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Hop Along open their third album, Bark Your Head Off, Dog, with a reflection on the passing of time. The song, “How Simple,” sees vocalist Frances Quinlan howling “Think I should stop checking myself out in the windows of cars / when I could see my future in her pictures of relatives,” an evocative meditation on one of our mortal habits. Tiny moments like this, magnified under Quinlan’s microscope, make Hop Along’s music human.
Coming to terms with the preciousness of life threads through Bark Your Head Off, Dog, from the nearly six-minute album closer “Prior Things,” a string-laden folksy meditation on missing your prime, to the twitchy, explosive “The Fox In Motion,” complete with a vision of solitary characters in the dark staring at glowing phones. “I was thinking a lot about trying to end patterns of behavior especially when it comes to accessing your own power,” Quinlan says. “The thing that gets difficult is you recognize those patterns but they're a very difficult thing to come up against, just to look at yourself is a hard thing to do. Then to work against yourself in a way to grow and find a place where you fit because you don’t fit where you did anymore.”
Still unrestrained, Quinlan’s vocals possess a more pointed emotive quality, limberly skipping through complex melodies. Rounded out by Tyler Long (bass), Joe Reinhart (guitar), and Mark Quinlan (drums), the Philadelphia foursome again manage to avoid any genre signifier — no one category would do the band justice. Hop Along toy with math rock, winding guitar lines, sprightly drumming, elegant strings. With lines that circle back and build breathlessly, a vehicle propelling the song’s most impactful arrangements, Bark Your Head Off, Dog is a rallying cry, impossible of being pegged to a specific time or place. This suits Hop Along. And because the notion of sand slipping through the hourglass is a haunting one, it’s imperative the band makes the most of the minutes they’ve got. “You need to depend on this time in a way that wasn’t there when you were much younger,” Mark Quinlan says. “It puts pressure on you to do your best with your skills and the amount of time that you have in a way that didn’t exist before. It’s inspiring, it’s also a little scary, but learning to handle those things and remain calm is coming with age.”
VMP: There was a lot of build-up and discovery hype around Painted Shut but now you have a wider fanbase from that album. How does that change the anticipation for Bark Your Head Off, Dog?
Frances Quinlan: It’s been really nice to feel like we’re caught up. When we put out Painted Shut, we didn't expect the burn to be as slow and steady as it was. It was probably for the best that we were given room to make whatever we wanted. We realized once it was done that people were ready to hear it. Which is the best we could ask for.
Obviously getting older is something many people think about — how did that play into the creation of this record?
Mark Quinlan: Your time becomes more precious in this way because it becomes more valuable to other people — the people you care about, your family. FQ: I consider our band a kind of family considering how long we’ve played together. That goes for any time we’ve spent together working on songs. We know that everyone’s time is limited, so there was a greater urgency there, too. What is most important to these songs, rather than what are our own individual tastes, is really focusing more on what the songs needed. We only get so much time to arrange and work parts out.
MQ: It wasn’t like “Hey Fran, come down to the basement and we’ll jam this part out for the song.”
FQ: In the two years that we had [to write], we had about two weeks of that. Dr. Dog rented us their studio for two weeks so we did that. I’d go off in a room and play by myself and then everybody would come in and we’d work on that and jam for awhile and then we’d do it all over again. I took all that home and tried to work some of those out into full songs with beginnings and ends that we could work on again. That was the one time we were able to play around and see what would happen. After that, we were like “We’ve got to shape these. What are we going to do with all these pieces?”
So what was the status of the songs before going into the studio?
FQ: We knew what we wanted going in. There were certainly happy accidents and discoveries upon recording the final piece, but we’d already demoed and talked quite a bit about how it needed to be.
MQ: Which was extremely helpful.
FQ: We wanted all of that time to record and not figure things out. We’d already done that. We wanted time to get strings in there and backup vocals and flesh out all of the layers rather than those being thrown on when there was a bit of time at the end, which has happened in the past. Our parts as a band can be very involved. I’m glad everybody had brilliant parts already written for their instrument generally.
The cool thing about Hop Along is those parts are anything but predictable. How do the melodies and rhythms form in your head?
FQ: It takes so long generally. There are very few songs that came about quickly. There are some songs like “Somewhere A Judge” that was an entirely different song in the summer of 2016. Aside from the melody, it’s a really different song. And we didn't change it until about a month before we went to record it. I think I was annoyed and I minimized what I played in the chorus and everyone played around that to make this brilliant, dance-y song. From jamming so much together and being open to letting the songs be what they needed to. That's a new thing for us, allowing ourselves to be open to make a dance song rather than anything we were accustomed to.
MQ: We were much more available to serve the song as best we could rather than to play to our own individual strength.
FQ: And comforts. The fact that I didn’t really scream on this record — how do I convey feeling now without being obvious?
You said in an interview from 2016 that you thought it was difficult to sing quietly and with emotion. How did found new ways to push your voice on this album?
FQ: It’s pretty crazy, I went to one vocal lesson and when I think about it now, it wasn’t my intention to go to just one. I went to Deb Chamberlin and she gave me these exercises and I did them every day that we were recording and it was a huge help to have my voice stretched and ready to do whatever needed to be done so I didn’t have to push so hard. It made it more limber to do things melodically with ease that I haven’t experienced in the past.
How do you get through the song editing process?
FQ: It’s so hard. We’re big on editing and that’s the reward of having four different sensibilities in a group is that editing is always pretty rigorous. Whereas I’ll be really precious about something, someone else will question it and say “Does that really need to be there?” Then I have to actually think about it, which is difficult for me because I get married to lines. I’ve had to set lines aside for years until they made sense in something. Actually, “Bark your head off, dog” is a line in a song we were working on in 2013 that was put down. I was finally able to bring it to the song “Look Of Love” along with the bridge that is actually a piece of that old song. Being open to “Well, just because it’s not working here, if it’s a good line, it’ll come back.” It’s a hard thing to remember. When you’re working on something, you’re the only people who know about it and it can be anything up until the moment that you hand it over.
What was significant about that line that made it come back years later?
FQ: I always liked how visual and almost cartoonish it is, yet at the same time there’s a violence there. I always thought it would be cool to use. It indicates a lot without having to say so much. It is nice that some lines you don’t realize their power until a few years later and you read it again and think I still feel something about this.
Allie Volpe is a writer based in Philadelphia who shares a birthday with Beyonce. She enjoys sad music, desserts and long distance running.