Anyone who’s ever received a mixed CD from a friend in the 2010s has probably heard Hop Along before. The beloved Philly four-piece has been a staple in the indie rock scene for everyone who keeps a finger on the pulse of what’s passionate and gripping. What began as a solo project for Frances Quinlan back in 2004 later developed into a more confrontational, honest, and moving full-band project with her brother and drummer Mark Quinlan, bassist Tyler Long, and guitarist Joe Reinhart by her side.
On the band’s fourth studio album, Bark Your Head Off, Dog, several changes surface quickly. For one, the album loosens its grip on guitars to welcome softer, almost folk-like instrumentation, including string quartets and quiet acoustic strumming. Lyrically, Quinlan questions how she’s structured her life up until this point, often returning to the phrase “Strange to be shaped by such strange men” over the course of the album. While the album doesn’t revolve around hooks as clearly as past releases or venture into bold solos (though some do appear), it’s a grower, one that will slowly weld itself to you, arguably forming a deeper emotional music connection that any of the band’s other records. But in Hop Along’s eyes, it’s still taking a while to get comfortable with the songs for them, too.
“We’re only going to understand these songs in new ways as we keep playing them, but I feel a lot less troubled by that than I used to,” says Quinlan. “I like to quote Nina Simone a lot about how an artist should reflect the time they’re living in. It’s not journalism, but it’s certainly not existing separate from the world we’re living in. I am thinking considerably more about my lyrics. We don’t celebrate single women the way that we do single men. Just think about the concept of the spinster versus the bachelor. A man can be a bachelor his whole life. But a woman after a certain age is referred to as a spinster. Even just being a woman in my 30s! We elected someone right out of pop culture to run the country. Someone with no experience! Not to get political, but a lot of us don’t want to admit how we’re influenced by pop culture, myself included. Unfortunately, I think it all swims together and it’s hard to separate the ways in which we find ourselves being governed, whether it’s by our literal government or our own families or what’s shoved in our faces on a screen.”
To get to know Hop Along better, we interviewed Frances Quinlan for a round of Wheel of Tunes, a series where we ask musicians questions inspired by their song titles. With Bark Your Head Off, Dog as the prompt, her answers are inquisitive and full of life—qualities that will bubble up in the band’s music when it headlines the Paradise this Saturday.
1) “How Simple”
DIGBOSTON: Looking at the objects in your home, which simple item holds the most significance to you?
QUINLAN: Hmm. An object in my home. Well, I’m a creature comfort kind of person, so there are so many objects I use everyday that are like this. Lately, my kettle. [laughs] I use it so much. I could say my laptop but that just really bums me out. I have a shelf full of journals. Every morning, I try to write a little bit in my current journal and I always put the kettle on. That’s also so corny. It’s for coffee, not tea. Coffee. I use a V60 ceramic thing. Don’t want people to think I’m a tea person.
The journal notes all flow together. Over the last year, I finally got myself a planner. I know everyone puts their calendar on their phone, but I’ve always been attached to physical items. I used to love making lists. Now I don’t because every day I fail the list. I never accomplish everything. So I had to come up with a new way to do it. I don’t want to look at a journal and see that I have an email to write, you know? So I keep the two separate. Journals include thoughts throughout the day, maybe my dreams—although I do tend to keep those separate, as dreams can get long and ridiculous but part of me thinks I should document them. I heard recently they’re part of therapy. So it’s journals, and with those I tend to have lines that turn into lyrics, but it’s never intentional. A lot of my lyrics have come from journals three or four years back. The journals are a hodgepodge of thoughts that I think are worth putting down. That can include the day to day. I’ve lost a couple, but I have journals that go way back. Let’s see. The ones I have here in Philly go back to 2005. I was 19 and I’m 32 now. I think I only lost one. Clearly it’s really stuck with me that I did. [laughs] I have a diary with a cat on it from when I was in junior high, but I’m not going to include that. I’ve had diaries since I was 10, but those aren’t really the same thing. I remember burning a candle and listening to Jewel while writing in my diary. Nobody needs to read that, including me.
2) “Somewhere a Judge”
DIGBOSTON: Have you ever done jury duty?
QUINLAN: You know, I think I must have really made someone angry from whatever committee decides to do jury duty. I’ve been summoned three times. I was summoned fresh out of college. I got summoned again after. We tour so much that [jury duty is] usually an issue of if it goes on for a month and I’d have to cancel tour dates. For these three times, I’ve always gone in and I haven’t been selected.
Then I think about how this is a civic duty and it would be really good for me to contribute. But some of the cases are so rough. One of the cases [I was summoned for] was over charges of molestation. How do you be unbiased in that? They asked if I would side with the victim and their family, and I was like, “…Yes!” Just knowing the percentages of how often it happens? I don’t know. It’s tough. Someone has to make the call. I just, you know, I am very uncertain about certain matters, whether I have it in me. But the answer is yes! I have been summoned but never served.
3) “How You Got Your Limp”
DIGBOSTON: What’s the weirdest way you’ve ever gotten injured on tour?
QUINLAN: On tour? I really don’t get injured on tour. I’ve only gotten sick. I can tell you a funny way that I got hurt growing up, though! I must have been 9 or so. Our neighbors had one of those things that you see in Home Alone where Kevin jumps on the zipline in his treehouse to escape the guys. These kids up their road, their grandfather built them a zipline that went 20 feet from one tree to another, about 10 feet up. I’m a meek person now and I was even more meek when I was that age. Everyone was doing it, so I got up there. I remember gingerly taking the handle and starting to go, but I did such a crummy job holding onto the edges where the foam was—which, you know, those should have been secured safely—so the foam came off the handles and I fell off. I was the only kid of five kids that fell. I had the wind knocked out of me. My mom was having coffee with the neighbors of another house down the road. Mark, my brother and the drummer of the band, bolted down the road, runs into the house, and tells my mom I was dying. Somebody had to whack me on the back. Meanwhile the kid’s mom was in the shower. It was a lot. But it’s pretty funny now. They had to chain the zipline up. I was that kid who ruined the zipline. Luckily we moved a year later. I was that kid, that nerd that ruined things for everyone.
4) “Not Abel”
DIGBOSTON: What’s the biggest sacrifice you made this year?
QUINLAN: Hmm. Wow, that is a heavy question. I mean, I read a quote from Mitski recently about self-care—ugh, I’m always reticent to use the term self-care because it implies so much that I don’t think people meant to say when they used that term. But Mitski was talking about the level of compromise it takes to be a touring musician. She even talked about turning down big opportunities so she could preserve her mental wellbeing to some extent.
We certainly have said yes to a lot of big, great opportunities. Every time we put a record out, I have to make peace with a lot of things that make me nervous. We have to promote this record, you know? For me, that’s an experience that I alone had. As bandmates, our experiences of making the record are so different. For me, there’s always this moment of having to make peace with knowing that the record isn’t yours anymore when you put it out there. Sure, it’s yours as far as credits go in a business sense, but you have to allow people to interpret what they need to in order to enjoy something. I have so many records where I have no idea what the artist intended while making it, but in a way that makes the record all the more mine. I love hearing about process, especially in this day and age of comparison that we certainly live in. There are times where I wonder if I overshare or say too much—I mean, ha, look at how much I’m talking right now—but there’s books I want people to know about and albums that have inspired me. I’d love to talk more about Joan Didion and the book I just finished or Joni Mitchell and her music. It’s interesting, this aura of mystery that I do envy in other artists. I think of someone like Bill Callahan or Cat Power. I’ve been a big fan of them for a long time but I don’t know a lot about them. Or Joanna Newsom! Just look at her! They’re people who can disappear and come back. Their presence and allure is so obviously in their records, but you don’t know a lot about them. I wonder how much of ourselves we’re giving away to feel connected. That sounds so old timey, but people will never know what making a record feels like unless they sit down and make one. My experience is so vastly different than the ones my friends who make records describe. But maybe we’ve done too much to mythologize mystery? Maybe it’s good to have access to one another? I don’t know! It’s such a confusing thing. I wonder constantly about what needs to be heard from me as an artist, as a citizen, as a musician. I want to be a part of a community. I don’t want to push my records. But how much of a part of it? I don’t know how you feel about it. But look at me: I haven’t left my house or talked to a human being today. These are the things I think about.
This doesn’t really answer the question. I just feel lucky. There are so many choices I made in my life that, in retrospective, didn’t really matter and I wish I didn’t care [about them]. In high school, so many things only went so far. I have trouble being able to see the forest through the trees or whatever. I feel very lucky that, first of all, I feel safe playing our shows. I don’t feel like I have to retreat. There are times where I may not feel up to coming to the merch table, but on our headlining tours in the states, I like coming to the merch table to talk. People tell you their stories. It clearly isn’t about you, which is nice. Instead it’s about their own stories. That’s why it’s great playing in a band, and that community of being a band lets people begin to feel like a part of that community. They love Joe’s playing or Mark’s playing and maybe that’s a benefit. Solo artists deal with people coming up to them who say I almost died and you saved my life. That’s a heavy thing to deal with on a regular basis or try to match.
I wonder what I will regret, though. Let’s say that. I’m nervous about what I will regret in the future. I don’t think I’m a selfish person, but we all want validation. There’s an Allen Ginsberg quote on this that’s really powerful: “Wanting approval is an act of aggression.” I’m not even a big fan of his work. I’ve been thinking about that a lot in this day and age. So much of what we do is “Here’s what I did today. Like it.” I do it constantly. I don’t mean to speak for the masses, but it is a system that promotes demand for approval. Ugh.
5) “The Fox in Motion”
DIGBOSTON: When was the last time you took part in a race?
QUINLAN: The only exercises I like are dancing and running. I got really into running after college. I was not physical at all growing up. I would run, like, an 11-minute mile, and that’s with run in quotation marks. But I found out I like running later in life. I did the Philadelphia Marathon in 2010. Last year on my birthday, I ran the Broad Street Run, which is 10 miles down Broad Street. My time was very average, which was great for me. I can’t believe people run that much regularly. I run that long because it’s a cool way to see the city. I love the herd mentality that happens. We’re all accomplishing something. But also no, we’re not. We’re just running. It’s awesome running down Broad Street high-fiving strangers, though. That delivers such a high. I don’t do that any other time of the year. Maybe I high-five strangers at show. [laughs] But people were ringing bells and playing boomboxes. The Broad Street Run in May of 2017 was the last race I was in. I wasn’t competing, though; I just wanted to do it. I was competing to be average… and I won!
6) “One That Suits Me”
DIGBOSTON: Which originally disliked part of your personality have you begun to accept recently?
QUINLAN: Whoa. That is a great question. I will answer with something very personal. I have a very hard time allowing people to have their feelings without making it have something to do with me. I guess that’s what empathy essentially is. You’re forgetting yourself in order to understand where another person might be coming from, even if it’s to your detriment. I have a hard time with that. Not because I don’t think people’s emotions are worthwhile. Duh. I’m not a sociopath. I just worry so much about my relationships with others that I will put my idea of the relationship and how it should be ahead of whatever their idea [of it] is in the moment. I think realizing that is the first step towards fixing it. I’m currently in the stage of apologizing when I do it. I’m catching myself in time, catching myself ahead of being able to correct it before the mistake occurs.
Again, not to excuse myself, but I do feel like this might be a more common issue than people realize. Another thing I really struggle with is that self-loathing is still a form of self-absorption. Even narcissism in the negative sense. It gets in the way of understanding and actually seeing a situation and being able to help make it better. I understand it because I think a lot of people have that childhood fear of somehow being punished. If you step back and ask yourself what the worst thing that could happen in the situation, a lot of people will punish themselves to get ahead of the people that they think are trying to punish them.
7) “What the Writer Meant”
DIGBOSTON: Which of your lyrics is most often misinterpreted, either by critics or fans?
QUINLAN: I could go for the literal one. I often see—which is, ugh, no one cares–in “Kids on the Boardwalk” off Get Disowned, I notice people think the line is “I want truth in beauty.” It’s actually “Truth and beauty.” That’s what I tried to say earlier though. In Painted Shut, there’s so many literal forces. There’s so many things that are less abstract. I wrote about a lot of key people that really existed. I almost regret trying to attempt to encapsulate them. Like I didn’t encapsulate Buddy Bolden’s story at all. I only touched on a tiny facet of it: the part dealing with his mental illness. I didn’t address him shaping a whole movement of music. You know, I wish I could have. I wanted that to be known. But at the same time, they’re songs. They’re not journalistic pieces. They’re not meant to be read as nonfiction documents. They’re meant to be interpreted. People have told me that they thought a song meant something totally more intelligent than what I started with. Why would I challenge that? I remember Mark told me he thought a line in “Prior Things” was referring to something else. I told him, “No, it’s actually referring to this.” And he just went, “…Oh.” I should have lied to my brother. As a person, I don’t want to get in the way of what the songs do for people. So there is no misinterpreting, though on the page it really is “truth and beauty.”
8) “Look of Love”
DIGBOSTON: In your opinion, what’s the best way to tell if somebody is in love with you?
QUINLAN: Oooh. Face to face, let’s just say that. I wouldn’t want it in a text or a phone call if possible. I’d like it face to face. And I’m saying that as somebody who has told people over text that I have a crush on them. Pretty hypocritical. A crush is different, though. There’s more leeway there. But that’s different than saying I’m in love with you. I’d definitely want the person in the room with me. I don’t think I’ve ever said that, “I’m in love with you,” in text or on the phone.
9) “Prior Things”
DIGBOSTON: What used to take up a lot of your attention that you recently decided to no longer be concerned with?
QUINLAN: I’m working on it. Again, I really have that issue. I never know how to say this phrase: seeing the forest for the trees? Through the trees? Whatever the phrase is, I have an issue with that. One thing I’m trying to be better at, which is why I had that concept for the music video for “How Simple” where I’m dancing through the house, is that I really want to care less about what I think people are going to perceive of me. There is a dancer called Aranivah who is a “social dancer” on Instagram. She dances a lot. She’s just promoting social dance. She just came up in my recommended search on Instagram, that random ether of recommendations. She doesn’t do any wild moves. She just wants people to become aware of the benefits of social dancing. She dances to awesome underground rock and neo-soul and cumbia and reggae. It’s cool and I really like it. I’m basically trying to mimic her moves in that video. At one point, she said, “You will feel more comfortable on the dance floor if you focus less on judging others.” She’s totally right. In the end, that’s essentially why we’re all scared of dancing. We ourselves judge and laugh at others, and then we think of the same thing happening to us. If you care less about what other people are doing in that sense, then you won’t feel so foolish yourself.
HOP ALONG, HORSE JUMPER OF LOVE. SAT 12.29. PARADISE ROCK CLUB, 967 COMM. AVE., ALLSTON. 8PM/18+/$20. CROSSROADS.COM