As the stagnation of heavy rock remains relevant, Four Trips Ahead are taking a stand. The New York quartet bolsters a ‘ReclaimRockMusic’ hashtag on social media, calling for a renewed sense of vigor and lyrical substance in the genre that had long since faded. Such an aesthetic was fully realized on their newest album, …And the Fire Within, a milestone in the widest sense. “Bring Me Down” is the album’s upstanding carrier single. Its music video was promoted via major network AXS, further instating the band’s impact.
I caught up with Four Trips Ahead vocalist Peter Wilson to discuss their burgeoning days, the new album’s multiple conceptual angles, and the state of rock music today. Ultimately, diligence, faith, and quality songwriting are the essential components helping the band persevere after over a decade together.
ME: I want to start off talking about your formative time as a band. You guys had begun back in the early 2000s. How did that chemistry between you guys solidify as you began jamming together?
Peter: We’ve actually known each other from the New York scene, so Brian [Eisenpresser], the guitar player, and I go back quite a bit. He would see my old band play, I would see his, and we were friends prior to ever playing together. We would hang out, have dinner sometimes, and Dan [Cassidy], our bass player, I was also friendly with.
My band broke off after a little bit and I was starting to write with other people. Brian and Dan were in a band, and they had different ways of looking at music than their singer at the time, so we just got together. I knew that they were very good musicians; they’d liked my voice a lot. But there are times you can get into a room and there’s no chemistry. Everyone’s a good player, but there’s nothing that really works. I went in with low expectations. They played me a bunch of their music, and I thought of just trying to sing on that stuff.
It turns out, as soon as we got together, that we’d ended up writing. Right away, that said to me, “Hey, there’s something different here.” The real test is if you could write together because I like to write what I sing. We knew there was a lot of magic but we took things slow. Like dating, you know? You want to really be into someone but you play it cool. On both sides, we were doing that for a few months (laughs). We just kept writing and started to have a bunch of songs, and then we started to rehearse. It was weird, like one of those things where we’d never spoken, but started getting together every week. Then, it just blossomed, so it was very organic.
To be honest with you, I was already committed to a band that had played, toured, worked with a big producer, had a manager, and showcased for labels at the time. I felt really disappointed in the process because I had broken off with the band. I’d thought we were friends, but I started to realize there’s a lot of weird personal stuff that was underneath the whole realm of being a band. That left a bad taste in my mouth. So, I wasn’t rushing to get back into a band situation. That’s how I knew the chemistry was good [with FTA], because the songs were just naturally coming. As I’d said before, we were all friends prior to playing together, and the bonus was that I liked them as people. It helped a lot to this day. Now, we’re like brothers, you know?
ME: Back then, so much stuff was going on in rock, including nu metal, post-grunge, and this sort of garage rock revival. Even though your sound is by large progressive, would you say you were influenced partly by those styles of the time, or you did your own thing?
Peter: All of us are from New York City, so unless you’re close-eared or close-minded, you have to be influenced by everything. I love great hip hop, grew up on reggae music and jazz, and rock, so I’d listen to everything. If I think it’s really good, I like it. My tastes can be A Tribe Called Quest and Messhugah. I love both of those artists for totally different reasons. At the time, it was like Slipknot, and Korn was still kind of big. There was that second wave, as you’d said. Then, there’s always been this alternative/college thing that happens in New York City and New Jersey. I had friends who were in bands like that, some of them pretty well known.
The key, to me, is always being real to what you want to do. Four Trips Ahead has a unique sound where there’s lots of different elements. But we’ve always had a mission of being true to ourselves, and trying to create different sounds. Not being like “Oh, this sounds exactly like ‘this.’” With that I feel like, “Well, what’s the point of being in a band that’s writing original music?” That’s what was very important to me with our chemistry.
I wasn’t interested in being in a band that sounded like my old one. They weren’t interested in a singer that sounded like their old one, either. It was interesting, you know? You’re really perceptive in saying that, because it was difficult in the beginning when we were playing out. We all had a lot of contacts in the city and some of the surrounding areas playing gigs. It was very different, so people would check it out. Fans of my old band would be like, “Hmmm. This is hard rock that’s kind of metalish, but not sounding like that band.” I’d be like, “Yeah, because they’re new players—it’s a new thing.” In a lot of places, we would draw people and do well, and in others, they wouldn’t book us again. They would be like, “Well, you don’t fit into the ‘scene.’
There was this thing, I think I have it saved somewhere, but it’s a funny email from a well-known rock club at the time in New York City. We’d played two shows there and the second one, we did very well. It was a small club but we’d packed the place. We got this whole email, almost like a reprimand, saying, “We hear that you sound like…” and it named all these bands. And we were like, “Well, we sound like all of them and none of them.” And they’re like, “That doesn’t really fit into what we’re trying to do downtown.” I’d thought to myself, “Wow, that’s not what New York, or what music, should be about at all. If an audience is coming to see a band play, and the band is on time and serious about what they do, why won’t you allow them the stage to do it?”
So, that actually happened quite a lot, but we were diligent—and here we are, you know? It’s exciting because all these years later, a lot of people are really digging what we’re doing. We’re getting this distribution deal and stuff like that, putting out this full-length record. We’ve been putting out several releases and building up our audience. We’d just played our second show in six months at Irving Plaza, the Highline Ballroom, and some other places in the city and other roundabout areas. Now, it’s almost like people have come around, and the industry had to kind of fall apart for us to emerge. A lot of bands that came during that time couldn’t play live very well, I’ll be honest with you. And a lot of the wanna-be bands were just following, so people would be like, “I’m not gonna see this band ‘cuz they sound like Slipknot,” or Korn. Or, another 90s band—this faceless, pop punk singer-songwriter stuff. Then here we were; we stuck out like a sore thumb. But I think time, persistence, and good songwriting is why we’re still around. All those clubs that said the crap they said—they don’t exist anymore.
ME: In terms of building your audience, how did social media play a part, especially as it became widely utilized at the time?
Peter: I won’t lie to you; it’s still a challenge. Social media began when we had started our website. To be honest with you, we were always trying to figure out what works. We’re only really starting to become more adept at social media now. I believe the reality is that [social media is] a tricky thing, right? Sometimes there are these bands with huge numbers. You know, like crazy amounts of likes on Facebook and all these Twitter followers. You think, “Wow, this band is really doin’ it.” Then, you go check them out, because you see the name enough…and there’s like nobody to see them! I used to think, “Oh, well maybe we’re not in their hometown,” but then I realize they’re from New York, or New Jersey, or Connecticut. And I’m like, “Oh, okay, so they’re really good at social media, but they don’t have a live show presence, or they don’t do anything that makes people want to come see them.”
With us, social media has been great because we try not to just capture fans and get likes, but engage with them. We do as much personal contact as we can. We individually use our own Facebook accounts to reach out to people because some of our fans friend us. I don’t know them like that—I mean, I see them at shows. It’s cool though because they want to be part of your life. I’m not showing crazy things on my personal page anyway. Ultra-personal stuff I keep personal, you know? But fans feel invested, like, “Wow, these are people who make music I like, and I appreciate and respect.”
I think live, we’re really good. We come from a school where you need to know how to play. We try to match all the harmonies that we do on records. Our songs are maybe a little more diverse. We make sure the tempos aren’t all the same, and that we’re doing something different. I also think about groups I respect, like Faith No More or Soundgarden. Or, even newer bands—new-ish, I should say—like Rival Sons; they definitely have a style. What’s cool is that if you listen to a Rival Sons record, or something by the Answer, they’re changing the landscapes. So, as a listener, you’re growing with them. I’ve always loved bands like Faith No More. They just put out a killer record like two years ago, after being away all those years, and it’s because they’re simply following the muse. Their natural sound will come through because the music is organic and real. Some of the things we offer an audience that comes to see us—they know that we’re good live, our songs are good, and it’s an honest performance we engage.
But it is challenging, you know? As you conquer one plateau, you’re trying to conquer another. I feel like the challenge is a lot of people that book us try to put us on bills with national artists—ones that are super big. Some of them we kind of know—we’re friendly with. Everyone’s like, “Yeah, that sounds like a great idea,” and we never get booked. I know there’s a lot of business there and egos behind the scenes. It’s interesting because a lot of those bands don’t want to play with us when we mean business. Off stage, we hang out, and we check out each other’s music, but on stage, we want to go up there and kick everyone’s ass. That’s my goal—in a playful way, you know what I mean? That’s what I call healthy competition, and that’s how we’d gotten good as musicians. You build your chops—play with people who are better than you. When we were coming up, we would see bands and go, “Wow, this band is great! Let’s try to play with them,” because we want to get better. Or, we listen to records and think, “How are they doing that?” and try to get better at what we do. I think that’s our next challenge. We hope to get a band that is really generous—not forcing you to pay a lot of money to tour with them. We’ll try to build and maintain an audience that’s bigger than the one in our local tristate area. That’s our goal.
ME: With the audience you’ve built thus far, are you surprised it kind of took on a life of its own despite these challenges?
Peter: That’s a good question, especially the way you’d said it. “Surprised” may not be the word. I’ve always believed, whether in art or with music, that with “making it,” a lot of that is pure luck and good timing. But beneath all that, it’s diligence; it’s showing up. If you believe in it, and you think it’s really good, and think, “Hey, if more people heard it or saw it, I know that this could go over,” that’s always the fuel. I believe that about Four Trips Ahead. I know that if we get in front of a certain audience or we’re on the stage, that people will dig it. I think we’re starting to really see that. But I think also, the key to building an audience is building a strong team of people who support your art.
For us, we focus first and foremost on the music, and making sure we make good recordings and records. So, we’d really focused for two years on just that. Everything else is having a good PR company, or those behind the scenes who do design and artwork. My drummer, he and I designed it, and I produced the album. It takes time, a lot of resources, and faith. But I’ve always believed, given the chance, that that would happen. You have to believe that, or you just stay home and make recordings in your bedroom, and play to your 10 friends. I think we started to notice that, once the venues got bigger and little things were happening. The last couple of EPs did pretty well on the CMJ Hard Rock and Metal charts, and we’d started getting radio play here and there. We started to say, “Okay, this is going somewhere,” so you’ve just got to keep at it, you know?
ME: That support led to the band’s newest album, “…And the Fire Within,” which definitely sounds like your strongest thus far. One aspect that’s improved is its production, which included input from guys as renowned as Johnny Nice and Nick Cipriano. What is it about their styles that resonates with you in a big way, as a means of enhancing the collaborative process?
Peter: Again, that’s a good question. I actually produced the record, but they’d engineered and mixed a lot of it. It’s really interesting because Nick was literally a member of the band for a while. We didn’t have a permanent drummer, and Nick is great—a killer rock drummer. He played on more than half the tracks on this record. But he’s mainly a producer and engineer, and has done amazing work. He’s mixed stuff for Dream Theater, Twisted Sister—very eclectic and all over the map, and a dear friend. Johnny is also the same way. He works at Spin. We’ve been at Spin Studios for years now and go way back with the owner. I think they understand the kind of mission they’ve made for me, taking on the producer role. I usually have a very set idea of what I want the songs to sound like, and what I want the overall production to achieve. What’s great is that they’re really amazing; they get killer sounds. Our goal is to keep as much of the bedding track as possible and build from there. It’s finding this balance of making a well-produced record, but not overdoing it. I think for FTA, it’s about capturing the fire, you know what I mean?
We’re trying to capture an organic sound, and the two of them do a great job of that. It’s a killer live room with old school wood paneling, and they get killer drum sounds. When we go in, our pre-production chops are very high. We did I think three drum sessions; went in for a day and a half and did the drums for four or five songs. A lot of the guitar and bass, we’d kept, and some of the vocal tracks for those sessions as well, because we’re just very well-rehearsed. We’d played with tempo here and there, but we knew what we wanted to achieve. Those guys are great at bringing that out. We have a great relationship with them, and we’re very relaxed, so it’s nice. It’s not like having “red light syndrome;” we kind of knew what we wanted to capture. That’s been very helpful.
I appreciate your kind words about the production being realized. We really wanted this record to be special, so we’d tracked a bunch of extra songs too that are great, but didn’t feel were exactly right for the album. So, we really tried to pull out and harness what would work as one statement—one record.
ME: The carrier single of the album is “Bring Me Down,” which also has an accompanying music video. From what I could assess, its style really complements the album’s sonic intentions. There’s a kind of blunt grittiness to both pieces, yet the band’s core identity is still the same.
Peter: Yeah, you described it very well. I think that song is a good representation of what FTA is about. Lyrically and melodically, there’s little flashes of prog going on, and it’s very groove oriented. What you’d probably picked up on in the record is that for the songs that are faster, we’d always pay attention to groove. That’s the key for us.
All my favorite rock records groove. I tend to like a lot of stuff from the 70s and early 80s because I felt like groove was very important. Unfortunately, sometimes, through the 80s, it kind of got lost a little bit and overproduced. Then you saw that again in the 90s, although the groove changed; the pocket moved. I think this is definitely and ultra-modern record in some respects, but I think the soul of it is rooted in that groove sound of the harder rock records. You can dance and shake your ass to it, but still rock it. AC/DC—they’re the kings of that. They’re deceivingly simple, but if you listen to what’s going on in the interplay and production, especially where Phil Rudd, as drummer, sits, it’s very admirable. It blows me away how the groove never gets sacrificed. I know that, for us, that’s an important part of FTA. The two most important elements, besides musicianship, are melody and groove. So, as I’d said to you before, we were paying attention to tempos a lot and tweaking them. But for the most part, that’s what we go for. I think it’s natural since we’ve been playing for a while now.
ME: Coincidentally, you had written the album’s content during the election, which everyone is clearly divided by. As you were writing these songs, and now with Trump’s presidency, what is it that makes these songs especially pertinent?
Peter: That’s a tough question to answer so quickly, but I’ll do my best. You’re right. A lot of rock publications, yourself included, have been noting that. These songs are very timely—almost too much so. And you know, obviously, we weren’t going to be able to predict the outcome of the election. When we talk about politics, we talk about life. As a lyricist, I feel like my role is to be a storyteller or an observer. I think the songs and themes that you’re finding from …And the Fire Within are just based off the reflections of what I was seeing with people. Some people I know very well, others I’d just read about or see, or just kind of be around—and you could feel it. It’s palpable, some of the things that are going on, and people being frustrated with division that you could feel as well. I think that, as an artist, it’s kind of our duty to reflect that; to pretend that that kind of stuff wasn’t going on would be ridiculous.
But I can definitely say this. I didn’t sit down and think, “Okay, let’s make these songs all very political.” We write late at night, we tend to rehearse late, our shows are late, and I listen to music on the later side. As a band, I think we’ve kind of formed an identity in that lateness—late night sessions talking about what we’re concerned about in our lives. I think all that made up the lyrical content, as well as being plugged into what’s happening. I also think it’s important as an artist to make people feel that they have a voice. Hopefully, you’re noticing in the record that most of these songs are based on characters. There’s a concept of hope for a majority of the tracks. “Bring Me Down” is an example of that. “Step into My World” is this kind of interesting, weird story. But then stuff like “the Descent” is on the other end of the spectrum—a disturbing tale of someone who’s off the rails and there’s no coming back. And then, there’s songs that are the exact opposite. “The Escape” is about two people who love each other despite the barriers they face. They’re like “This is about us; love is bigger than that.” I think there’s a lot more of that.
So, each of the songs are connected by themes but they’re all different stories. I like to tell stories, and I’d always love groups that would tell stories. I always felt closer to them. I mean, listen, I like a lot of the ultra-epic sounding records that Maiden would do, but I really got into stuff that told stories. When Maiden did Seventh Son for example, as a kid, I was like, “Oh my God, it’s great!” Or, something like Queensryche’s Operation: Mindcrime—or even Promised Land a couple years later. Led Zeppelin—whether it’d be acoustic stuff like “That’s the Way,” or “Kashmir,” which is a travel story.
From the earlier conversation we had about us coming up, I liked some of what Korn and Slipknot were doing. And then there was Creed and Nickelback, which aren’t my cup of tea, but I didn’t begrudge them for that; I thought, “Oh, they’re successful.” But I thought what was missing from a lot of those bands was storytelling. I grew up in Queens, so I’d listen to Anthrax. They were huge then and I still love that band. I thought their last few records were great. When you have Anthrax, or even Metallica records, there were stories — “One” is a story; “Disposable Heroes” is a story; “Escape” is a story. Anthrax is full of stories, like “I Am the Law,” “Indians,” or “Madhouse,” or “Medusa.” Even their later stuff like We’ve Come for You All had a bunch of great stories in it. I dug that. But I think in the early 2000s, bands were just writing lyrics that sounded really angry, while a lot of the storytelling disappeared. And maybe people are really digging Four Trips Ahead by saying, “Wow, this can be rockin’, heavy stuff, but there’s more meat on the bone in terms of lyrics.”
ME: You’d mentioned heavy rock, and harder rock bands resonating with you in a big way. For years, I’ve said to myself variants of the same thing, “There needs to be a rock rebirth,” or, “the state of heavy rock just isn’t what it used to be.” Could you attest to that, to an extent?
Peter: That’s definitely a great question, and I don’t want to come off like Kevin DuBrow and start dissing bands, because everyone has their own tastes. You might have noticed that we’d used the hashtag, ‘reclaim rock music.’ We started doing that years ago, and a lot of people connect to that. And we did that, not because we’re “saviors.” But I think what we’re trying to say is a lot of the bigger groups are doing safer music. Pop music, especially now, is not as adventurous as it could be. That’s sort of what happens when commercial entities get involved, right? People want to sell records and sell a brand. The thing that was great to me about hard rock and heavy metal music in particular, is that they’d always give the middle finger to that. You saw there were all these bands that would sell lots of records and have these huge followings, and they kind of did their own thing. We’re starting to see that again, which is really exciting. But there definitely was a time when it was more of a cookie cutter thing. And I think ‘reclaim rock music’ became our motto, because I’d felt like rock doesn’t have to stop. It doesn’t have to be cheesy, and it can still have weight. It can still be an interesting and fun music to listen to. You have to play and perform it, live it, breathe it, and feel it, you know? It’s an emotional connection.
I agree with how you’d used the term ‘rebirth.’ I like that you use that term because I feel that Four Trips Ahead should be part of this rebirth of real rock music, where you’d go to a show and get excited. Then, if a kid gets frustrated, I want them to put on their headphones, lock themselves in their room, and put on “Bring Me Down.” We feel like someone’s talking to them, and we’re definitely seeing that. Or, I want someone to put on “Step into My World” and feel badass. You want people to connect that way, and I feel like that’s what we’re trying to do, because that’s what I did. I mean, rock music saved my life as a kid for sure. And I see you, as someone who’s reviewing and asking questions, I can tell you really care about music, which I love. Music is important. It’s what gets a lot of us through tough times, the next day, or maybe an unhappy election result. Art and music are what’s worth fighting for. I agree with you. I think we’re seeing elements of that—the rebirth. We talked about Rival Sons and the Answer. I’ve even seen a band like Blackberry Smoke get really big in Europe, which is cool because they’re doing a country/southern rock thing. And I’m seeing some artists I think are pretty cool and putting out good records. Glenn Hughes put out an incredible record last year. We just went to go see Big Wreck play New York City for the first time in nearly 20 years. They’re an incredible live band.
You know, when we were talking about heavier bands, like Meshuggah and Anthrax putting out great records. I think because the landscape has changed, musicians are trying to take control again in the direction of music, and that’s healthy. When corporate folks are controlling what people listen to, it becomes a problem. because the rebelliousness, truth, anger, and angst of stuff that got us excited, whether it be Nirvana, Metallica, or Faith No More, is lost. I remember hearing Fishbone for the first time as a kid, you know? All those things were like “Wow!”—those ‘wow’ moments. I mean, my ultra-wow moment was going to see the Bad Brains at CBGB and watching HR fly over my head on the first song, and it was like a lightning bolt. Or, listening to the first King’s X record. I’d seen them live, and nobody had heard of them. They were playing with Stormtroopers of Death for a Megaforce party when I was a kid, and I’d gotten in to the show. I’d never heard of King’s X, and they played “Goldilox”. On my way home, I start crying. It was such an emotional day. If I’m having a day like that and hear that kind of song, I have to walk out of the room.
I love music that does that, and you’re right; there needs to be a rebirth of that. We’re seeing that and just have to support it; try and get away from the cookie cutter stuff you hear all the time.
ME: The presence of rock music being largely internet based can be a mixed bag. While it allows for greater promotional opportunities, very few bands have truly broken out on both internet and TV platforms. Now, you guys were just promoted by AXS. Is this another big milestone in the band’s career?
Peter: Yeah, absolutely! AXS supporting us, and agreeing to show our video, was terrific. And Kim [Allegrezza], from AXS, I can’t say enough great things about. She didn’t just premier the video; she was like, “Yeah, I wanna do an interview with them, too!” which was great.
What you’re saying is interesting, because in order to make it in this industry now, you have to make yourself aware of social media. Like I’d said, we’re still basic at it, but we’re definitely seeing some major inroads. At the same time, I won’t lie to you, man; a lot of it comes down to resources and money. You always hear these stories, “Oh, so-and-so ‘broke;’ this band got 100,000 views and they came ‘outta nowhere.’” This is where I’d become like the doubtful guy, and I’d say almost 99 percent of the time, I’m correct. They make it seem like it’s organic, but the reality is that you start to notice on your Facebook feed, “Sponsored post…sponsored post…” which is fine—I mean, we do it too. I start to see this band at all these prime times and think, “Wow, they’re exploding everywhere!” Then, you come to find somebody invested some serious dough into the band. Which is great. God bless, if they can get that sponsorship. We’re trying to do that ourselves, you know? We pool a lot of our resources, we use a lot of our own money, do a lot of hustling and everything we can to make sure our presence is there. You know that that generates fans, and more people being exposed to the music. But at the end of the day—and this has always been the reality—you have to have somebody dumping dough into the band. The band can be really good, or the band can be kind of mediocre. But there has to be money that goes into the band, so that way, people can hear it. At some point, investors will see whether it is going anywhere or not.
It’s funny. I always laugh when people talk about something being this ‘internet sensation.’ Like it was just put out and everyone found it magically. And you know, and I know, that that’s total garbage. They have great placement and good money. People invest so that the video is playing all the time, maybe a month or two straight. There are all these little backend things and that’s fine. But it’s definitely more difficult because on the internet, you’re entering a sea of bands. Whereas years ago, when you had record companies involved, it was much harder to get signed, but when you got out there, the company, more times than not, would try to invest something. They signed you, and were trying to make some return on it. You had a bit of a chance because there weren’t a ton of bands on the scene. Now, it’s almost like anyone who can put together a sexy package and have a little bit of dough can be seen.
I try to not get to jaded about it. I try to think how we can do stuff. We know we have a great record and we know what we’re worth. How do we sell this to a wider audience? How do we get people to see it? It’s a constant shifting landscape too. In some realms, people say it’s all about Facebook. In other realms, they’d say it’s all about Twitter. Then, some people will say it’s how much you post on Instagram. And then other people will say, “Well, you know, it’s YouTube.” So, the reality is that you’re trying to play with all of the above. Then, you’re trying to get into the business of playing music and touring, doing shows, and getting on good bills. I feel like there’s not one formula. You’re trying to see what it is your audience individually takes to.
ME: Lastly, the big cliché end-of-interview question — anything you’d like to say to your fans?
Peter: Well, the first thing I would say, in a clichéd response: I want to thank everybody who’s ever gone to a show, bought our music online, bought a t-shirt, told friends about the band, and reposted our stuff on Twitter or Facebook. Or, just spoke about us, listened to the music and appreciated it—even just saying kind words. Some young folks came over to me and one of them said, “Oh, man, I saw you last summer at Irving Plaza. You guys were fantastic! What’s going on with you? That’s always a great feeling—getting that kind of recognition and having people appreciating what you do. I can’t say enough about it because we’re hoping to expand on that. But it means a lot. I would say, I hope you continue digging FTA.
This is our first album on vinyl, so we’re really excited about that. I’d definitely tell anyone who’s interested in the band to buy the vinyl record. It’s actually not that much more expensive than it is digital, but that’s just the way the record was produced. It comes with the digital download anyway, so you’ll get the digital download and be able to carry it around with you. But playing the record on a record player will get you excited because, sonically, it’s the full experience. I would also tell people to watch out for us. We’re arranging some tours, so to the people outside the tristate area, we’re hoping to see you soon. Thanks again for turning people on, and I hope you’ll continue doing that.
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