Though many states and communities are slowly reopening in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been a particularly tough few months for musicians who made their livelihood playing music in live settings. Because of as much, we’ve been checking in with various artists throughout the area to see how they’ve been coping during lockdown.
This week, we caught up with Sam Whalen, lead singer of local rockers The Fun Boys. Also a member of Silent Old Mtns., Sam has been involved in the Frederick music scene for what feels like 4,921,952 years (and that’s a good thing). The Fun Boys recently released their first-ever full-length album, “I’m Wake Awake, It’s Fun.” Not only is the name a play off the Bright Eyes album, “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning,” but its album art is as well. We talked about the Bright Eyes influence, what it’s like releasing an album during a pandemic, if they ever plan on having a proper CD release show, and, of course, what went into all the makings of “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Fun,” which Sam said took almost a decade from start to finish, all things considered. To learn more about The Fun Boys, including how to listen to their LP, check them out on Facebook at www.facebook.com/TheFunBoysBand or head to their website, www.thefunboysband.com.
1. First, where and when did you record the album? How much time went into writing the songs and then getting them down in the studio? Did you work with a producer?
Whalen: We started recording the album summer of 2018 in Baltimore. Haas, Colin, and Austin (the other Fun Boys) live tracked the majority of the album in one long day and then we took two years slowly adding flavors while being wildly disorganized with scheduling. There was a lot of high-minded ideas that we wanted to try to execute that ate up a lot of time, but we came to have a ‘shoot for the moon, at least if you miss you’ll land on the roof’ attitude about it. The songs were all written before we ever went into the studio, but working on the recording led us to be able to add a lot of embellishments, mostly just adding parts that made us laugh while we had someone there to hit record. Like most first albums, the lion’s share of the songs were tunes Colin and I had around for years leading up to the project, so it could be said that from writing to recording, this album took around a decade.
We did work with a producer, we took a hiatus around Christmas 2017 and when we played our first show back at Joe Squared in Baltimore, the first show with Austin on bass, an old friend of mine from high school was actually in the crowd and he absolutely loved our show, which was major to me because this guy had played in bands all through high school before I had ever played music. I thought he was the coolest dude, so he offered to record us. His name is Donnie Carlo and he’s a stud. In the same spirit of our EP, ‘Too Fun,’ we recorded the album all together hunkered in a tiny room giggling. The day we met and live tracked the album, Donnie sat us down noting he had found a production inconsistency: ‘On your EP, in the opening track ‘Malt Shoppe,’ you say you ‘got a cool dog,’ but on the track, ‘Soft Soft,’ from this album, you cite that you don’t own a dog at all. So what’s the deal?’ We knew we had the right guy.
2. What’s it been like to release an album during a pandemic? Did you ever consider waiting to release it because of COVID-19? Will you ever do a proper record release show at some point, even if that has to wait until next year?
Whalen: All of the direction of this band is generated from the four of us, the outside force that moves the band besides the people we love, is booked shows, our obligations to show up and show out. With that stripped away, we had to relearn how to move forward together without marking the time. We’re not the most settled or focused group of guys, but the album was finished and we had been chipping away at it for years. I sort of completely shut down emotionally when quarantine started, tried quitting the band, would ignore group chats out of anxiety, so thank goodness for the other Fun Boys. They really picked up the torch and kept momentum going. Having the release of the album to look forward to became the thing holding me together. Now that it’s out and we’re receiving feedback about the project, it’s really plugged me back into how lucky I am to be in a band and to be in this band with this group of guys. At some point, when it makes sense, we’ll do a proper release show, we’ll throw a big party, play the album end to end, and we’ll be happy to celebrate our friends.
3. Speaking of COVID-19, have you caught up with any local livestreams that have stuck out to you? Have there been any local artists you think have done a good job keeping their name out there while shows have been canceled and the music world has been halted?
Whalen: I’m embarrassed to admit that I never jumped into watching livestreams. Six months ago I was already walking around with the sort of depression where I wanted the whole world to stop, and when it actually did, I ... fell to a depth where being aware of anything happening outside my bedroom made me freak out. Including just the other Fun Boys trying to release a new record, I couldn’t wrap my head around anything. I’m actually neighbors with Danniel Knight from Sunniva, so I got to watch him get all set up and pumped leading up to when he did his livestream for the FNP. In my social media periphery, I saw the homies in Weed Coughin did really consistent streams that felt perfectly on brand for them. I also honestly quietly applauded everyone else who didn’t do anything outside of take care of themselves through the beginning of this. I took a lot of solace in the phrase, ‘it’s survive time, not thrive time.’
4. What inspired the title? Obviously, it’s a tip of the cap to Bright Eyes, but the cover art is also so neat, with the way it turned out as an homage. How did all that come about?
Whalen: Bright Eyes is a major inspiration for The Fun Boys, spiritually more than sonically. Bright Eyes, at its best, represents thoughtful vulnerability and poetic sincerity. At its worst, it’s self-centered man-child self-obsessed introspection: I feel like both sides of this are rolled into The Fun Boys ethos. The album ‘I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning’ has been a really important album in my life. I would listen to it every night with my ex who I lived with when I first moved out of my mother’s house. After that breakup, when I was 19, there was a good four years or so where I couldn’t listen to any of it without crying. So as an adult armed with some more emotional-intelligence, the idea of turning something so sacred to me into a joke felt like a marker of some sort of maturity. There’s a couple deliberate Bright Eyes references through the album. ‘I’m Wide Awake, It’s Fun’ really represents our whole mission statement for the band: to be really immediate and provocative on a surface level, but to have a lot of treasure hidden underneath for people who go looking for it. Also shout-out to my friend Isen Alexander — he’s the cutie who did such a stellar job on the album artwork.
5. If there’s one song that you think could help everybody get through these uncertain times with the pandemic and social unrest, what would it be and why?
Whalen: I’ve realized recently I may be too much of a selfish person to answer a question like that well. I would say whatever music that makes you feel most like yourself, music that closes the divide between your experience and your present. One would hope that that connection would bring you closer to being the change you want to see in the world. So I would say right now the song that would help best in these times would be the song you can put your dollar behind to move toward change. A lot of musicians have set up charity efforts for Black Lives Matter and other socially pertinent causes and I think backing those efforts would be the most soothing thing to do.
BONUS QUESTION: Where do you think this latest Fun Boys album ranks to you personally, with all the projects you’ve worked on throughout your artistic life?
Whalen: The Fun Boys is the realization of a dream I’ve had since I was 12. The first time I saw the Woodstock concert film and saw Roger Daltrey singing with The Who with his righteous swimmers bod and fringe ensemble I knew I wanted to be a showy lead singer. I learned what music was with Silent Old Mtns., — those guys taught me everything and had such patience with me. I didn’t know how to play music at all so I did cringey performance poetry at open mics to get as close as I could to that lead singer thing and that’s where I met Andrew Bromhal. When I heard he was starting a band, I did everything I could to ingratiate myself into the situation because I loved him and his music. His songs were so next level to me and they still are. This was all a long time ago, which is to say Andrew and I have known each other a long time, he knows me. Andrew cried the first time he saw The Fun Boys perform and I’d like to think it’s because he understood that this was me finally achieving this dream that I had inside of me for so long but it could also have been him drinking nine beers. That usually leads to me crying, too.