Happy Abandon has a name that on the surface suggests a carefree, effervescent spirit. While that quality is certainly present in the music, the band’s songs delve deep into the issues of identity, authenticity and bravery in the face of your own shortcomings. Happy Abandon released its latest record, Facepaint, through Schoolkids Records on August 25 and is currently on tour to cities it has yet to visit in the western part of the US and Canada. For vinyl heads, the colored vinyl edition of Facepaint has a color scheme mirroring the album cover.
Lead singer and guitarist Peter Vance, percussionist Jake Waits and bass player Justin Ellis all met at the University of North Carolina in 2010. All were involved in theater in some capacity growing up and in college and that element enters into its songwriting, particularly on Facepaint, which is one of the factors in what makes the band’s music stand out. There is a sense that the band is scoring an emotional experience while also recreating that experience as would a novelist or a filmmaker. Although the band in the beginning sounded more like a folk-inflected indie rock band, it has grown into its artistic ambitions.
The live group is a trio, its fourth member Alex Thompson, mainly doing production on the records, perhaps occasionally playing live in the group’s home town of Chapel Hills, North Carolina. Every member of the band is a multi-instrumentalist beyond the musical roles cited above and that perhaps accounts for its broad expressive palette. “ I think what makes this band so special and interesting is that we’re what happens when drama kinds come together to form a band,” says Ellis.
This cinematic, theatrical sensibility extends further into the songwriting in that Happy Abandon’s music always has a direction and a cohesion that suggests a narrative quality even if there is no strict aim to tell a story. Its soundscaping is as informed by the soundtrack work of Hans Zimmer and epic fantasy film scores (think Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings) as it is by bands that are able to convey strong emotions regardless of whether or not there are lyrics—Sigur Ros, This Will Destroy You and Mogwai. However, what Happy Abandon has to say reveals an effort to connect with people by articulating feelings everyone has but might be elusive to pin down. This is exemplified well with the song “Severed Seams” which deals with the transitional times in one’s life when everything seems like it’s changing and falling apart all at once.
“It’s one of the earlier songs,” says Vance. “I started writing it before Happy Abandon was an idea. I was writing it because writing is a really good coping mechanism. I was in a relationship that wasn’t working but I didn’t know how to communicate it. I liked the idea of the first line being, ‘If you should rest upon my chest would you feel my distress.’ If you could, could you understand what I’m feeling without me having to say anything. Can you feel it without me having to be super blunt about it. Nobody likes conflict but sometimes conflict is necessary. The answer of the song is no, that’s not how you deal with conflict. It’s like hope but not hope that things will get better but that there will be a sense of closure. But to get there you really have to go out of your comfort zone and face the conflict head-on.”
“It’s funny with ‘Severed Seams,’” continues Vance. “As I was writing out the lyric sheet for the album, it has the fewest lyrics and yet those lyrics are super significant. It’s like the idea is highly condensed into a pocket sized bit of emotional baggage. I don’t think the song needed too many words because it’s a simple idea people can relate to. And not just in romantic relationships but yes, I have to suck it up and be an adult and intentionally confront it. I think of ‘Severed Seams’ and ‘Heavy Lines’ as sibling songs because they’re definitely related. Except ‘Heavy Lines’ is like a sequel. ‘Severed Seams’ is the consent to the idea of it and ‘Heavy Lines’ is the doing of it. I’m not happy with a lot of decisions that I’ve made and I think a lot of those make it into the songs. I’m not here to write songs about how great I am, I want to write songs about real problems and things that people go through. I’m not good at forming sentences about how I’m feeling so I write a song. [We all have different coping mechanisms in this band],Jake likes to hit things, Justin likes to write emails and I like to write songs.”
The songs on Facepaint are clearly layered and arranged for dramatic dynamism yet exuberant, refined and organic, delicate but powerful. Naturally the title mattered and carried a significance that isn’t obvious. The album cover shows the face of a young woman, face painted like she might be a Viking or part of a Celtic tribe prepared for ritual or for war. It is a striking image. The young woman is Eliza Merritt, the daughter of the album’s producer Jason Merritt. The painting was done by Mariam Marand and the photography by Shannon Kelly and Jafar Fallahi. All people with whom the band has personal connections. For such a personal album yet one whose songs give glimpses under the masks everyone wears to get through life even though the masks we wear often do little to hide what’s really going on behind the facade.
“The title comes from a lyric in the song ‘Take Me,’” says Vance. “The whole idea behind it is that face paint is used to change what you look like so you look like something you’d rather be. The longer it’s on your face the more worn down and imperfect it will be. When we talked to Mariam we said we wanted it to completely cover her face but to look hectic as if she threw it on. Some people are in a point in their lives where they have to just become somebody else.”
Catch Happy Abandon on tour now…
Thurs. 9/21 – Denver CO – Syntax Physic Opera
Mon. 9/25 – Richland WA – The Emerald of Siam Thai Restaurant and Lounge
Wed. 9/27 – Vancouver BC – The Morrissey Pub
Thurs. 9/28 – Seattle WA – Vermillion Art Gallery and Bar
Sun. 10/1 – Tacoma WA – Real Art Tacoma
Mon. 10/2 – Portland OR – Bunk Bar
Tues. 10/3 – Crescent City CA – Port O’Pints Brewing Co.
Wed. 10/4 – San Francisco CA – Hemlock Tavern
Sat. 10/7 – Los Angeles CA – The Hotel Cafe
Wed.10/11 – Phoenix AZ – The Lost Leaf
Fri. 10/13 – Austin TX – Spider House Cafe and Ballroom
Sat. 10/14 – Houston TX – Super Happy Fun Land
Sun. 10/15 – New Orleans LA – The Circle Bar
Tues. 10/17 – Birmingham AL – The Nick Rocks
Thurs. 10/19 – Athens GA – The Caledonia Lounge
Fri. 10/20 – Bryson City NC – Nantahala Brewing
Fri. 10/27 – Galway, Ireland – Monroe’s Live w/ Mundy
Sat. 10/28 – Dublin, Ireland – The Academy w/ Mundy
Sun. 10/29 – Birr, Ireland – Birr Theatre & Arts Centre w/ Mundy
Tues. 10/31 – Dublin, Ireland – The Ruby Sessions at Doyles Bar
Thurs. 11/2 – Bray, Ireland – The Harbour Bar
Sat. 11/11 – Richmond VA – Gallery5
Fri. 11/17 – Durham NC – The Pinhook