Thanks to eccentric production genius John Feldmann, Sleeping With Sirens' new album, Madness, sees guitarists Jack Fowler and Nick Martin pushed to their limits as players, writers and consumers of caffeine…
Over their six-year history, Florida's melodic post-hardcore quintet Sleeping With Sirens have learned to set themselves apart in a world of homogeny.
Emerging from the quagmire of scenesters and inter-band politics that is the modern American hardcore scene, the much-imitated group – fronted by knock-out vocalist Kellin Quinn – have earned themselves a reputation as trailblazers and have been rewarded with sales to match.
Following 2013's third album, Feel, they've recruited a guitarist in former D.R.U.G.S. man Nick Martin, signed to monster indie Epitaph and recorded fourth album, Madness – hotly tipped to take the US top spot. Recorded with Goldfinger frontman-turned-rock-guru John Feldmann, it is – in their own words – a "make or break" record.
How would you describe your own guitar styles?
Jack: "I'm the lead guitar player, so say, the Congratulations solo on the last album, or the Your Nickle Ain't Worth My Dime solo. They're all based in pentatonic scales. I grew up listening to heavily blues-influenced guitarists, so I know a little bit of theory, but I mostly go off what feels right."
Nick: "I've always prided myself on being a 'plug in and play' guy. I like really clean tight rhythm. I grew up on The Clash and The Ramones method, so I was into the down strumming and the really tight palm-muting – I'm that guy. If you listen to Madness and you hear really tight guitar playing, that's me!"
Jack once said that "SWS got a lot of middle fingers" in the early days of the band. Nick, what was your opinion as an outsider at the time?
Nick: "I never really listened to them before I joined, because I thought they were just like a 'scene' band. But when I started listening to the songs on Feel, it was very different.
"I probably was one of those guys originally who was like, 'Fuck them!' But then you listen to how good the songwriting is and Kellin's vocal range and Jack's guitar playing, it blows my mind. It makes the songs stand out, as opposed to all the other bullshit that's out now."
Nick (left, above) joined in 2013. When did it first feel that you both clicked?
Nick: "I think it was in the first week of the tour. We were overseas and everyone was just super-stoked and it kind of just hit me, like, 'Woah, this is how this shit is meant to be.' I'd been in a bunch of bands before and there were always issues with members not getting on, but these guys are all like fucking brothers."
"We're in this together until the end. Our writing styles are very different, but when you put our heads together, you have a happy medium" - Nick
Jack: "Yeah. Me and Nick are 'Me and Nick forever'. We're in this together until the end. Our writing styles are very different, but when you put our heads together, you have a happy medium and we feed off each other really well, especially live."
The band wrote 2011's Let's Cheers To This in three weeks. 2013's Feel took even less time. How did Madness compare?
Jack: "I'd say it took eight to nine months to get this album to where we wanted it to be. I think we realised that this was a make-or-break record. We wanted to make it something special, a defining record for the band and, going with John Feldmann, we definitely made it happen."
Nick: "The last record I did before this was when I was in the band D.R.U.G.S. and we did it with John Feldmann, so I helped the guys prepare: because John Feldmann is out of his fucking mind! I told everyone, 'We're gonna have a blast, but just prepare yourself because he's very intense.'"
What are the best and worst things about working with John Feldmann?
Jack: "There are only good things! He's really quick with what he does and it definitely works for us. We were running off and writing 10 songs in three hours. If it catches your attention by the first chorus, you put it in the bank until you write something better…"
Nick: "The worst thing is the recording hours. There were some nights where Feldmann would say, 'I'm gonna make you guys coffees and you're gonna track from midnight until 8am.' He likes to take you out of your comfort zone and you do the weirdest shit. It's like, 'Let's do a three-part EBow harmony!'"
It's an album that's resolutely written around hooks and catchy melodies. How did you evolve your playing in response to that?
Jack: "Like I say, I play off feel. So John would throw me a guitar and say, 'Write something!' So I would listen to the melody that him and Kellin or Nick had come up with and then I'd just have to do what I do best. Somehow, it would just all fall together beautifully."
Nick: "For me, I'm a huge fan of The Beatles and I grew up on that simplicity of solid, hooky music. There's a lot of thought and creative energy that goes into making that. It's awesome being the band that tries to tackle that."
Madness sounds more straightforward and raw than your previous records…
Jack: "It is very straightforward. It still sounds like a lot of tracks, but mostly it's different things we did on guitar… Gold has everything from acoustic to mandolin, to electric guitars, to EBows.
"Live, I'm going to probably have a mandolin strapped to my back the whole time and I'm gonna be going into pedal world. And probably having a panic attack because I've got to do so much!"
What were your main guitars and amps?
Nick: "I used a lot of Les Pauls – a couple of Customs. Ernie Ball [Music Man] sent us a couple of guitars, too, and I think we used an Armada, which I have one of now and they're fucking awesome. Jack's the [tone] aficionado, and I wanted him to take the reins because obviously he's been in the band a lot longer and I consider him 'the composer'."
Jack: "I think there was an EVH 5153, a Soldano, a Satellite amp, a Bad Cat Hot Cat 100, which is very rare. Those were the four main amps on the record. Guitar-wise, I was back and forth between all of my Gibson Les Pauls and then this one Ernie Ball Reflex because it sounds really good for twangy stuff."
Why did you choose those amps?
Jack: "The Soldano is a very heavily-gained head, so for songs like Kick Me and some of the other heavier ones, we'd use a 5150 on the second channel and a Soldano on the hot channel, so you got a very good in-between feel – a good heavy and raw sound.
"Then for the clean sounds we'd use the 15-watt Satellite amp and maybe mix it with a Fender Blues Deville and use it with the Ernie Ball."
Jack: "One thing I can tell you that I have used on the record is a very simple pedal, the EVH Flanger. Every time we needed a backup sound we'd just plug that thing in. Or just an original Boss DD-3.
"We wanted to be able to recreate everything live and use stuff that you can get everywhere, so if something breaks, you're not just shit out of luck!"
The band have a habit of setting trends with the punk/hardcore scene: the turn to melody, the acoustic EP. What ripples do you think Madness might create?
Nick: "I don't know. I love when some people say that someone's ripping off our band, butI think it's a form of flattery.
"If people are into it and there are songs that make them want to rip us off, then go for it!"
Jack gets pissed off, but at the end of the day, if there are musicians who are pulling inspiration from Madness, that is the highest form of flattery.If people are into it and there are songs that make them want to rip us off, then go for it!"
Jack: "I'll say it flat out: people love to copy us! We sold great on the acoustic EP, so everyone comes out with an acoustic EP. I'm like, 'Think of your own shit to do!' Now, [with this album] if people try to imitate anything we did, it's gonna be very recognisable!"
You've reached a certain – really quite massive – size now as a band. Have you noticed people getting, er, madder?
Jack: "We've got the people selling T-shirts outside the shows and trying to scam kids! We have fucking cool fans, though. Some get a little creepy, but they're just excited. Being as goofy as we are, we understand. We were those kids at one point."
Nick: "It's funny, because I had quit the music business, so it was extreme going from my quiet life at home to joining these guys and the insanity of it. Every day is such a trip. There are a lot of kids that are crying and freaking out, but it's flattering. We wouldn't be where we are without them."
Sleeping With Sirens' new album, Madness, is out now on Epitaph Records.