One week before the winter solstice, the weather is nasty in Charlottesville and it’s cold as fuck inside Magnolia House. The four members of hardcore punk band Fried Egg—guitarist Tyler Abernethy, bassist Sam Richardson, drummer Sam Roberts, and vocalist Erik Tsow—sit on mismatched couches and chairs in the dim living room of the DIY venue where Roberts lives and books shows. Richardson and Tsow drove in from Richmond, as they regularly do.
There’s an old piano in one corner, and a crucified Mikey Mouse, a Buddha figurine, a couple of Kermit the Frog dolls, and other miscellany on the mantle. Neat rows of show posters are taped to the robin’s-egg blue walls.
The band members crack open cans of beer and flavored seltzer and take turns leaning into the weak waft from an old space heater. Tsow blows into his hands to keep them warm.
Fried Egg shares some band lore before getting to the music. How the band started in late 2014 with Daniel Berti on guitar; how they had to cancel their first shows when Roberts broke his wrist; how Abernethy joined after Berti’s departure. The sick shows they’ve played to 15 people, 150 people. The long drives on two hours’ sleep; the fragrant one past a garlic farm; and the foul one past industrial livestock facilities.
There’s the time they kicked off a West Coast tour drinking beers on top of an inactive volcano in Portland; the time their borrowed van had a shitty radio and A/C that died in Death Valley. There was a show hosted by a guy too old to be living in his mom’s basement, where Fried Egg played to maybe 10 people, through a crap PA, and made $30…but the next night, in Washington, D.C., they met bands they’ve shared bills and music and camaraderie with ever since.
The newest Fried Egg story is about the recording of the band’s first full-length LP, Square One, to be released in the coming weeks on Richardson’s Feel It Records label.
It almost didn’t happen, they say. Or, more accurately, Square One almost didn’t exist as it does.
After recording and releasing a number of shorter projects—The Incredible Flexible Egg flexi disc, the Delirium and Back and Forth EPs pressed to 7-inch records, the Beat Session Vol. 4 cassette, and the band’s contributions to the Fried Egg Mixtape cassette—the band took nearly two years to write (and in a couple cases rewrite) enough material for a full-length record.
When it came time to put the songs to tape (yes, analog), Fried Egg sought out Montrose Recording, a Richmond studio with plenty of allure. Built and run by father and son Bruce and Adrian Olsen, Montrose has some of the best gear on the East Coast, and its credits aren’t bad, either: Bruce engineered some seminal Richmond punk records, like White Cross’ What’s Going On? LP and Graven Image’s Kicked Out Of The Scene 7-inch, and Adrian (whose recent work includes records by indie rockers Lucy Dacus and Natalie Prass) had recorded a single for garage rockers The Ar-Kaics, and Richardson dug how it sounded.
Montrose books a few months out, so Fried Egg nabbed two days in mid-September 2018 and set to playing shows and practicing their asses off; they wanted Square One to reflect the urgent energy of the band’s live performance, something that’s often difficult to achieve in a studio setting. “We were in really good shape to record” when the date came around, says Roberts.
That same weekend, Hurricane Florence was in really good shape to thrash the East Coast. Some meteorologists thought the storm might pummel Virginia, and Fried Egg considered postponing the session—located deep in northside Richmond and at the end of the gravel road, Montrose is the last building on its power line. When the power goes out, it’s out for days.
Fried Egg took a chance—the band had experienced worse on tour anyway—and it paid off. Florence slowed to heavy rain, the power stayed on, and Fried Egg laid down all nine songs on Square One in mostly first takes; Adrian mixed it the next day, with sci-fi film classics Forbidden Planet and Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla playing silently in the background for a bit of what he calls “visual inspiration for the Fried Egg sound.”
“It’s not often that I get to do an all-analog tape record from start to finish in two days,” says Adrian. “The immediacy and run-and-gun nature of the process was a lot of fun, which definitely fit the spirit of the project. In general…punk records should not be overcooked experiments anyways,” he says.
“It’s really good that we didn’t cancel because I don’t know if we could have gotten the same performance ever again,” says Roberts.
The result, aptly described on the Feel It Records Bandcamp page, is “a concise and unnerving album—one that echoes the anxiety, tension, and disenchantment running rampant through modern-day America.”
Behind the cover
The back cover art for Square One “ties thematically, lyrically” to the music, says Fried Egg vocalist and lyricist Erik Tsow, who came up with the idea. Artist Jason Lee drew a nine-panel comic in which each square shows someone going through daily life, experiencing some measure of suffering. “It starts and ends in the same place,” back at square one, says Tsow, an illustration of “feeling like certain things in your life come together and others totally fall apart, feeling like you’re in the same place all the time.”
Song titles indicate a bit of what Tsow growls about: “Bite My Tongue,” “Apraxia” (loss of the ability to perform certain learned movements), “Grin and Bear.” “Lyrically, I use Fried Egg to concentrate on what frustrates me in my life,” says Tsow, and every song on Square One touches on “an inability to communicate how you feel.”
And while Fried Egg plays hardcore punk, it’s not “hardcore with a capital-H” punk, says Tsow.
After putting down straightforward hardcore roots on earlier recordings, Fried Egg branches out on Square One, letting stoner rock and noise rock—and the confident ambition captured in album cuts from experimental artists like Captain Beefheart—influence its music. It’s not what a listener might expect from hardcore punk, and that’s part of the point, a defining feature of what the band constantly refers to as the “Fried Egg vibe.”
Square One’s music, lyrics, and cover art is all “pretty intentional,” but it’s not formulaic, says Richardson. It’s not “programmed for other people” or “pandering to just our genre” in order to attain some sort of status, sell a certain number of records, or tour Europe at a loss just to say they did, he adds.
In Roberts’ opinion, a good punk band expresses a singular identity wherever and whenever it’s making music. “There are so many different times, and places, but people are always expressing their shit, their frustrations, their issues,” he says. “Or they’re just copying someone else who’s expressing their frustrations,” he quips, to laughter from his bandmates.
No one who hears Fried Egg would think it’s copying another band. “I think it comes pretty easy that we just do our own fucking thing,” says Roberts as the band members head into the other room and switch on their amps.
Square One “is our band. This is our record,” says Richardson. “This is what we’re doing, this is what we are. It’s deep in a lot of ways…it’s coming from more of a gutsy place.”
Fried Egg plays Magnolia House on January 9. The band will have cassettes of its gutsy first full-length, Square One, available for purchase.