Photo by Jen Cray
Interview with vocalist/guitarist Trever Keith | By Bryne Yancey
The nostalgia sector of the musical economy has reached critical mass, and many bands who couldn’t pay their rent at the height of their original runs are finally cashing in. A band with the longevity, influence, and pedigree of Face To Face could very well just rest on their creative laurels, play the occasional album anniversary show or oversized festival stage, and generally use their legacy and past successes as a bargaining chip. Last year, the band did play 1992’s Don’t Turn Away, 1994’s Big Choice, and their 1996 self-titled LP in full at a string of successful shows in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Dallas, and Denver, but rather than a one-off cha-ching moment in the spotlight, it felt more like a victory lap for a group still creating and innovating. That motif largely permeates Protection, F2F’s new LP, and their first for Fat Wreck Chords since Don’t Turn Away, which was released March 4.
Vocalist and guitarist Trever Keith explains that their circling back was largely by design.
“We’ve taken such big chances throughout our career,” he says. “We made our first three records and felt a little boxed in, and our answer to that was making Ignorance Is Bliss. Reactionary was a move back to more of a signature sound, and then How To Ruin Everything was a really weird combination of influences, a little British punk plus pop punk. Laugh Now, Laugh Later was back to form, and Three Chords and a Half Truth was really kind of out there. Not as much as Ignorance Is Bliss, but [with] more of that British influence and some Americana sprinkled in too, a weird combination of stuff.
“A blueprint would make the music sound formulaic, but [Protection] touches on a lot of things that worked so well from the early days,” Keith elaborates. “We tried to use those techniques in the songwriting and arrangements. What keeps it fresh is that we don’t make the same record every time; although this one is reminiscent of the early stuff, if you’ve been following the band—or even if you’re a newcomer—you get a sense of the people we are and the journey we’ve made, lyrically, as well as in the arrangements and the performances. It’s seasoned. It doesn’t sound like a young effort. But it also has plenty of fire, angst, and urgency, too.”
“Seasoned” is an apt word for the approach on Protection. F2F’s penchant for straightforward, memorable punk melodies appears stronger than ever. Fiery opener “Bent But Not Broken” and the poppier “Keep Your Chin Up” showcase versatility through an inherently and purposefully limited arsenal. It’s leaner; there’s no wasted motion. This was partially directed by Keith and bassist Scott Shiflett—the band’s other primary songwriter—but also by the pressure of working with producer Bill Stevenson for the first time after years of collaborating with engineer Chad Blinman.
“In the early days of us making records, we were bumping into walls in the dark; we had little experience and we didn’t know how recording worked,” Keith laughs. “We just went in, played music, and hoped for the best. But, as we continued, I became a lot more mindful of the process, because I was frustrated—there was something I didn’t like about each record and wanted to make better.”
“Chad was great in the technical sense, but he purposefully, I think, stayed out of commenting on songs,” he continues. “What was nice about working with Bill is that’s his specific forte. I’m a huge Descendents fan, and being able to just sit in a room with a guy who’s written some of my favorite punk rock songs and talk about new ideas was awesome.”
Keith is also quick to mention Stevenson’s pervasive influence on Protection before F2F even entered the studio. “Because we knew we would be working with Bill, it put Scott and I on our best behavior as songwriters,” he admits. “We were our own worst critics, and it forced us to bring a higher quality and more effort to our songwriting, maybe to a fault, where we were poring over things. I wrote at my house in Nashville, he wrote at his in L.A., and then, we would collaborate as much as we could at a distance, before we got in and did preproduction—and this was all before we ever got in a room with Bill. We were sending him our demos all along, but he wasn’t actively commenting on them.”
“Then, we all met up in Colorado and we took ideas that’d been floating around and gave them another round of scrubbing, so we were really hard on ourselves there,” Keith continues, laughing. “By the time we got into the studio to do preproduction with Bill, he was working off old demos and would say, ‘I think you guys need to work on this section, that section,’ and we would say, ‘Oh, we already fixed that in our own preproduction,’ and he would say, ‘Oh, cool!’”
Being so far ahead in honing Protection turned out to be an unexpected boon for Keith and F2F while recording.
“That really elevated the process to a new level,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a record with someone who said, ‘OK, all the tracks are recorded, now let’s just sit down and write background vocals for every song. We’d never put much focus on background vocals before, and it took certain parts of songs and elevated them. We got a little scared when it came time to mix and some of those parts were a little more buried than others, but [things like] that are where Bill really shines, beyond getting great performances. He worked with me on every vocal take, and again, working with one of my favorite songwriters and musicians, I was working hard not only to please him but to try to impress him a little bit, to be honest.”