If Zac Carper wasn’t abrasively screaming on FIDLAR’s third studio album, Almost Free, you might not dub this “punk.” The celebrated punk musicians don’t care if you think this album chips away at their “punk cred.” Though they haven’t totally discarded their roots, they’ve ventured into untested waters—clearly maturing beyond a party-band origin marked by tracks like “Wake Bake Skate” and “Cheap Beer.”
2019 bookends their first decade as a band and this Los Angeles four-piece has more than just some grazed knees and a hangover to show for years of punk-rock debauchery. Carper suffered from heavy drug use and flirted with death on more than one occasion, but got clean before the release of their 2015 album, Too. Now inching into their thirties and finding themselves increasingly on festival bills crowded with rap and EDM acts, FIDLAR have reached a pivotal fork in the road. The members of FIDLAR have always held wide-ranging music tastes, so rather than ditching punk for new musical trends, they thought it best to retain the energy that makes their live shows so electrifying while taking their new album as an opportunity to spice things up and expand their sonic palette. It may be odd to think that the same band whose early DIY punk gigs were routinely shut down by cops, would eventually put out a record that leans heavily on horns and harmonicas and dabbles in hip-hop and EDM beats. But for a band named after the phrase, “Fuck it dog, Life’s a risk,” maybe this kind of musical leap makes perfect sense.
Almost Free opens with an absolute scorcher in the form of “Get Off My Rock.” Carper delivers the not-so-subtle first line with a roar, “Well excuse me motherfucker, you’re on my block,” and you have to give props to Carper for his comical use of manners. The rest of “Get Off My Rock” contains barking dogs, sirens, hip-hop scratches, a sensual saxophone riff, a clucking rooster and pretty much everything but the kitchen sink. You can also find bluesy horns on tracks like “Almost Free” and “Scam Likely,” an acoustic duet via “Called You Twice” and a borderline absurd, EDM-rock mashup with “Too Real.”
“I’ve just always been a fan of horns,” explains guitarist Elvis Kuehn. “I love soul music and at the time, I was listening to The Stones’ Exile on Main Street a lot when writing some of these songs so that definitely came into it. We made sure to still capture that energy that we’ve always had and once it goes through the filter of our band, I feel like it always has our stamp on it.”
Citing influences like War, Queens of the Stone Age, Tropa Magica and The Meters, Kuehn also mentions their urge to avoid common FIDLAR songwriting habits. “It was a conscious thing to have more groovy songs rather than every song being straight rhythmically,” he says. “We thought about ‘Alcohol’ being the first song because the first song on the first record was ‘Cheap Beer’ and the first song on the second record was ‘40oz.’ So we were like, ‘Oh yeah Alcohol totally.’ But then once we thought about it for a while, it’s kind of cool to change that, which was more reflective of the record, to be like, ‘Alright let’s not do the typical FIDLAR thing.’ Just throw a curveball.”
Surely FIDLAR must be aware of the shock that fans might undergo when they hear this record. How would the band respond if people are repulsed and retreat back to their early, straight-up punk stuff? After all, it’s not inconceivable that some fans might cringe at the mere idea of horns on a FIDLAR record. “The reality for us is if you like the old punk stuff, just listen to the old punk stuff,” says Carper. Carper and company emphatically welcome the day FIDLAR are just viewed as a pop/rock band.
When I ask Carper about the prospect of FIDLAR transcending the punk label in the minds of fans and the press, he replies emphatically, “Can’t wait! I think it’s dangerous to have that ceiling over us, like the punk meter. To me, it would be more of a sellout thing to just make the first record over and over again. That’s not who we are anymore, you know?”
Kuehn adds, “The whole punk thing is just silly anyway. Certain people think of punk music as being loud and aggressive or whatever but it’s really more about the feeling behind it. It’s having an attitude and being able to do whatever you want. The Minutemen are one of my favorite punk bands and they don’t sound like a punk band at all. They’re funky and they have acoustic songs. When people have that [loud and aggressive] perception of punk music, it doesn’t even make sense to me.”
The title of Almost Free denotes a move in the right direction, but not an arrival at the desired final destination. FIDLAR might be mellowing and getting older, but just like everyone else, every day is another day to try and become the functioning, happy and healthy adult that you always hoped you’d be. “I take my Adderall with milk and sugar,” howls Carper on “Alcohol” and on “By Myself,” he drops countless sobering lines in the midst of an uplifting, celebratory tune (“My life is like a pill that’s getting harder to swallow”). While they don’t lean as much on the punk lingo of living to the max, they’re not fully removed from that world either. They frequently reference substance use, but in a much different light than on, say “40oz. on Repeat” or “Cocaine.” On “By Myself,” Carper pokes fun at the loneliness that has characterized his recent attempts at a healthier lifestyle (“I’m cracking one open with the boys by myself…Why does getting sober make you feel like a loner”). “We’re talking about serious shit,” explains Carper, “but like, ‘Alright how can we crack each other up?’”
Though it’s not entirely about an existential battle, Almost Free is a record shaped by its demons. It’s haunted by self-destruction, tempted with short-term pleasures and faced with teenage hang-ups that have now levelled-up into adult-sized monsters. To get through it and make sense of it all, they don’t strive for unattainable perfection—instead they’re slowly chipping away at those demons while allowing for the occasional slip-up. They also utilize collective self-deprecating humor and unleash waves of pent-up frustration to ensure they don’t take themselves too seriously or spontaneously combust.
Almost Free is the type of record that could only sprout from Los Angeles as it references the frequent annoyances associated with living there. It’s no wonder why the juice cleanse capital of America is the recurrent butt of jokes, and FIDLAR pile on with amusing results. “My favorite [line] is ‘Gluten free is killing me,’” says Carper, “That’s by far my favorite. In L.A., that’s a huge thing. Everybody’s had a gluten free phase or they are.” On the same track, Carper also takes jabs at meditation and the city’s staggering amount of DJs (“Meditate you can get rich quick…Baby I get paid cause I’m a DJ”). Then there’s the merciless roast of those who flock to L.A. for self-discovery (“When you’re on vacation trying to find yourself / Just remember to / Get off my rock”).
It would be a stretch to call this a political record, but there are too many glaring hints of the zeitgeist to ignore. On “Get Off My Rock,” Carper barks, “Big fucking deal if you get gentrified / Back in the day it was called colonized,” and on “Too Real,” he takes snipes from all angles—taking aim at white guilt (“A bunch of white people calling white people white”), government propaganda (“Of course the government is gonna fucking lie”), technological addiction (“Is the answer to my happiness in the cloud?”) and political tunnel vision (“You’ve gone so far to the left, you ended up on the right / You’ve gone so far to the right, you don’t care if you’re right”). FIDLAR beat around the political bush on this record, but how do they feel personally about the country’s predicament and whether it’s a breeding ground for good art?
“I don’t know if suffering and all that shit creates good art anymore,” says Carper. “I think there’s a fine line with shit like that.”
Given Carper’s recent TV show of choice, any subtle or overt feelings that our politics have reached an alarming fever pitch are completely understandable. “I’ve been watching fucking Handmaid’s Tale, so I’m fucking terrified,” he says.
Kuehn, on the other hand, puts things in a slightly rosier context, while still acknowledging the grim realities. “I think we’re lucky to be able to live here rather than a Third World country,” he says. “But at the same time, there’s really big problems in the country that I don’t know will ever be solved.”
While the political lines are sure to grab headlines, the most amusing excerpt from “Too Real” is the tongue-in-cheek shot at EDM (“Let’s pretend that EDM didn’t happen at all”) while ironically integrating EDM-laced beats and vocal effects. “I actually wrote that song after working with some EDM artists,” says Carper. “We were talking about how if you’re at a festival, sometimes bands look at EDM artists and they don’t respect them as musicians. I was explaining to them, ‘Well that happened to us too when we were starting because we were a punk band.’ Everybody just labelled us as a party punk band. People were like, ‘Oh yeah these guys just get drunk and play three chords or whatever.’”
Though FIDLAR can’t fully argue with their early party punk tag, they resent being grouped into the slacker rock category, which has a connotation of laziness. “It’s a funny thing that people have always labelled us in the past as like ‘slacker punk’ or whatever people want to say, because we’ve always worked hard and taken it pretty seriously,” says Kuehn. “We never expected in the beginning that we would be here at this point. It just kept growing, so we tried to grow with it. We’ve always taken the music seriously because that’s how this band started. It really was a studio project. Me and Zac met in a studio. Before we even played any shows, we were recording songs.”
With a decade-long career under their belt, FIDLAR are nearing punk elder statesmen status, which is something of a whirlwind for them. “I never really thought of us that way,” explains Kuehn, “but there’s been a few things that made me feel that way. We were playing the Showbox in Seattle, and it’s this legendary venue that’s been there forever. The first time we played Seattle was with The Hives, and we opened for them at the Showbox. This kid came up and he was like ‘I saw you guys here when you opened for The Hives and I was 12 years old.’ And he’s like, ‘Now I’m 18 and still coming to your shows,’ and that was a trip, to know that fans have grown up with you.”
“I’m fucking super surprised,” says Carper. “I’m blown away that somehow we’ve been able to keep doing this. In 2019, it will be 10 years we’ve been in this band and it blows my mind. The same members too. It’s just mind-blowing to me that we’ve been able to do this together and people still respond well to it.”
There’s that age-old question of how to age gracefully as a punk band, and it remains to be seen whether these notorious “wakers, bakers and skaters” of Los Angeles will land on their feet. “One of my biggest fears is being 60 years old singing, ‘I drink cheap beers, so what, fuck you.’ There’s grandpa singing ‘Cocaine’ at the top of his lungs. That is one of my biggest fears ever, so hopefully we can transition into a mellower band,” says Carper with a laugh. FIDLAR have always been known for their rambunctious live shows, but they don’t foresee a future where they have to crowdsurf in wheelchairs. “We’ll just do a hologram tour at that point,” assures Kuehn.
But FIDLAR don’t want to get ahead of themselves. Touring is rigorous for any current band, let alone a band that’s trying their best not to ingest everything that’s shoved in front of them. “Every night is a Friday or Saturday night,” says Carper. “You have to party every night but figure out how to not die in the process. I feel like this is one of the only jobs in the world where they give you a bunch of alcohol and say, ‘Ok go do your job.’ It’s super wild. I think we’re learning as we get older to pace ourselves and stuff.”
On the final track, “Good Times are Over,” the band nails a pop-punk hook for the ages, and they close the lid on a FIDLAR album that exudes just as much angst as before, but with far more maturity and level-headedness to cope with it. “There is some gnarly shit that we’re saying,” says Carper, “but I think there is a silver lining to it, a light at the end of the tunnel with this record.” Carper dishes out lines like “I’m only happy when I’m depressed,” but settling into the idea of getting and staying better isn’t accomplished overnight. One can only hope that as Carper playfully sings, “The good good times are over,” on top of the closing track’s ecstatic guitar lines, he doesn’t really believe that.
Almost Free is out now via Mom+Pop. Listen to FIDLAR’s 2012 Daytrotter session below.