By: Tim Lavoie
In ten years, Scranton, Pennsylvania’s Tigers Jaw have blossomed from an underground punk band into a sonically, and emotionally complex indie rock player. Tigers Jaw mature with each release; incorporating more ambitious layers of textures to surround singer/guitarist’s Ben Walsh’s impressive, self-effacing lyrics. Their debut, 2006’s Belongs to the Dead, is an endearing lo-fi, acoustic tinged punk-pop album recorded in an attic. By 2014, having survived a few internal shake ups, Tigers Jaw released the impeccable Charmer. Charmer debuted in the Billboard Top 50, and led the band to tour the U.S. a few times over, Europe, South America, and Australia. Most impressive though is Charmer’s amazing ability to bridge the artistic gap between the pop-punk of Tigers Jaw’s past and the indie-rock of their future. Without abandoning the spirit of their roots, Tigers Jaw are now compared favorably to such indie luminaries as the Wrens, American Football, and Clarity-era Jimmy Eat World.
Ben Walsh spoke with us before the band’s sold out headlining set at Cattivo in Lawrenceville this fall. As if the music wasn’t enough to become a true believer in Tigers Jaw, the band is populated by what could be the world’s nicest people. Walsh’s heartfelt excitement about the band, its increasing profile, and just being able to talk about his music, is so contagious it actually enhances the listening experience.
Asked about expectations for this tour now that they’re at the top of the posters instead of somewhere in the middle, Walsh noted, “There are different responsibilities and different things you have to plan for if you’re the headliner. There’s a different kind of prep that goes into that - you’ve got to play a much longer set, so there’s a lot more planning about how the setlist flows, how to not wreck your voice.”
Moving to the headlining roll stems from the momentum created by 2014’s Charmer; a record with enough depth to potentially become the band’s career-defining recording. While remaining humble, Walsh explained that fans emotional connection to Charmer did not come as a total surprise to him and Tigers Jaw’s other permanent member, Brianna Collins. “When we had a couple members leave the band a few years back, we had been working on Charmer. They left before we did the record, and we felt so strongly about it and so did they that they still recorded on it, and we finished it together. I think that we all did that because we felt strongly about the record and we knew it was worthwhile, and they still thought it was worthwhile and they put a lot of work into it. I think people’s reactions to it have been really awesome and amazing, and we’re really appreciative of it. We knew there was something special about it. But no, we couldn’t have predicted that people would support it like this.”
Vital to any great album, Charmer plays as a cohesive statement. Jangly, overlaid riffs and minor key chord progressions roll over Collins’ constantly humming - but never prominent - keyboards. Their sound now matches the maturity always displayed in their lyrics. Walsh felt the project coming together in a way unlike any of their previous work. “It was a different type of energy I think. Our releases before were kind of ‘which songs that we already have should we put on this?’ But by the time we got to Charmer, all of these songs were written right around the same time and kinda have a different energy to them compared to anything we’d done. We were obviously older, and listening to different types of music by then, and I think that maturing shows in the songs.” From this maturing, Walsh sees the biggest change being “a lot more emphasis on Briana’s vocals. Just more of the male/female vocals playing off of each other and stuff like that. I think there is a lot more depth to Charmer. We tried things that we’d never tried before. There’s a lot more layering and acoustic things in there. Songs in different keys, and at different tempos than we’ve used before. It’s cohesive, but it also covers a lot of different ground sonically. So I’m definitely looking forward to more of that, experimenting with different things.”
Tigers Jaw are unique in their ability to function with a dual identity of both a punk and indie-rock outfit, and cater to the tastes of both crowds without mortgaging any interest from either. Walsh sees this as just another natural outcome of the band’s decade-long maturation. “When we started the band, the bands that we wanted to sound like were indie bands, but we came up playing punk rock, so we ended up landing somewhere in the middle I guess. We’ve had support from the punk kids and indie kids. I guess there’s a cross-over appeal there.”
Tigers Jaw played to a thrilled, almost impossibly packed Cattivo crowd. The band seamlessly weaved between its catalog material and tracks from Charmer. The older songs inspired sing-alongs enthusiastic to the point that Ben’s vocals were totally drowned out by the frantic crowd. Classic cuts like “I Saw Water”, “Chemicals”, and “Never Saw It Coming” brought the diehards to a teeming frenzy.
Walsh doesn’t mind playing the older material despite the band’s prodigious growth. “I’m still very much connected to them and it doesn’t really occur to me until I’m in the moment - hey, I wrote this song years and years ago. But it’s a very tangible thing, that I really can relate to it. It’s interesting to see other people relate to it. Maybe someone who’s in the crowd just came across the old stuff in the past year. So it does kinda have a different life to it when you play it now compared to when we wrote it. I’ve never been annoyed by playing old songs. I know some people say, ‘You gotta play what you want, who cares what other people think?’ But I do care what other people think. I know there’s certain songs that people want to hear. For the most part, I’m very proud of our catalog and I truly enjoy playing all of our songs.”
Lyrically, Walsh has always left everything out in the open, bearing his most personal vulnerabilities for all to hear; and sing along to. When asked if there’s ever been hesitancy to be so personal, he laughed, recalling, “When we started this band I was the drummer. I never had ambitions to be the frontman of anything. Then I just started writing songs for the band. I didn’t really have any ambitions to be a frontman or lead the band, or talk on stage or any of that stuff. I don’t think it ever gets easy, but some nights I’m pretty comfortable with it while some nights I feel vulnerable out there. I haven’t figured out any sort of tangible thing that makes it one way or the other.”
Walsh’s writing involves a lot of guilt tripping and self-therapy. He explained, “I’ve tried writing from different perspectives, and writing real upbeat or positive songs, and I’m never happy with those songs. I’m really critical about lyrics that I write either way, but I just end up gravitating towards that. I think it might be a therapeutic thing for me to take those bad energies and bad experiences and put them into something I love doing, and it helps me deal with and process them in that way. But a lot of the music is upbeat, so it’s an interesting juxtaposition for us to have kind of sad lyrics with upbeat music.”
The stand-out lines from Charmer come from the album highlight “Distress Signal”; Walsh belts, “There’s something about the place that we grew up, that makes me feel nothing for where we are now / We grow up, we move out, we are indifferent / A brick wall view that reminds me of nothing but you.” Indulging your author’s curiosity, Walsh opened up about the origin and meaning of that verse. “Any time I’ve ever lived away from friends and family, or away from Scranton, you just don’t have that level of comfort - where you know that any need that you have you know where to go get it. You’re in a different place, you just don’t feel like you’re at home. Anywhere you end up, as nice as it is, it might not mean the same thing to you as where you grew up. I didn’t travel at all growing up. I’d never flown, or driven around across the country until playing in the band. All those feelings are compressed into that verse.”
With a solidified fan base, and in the position of following-up a record that was both a critical darling and a successful commercial cross-over, Tigers Jaw’s trajectory could not be more positive. The band has been on the road non-stop since last spring. Next for the band is “a little bit of time off coming to breathe a little bit. Then we’ll start working on some new material - shooting for a full-length, but just trying not to force anything. We’re going to bear down and really make a conscious effort to put together some songs with the goal of a full-length in mind.”
Looking ahead, the band seems unphased by the knowledge that significantly more people will be hearing the next record out of the gate compared to the Charmer. “We’re not really following any sort of timeline. Obviously, we’ve been touring on this record for a little bit, and it’s been awesome and a lot of fun. Some bands might think, ‘well we HAVE to get the follow-up out within x amount of months.’ I realize every band has their own timeline and you have to work at it while you can, and a lot of bands try to do whatever they can to stay relevant. But we just don’t want to force it and then come out with something I’m not happy with.”