A Fire With Friends 'Ghost House' release show with We Were Templars, Esta Coda, Shorthand, and A Social State: Jan. 25, 6 p.m., TwentyFiveEight Studios (703 N Washington Ave., REAR, Scranton). $5 online, $7 at the door. Info: facebook.com/afwfmusic, afirewithfriends.com.
As six of the seven members of A Fire With Friends pile into a freight elevator in the back of the Times Leader building for a Weekender photo shoot, they require little coaching to relax and become comfortable. Much like their name implies, they gel like a group of lifelong buddies, laughing and joking in ways that denote a shared history that only young, independent musicians could share. They've bonded during creative writing and jamming sessions. They've lived in a van on the road together. They've fought like brothers and sisters. They've been at the end of the rope and somehow reeled it back in. The Scranton-based rock band's humble beginnings can be traced back to cold nights in a minivan in a Denny's parking lot, one of the only places vocalist/guitarist Daniel Rosler could find to practice without noise complaints. He started a side project in 2008 with some friends in other local acts that eventually took precedence and grew into the sometimes immense undertaking it is today, shifting members several times over the years until the current lineup began to solidify about two years ago – Eric Foster on synthesizer, Chelsea Collins on piano, John Husosky on bass, Brian K. Errigo on drums, and Daniel King on cello. “It just kept growing and changing. You lose people, you gain people – everybody that we know has probably been in this band at one point or another,” Foster cracked. “Everywhere we go it's a struggle to orchestrate this puzzle that we've created of ourselves. There's like chords and instruments and body parts everywhere.” “I wanted something bigger from the beginning,” Rosler acknowledged. “I think it got louder and more interesting, which is I guess what I wanted – loud and interesting.” The description is accurate, though volume isn't the only thing they have to offer. Joined on guitar and backing vocals by Edward Cuozzo of A Social State, they've become a cohesive collection that defies genre and convention. “I think everybody just plays better as a unit, together. The band grew from being six or seven people who really had no idea how to play with other people… trying to figure out, 'OK, well, we've got two synthesizers, piano, sometimes cello, sometimes weird delay units and all that sort of stuff,' and I think that over the years, they've just gotten so good at it,” Cuozzo commented. “That's a good point because I know for me, and I know you too, I was just used to playing loud guitar music,” Rosler agreed. “So then you had to figure out how to turn the guitars down lower than you're so used to so the piano sticks out, and write that way, too.” It's just that getting everyone together in the first place can be a struggle, as each member works a day job and leads a separate life, occasionally in other bands like Esta Coda. Nevertheless, once they're in the same room, they know how to buckle down. “That's one thing that's cool with the band – there's not really any divas in it. Dan might come up with most of the song ideas right off the bat, but Chelsea, there's been times when she had a part and we just built a song completely off of that. I've done that. Eric has a song that will probably be on the full-length next year-ish,” Husosky observed, reluctant to pin down a date just yet. “You just play it and everyone just starts playing and writing and the next thing you know you've spent like 45 minutes without even talking to each other and you have a song written.” “Sometimes we run into problems where we're like, 'OK, there's too much going on here. We have to figure it out,' but that's even fun, too. It's like solving a puzzle,” Rosler continued. “When we do practice, we get a lot done. We write songs together really easily.” The songs themselves, however, are complex, multilayered dreamscapes accentuated by unconventional rock instruments, like keys and cello. “I never had the intention of playing popular music, like rock band stuff, on the cello ever,” King said. “I think we have a great core band between Ed now and Dan, John, and Brian, as a core rhythm and melody section, and then I call myself a peripheral player, and our peripheral core between me, Eric, and Chelsea, we're able to pick up what the core does and read it well and kind of know our spots. It just kind of comes,” he explained, noting their collaborative songwriting. “I just kind of play off of a vocal line or something and the guitars and we just pick our battles.” The result is “Ghost House,” A Fire With Friends' third EP and the first to feature all the present members. Engineered by Sean Davis and mixed and mastered by Jay Preston and Joe Loftus at J.L. Studios in Wyoming, the finished eight songs are a moody journey of highs and lows, with some tracks stripped down to bare essentials while others build up into heavy breakdowns and soulful solos, though its creation was chaotic at best and, at its worst, would have torn lesser bands apart. After driving all the way to Womelsdorf, Pa., near Reading for some booked studio time last winter, they found the business locked and had to drive back home that night. Making the best of the early morning hours, they converted a filthy old storage room in Scranton into a studio they dubbed the “punk rock dungeon” using hand-built equipment, fighting bitter cold and sickness throughout the recording process. As if that weren't enough, when they listened back to the recordings, it didn't reach the level of quality they were striving for, delaying the project several more months. “We put so much blood, sweat, and tears into the punk rock dungeon, and I think we got the mixes back and they were recorded well but there were certain things that were bad,” Husosky recalled. “We ended up scrapping almost everything we recorded at this place, but the experience alone brought us together. We were literally at our breaking points.” “After some of the things we had to go through making this EP, it's all uphill for me,” Rosler interjected with a laugh. “Someone has to take note of all this hard work. PR people, all those people want to see you do the hard work to make sure that you're OK with roughing it. Man, they don't even know. I don't even know how to tell them.” Their late summer tour last year wasn't much better. Traveling to Washington, D.C., Cincinnati, Chicago, and several other cities throughout the East Coast and Midwest, every band member was practically penniless the entire journey, and shows ranged from dozens of listeners to six people. They scoured Craigslist at each stop looking for ways to earn a few dollars for food and gas. “We were going to move a person's piano. … If this past tour didn't bring us together, like really closer as people…” Rosler trails off, reliving that uncertain week. “I feel like that was the test. “We held it together. I bitched and moaned a lot.” “There were a few times where we were getting ready to go home because we were so broke,” Foster admitted, yet they stuck it out and found the last shows they booked to be the best. “If we go to a show and play in front of a handful of people on a Wednesday and they love it, you feel like you really earned that,” Husosky added. “It's worth it.” With unbridled determination and creativity, songs like “Awful Things,” inspired by the bizarre Greek film “Dogtooth,” “The Astronaut Killed Himself,” written purely on the suggestion of the title, “Jesus and I” with its dark humor, and the nostalgic “Autumn Drive,” they've found their niche but not a label to support it, though they've had offers. “We have a freedom that I like because we didn't stick ourselves into a specific category,” Foster pointed out. “I feel like we're finally pretty much all on the same page. I think we know what needs to be done and know what not to do. Not that we have all the answers, but we have a better insight on everything, I think. I think it's a matter of just taking this next year and owning it. Not that we ever really dragged our feet; I just don't think we knew the best way to execute things. I think there's a lot clearer vision of that now,” Husosky affirmed. “I think we've got to make this our year.” They're undoubtedly starting 2014 right. With a new record out and a release show being held this Saturday, Jan. 25 at TwentyFiveEight Studios in Scranton, Foster said A Fire With Friends is being driven by a “dirty rotten hunger” that cannot be satisfied. “I need to do it, personally. If I don't do it, I don't what the f—k else to do with myself. Not even that. It just feels like the right thing,” he emphasized. “If it was easy, it wouldn't feel right. “I think we can all agree that we'd like to make this a full-time thing where we can sustain a healthy living off of it.” “I think the music speaks for itself, and I think all of our hard work speaks for itself,” Husosky concluded. “It's just a matter of getting the music where it needs to be. That's really where we're at now.” <iframe style="border: 0; width: 100%; height: 142px;" src="http://bandcamp.com/EmbeddedPlayer/album=617211987/size=large/bgcol=ffffff/linkcol=de270f/tracklist=false/artwork=small/transparent=true/" seamless><a href="http://afirewithfriends.bandcamp.com/album/ghost-house">Ghost House by A Fire With Friends</a></iframe>