interview by Michael McCarthy
I recently had the opportunity to hear The Incubus, the forthcoming, third album by Revival Records’ group Famous Last Words, which is due out on September 30th. I’m not a big fan of post hardcore bands, and I admittedly don’t know much about the scene, but when I love an album, I love an album. Anything can stick with me. I don’t discriminate based on genre or anything. My longtime readers certainly know that. In any case, I really loved The Incubus, which is a concept album – like all Famous Last Words’ albums – about a family in the ’50’s where the wife is abused. Whether she’s abused by her husband or someone else is something the band doesn’t wish to disclose just yet, so I won’t say more than that, but it’s a great, suspenseful story, as anyone who’s seen the videos for “Pretty in Porcelain” and “The Judged” can attest. Suffice to say The Incubus is an an album I consider worthy of marking your calendars for. In the meantime, let’s get to know singer/lyricist JT Tollas.
MM: I love the concept of the new album, how it’s about this stay at home mother in the 1950’s who’s abused and blamed for it and stuff. Did you do any research on women in the 1950’s or is it all imagination.
JT: No, I definitely did my research. That’s a huge part of it. You’ve really gotta do it in order to portray the characters in the story and their emotions and everything that’s going through their heads correctly.
MM: Are all of the songs on the album about the same woman?
MM: That’s what I thought, but I wanted to be sure. With some of the artwork that I received from your publicist it looked like there were two stories going on. Is the child in the artwork the child of the woman and her husband or is that the woman as a kid?
JT: That’s her child.
MM: On “Trophy Wife” she’s celebrating nine years ago when the man came home. Where was he for the nine years?
JT: Well, the first line says August 21st, 1953 and nine years ago, that’s 1945, and that’s the end of World War II. In the story, he’s coming home from war.
MM: Who is the person abusing her in “Pretty In Porcelain”? When she wants to wake up is she having a nightmare?
JT: Well, I don’t want to give too much of the story away. People still haven’t heard it yet. But that is a nightmare and it is supposed to represent what is going on in her waking world. Things that are going through her mind which she doesn’t even really know or understand yet, which you’ll learn more when the album comes out and you actually hear the full story as a whole. It’s essentially supposed to show her feelings of vulnerability and helplessness. It really connects with anyone else who’s ever been a victim.
MM: You guys will have now released three albums since 2013. Do you ever take any time off after touring or do you just get right back into the cycle of writing and recording?
JT: This last time 2015 was the first year we didn’t release an album since 2012. We’ve been going real hard at it but with this album we just really took our time. We picked the producer very carefully. We wrote the songs very carefully. We wrote the story very carefully. So, there’s a lot of detail that went into making sure that this was the best album that it could possibly be.
MM: How does the songwriting usually happen for the band?
JT: It’ll usually start with me coming up with a concept and I’ll run it by the guys and we’ll either say yay or nay. After that we kind of section out each song as a different part of the story. The Cliff Note’s of the story, essentially. Once we figure out what each song is gonna be about then we kind of break it down to the vibe and kind of sound it has to have. We have songs that are dark songs and heavy songs or high energy songs. As long as you do that correctly you could really tell a story with vibrant color, you know? So, after that we write the music as instrumentals and once that’s done I’ll kind of breakdown the songs to the parts to like the intro, verse, chorus or whatever part it is. I’ll figure out what needs to be said there story-wise and the rest of it you just kind of figure out what I want to say there. I kind of know everything I’m going to say. I just sort of have to find the words I want to use to say what I’m going to say.
MM: So, you write all the lyrics?
MM: I was wondering – because your lyrics are very poetic – do you write poetry at all?
JT: No, actually. I don’t. It’s been lyrics for as long as I can remember.
MM: Your new album was produced by Taylor Larson. How did working with him differ from working with your previous producers?
JT: He’s a completely different person. That, that right there is personal. When you work with a producer you kind of pick up on their energy and their ideas and start working together and when you move from one producer to another you’re bound to have a different sounding album. That’s just gonna happen. That’s kind of what we wanted. We wanted a more mature sound. We wanted a different sound. But we also wanted to keep the roots of what is Famous Last Words. There’s a lot of bands that’ll go into a studio with just a couple riffs and they’ll be like, “Let’s do an album.” We don’t do that. We can’t do that. With concept albums you have to come in with these songs, these story points, and we’re gonna leave with those songs and those story points. There’s never any B-side tracks. Regarding like the songwriting process and how we went in, every producer handles that differently because of their different way to kind of go about an album. But, all in all, I love this album. I love how it turned out. And Taylor was a big reason for that.
MM: When you formed the band in 2009 was it with the intention of doing concept albums or did that come later.
JT: That idea came after our first EP. The first EP we did, you know, it was good. We liked it. But we were young and the team we were working with sort of suggested a lot and kind of had more to say about the recording process and after that EP came out that was when we decided, you know what, we are going to do what we want to do. That’s why we’re in a band and that’s why we do what we do. There’s not gonna be anyone out there who’s gonna be able to tell us that we can’t do something or they want us to sound like something. ‘Cause they can say it all they want but it’ll go in one ear and out the other. So, after that EP, we did our first full-length, Two-Faced Charade, and we were like, you know what, we want to bring art back. Because around that time in 2012ish there was a lot of generic shit going around. Like party metal. I don’t even know what to really call it, but it lost a lot of the really artistic elements that I loved about music. With Two-Faced, that was the main goal, to bring that sense of art back into it. And we did that with the concept. After that album it was something I loved doing. I grew up listening to a lot of musicals when I was younger, so putting a story into our albums made a lot of sense. It just seemed right to me and it’s something I really enjoy doing.
MM: What were some of your favorite musicals then?
JT: Phantom of the Opera, that might be my favorite musical. I also really love Rent. I’ve seen The Book of Mormon a couple years ago and that was hilarious. Super good. And, you know, I also love West Side Story, Wicked – my mom’s a huge fan of Wicked – Hamilton, Hamilton is amazing, a super original concept for a musical with how they integrated the hip-hop, especially with the time period that they chose. The Founding Fathers is a really interesting musical. So, yeah, I love all different musicals.
MM: You made a short film, a Two-Faced Charade, after you made “The Show Must Go On” video and that was so successful. Did you take any acting lessons or did that come naturally to you?
JT: I actually didn’t. I went to an art school from kindergarten to ninth grade and I had theatre and I always wanted to do acting parts but every time I tried out for one I always ended up being in the crew or something. So, I never really got to do that. So, I was always like, “I want to act! I want to try it!” So, when the opportunity came up with “The Show Must Go On,” the first video that we did a real storyline to, and the director Charlie Anderson, I was talking to him about it. And I said, “If this video hits a million views we gotta do a short film.” At the time I said that that just seemed like something that wasn’t realistic. But when we put it out and it started picking up and it hit a million views I hit up Charlie and I said, “Hey, looks like we’re doing a short film, right?” “I guess so.” We talked about it for a really long time but it didn’t really seem like it was actually gonna happen until I saw the plane ticket that he booked for us to go out to New York to actually shoot it. We talked about it. We prepped for it. We did the script. But it really kind of hit me when I saw the ticket. I was like, “Oh, shit. This is actually happening.” It was just a cool opportunity to do something that I always wanted to do and to be able to put something out that was really unique to what other bands had did in the past. I’ve seen bands do short videos or whatever, but it’s usually integrated with their music heavily and it’s not just like a story they put out. Our albums are so story driven we were able to make a movie strictly out of the story, which was really cool.
MM: Will you be working with Charlie Anderson for anything on the new album?
JT: Yeah, he did the “Pretty in Porcelain” music video.
MM: Who were the the actresses who were in the Two-Faced movie?
JT: Well, I was the main guy.
MM: I know that, but who were the actresses?
JT: That was Pamela Fila. She played the part of Elise and we also had Shaun Paul Costello, he was the boyfriend. Those were people that Charlie found, that he had worked with in the past. So, when I went out there that was my first time meeting some of them. It was pretty cool. It was all put together quickly. It was a ten day shoot. It was pretty low budget compared to other film projects out there, but it was fun. Everyone really enjoyed doing it. We all got along pretty well. So, yeah, it was just a cool experience and I’m really glad we were able to do that. And I’m really grateful to Charlie, too, for everything that he did for the film.
MM: Do you think you’ll make a short film based on the new album at all?
JT: If I could, I would love to. I wouldn’t necessarily act in it again, but I would love working on movie projects. With “Pretty in Porcelain” I had the privilege of co-directing with Charlie and that was a very cool experience. But, yeah, if I had the opportunity and I had the funds, totally, I would one hundred percent do it.
MM: Do you think you’d ever write a screenplay for a full-length feature?
JT: I actually started one for our last album, Council of the Dead. That got put on pause when the writing for this album started. And that’s kind of been consuming any bit of time I’ve had for the last year and a half so…
MM: What are your plans to tour behind the new album?
JT: We have a tour coming up starting September 29th with Alesana, that’s their headliner 10th anniversary tour and, yeah, that’s about two weeks on the East Coast and our album drops on September 30th so that’s gonna be a super solid push for us. For two week sales especially.
MM: Do you have plans to tour beyond that?
JT: Yeah, we’re working on stuff but nothing is solidified or confirmed or anything like that.
MM: Are you looking to headline?
JT: Maybe? I’d rather not. We’ve done quite a few headliners. We actually took a break from touring, but before the break we did a lot of co-headliners and some headliners and as fun as they are, and you get a lot of cool perks with headlining, you don’t really grow as much as you can being a support band. And that’s what I want to do right now. I want the band to grow for us to move forward. If the opportunity comes for us to headline and there’s not anything else going on, totally, we’ll do that. If not, we’d rather do support for right now.
MM: I was just thinking if you were to headline you could, perhaps, do the new album from front to back.
JT: Yeah, that’s always been something I’ve wanted to do but I want to wait and do that until we’re a little bit bigger and we can afford a cool stage production. I don’t want to half ass the first time we do an album from front to back. I want it to be a full on show and I want it to really showcase the elements of the story. We’re going to someday. Just not until we’re ready.
MM: Your first two albums were on In Vogue Records and now you’re on Revival Records. What spawned the change?
JT: Our contract was just up, really. And when I started talking to Shawn for the first time he’s just a very passionate person when it comes to music and art. And not only when it comes to his music and art but he was very passionate about our band and the stuff that we do. Seeing someone so passionate about us and who believed in us so much was very cool and Alesana, their contracted record band, they’re just like us. So, we kind of had opportunities to bounce ideas off of each other with someone who’s been in the same sort of boat writing-wise.
MM: We always ask some random questions with our interviews. Is that cool?
MM: Cool. What was the first album you ever bought with your own money?
JT: The first album I ever bought with my own money? That’s a long time ago. That’s a hard one because for so long my sister was the one showing me bands and she would just burn CDs for me. The first one I actually bought I think it was Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge by My Chemical Romance, the first one I actually bought with my own money.
MM: How do your family and friends deal with your success?
JT: They’re casual with it. My close friends are. Because it’s kind of like us. I don’t feel like our video’s been seen 12 million times. It’s not something that just sort of happens overnight. Especially like we’ve been working so long on this band that it’s been so gradual. There hasn’t really been one moment where it’s been like, “Woah, shit’s really picking up!” It’s been a long time coming, which is fine. I kind of prefer it that way. Now I feel like we’re ready for it. We’re ready to do what we gotta do. And so our closer friends and family, they don’t really look at us like, “Oh, you’re a big, famous band!” ‘Cause we don’t look at ourselves that way either. But sometimes I’ll see some people I went to high school with and I haven’t seen them in a really long time and that’s kind of all they know about me now is the band. They’ll be like, “Oh! You’re, like, famous now.” It’s like, “Well, no, but hi, how you doing? It’s good to see you, too.”
MM: Name three artists from your parents record collection who you actually like?
JT: Three artists from my parents record collection? They don’t really have a record collection but bands that they’ve shown me that I really enjoyed would be Queen – I really love Queen – my mother loved The Beatles when she was young and she played The Beatles for me when I was a kid all the time. That was a big one, too. And Rent, it’s not an artist, but the musical Rent. My parents got me into Rent when I was a really little kid. Which is kind of weird because it’s intense subject matter, but I guess that makes sense to why our stuff is so intense, too. But it makes sense to do that. You don’t want to sugarcoat what you’re singing about. If you’re trying to be real, you can’t sugarcoat shit. You’ve gotta be up front and you’ve gotta be real about it. You’ve gotta do the research, with like our concepts and what we’re writing about, and with Rent that’s what Jonathan Larson did. He wrote a very real musical with very relate-able characters and I loved it.
MM: Yeah, that’s my favorite musical, actually.
JT: Really? That’s awesome.
MM: Yeah, I’ve seen it a few times.
JT: I’ve seen it like seven times now.
MM: Really? Well, you’ve got me beat there then.
JT: One time on Broadway and that was actually my least favorite one. But I’ve been touring a lot, so…
MM: If you could resurrect one musician from the dead, who would you bring back?
JT: Freddie Mercury. Hands down.
MM: What’s the most useful piece of advice you’ve ever been given and who gave it to you?
JT: The most useful piece of advice? That’s actually kind of funny. It was through Shawn Milke, actually, but it didn’t come directly from his mouth. I actually had this interviewer tell me that she was talking to Shawn one time – no, I think she was talking to the singer of A Word Alive and apparently Shawn told him one night when he was real sick and he was concerned about going out on stage and not playing the best he could play. I guess Shawn went up to him and said, “It doesn’t matter if you’re at 100 percent or if you’re at 70 percent. If you’re only at 70 percent of what you can do and that’s all you can do, you go out there and give 100 percent of that 70 percent. That’s all people can expect from you.” And when she told me that, I was like, “That is really good advice.” So, when I’m sick on tour I try to think about that. That makes me feel a little more confident and a little bit better.
MM: What’s your favorite holiday and why?
JT: Probably Christmas. I love Christmas. My mom gets really into decorating the house so she kind of transforms the house one time a year and all the family comes together. It’s just, who doesn’t love Christmas? Unless you don’t celebrate Christmas. That’s a pass. You can not love Christmas if you don’t celebrate it.
MM: Who was your favorite Star Wars character?
JT: [Laughs] Vader, I guess. I’ve never been too into Star Wars. That’s more of a question for our guitarist, Tyler, he loves Star Wars. But, you know, Darth Vader’s a classic evil character. Yeah, I guess that’s my favorite.
MM: What’s the most awkward exchange you’ve ever had with a fellow musician?
JT: I don’t know. I feel like I can be such a weird, awkward person myself that I have a feeling that there’s a lot of people out there who might use me as the most awkward person that they’ve had the most awkward situation with. Which is totally cool. But I guess I don’t really get to a point where I feel that awkward with other people because I’m so comfortable being awkward and weird and out there. That’s cool. If someone else is being awkward and weird I guess that doesn’t make me feel awkward because I’m just all about it.
MM: Do you prefer making albums or playing live?
JT: I don’t think I necessarily prefer one over the other because they’re just two completely different things. They’re two completely different ways to express yourself. So, I think I love both of them equally. Because they all kind of go into what you have to do to do the band. And I love being in this band. I love performing. I love writing. I love telling stories. So, it all just goes into being in a band and loving what you do and I 100 percent love what I do.
MM: If someone was giving you a million dollars to give to charity, what charity or cause would you give it to? It all has to go to one.
JT: Probably suicide prevention. That one I’ve gotten very close to. Any charity out there that deals with suicide prevention. There’s so many out there. The only reason I know that is when we were doing Council of the Dead we wanted to work with some charities and we were going over there list and there were so many out there. So many people trying to help other people. It was inspiring. And like just that topic is closer to me. But, yeah, I would definitely do that.
MM: How old were you when you wrote your first song?
JT: Sixth grade. I don’t remember how old I was but it was sixth grade. 12, maybe?
MM: Lastly, I’ll ask you, who is your favorite director? Filmmaker.
JT: Martin Scorsese. He’s my favorite. He’s done some killer, killer movies and they’re all really long but it works. It’s not just a bunch of empty shit that goes into his movies. Every minute of it has a point and he utilizes every second that he puts out and he does it in a very creative way. Especially like – what was that one with Leonardo DiCaprio? The Aviator! That one. It’s like three hours long or something and I could watch that over and over again.