Tonight Alive: Alive Or Just Breathing
When you’re a big fish in a little pond, it’s important to make the jump before you’re stuck there for good. For many Australian bands over the years – ranging from The Birthday Party and The Go-Betweens up to current acts like The Drones and Royal Headache – the most important part of their career was forging a name overseas to finally receive the respect deserved in their homeland. Although they’re not quite within the same spectrum as your Nick Caves or your Gareth Liddiards, this logic could easily be applied to Tonight Alive.
After humble beginnings in 2008 in Sydney’s northern suburbs, the five-piece took to every pub, club and PCYC you could think of, picking up international support slots and a slew of high-stature gigs without even an album to their name. Of course, once their Mark Trombino-produced debut was released, 2011’s What Are You So Scared Of?, the big fish jumped. With a fanbase stretching from New York to Jakarta, the band’s international presence has undeniably risen – and it’s something that has even taken the band aback somewhat.
“We did everything that we could without a label and without management when we were starting out,” says lead vocalist Jenna McDougall, who was all of 16 when the band formed. “Even when we did get both of those things and started getting more of those big support slots, you can get into such a loop in Australia. You keep playing the same venues, and you keep struggling to get radio play. It’s difficult to get any further off the ground. We knew straight away that we had to branch out. It was always a goal of ours to tour internationally, but now it’s become a priority. It’s going to be really interesting to return to Australia in September to see what’s changed there.”
By the time the band gets back to Australia, they will have released their second studio album, The Other Side. Comparisons between the record and their debut will inevitably be drawn, but it is certainly worth considering that the band put roughly three years of work into What Are You So Scared Of?, including re-recorded songs from their earlier releases. This album sees the band starting from scratch, and McDougall herself is the first to admit that it proved to be one of the greatest challenges when creating the material that would end up on the album.
“It really is true what they say about having a lifetime to write your first album and roughly a year to write your second,” she says. “A lot of the songs from What Are You So Scared Of? come from when we were either in high school or from when we were fresh out of high school, barely even established as a touring band. We didn’t really know enough about ourselves as musicians or as people to write a record that was going to…” She trails off at this point, perhaps unable to properly describe what she means to say. It’s only a temporary lull in the conversation, though, as she picks up once again. “I guess we didn’t really have the experience that we do now, and I think that’s really affected the songwriting.”
“We wrote this album over two years,” she continues. “In that time, naturally I faced a lot of new challenges and experiences. It was kind of like being thrown in the deep end a lot of the time, and having no clue how to handle things. I’ve learned a lot about myself as a person in that time, and the lyrics have become a lot more honest. If you look back at a lot of our older songs, there’s a bit of love and a bit of relationship stuff… it’s all quite exterior things. The songs on the new record, though, come from the deepest, darkest place. I’m not talking about death or passing or acceptance in that sense on this album, but I went through my first real break-up that opened my eyes to a lot of things. There are a few songs on the record that are me coming to terms with that, as I really wanted to share that with people. I think it’s quite relatable.”
The Other Side saw the band – completed by drummer Matt Best, bassist Cameron Adler and guitarists Jake Hardy and Whakaio Taahi – return to working with producer Dave Petrovic. As Jenna points out, Petrovic has worked on every Tonight Alive recording to date, either as a mixer or producer, with the exception of What Are You So Scared Of? She even considers him “the sixth member of Tonight Alive.” It’s a curious contrast – a band attempting to establish a new sound and style collaborating with such a prominent figure of their past. In this instance, however, it feels more as though the band are coming full circle.
“The whole idea of doing What Are You So Scared Of? with Mark [Trombino] was to break and see what we were capable of. It was a really good experience for us, and it really changed us as a band. When we were writing these new songs, though, we all knew that we wanted to work with Dave again. We have a really strong connection with him, a real chemistry… it just seemed to be the right thing to do. And it was – the album really wouldn’t have been the same without him.”
At the time of writing, Jenna and co. are in the middle of the Warped Tour, which they will also be a part of when it reaches Australia in December. It’s somewhat notorious for its gruelling nature, packing in dozens of shows across the country on an impeccably tight schedule. This marks their second go-around with the festival, where they are appearing on the DOMO stage alongside acts like Big D and the Kids Table, The Early November and even fellow Australians Hands Like Houses. The question has to be asked, given it’s an unforgiving and extensive run of dates, whether cabin fever has set in by playing the same set every day.
While McDougall doesn’t wish to dwell too long on the struggles of live touring – “I don’t like putting negative stuff out there in the foreground,” she says – she does confess to a struggle in keeping up with the tour’s demands. “It’s not that I don’t like to play live – it’s what I love. It’s just the constant performing can almost make you feel like you’re turning on a switch. I’m still stuck in this routine of playing for half-an-hour every day, so I’m pretty excited to break it up once we start doing our own tour. The new album cycle is really exciting for us,” says McDougall.
Being one of the first major victims of “comparamoring” – a lazy, sexist barb in which any and all female-fronted pop-punk bands are accused of ripping off Paramore – the band have silenced the majority of their critics and developed a devoted audience in their own right, from people following their extensive tours to anonymously writing disturbing fan-fiction (ask any Tonight Alive fan about the phrase “majestic dolphin” at your own peril). Perhaps the most notable aspect of the evolution of Tonight Alive, however, is Jenna herself becoming somewhat of a role model to younger music fans, particularly Australian girls that may someday wish to start their own band.
“I can remember being 11 years old, sitting on my bed trying to write my first-ever song on the classical acoustic guitar that I learned how to play on,” she says. “I don’t know why I started saying it, but I said that I wanted to help people that need help. I didn’t really think of it again until maybe a couple of years ago, when I realised that our music was starting to somehow affect people; changing not so much their life, but maybe their direction or perspective. That’s really important to me. I do feel responsible for our fans in that sense – today, I read a few letters that we’ve been given on tour. Jesus Christ, some of them are super heavy. If you can mean so much to someone, it feels like you’re doing something right. It certainly puts things into perspective – I can be really shitty, and then open a letter from a fan and start to think that this is where I’m meant to be.”
She takes a deep breath, and adds succinctly: “It all makes sense again.”
The Other Side is out September 6 through Sony.