WRONG TOGETHER by The Successful Failures | INTERVIEW
Author: Sean Manuel
When your interviewee graduated with a Master's of Arts in English, profound lyrical insights are bound to follow. Mick Chorba, President of Chesterfield's FDR Label and songwriter for The Successful Failures, fits the bill! Successful Failures (an oxymoron) are set to release their tenth album entitled Wrong Together on Friday, April 14th; and, Chorba (guitar, piano, vocals), Ron Bechamps (bass, mandolin, vocals), Rob Martin (drums, vocals), and Pete Smith (guitar, bass) turn in efforts befitting the trademark genre ambiguity the band has become known for. Fans of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers will find songs like "Millions of People" and "New City" to charm their ears; meanwhile, John Fogerty devotees will flock to "It Is The Rain" and "All I Really Want" with RAM-era Sir Paul McCartney loyalists saving "Kings from Italy" and "Kids from Queens" to their playlists. What about Bob Dylan? There is a special folk track entitled "Learning What It Is To Be Free" written just for the Dylan contingent. This wide applicability renders Wrong Together right on all levels. It's time to get the scoop on this exciting release...
Hey there, Successful Failures! Wrong Together lives up to the "difficult to categorize" designation commonly placed on your releases and compels as it does so. You indicated in your press release this album came to be from a Lambertville-sourced 1948 Silvertone acoustic guitar and a beneficial working relationship with members of the Guided By Voices team. How did the acoustic guitar inspire your creative cascade? Also, tell us about the Guided By Voices team and what they contributed to augment Wrong Together.
I was looking for an old guitar with some mojo (for songwriting purposes) and started playing these old Cowboy guitars that were originally sold in the Sears Roebucks catalog. They were made in Chicago in the 40s, 50s, and 60s... .by a variety of guitar makers. This particular one was sitting behind the counter at JB Kline's used music store in Lambertville, NJ... there were a bunch of other ones out on the floor and none of them felt quite right. John, the store's owner, brought this one out and gave me the ol' sales pitch: "It's not really for sale but I might depart with it for the right price... " That kind of thing. He had me hooked! It came with a story too... the blues musician John Hammond Jr. (and son to John Hammond who signed Bob Dylan to Columbia and recorded his first album in 1962) had played it a few years back and he too had been interested in purchasing it (though he never did obviously). I kept coming back to the store to play it and we finally agreed on a price. I took it home and wrote a bunch of tunes that eventually became many of the songs that appear on the new album.
As far as the GBV team... we are all big fans of Guided By Voices. I buy all their records and we go to see them when they come through Philly. Quite a few years ago Robert Pollard let me use a live version of "Baba O'Riley" for a tribute to the Who that I put together with my label, FDR. For this new album we asked their producer/engineer and sort of 6th member Travis Harrison if he would consider mixing our new album. He was totally into it and we were stoked to have him on board.
"Millions of People" is Wrong Together's upbeat common-time album opener. Written in AABA form, the verses sit comfortably in F major until a dream-like modulation to Ab major occurs in the bridge sections. With lyrics playing to a charming duality and tasteful intertextual moments (e.g. allusions like "across the universe" and "Lucy in the sky"), it is obvious why Bill Kelly's Blackhole Bandstand Show and Palmyra Delran's show on SiriusXM's Underground Garage (among other radio stations) featured the song. Regarding duality, there is a strong interplay between verses. For example, the first verse is positively written, "Millions of People falling in love, rising like particles of dust," while the second verse is negatively written, "Millions of People in pain, falling like little drops of rain." In a similar vein to McCartney optimistically writing, "It's Getting Better all the time," and Lennon acerbically contributing, "It can't get no worse," is this an instance of utilizing duality to unify (e.g. "This song speaks to me!" across all tastes)?
Wow. You are good. Music major? English major? I'm not sure what I can add to your astute comments on the song, but yes certainly I was totally going for a lyrical duality on this tune and the album as a whole and it's nice to know you noticed that! Since you're getting all technical here and you mentioned McCartney I'll share this. The key change/modulation from F to Ab major was inspired by a similar modulation in the song "Two Of Us" in which the Beatles go from G to Bb for the part that begins with, "You and I have memories... ". I always loved that change and have wanted to try to work something similar into one of my songs for years. This was a great opportunity and I took it.
"Sunny Side of Town" tells the story of one leaving the gloom of a past existence behind for a better life elsewhere. An affecting moment occurs after the second chorus, "I'm going to the Sunny Side of Town," in which the Bb major tonality shifts to G minor, the relative minor. Is it at this point the weight of this life-altering decision properly emerges on the person?
Exactly - I was hoping that the instrumental break would add some drama to the song. Yeah it seems like that moment starts the move from the gloom and also adds an opportunity for our guitar player Pete Smith to pick up the narrative!
An E minor gut punch into romantic thinking in G major, "New City" plays like the urban cityscape to the small town in "Sunny Side of Town." Is the E minor intro meant to jolt the listener in the same manner a rural transplant finding themselves in a novel city experience endures a culture shock? Does the lyric, "and I know you'll be with me," address a lover or an old community the subject emigrated from?
Yeah when I sing this song I always think of some city of the future... like depicted in a World's Fair or in Disney World. I see a fast-forward-motion... skyscrapers rising from the horizon. People being transported on moving sidewalks. George Jetson stuff. The future! The line you mentioned... I was thinking of it in romantic terms...like the 2 people are running into this new future together, holding hands... girl with pigtails flapping in the wind... But I hope listeners bring their own connotations and experiences to the songs. I think it's cool to think that whatever new adventure we embark on or any new place we go to we inevitably bring a lot of metaphorical luggage with us. So "I know that you will be with me" can be interpreted in a lot of ways
"Blue October" and "It Is The Rain" ascertain a lyrical calling card from the previous songs as the G mixolydian and C major tunes weave through natural imagery. "Blue October" describes summer changing to autumn through such events as the clouds turning a deeper gray and the rain especially falling in the morning (causing muddy roads in the next verse) occur. "It Is The Rain" paints an infectiously poppy love letter to rain for providing necessary nutrients (alongside sunshine) to grow the world's flora, making the world beautiful to share with the one you love. Is natural imagery for a Successful Failures song akin to throughlines like Major Tom in David Bowie songs and the color blue in Jeff Lynne's output?
Some of our albums have more natural imagery than others but it sure is a strong presence on this new record. I love the idea that I've written a love letter to rain. I mean rain doesn't get a lot of love but it does make the flowers grow and we all seem to bend over backwards to say nice things about flowers. So let's give rain its due. There's also some imagery here about the stars which I return to later on the album.
A definite change of pace, "The Worst of Our Kind," is a triple meter song in D minor with an acerbic bent to match the tonality. It comments on the degradation of society as we know it and includes lyrics such as, "We're thieves in the night and ready to fight for reasons we cannot explain," and, "We're turning away from the light." Is there a specific event(s) that motivated this song's lyrical throughline?
A specific event? You can take your pick... turn on any news channel and it will fit whatever is the latest tragedy. I wrote this in a stream of consciousness and was definitely not making any sort of intentional political or social commentary but I hear what you're saying and in looking back at it I can see there is not a lot of positivity here. I enjoyed writing this in the first person so I included myself in the debacle of modern living... makes it less preachy. When writing a song like this I just like to concentrate on how the words sound together. I try not to filter at all and really refrain from thinking about a message or an overall meaning.
I digested "Kings From Italy" and "Kids From Queens" like a suite for the former discusses an idealized life should one, "let it go," while the latter addresses the youth living such a life with, "Kids from Queens in leather jackets on their ATVs," with reckless abandon defined by the lyric, "High up in Heaven, I'll ride." Were these songs written with the intention of being songs that answer each other? What artists were you listening to at the time you wrote each song? "Kings From Italy" loosely reminded me of The Black Keys while "Kids From Queens" drew me to RAM-era Sir Paul McCartney.
Great! I do listen to a lot of McCartney and Black Keys as well, so those influences certainly come out I'm sure. "Kids From Queens" revolved around a guitar riff. I have a recording of me singing nonsense lyrics to it and I was listening in the car while driving to JFK Airport. I literally saw a bunch of kids cruising around on ATVs (Staten Island actually... ) and I started singing about them. I was heading out to California to ski so the "high up in heaven I'll fly" was again literal. Then I imagined the kids across the country on skis zooming in and out of the trees and there you have the most literal song I've ever written. As far as the 2 songs going together I do not plan like that. Ron Bechamps - our bass player, harmony vocalist, and mandolin player - does the sequencing for the album so he made the call to put them together and it does work really well.
As far as "Kings From Italy" that was one of the first songs I wrote on the Silvertone. It is a song in which the guitar riff came first (just like "Kids..."). When I switched this to the 2nd person point of view I liked it a lot better - "why can't YOU just let it go". It gave it more attitude and was more fun to sing. I understand the Black Keys reference for this song as they pretty much recycle American blues music and that's just what I was doing. I really think the brassy old timey feel of the Silvertone guitar is the genesis for this tune.
"Learning What It Is To Be True" is a rewarding Dylan-esque treat in D major and a purely strophic song form. Each verse describes a new stage of humanity's development from becoming land-based creatures and inventing the airplane to sending astronauts into space. A theme of love also exists with lyrics like, "Over the ocean to the coast, you're the girl I love the most," and ,"How I wish that you were here and I miss you so, my dear." Please explain the interaction between the two narratives.
"Learning What It Is To Be Free" is strophic? I had to look that one up. So the music is the same for each verse and there is no separate chorus. I have a bunch of songs like that. Google informed me that the strophic form is common with hymns, nursery rhymes, and folk music. Well perfect because this song kind of fits with all of those. The first verse definitely documents the evolutionary development of water based creatures crawling out of the pond. I sat on that verse for a long time and then decided ever since that point people have been climbing higher and higher and searching for meaning. So the 2nd verse has us climbing mountains then subsequent verses go from airplanes to starships. There is love and loss along the way... .being free comes with a price. This was a last minute addition to the recording agenda and we did it live (with Ron overdubbing the bass line and harmony vocals). Ron (mandolin) and I had rehearsed it but Pete (guitar) and Rob (drums) sat in without knowing we planned on recording it. I think there is a loose spontaneity to the track that makes it one of my favorites on the album.
Would you like to tease any future releases/shows?
For our full show schedule go to https://thesuccessfulfailures.com/tour
Where can people go to connect and interact with you?
Is there anything else you would like to share?
The album is available on all streaming services as well as on CD and vinyl as well. Best place to order is directly from the band at https://music.thesuccessfulfailures.com . There is also a free poster that comes with the order and a new T-shirt with a logo associated with the new record. Merch can be ordered here - https://music.thesuccessfulfailures.com/merch .
No Depression magazine dubbed The Successful Failures as "one of the hardiest and most prolific outfits on the planet" playing "instantly infectious melodies that tread the line between power pop and Americana without wholly committing to either". With a name borrowed from a Jack London short story and an indie rock work ethic The Successful Failures burst onto the scene out of the NJ pinelands in 2006. TSF has released 10 full length albums full of songs about vikings, armadillos, old cars, murder, prison, fences, and girls. The band continues to showcase their versatility, seamlessly marrying power-pop, garage-rock, classic country and un-affected rock n roll with roots-inflected rock and winsome, harmonic, pop. The band has shared the stage with Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, Jeff Tweedy, Deer Tick, Dr. Dog, Strand of Oaks, Ike Reilly, JD McPherson, and many many more. Most of all, the band's infectious energy and love for what they do shines through in every live performance. One fan put it this way, "SF could play on a small raft heading over the falls and still have a blast and crank out the best tunes this side of the Milky Way." The Successful Failures released their 10th full length album, Wrong Together in April 2023. The single, "Millions of People'' has been featured on Sirius XM Radio's Underground Garage show as well as other stations all over the country and world. TSF plan to continue playing live shows both regionally and nationally to support the new album.
About the Author: Sean Manuel is a Senior enrolled in New Jersey City University's Honors Program. A Music Business major, Sean specializes in the piano and bass guitar. Outside of academia, Sean performs in and manages the Bayonne indie-pop group BreakTime: a four-piece writing modern pop tunes with generous vintage allusions to artists such as The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. Are you interested in their music? Follow BreakTime @breaktimelivenj and stream their releases on all platforms.