A record hasn’t hit us like Friendship Commanders’ third full-length, MASS, in quite some time. Partly because sonically it owns and the other part due to the content which sees singer, songwriter, guitarist, and author Buick Audra crafting a concept album (And accompanying book) based on her time living on and off in our forever home of Massachusetts.
Recently, we were lucky enough to chat via phone with both Audra and drummer Jerry Roe while at home in Nashville before the current MASS North American tour kicked off proper (The pair played Gainesville, GA prior to our convo as a sort of “soft opening” for the tour) and while we won’t bore you with too many MA-specific parts of the conversation (Like which is the better locale: Belmont or Arlington?), we will share what spurred on this revisit of Audra’s time spent here, what it was like working with Kurt Ballou and God City Studio for this record, what it’s like coming back to Massachusetts now and more in our interview below:
Following the first two FC full-lengths, MASS was the first to really take some time to come out with a 5-year gap between this one and 2018’s BILL with Roe quick to explain the slight delay:
Jerry Roe: “It’s really just COVID at the end of the day. Hold On To Yourself was the [last release] and the plan was we were going to release the EP and then make a full-length sometime in the year after it came out and of course that didn’t happen just in the way everything went. We got vaccinated and back out on the road and at the end of 2021 we were able to track this record (MASS). We definitely would’ve went and made a full-length otherwise.”
And that album would eventually manifest as MASS, a concept album about loss and loneliness which are only some of the many emotions the state of Massachusetts had wrought upon Audra while living here on and off earlier in her life. But why was now the right time to tackle that time period?
Buick Audra: “I don’t know why now is the right time for MASS other than this is when the story got ahold of me. As I talk about in the book (MASS: Essays On Memory, Language, & The State Of Massachusetts), my friend Marc (Orleans Sunburned Hand of the Man, Spore, Juneau, Enos Slaughter) died in summer of 2020 and it just really kicked my ass. Honestly, I could not get past it. I probably won’t ever get past it in any reasonable way. And when I was not getting over it I was starting to look back on this time and place and my life and our life that was just really high impact and I hadn’t really ever been able to, like, face it down before. For a number of reasons. Some of which were self-protective and then I just started to write the record. I very much believe in following your obsessions where they lead because I do think there’s information in that. Regardless of where and when this is about I think there have to be other people out here who know what it’s like to not fit. And to need something else. So I think MASS just ended up being a record about ‘It’s okay to do that. It’s okay to leave. It’s okay to get yourself safe.’ You know?”
With the heavy personal subject matter for Audra and a tour supporting those songs underway, we wondered if there were any tracks off MASS that were emotionally too difficult to play and if there were some songs that just wouldn’t make the set because of that:
BA: (Without hesitation) “Fail”. But in kind of a beautiful way. Every night when we play it I say “I hope that you feel known” and it barely makes it out of my mouth. So far we’re playing six of the songs live. We’re not yet playing “Distortion”, “A Retraction”, or “Move” mostly because “Retraction” and “Move” are long as shit”
JR: “We don’t have enough time in the set, honestly”
Elaborating more on the setlist for this particular tour, Audra continued:
BA: “We’re still playing a little amount of stuff that isn’t on MASS because there are people that come to see us that wanna hear “The Enemy I Know” off Hold On To Yourself and we’re still playing this song called “Tuxedo Means Wolf” (Originally from 2016’s DAVE) that, for some reason, people still like. We’re also playing a song that we released last year in protest to the overturning of Roe v Wade called “And If My Body” (From Release The Rest) so it ends up being 9 or 10 songs somehow with the two-thirds of MASS we’re playing.”
JR: “We never really got to adequately tour Hold Onto Yourself or the chunk of singles we put out in between. I think we’re trying honor what we connect the most with our older stuff and it doesn’t feel right to completely pull away from it anyway.”
BA: “We’ll play the whole album (MASS) at the album release show in Nashville at the end of the year but we’re still feeling what feels good live. We’re watching how people move in the room when we play certain stuff, you know? So far we’re doing the whole first half of the record and “We Were Here”.
With the album comes the companion book, MASS: Essays On Memory, Language, & The State Of Massachusetts, which is just as compelling a read as MASS is a compelling listen. But what came first?
BA: “The album was definitely first. I wrote the album in two months and we recorded it a few weeks after I finished writing it so that existed as a framework and told the story that way and in that language. The book was written in, like, the year after. It isn’t really a one for one you’ll note if you’ve read the book. The stories are more fluid and not so neatly tied up in each essay as they relate to each song but it all gets resolved in there? I think. I hope. I read it too many times and now it’s like spaghetti in my brain. It’s my second book and I did another book the same way with a solo album where the music existed first and then I wrote the book to expand on the music.
Speaking of that first book, Conversations With My Other Voice: Essays (Available here), we posited whether or not being an author was something Audra had aspired to be:
BA: “No. I just sort of became a writer because I had longer shit to say I guess. I started writing essays like 5, 6 years ago and have been published on an individual essay basis in some literary mags and other places like Talkhouse. Conversations was much easier to write because those stories were clearer to me and I always knew I would tell those stories in some way. MASS I couldn’t remember all this for a long time. Writing the album was like an absolute fever dream and then writing the book was pretty painful. It took me down. I definitely felt pretty beat up by it but I believed in doing it and I believed in putting it forth. MASS as a body of work musically and in prose was much harder to write.”
Getting back to the actual state in question, Audra had some choice words on the Bay State throughout the book version of MASS and compared coming back to a certain Stephen King/Stanley Kubrick collab at one point (“Yeah, MA is like The Shining for me and I try to never go there”). Needless to say, there’s been some trepidation about revisiting MA since she lived here. Is that aversion something that will dull with time and how does she feel about the upcoming show at O’Briens???
BA: “I feel good about coming back this time and that’s the first time I’ve been able to say that in years. I feel like I stared it in the face in this project and said my piece. People I love still live there. My brother still lives there and he’s one of my favorite people on earth. I play for him when we’re there no matter what. I do think that making this body of work and sort of claiming my seat in the story has made me feel like more of an adult in the story and less somebody who’s a victim of the situation.”
For those hoping for Episode II: Attack of the Audra (We were going to go for a The Empire Strikes Back thing nerd-wise but just couldn’t reconcile the fact that it’s Episode V in the series) and another MA-centric tale down the line, Audra seems to have, ahem, closed the chapter on dwelling on this particular time in her life:
BA: “I think this was it. I wish Marc hadn’t died but I feel like because he did die I was able to come to terms with this and while there are other parts about my life that took place in Massachusetts that I’ll examine for current reasons I doubt I’ll ever make a big giant piece of work about it again. I’ll tell you what, though, it’s my favorite thing I’ve ever done. Painful or what, look, I’ve never been so proud of anything in my life.”
Coincidentally enough, the Massachusetts-based concept album was also recorded in state at God City Studio with Kurt Ballou (Who also moonlights in a local band you may have heard of called Converge) in Salem but that was more of a happy accident than a deciding factor when choosing where to construct the album as Roe explains:
JR: “We were going to work with Kurt anyway before we even had any songs so working with him in Salem wasn’t really related to the material. The minute we heard his first mix of Hold On To Yourself, that was pretty much it of us working with anybody else. At least for a while.”
BA: “I love working with him. MASS is our first time working in person with him. Just to clarify. We had only worked with him long distance as a mix engineer. I wrote the record after we had the mix dates so it was just this bizarre like sort of prophetic thing where we already were going back to Massachusetts. I had conceded and then I wrote this record in the months that followed. It was weird to get there and be like ‘By the way… we’re making this crazy record about my whole young life. And yours!’ Kurt and I have a lot of shared community which was an interesting thing to talk about. I didn’t give him the names and the places and whatever but I was like ‘This is about this time and place’ and he was, like, ‘Ok! Let’s roll!’. He was down and he has remained down. He’s been really supportive as we’ve been releasing the record. He’s read all the press. He knows the stories. But he’s a grown man and I mean, it’s not him I’m talking about (laughs). Working with him was great. It would’ve been amazing to go back to Camp Street (In Cambridge) but alas, RIP! I think it was always going to be Kurt. And I do love Q Division, also in Massachusetts and I’ve recorded there before but no, God City’s the place.”
Inevitably, the end of our conversation must happen and with that the question of what’s next for Friendship Commanders makes its’ way to the surface:
BA: “I think we’re going to keep moving musically. We’re going to tour on MASS over the next year. We have a bunch of stuff to hit in the spring that we’re not able to hit in the fall. We already have some new songs… One of the things we’re playing live is a brand new song that’s never been recorded from the new work called “Keeping Score” so you’ll hear where we’re going. And we’ll go back and work with Kurt. We talked about in like the last week that we all can’t wait to work together again. I think we’ll just dive in and keep moving because honestly, this break and the pandemic was kind of demoralizing and terrible. It feel so purposeful to have work out and to keep putting it out. I don’t wanna wait again.”
Both the album and book for MASS are available now and can be purchased by heading here or by clicking on the stream below. Our reviews for each can be found when you click here or here and for everything else Friendship Commanders, head here. And! Local peeps can get their advance tix to FC’s show at O’Brien’s in Allston on October 21st with Mollusk and Chrome Over Brass by heading here.