By the end of the 2000s, Circa Survive found itself in an enviable position within the emo/post-hardcore scene. The Doylestown, Pennsylvania quintet had perfected an intoxicating formula of progressive, bleeding-heart punk anthems with yearning vocals and evocative lyrics shrouded in abstraction on 2005’s Juturna and 2007’s On Letting Go. Those two albums, both released on indie label Equal Vision Records, catapulted Circa Survive to the top of the post-hardcore heap, and the band was poised to graduate to Atlantic Records for its third full-length, Blue Sky Noise, which turns 10 today (April 20).
At the time, frontman Anthony Green didn’t realize the groundswell in the band’s popularity. “You’re like that picture of the person walking around where it’s just raining on top of their umbrella, and everywhere else, the sun is shining,” says Green, who, prior to Circa Survive, sang for post-hardcore band Saosin on its beloved 2003 EP Translating the Name. “I was just in the middle of trying to make something that I was gonna like, that I would be able to listen to in 10 years and get behind.”
Blue Sky Noise bears certain hallmarks of a major-label debut: It boasted Circa Survive’s lushest production to date, and its songs were slightly more linear and less aggressive than its predecessors. But these decisions were the result of greater band collaboration, not mainstream concessions. Blue Sky Noise proved Circa Survive could broaden its sonic palette without sacrificing its identity, incorporating exhilarating hard rock anthems (“Get Out”), swirling ballads (“Frozen Creek”) and acoustic indie laments (“Spirit of the Stairwell”) into its oeuvre. It paid off commercially, peaking at a career-high No. 3 on the Billboard 200, and it became a fan favorite in the band’s catalog, prompting a 10th anniversary tour that has been postponed indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic.
A few weeks ahead of Blue Sky Noise’s 10th anniversary, Green got on the phone to discuss the experience of working with a major label, fears of the dreaded “sellout” accusation and revisiting the album with fresh ears.
Blue Sky Noise was your first—and only—album on a major label. What was it like making the jump to Atlantic?
It was exciting. You know, we had probably surpassed most of the expectations—at least I had surpassed most of my expectations for ever being in a touring band, like a full-time band. And so this was just like, “Holy shit, we could take this to this next level. We’ll be able to elongate our careers and really get to experiment the way we want to experiment and work with the people we want to work with.” And it was a really exciting time to have people that believed in the band that much.
You hear about a lot of bands that make the jump to a major label for maybe one album, and later it comes out that it was a horrible experience, and they ended up going back to an indie because they got burned or felt they didn’t get the attention they needed.
I think the problem with that is, a lot of times [with] a major label, they’ll come to you and they’ll be like, “Hey, what do you want? You want to be the biggest band in the world?” And if you’re like, “Yeah, I do, oh my God, that sounds really enticing,” then once you get to a certain place where they’re like, “Hey, we have this songwriter, we have this producer that wants to help you write a song,” you have this decision you have to make. Like, are you all in or not? And that’s how they corner you like that. Like, “Hey, are you all in?” And it’s learning that you can be all in, but also, you’re all in for a certain thing, which is to make this thing that you really love and believe in. Not this thing that necessarily is this commercial smash hit, but really taking the chance and making something that you love, and seeing if that is able to also be a commercial smash hit.
It sounds like you guys got to have your cake and eat it, too, because “Get Out” became a signature song for Circa Survive.
Yeah. I love that song, and as soon as we wrote it, I felt like, “Oh, shit.” This is one of those weird moments where this is the cool thing that I really like, and it’s also like my friend who doesn’t listen to music in the same way I do can hear it and be like, “This is cool.” But what’s weird is I think Atlantic wanted to go with a different song. I don’t remember whether it was “Imaginary Enemy” or “I Felt Free” as the main single. And we disagreed with them on that, and we didn’t fight it that hard. We were just like, “Whatever. I don’t give a shit.” A song’s going to do well regardless of whether you put focus on it. But they did a radio campaign and all this stuff for either “Imaginary Enemy” or “I Felt Free.” I think it might’ve been “I Felt Free” that they thought was going to be the big song. And my feeling always is that, had we put all that energy into “Get Out,” shit would’ve been a little bit different.
Still, Blue Sky Noise was your biggest album to date. Were the positive reception and success immediately obvious?
Yeah. I think that we had sort of expected people to have a more negative reaction to it for some reason when songs started getting released. And to have your third record be something that is slightly more polished, but also a little bit more focused and on a major label, I think we all just expected people to be like, “This sucks, they sold out” or something. … But when the people we wanted to hear it heard it and liked it, we were really surprised and also just really excited.
“Sellout” has become one of the most taboo words for a band of your nature.
And it doesn’t mean one thing. I think a band decides at some stage in their career that they want to go for it, or they want to make something bigger that encompasses new elements. Regardless of what it is, people are just very quick to say, “This is something that this band is doing in order to make more money.” And it’s like, shit, at some point when you’ve played for 10 years and you’re playing small clubs and you’re doing this shit, what’s wrong with that idea of like, “Hey, I want to take this band bigger and do weird music for more people, you know, and see if that’s possible”? [With bands like] Tool, you see that and you’re like, “Oh wow, these bands got bigger, and they got weirder as they got bigger.” And there’s a really cool notion to that. It doesn’t always have to be this negative thing.
On this record, your penchant for poetic lyrics that take more than one listen to decipher is still intact. Were there any defining experiences during those songwriting sessions that shaped the album for you?
When I was working on the record, I started walking this line of like, “Okay, I gotta make sure that this is something that we’ll be able to enjoy,” and being hyper aware of that definitely fucked me up a little bit. And I got to this self-doubt, second-guessing mode a lot of the time where I thought something might be too weird, or I thought about it in a different way, like it was too simple. So at one point I turned to the band and I was just like, “Yo, help me write lyrics. I want to hear what you [have to say.” So I] brought them in on this record more than I had ever done. … We traded responsibilities and were able to take the burden off of each other when it was too much. I really liked that.
How has your relationship to this album changed over the last decade?
There’s a lot of things that I’m still going through that I’ve been going through for the last 10 years, when it comes to myself or my relationships. And that kind of blew me away a little bit. It’s like going back and reading your diary where you’re like, “By the time I’m 35, I’m going to be happy and I’m going to be cool with myself. And as long as the band is good, then I’ll be good.” It’s like, damn, there’s all these things that I’m still dealing with. I still need to hear this message, maybe even more now than I did back then. And I think that’s a weird thing, opening that emotional time capsule to your future self.
You’ve been open about your struggles with drugs and your subsequent sobriety. Were drugs prevalent in the making of this album, and has getting sober changed your perspective or your experience performing these songs?
Yeah, I was definitely struggling a lot when this record came out. I had a period where I went into a mental health facility for a certain period of time in the middle of making this record. And I also was trying to stop drinking and stop doing drugs at the same time I was getting prescribed crazy medication for anxiety, and different cocktails and medications for depression, and it was all having a really destructive effect on me. And it’s weird to listen back to some of that stuff. There’s a couple of songs that we released that weren’t on the record that were written during the time—there’s this one song that’s called “At a Loss,” we wrote it and we put it out as a B-side on the deluxe version of the record. And the song’s literally about trying to save enough drugs, trying to ration your pills, your shit, so that you have enough for the end of the day, so you have enough to sleep, so you have enough to wake up, you know. And listening back to that, I was fucking kinda blown away by it. And listening to this stuff sober is just such a weird thing, ’cause you’re telling people, “I have this problem.” And it’s weird because when you’re in a song, you’re being honest, but you’re not really being honest. You know what I mean? Like, you’re singing about it, you’re being open about it, but you’re not coming out and saying it. And the difference between sitting somebody down and being like, “Hey, I have a problem” or playing them a song that says it—one of them is shrouded in abstraction and subjective sort of nitpicking, and the other thing is just the truth. And I think that there were a lot of times during this record where I used the songs to sort of cover up the truth, and to sort of say what I needed to say without having the courage to come out and tell people.
After Blue Sky Noise, you self-released Violent Waves and put out Descensus and The Amulet on indie labels. What made you leave Atlantic?
We released the next album on our own, and we did that because we had the ability to do that. Because with Atlantic, they came to us and were like, “Hey, you know, the record did pretty great, but it wasn’t as good as we thought it was going to be. We wanted to offer you a little bit less money for the second one.” They gave us the opportunity to either take a little bit less money from our contracts or to just bail and do something on our own. And we made some decent money doing Blue Sky Noise, and we had saved. So we were like, “Yeah, let’s just see what it’s like to do a record on our own.” And it was really fun. It was a lot of work. And then ever since then, labels have just made us good deals to do one record. We’ve literally done a one-off with two different labels since then. Sumerian put out Descensus and Hopeless put out The Amulet, and if we get a good deal, we’ll do the next record with a label that offers us a good enough deal, or we’ll do it ourselves. We’re in a very fortunate place in time and space right now where we can sort of weigh out the options and say like, “Oh, this is a pretty good deal for one record. Let’s just do that.”