Famous Last Words released their third full-length album The Incubus this past September on Revival Recordings. The concept album shows the band branching out from their metalcore roots. FLW is currently partway through a U.S. headlining tour with The Funeral Portrait and Versus Me.
Earlier this week I had the pleasure of speaking with vocalist JT Tollas. We chatted about the response to the new album, his interest in film and TV, and how to make physical copies matter in a digital age. Read the full interview below:
How would you say The Incubus compares to your previous two?
It’s got a different sound. We took about a year and a half off from touring to write and record this record. We really wanted to hone in on, not a completely new sound, but kind of getting away from that straight metalcore over-processed sound. We wanted to bring a little more raw emotion into it. We all are worked with a lot of different elements from different genres: hip hop and even a little more rock stuff and some theatrical sounds.There’s some heavy Queen influence in a couple of the songs. We definitely wanted to make this album as dynamic and dimensional as possible.
I like it. And what did you have four, or even five guest vocalists? How did you get these people to jump on?
It was kind of crazy how it happened, actually. Matt Good, he’s one of the guest vocalists, he was actually there. He did all the ear candy kind of sound design stuff, like scenes or any kind of those weird sounds that you hear. He did all that. So he was already in the studio and we were just hanging out one night and he was like, “Dude, I wanna sing on this. Let’s do it,” and we were like, “Alright, cool!”
That’s how it happened with every single one of the guest vocalists. They were there and they were interested. We were excited because they’re all talented vocalists. It was really cool because it wasn’t like we were reaching out, saying, “Hey, we’ll throw you this amount of money to do this.” It was more that they heard the music, they were excited about the music, and they just wanted to be a part of it. I think how that played out was really cool.
That’s awesome. I was curious if you wrote the songs with any of these people in mind, or if they were able to jump in and you made it work just giving them certain parts.
With the concept album we have characters. So whenever we have guest vocalists I usually like to have them play the other characters. That was really neat. Spencer Sotelo from Periphery, he plays the husband in track 7, “The Escape.” It’s a pretty neat back and forth.
Yeah, having different voices gives new life to those different characters.
Exactly. And a lot of concept albums don’t dive into that approach very often.
It seems FLW has become master of the concept album. Is this a direction you plan to continue going in?
Yes. When you’re doing a concept album it’s still a collection of songs and you can write about whatever you want. You’re just kind of putting them all together and you’re tying them together. It’s not limiting at all, it’s not like we can’t write songs about things that we feel. We just translate it to a story and we give those characters certain situations. Then we can manipulate the situation to be more exciting or more emotional, anything we want. So I think it opens up a lot more doors creatively.
I don’t know if you’ve seen one of those books, where it’s basically a list of ideas like, “Choose a scenario. Now write a story about it.” It’s kind of like that with songs and the concept. Here’s a scenario, I want to put this into the story. It forces you to be more creative and I like that.
That’s cool. You’re right, each of the songs can stand on their own, but they become a whole new thing when you put them together.
Exactly. I think you need that vagueness as well. Obviously, some of the songs are going to be more story improvement, but you’ve got to have – there’s a very fine line and I think we ride that line fairly well – where it’s a “story song” or just a “song song.” Lyrically, with how much time you’re given you have to find a way to keep it vague enough for the people who aren’t following the story to enjoy it but also get the story across. So that’s probably the most challenging part.
No doubt. It’s such a contrast from artists trying to write the hit songs, and then there’s some filler tracks, and but the idea of the album as a whole is gone.
I hate the idea of the filler track. It’s just doesn’t make any sense to me. Why would you want… it literally doesn’t make sense.
I’m with you. Clearly you love story and character. I’m thinking of a guy like Mike Hranica from TDWP who’s released a couple books, do you ever see yourself going in that direction as a writing outlet outside of music?
If anything, I would be getting more into writing scripts and doing movies. I love film. That’s my second favorite passion right there. Not necessarily the tech stuff behind it, like cameras and stuff like that, I don’t know anything about that. [laughs] It’s just storytelling and seeing it come to life. I would also enjoy doing a theater show. Either one of those. Something that I can visually see come to life.
Are you more of a comedy or a horror and suspense kind of guy?
It’s funny because I feel like all I do is watch TV. Mostly what I watch is cartoons like American Dad, Simpsons, you know. Bob’s Burgers has been a big one lately. But also one of my favorite shows of all time is The Twilight Zone.
The cool thing about The Twilight Zone is it’s suspenseful but in a very unique way that no one else has been able to capture since Rod Serling. It’s got that cheesiness, but every message he puts into an episode has stood the test of time. It’s still relevant today. Sometimes it’s like a dream. When I think of dreaming or a nightmare or whatever, I think of The Twilight Zone. There’s a lot of episodes that have these very dreamy elements to it. When something like that happens – for instance if there’s ever a point where you’re following a character in the story and then the character’s best friend turns to him and says, “You have to wake up,” immediately I get chills! That’s the kind of suspense I like. Horror suspense is cool and all, but it’s the crazy psychological twist that really gets me excited. I like to put that into our albums.
You were talking about script writing. You guys did some movie stuff for Two Faced Charade, and is there or was there something in the works for Council of the Dead?
I have a script a quarter of the way written but we had to put a pause on that to start working on The Incubus. So I haven’t done much on that since then but I still think if we wanted to we could finish off a script and try to take it to some production company and get it turned into something. I think the story in and of itself is a good enough story to do that, whether it’s band related or not.
I think it definitely could be something cool.
I would love to do that.
You co-directed the “Pretty in Porcelain” video right?
Yeah, that was my first jab at any kind of directing. It was cool. A lot of fun.
Something you’d like to take the reins with a little more in the future?
Definitely not by myself. Not yet. I’m still learning a lot. In the moment when we were doing it and I was giving direction during the performance shots, the acting shots, there was this sort of thrill that was going through my entire body. There’s something about it that I absolutely loved and I don’t think it was bossing people around. [laughs]
Creatively being able to work with these people, and I’m sure it’s not always going to be that easy. The actors that we used for that were very easy to work with so I think we lucked out. It was something I really enjoyed doing and I would love to do again.
Is there plans for videos for anything else from this album?
Yes, we’re definitely doing at least one more. We’re in talks about something a little bigger, but it’s just in the talk stage right now.
You can’t give anything away yet?
Well, I don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up.
Fair Enough! You’re a few days into the tour, what’s the reaction been like to the new songs?
Great. Last night, for instance, there were more kids singing along to songs from The Incubus than any of the other albums.
It blew my mind. I was like “Holy shit, I feel like half of you don’t even know the other two albums.” That was really cool. It was the first time it was that obvious. The other shows I usually see people singing along to all of the songs. This one, there’d be half the people singing along to the old albums songs, but when The Incubus songs came on I saw people who were throwing down singing along, people in the front singing along, people in the back who were just standing there, singing along. It was crazy. It was awesome.
Yeah, that album’s only a few months old.
Yeah. And we haven’t been out here for about two years.
Any new cities you’re hitting, or old favorites?
Old favorites. Well, I’ve never been to Walnut Creek and that one’s going to be a pretty good show, I think. There’s a lot of hype behind that one, I know. We’re going back to Chain Reaction in Anaheim. That will be great. We’re going back to Seattle. Our guitarist, Tyler, he’s from Seattle, so he gets to go home and see his friends.
It’s been so long that I don’t really know how our markets are anymore which was a little nerve wracking when we started this tour. But since this began we’ve already sold a ton of VIP packages, I’ve seen online stuff, kids are really excited, a lot of RSVPs to the shows. Us alone, we’re drawing 100 – 150 plus kids, and then there’s the other two bands on the package. It’s been great, it’s been a lot of fun. I’ve really missed the West Coast.
Versus Me, and The Funeral Portrait – have you played with these guys before this tour?
We’ve played with The Funeral Portrait before. I found out about Versus Me from the last tour we did with Alesana. Patrick, the guitar player from Alesana, is actually guitar player and singer for Versus Me. So he was showing me their band and I was like, “Hey, this is sweet. You should come tour with us.”And he’s like, “Wait, really?” It was funny.
I’ve met some pretty interesting people going to shows. Do you have any weird or awkward interactions with a fan at a show?
Not on this tour. This one’s been pretty tame. They’ve been really excited after the show to come up and talk to us and come to the merch table, meet us and get us to sign stuff, pictures, whatever. Nothing too crazy though. There’s just been a lot of excitement. I think that alone is cool enough for me. I love seeing how excited these kids are to see our music and sign along and be out there with us and share this hour of allotted time we have to play our music for them. They’re excited, but nothing weird.. yet.
Yeah, “yet.” I guess it’s early. The less awkward stories the better?
I would have to disagree, I think the awkward stories are the funny ones. Or the really shitty stories. Anytime something super shitty happens, in the moment you just want everything to be over, but looking back it’s the best thing ever.
Those are the most memorable stories!
It’s funny how it works out that way.
Has anybody come up to show you lyric or album art tattoos?
I’ve seen a couple of our new logo tattoos. But the craziest thing I’ve seen is this dude in Russia got a whole arm sleeve of realistic tattoos of me.
[Laughter] Really? It’s just you?
Like they were cool shots from performances and he picked his three favorites and put them on his arm and it looks really cool but I was like “Oh my god, I can’t believe you did that!” Somewhere on the other side of the world there’s a dude with a JT sleeve. [Laughs]
And you guys haven’t played Russia, have you?
It’s just a Russian superfan – that’s phenomenal.
That’s what I thought! Fuck yeah – that’s super cool!
That’s the dedicated fan story I was looking for!
So it’s pretty rad seeing The Incubus was at #51 on iTunes album charts, over half a million streams in the first week. Obviously, digital is the way the industry is going. Do you still buy any hard copies, or are you part of the vinyl resurgence?
No, man. If I’m driving down the road, I have Apple Music. Essentially, if it’s a friend’s band, or a band I really enjoy I’ll buy the CD but I’ll never listen to it off my iTunes library, I’ll still go stream it because that way they’ll make money even after I bought the album. That’s what I would encourage people to do if you really want to support a band. Buy their album but then if you have a streaming service, don’t listen to the album, just stream it!
That’s such a good idea. Where do you see the industry going? More changes with people going more Apple Music, Spotify route?
Yeah, man. Two years ago, right after Council, I had this whole idea of.. I think it was just before Apple Music was a thing, like Spotify was already a thing, but it was right before Apple Music officially dropped, and I was talking to Nick at InVogue and I was like, “Man, we’ve got to really get away from physical stuff unless it’s going to be a tour thing.” There’s got to be some sort of extra special push for physical, but other than that, I feel like everyone needs to be focused on pushing digitally.
Then when we went to sign with Revival I said the same thing, and Shawn was like, “Aw, fuck yeah.” So we actually ended up pulling all physical and in store distribution. So there’s no retail. They’re not in any Best Buy or anything like that. So essentially if you want a copy of our album you have to go to our online store to get it or come to a show.
I think limiting the availability of it helps, it makes them more special. Another thing we did is we did a special edition for The Incubus where it was a like a DVD book, and on the inside of the book we had artwork – the artist is actually from Canada, too, his name’s Andrew Wilson – he used to be in a band called Dancing With Paris, who we toured with a long time ago. He’s super talent and he did a digital drawing for each one of the songs. So we have a DVD book thing made up. It’s hard cardboard, on the front is the Incubus artwork and around it is a shiny foil border like a picture frame. They have to do with the lyrics in the songs and it’s really nice when you’re holding it and looking at it, you can tell that it’s special. That’s what I wanted to do.
If we’re going to do physical – anyone can tell we’re in a digital age- you’ve got to make people care about the physical copies if you want to move any. So I thought making them a little more limited would help, and it did. We ended up selling all of those special editions. It’s also good incentive to get kids out to show. If they don’t want to order online or they are sketchy about ordering online, but we’re coming near them, they’re like “Hey, I want a physical copy, I’m going to go out to that show to get it.” Or if they’re at the show already and think, “I can’t get this copy anywhere else I’m going to buy it from the merch table.”
That’s so smart.
It’s a different business model. You’ve just got to embrace it and think of different ways to push your product, without ripping kids off.
Absolutely. It’s crazy, because people don’t realize how much operating a band is running your own business.
It really is. I mean, we are our own business. It’s 100% a legitimate business and that’s how it needs to be treated. Like with any other business, as times change, business models change because the consumer changes.
Anything you can tell us about what’s coming up for 2017?
Nothing is officially booked yet, but we’re submitted for a ton of tours. I’ve got to imagine we’re going to get at least a couple. So 2017 is going to be touring, touring, touring. 2016 was prep, recording, and getting the new album out. Now that it’s out, 2017’s definitely going to be a heavy touring year.
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