basement in southern New Jersey for most of a late July afternoon, and Frances Quinlan is doing her best to keep her bandmates and herself motivated. Tomorrow at 8 a.m. sharp, they’ll pile into a van for the next leg of their summer tour. Right now, everyone is feeling a little sweaty and a little rusty.
The trouble is, they’re all hard ones. Bark Your Head Off, Dog, the dizzily ambitious album Hop Along released this spring, is a studio record, full of subtle shifts in tone and tempo. Each song is a miniature prismatic world that might shatter kaleidoscopically without warning. Take “Somewhere a Judge,” which the band spent months writing and rewriting until just before entering the studio last year. The sound is a sleek hybrid of heartland rock and New Wave cool, with a hint of Daft Punk vocoder; the lyrics are a thorny ramble through romantic frustration, capital punishment, and the meaning of guilt, among other subjects.
The five musicians in the room – Frances Quinlan, 32, strumming rhythm chords and singing; her easygoing brother Mark Quinlan, 34, on drums; Joe Reinhart, 35, on lead guitar; Tyler Long, 31, on bass; and touring multi-instrumentalist Chrissy Tashjian, 33 – agree to try “Somewhere a Judge” next. They get halfway through, stop short, then give it another shot. “Is it hotter than usual in here, or did we get out of shape in three weeks?” asks Reinhart.
They keep going. Frances sings her heart out, even though it’s only a rehearsal. The others play comic relief, breaking the tension between songs with Zeppelin, Beatles, Nirvana and AC/DC riffs. Hoagies are fetched from the deli across the street. Hours go by. Songs start to make more sense.
“That was better,” Mark says after a second spin through “How Simple,” the disco-tinged gem that opens Bark Your Head Off, Dog.
“Starting to sound like a band,” Reinhart agrees.
Mark grins. “Resembling one!”
Hop Along vaulted to indie rock’s top ranks three years ago with Painted Shut, a stunning set of 10 short stories in song. If their 2012 single “Tibetan Pop Stars” was “the most painfully beautiful song ever” – as Blink-182’s Mark Hoppus memorably put it – then Painted Shut went further: a whole album of songs that painful, that beautiful.
Critics raved about Painted Shut, celebrating its immediacy and emotional depth. It wasn’t uncommon that year to see beer-soaked rooms falling silent as Frances Quinlan sang the ballad “Happy to See Me.” Yet she now sees the 2015 LP as a transitional step in the band’s evolution. “I’m proud of that record, but in terms of writing and arrangement, I just wasn’t equipped to communicate the feelings that I had,” she says, noting that it was the first album they made with the full lineup of the Quinlan siblings, Reinhart and Long in place. “We were still learning.”
The morning before the rehearsal, Quinlan is sitting in the living room of the northeast Philadelphia row house where she’s lived for the last four years. It’s a cozy, light-filled place with enough books, records and paintings strewn gracefully around to make it clear that an artist lives here. This is where she wrote many of the lyrics for Bark Your Head Off, Dog in 2016 and 2017, taking half-finished songs home from sessions with the band and reframing them to fit the words in her head. “It’s like I have puzzle pieces, but they don’t fit, so I have to cut them up myself and put them together,” she says, settling into a well-worn rocking chair. “My brain takes the long way to do everything.”
Early on in that process, around the time she turned 30, she visited Big Sur, California, and did mushrooms on the beach. It was her first time peeking through that particular door of perception. She laughs at the memory of what happened next.
“I was tripping, and immediately I was thinking about my shortcomings. Other people look at plant life and think about how the earth is composed. I just get deep into sadness and despair. I felt like, ‘God, I can’t even enjoy getting high. I have to make everything fucking tedious!'”
As a preteen in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, about an hour outside Philadelphia, she would spend hours lost in books like Brian Jacques’ Redwall fantasy series just to get out of her own head. “Not popular in school, very uncomfortable in my own body,” she says. “Reading was an escape from all of that.”
Around age 14, she recorded her first attempts at songwriting, reciting angsty poetry while her brother Andrew played guitar. “The four-track is around here somewhere,” she says. “I would never show it to anybody. I sound crazy. I really wanted to be Ani DiFranco.”
Hop Along began as an acoustic solo project while she was attending art school in Baltimore circa 2004, then got louder once she graduated and recruited her brother Mark on drums. Not all her early fans were on board with this move: “A handful of people were very upset that I went from solo to a band. There are still a few people now: ‘I liked the folk music!’ If anything, it made me more able to be free.”
Freedom to change has remained a core part of her artistic philosophy. For Bark Your Head Off, Dog, it meant using the studio as an instrument instead of staying true to Hop Along’s clean, bright, classic-rock-indebted live sound. She’d also begun to question some of the qualities that had driven the band’s breakthrough in the first place, like the uncontainable howl that was her signature vocal flourish in the Painted Shut era. It’s a powerful thing: You can’t half-listen to the moment in “Waitress” when she shouts “The world’s gotten so small and embarrassing” like a desperate supplication. For Quinlan, that power started to look like an easy way out.
“The human voice can be so treacherous,” she says. “I would listen to myself screaming and think, ‘Well, it was fun at the time, but it’s not serving the song.’ It felt after a while like I was trying to force people into a feeling.”
Similarly, she found herself reconsidering her tendency to give each song a well-marked setting and characters. “With Painted Shut, I was still pretty hung up on words,” she says. “I didn’t want to feel hung up on anything when we worked on this record. I wanted more looseness. As long as it feels truthful to me, I think it’s all right, even if it doesn’t make sense.”
The scenes she sketches in mid-album highlights “Not Abel” and “The Fox in Motion” tilt in and out of focus, following the swells of the music instead of the other way around. Her psychedelic experience in Big Sur ended up blossoming into “Prior Things,” the sweet chamber-pop dream that closes Bark Your Head Off, Dog. It’s perhaps the gentlest song Hop Along have ever made, with Quinlan’s voice floating over serene strings, and she sees it as emblematic of how the band has grown.
“We had to disorient ourselves,” she says, citing something she learned from a lifetime of listening to Bob Dylan. “Whenever I hear Highway 61 Revisited, it’s like, ‘Fuck me. There’s no rules. I forgot.’ You make them up, and then you realize that you have to obliterate them again.”
Around noon, Frances meets the rest of the band at Love City Brewing, a local beer haven co-owned by a childhood friend of her brother’s. They crack open cans of Hop Along IPA, a limited-edition varietal created this spring to celebrate the release of Bark Your Head Off, Dog, and discuss their return to the road. “I went to clean the van and it was like Oscar the Grouch and Cookie Monster had an orgy,” she jokes. “Crumbs everywhere.”
They’ve spent this year playing for their biggest headlining crowds to date, winning over audiences at venues like New York’s 1,800-capacity Brooklyn Steel with their free-wheeling, surreal new sound. “There’s been a couple nights where Mark’s asked the audience how many of them were seeing us for the first time, and it seemed like 85 percent of the crowd was cheering,” Frances says. “Unless people just like to cheer. But it’s encouraging.”
Everyone says they’re feeling good about the next few weeks of shows, although Mark is going to miss his young daughter, Ruby Frances, who was born during the making of Bark Your Head Off, Dog. “She’s 17 months, and she’ll be 18 months when we get back from tour, and that’s fucking me up a little bit,” he says. “She’s been hearing Frances’ voice since she was in utero. When I play the record for her in the car, it calms her down. It makes me feel a little less guilty.”
When the beers are done, Hop Along’s members share a round of locally distilled whiskey shots. Before they head over to the New Jersey rehearsal space, Frances tells a story about a solo trip she took recently to the foothills of Mt. Hood, outside Portland, Oregon, where a friend of a friend owns a cabin. “Red shag carpeting,” she says. “Wonderful light in the morning.”
She spent a week there reading, painting, writing and creatively recharging. On her last day out west, with some time to kill before her red-eye flight home, she went to a dive bar in town.
“There were eight people in there, mostly older clientele,” she says. She ordered a tequila soda while a Courtney Barnett song played on the radio. Then “Somewhere a Judge” came on.
“I’m thousands of miles from home, in an unfamiliar place, and our song is playing, and it’s normal! And that’s weird.” She smiles. “Everybody else was watching baseball. But I felt great.”