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“We're going to do this forever” — Our conversation with rock band Active Bird Community

6 November 10:55am

Mike Holloway • New York

Active Bird Community’s story is one ripped straight from a rock-and-roll fantasy. Founding members Tom D’Agustino (vocals, guitar), Andrew Wolfson (vocals, lead guitar), and Zach Slater (bass) are three childhood friends who made a pact to never stop playing music together. It’s the kind of far-reaching dream that so many young, aspiring musicians eventually let go of. But for the Brooklyn-based band, the dream became a reality.

Over a decade later, D’Agustino, Wolfson, Slater, and new drummer Quinn McGovern are touring the United States in an indie-rock band signed to Barsuk Records. Showing no signs of breaking that childhood promise that it was founded upon, the band has released its new full-length album Amends. With its members now graduated from college and back to committing their full attention to music and their personal lives, the album marks a tender and honest period of the band’s existence. On the band’s website, D’Agustino even writes that he was nervous to put the record out due to its deeply personal subject matter.

I had the opportunity to speak with D’Agustino over the phone while Active Bird Community is on tour celebrating the release of Amends. The band recently made its Milwaukee stop on Oct. 31 at The Back Room @ Colectivo, performing a special Halloween show with opener Shannen Moser.

MH: How is tour going? Are you hitting any cities that you’ve never been to before?

Tom D’Agustino: We’re in Arizona right now because our drummer Quinn grew up here. We’ve been here once before. We leave tomorrow for California, and after that we’ll hit the Pacific Northwest and it’ll be the first time for all of us hitting Portland and Seattle. We’ve also never been to the Midwest, like Boise or Milwaukee or Minneapolis, so that whole part of the country will be really cool for us.

MH: Since it’ll be your first time in Milwaukee, do you have any expectations?

TD: I actually haven’t heard much at all. I like how we’re all going in blind and we don’t know what to expect. We had never been to Nashville before, and everyone was telling us that Nashville is this great music town and it was really cool, but we got there and it was really rainy and we got to that main strip and it was kind of touristy. We tried to buy cowboy boots and it was really expensive. So, I like having that mystery.

MH: You talk about how honest the writing on Amends is. Is there an overarching lyrical theme? I know you’ve mentioned that “forgiveness” is a motif.

TD: In terms of lyrics, there are multiple songwriters so it wasn’t super premeditated, but something that I’ve noticed at least with what I was trying to write was to be more specific and unpack specific memories of peoples and places, which is a first for me and was nerve racking because people I know are looped in with that. I think songs like “Holier” and “Baby Its You,” Andrew is doing specific themes. On the song “Blame,” he’s trying to grapple with this idea of what you are supposed to do when you’re confronted with a loss or a huge mistake you’ve made. What’s the proper way to approach that? With conversations with him we’ve realized that maybe the problem is the impulse to blame anything at all, and it ties into this greater theme of forgiving yourself and the pallet that comes with that. There’s a song called “Downstairs” that our drummer Quinn wrote that deals with not really knowing how to articulate what you’re feeling or what you’ve experienced. I think if my songs give more of a setting or the topography for these specific experiences, I think the other songwriters on the album try to color it in a little more with these themes of blame or searching to uncover, and I think all of that ties into this notion of amends and the notion of self-pity, wallow, and fear and moving into a more reconciliation mindset.

MH: In a letter to fans on your website, you write that Andrew hopes that Amends helps its fans like so many records have helped him. Can you give me an example of a record that has helped you and why it was so helpful?

TD: Andrew has always been the reason why we make records like that, which is interesting to me because the reason I like to write songs is very selfish. I like to make myself feel better. But he almost has this genuine approach to it where the music is helping him and it’s an honor and privilege for the record to help him. I think for me, a record in particular that has really helped me in a lot of ways is Keep It like a Secret by Built to Spill. It’s my favorite record, and it’s hard to tell why that record is so helpful to me, but I think it really opened my eyes to what you can do with a bunch of guitars. There are only so many crazy riffs you can make with four white dudes in a band, but with Built to Spill, with that level of texture and layers and solo ability and melody, it was very inspiring. It felt more like an orchestra than a pop-rock band, and that is something I strive to emulate to a certain extent.

MH: It makes a lot of sense that you say Built to Spill because Active Bird Community’s press releases liken the band’s music to Built to Spill’s. How does it feel to be compared to your favorite band?

TD: It feels really good because I listen to our music and I listen to Built to Spill and I’m like, “We’ll never be that good.” It’s not like we’re trying to emulate it, it’s more like Built to Spill is God and I’m at the altar trying to live up to them. It feels great and I think some bands and some artists hate being compared to anybody and I understand that cause it’s weird -- I’m doing my own thing and don’t bring up this other person -- but it’s really cool to see how the more records we make the more comfortable we get and we get closer to what our influences are.

MH: The band has been together since you were 11 years old. What are some things that haven’t changed about the band?

TD: One thing that hasn’t changed is this notion that it’s what we’re going to do forever. We made an agreement when we were children that this was going to be our lives, and at that age you don’t know what that means. But at a certain point people are like, “Wow you’re still doing this.” We’re 24 now and I think one thing that hasn’t changed is our confidence that we have in the project. I’ve had my fair share of doubts, but to have Andrew and Zach always be confident that what we’re doing is the right thing to do is pretty remarkable to see. I know I can always turn to them and be like, “What the fuck are we doing,” and they’re like “We get to walk around with this special meaning as a band. This is our gift and this is our privilege and we just get to enjoy it.” They’ve had that mentality since they were children but it took me years to have that level of confidence and belief in what we were doing.

MH: What was your favorite part about making the music video for “Sweaty Lake?”

TD: Our previous two music videos felt really high production. We had a film crew of people we were working with. It was very planned. And we were talking to Barsuk on the phone and they said that they think we should have some video content for “Sweaty Lake.” We were like, “There’s not a lot of time and we don’t have a budget,” but they were like, “Don’t worry we have faith in you. Buy a 30 rack, and go make something.” They were just the most encouraging people ever. So, our roommate who does all of our videos was like, “I have this old camera,” so we went to our practice space and had a green screen and it felt really fun because there was no pressure. We just went in and had fun, which sometimes you lose sight of that when things get more serious. So my favorite part was just going in there and not knowing what it was going to look like. It felt good to get sweaty and just jump around.

About the author

Mike Holloway was the music editor for The Wisconsin Gazette until it ceased publication in Sept. He currently writes for 88Nine Radio Milwaukee, Milwaukee Record and Urban Milwaukee.

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