Besides rock legends Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi, New Jersey has been the breeding ground for an array of musicians that have grown to become hometown legends. From Gaslight Anthem to My Chemical Romance to Midtown, the music of the Garden State spans many styles and influences. Regardless, they all look at their homes with pride. Chris Conley, singer, guitarist and lyricist for Saves The Day, particularly remembers his upbringing in Princeton, NJ, as a time of personal growth and musical discovery. From discovering new artists at the Princeton Record Exchange to playing shows with friends at nearby VFW halls, Conley’s adolescence is something he carries in his back pocket as his inspiration and reason for moving forward.
Although albums such as Through Being Cool are staples to angst-ridden memories, Conley, Arun Bali (lead guitar/backing vocals), Rodrigo Palma (bass) and Claudio Rivera (drums/percussion), have evolved with their last three albums: Sound The Alarm, Under The Boards and Daybreak. Conley took time to discuss the trilogy’s theme of progression and growth in light of struggle and confusion. He also touches on his memories of the New Jersey music scene and how the Internet is a gift to independent artists worldwide.
You guys have been on tour for a while with Bayside. How has everything been going so far?
Yeah, we’re in San Diego today [Oct. 27] and it has actually been great so far touring with the new record. We just got to the West Coast a few days ago, and it has been fantastic to play on the nice weather and the fans have been amazing so far. Everyone seems to really like the new album so that’s a lot of fun for us.
Saves The Day has been touring consistently since the summer. How did you guys work in new tracks from Daybreak during each night’s set? Was it more strategic or was it sporadic?
There was a bit of a method to the madness. We wanted to play new songs for people because it was so long since the last album came out. But we also didn’t want to give it all away. So I think we were trying to play as many songs as we could to just give our fans an idea of what was coming, but also to keep some songs in our back pocket so they could be surprised when they hear the whole thing.
Were there any tracks the fans responded to more?
Before the album came out, we hadn’t played “Daybreak,” which is the first, very long track. We were doing “1984,” “Let It All Go,” “Deranged & Desperate” and “Undress Me.” I think out of all those songs, people enjoy all of them equally but maybe there was something more special about “Undress Me.” It’s a slower, more dramatic song and it was quite effective live.
Was it because it was a bit of a genre shift from your typical sound and material?
It could be just because it was different for us. We’ve done ballads in the past but it’s probably more effective because of the dynamics being so different from the other songs, like you were saying. It was probably surprising for fans to hear us play such a stark song and not have the album out yet. We just kind of thought it was a good song, played it and everybody liked it.
Overall, I feel like the album is a bit of a separation for you guys. It still has elements of quintessential Saves The Day but you can hear more minor chord progressions and just a darker feel at times.
Yeah it’s great working with Arun and Rodrigo because they have a great sense of music. So if I play some strange, diminished chords, they know what to do with it.
Daybreak is the last in the musical trilogy with Sound The Alarm (2006) and Under The Boards (2007). How did this album differ from the first two installments instrumentally and lyrically? How did it manage to tie up all the loose ends of the other albums?
It was fun to work on that, actually, because tying the albums together was a creative challenge. I had fun with it. I put all the lyrics on a poster board, almost like a chart, for all the albums in the trilogy, and just highlighted the important themes that needed to be resolved in Daybreak and made a bunch of notes in the margins. It was a completely different way for me to write but it was fun.
I say that it was a bit like writing a screenplay because you really had to connect the dots. I actually like that process, but for me, the trilogy was all about Daybreak. That was the original idea: Trying to get through all of the dark parts of your psyche so that you can accept life as it is and not fight against it. Sound The Alarm is dealing with all of the anger and confusion while Under The Boards is sort of transforming out of that negative space knowing that you need to change. Daybreak is accepting things as they are finally. For me it was a really fun project to work on and I’m glad that our fans connect with it. It’s nice that it’s finally finished.
Was there anything in particular you wanted your fans to get out of the whole listening experience?
Well, I definitely write the music for myself first and foremost. And it’s almost an after-thought what people will think of the songs. If anything, I did know that our fans would enjoy hearing me sing about more uplifting things instead of just dwelling on the harder parts of life. You know, our fans connect with the lyrics because they’re so honest. I feel like it’s important for people to sometimes try to start again, turn a new leaf, to pick up the pieces from the past and carry on, and I think for a lot of our fans they’re thankful for the music being more about acceptance than rejecting life because they need that in their own life.
Saves The Day has been around making music for nearly two decades. In that time, you’ve been a staple for countless music enthusiasts and an inspiration to a number of bands—especially from the Garden State. Retrospectively, how has your career exceeded your expectations?
I never even took it that far. I just liked playing guitar (laughs). I never thought that it could be something I could do with my life. I was just really obsessed with music and it was all I thought about. I was purely lucky to fall into this position. I think if it had been me alone, I never would have booked one show. I didn’t have any desire to play live, I just liked writing songs a lot. Our original drummer, Bryan Newman, was the one who wanted to play concerts, peoples’ basements, and eventually he wanted to play someone’s basement in Massachusetts or Virginia, and that’s how we started touring around.
We never knew that it was going to become something special. It just was something we did. We got together on the weekends and played music. When we started playing basement shows, more and more people started to show up. It wasn’t a lot of people at first, but it built by itself very naturally and organically. I don’t think I was ever aware of what it was going to be like in the long run—that we would be one of the bands to stick around. I’m just absolutely blown away and in awe of the whole thing. It’s just surreal in a beautiful way to be a band that is influential and can make music. I never even dreamed we could make it.
You and the rest of the band are big on interacting with your fans through the web, whether it’s through Twitter or on your “featured fan question” forum. How do you think the powers of the Internet have extended your reach as a band and affected your relationships with fans?
A band like us relies more on our fan base and word-of-mouth than anything else. To connect with our fans is not only fun, it’s important. But we do enjoy it. We look on our Facebook, Twitter and Q & A all the time to think of ways to make the fans feel closer because we honestly couldn’t do it without them. In a way, our dedicated fans are just as important as we are. We treat them like that, you know? And I think they know we appreciate them.
I think the modern digital age is great for musicians, even though in some ways, it’s still figuring itself out, like in the sales sector (laughs). But it’s a good thing for people that love music because you can just access your favorite artist all the time. I imagine if I had been a kid, and I could reach out and send an email to Billy Corgan, and have him respond in some way, I would have been over the moon.
Your roots are in Princeton, NJ, and you started to develop as an artist when the scene was really starting to thrive. What were your fondest memories of growing up in the New Jersey music scene?
It was a cool time. There was no notion of success. Everybody just liked to play music. This was way before MySpace and magazine covers (laughs). It was just fun to go to a community center or YMCA on the weekend, an Elk’s Lodge even, and all of your friends’ bands would be playing. It would be a $2, show and everybody would go out to eat afterwards. It was just very communal. We learned a lot in those years on just how to be courteous to each other. Because when you’re sharing a stage with your friends, you get out of their way, respectfully. We still operate like that: As if every show is a small show. A lot of good musicians that started back then are still around today.
Does Saves The Day have anything special in store when you guys return to the Tri-State area?
When we play two shows back to back, we try to keep the set list different each night. So chances are, if you go to both shows, then you can hear about 50 songs. That’s fun, that we can do so many sings in one spot. It’s also special that it’s in New York. It’s home turf for us.
Starland Ballroom recently released news that you guys will be playing a show on Dec. 23. I know you’ve moved to the West Coast, so how does it feel to return to your stomping grounds?
I love it. I like to take my bandmates around my old stomping grounds. My dad loves to take us out and drive around the town where I grew up. It’s a great place to have grown up, and every time I go back there, I feel nostalgic.
I’m so aware that this wonderful upbringing and early adulthood is behind me. It’s one of those bittersweet feelings where I’m thankful for all my time and I’m sad that it’s gone. And honestly, the only way to deal with that is to keep moving forward and enjoying your time as it occurs, rather than looking over your shoulder.
Saves The Day play Irving Plaza on Nov. 15 and 16. Their latest album, Daybreak, is out now. For more information, visit savestheday.com.