Interview with bassist/vocalist Chris Hembrough
By Tom Crandle
Rational Anthem are a band poised to take a major step forward, starting with the release of their new album, It’s Only Permanent, released Nov. 1st on A-F Records. Their story actually starts a decade earlier in a small town in Florida. It was there that the brother-and-sister-team of drummer Pete and guitarist and vocalist Noelle Stolp started a pop-punk band with their friend, bassist and vocalist Chris Hembrough.
Here, Hembrough discusses relocating to Iowa, playing in a band with siblings, the art of songwriting, and the process of making the new record.
As a lifelong Midwesterner, I can’t believe you chose to move here from anywhere! Has the move to Iowa City been what you hoped it would be?
I think we’ve all settled in Iowa City pretty happily. When we moved here, we didn’t focus our eye on Iowa City in particular. In fact, a couple of us were crashing with members of Lipstick Homicide. Sleeping on couches in between tours. They were living just outside of Iowa City. We didn’t all make our way here until after we finished touring that year, 2014. Iowa City is tight though. We all work in the service industry bartending and serving when we’re not busy counting all our Rational Anthem money. The people here are cool, and the University of Iowa is located here. We’re pretty spoiled with cool places to hang out and decent jobs. I’m pretty sure all our friends back in Florida still think we live in a corn field.
You guys (and girl) have been doing Rational Anthem for more than a decade now. Did you expect the ride to last this long?
I don’t think there were ever any real expectations for longevity regarding the band. We really just started doing this shit for fun. We all grew up together skateboarding, bonding over music, and generally being mischievous little shits. As time went on and we got older, the band just kind of started to become a real, consistent thing. The more we toured and figured out how to be a band, the more we all loved it. There’s definitely been times where we’ve been like “is this working?” and “what the fuck are we doing?”, but overall, I think the fact that we’ve known each other so long solidifies the fact that we all enjoy it too much to stop.
This is your first release for A-F Records. How did you hook up with the Anti-Flag guys?
Sort of by chance. When we did this record, we decided to quit fucking around and actually take time writing songs we thought were exceptional. That’s a whole other story. But because of that, we thought it was time to see if someone outside of our band could think we wrote an awesome record. We aimed high and are very happy with where we landed. We took the time to ask friends of ours that are in bigger bands how to do this properly. So, we compiled a bunch of record labels emails and contacts and started plugging away. I probably shopped the record to twenty different labels. Some hit me back, some said no thanks we’re busy, some said maybe but then flaked. Next thing I know, Chris from A-F Records shoots me an email and wants to talk. The label thought the record was awesome and said they wanted to release it. That was a huge relief, because I think it’s the first thing we’ve made since being a band that we think is 100 percent, fuck-you-up awesome. I about shit my pants when they responded.
Does playing in a band with a brother and a sister ever make you feel like the odd man out?
Not at all. We all have our own weird relationship dynamics. Noelle has been my number one homie since we were kids. Her and Pete bicker just as brother and sister do, and I have to tell them both to shut the fuck up sometimes. Them being brother and sister is mostly good though. I’m close with their family. We stay at their family’s cabin in Wisconsin. I feel very much like I have been accepted as a member of the Stolp tribe for a long time. Their dad calls us my kids. Shit is tight.
Is there any sibling rivalry in Rational Anthem? Do Pete and Noelle ever get into any Oasis/Kinks style screaming matches or brawls?
They used to wind each other up a lot more, but these days it’s pretty tame. Everyone gets along pretty well these days. When we tour, I think we get on each other’s nerves a little more. But I don’t care who you are, you live in a van with somebody for months at a time, there is bound to be some bitching and moaning. Shit, Noelle and I get in to it just as much as her and Pete do. I wish I had some Gallagher brothers-level drama to report, but overall, I think we make a pretty good team.
Let’s talk about the new record. Where did you draw your musical inspiration for It’s Only Permanent?
Musically, we drew from what we always have. Old Blink mixed with the grit of our favorite midwest pop-punk bands, The Copyrights, Banner Pilot, The Dopamines etc. The difference with this was that we actually took the time to realize why good songs are good. What makes a song better than the next? In doing this we reached out to Nick Woods of Direct Hit and Luke McNeil of The Copyrights. Nick basically worked with us for the better part of two years, advising on how to rewrite the material we had so it didn’t suck. Vocal melody, song structure etcetera. He gave us the honest truth of what needed to be completely thrown out and what could be salvaged. When it was all said and done, we ended up writing two albums worth of material, then rewriting those a few times, and then picking enough for one album and rewriting those until they were right. It was fucking ridiculous, but absolutely worth it. Once they were finalized, we took them to Luke to record the album. He continued to help us fix weak parts of songs and tighten vocal melodies as we recorded. That guy knows how to write catchy fucking songs, and because of that ours ended up better than we could have imagined. Plus, he has these big ass cool dogs and we got to live with them for the better part of a week. I think that’s really what’s important here.
How about the lyrical inspiration?
The lyrics are pretty standard for Rational Anthem, except I think we sort of accidentally told a story. We started a lot of this right when we arrived in Iowa. That was fucking weird. Everyone we grew up with just vanished. Or, I guess we did. Suddenly we’re in landlocked Iowa with no real home, no solid place to write or practice, no jobs except for Noelle, and had months of touring planned. Shit was intimidating and sad at times. I know I was homesick. I write a lot of the lyrics and I know a lot of it reflects all of that stuff. Losing touch with everyone you love and being far away. A sense of geographic dysphoria and uncertainty. The album title It’s Only Permanent is a snarky nod at the idea that all of this is forever. Because, it’s really not. We all die. It just feels that way sometimes, especially when adjusting to big changes in life. Noelle’s lyrics reflect some of that as well. We just try to be honest. During the five years we spent on this, that’s the shit that was going on. So, we wrote about it, and it oddly ended up sort of forming an album theme on its own.
How does it compare to your previous releases?
Basically, we took our time writing melody and structuring songs properly. We learned to write melody first then fit lyrics to good melody. That’s why Tom Petty songs are good. That’s why Fleetwood Mac songs are good. They don’t cram words into songs they fit them in to melody. You’d think we would have learned that after ten years. This is the type of shit Nick from Direct Hit went through with us. What an eye opener. Aside from that, we came to the realization that your first draft probably blows. Write it, then rewrite it, then write it until it’s something you want to listen to yourself. And if it doesn’t become that, then trash it and start over. Sometimes melodies and songs fall into your lap, sometimes they just suck and you gotta toss ’em out. We did a lot of that. We’re aiming for all killer no filler, goddamnit!
One of your main motivations for moving to Iowa was for simplified tour routing. Do you anticipate being able to tour a ton behind the new record?
Since the album is coming out towards the end of the year, we’ll only have time for a couple week tour to promote. But we are already working on booking spring and summer tours for next year. Hopefully we can write new material in the winter, and then pick touring back up in the spring. But yes, playing shows is the payoff to doing this stuff, so we’d like to do that as much as we can.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Buy our new album It’s Only Permanent. It fucking rips.
Top photo by Paul Silver