Last September, the Lonely Forest got fired.
"I have the termination letter framed," the band's guitarist, Tony Ruland, says with a laugh. His bandmates—singer/guitarist John Van Deusen, bassist Eric Sturgeon, and drummer Braydn Krueger—chuckle along with him. "I printed it out and framed it. I just thought it was so funny. It starts 'Dear Gentleman,' and at the end it says, 'Sincerely yours, Atlantic Records.'"
The band can laugh about it now, but that letter—the letter officially informing them that they'd been canned by Atlantic Records—was a bittersweet ending to a tedious, draining process. By the time that letter arrived, it was more a relief than a disappointment.
It wasn't the ending anyone saw coming more than three years ago, when the Lonely Forest excitedly announced that they were the first band to sign to Trans-Records, the new Atlantic subsidiary started by Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla. At the time, as the band continued to sell out venues in Seattle and gain more critical acclaim, signing to Trans- and possibly joining the Atlantic family felt like the most logical step.
Their contract with Trans- had an upstream option, meaning if they sold a certain amount of "units," they would automatically be signed to the major label. But that never happened. After the Lonely Forest released Arrows in 2011, "a Russian billionaire" bought Atlantic, and in the shake-up of new ownership, Trans- was dropped from Atlantic's roster, making it Walla's own independent label, and the Lonely Forest's contract became void. They were label-less.
But Atlantic wasn't done with them yet—while the band still had a healthy relationship with Walla, and could've possibly re-signed with Trans- right then, Atlantic said that they were still interested in putting out the band's follow-up to Arrows, and so began months and months of sorting through more than 70 demos, sending the songs back and forth via e-mail, to see if the label liked anything they heard. "Which is a really uncomfortable process," Ruland adds.
Unfortunately, in the end, the Lonely Forest just didn't sound enough like Lena Dunham's boyfriend's band to be, in Atlantic's opinion, commercially viable. "At the time we were trading demos, that fun. song 'We Are Young' had come out. It was huge," says Van Deusen. "And I don't know who it was who said it, maybe it was a boss telling another boss to tell our A&R agent to ask us, 'Could you guys try this?' It's just like, 'Dude, who do you think we are?'" Van Deusen continues. "Even if we tried to be fun., we couldn't do it."
"There's a reason stereotypes exist about major labels," adds Ruland. "But they're looking for their thing—they will ask you for that specific thing, and you have to decide if you want to sacrifice that part of you or not." The Lonely Forest did not, so they got dumped. "The interesting thing was, we went from that termination letter to talking with another major label, RCA," says Van Deusen. "And RCA was like, 'You guys are good, but you're not gonna sell us records.'
"That was when we realized that Walla was the girl next door who was there, waiting for us all along," he continues. "It's sweet and it's true. He believed in the next record enough to be like, 'I want to re-sign with you guys.' We would not have made this record had Walla not believed in the band."
The name of their new record, Adding Up the Wasted Hours, is a direct commentary on all the time the band spent waiting, getting tugged back and forth, and being told, in order to sell records, they'd have to sound more like this or that. And even though Atlantic and RCA decided the Lonely Forest wasn't a moneymaker, the result of that tumultuous courtship is the band's best record to date. If 2009's We Sing the Body Electric! was, as the band says, too claustrophobic, Arrows was, comparatively, too sparse. Wasted Hours, though, is just right. It's the perfect balance of the band's inclination to layer songs with lush instrumentation (you'll hear Karl Blau on saxophone), but each dimension is given room to breathe thanks to Walla's expert and nuanced production.
Being back with Walla and the now completely independent Trans-Records rejuvenated an excitement that the Lonely Forest hadn't felt for nearly a year while being dragged through major-label limbo. "It felt like we were getting healthy and pushing all these unnecessary things away from us," says Van Deusen. Ruland adds, "And it was also a total permission slip to go make the record we wanted to make."
In the past, the Lonely Forest have been very guitar-driven—Van Deusen calls it "meat and potatoes rock"—but on Wasted Hours, Ruland's guitar parts are much more sparkly and romantic, with a twist of new wave. "When I was writing all my guitar parts, I would watch Big, Pretty in Pink, Breakfast Club, Fast Times at Ridgemont High... I would watch all these '80s movies," he says, also citing both Johnny Marr and Porl Thompson as influences.
The romantic guitar riffs perfectly complement Van Deusen's lyrics, which are, as always, vulnerable, even if more cryptic this time around. Lyrically, he's always been very open about his emotions, his addictive personality, or his distaste for disingenuous hipsters. But on Wasted Hours, he holds himself back, revealing just enough about a situation to make the moments he's describing feel eerily familiar without giving everything away, which he admits is a new approach. "It's funny, I don't really want to explain the songs because, for the first time, I want people to just listen to it, relate to it, figure out what it means to them," he says. "But the songs, almost all of them, are coming out of a time where there's a lot of relationship confusion—that is so applicable to all these different scenarios, whether it be me personally, the band, the band and the label—it's cool to see how relatable it is."
"Yeah, it can be applied in so many ways," Ruland adds. He gets sheepish for a minute. "For example, between the release of Arrows and the release of this record, I have been married and now divorced. I've slowly related to the songs more and more and more. It's almost been creepy to me."
Wasted Hours sounds like the happy ending to difficult personal and professional transitions. Van Deusen calls it a breakup record, but it's more than that—it's the record that comes from the strength that's gained by surviving the breakup.
Trans- is flourishing, too—just weeks ago, the label also released Cumulus's fantastic debut full-length, I Never Meant It to Be Like This, and Cumulus and the Lonely Forest are currently on the road together.
Oh, and there is one more thing. The band is, technically, back on another major label subsidiary. Once Wasted Hours was wrapped, Alexandra Patsavas of Chop Shop Records, which is affiliated with Universal Republic, liked the album so much that Chop Shop signed on to co-release it. As a music supervisor, Patsavas has done the soundtracks for several movies and TV shows, including the Twilight series, Gossip Girl, and Mad Men. She could, no doubt, help the Lonely Forest's career.
So the Lonely Forest, in a way, took a very long route to get back to where they started three years ago. Are they worried they could get burned again? Yes, obviously—but it's a chance they're willing to take. "We're too dumb to stop," says Ruland. "I think you have to be dumb to want to 'make it' as a musician. It's the most illogical thing you could ever do as a human. It's like, 'I'm gonna make music for a living.'"
"I look at it like this," says Sturgeon. "It's a really silly analogy, but it's as if we're building a boat. You don't build a boat for years and years and years thinking the thing is not gonna float." Van Deusen interjects with a laugh, "It usually doesn't, in our case."
"But you keep getting in the fuckin' lake, don't ya?" I ask. He grins and straightens up his posture. "Yup!"