“When I was a kid, the first thing I was afraid of was a dog that lived down the street,” Frances Quinlan recalls. “I must’ve been four. It chased my mum and me onto the top of our car.” Bringing enduring memories to life in music is something Hop Along are no strangers to, but never have they done so on such a vibrant tapestry as with new album ‘Bark Your Head Off, Dog’. From the addition of strings and full harmonies, to the intricate structures of the songs themselves, this is the Philadelphia outfit at their most dynamic yet.
Their music has always held an affinity for narrative: finding inspiration in day to day life, entries in old journals, and beyond, the band have a knack for portraying the world with a poetic grace. “My neighbour tried to get me to reconcile with the dog and pet him, but I was too freaked out,” Frances reflects on the memory that inspired the album title. “A lot of [the album] has to do with fear of animals,” she mulls, “not that I’m overtly afraid of animals.”
Rather, the album’s repeated references to animals are a vehicle the band use to explore the nature of strength, and the lack of it. “I think it addresses the misuse of power and the processing of trauma as a result of the misuse of power,” Frances carefully portrays. “But it deals with it on all sides, I think, or on many sides.” Such a topic is a difficult one to navigate, which is exactly why Hop Along chose to do so, posing the questions and situations that were concerning to them.
One such question arises in the form of a lyric repeated throughout the album: “So strange to be shaped by such strange men.” “Something I’ve been considering a great deal is how, as an individual, I have personally deferred to men throughout my life, and how weird that is that it’s automatic,” Frances explains. “I’m trying to undo it, but it really has become a part of how I judged myself.”
Considered in relation to superiors, significant others, colleagues, family, or others beside, that lyric, and the sentiment behind it, is one which drives a lot of the songs on ‘Bark Your Head Off, Dog’. “I think it’s odd that we so admire a kind of mean strength and use of power,” Frances states. “We still have an admiration for that, for people who just take what’s theirs. Considering how enlightened one would hope we’d be by now, it is strange.”
The struggle that comes when trying to source a feeling of strength is one that underpins a lot of the record. Frances recalls another memory that has long inspired her writing of when her stepfather was in a head-on car collision. “It was the first time someone I loved had something awful happen to them,” she states. “Visiting him in the hospital, I will never forget that.”
While quick to express that “thankfully, he’s okay, which is wonderful,” the memory of the event is something that continues to influence her songwriting. “I kind of came back to it, thinking about being afraid and what else I’m afraid of,” the musician reflects. “I’ve been thinking about that a lot, in terms of just how I continue to have a hard time finding my own sense of power.”
Throughout all of this, Hop Along are – much like the rest of us – grappling to find where that sense of power lies for them, and they do so with no uncertain amount of narrative grace. “When I was a kid I wanted to be a short story author,” Frances states. “I had a creative writing minor at college, then I realised that my attention span just could barely handle getting a poem together, let alone a full short story, so I mostly stick to songwriting.” Nevertheless, influenced by this in her writing, Frances describes a lot of the inspiration for the record as “stories I wanted to tell.”
“Part of ‘How You Got Your Limp’ concerns these group of teachers that would come into the bar every weekend,” she offers as an example. “They would take up a booth for at least three hours, well into my shift. They would order pitcher after pitcher of the cheapest beer and just talk trash on their students, cursing loudly with families around them. They would be so abrasive. Then when they would leave, they would tip shitty.”
A lot of the record finds itself lost in the state between being, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once so wonderfully posed, “simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” “There’s still a number of things I’d like to write about and just haven’t found the way to,” Frances conveys. That may be, but with ‘Bark Your Head Off, Dog’ the musician is quick to add that “this is the first time that I’ve felt this close to saying what I meant to say.”
“I think that goes for everybody,” she comments of her bandmates. “We worked really hard together. We always do, but I think we were very focused on speaking the same language and figuring out a song’s mood as a group, and all being in tune with that.” The result of their efforts is the band’s most cohesive album to date. “I hear that in everyone’s parts,” Frances enthuses. “I’m very, very proud of it.”
Describing a lot of the album as “the idea of trying to look at the events of my life in a different way,” ‘Bark Your Head Off, Dog’ is an exercise in our perception of power, and how we find our own understanding and our own sense of that. “At times I still think of that dog as this menace,” Frances reflects on the title, “and he was just a dog.”
Taken from the April issue of Upset – order a copy or subscribe below. Hop Along’s album ‘Bark Your Head Off, Dog’ is out 6th April.