Under the Influence

Anthony Green, the frontman and staff member of Circa Survive, Saosin, et. al., takes his new life sober on the road.

Photo by Tom Espinosa

Sex. Drugs. Alcohol. Debauchery.

These words are synonymous with touring, and, usually, with rock ’n’ roll as a whole. Some of the greatest records ever were written under the influence, and it’s crazy to think about what some of them would sound like written
completely sober, if ever written at all.

And the live performances — how much amazing footage have we all seen of the greatest performers, drunk with complete abandon, letting loose their minds to a completely different plane of existence?

What do you do as a musician when you’ve realized that enough is enough?

What happens to touring and partying when you bring marriage and children into the mix? For many musicians, having kids means their musical dream is over. Having kids means it’s time to trade the tour bus for a minivan, the late nights for a nine-to-five, trading passion for obligation.

Anthony Green, vocalist and lyricist for Philadelphia’s Circa Survive (as well as Saosin, The Sound of Animals Fighting, and numerous solo albums), has found a different meaning for sobriety. For him, all of those empty nights now means a rejuvenation for his passion, a more mature view of life and a new outlook on what it means to be a touring musician. Currently headlining a tour in support of their fifth full-length, Descensus, their first release for Sumerian Records — and easily their best and most focused album since 2005’s Juturna — I was able to speak with Green about his new perspective on writing and touring, and what “father of three” now means to him.

Where are you guys at tonight?
Houston, Texas tonight. We’re out with Title Fight and Pianos Become the Teeth. Tera Melos was on the first half of the tour. What a great band.

Tour going well so far?
Yeah. It’s been the best one we’ve done ever, I think.

First things first: I have to ask about the video for “Schema.” It’s one of the more bizarre concepts I’ve seen in recent memory, with you getting punched the whole time by a giant boxing baby and all. What was the origin of that idea? What does it even mean?
It’s based on a weird dream I had. We based everything in the video around that dream. I think it’s better to leave it up to interpretation rather than try to analyze all of the crazy symbolism in there, because there’s a lot of awesome symbolism in there. But it’s nothing I really want to get too much into, but rather let the people interpret on their own.

That’s fair. I’ve got to ask though: How much of that was real? Some of those hits really looked like they hurt.
That’s the one thing that was really important for us in making the video. We didn’t want it to look some shadowboxing match. We knew in the beginning we’d have to get hurt a little bit to make it look real.
I’m sure I could have taken way more of a beating, though, let’s put it that way. I definitely got knocked around quite a bit, but if the big baby hit me as hard as he wanted to, I probably would have gotten my head knocked off. He took it easy on me.

Talk to me about fatherhood. You have three kids, and one is just a few weeks old, right?
Yeah, one is eight weeks old. The others are two and four.

Wow, I can completely relate. I have three kids myself — two, four and six.
Oh, so the same distance apart then.

Yep. We’ve both got our hands full. Are your kids touring with you?
Not this time. I did a tour last year around this time where the kids came out with me, but the little guy is just too little right now to come out on the tour bus with a bunch of dirty, stinky dudes (laughs).

The first few weeks are so special. How does it feel to be on tour and not being able to be around your newborn?
It sucks. It sucks so bad. And it’s, like, confusing, you know? On one hand you don’t want to miss this time; they grow so quick. They’ll never be this little peanut size again. But then, you also have to go out and do what you…

You have to go out and provide for them at the same time. It’s one of those weird things where you’re caught in the middle. For me, at least. With every one of the kids, I’ve been out on tour for important times of their lives. But I have to wonder, if I was home all the time, would II just end up having a nine-to-five job, working five days a week and not being around them all the time anyway?

The thing is, when I’m home from tour, the days that I spend with them, I’m there. All day long. I’m up in the morning making them breakfast and I’m tucking them back in at night.

So for you, part of making it work — being a touring musician with multiple children — it’s more about really being intentional with the time you do spend with them.
Yeah. You have to just press through the sh-tty times. It’s difficult to find the balance; things are so off kilter. But I’m doing my best.

It’s interesting you said fatherhood is “confusing.” As soon as you said that, I totally understood what you meant. This idea that your music is your passion and your financial livelihood, but your family being your passion and your personal livelihood as well, and the fragility of having to balance the two.
That’s exactly what I mean. It just sends you down this hole all the time where you’re wondering if you’re doing the right thing on either end of the spectrum.

I think — because this job is a little self-indulgent — you get, like, “Well, f-ck. Am I just doing this because I get a kick? Because I get thrills from it? If so, is that fair to do that to my family?” Or, “Aren’t I supposed to sacrifice what I love for them? Wouldn’t that be the most important thing to do?” I don’t know.

I’m sure it can feel self-indulgent at times, but then you have the amount of lives you’re changing and inspiring through doing this. It kind of makes it worth it, right?
Yeah. I want my boys to grow up with the idea that what you love doing is worth suffering for. I want them to do what makes them feel good, to follow their dreams, as corny as that sounds. But it’s not going to be easy. If it’s easy, it wouldn’t be right.

Do your two older kids understand what you’re doing? What do they think of your music?
I don’t know. I mean, I tell them when I’m leaving, and they’ll be like “Oh, you’re going to go play concerts?” So, they know I’m doing music. We played a show last summer and they came out; they were standing on the side of the stage with our tour manager and would jump around and dance and throw drumsticks. They seemed to really enjoy it, but I don’t think it makes any difference to them if I’m onstage singing and dancing or if I’m working at a Seven Eleven.

Yeah, I think about my two- and four-year-olds, and they know what music is, they get that I play it, but I don’t think either of them can think logically enough yet to really “get” it. On the other hand, my six-year-old is starting to have real feelings, show logical thought processes, and I know it’d be different for him.
There was this time, recently, I was home and I was with my four-year-old, and we were out getting juice. Somebody stopped me and asked to take a picture. I told my son, “One sec, buddy, I gotta take this picture really quickly.” We took the picture really fast. And then he turns to me and says, “Come on, Daddy! Let’s go! You don’t know this person!”

(Laughs) That’s great.
And I don’t know where he picked that up or where it came from, but I thought, “F-ck. Yeah, you’re right, dude. Let’s go.” They get certain things.

For me, being a father really changed the way I look at hanging out and partying and indulging. Even seeing people younger than I am, I look at them differently now. Do you ever look at some of these younger kids differently now at shows? Has being a father changed the way you act?
Definitely. They say that hindsight is 20/20. You can look back on what you did for so long; it gives you that weird perspective. You have kids coming up to you every night saying stuff to you. You almost feel entitled to tell them, Don’t do that. Some kid will tell me, “I’m going to get your autograph tattooed on me!” And I’m like, “Don’t f-cking do that!” (laughs). They’ll be like, “It’s going to be my first tattoo!” and I’m like, “Please, don’t do that. That’s ridiculous. You might not like me in five years. You might think I suck. I might put out my rap record and you’ll think I’m a horrible sellout. Don’t get my tattoo on you!”

I’ll also talk to people and they’ll be like, “Dude, I saw you six years ago and you f-ckin’ slammed your head on the ground because you were so wasted! It was out of control man! I loved it!” And I’m like, F-ck. I was an idiot. I’m such an idiot sometimes.

Right, and in your mind, you might second-guess yourself and think, Oh I just sound like a prude or an old guy now. But at the same time, there’s a fatherly instinct that kicks in, sort of a built-in wisdom.
Sometimes I feel like yelling at kids to put their sweatshirts on. Because it’s cold outside (laughs).

You guys are doing a dry tour. Is this the first time?
Sort of, yeah. We’ve definitely toured where we’ve said we weren’t going to drink, but we’ve had all of the mishaps you can have while trying to take care of a situation. We’ve had tours where I said I wasn’t going to drink or do anything, but then I was still doing sh-t, just f-cking hiding it from everybody.

This is the first real “grown-up” tour we’ve done, and, as far as I know, I feel like we’ve been having a lot more fun.

At the beginning of this conversation, you mentioned this is probably the best tour you’ve ever done. I can’t imagine you all being sober isn’t a big part of that. Is it opening your eyes to a new dimension of touring you may never had noticed?
I mean, I know for me, being drug- and alcohol-free gives me a better quality of life. I know that’s part of the reason why I’m enjoying the tour more. I know that’s part of the reason why I enjoy everything more. That sh-t really would just drag me down, you know? It brought a lot of unnecessary sh-t into my life. So that’s part of it.

I think being able to focus solely on music is part of it. Being older and really feeling things. Not being drugged-up or drunk really makes you feel more alive. It makes sh-t so much more real.

How does being totally sober affect writing? Did you write Descensus sober?
Almost 100%. There was one song on the record I wrote when I was really f-cked up. It’s called “Nesting Dolls.” A bunch of people have told me it’s their favorite song on the record, and, to be honest, it bums me out. It’s literally my least favorite song I’ve ever written. It’s the saddest thing. It’s borderline too-honest in my opinion. Musically, it’s a great song. But it’s really hard for me to listen to.

It did stick out to me as feeling different from the rest of the album. It felt especially sad. It’s interesting to know that’s part of the reason why.
It’s definitely a hard song for me to live with. But it’s still a good song.

That being said, I find that my creativity is a lot more driven, a lot more focused when I’m sober. I can just sit down and write lyrics off the top of my head, which is the way I did it when I was 19 or 20 years old. When I was just starting to do this sh-t. I would always write that way.

But as I got older, I really started to struggle to write. I thought that was just a condition of getting older, but it turns out that my judgement was just really clouded.

You’re kind of a special case, being such a prolific musician with so many projects going on all of the time. For many musicians, their biggest inspiration is writing music under the influence. You’ve removed substances from your life, so what inspires you on a daily basis?
The people in my life inspire me. The interpersonal dynamic of relationships has always inspired me. It’s not like I sit down and think, “I’m going to write about this thing that happened in history” (laughs).

And I’m not a topical songwriter. But, for instance, my friend is going through a divorce. So it’s on my mind. I’m seeing this person and feeling this person’s pain. So I’ll write about that. Or my wife and I will be fighting because of something, and I’ll write about that. Or my kids will make me think about something, and I’ll write about that. It’s the people in my life, the people I live with, on tour and at home, that have been the inspiration of all of the Circa records. They’re autobiographies. They are about what’s happening right then, in that moment.

Was this new record easy to write? It seemed really concise and buttoned up when I listened to it. What was your dynamic as a band in the writing process for Descensus?
It felt a lot like the way we wrote our first record. We all had a bunch of instrumental ideas, some we had prior, some we came up with in the studio. We had enough material from our back catalog — just stuff we had been jamming on and didn’t finish — we would work with our producer, Will Yip, to give melody and structure to the record. It just came together, much of it in the studio.

Then we spent a couple weeks tracking it. It’s probably the most fun Circa record we’ve ever written, and it’s probably the recording process that’s been filled with the most “Oh f-ck! That’s great!” moments.

You’ve been on an indie label (Equal Vision), then a major label (Atlantic), and then had an extremely successful self-release (Violent Waves). Now you’re back with an indie, Sumerian, for this latest release. Why work with a label again after successfully self-releasing your last album?
I think the people from Sumerian… They are such a different type of record label. The difference between self-releasing and working with Sumerian is that the people at the label are our team. Anything we had to do ourselves that made the self-release part so hard — they are doing for us. We have this office full of amazing people who share our vision, whether it’s with videos or packaging or whatever it is. They are right there with us. They are very artist-friendly. They fought for the band, really trying to prove they wanted to make us happy. They want to share our vision and bring it to fruition. Doing it on your own, you have to execute so much of the process it becomes overwhelming. Now we have this huge office full of people who not only care about the band, but they understand it as well.

Not to mention we have a lot more funding, you know, to go and do some of the weirder sh-t. Like the “Schema” video. Funding we wouldn’t have necessarily had before.

Do you attribute their artist-friendliness — letting you do whatever you want, even if it’s weird — to Sumerian being a diverse label musically, unlike other labels that aim to have bands that sound similar?
I attribute it to the fact that the people who run the label — as individuals — are so driven creatively. They have a passion for art. They don’t look at music as an investment that’s going to make them a quick return. They look at it as a creative investment.

When you’re completely driven by the dollar, you’re going to make some bad decisions. And those dudes run a really good business; they’re able to keep budgets in mind and be smart, but also deal with passionate artists who are really into their work. And that feels like an “If you build it, they will come”-type business. They are willing to take risks.

I don’t know much about other labels or even about their bands — to be honest with you, I don’t even know too much about many of the other bands who are on Sumerian — but I do know that Ash (Avildsen, Sumerian founder and owner), was really excited to work with us. He was willing to take risks, whether creatively or financially, and focus on the most important — for us that’s our aesthetic, the artistic representation of the band — and never make it about trying to make money. The band never started with the idea that we’d make a lot of money, and it’s more important to us to get our vision across, to make our statement and to build our community, than it is to buy a f-cking mansion.

Alright, I’m going to put you on the spot, then. In one sentence, what is that statement? What is Circa Survive’s statement?
In one sentence? (Laughs…)

We want people who recognize and identify themselves as listeners of Circa Survive to realize, accept and learn how to be totally capable of their true potential, and to do what makes them happy in life.

I refuse to believe you just came up with that off the top of your head (laughs).
Yes. You put me on the spot, and I had to f-cking deliver (laughs)!

Circa Survive was posted on December 22, 2014 for HM Magazine and authored by .