Riveting Riffs Logo One A Fragile Tomorrow Says - It's Better That Way

A Fragile Tomorrow Interview Photo One

A Fragile Tomorrow, are they a Rock band? Are they a Post Punk band? Are they an Art Rock band? We are getting closer. To get to the bottom of this question and to learn more about their current album It’s Better That Way we decided to talk to Sean Kelly, one of the three brothers who founded A Fragile Tomorrow.

We opened our conversation with Sean by asking him to describe the typical fan of A Fragile Tomorrow.

“We have opened for so many different kinds of bands and we have done so many different things, that I think there are people who like some things that we do, but don’t like other things that we do. That is totally fine. There are people who come to listen to us play and who buy our stuff, but they are also people who listen to a million different things.

A Fragile Tomorrow Interview Photo TwoThat is a hard question, because I definitely don’t think there is a typical fan. One thing that is really cool is we have grown to (the point) that we also have fans whose music we have grown up listening to and who we have looked up to. They are also people we have toured with. We have in some ways become a musician’s band. I prefer that in one way, because I am a music nerd. There is something (about our music) that resonates with people who also have musical backgrounds. There is not a typical fan.

When we were kids, people came to see us, because we were kids. I was thirteen years old and in Brendan’s (his brother) case he was eleven. We were playing Jimi Hendrix covers and we were teenagers playing Rock music,” recalls Sean Kelly.  

Continuing along the same vein he says, “The record (Be Nice Be Careful), that we made with Mitch Easter was more of a Power Pop record. The song “Don’t Need Saving,” was an Elvis Costello type thing. The vocal was more upfront. There has definitely been an evolution in terms of the records that we want to make and what is front and center. When my brother Dom was in the band the harmonies were a focal point. With the new record and him not being in the band anymore we mostly stayed away from that, because we wanted to explore what the band could be without us having to lean on (the harmonies) and that being the go-to thing.

As a result, on this record and probably the last one too (Generation Loss), the vocals played a different role. I wouldn’t say they took a backseat, but the role of the vocals changed on this record. For this record (It’s Better That Way) they are a vehicle for the songwriting and a lot of the sonics. My brother Brendan who is the lead guitarist for the last two records, and I co-wrote the previous record entirely together. That is the first time we had co-written together. Before that everything was (primarily) me. Many things changed quickly. He brought a lot of riffs in and many things were recontextualized.

For the new record (the current one), there are a lot of co-writes, some solo writing that I did and we realized it was an opportunity to combine all the different things that we had done. We explored some new territory musically. I had never wanted to be the lead singer. I am reluctantly the front person. What worked for us was just me being the lead singer. (Now) we wanted to see what it would be like if the vocal was a part of everything and not this center point. It (the music) has definitely evolved and it is a choice too. It is a combination of both things.”

It's Better That Way is A Fragile Tomorrow’s seventh album and Sean Kelly says, “It definitely arrived better than I imagined it, but it certainly changed. We started it in mid to late 2019 and then we started recording in January of 2020. There were five or six songs that were tracked at a studio that Brendan and I co-ran here in town, but we shut down when the pandemic started. We would go back here and there, but we pretty well put the record down for a year, before we hit the ground again with it. It was during that time that Dom (the third brother) left the band. We went into (this record) thinking we were going to do more of an acoustic based record.

Even before Dom left there was a handful of stuff that I would go back and listen to and I would think this isn’t working very well and I don’t know really where this is going. Dom had also been writing a few things for this record with the intention of it being on the record. When he left, we had half a record and Brendan and I had to sit down and think about what we were going to do about that. We said some of this is heading in this direction and some of it is heading in that direction, so let’s figure out what we want to salvage. Let’s just write the record that we want to write, not box ourselves in and then see how it all turns out.

That is when we got Peter Holsapple (R.E.M., Continental Drifters, Hootie & the Blowfish), to come in and do the keyboards. When Peter got involved, it changed the whole thing. We got some songs in decent enough shape for him to work on. A lot of them were pretty close, but some of them were pretty loosely structured. He put (keys) on it, before the bass and drums were done. That shaped a lot of it and it was better than we had first envisioned it. The more time we spent with the record the more it changed. Sometimes you worry about that and if it is going to screw it up, but in this case, we had the luxury of time and it worked out really well. I am proud of the fact it sounds like a unique kind of record from what we have made before.”

One of the songs on this album that contributes to that unique sound is the sixth track “Fraying Wire,” which has guest vocals by Vicki Peterson of the Bangles.

Sean Kelly explains, “It was one of those piecemeal kinds of things during COVID. I had just got a Fender Jaguar and I used alternate tuning to play around with a chord progression I had come up with. I remember my daughter bouncing to the chord progression every time I played it. I thought this is something, so I kept it. I worked on it and then I wrote some lyrics for it. The lyrics were written January 7 of 2021. I sat in disbelief watching the news from the previous day and I responded to it. I did a quick demo with a drum loop.

I don’t want to say it is angry, because it is not really an angry song. It is me lamenting about where we were as a country at that point and how low we had become. I was thinking about some of the true heroes and martyrs, people who actually made a difference in the world through protest and actual revolution. Are any of those people left in the country or do we just have insurrectionists? It was really me just being bummed about it. I didn’t do much editing. I am proud of the second verse. It just spilled out of me. It has a couple of people I admire on the political level and they just ended up in the song.

I asked Vicki at the very end of the process if she would jump on it and she did.

I am proud of everything on this record, but probably that one and “Sandy,” are the ones I am most proud of. “Fraying Wire,” is a song I feel proud of on a lyrical level and I feel like I got everything out in the way I wanted to get it out. This is a song that ended up when every single piece of it worked.

We had the whole song with only a drum loop and it was only because Josh Kean couldn’t get his schedule (to mesh) to get his drums on the song. We just kept the drum loop that we had been working with for the demo. Then when we went to do a promo in New York, we all got in a room and played songs together, so naturally Josh played the song. We were playing to a click track. We were playing to the album version of the song but doing a live version of it. He did his best approximation of the drum loop. We got the sessions back and we loved what he did so much that we took one of the takes from the live version of the song and we threw it into the album version of the song at the very last second, five days before we were mastering. It is another example of how things can come together in weird ways.”

You mentioned the song “Sandy,” a song that features some beautiful background vocals.

“That would be Kathryn Roberts. She was in a band called Equation with her husband, Sean Lakeman. Sean’s brother Seth Lakeman is a quite famous solo artist these days and an incredible fiddle player. He is also in Robert Plant’s band. Equation was prominent in England in the nineties. Peter knew them both and I asked him if he thought Sean and Kathryn would play on the song. He brokered an email and they were just so kind to do it. Kathryn nailed her vocal. She did more than I could have imagined on it. It is different than anything that we have done. I am doing harmonies throughout as well.

“Sandy,” is the first thing that I wrote on a tenor guitar when I got a tenor guitar. I was doing a lot of Celtic runs. and those kinds of motifs. I listen to a lot of Irish music, a lot of British Folk, a lot of British Folk Rock and I had always wanted to do something like that in the context of this band. It was really hard to do, because we had never made a record when I felt we could explore that kind of thing.

We tracked it with our original set of songs at our studio and I was about to throw the song out, because I hadn’t come up with anything for it. There were big and brash drums on it and it wasn’t working. I remember going into the session and muting the drums, but everything else was there. I thought okay, this is kind of interesting. We ended up recording the song and later we put in some percussion and drum samples. It turned into something that I thought I could work with.

I had written lyrics to that point, so Sean and Kathryn had something to play and sing on. It was not until after that I thought I am really incredibly proud of these lyrics. A Fragile Tomorrow Interview Photo Three

I am a massive fan of Fairport Convention. I love Sandy Denny who is one of the greatest vocalists of all time. I read about her history, her life and the struggles that she had when she was very young when her mother died. I was twenty-five when my mother died. That is what the song “Sandy,” was and it was a stream of consciousness. It was also a tribute to her and identifying with her on the level of being a parent, on the level of being an artist and thinking about my own mother. I don’t want to say it is a poetic lyric because it is kind of abstract.

It (the song) is unique (compared to) anything we have done. Brendan

It was again just I wanted to get something over to them to sing on and I would figure it out later if I wanted to change stuff. It is unique (compared to) anything we have done. Brendan did kind of a Jimmy Page thing on it. Peter is playing tenor banjo. I think it is one of the best songs on the record. It is something people will like even if they are not necessarily into that (kind of music). Fairport Convention is not necessarily Brendan’s cup of tea, but he really got behind that song big time,” he says.

In other media conversations, Sean Kelly described It’s Better That Way, as being an Art Rock album and we wondered why.

“That is an interesting question, because it is something that we have evolved to. With the previous album we were trying to get out of the Power Pop thing, but there were still a lot of Pop elements. I think with Generation Loss we thought let’s go completely to left field and make a Krautrock / Rock record. We classified that as Art Rock too.

With this record and with songs like “Sandy,” we realized if we want to do songs like this, we needed to find a term that encompassed everything.

To me Art Rock is Kate Bush, David Bowie, Peter Gabriel and Roxy Music. That is your Art Rock, umbrella term kind of music. It is not that anything we do sounds like Kate Bush, although I am a massive fan. I think what Art Rock does is allow you the flexibility to try new things without boxing yourself in. I am really comfortable with that term, as it says a lot about what we are doing and what we are trying to do. It is also a little ambiguous and I kind of like that.

About the song, “All Signs to Amsterdam,” that opens the album, Sean Kelly says, “That intro riff was Brendan’s and he also wrote the verse. I heard it and I loved it. I thought it needs a proper chorus. I wrote a chorus and I sent him a voice memo of a chord progression and I kept messing up the turnaround, so I played an extra chord. It is just what my brain went to. I wrote it, but I was just trying to record it. I couldn’t stop messing up the chord, so I would stop and start over. When I sent it to him, I said I screwed up, but you will get the basic idea. I wonder if you can take this progression and flesh it out. When he sent the demo back to me, there was this progression with an extra chord in it and a weird stop. I said whoa, what is happening here? He said, that is what you wrote. I said no that was just me screwing up. It ended up sounding so cool and so weird that we kept it in. The timing is straight 4 / 4 and then that part deviates for about two seconds. It is one of the coolest moments on the record, I think. It is an example of what we end up doing together. We just interpret each other’s ideas in different ways.

For “Superball,” Brendan wrote all of the music and I ended up writing lyrics on top of it. I did a demo of the music. He said it is so weird where you put the chorus, because I never heard that chord progression being the chorus, but I just interpreted it differently. Deep down that is what our songwriting process is together. It is reinterpreting each other’s things and landing on each other’s version of what we have come up with that is not what we expected. That is what happens about eighty percent of the time and then we hone away at it. I love working that way.”

“Superball,” has an element of counterculture to it or at least that is the way we hear it. Sean Kelly says that is true in part.

“It is (a song) that I just wrote lyrics on top of what Brendan had written musically. The title (is taken from) the pedal that does the loop in the intro that the whole song is built around. It is that specific guitar pedal that he wrote that loop with. Lyrically, I had this idea about my whole disenchantment with the music industry and my wanting to do other things. The whole record didn’t end up being like that, but some of the songs were and “Superball,” was one of those songs. It talks about me being a reluctant front man. I love the artistic side of making music, but I don’t love the business. I don’t love the pressure of marketing things and having to think about that stuff. I just like making art.

It is kind of counterculture, but I think a lot of what I write the essence of it is counterculture. I really identify with that politically, artistically, and I love Pete Seeger and Dylan, especially the early protest music. I think it comes through in its own way in a lot of the music that I do. It is not a political song, but it is political in a sort of incendiary rant against the music industry kind of way,” he says.  

Taking a bit of a temporary detour in our conversation, Sean Kelly says, “Right now, I am writing a book and I have never written a book before. Now it is weird doing it on my own. Brendan is so much a part of my creative process now. We have scored movies together and it occurred through happenstance. It was not a sit-down decision.

The book I am writing is about the Continental Drifters. This is their official biography and they are one of my favorite bands of all time. They have also been our friends for a long time. I have been working on that project for a couple of years. Peter was my childhood hero through R.E.M. and when I was really young, we were fans of Hootie & the Blowfish. He was with Hootie for many years and those guys are good friends of ours too. I just became a superfan of Peter’s and when I was about twelve, we had some music on MySpace and he took us under his wing. The previous year we met Susan Cowsill, his ex-wife who also was with the band Continental Drifters. She says now it like we knew each other in a past life. She is like another mom really. She mentored me when it came to writing songs. She liked what I was doing. We met Peter the next year. We asked if we could open for Continental Drifters when they reunited in New Orleans in 2009 and that is when we met Vicki for the first time. She loved our set that we were touring with at that time and we stayed in touch. A couple of years later she asked us to come out to the west coast and tour with the Bangles. Since then, Vicki, her husband John Cowsill, Susie and her husband Russ Broussard, we are (all) just like family and it has been a long, long relationship. The Continental Drifters are probably my second favorite band of all time.

They have been gracious and kind enough to let me write this book about them. They are wonderful people. There has just been a long family like relationship with all of them. They have definitely changed my life for the better musically and personally. I wouldn’t be where I am without them.

When Dom left the band Peter was the first person that I thought of to come in and do the keyboards and he did it in three weeks.

I had been talking to Vicki about the book and I kept on hearing her voice (in my head) on “Fraying Wire,” and we were two weeks away from getting the record mastered. We were mixing it ourselves and we thought we probably have enough time if she is able, to do this, to get her on the song. I asked her if she would do it and she knocked it out in a few days.”

So maybe Sean, although you are not warm and cozy with the business side of music, the reward it sounds like has come to you in the close friendships that have come your way. Sometimes, the most valuable things in life, do not cost anything, do not involve hard work, but just being a good guy who is passionate about the art he creates.

It’s Better That Way, the current album from A Fragile Tomorrow, is released on the MPress Records label. Please visit the website for A Fragile Tomorrow here.

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This interview by Joe Montague published January 8th, 2023 is protected by copyright © and is the property of Riveting Riffs Magazine All Rights Reserved.  All photos are the the property of A Fragile Tomorrow unless otherwise noted and all  are protected by copyright © All Rights Reserved. This review may not be reproduced in print or on the internet or through any other means without the written permission of Riveting Riffs Magazine.