by Craig Howieson
Strangers no more. With the release of their fourth record, and first on Merge, we chat to America’s finest alt-country band about the bonds that define us, the creative process and a world of new possibilities
One can only hope that a whole host of new fans are about to discover Friendship for the first time. Newly signed to Merge, the Maine by way of Philadelphia band’s fourth full length, Love The Stranger, looks set to push them beyond the consciousness of their hardcore fans, and prick the ears of those not yet lucky enough to have heard them.
Those already initiated will know the group is made up of school friends, Dan Wriggins (vox/keyboard/guitar), Peter Gill (guitar) and Michael Cormier-O’Leary (drums) who grew up together in Maine before moving to Philadelphia. It was here that they met Jon Samuels (bass) who joined the group full time around 2017 following the recording sessions of their second LP, Shock Out Of Season. For a band called Friendship (albeit named after a town in Maine), the bonds of connection established from their interpersonal relationships have become an integral part of their densely layered and introspective indie-country sound. The group are masters of digging wells under the minutiae of the everyday – where plain and plaintive become profound. When I connect with them over video call, despite being scattered across state lines, the band laugh, joke and prop up each other’s answers as if they are in the same room; their deeply held friendships as palpable as their musical kinship.
‘All the clichés that might come with a band being really close as people apply,’ explains the bearded and amiable frontman, Wriggins, when I ask about how important it is to make music with friends. ‘It makes certain things a lot harder and certain things a lot easier. We all lived really near each other for the first few months of the pandemic, and, I guess, how could it not affect the music? Jon and Mike were the two people who got me through that year.’
The closeness of the band’s members also has its practical advantages as guitarist Gill expands while breathlessly dodging Philadelphia’s midday traffic. ‘It makes communicating with each other a lot easier. It’s really hard to communicate creative ideas because they are so abstract a lot of the time. They are really nebulous, and it’s easier to do when you trust that the other people are on the same wavelength and all of us kinda are. Often, Dan will sit down to show us a new song for the first time, and I already kinda know how it goes before he plays it because I know his songwriting so deeply at this point. Being a band that is currently geographically spread out – and when practise times are limited – we can be effective and efficient because we are on the same page.’
In the Q&A accompanying the new record’s press release, when asked to describe their sound to those unfamiliar, Wriggins simply put ‘Country music!’ And while there are strong country undercurrents to all of the group’s releases to date, on Love The Stranger they have doubled down on their influences. The record revs with a surging confidence in what they are doing and where they are going. Longer and more expansive than anything that has come before, it is punctuated by instrumental interludes that add to the record’s luscious road worn sprawl.
‘I feel like we had a lot of energy going into this one,’ chimes in Cormier-O’Leary, who throughout the call provides sage insight into the band’s inner workings. ‘We didn’t play together for at least a year of the pandemic, and I remember the first practise we had when we finally felt OK to be in a basement together and play songs again, the energy was off the charts compared to where it had been before. I think that energy is palpable in making it sound more expansive.’
‘We had that energy coming in,’ adds Wriggins. ‘And it was facilitated and expanded by Bradford Krieger at Big Nice Studio – where we worked – who is an extremely energetic guy too. It was the right recording vibe at the right time for us. We knew a lot more about how we wanted to work in the studio, and we had a guy who was just so easy to be creative with.’
The propulsive nature of new tracks such as Hank and Ramekin attest to this new found energy – with the latter being an all out country rocker, but still tethered to the universal struggles Wriggins so aptly captures (‘Apathy joins me in the booth / Old familiar feeling’).
The band’s love of country is nothing new, nor something they shy away from. ‘When I started hearing all the 90s/00s alt country bands in high school and college, that was probably my entry into more creative songwriting, which I then traced to this long country tradition,’ explains Wriggins. ‘I started listening to a lot of stuff when I had a country radio show at college too. The beginning of the band for me at least – we were not really a rock band – it was country in so far that it was focussing on songwriting or that’s how I was approaching it.’
‘Dan left Bonnie Prince Billy’s Master and Everyone CD at my house when we were in high school and that was a game changer,’ laughs Cormier-O’Leary. ‘It was massively life changing.’ ‘It might be in a bad way too,’ quips Wriggins before Cormier-O’Leary continues. ‘I grew up listening to a lot more jazz and I had a classic rock dad. So it was very helpful to hear some Will Oldham at an early age, not playing a flurry of notes and then actually singing words that had some sort of resonance to things I was going through. And classic country I heard on Dan’s radio show at college, which kinda helped introduce me to the actual tradition of that kind of songwriting.’
The confident bluster of country chops on Love The Stranger gives the songs an added intent, and steps away from the band’s previously guarded approach. ‘It used to be a pretty strenuous design process of chipping away at what we had until it was something that didn’t bother any of us,’ explains Samuels who is a couple of minutes late in joining having decided on a whim to shave off his beard leaving him with a rather enviable moustache. ‘This time around, we did the reverse, where we considered what kind of scene we wanted to create.’
‘It felt like we followed our impulses a lot more this time, and that allowed us to be like “we can play it straight,”’ says Cormier-O’Leary. ‘We were avoiding the cliche, but we felt less afraid to embrace tradition in ways that we were more consciously avoiding on past records.’ Gill, who also plays lap steel goes on to add, ‘I think on this record I am playing more consciously country stuff than I have on the last Friendship albums. Just like Jon is playing more country rock kind of stuff. It just felt like the right time.’
The feeling of having the right energy at the right time, that gave them the confidence to make the type of record they were happy with, seems to have culminated with the record deal with Merge – a contract which was signed after the records completion. For those following the band’s trajectory, the signing with Merge felt like a big step, and it’s a significant milestone that has not been taken for granted by the group either. ‘It feels amazing, and it fucking rules!’ says Wriggins.
Samuels, adding some insight into their decision says, ‘they’ve always been one of our obvious choices, and we saw them as someone who could work with us, but I don’t know if we believed it would ever come together.’ The excitement – and anticipation of what the future with Merge has in store – is tempered somewhat by the fact that the group are no longer with their previous label, Orindal Records. A label owned and run by Advance Base’s Owen Ashworth, and one which Wriggins describes as ‘indispensable’ in nurturing the group. ‘We love Orindal so much,’ says Wriggins. ‘So there are parts that are very bittersweet about not working with Owen in that capacity anymore.’ The impact of Ashworth’s initial belief and support of the group is far from forgotten though as his name is found in the credits of the new album.
The members of Friendship are a talented bunch – with a host of musical sidelines that run concurrently with the band. Between them, they almost all have solo music projects and play in numerous groups (2nd Grade and Hour to name just two), while Cormier-O’Leary and Samuels run the fantastically diverse, Dear Life Records, whose recent releases include that of MJ Lenderman. Rather than detracting from Friendship, the band credit these other endeavours to its success. ‘Its been a blast seeing Pete do his stuff and Jon do his stuff,’ says Cormier-O’Leary. ‘I felt like this time, we all really understood the strengths of the members, probably because we have all these other outlets now. This record reflected that. It really opened the process up to allowing individual members to go deeper into the specific thing that they care about.’
‘Friendship has always had a collective design principle that we all work at and say when something isn’t right,’ adds Samuels. ‘So it ends up that we have this shared idea of what a Friendship song should be. And now that we have these other outlets to explore things that aren’t Friendship, it makes it so much clearer what can be Friendship and what can expand the boundary.’
Friendship have long made music for quiet nights and long drives – with Wriggins’ poetry transforming workaday existence into something far deeper as it sits atop a bed of timeless country and Americana. Love The Stranger is the sound of a group comfortable with their design process, and confident to lean into what they love. They are ultimately a band of friends capable of making meaningful connections: telling small stories of hard won victories, and evidence of the enduring power of having people around you capable of holding you up. For those who discover them with this their fourth release, a treasure trove awaits, while an even brighter future beckons.
If you’d like to support us by subscribing to our zine, click here – it’s just £6 a year for four copies (inc p&p).