Aussie Feature: Trophy Eyes

“I could’ve written a song and hope it gets covered by The Wiggles. They don’t know what I’m doing or our intent!”

Hearing from John Floreani, not long after the vocalist had moved into his new place in Melbourne with his partner (“I had no idea how much shit needed to go into a house”), it’s exciting times for the Trophy Eyes frontman and the band. What with their grand third LP, this month’s newly-released ‘The American Dream’, probably being their most important record thus far. Much like 2016’s fan-favourite ‘Chemical Miracle’ before it, this new 12-track epic is going to be another massive stepping-stone for the Sydney alternative act; a very different sounding record for them but a good one at that. This record is and will be a risky move, but one that’s absolutely worth taking and one that will more than likely pay off in droves. Even though some close-minded pop-punk and melodic hardcore fans will undoubtedly shit the bed once they hear this ballad-heavy, classic-rock and pop-inspired record in-full and wonder where all the screaming went. Yet it’s an album marked by both real human and musical growth for John and Trophy Eyes as a collective. All with some fantastic production, great melodies, larger orchestral arrangements and ear-worming hooks to boot.

It really is their most versatile record yet, and that’s exciting for a band once playing these smaller-scaled hardcore shows. Which is what I enjoy most about ‘The American Dream’: it’s proof that Trophy Eyes can truly be a multi-faceted group. I love when bands prove that they’re so much more than what they did on their last outing in a genuine fashion. Simply put, it’s a really well-produced, well-written release front to back. Recorded at the pristine Karma Sound Studios near the sunny beaches of Thailand, that’s what this album sounds like: a bright, upbeat and earnest sun-filled anthem that still sees Trophy Eyes be as honest and as real as ever. (This album was put together at the same studio were Hellions usually record too, with Trophy Eyes crossing over with their UNIFIED label mates numerous times over the years). More than that, though, ‘The American Dream‘ is a product of the environment it was written and eventually conceived in, as the frontman explains.

“I was in Texas for most of the writing process,” states John. “So I was subject to my environment, which was a lot of bands like The Killers, Coldplay, Bruce Springsteen, and lots of 1980’s and Americana pop stuff. The sound of ‘The American Dream’ came out of that in part, but also subconsciously too. As I intended to write the sound of where I was personally.”

John continues, pulling back the curtain a little on the personal tastes of the band members.

“Trophy Eyes, as a whole, we actually listen to a lot of pop music. We don’t listen to too much else. I’m a little bit of everything – jazz, classical, pop, punk, metal, etc. But for us, it’s a lot of pop and classic rock stuff; the big ballad rock music. When I say that it’s pop, I don’t mean music like Iggy Azalea – not that she’s bad – but that there’s a line for us. We do love our classic rap as well, and we don’t listen to much heavy music these days. The only heavier acts I listen to are the big ones making those new sounds – the Knocked Loose’s or the Code Orange’s, the bands who sound unique and like themselves. As we’ve gone on, we’ve listened to less and less alternative music, especially as we’re older. We’re all in our mid-twenties now.”

With age, it would be grossly disingenuous of not just John but the rest of the band as songwriters to pump out mere carbon copies of ‘Mend, Move On’ (2014) or ‘Chemical Miracle’ every two years. People – fans or otherwise – would see right through that contrived and weakly-written bollocks, as it just wouldn’t be a genuine reflection of where they are currently at as artists. Which is exactly what ‘The American Dreamis; Trophy Eyes trying to live their best life in 2018, with as many hooks and as much emotion as possible.

The first introduction the world got of this new record was ‘You Can Count On Me’ – probably one of the catchiest songs I’ve had the pleasure of hearing in 2018. Yet it was a divisive track for some, with calls of “sell out” being levelled in the band’s direction. For me, as I’ve said before, “selling out” is an upheaval of one’s core values. In this case, for a band, it’d be an artist cheapening or removing their central lyrical and thematic ethos; taking out what makes them relatable and authentic. Which just isn’t the case for Trophy Eyes, no matter how some disgruntled listeners feel about the sound change, as shown by songs such as ‘More Like You‘, ‘Tip Toe‘, ‘Broken‘, ‘Lavender Bay‘, and ‘I Can Feel It Calling‘. With ‘The American Dream‘, it’s still honest, it’s still them, and if you can’t see that, then that’s on you, friendo.

“There are a couple reasons people say that [selling out],” mentions John.

“There’s Jumping Ship Syndrome and Tall Poppy Syndrome, where someone feels so personally attacked that they want to tear down something good. With Jumping Ship Syndrome, that’s how some smokers feel when a friend quits – that they’re “conforming” because they quit smoking. They feel attacked because you’re bettering yourself. With fans and listeners, some go “Oh, I can’t believe Trophy Eyes wrote pop-punk songs and now this new song is less pop-punk, blah blah blah.” Like, what are they talking about? That we’re sell-outs for not screaming on a song? Come on! We just do what we always do. When people say that we’re only trying to get on the radio and that’s it, well, that’s a non-fact. That’s someone talking out of their ass. I could’ve written a song and hope it gets covered by The Wiggles. They don’t know what I’m doing or our intent! We don’t care enough about these people or strangers online to write a song for them, as always we’ve ever done is write music just for ourselves.”

“Trophy Eyes has never really written the same record twice. When we wrote our first EP [‘Everything Goes Away’], people were surprised by it, as it wasn’t quite punk or rock, but it wasn’t quite hardcore yet it had breakdowns as well. That EP was us writing what we liked and what we wanted to hear. Which hasn’t changed now. We just write the record that we’d want our favourite album to sound like; the one we so desperately want to hear. That probably sounds obnoxious or self-absorbed, but if you’re not going into the studio to write your favourite record, then what the fuck are you doing? Are you gonna write for somebody else? That’s strange! So we just write whatever the fuck we please, and if that’s not what you like right now, then that’s fine. It just simply means you didn’t like what we wrote.”

In this part of our conversation, we arrive at the nature of living with criticism when you’re so heavily in the public eye, as a band on the sharp upward climb like Trophy Eyes is. Because whether you write the record that you want to hear as an artist or not, you cannot please everyone. Once it’s out there, your art is whatever someone else wants it to be.

“I do wanna make this clear: Trophy Eyes accepts criticism as we’re in the entertainment business, as that’s how this world works. Criticism is fine, it’s healthy. It’s all apart of the job, and we live with it. If you say that you don’t like our band, that’s fine – promote that. Talk about why and use your voice; discuss what you like and what you don’t like. It’s how we all grow as people. But it’s sometimes so much more than you can ever imagine, man. As I do remember one of the first ever comments we received on our music video for ‘Hourglass’, was “this band thinks their all that releasing a music video”. It’s so funny, we all still laugh about it now”, John laughingly recalls.

Oh, just wait, it gets better.

“We came from such an underground place where we played bookstores and shows with like three people, and people thought we were cool because no one knew who we were. Then when people started finding out who we were in 2014, we tried to play a bookstore in Sydney somewhere for a music video shoot – this really cool place on Parramatta Road – and they said, “No, sorry, your political agenda doesn’t align with ours”. And it was so bizarre, as we don’t have an agenda! That’s the kind of insanity we deal with, man.”

Trophy Eyes, 2018.

That’s some fuckin’ insane logic, and it’s alien to the band and me hearing it back as well. That these are the kind of hills people will happily die on in terms of not liking Trophy Eyes – they’re “political agenda” (lol) and daring to have a music video (LOL). For John, if the criticism was that people just didn’t like his vocal style or that they weren’t a fan of the new style, then that’s fair enough. But sometimes, he sees it go weirdly further.

Which is a major element of ‘You Can Count On Me’, a response to the horrible shit the band had received. As the song isn’t about over-zealous fans with Trophy Eyes tattoos and those who follow the band members on social media thus thinking they know the five-piece inside and out, nor was it even about critics or writers like myself pulling apart their music and lyrics to try and figure it all out. No, it was a track to hit back at the bullies out there, as the singer puts it. The ones that threaten the band’s lives and family. People can speak their truth, of course, but there is a line between feedback and criticism and just becoming vile in wishing genuine ill and harm upon someone. For all of the negative reviews I’ve done over the years, I would never wish to see those individuals actually hurt. Yet on the other end of the spectrum in the music world, John has read terrible things that go past opinion and into the realm of threats.

“‘You Can Count On Me’ isn’t a shot about our fans, but to the people who think I owe them because they bought a ticket to a show. Well, they’re pretty much co-funding my cocaine habit,” he cheekily adds.

“The song was to humanize what we do. As you can’t say that you hope our van flips and we die. As I read that shit and I have feelings and it hurts. There’s a mentality to some out there that they pay our wages, which is an incredibly narcissistic viewpoint. I can barely afford my rent so those people are just misinformed. I don’t owe anybody anything. One thing people would comment is ‘van smith’ or something like that, and Bryan from Knocked Loose told me these terms are them meaning they hope our van flips and that we all die. One literal quote I saw was “I hope these guys get cancer and die”, amongst other grotesque shit. Some crazy people are out there! Honestly, I do kinda hate that I time-stamped that song a little bit. I don’t want it to be about this fad of internet negativity, as it won’t last forever. While criticism is good, bullying isn’t. Just because a band wrote a song you don’t like, there’s no need to attack someone’s actual livelihood, hope that they die or that their mother gets cancer or all these other things.”

As for the album’s title, and as an Australian living in the US of A during Trump’s first year, it’s got zero to do with politics and everything to do with being a personal album first and foremost. For the record bears the name it does as a way of encapsulating just what the “American Dream” is: a utopia where if you work hard, you’ll be rewarded, and eventually get that which you dream of. That you only get out what you put in, that hard work will one day pay you back. It’s freedom, basically. Where some ten years ago, Walls Of Jericho put out a giant middle finger to such ideals, Trophy Eyes find it as an inspiration for their art, work ethic and their own lives. John especially so, as he now looks to love himself instead of loathing his life experiences for the world to hear about in their music.

“The American Dream was that I needed to get away from where I was and who I was as a person living in Australia, and from our three past records. I’ve spent years screaming into a mic by how much of a shitty person I was and I finally thought that that was enough. I’ve been doing that since I was 16-years-old, and I now need to start again. I needed to run away from this all and start over, and it worked. I got through a lot of that personal shit, I wrote music about it, I worked hard, and I heard these songs back in the studio and I was rewarded. It reminded me just when I was younger and ran away from home and make a new circle of friends and family, to work on my own product.”

“When I was a little kid, I remember being in the kitchen one day and spouting off some dumb shit about how I would be the president one day. My dad said “You mean the prime minister?”, to which my grandfather [who John was very close with] added, “Well, why not the president?” And it’s stuck with me my entire life. One man said one thing was all I can do inside my own world, and another man said to think outside of your box and your own tiny little life. My dad was quite right about the prime minister part, but those thoughts are the same thing now for us as a band.”

This ties heavily into another great track from the album, ‘Lavender Bay’. In the chorus, John sings defiantly about how he hopes that Sydney will one day remember his name: “I won’t sleep until Sydney knows my name”. It’s all about leaving your mark on the world and that you’re only truly forgotten when people forget your name.

“That comes from when I was writing and just remembering people from school. I knew these people very well and they knew me well too. But when I started playing in bands and playing shows, they used to do this thing where they’d say, “Ooooh, John’s playing shows now.” Like, fuck you, there were three kids there! At that point, I decided I was gonna keep doing music and to leave this space and do my own thing. I left those negative people behind to make something of myself with my trade – writing and making music. I was going to see where this goes, not to be famous but to just make it my life. Just as the chorus goes, it’s a dramatization of wanting to make this my whole life. It’s an example of what you leave behind, which is something I’ve always obsessed about: legacy, what your name means. That what I do and say is real and honest; if I say it, it’s real, and that that’s something I could be known for. So when I’m gone and people listen back to my music, they can see what kind of man I was. I don’t wanna be one of the greats, not like a Johnny Cash, because that’s outlandish. I don’t even think Cash thought he’d be one of the greats; he was just a sad dude who wrote music and had some fucked up shit going on. You can never be a Freddy Mercury, but you can be real and loved. I just hope I live my life the best way and am remembered fondly. It’s something I’ve always dreamt about, not to be rich and famous but to live my tiny little life the best way I can and be nicely remembered.”

On the surface level of ‘The American Dream‘, there have been some massive changes to the sound of Trophy Eyes, quite clearly. The most obvious aspect is that John’s vocals have come a long way since the band first started. Those raw, scratchy screams on ‘Everything Goes Away’ made the music as a whole so down-to-earth and intense. Yet here, John is predominantly clean singing – with the occasional yell or throatier scream – but it all fits the tone of the record perfectly; showing off his vocal growth and his more comfortable range in the process whilst losing none of the heartfelt nature.

“It needed finesse” he admits. “I could always sing, but the reason I put so much more singing in this record was for the songs. They all need their own care, attention and their own love. I couldn’t just scream my way through these songs, the feelings here aren’t just me being pissed-off; there’s more depth now. So it’s me wanting to explore them further. If I’m pissed, I’ll scream it. If it’s conversational or colloquially, I might sing it nice and low like how I talk, like you and I are both talking together.”

The other side of the coin is the larger dynamic and deeper layers of instrumentation and orchestral arrangements to these new songs; more pianos, more strings, more tones, more ambitious sounds. These sonic developments come from Trophy Eyes wishing to take a risk with their sound – a running theme for the sounds, mentality and visuals of this LP (see ‘Friday Forever‘) – but also the studio access they had to create the most dynamic Trophy Eyes release, in thanks to some world-class samples and virtual instruments.

“We did a lot of the pianos ourselves. Shane Edwards, our producer, did so too. The electronics and synths and samples too, including different percussion and bongos and other more outlandish sounds. For each different song, we wanted to create its own specific vibe and give it its own attention. The most interesting thing about the album was the strings, as we also got to use Hans Zimmer’s strings – the same strings that he used on The Dark Knight, Inception, and Interstellar. Our own little humble Trophy Eyes record got that treatment and it’s so special for us. I couldn’t believe it myself, honestly.”

John also admits if he had it his own way, he’d make these sounds even more ridiculous. “I’d put some really weird shit in there”, he laughs at one point. His own mad idea or not, the band doing a world premiere film experience in Sydney this week of ‘The American Dream‘ is sheer proof of the lengths and ambition that Trophy Eyes will go to.

One very special moment of the record is actually its send-off moment; the sweeping album closer ‘I Can Feel It Calling’. It’s not just a matter of sonder and that we all share many of the same experiences; it’s a communal vibe to bring the listener into the deeper humanity of the record. For John, however, while it may bring listeners further into the record, it’s original intent was of a far more personal note.

“It’s about that feeling when you’re going away from home and you leave your loved one at home, and you get this horrible feeling in your stomach. I get it really badly, where you leave for however many weeks or months and I’m leaving behind my life that exists in this one spot. It’s this feeling of “you’re going the wrong way“. I remember flying out of Dallas, Texas, and I’d be thinking “Jesus dude, what are you doing? You’re making the wrong choice here”. That whole song is about wanting to be home when you’re in the middle of a three-month tour and you’re in Poland and you keep thinking “I NEED to get home”. How the song starts with that scene of “waking up drunk in a cab” is about me being Botany and waking up in the back seat one night. And for that split second when I woke up, maybe I could’ve been in Texas but nope, shit, I’m in Botany. It’s about going through all of these thoughts and emotions. It’s a direct message to her as if I’m talking right to her. That if you can’t sleep, I’m somewhere else right now and I can’t sleep either.”

When it boils right down to it, that is always the intention of Trophy Eyes‘ music and John’s lyrics: to humanise what they do for all to see and hear. Because, as the singer follows up with, “That’s how we connect and how you feel like you belong.”

“Being the first person that’s honest is what sets up other people to connect with you. That’s what I try to do with our music, as I’m you – I’m just like you. My lyrics may sound exquisite, but I bet someone else felt the same thing as me or experienced the same as me. My grandfather was my hero and when he died, it hurt so much. What I’m feeling isn’t alien as there will be others who will feel the same way about their own losses, their own grandfather passing away perhaps. We all have these feelings and these head-noises. Trophy Eyes, since the very beginning, has always been about being honest. If we’re jumping around on-stage, screaming away about such emotional things, then it’s cause I want to share it. And I think that’s why our band has been an extreme: either you don’t like us, or you have a tattoo of us. ‘American Dream’ is the closest I’ve ever been to creating those real, human moments, where someone will sit down and say “Fuck me, I’ve been there too”. For instance”, ‘A Symphony Of Crickets’ is about me sitting down out the back, having a cigarette and thinking about my life. I know that everyone does that, and if they’re not having a smoke, there taking five and thinking about their life. That’s the whole reason we write what we do; to create that special moment where you can find a memory in one of my songs”

‘The American Dream’ is out now via UNFD. Maybe you’ll find your own special moment in it too. 

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