Hinging on a 21-minute closing track that's like an album unto itself, "9" realizes its lofty ambitions as Saves the Day's best album in years.
Tracing the passage of time is a wild ride for anyone. The mere notion of looking back and thinking about all the variables, accidents and near-misses that lead to being in the present moment is enough to send someone into an existential spinout. But when you’ve shared your glories and bled your wounds as publicly as Chris Conley has on Saves the Day records for the past 20 years, it becomes a different experience entirely.
Conley discovered that for himself recently as he sat with a guitar on his lap and a notepad never out of arm’s reach for the writing of his band’s ninth album, appropriately titled 9. Almost involuntarily, he began crafting a collection of songs that would go on to serve as a musical biography of his band’s career. Across the album’s nine tracks -- and there is significance to that number you’re almost definitely sick of reading already -- he charts the history of Saves the Day from its very beginning (the mid-'90s central New Jersey suburbs) from the early aughts emo mega-hype, through numerous reinventions in the 2010s. He uses his trademark fusion of poetry and candidness to tell the vivid coming-of-age stories first of his band on Side A, and then of himself on Side B’s single track, which comes in the form of a seven-part, 21-minute Chris of Suburbia exploration of the self.
To longtime fans of the band, there is much service paid on the record: knowing nods to the past, obscure references that only die-hards will understand, and the same mindful quirkiness that has characterized Saves the Day’s music for so long. Opening track "Saves the Day" (again, appropriately named) evokes the same youthful exuberance of the band’s earliest material, different parts of "29" call back to Stay What You Are and Sound the Alarm, while the entire album is packed with the musical subtleties and progressive leanings of the band’s recent output.
Asking Conley how this all happened is a heady experience. Speaking to Billboard from his home in Chico, Calif., as he waits for his daughter Luella to finish her school day, he cites a myriad sources, ranging from psychology pioneer Carl Jung to a Mariah Carey slow jam that topped the Billboard Hot 100 for 14 weeks. Here's where Conley came from and, also, where he's headed.
It’s often redundant to ask a musician about an album title, but 9 is interesting given that you were just on Geoff Rickly’s podcast talking about your spirituality and beliefs. That number has numerological significance that doesn’t feel like a coincidence...
Oh, it absolutely is not. I knew right away that I wanted to call it 9. It’s a number that has a lot to the completion of a cycle, but it also implies wisdom, because you’ve been through that cycle and all its motions and ups and downs. It means you’re ready to start the cycle again.
It was kind of amazing as the music was writing itself and the words were coming to me, that they were all of this reflective nature and about what I’ve seen and what I’ve learned.
So you didn’t intend the concept from the start?
The way that I write is to allow the thoughts and feelings and songs to show themselves on their own. They come to me in either feelings or intuition, or often when it’s the musical side of the process, those things will just come to me in my head -- a melody or a guitar riff, maybe.
I do the exact same thing with words: I’ll just let them happen. I don’t know exactly how to explain it, but sometimes they will come with one of the musical ideas -- for example the song "Side by Side" on the new record. That song just started as a guitar riff and a melody that I just heard in the back of my head one day, and when I went to record it, the lyric just came with it. So I was singing "siiide by siiide" as if it was always there. Once that lyric became attached to the music, I knew to trust that. I lean into the music, and I allow it to lead me.
I still didn’t know where it would go until the second song "Suzuki" came to me. It just kinda popped out and it was about sitting right where I was sitting on a black and red couch playing the burgundy Les Paul I played on Can’t Slow Down so many years ago, writing album number nine right now, which became the lyrics. Once that came along, I knew that this was going to be a reflective record.
Do you have any idea what was pushing your subconscious that way?
I do think it has a lot to do with where I am in life, and how many years I’ve actually been on this planet. There’s a reason that numerology has been of significant interest to humanity for so long. I think there’s certainly a lot of truth in it, even just looking at the way nature can work like clockwork.
I’m 38 years old now, and I was starting to write a lot of this stuff when I was 36. That’s four cycles of nine, which is pretty cool. It’s amazing to me to see that it was at work before I ever knew what to work on.
I’ve read a lot of Carl Jung work that says that a lot of people will get these feelings coming to them when they’re between 35 and 40. It’s just a point in life where you start to look back at your journey and wonder how you got here.
Did making this reflective record force you to revisit and maybe even reconsider old feelings?
The hardest part for me was when there were songs on the record that dug up feelings about old bandmates, or old friends. I really had no interest in exploring that, but suddenly they’re right there in the front of my mind. I definitely put the pen down multiple times knowing that I didn’t want to write about these things; I didn’t even want to think about them. But I couldn’t even get up and walk outside the studio without these things banging on the door.
That’s when I had to consciously wrestle a little with the actual process, but I realized that I had to trust it. I had to accept it: "Okay we’re going to write about this, but we need to write about it from a place of understanding." If there are feelings of anger, I’m not going to tune those out, I’m just going to write about it as someone who has gone through the process, lived through it all and came out as a happy person in the present.
I realized that this stuff didn’t kill me and it didn’t crush any of us, so while all these feelings of anger and whatever else are valid, they’re also not the end of the world. I got ‘emo’ about it, but didn’t let myself be swallowed up in melancholy or difficult emotions.
That was a really cool part of the process, and I wound up following it all the way down so that by the end of the record I was writing about things that I never imagined I was going to write about. It was clear to me that the subconscious was going to be insistent on making sure that I would work through anything.
Being able to look back clearly at your past from an older, more mature, wiser perspective seems like it’d be rewarding.
Yeah, it really is. I still listen to the record and get emotional, but it’s not these tears of pain as it might have once been. It’s just this incredible sense of catharsis. I’m so grateful for it. I think I was able to resolve a lot of deep, deep feelings that I would’ve just kept bottled up in some dark corner inside of me otherwise.
Even things I was writing about my relationship to my daughter’s mom, who is such an incredible part of my life even though we aren’t together anymore. I never thought that I’d write about something like that and put it on a Saves The Day record. I always tend to write about my deep feelings, but it’s usually more about myself wrestling with those feelings than it is about the actual people who were involved.
You’re talking about "29" here, right? That song feels like where the reflection on Saves the Day ends and the reflection on Chris Conley begins.
That’s exactly right, yeah. The end of side one is "Rendezvous," which is a song about the current lineup of the band, then you flip it over to "29" and the first part ["Heartbeat"] goes all the way back to my first experience of being alive, hearing my heartbeat and trying to fall asleep at night.
I love the fact that they’re mirrored parallels. By the time you get halfway through side A, that’s where the cracks start to show within the band. There’s a song called "Rosé,’ which is about being on an international tour and starting to feel some friction. And that would be a direct parallel to halfway through "29" when it gets to "Tangerine" and it’s about my heart starting to break.
Then I had to resolve all those feelings. So on the first side, I resolve those feelings on the song "1997," which is about remembering how beautiful and awesome this life getting to make music is. It doesn’t matter if some people in the band had to come and go, I’m never going to stop cause I just love it so much. That’s when "Rendezvous" comes in and I’m just excited for the future. And that’s a mirror to the end of "29" where I’m looking to the past and being grateful and in love with being alive.
The duality of it is interesting because the "Band side" sounds alive with the joy of music. While the "Chris side" has that, it feels darker...
I’m just realizing now as you’re saying this, but one thing I did work consciously on was making sure that I had the right key for everything once it was all written and to decide that, I made choices based on emotions. The final movement of "29," called "New Jersey," is in the key of [Beethoven's] "Ode To Joy." I very consciously made that choice. Even though that second side is a lot more melancholy, it’s sort of redeemed in the end by being in that key.
In regards to "29" and those conscious musical nods, I have to mention that I noticed the "Victorian & 21st" part of that song scans almost perfectly with Mariah Carey’s "We Belong Together."
I’m glad you mentioned it! That is one of my favorite songs. That song was actually pretty special for Luella’s mom and me so it’s absolutely in the DNA of "Victorian & 21st," which is about meeting her when I was at my loneliest. There are so many reasons why that Mariah Carey song was part of my spirit when I was writing. It’s something that means even more than just hearing it. If you find out why that’s in there, I think that enriches the song too.
It’s a really fun aspect of being a musician, getting to do things like that. I think that the homage is actually an unspoken and hugely underappreciated aspect of songwriting. I’ve been doing that kind of thing since day one, too. The very first riff on the first Saves The Day record is a tip of the hat to how the Gorilla Biscuits album Start Today begins. After the horn part opens that record, guitars come in and the very first chords on Can’t Slow Down are the exact same motif.
Did you also consciously reference your own past lyrics on the record?
Definitely. Die-hard fans will see key phrases that I drop here and there that I consciously use over and over again as a through-line or a clue that you’re on the right path. I do that for myself as well as our fans. I get excited at the thought of our fans noticing that too.
It’s a lot of fun to mention the way the sky looks or the way the shadows crawling the walls [as referenced on "E," "Daybreak," and "Lonely Nights"], ten years after I first put that lyric somewhere when I was in a much darker place. Now I get to repurpose those phrases having come through everything, and it’s a feeling of celebration and being in awe of life after those ups and downs. As a writer that’s really enjoyable.
The changes in you as a person must be immense going from the teenager who wrote Through Being Cool to now, too. What have you learned about yourself in that time?
I know that the thing I’m most grateful for is just having gotten through it all. 'Cause if I look back and realize how hard it was for that person, it just makes me really grateful that he had enough love and support and encouragement to make it through even the darkest times.
It’s really the gift from life itself, and being a born optimist. I don’t know if that’s as much a part of my innate nature as it is being nurtured by a loving family and my parents, these two people who were just so happy to be alive.
There’s always a balance between nature and nurture, but I think it’s a lot to do with the nurturing. I think it’s a lot easier to be shocked by the nightmarish aspects of life, but that natural buoyancy that I got as a kid growing up all alone on a massive farm with two parents in their mid-thirties and early forties when they were raising me. They had gone through a lot of these trials in life but they survived it all and they were happy.
Now that I’m a grown man dealing with life and the coldness of it all, it’s my daughter Luella who provides me that. That’s a cool look at that duality we spoke about too, because now that I’m the parent I was able to look into her eyes when she was born and now I get to see the incredible person that she’s grown up to be, and I get the joy of getting to be her dad. That’s been a huge part of realizing that this is all worth it, and it’s not just some empty nihilistic nightmare. Funny how it’s being a kid and being a dad that brought me that.
Guess it’s that whole idea of nine and completion again. Now that you’ve looked back and documented the past, have you given much thought to what the future holds from here?
Since we finished 9 I’ve probably had 50 or 60 new ideas but the problem is that I also have about 10,000 from before that I haven’t had a chance to get to. I do know what the first two songs on the next Saves The Day album are going to be though, and I’m really excited about that.
I’m excited for whatever the songs are going to be about. I have a feeling that they’ll be more like snapshots, rather than some massive conceptual record. Maybe I’ll be writing about what happens in that moment, because I’ve done a lot of turning back and now I’m ready to turn around and look forward.