Free Energy stands a good distance away from the sort of indie experimentalism that’s worked out so well for bands like Dirty Projectors and Animal Collective, preferring instead a brawny take on classic rock that's larded with dueling guitar solos, lyrics about driving around the city all night, and maybe a little bit of cowbell. It’s the continuation of a sound that singer Paul Sprangers and guitarist Scott Wells tweaked with their previous band, the criminally overlooked St. Paul, Minn., outfit Hockey Night, but this go-around appears calibrated for success: The band recently signed to big-time dance music label DFA, and a recent self-titled EP—not to mention a tireless show schedule—is building anticipation for a full-length due in early 2010. In advance of the band's wildly busy SXSW, The A.V. Club spoke to Sprangers about comparisons to “classic rock,” getting hooked up with DFA honcho James Murphy, and the pitfalls of making music in a big city.
The A.V. Club: Free Energy shares members and a certain freewheeling sensibility with your last band, Hockey Night. What accounted for the transition?
Paul Sprangers: We were all in Minnesota and it just wasn’t working. The more we pushed to try new arrangements and do things differently, the more things kind of dissolved. Scott and I just kept writing songs like we always have. Some of the demos we did with Hockey Night, some of the ones we did ourselves, and DFA signed us on the strength of those. We just kept writing and eventually James had time to start working with us.
AVC: How do you think Free Energy elaborates upon your previous efforts?
PS: It’s a pretty big step in that it’s just much more direct. Every component of what we do now is more essential. The lyrics, the imagery, the structures of the songs, the melodies, the guitar leads. Across the board, everything has been refined. And we’re confident now. We’re standing behind what we’re doing, whereas before we were trying to do that but we didn’t know how. Like a lot of bands, when you’re young you don’t know exactly who you are, so you kind of blur things a little bit. Whether it’s the guitar lead or the way you sing—you might blur the words because you’re a little self-conscious. We don’t have that anymore.
AVC: A lot of critics have compared Free Energy to bands like Thin Lizzy or Cheap Trick—big, bombastic acts with lots of guitar solos. What do you tell people when they ask you what Hockey Night sounds like?
PS: We just tell people it’s rock ‘n’ roll. We say “classic rock,” but that’s kind of lazy because the production is pretty fresh. James makes really contemporary, fresh stuff, but he’s always looking to old [sources], like how a drum sounds on a Fleetwood Mac record or on a disco record.
AVC: How does Free Energy fit in with the other acts on DFA’s roster?
P.S. This band has dug through a lot of crates, but maybe different crates than other bands on DFA. Coincidentally, that’s why our paths crossed. Because those guys are digging through weird shit and it kind of matched up with what we’re digging through. What we’re inspired by a lot of the time is out in plain sight. We don’t have access to anything, really, that no one else has access to. For the most part, a lot of what we’re inspired by is what everybody’s inspired by. Like Born In The U.S.A or Michael Jackson, Iggy Pop, AC/DC. These aren’t bands that are obscure. If something’s good, it’s good.
AVC: Hockey Night hailed from Minnesota, and now Free Energy is based in Philadelphia and performs frequently in New York. What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a part of a small musical community versus a larger one?
PS: In smaller towns, there’s a lot of support for the music scene and art scene, but I think that bands get lazy. There needs to be some healthy competition and maybe that’s what a bigger city provides, but I don’t think that necessarily helps either. If you’re exposed to too much you can tend to think that what you’re doing isn’t worthwhile. There’s this nihilistic sense you get in the city after a while that everything’s happening and you’re not doing anything and you compare yourself to everyone else. Whereas if you’re isolated and you only have yourself and your own standards to live up to, then you come up with pretty interesting things. I come from a small town in Minnesota, and I tend to think that’s why I have this gut view.