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On "9," Chris Conley Waves Banner For Saves The Day

Saves the Day, with Chris Conley at right
Alice Baxley
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Saves the Day, with Chris Conley at right

Chris Conley of Saves The Day has been doing a lot of thinking lately — about how he ended up here and what it all means. Saves The Day’s latest album, “9,” on Albany’s own Equal Vision Records, covers the group’s rise from the suburbs of New Jersey to the stage at Madison Square Garden and MTV. Fans who have followed the band for the past two decades might even recognize themselves in the songs, which also confront fame, the band’s inner turmoil, success and the future.

What got you thinking about the band's past and wanting to explore it on this album?

I think it was just generally on my mind at this stage of life. I was writing those songs, I was about 36. And then we made the album last year. So I was 37. I'm 38 now. I think it's sort of you starting to get to that point where you are actually reflecting. And so I think it was just sort of a natural turn of events. And the songs, since I tend to let the songs almost write themselves, I was just really following the inspiration, and trusting my instincts and whatnot. So the first song for the album is called “Saves the Day.” And that one is one of those songs that very much wrote itself. And I found it almost amusing.

I had a lot of fun writing that, working on that song. As the lyrics were sort of letting themselves be known to me or however you want to think about that. As I was, as I was working on the words, I was just really amused that I was I realized I was writing a Saves The Day  theme song. So that and it was fun. And then the next song in the album, “Suzuki,” completely wrote itself. And that one was just about writing music, basically. And that's the one where I've mentioned some of our fans by name.

And so at that point, every I knew that that song would be the second song in the album after the song “Saves the Day.” So at that point, I knew where the inspiration was leading. And then I just sort of rolled my sleeves up and got into it.

Do you still use the burgundy guitar mentioned in that song?

Yeah, I do. Actually on this last tour, I made a point plant using that as my only guitar on stage. I did record the entirety of “Can’t Slow Down” down with that guitar. So in the lyric for Suzuki when I say playing a burgundy Les Paul, I played on “Can’t Slow Down” so many years ago. That's actually all factual.

Was that your first guitar?

It was not my first guitar. But it was a guitar I actually got from an old bass player of “Saves the Day,” Sean McGrath, who's passed away. So it's a special, it's a special guitar as well. It means a lot to me.

So listening to the album, I it sort of hit me maybe three or four songs in the first time that oh, this kind of feels like a concept album. Do you embrace that label?

Oh, definitely. Yeah, I think the last four records, four or five albums have been highly conceptual, even if it's sort of loose themes. You know, they are highly conceptual. And this one definitely was clear to me that it was going to be retrospective and reflective, as the early songs were coming together on my own. I just sort of leaned into it. And I thought this would be fun. I'm going to write a song about being in a band and going on tour and then I'll write a song about what it's like when you're spending 24 hours a day together and how can all get a little too close for comfort sometimes but once I knew the concept, I had a lot of fun with it.

I was also thinking about a previous song that you wrote years and years ago, that kind of ties into these same themes and it had me thinking about your song “Jukebox Breakdown.” Were you aware of the connections there as well as you were writing?

I was not but because I sort of write from a less conscious place. I was taught how to do stream of consciousness writing in school. So I really just let the back of my mind speak. And after the fact, I'll, I'll sort of look at it and think, Oh, yeah, this is totally self-aware. It's sort of meta. And there are those songs on in our catalog, like “Jukebox,” and songs like “See You.” Where after, after I was writing this album, I realized, oh, cool, this is part of that, that sort of thematic link.

And then it's sort of it's fun to include even more details that our fans, our longtime fans will recognize and appreciate. You know, for instance, if I have a song that's particularly meta, you know, I may even make sure to include a lyrical phrase that I have used in the past, you know, time and time again, to make sure that even fans are in on the wink.

I really appreciate that. Just listening to the album, because you're talking about your early days, and you know, you were becoming successful very early on and it's nice to go take that trip down memory lane as a listener too.

Cool, that's awesome. That's what I really hope for. I work really, really hard to make sure it's as enjoyable as possible. In terms of the just the people that really care and love Saves The Day. It's like an inside sort of , you know, you're in on it as well. Like, you can't call it an inside joke, because I take it very seriously. But it's, I make sure that everybody knows that I'm thinking about them as well. Because I wouldn't be able to do this without them. It goes hand in hand, Saves The Day and Saves The Day fans, it's two sides of an awesome coin.

Was it enjoyable for you to look back on the band's rise and sort of those very exciting moments early on? I mean, you write a lot about being on the road and times on tour and playing hundreds of shows in a year and things like that. Did it put you in a certain headspace about you know, I hate to use the l-word but your legacy?

I'm comfortable with that word. That's tight. Yeah, when I was writing about the, like, happier times, it was really awesome. And then when the inspiration came to write about the tougher times, I wasn't comfortable with that at first, because there were things I didn't want to revisit, you know, interpersonal dynamics that were just uncomfortable. At the time that I, you know, I just, you know, you're not sitting there thinking about them every day of your life.

But, for example, when I started to write the song “Rose,” which is, you know, one of the tougher, the tougher tracks, in terms of like, the emotions of it, I kind of paused for a second, I hesitated and thought, you know, I'm not sure if I want to dig all this stuff up. But the, you know, the words in the back of my head that were trying to get through the door would not go away. And I realized, you know, OK, this is what I do all the time, I trust my instincts, and I let it I let it dictate, you know, where the direction is going to go. So I couldn't turn away from it when those sort of less comfortable feelings were bubbling up, but you know, I went for it. And it was therapeutic. I gotta say, it was really therapeutic to revisit a lot of those feelings and those chapters.

So do you think that was your subconscious sort of taking you to task for not having dealt with them earlier?

Yeah, it didn't feel like torture, so it didn't feel like it was like punishment. It felt like it was a I think my subconscious is it didn't feel like torture, so it didn't feel like it was like punishment. It felt like it was a I think my subconscious is mostly kind to me. You know, unless we process things on my own time, but absolutely, it was my subconscious saying no buddy, we're gonna deal with this now. And, you know, after years of meditation and therapy and practicing all that stuff, you know, I wasn't afraid of it. And also, the thing for me is that the writing itself has always been there as a very enjoyable experience, even when I'm sort of mining those tough emotions. So it was really, really fun. It's just so fun to write. I mean, it is really a total joy just to write, especially the lyrics, that's my favorite part. So yeah, when I say I paused, and I hesitated, it was like a 20…I was sitting here, you know, on the black and red couch where I do a lot of the writing. And I paused for about 20-30 seconds. And I thought, no, and then another line presented itself to me, and I thought, Oh, that's a great line. So I just got to write that down.

Did that Eiffel Tower scene happen just that way?

Well, I think that a lot of that stuff, I like to keep it in the lyrics, you know, and that's the way I like to talk about it. I will say that if we were stuck on a plane, we will skydive to a show.

Fair enough. What was it like being successful in this scene as early as you were? Because you're a few years older than me. So I remember, you know, going to your shows, and kind of much later realizing that oh, this guy is pretty much a contemporary.

Yeah, much like a kid too. Yeah, it was wild. It was so cool. It was just, and still is, a total dream. You know, you could never dream up something more fun and more awesome. You know, and I just, I got, like, thrown into all this just because I was a kid that liked to play guitar. And I wouldn't have thought I want to be in a band. I never once had that thought not one time in my life. I know. So I'm so glad that Brian Newman, the only other original member of the band, in phoned me up way back in 1993, when we were in eighth grade and said, Hey, I heard you learn how to play guitar over the summer. You know, do you want to come jam. That was that was a really crucial moment for me, because I was just sitting there enjoying playing the guitar itself, and it would not have come to me to even be a solo artist. So that's why I wrote that song “Side by Side.” The third song in the album for Brian is sort of, you know, a high-five across time.

I think Saves The Day's music has a lot of associations with adolescence, and all the things you go through at that age. And you're a father now, I think of a teenager, if my math is right.

That's right. Yeah, she's 13.

Good luck. And do you see her sort of going through those teen things and have a way to communicate about them?

Well, yeah, it's wild. Like, I have to think of myself during those years, sometimes, you know, and all parents say that, you know, when your kids become teenagers, they become teenagers, you know, and that's, it's just incredibly true. It's almost like an overnight thing. And the nice thing is, you know, I had 12 years of a really fantastic childhood, you know. She was like the best kid of all time. And I wouldn't say I'm, like totally, like, braced and ready for this whole teenager thing that's happening, but it happens. They spend more time in their room, you know, like, they want to just like hang out with their friends. And that the funny thing that I tell all my friends, the thing that I lament is that she used to love going to the movies with me, and now she only wants to go with her friends. So like, the funny thing is, I don't get to see any of the new kid movies. So I'm like, man, you know, like I said this the other day to a dad who I was doing an interview with. I didn't get to see “Incredibles 2.” So, like, that's the kind of stuff now I'm like, Oh my gosh, I'll joke with her. I'm like, Well, what if I just, you know, am at the same movie. She's like, No dad. But I you know, I try to you know, have a sense of humor about it. And I’m very much just respectful of her experience, you know, and I'm her dad, but it's not my life. It's her life. So, you know, I try to be try to be cool. Try to be a cool dad.

Does she play music?

Yeah, she's incredibly talented. She does piano. And she's really into ukulele right now. She's always in a room playing ukulele. And she has a beautiful singing voice. She sings these perfectly pure notes. And she has she could project like really shout it out. Or she can sing in like a really soft, sweet way. And she's the theater kid. She's been in theater for, I mean, more than half of her life. So she has been doing musicals the whole time. And has really, at this point, you know, accumulated a lot of experience. So it's really fun to watch her grow in her talents. And I'm her biggest fan.

I'm pretty sure you're living in Northern California now. Is that right?

Yeah, Chico, California.

Were you affected at all by the fires this fall?

That's the town right above us. Paradise is the town was the town right up the hill, from Chico and Chico sort of further down the foothills. And we're like in the valley. And half my friends in Chico live in Paradise or grew up in Paradise. And one of my friends I was hanging out with last night. That's his hometown, and it's gone now. So I was on tour at the time. And our the second guitar player in Saves The Day is also a friend from Chico. And we were getting the news that Thursday night when it was all starting to happen. And we were freaking out. I mean, it was it was one of these fires, we get a lot of fires out here. But this one was traveling really quickly and jumping highways and burning power lines and blowing up propane tanks.

And people were evacuated from Paradise. And a few years ago, we had the massive dam break in Oroville, which was the largest evacuation in recent history, it was 200,000 people were evacuated. It seemed like it was one of these situations again, just from afar, and when just everybody had to leave all of a sudden, and thankfully, things were OK in Chico but it seemed like for a few hours, it seemed like things might not be OK. And I was just wondering if I was gonna, you know, have a home to come back to.

For me the one bit of news that was comforting was that my daughter was actually planning on coming to see us play in New Jersey that very weekend. So she was able to get out of the area right when that was happening, thankfully, so I didn't have this sort of like sinking fear. Even though, we're all part of the same human family, you care so much about your own children. I don't know, if you have kids but it's this indescribable feeling of like, since they're your own flesh and blood, it's very much like, you just feel it almost in a in a physical manner. Like your anxiety can become, your concern for them is overwhelming. So I was like very thankful that she was going to be able to get out of there. And then my next thought is all my friends and all my family out here, you know, and is everybody gonna be OK.

And I very quickly made sure, you know, people had plans to get out of there. But then hearing the stories afterward in the aftermath it's terrifying. It feels wrong to use the term secondhand trauma because of how traumatic it was for the people that actually experienced it. But it's scary hearing what people went through driving down the hill. And you know, the whole sky is dark black like midnight, and you can't see the sun and everything's on fire on both sides of the road and powerlines are falling and, you know, a friend was telling me how it like he was he walked outside and his neighbor's lawn was on fire. And can you imagine, you walk outside, it's that close to you. And you have to get out that quickly. And he's a dad as well. So he had to get his kids out of there. And it's just some scary stuff. The town is it's a very cool community. And so people are, I think very much just rallying and being there for each other. You know, it's a tough time but there's a lot of caring folks around here. So it's like, we're all in it together.

I'm glad to hear that. It’s hard to imagine.

Yeah, it's like catastrophic, you know?

Why did you leave New Jersey?

Well, I met my daughter's mom, Rosalie, in 2002, outside of a show in Sparks, Nevada.  I wrote a part of the new album about that night. It's called “Victorian And 21st.” That's the corner where we met. And she was working for the promoter of the show. And so we were all out at dinner afterwards. And I happened to be seated next to her, we struck up a conversation, became friends and became old email pen pals back in the day, and, and then we hit it off, and then she came out to visit me when I was living in Brooklyn. And we really liked spending time together. And then, you know, I was like, Hey, why don't you just move here. So she moved to Brooklyn. And then when I would go on tour, it was tough for her because she had all her family back in Chico. And so I thought, hey, I love Chico, I played here a bunch on tour already. And I'll never forget the first time I stepped out of the van or the bus in Chico, it felt like I was home. And I felt it the moment I started walking through town. I just felt like I was home. And so it didn’t take me much more than two seconds to think, hey, I'll move to Chico. I love Chico. So fast forward a million years later, and I'm so glad I'm out here.

Last thing. We did an interview in 2011, which I did listen back to in preparation of speaking to you again, and I asked you what you expected to be writing about 10 years from that point. You said, ‘I can only imagine I'll be writing about whatever is rattling around at that moment.’ So I'll ask the same thing now.

Oh, gosh, I'm just so excited to make the next album, I think, I think we'll be able to make one a lot quicker, you know, sooner than five years from now. That's been my process for the entire time is just to trust, you know, what's coming up from the, under the surface, “under the boards,” so to speak, you know, so I just trust my subconscious as you put it to, to lead the way and then I'm just the guy that works on all those ideas. So it's the dream job I never could have even imagined so I'll continue to just sort of follow that thread. And it's all about, you know, just living in the world and in reacting to life as it unfolds. And my dream now is that we can pull this together as you know, the family of humanity and really figure out what we're doing because you know, it's too good. And we can't we can't lose it. You know? So that's my dream now, is just that we can learn to love one another.

Chris, thank you for taking all this time and thanks for all the songs over the years.

Absolutely. Thank you so much. Look forward to talking again.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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