Published Sep 02, 2015Beer. Cigarettes. Weed. Speed. Meth. Heroin. "Eight-balls of blow." Crack. These were just some of the substances Zac Carper mentioned on FIDLAR's raucous self-titled debut. His depraved tales of substance abuse propelled the Los Angeles crew to the forefront of the current swell of garage punk bands, while positioning members as a quartet of stoned fuck-ups.
"I think it was just the content of the lyrics and the energy of the songs," deadpans singer-guitarist Carper. The media, he says, very quickly pigeonholed the band. "I don't blame them. I would have done the same shit."
FIDLAR certainly practiced what they preached — by his own admission, Carper spent five years partying with friends and fans, "doing a lot of drugs" — but the reputation belied the blood, sweat and tears he and bandmates Brandon Schwartzel (bass) and brothers Elvis (guitar and vocals) and Max (drums) Kuehn put into the group. "We were on tour for three straight years, pretty much. It was a lot of work."
The band's laissez-faire attitude won over fans and critics alike, but it also had a dark side that threatened to topple their hard work. By the middle of the tour cycle for FIDLAR, Carper was smoking meth every day and hooked on heroin. He grapples with the implications of the lifestyle he sold so well on songs like "Cheap Beer" and "Wake Bake Skate," on the band's new sophomore record, Too. "I've been to about five different rehabs throughout my life," he admits. "I've been constantly dealing with drug addiction and alcohol."
An acronym for Fuck It Dog, Life's A Risk, FIDLAR formed in 2009 at an L.A. studio. Carper worked there by day, and wrote songs at night. He soon enlisted the help of Elvis, his co-worker, who brought Max with him, while Carper invited his roommate, Schwartzel, to jam using gear leftover from recording sessions. "I would use these songs I was writing so we'd all work on ideas and learn the equipment." Hitting the road, their beer-soaked live shows became a word-of-mouth calling card. The song "West Coast," which Carper penned shortly after turning in the band's self-produced debut, chronicles their first debauched tour outside of L.A. It quickly became a fan favourite, setting high expectations for lowbrow behaviour.
Things came to a head when the band came back to L.A. after their tour opening for the Pixies, when Carper overdosed twice in a month. "My life was just constantly coming back home to L.A., doing a bunch of heroin, going out on the road. Trying to cop dope and when I can't cop dope, I'm kicking in the van. Or the hotel room. It was a constant battle." He needed "to figure this shit out. It's not exactly what I planned on doing with my life."
He went to rehab, emerging clean and sober. But pressure to produce a followup to FIDLAR loomed. "The second record. That's always scary. Will I write shitty songs now because I'm not fucked up?" As someone who is "always writing," Carper figured he had the basis for another record. But after the band recorded some demos neither he, nor his bandmates were happy with what they heard. "They all just sounded the same," he says. "All these songs sound like FIDLAR, but bad. I put a limit on what FIDLAR can do. We have to be a garage rock'n'roll band. It has to be fast, it has to be loud, and every song has to have a solo — all the classic punk formulas. But it wasn't working, so I took a break."
He headed north, up the California coast, with nothing but a mattress, guitar and surfboard. Sleeping in his car, he wrote melodies and lyrics. Rather than penning more songs about getting wasted, Carper wanted to reflect on his new substance-free identity, running the risk of throwing out much of FIDLAR's identity in the process. "Selling out to me would have been singing about getting fucked up again when I'm not getting fucked up."
So while sonically, songs like "40oz on Repeat" (a reference to Sublime's 40oz to Freedom, not a bottle of malt liquor) and "Sober" continue in the same screeching vein as their previous work, thematically they couldn't be further apart. "It was scary."
Returning to Los Angeles, within two weeks he had most of the material that appears on Too. Emboldened, Carper wanted to keep pushing himself and the band. "I wanted the experience of just being a musician and an artist," he says, and selfishly, "I wanted to learn someone else's style of producing." They met with several producers with whom they'd become acquainted, but opted instead for an outside-the-box choice. Carper's friend Brad Shultz, from Cage the Elephant, recommended Jay Joyce, best known for working with country artists like Emmylou Harris and Eric Church. Carper says his otherness was the point. "All he's looking out for is the song. What is best for the song."
The gamble paid off. Too sounds and feels like a FIDLAR record, expanding the band's lyrical and sonic palette beyond the slacker-punk ghetto. "Why Generation" offers wobbly guitar and cello lines in the verses, before erupting into a massive chorus, while "Overdose" plumbs the depths of addiction with frightening results. Best of all is the re-recording of "West Coast," with an additional third act that offers a contemporary perspective on that first tour. "It's scary leaving home. But when you do it, you fucking love it," he says. "Then you cry and come back home."
Best of all, Carper picked up some new producer tricks that he's applied to new records by the Frights and Swimmers. "I want to try and do three records a year, that's one of my goals for the next few years," noting that he may have traded in one kind of dependency for another. "Anything I can get addicted to, I get addicted to."
Carper is still dealing with a spinal problem that resulted from drug and alcohol addiction. He also says he still thinks about getting drunk or stoned on a daily basis. But "every day that that happens, I think about it less. I'm learning more how to cope with life. It got really bad… but compared to who I was, it's a fucking miracle that I'm alive."