Last month, I had the opportunity to interview I Fight Dragon’s lead vocalist and guitarist, Brian Mazzaferri, about the recent release of their newest album, The Near Future. Every lyrical and instrumental minute of the Chicago-based chiptune/alternative rock group’s latest record is worth listening to, over and over again.
The entire contents of the interview can be found below.
You can purchase your very own copy of The Near Future on iTunes and Amazon. The band’s vinyl edition of the album is also available for purchase on their website. A big thank you to Brian Mazzaferri for the epic interview!
Williams: Thank you for the interview opportunity, Brian! I’ve been following your band since 2010/2011, where I initially learned about I Fight Dragons at a South by Southwest (SXSW) show with Motion City Soundtrack in Austin, TX. Immediately afterwards, I went to download Kaboom!. Ever since then, I’ve been excitedly awaiting for The Near Future. It’s finally out, and has gotten great reviews. My friends love it, especially from the Chicago area. Everyone needs to hear it: gamers, non-gamers, mothers, fathers…whomever you can name.
Mazzaferri (Laughing): Daughters, sons, great uncles, grandnieces!
Williams: Children that aren’t even yet born! But I know the band has been through a lot. For you all to have released this album, it is a big accomplishment. But the success of the album didn’t come without its hardships. If you were to look up the word ‘perseverance’ in the dictionary, I Fight Dragons would be there as the definition. Now that the record has been out for about a month now, what feedback have you received about it? Do you feel that the band’s perseverance finally paid off in the end?
Mazzaferri: First off, thank you. That is a huge compliment. Perseverance is a bit of theme with the band, as well as on the album. ‘Fighting On’ (the final track of Side A), is about that. But that was the process with the album. It all started about 2 years ago, when we got off our record label. We knew we wanted to put out an album of our own. We just didn’t know how we quite wanted to go about it. The Kickstarter and Project Atma blew us away in terms of how much money we raised. But that also set the stakes incredibly high in terms of what we were promising.
We’re so happy with the final product and how it came out. I also feel like people have been super supportive. We try to be as transparent as possible when stuff happens. We try to let people know what was happening and they were being affected. People’s reactions have been super positive. A lot of people have said that it’s been worth the wait. In a lot of ways, fans liked being let into the process. It took us about 2 years to make Kaboom! as well. That was in its own right a hairy process, because the fans weren’t so much on the inside.
Williams: It’s funny you mention that, because I see tons of bands that went on a record label and left, because they want that musical freedom. Bands want to write the songs they want to write about, and not worry about conforming to a certain style that their label is trying to put out. When you left your record label to write The near Future, did you receive the lyrical freedom you initially expected you would get?
Mazzaferri: With larger bands, there tend to be certain expectations. Those bigger bands on record labels tend to get more constrained. Our band was in a funny spot, though. Since we were a smaller band (in comparison to others), the label didn’t really force us to do anything. The flipside though, was the record label didn’t do anything themselves. They had a mentality of: ‘you deliver us a hit single, and then we will do something’. In the end, we sort of ended up doing what we wanted to with Kaboom!. But, Kaboom! is a very different album. At the time, we were trying to write the best I Fight Dragons singles that could exist. Kaboom! ended up being the album we wanted it to be, but the process itself was not. The record label didn’t like any of our singles, etc.
Williams: Isn’t that the record label’s actual job? To actually promote your songs? It seems contrary to what they actually did.
Mazzaferri: Right! That’s the name of the game, if you’re in that world. But I would’ve never attempted to pitch anything like The Near Future on a major label. It just would’ve been a non-starter. Songs from The Near Future, you wouldn’t hear those on the Top 40 radio stations. I could imagine the awkward pitch now: ‘We have a 22 minute song with a narrative and instrumental passages that has a graphic novel which you can read along with.’ If record labels heard something like that, it would be too much for them to digest. There was certainly an element, as a writer, where I was running in the other direction from the days of writing Kaboom!. Writing Kaboom! was more along the lines of, how do I write a hit single that is still authentically us. It was its own separate quest, and am really proud of Kaboom!. But it was also very liberating to run in the other direction and write something that was sprawling, expansive and had no desire for radio.
Williams: Now, The Near Future has two sides. On the vinyl record, for example: side one tells the story that goes along with the graphic novel, whereas side two contains other tracks you wrote that weren’t associated with the story, correct?
Mazzaferri: Yes, exactly. So this idea was loosely modeled off of Rush’s 2112 record, where the first side is a content piece that cycles all the way through. Where side two is a collection of songs. For our album, the first side is us trying something new, and the second side is the I Fight Dragons you know and love, in terms of cranking out jams.
Williams: Right, and I relate it back to the record label discussion because I feel those tracks on side two would be more of the mainstream songs that would be acceptable on a record label. Whereas side one, it’s a bit more creative. Gamers who are naturally used to following along with storylines, would find side one as a great musical experience.
Mazzaferri: To be clear, when I say ‘mainstream’, I don’t mean the general population. I mean ‘mainstream’ in the sense of giving it to a record label, and they are like ‘what do I do with this?’. They can’t put it on the radio, they can’t put it on MTV. (Laughing) Wait, is that even a thing anymore?
I think you’re absolutely right – gamers want that journey and experience. Actually, the feel is inspired by SNES role-playing games. There’s a couple of references in some of the Game Boy programming in side one. Especially in some of the battle sequences, to random encounters…for example: Final Fantasy I. But yes, it is very much influenced by that idea. However, it is not something that is very obvious, in the commercial sense. Like ‘Oh yea, this will be a single on the radio. Then you’ll go on the Late Show and play it.’ These would be things you might consider ‘obvious’ in the old-school music industry.
Williams (Laughing): Yea, if you tried to play Track 7 on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, it may not make sense to the individual who doesn’t have a graphic novel with them. So yea, I definitely see your reasoning on that as well. Did you write the album from the perspective of wanting to please a particular type of audience? Or is that what the second side was for, where you were creating tracks that would cater to everybody, where the first side was for say…gamers?
Mazzaferri: That’s actually a good question. For me overall, Kaboom! was the album we were considering an audience for. We deliberated about what songs should make the album. There was always a question of ‘are people going to like this?’. With The Near Future, that was never once asked. We wanted the album to meet our standards and to feel authentic to us. In general we tried to follow our own hearts.
Williams: It sounds like this is THE album that defines the band. Even though Kaboom! has been out longer, this album will be about all the band.
Williams: How have your fans reacted about the new album? Stats like having the fifth-ranked vinyl album in the USA has to warrant some great feedback from your fans.
Mazzaferri: I feel like people were super psyched. I was, when hearing we were on the vinyl album charts. Anybody who bought the physical album got a copy of the vinyl, whether or not they owned a record player. They also got the giant graphic novel and physical artifact of this crazy journey.
Williams: How many feet did you jump off the ground when realizing your vinyl sales were with artists like The Beatles and Taylor Swift? Was that a huge surprise for you all?
Mazzaferri (Laughing): It was a bit silly. I signed us up and submitted our sales, and knew we had a decent number of records sold. I had no clue what the charts were going to look like. When we saw our album with the artists you mentioned, we were wondering what the world was coming to.
Williams: Your vinyl record fits in well with the theme of retro/nostalgia. Being able to sell the album on vinyl helps keep that theme alive. That theme is making a comeback. I’m a big retro game collector, and have systems from the Commodore 64 to the Wii U. I like playing games on old systems, similar to how music can still be played on old machines, like record players.
Mazzaferri: Absolutely. It is such a cool experience to limit yourself in that way. I think it’s a reaction to how culture is like today. It’s fun to explore those past eras.
Williams: It is a unique take, because listeners aren’t just listening to the songs on your iPod. They are taking time to listen to it on something considered ‘outdated’. But this gives them an experience unique only to them. Since there is already a sense of a ‘retro’ theme built into the band’s image, being able to listen to this album on vinyl increases that image exponentially.
I wanted to switch gears into some of the songs you wrote, specifically side two. I’m a huge fan of side two, specifically the song ‘Always’. The song is absolutely beautiful and is different than any of the other tracks on the record. It tells the story of relationships and that, through thick and thin, even though we (i.e.: people in the relationship) may have hardships down the road, the person singing it will always be there for the other person. And I mean, what relationship doesn’t have its hardships?
Mazzaferri (Laughing): I thought relationships were always smooth sailing??
Williams: Haha, I know right? But, I see the song as a Gamers’ Love Anthem. What was your thought process behind writing this song?
Mazzaferri: Thank you, first off. It’s awesome you feel that way. The song is about my wife, pure and simple. In fact, all of the songs in the I Fight Dragons canon are about her. ‘With You’ is about her as well. It’s about perseverance. As you mentioned before, perseverance is a theme on this record. I think it’s my take on love as well. It’s not so much about the minute-to-minute, as it is about the long haul and sticking it out.
Instrumentation-wise, it is a string quartet with an extra viola at one point. Originally, we were going to do more with the song. I originally wanted to put some chiptune in. Once we got the strings track back though, it was just so beautiful. I had an arranger do the string arrangement. The band felt it was perfect and we didn’t want anything else.
Williams: So that was an actual string quartet, no synthesized parts?
Mazzaferri: Oh yea, no synthesized parts.
Williams: Wow. Well whoever is in that string quartet, please give them my infinite applause. They knocked it out of the park.
Mazzaferri: I will definitely pass that along!
Williams: Another song I loved was ‘Chicago’. When reading the lyrics and listening to the song, I get a sense about it being an inspirational message of hope. It’s for those trying to ‘make it big’ in today’s world. Lines like: ‘Oh Chicago knows how small we are, how bright she shines in the dark’ seem to root favorably for underdogs who are continuously trying to be heard amidst a sea of people wanting attention. Am I off about the message of the song?
Mazzaferri: No, I think you’re dead on. The angle for me on ‘Chicago’ is, proliferation of media. There is music everywhere. Relating to video games, one person couldn’t play all of the created games in a lifetime…even if they sat down all their life to play them, one by one. As a songwriter, I can get completely overwhelmed by everything out there, trying to find one’s place out there. Like a lot of the songs I write, it comes back to the theme of continuing on.
Williams: Do you ever look up at the Chicago sky and say to yourself, this is where I Fight Dragons needs to be?
Mazzaferri: Absolutely. That’s the first line in the song. As I was riding the ‘L’ (Chicago’s metro rail), that line came to me. I’ve written many lyrics/melodies of this track, back during the label days…and this version of the song struck me as what ‘Chicago’ needed to be about. I’m a lifetime Chicagoan and wouldn’t leave it anytime soon.
Williams: Are there any plans to tour, now that the holidays have passed?
Mazzaferri: There are definitely plans to plan. We’re still in the process of wrapping up our Kickstarter, but we have a few more things left to do. There are some more high-tier rewards to finish off.
Williams: Awesome, you all had better come to Texas! Thank you again for the interview, Brian.