It would be fair for some artists to hold a grudge or be at least a little bitter after being dropped from two record labels following their debut album.
But for Free Energy, whose partnerships with James Murphy’s DFA Records, as well as EMI, disintigrated, that’s not the case. Instead, the Philadelphia-based band chose to treat their experiences as learning tools, vocalist Paul Sprangers said recently.
So Free Energy, which performs a Noise Pop show Thursday at the Brick & Mortar, took what it learned from the labels, and started its own.
“Even though we got dropped, we lasted a lot longer on (EMI) than most bands,” Sprangers said. “We didn’t cost too much. We didn’t make too much, but we cruised under the radar. The label shelled out for some videos we couldn’t have made otherwise, we got tour support and we were able to grow because of the money that was provided by the label.
“There’s nothing to be bitter about. At the end of the day, you can’t blame a label for your success or failure.”
Free Energy may have cruised under the radar, but that is not where the power pop group began. In 2008, after Sprangers and guitarist Scott Wells ended their previous band, the hardcore Hockey Night, in their hometown of Red Wing, Minn., they began playing with Wells’ bassist brother Evan. They met drummer Nicholas Shuminsky and guitarist Sheridan Fox in St. Paul.
Soon after, Free Energy signed with James Murphy’s DFA Records and EMI, and moved to Philadelphia. Murphy himself produced their debut, 2010’s Stuck On Nothing. Some critics questioned the band’s residence on the label that was home to the likes of dance bands The Rapture and LCD Soundsystem. Free Energy’s songs, often about love, girls and loving girls, were completely straightforward power pop. There were no double entendres or irony. The band was compared to the likes of Cheap Trick, Thin Lizzy, the Cars or AC/DC.
Rolling Stone named Free Energy one of the best new bands of 2010. The band had indie cred and the admiration of critics – many who applauded the band’s completely non-ironic use of cowbell – but no radio hits.
“I think for a lot of young bands that are starting out, a record label can be a really amazing launchpad – a band have a really successful career with a record label if they get good press and tour enough,” Sprangers said. “But … if you don’t have immediate succcess, you are pushed down the roster, or released. There are limited resources. You might just get the bare amount of resources allocated to you as dictated in the contract.”
While it didn’t work out for Free Energy on either DFA or EMI, Sprangers said that time was not wasted. From the indie label, the band learned the “less is more” approach to both marketing and music. That already went along with Sprangers’ biggest musical influence, INXS’ Kick.
“That record hit me like a ton of bricks, there’s still nothing that sounds like it – before or after,” he said. “It’s minimal and there’s a lot of space on that record, but it’s epic, and it’s a huge rock record.”
From the major label, Free Energy learned the poltics of the industry, and how to navigate the various egos involved in creating and distributing their music.
The band kept its core support staff in tact and applied those lessons to creating Free Energy Records, on which the band self-released its follow-up, January’s Love Sign. The album remains true to Free Energy’s ‘70s and ‘80s guitar hook-laden sound and unambigous message.
Sprangers said no matter how musicians release music to the world, they should remain vigilant.
“You have to stay on top of everything,” he said. “You can’t just lay back and think, ‘now it’s done’ and do drugs and whatever (other) myths exist.”Free Energy, Noise Pop 2013