INTERVIEW with Lee Jennings, The Funeral Portrait

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This interview was originally published through Taylor Markarian’s Grimm Rock Review and is re-published here via the author’s consent.

New bands pop up all the time. While that much is true, they don’t usually get the same kind of introduction The Funeral Portrait has received in the last year. Working closely with producer and Alesana vocalist/guitarist Shawn Milke at Revival Recordings, these five Atlanta rockers already boast quite the resume. The band’s new EP For The Dearly Departed debuted in the same week they wrapped up the Chaos Is A Ladder tour with Alesana, Megosh, and The Things They Carried. After taking a moment’s breath from the, shall we say chaos of touring, vocalist Lee Jennings gave GrimmRockReview an in-depth look into the EP, the band’s near father-son relationship with Milke, and what it means to revive the music industry. And Hodor. Can’t forget Hodor.  

A lot has been happening for The Funeral Portrait recently. Let’s start with being signed to Revival Recordings. What was it like for you to have your record produced by Shawn from Alesana?

Oh my gosh, that was the weirdest thing of all time but the best thing. We were in a band before called Cosmoscope and I sent him our record and he loved it. Then about, I think it was seven months later, we finally got to really sit down and talk and figure it out. We went up to Raleigh, which is about six hours from us because we live in Atlanta, and we locked ourselves in the studio for about two weeks with him and the engineer, who’s phenomenal, and we hashed it all out.

Do you find that you have similar approaches to songwriting? Because there are definitely some ties between the way that an Alesana record is put together and the way that your EP is put together.

I would by far agree with that. That helped us a lot, because we did and we still do look up to them as songwriters and Shawn as producer, and we sent Shawn all the demos and the ideas for the songs beforehand and he sent us back some revised versions and it was just phenomenal. Just to see the little tune ups that he could do that helped us take the songs to the next level.

So it felt more like you were collaborating on it?

Yes, definitely. It definitely felt more like it was a big team; like he was the coach, and we were kind of his…

Protégés?

Yes!

Alesana’s recent The Decade EP and Revival Recordings itself seem to be articulating the same thing— a need for greater artistry and musical innovation. How does it feel to be taken up underneath that wing? Do you think The Funeral Portrait fits that bill?

Oh, completely. When we recorded before we met Shawn, it was more like someone was just pressing record. They weren’t ever really producing us or helping us along the way, whereas with Shawn and everybody at Revival, they just love it so much. They love it as much as we do. Shawn always calls us “his kids.” That’s how much he loved us and how much he actually cared for the music. You don’t see that a lot nowadays. So many of these producers and labels, they sign these bands, and they say, “Here’s $10,000, go record a record.”

Right. Music has become more institutionalized, almost. I feel like listening to your EP and putting that in conjunction with Alesana’s work recently, it’s more of a “let’s see what we can do artistically” or “how far can we take this?” approach. 

It’s become so cold. It’s become so robotic, even. Not just the music itself but the way that the industry has been working. I’ve heard of labels nowadays signing bands before they even see them live. That to me is just crazy. Because seeing a band live, that’s the passion, that’s the rawness, thats the real life. To us, that’s something we’re really, really strong about—about performing this live and about the passion. Shawn believes in that more than anything. It has to be real. Yeah, the record, you know, you can fake guitar tones, but the feelings have to be real, they have to be in your heart first.

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I feel like that leads to a more earnest and a more dynamic product.

Completely. People who listen to the EP or to records, they can believe it more and they can relate to it more. Because if they actually know it’s from the heart then they can put their heart into that band.

Well let’s just go ahead and talk about the EP. It just came out September 23rd and it’s calledFor The Dearly Departed. What have the reactions been like to it so far?

It has been insane. This is our first EP. This is our first time on a label or with any help at all. Everything else that we’ve done prior to this, it was all DIY. We paid for everything ourselves and we had no help. It’s crazy to play a show [now]. We played a show in South Carolina at this place called Ground Zero on this past tour with Alesana (that we just got off of on Saturday) and there were kids there that already knew the words. That just blew me away. There were people out there who wanted to buy the EPs, who wanted to buy the shirts, wanting to talk with us. And they sang the words? That is more than anything we could ever ask for.

And it is just an EP. It’s six songs, but to have that kind of reaction speaks volumes.

A lot of people have even started asking, “Whens the full-length?” We’re just like, (out of breath) “Give us some time!!” We spent over a year working on these songs. Demoing them, to recording them, and now to releasing them—it’s pretty much been a year. So far we’ve seen so many positive reviews like, “BEST EP OF 2014” and stuff like that. We can’t even believe most of that stuff. When I’ll read a review or that you even wanted to talk with me about this I was like, “Are you sure?” It’s unbelievable.

(Laughs) Well, with this EP it definitely comes across that you’re trying to tell a story. You even reference the reader several times as a character, almost, within it. What story are you trying to tell?

A good bit of it is Juergie (Landstrom, Guitar/Vocals) and Stephen (Danzey, drums). We sit down together and write [the songs] that way.

So it’s more of a full-band effort versus one person writing?

Yeah, it comes together as a band. So kind of the small concept, what we like to keep it as, is actually the five stages of loss and grief. There’s depression and there’s acceptance and there’s bargaining, and all of those. Our first song is the incident, that’s what we like to call it even though it’s called “Casanova.” It’s the incident of when you lost the relationship, when it actually occurred.

I don’t think I’ve ever really heard that approach before.

We all wanted each [song] to talk about one emotion. Depression is very minor key, it’s very depressive. Acceptance, which is of course the last song, leaves you thinking things will be okay.

Also, within these six songs you blend a lot of different styles of rock, so many different genres together. Are there particular moments that you would use a particular style? So, “This part of the song gets a more theatrical quality versus strictly hardcore.” How do you figure that out?

When we were a band before, we didn’t actually have the heavier side. This kind of came across as we wanted it to be Jekyll and Hyde-ish, where I was the more upbeat singer, the clean singing, and then Juergie would be more the Hyde, the evil screaming inside my brain. It was more, “What would we be able to tell the story with?” (Sighs) This is so hard to explain. We just kind of do it. If we felt like the emotion really needed to be soft and sweet that could just be the vocals, but the drums and the guitar could be just chugging and we could be really heavy. But if the vocals were soft, it would still give off this feeling of being shy.

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Even the artwork for the EP seems to be a visual representation of your band name.

We are a very, very visual band. We love to take it to the next level. I think a lot of bands forget that step or they want it to be more minimalist. We were all sitting around the table one night and threw around ideas. We sent it over to Shawn and about two days later he sent us something back and we were like “Oh my goodness, this is exactly what we wanted.” You can look at the album artwork and be like, “I understand these songs.”

So you just finished up the Chaos Is A Ladder tour. What was that like?

That was crazy for us. That was actually our first tour ever. We’ve played out of state before and we’ve played over, I would probably say, 220 shows as a band. We were only a band for two years before changing the name and changing the style, but [we kept] the same members. But we never really toured full-time and it was definitely a huge shock to us. We didn’t know that there would be kids in Orlando that are huge, huge fans of Revival that already looked us up and already knew the songs before the EP came out. They would find out where the stream was of the EP or who was premiering this song or where the lyric video was. There were kids all over the east coast that already knew songs. That blew us away. To even think that a band our size would have three kids each night come up to us and be like, “Hey, you guys are awesome. We love the EP so far.”

I guess doing a tour with Alesana and Megosh for your first tour isn’t a bad thing to do.

(Laughs) That’s what everybody kept saying! For us, we couldn’t have asked for a better tour. Hanging out with those guys every night and learning—we learned so much. That is even the biggest thing that I can take from it, is that we learned the right things. Like where to spend the money when we’re touring. When never to get a hotel. How to ask people for a place to stay, or whenever weird situations come about. What we gained more than anything off this tour is that when we go on our next tour, whenever that is, and it’s with bands we don’t know, we won’t stand out as much because we figured it out a little bit on this tour.

So it was really kind of a mentorship program (laughs).

No, really and truly, that’s exactly how it was.

Since the tour is called “Chaos Is A Ladder,” are you Game Of Thrones fans?

I am, I completely am, and I know Shawn is too. So when I found out that the tour was named that I flipped out. Because that scene, that little rant there at the end of that episode…I was just like, “This is the coolest thing ever.” Actually, Alesana every night, their intro was that little monologue to get people pumped up.

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Did you feel like the tour was adequately represented by the sentiments in that monologue?

Yes, definitely. Because to be honest, what it felt like is Alesana is kind of handing down their position. They’re helping these smaller bands. Even Megosh. Even though they’ve toured with them three times, four times, they were small. I feel like [Alesana is] building a ladder, in a way. And it is a crazy one. Especially being on tour, it’s constant chaos.

I have to ask: Who is your favorite character on Game Of Thrones?

Of course, I’m a huge Peter Dinklage fan. There’s this YouTube video of someone singing “Peter Dinklage” over the whole entire intro. But to be honest, I think my favorite character is Hodor. Do you know why? It’s because he is the comedic relief so many times when you need that laugh. Someone’s head gets cut off and then—“Hodor.” You’re like, “Thank you. Thank you for not giving me nightmares all night.”

That’s kind of funny that that’s your favorite character, the one who provides comedic relief, since “The Funeral Portrait” isn’t the most comedic of names.

(Laughs) Exactly! That’s the thing too, is we are the biggest goofballs of all time. We’re a serious band, but we’re ridiculous.

What character do you think you would be if you were cast in Game of Thrones?

You know what, I’m going to go with my favorite character, Hodor, because I’m always the end of the joke. I’m always the last guy to get the joke.

How would you sum up your band in one word?

Exciting. We want it to be building. Here’s the dramatic entrance and here’s the soft, quiet exit. Live, we go crazy. Every night, we look at each other—“Hey, I’m gonna make sure the crowd watches me tonight.” Chris, our bass player, will push me out of the way on purpose so that way he can get in front of me. We like to make it an exciting show.

Click HERE to check out the full stream of For The Dearly Departed.

https://www.facebook.com/TheFuneralPortrait

https://twitter.com/TFP_tweets
http://www.revivalrecs.com/site/

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