Photo by Anna Haas
Friendship Commanders performs at Dirty Dungarees, 2584 N. High Street, on Sunday, August 20. Also on the bill: Super Shotgun from Kentucky and locals Sawmill and Dead at 61. While there is no cover, there is a suggested $5 donation.
The Nashville duo Friendship Commanders – Buick Audra (guitar, vocals) and Jerry Roe (drums) – sounds much bigger (and heavier) than just a two piece. With elements of stoner rock and metal, the band is a pretty stark contrast to Audra’s solo, singer-songwriter work that is more in line with what you might expect out of someone based in Nashville. Fortunately, Audra can live in both worlds, as well as in the world of writing songs with, and for, other people (she won two Grammys in 2010 for collaborations with Joss Stone) and the published author world (Conversations with My Other Voice: Essays).
Friendship Commander’s latest album, MASS, arrives in late September but the duo is doing a short run of dates as favors for friends and to road test the new songs before people can hear them. I recently spoke with Audra about performing in Columbus, the band’s stoner rock sound, the inspiration for the new album, and where the band name came from.
Have you played in Columbus before?
We did play once in Columbus. I want to say in 2018, we played Spacebar. But we haven’t made it up since. We played Buzzbin a bunch which was in Canton but it’s now in Akron proper. We’re playing there later in the year, and we’ve played Youngstown a ton because of Westside Bowl which is a wonderful space but we’re still newbies to Columbus so it’s nice to be coming back.
Our friends in Horseburner, who live in West Virginia, they were like, “Oh, you’ve got to play Dirty Dungarees because it’s more of a hang. It’s a little bit of a different vibe because it’s a DIY space. So, we’re psyched. We love stuff like that. We love community spots that just happen.
Are you booking your own tours, or do you have help?
We have worked with a booking agent on and off for years, but we booked this summer run. We’re doing a week of shows on this leg. This is really a pre-album tour. We have an album called MASS coming out September 29 and this is just our summer run through the Midwest. We end in Denver, which is not quite the Midwest. We booked this basically because someone asked us to play their festival called the Modern Madness Festival in Warren, Ohio at Modern Methods Brewing Company. The woman who started the festival asked us really early in the year and we were like, “We’ll see what we can make happen around it.” And then our other friends who live in Denver asked us to come out and do their album release show and we were like, “I guess we’ll make this run and we’ll sort of go between these two places (Warren and Denver).” So that’s what we’re doing. It’s just nice to say, “Yes.” Normally we don’t do stuff like that but if felt kind of fun and light to do a pre-album thing and just go out and see everybody.
Queens of the Stone Age is currently on tour, and they’ve got Phantogram and The Armed opening. I’m sure Phantogram helps sell some tickets but having heard MASS, you should be on that tour. I think Queens of the Stone Age fans would absolutely dig what you’re doing. In your mind, is that the kind of vibe you’re going for?
That’s so kind of you. I don’t think we’ve ever spent one minute thinking about what vibe we’re going for. Each project has its own energy built into the songwriting and then we just follow it there in the studio with the sounds and performances. I will say, to the Queens of the Stone Age thing, while I have been a fan for sure, and I’m definitely influenced by some of their stuff, I’m a big Kyuss fan. I feel like that’s in there somewhere subconsciously too, like the song “Demon Cleaner.” I like those circular guitar riffs that Josh Homme plays in Kyuss.
What is it about stoner rock or heavy rock and bands like Kyuss that appeals to you?
It feels very like it embodies something honest for me. Truly. I guess I’m a person who lives with like tough and complicated feelings and I’m still surprised all the time that there are people who seem like they don’t. I definitely have like a weird and tough history so heavy music, and certainly like specific heavy music not just as a blanket statement, but some music within the heavy world really just seems to connect to part of me that’s almost nonverbal and feels like true and like it’s safe to be that in that music. Whereas if you are just are carrying that, it’s not as celebrated. But if you put it in the music, it lives there pretty successfully and safely so I really connect. Not to get into influences too heavily but Chris Cornell’s riffs on “Outshined” is like the truth to me. And I’ve felt like that since I first hear it when I was a kid. I just got it and whatever that song is about lyrically, all of that is also cool, but there’s something about the music of that riff that, as a very young person, I 100% understood whatever that was – the drop D, or the time signature, or the pace of it, I just got it on a cellular level. And it’s really cool when people tell me that my guitar playing does that for them.
I’ve listened to some of your solo material and it’s quite a contract to what you’re doing in this band. When you’re writing, do you know specifically what is going to be a solo song and what is going to be a Friendship Commanders song?
Yes, with the exception of one piece of music in the history of my catalog so far. I always know which way I’m writing, usually because the music is pretty obviously one or the other. And I also write with, and for, other artists but they usually lead, and I fill in with thing for their albums.
Friendship Commanders released an EP at the beginning of the shutdown, like April 2020, called Hold On To Yourself and there is a song that closes that EP that’s just me and it’s called “July’s Revelations.” I wrote that song assuming it would be a Buick Audra song, but also assuming I would never record it. There was something about that song, I am sometimes embarrassed of my words. Jerry heard it and he was like, “Oh, that’s a Friendship Commanders song.” I was like, “Dude, you’re on glue. This is a singer/songwriter song.” And he was like, “No, you should record it for Friendship Commanders.” When we put that EP together, it ended up being an EP about being an adult survivor of childhood abuse, which I am, and I’ve talked about extensively, And, you know, that song does fit there sentiment-wise and, in a way, musically too.
And, of course, the EP is called Hold On To Yourself, and in that song, in the refrain I’m saying, “I’m just trying to hold on to myself.” That’s the one time where there was a crossover, a cross pollination between my two voices. And it was really weird for Kurt Ballou to mix. That was the first album we collaborated with Kurt, and he had a hard time mixing that song because it had gotten away from the hugeness of what we typically do.
Do you find that, lyrically, you write a different way between your solo stuff and Friendship Commanders knowing that you have two different audiences for your music?
You know, I think I used to. I think in the early Friendship Commanders days, I was really rejecting my solo music. I put my solo stuff away for a long time and, I didn’t know this at the time, I was really rejecting that other side of myself.
I would say from Hold On To Yourself to now, no, I’m not writing in a different way. And actually, if you hear me play “High Sun,” which is the third song on MASS, just on guitar, you’re like, “Oh, this could have gone on either side of the spectrum. This doesn’t belong to Friendship Commanders.” I mean, I am playing drop D and I am playing like a big buzzed out thing. Now, I think that it’s more about a thematic thing. In my personal stuff, I tend to be more self -effacing and I talk about certain kinds of relationships that I do not in Friendship Commanders.
The lyrical content on MASS isn’t just a reflection of the last year of your life, it’s things you’ve lived throughout your life. How did you make the decision that now was the right time to write these songs opposed to writing them 5 or 10 years ago?
My friend Mark killed himself. That’s what happened. I mean, MASS, I’m not from there (Massachusetts), but I moved there a bunch as a young person because I’m from all kinds of weird stuff and I just ended up having this set of experiences there that were deeply traumatizing. But, at the time, I didn’t know that. I just thought I was defective because I had been socially rejected in a very large and loud way. So, I just got the hell out of there, which I think was like the best I could do, at the time and moved on with my life and have recovered in various ways from various things and become who I am.
There were rumblings about my awareness of how bad it had been earlier than Mark’s death. But when Mark, my friend Mark Orleans, died in the summer of 2020, it hit me so profoundly that I spent like a year unpacking not only why his death was so profound for me, it went beyond that I loved him and missed him, it was like there were other things in there that I wanted to, I think was ready to, explore. And it involved looking at that time and the record just started to write itself. We had dates already booked with Kurt for whatever reason. He booked out pretty quickly and he was also in the middle of releasing Blood Moon with his band Converge and Chelsea Wolf. We were working around that with him. We had booked this time like something like six or eight months in advance and the record just started to write itself. At first, I was like, “It’s weird. I think I’m writing about Boston. I think I’m writing about this time,” because my writing will often just tell me what’s going on. I don’t sit down super deliberately and go like, “Here we go. Concept album.” So, it started to write itself and then “Fail” was the second song that I wrote to the body of work. I knew it was about Mark and I knew it was where I was going to put that grief and that remorse that I hadn’t, or loudly, said, “Hey, while you’re here, I love you.” And then it just started to unfold. And as we got closer to the recording dates, I said, “Dude, I think this record’s called MASS. And I think it’s about Massachusetts, but I also think it’s about like mass behaviors and having an entire scene follow one person’s lead and like shame me and shut me out.”
I think the definitions of mass all apply to the body of work, which was kind of profound. I’m obsessed with language, and I thought there was something about that that just really worked on a language and conceptual level. And Jerry was like, “Great.” He trusted me with writing and the big, weird sort of shape with concept. And then when we got in the studio with Kurt in Massachusetts, I was like, “Here we go. This is what this is.” It was very easy. It instantly was this.
Mass also is heaviness and you’ve made a record that is heavy, so the album title works on multiple different fronts.
It just really worked for me. We didn’t have a name. We didn’t really know what we were going to say about it publicly yet. And I was like, “I think it’s just MASS” and then whatever people want from that, they take.
There’s a spoken word piece at the end that we have never done, and I haven’t heard done a lot on heavy records. It just felt like the right punctuation.
To answer your earlier question about why we chose to put this out now, the interesting thing about it is that it is stories about another time but they’re all being told by who I am now. That presentation of it, like in “Blue,” where I’m confidently saying, “You can find a way to get out of this. You can and you will,” I know it because I did it. I wouldn’t have been able to say that then, so it’s retrospective but it’s also through this lens and through these musical choices, which is exactly current to who I am and who Jerry is.
I don’t usually ask about band names but when I saw your name for the first time, I thought of the ’80s video game Missile Command. Your name almost sounds like a video game title or a movie title, like Starship Troopers. Where did the name come from?
It’s a ridiculous name but we also stand by it. We just recently got some slack for it yesterday on Instagram. Some guy was like, “I love the music, but I can’t get past the band name.” And we were like, “You have a private profile with a cartoon as an emoji. We’re not worried about what you think.”
Friendship Commanders is a set of words that I found on the back of a vintage varsity jacket here in Nashville some years ago. I was in an antique market, one of those kinds of places that each booth is a different vendor. And it was just sitting there in a chair. I said, “Wat the hell are those words doing together?” It was like a superhero team or something in my mind. It just seems like a Muppet superhero team. It’s so crazy. And the jacket was 40 bucks. And I knew it was old because it was actual wool. It wasn’t like that poly synthetic stuff that those jackets made out of now.
And I got it for myself. It’s a great thing. It’s been my winter jacket for many years. And people think I had it made after the band. They’re like, “It’s so cool. You had to put it on your jacket.” As I would wear it over that first year or two, people would come up to me and be like, “Oh, did you go to Friendship?” And I thought, “What the hell are these people talking about?” As it turns out, a good bit outside of Nashville, there is a school called the Friendship Christian Academy. And their football team is, as you are probably putting together right now, called the Commanders.
So while they’re not called the Friendship Commanders, that’s just like what they were able to do on the jacket. When we started the band, we had all these self-serious options, which is very tempting when you make heavy leaning music. And I was like, “Let’s just call it Friendship Commanders.” We thought it was going to be a side project. We both had other stuff going on. We just thought it was going to be this fun once-in-a-while thing.
I won’t say his name, but my jacket has someone’s name embroidered on the front, like on the chest on the left and for years I looked him up and I could not find this person which is kind of unusual in the age of modern digital information. I could not find him. And then a few years ago, I was like, “I’m going to look this guy up again.” I said, “You know what? This guy’s name, I think is a nickname. I think this isn’t this guy’s given name.”
I played around with different configurations. I couldn’t find him. And then I put in his name and “obituary” and, sure enough, this man has died. Not only did I find him, but I found pictures of him in his Friendship Commanders gear. It’s his junior high jacket. He was a big man. I said a little prayer to the universe. I’m not like a religious person, but I was like, “Thank you for sending this to us.” It changed our lives. The whole full circle moment of it all is that this whole record is about friendship. MASS is about friendship and what it is and what it is not. So, as silly as the name seems to sound, I actually think it was a little bit of an early prophecy. And I still have the jacket and I wear it all the time.