Tyler Connolly of Theory of a Deadman Talks New LP ‘Say Nothing’ (INTERVIEW)

Sometimes changes come slowly, allowing you time to adjust and acclimate to the new; but more oftentimes than not, change swoops down onto you and in the blink of an eye the landscape has altered and you either flow with it or panic. At one point, Theory (you know, Theory Of A Deadman, without the last three words but same band, harkening up that changing scenario again) vocalist Tyler Connolly thought he’d never be completely content in life and in work: “I think kind of with me is I don’t think I’ll ever be in a position where I’ve done it all so I can die now,” the Canadian told me during a 2012 interview for Glide. “There’s so many things for me to do. I am happier now but I don’t know if I’m content.” 

His forte was writing dark songs with a comical bent to a rockabilly-rock beat. For example, he starts off “Love Is Hell,” by singing, “I’d rather be punched in the face, Be sprayed with some mace, Than be head over heels.” And in “The Sun Has Set On Me,” he grunges about an angsty depressive cloud that hovers too close to his psyche: “Like tears in the rain, No one’ll notice, A fear I can’t explain, No one cares.” But so many of the songs seemed to splash around in relationship puddles – a girlfriend, a friend, family – that lingered closely in Connolly’s immediate sphere. But then one day, Connolly realized he was more than a guy who gets screwed over by a girl and that the world was a huge orb with millions of emotions and problems and beauty and hideousness. He found change in his vocabulary and it felt good.

So out popped 2017’s “Rx,” a realistic song about someone, something, other than poor sad Tyler. It reached into a depth of field that pricked his skin and summoned some cold, hard reality: “I am so frickin’ bored, Nothin’ to do today, I guess I’ll sit around and medicate.” The song, which addressed the opioid addiction epidemic that has been pummeling the population, became a hit: more than 250 million streams and #1 on the Billboard Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks Chart. The nerve Connolly hit literally opened up a new vein and new songs flowed out.

Come January, Theory will release Say Nothing, their seventh studio album, and it is fantastic; maybe even the best album Theory has recorded to date. Change looks good on Connolly. His focus is biting, fresh, realistic and hummable. Depression gets it share of air time but so does domestic violence (“History Of Violence”) and politics (“Strangers”) and racism (“White Boy”). “’Rx’ kind of opened the door for me to go and talk about things I never would have talked about before,” Connolly explained during our interview last week. “I’ve been very, I guess, afraid to go outside of the box.” But not anymore. 

Connolly, who grew up in a small town outside of Vancouver, Canada, was a mischievous kid, getting into fights – “I always tell people, you can’t grow up until you get punched right in the face” – pulling pranks and just being an all-out self-described “jackass.” His dad played music and Connolly went to concerts but he didn’t really get into playing music until he noticed how the girls reacted to his guitar-playing friends. Drums had come first, but he hated that, and eventually, he latched onto the guitar, which led to his being pushed, literally, up to the mic stand. “I could go up there and show off and show everyone that I could shred or whatever on guitar,” remembered Connolly. “But singing was way more personal for some reason.”

His friends, guitarist Dave Brenner and bass player Dean Back, became his bandmates. “They lived within walking distance to one another, within a mile I’d say from one another, which was really cool,” Connolly explained. “Dave would ride his bike over to my house to practice.” Drummer Joey Dandeneau would join the band prior to the 2011 release of The Truth Is …, Theory’s fourth studio album.

Connolly called in to talk about the new album a few days before their last show of the year in Biloxi, Mississippi, and the day before shooting a new video for “World Keeps Spinning.” He, of course, had just come from the barber’s chair, because, you know, “I got to look good.”

You actually let somebody touch that hair?

I know, well, we got to shoot a music video tomorrow and then we have a show the next day so I got to look good.

What video are you shooting?

We’re shooting a video for the song “World Keeps Spinning.” The video is going to be really good, going to be some dark stuff and I’m really excited about it.

I understand that’s a very personal song for you

Yeah, it’s probably the most personal song I’ve ever wrote. It really just kind of talks about some of the stuff I feel. I’ve dealt with anxiety and depression for years. I think a lot of artistic people kind of do, who knows why, but having this job doesn’t make it easier, so I just wrote a song about it. “World Keeps Spinning” talks about how as we get older, as I get older, some of my relatives pass away and then I kind of feel bad because I continue to live my life and then all of a sudden I think about them and be like, man, the world just keeps spinning, it’s kind of sad. So that was kind of where I got the idea from, how people miss me when I’m gone and that kind of thing. It’s a very kind of dark, heavy song but I think it’ll affect a lot of the people who hear it and will go, “Wow, this is me.” That’s kind of the reaction I’m looking for.

Do you ever feel guilt about that? That you don’t spend enough time with your family?

Oh yeah. We travel so much so it’s tough but I don’t know if that’s where it stems from. I definitely feel guilty. I have a great life and our job is amazing. We get to see so many great things and great places but yeah, sometimes it’s tough for all of us. A couple of the guys in the band have kids so I feel for them too when we travel weeks on end. 

Say Nothing seems to flow with the last record, Wake Up Call, so did the new songs you were writing dictate that same kind of sound or was it a conscious decision to stick with that rather than go in a super different direction sonically?

No, sonically it is whatever it is. I think more lyrically, yes. “Rx” kind of opened the door for me to go and talk about things I never would have talked about before. I’ve been very, I guess, afraid to go outside of the box. Being a rock band you kind of stick to certain things, at least for me, you know, relationships, women, things like that. So rarely will I write about something that I don’t know too much about. So I have to write it from my perspective, my opinion. 

On the new record, I just kind of dug right in. You know, I want to talk about politics, I want to talk about racism, I want to talk about domestic violence. Let’s do it! So it was very cathartic in that sense, just watching the news and reading stuff and going, ugh. So it gave me a great opportunity to give my opinion or tell people how I feel kind of thing. But I don’t know sonically. That just kind of plays out in the studio and we just naturally let what happens happen.

You’ve opened your focus more and you’re not just talking about one-on-one relationships and poor depressed Tyler. You’re talking about a variety of things that affect everybody. 

Yeah, I’ve been given the opportunity seven times now and I just can’t allow that opportunity to pass anymore. I mean, I have talked about some personal stuff in the past, don’t get me wrong, a lot of stuff, but I think this is more topical, more current event-y. I dug deep and I’m really proud of it, the record.

So what do you think is the scariest thing going on in the world today?

There’s a lot, man. Humans. We’re really selfish people, myself included, and if you watch stuff, like as I was getting my hair cut I was watching this show Planet Earth and it’s about insects and animals and stuff like that. It’s like this world happening outside that we don’t know exists and these people don’t even know we exist, these animals, and they talk that there is some sort of rainforest or something that is getting depleted and these animals are being destroyed and stuff. But it’s humans, we’re killing everything, we’re destroying everything. That’s probably the scariest thing, humans, I think. I mean, at the end of the day what’s going to destroy the human race? It’s not going to be the sun, we’ve got four billion years left with the sun. It’s going to be humans. I don’t think we all figured that one out but unfortunately, that’s probably the truth.

In terms of your songwriting, what is the hardest emotion to reveal?

I don’t know, I mean, being a guy, I’m a very stoic guy, so I think for me it’s very difficult to emote anything, to tell people how I feel – if I’m sad or angry. Honestly, it’s very difficult to tell people that you love them. Actually, it’s kind of embarrassing for a lot of guys, they have a problem doing that, especially me; like, just reaching out and telling people how much you appreciate them. So being a songwriter, that’s probably the toughest one for me. It’s easy to write down how I just want to sit around and medicate (laughs) but for me, it’s probably love.

What do you see as the strongest emotion on the new record?

Probably frustration. I mean, there is a lot and you can feel it in a lot of the songs. There is definitely some darkness and anger. A lot of the songs are just like, why? What the hell is going on here? You can kind of hear that in “Strangers” and “History Of Violence;” “White Boys” is kind of a sad song but it’s more about frustration and confusion. I think that’s an emotion that is happening a lot, especially in America; mass shootings and stuff – what is going on? Really, it’s how it affects you and how you move on from it. I think the only difference is we’re becoming desensitized to it, which is probably the very scariest thing cause it’s happening so much that we’re like, oh, there’s a shooting, anyways. When I was a kid we used to do earthquake drills at school and now kids have shooter drills at school. I can’t even comprehend what it’s like to be a kid these days. And really, we’re just trying to play a little bit of a part. I think that’s what is great about music is it does bring hope. That is something that even a song, three minutes of a song, can bring people enough energy to get up and face the day. That’s our little part.

Which song on Say Nothing would you say changed the most from it’s original conception to it’s final recorded version?

There are so many. “World Keeps Spinning,” the demo I had, had trap beats to it and it was closer to “Rx” or a hip-hop song and Martin Terefe, the producer, said, “I’m tired of this trap shit!” (laughs) He wanted to do this very aggressive, almost anxiety-driven drumbeat and he had Joe over play it. “Okay, do another take. Do it again but Joe really overplay this time, play way too much stuff.” And it was like, what the hell? But it really made sense. It was like, wow, this is way better. Now, I listen to the song and I feel like anxious. “Ted Bundy” changed a lot too. I thought it was a very typical song and once again Martin had an idea to try, to turn that into a “Sgt Pepper” feel. There’s tuba on there and stuff like that, some horns and stuff. So that one changed a lot and it’s really, really cool now. We just let Martin do whatever he wanted to do, which is great.

What does Martin bring to the music of Theory?

He’s a very talented producer. He’s produced some massive hits, big records. He did that big Train record with “Hey, Soul Sister” on it. He’s done a ton of big stuff, all the Jason Mraz stuff, but I love his vibe. It’s interesting because the majority of people that were in the studio were Swedish or Danish, a couple of English people, and the way they record is so different and the way they look at songs is so different, it was very refreshing for us. But what did he bring to the table? He brings so many great ideas. He’s like, “I got this great idea!” and he runs over to the piano and plays something or like on “Black Hole In Your Heart,” he just went on the keyboard and came up with (singing beats). “I think we get an orchestra to play that part. It be very good.” So he just has great ideas but he is all about vibe. He’s very relaxed and he comes in and sometimes we spend hours listening to a song. We’ll just sit there and listen to it and listen to it. 

So I don’t know, it’s very relaxing and he always works on vibe. And he always makes sure the band is working together as a band and we record together as a band. So when we do the take, we do the take together. He doesn’t do a ton of overdubs, which is great. Everything is always connected as a band. To get a great take, it’s always the band who got the take and I think that’s really important.

How formed are your songs when you hit the studio?

The construction of the songs are all done. Everything is written, lyrics are done. I demo everything up beforehand, not necessarily finished. Sometimes I do try to finish up but sometimes it’s just kind of bare-bones and I’ll send it to Joe and he’ll put some drums on it and send it to me and say, “What do you think of this? What if we did more tom stuff?” But once we get into the studio, we kind of have the bare bones of every song so that way we’re focused on working on sonics or on adding detail rather than, oh, I’ve got to finish the chorus. I couldn’t do it cause I’d feel stressed out. I know when we’re in there and our A&R guys says, “Write two more songs while you’re there,” and I just refuse. It’s like, no, we got a record, the record’s done, I’m not writing two more songs cause they won’t be good cause when am I going to write these songs? We’re in the studio all day. So I refuse.

Which guitar did you use predominately when recording this time?

Well, Dave plays pretty much all the guitars now on our records but we had quite a few different guitars. There was this Gretsch Sparkle Jet that was used on quite a bit of stuff. This friend of Martin’s who has this amazing guitar collection, he brought some of his guitars over and he has this like vintage Korina Wood Flying V and I think it’s worth $500,000. So he brought that by for us to play some stuff on it. So I think the main guitars were the Gretsch Sparkle Jet, a Tele – quite a bit of stuff on the Telecaster – and the Flying V.

Theory has a big tour coming up in the spring and you are doing something special via the tickets – and that’s not really unusual for you guys to take on a cause for your tours. Tell us more about what you’re doing with Plus1.

Yes, we haven’t actually figured out where we want the money to go to yet. I think we are still waiting for clearance from the organization we’re looking at. But Plus1, what happens is one dollar for every ticket for this spring tour in the States goes to Plus1, which then will go to, of our choosing, a non-profit. We are looking at something that will help domestic violence. So Plus1 holds onto it until we choose the non-profit of our choice. You know, these are the kind of things that are easy to do and it’s not really something like where you go to the grocery store and they ask you, “Hey, would you like to give a dollar to this or the Red Cross?” and you’re embarrassed if you say no (laughs). It’s very easy for people, you know what I mean. It’s already included in the ticket and we can help some people, hopefully, so it raises awareness. We’re always trying to attach something to our tours to at least raise awareness. We had some Theory Rx pins with our last record and we’ve got some new pins coming for this record as well.

And you’re still not doing “Love Is Hell” live, I see

No, there are so many songs we get asked to play live, I just don’t know what we’re going to do. But I know on our Canadian tour we’re going to have to play at least three or four different songs we haven’t played in a long time cause we’d just get in trouble (laughs). But I don’t think we’re doing “Love Is Hell.” 

My last question to you is, you once told me that you didn’t think you’d ever be completely content. So who has Tyler Connolly developed into over these last ten years?

Well, I would say much more content (laughs). You know, I mean, everything is great. I think that’s just kind of my personality is just in a sense, never be happy with, not more with life but more with work, I think. I think it doesn’t matter how many #1 singles we have or how many tickets we sell or how many records we release, I think for us it’s always, well, we could have went a little bit farther, we could have sold a little more tickets. So I think it’s just my personality. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing as long as it doesn’t consume you, as long as you understand that, like now I look at music, it’s not my life, it’s PART of my life, and as I get older I like to look back and go wow, I’ve done some amazing things. I don’t look back and go, well this sucked and that sucked and should have done this different. I think that’s some great progress for me. I think it’s fantastic.

 

Band portrait by Jimmy Fontaine; live photographs by Leslie Michele Derrough

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