Interview: Chris Jay (Army of Freshmen)

With their upcoming tour with Bowling For Soup imminent, Army of Freshmen frontman Chris Jay got in touch to have a quick chat about the band’s reappearance and heading back to these shores for a slew of bouncy pop-punk dates…

Starters for those who don’t know you – where are you guys from?

We are from Ventura, California which is about an hour north of Los Angeles. Right by the Pacific Ocean.

How long have you been going as a band?

Well, long story short, I graduated high school in Cape May, New Jersey and immediately headed to Ventura to pursue a career in music. I started doing the solo singer songwriter thing but made a few friends my age at an open mic who ultimately turned into Army of Freshmen. First show was late 1997 but we’re saying 1998 cause Aaron and Dan joined the band early that year. Kai, 3 years later. So the core 4 of us have been together for 20 years now! Definitely proud of that but boy does it make you feel old. I’ve been in Army of Freshmen longer than I haven’t been.

When was the last time you were in the UK?

We supported Lit at the end of 2014 I believe. So it’s been 3 years which is the longest break we’ve had from coming since we started if I’m correct. Our really busy years over there were the mid to late 2000s. Felt like we lived over there! I think we did 5 separate tours alone in 2007.

What prompted the get-together after the unofficial hiatus following the Lit tour?

Well put. That was exactly what it was. We didn’t break up or have a falling out or anything like that but we didn’t do anything in that time. Not even rehearse. We were still creative, Aaron and I made a movie, The Bet, and Kai started a new band called Curtsy, Owen played in a few different bands but the truth is there was zero Army of Freshmen shows in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

I think to be honest, we were burnt out. When the music industry collapsed in the late 2000s, bands like ours were hit hard. We were always the opening act to bigger bands. We barely got paid but we lived on merch sales, especially CDs. When the economy crashed around the same time downloading and streaming took over, it was a brutal one-two punch. People weren’t going to shows and if they were, they weren’t buying CDs. So as the bands we opened up stopped touring as much, things got ugly.

I fought desperately to keep things afloat cause it was my whole life but we were left in debt from an indie record deal that collapsed and left us with some heavy bills, the major we were close to signing with fired the guy who was about to sign us… it was just terrible times, looking back. We would do a tour here and there but the momentum we had came to a halt. I think our last record, Happy To Be Alive was a damn good one, maybe our best but it just didn’t get the attention it deserved.

Tastes shifted too in all fairness. Electronic music became bigger. Pop punk became a bit of a dirty word. We always considered ourselves a rock band or even a pop band but we were put in the pop punk bin which I don’t mind but point is, it was a perfect storm for a middle class, almost famous type band to get crushed in. Now, mind you, I’m not complaining. I was a little bitter but those years of slowing down and the past three years of no AOF, I certainly learned a lot about who I am and why I do what I do and while I always appreciated it now it’s to a whole new level. Having Get Happy come back is a dream and for me the perfect way to celebrate 20 years of the band.

You’ve played 13 countries – which was your favourite and which would you most like to add to the list?

Great question. Japan. It’s the only place I felt like I was on another planet. We had the fortune of playing a massive festival over there and it’s one of the better experiences of my entire life. The treatment there is incredible and the audiences are beyond appreciative. The UK is a close second though. I would put their crowds up against any countries and I love the live show culture there. However, you got to deal with some rough weather and food. So I guess the perfect solution would be to put a UK crowd in Japan then that’s rock and roll heaven.

In terms of adding a country, I think I speak for all the guys when we say we always wanted to play Australia. A lot of bands in our genre did great there but we never got to go. Never say never though. I never thought the Get Happy Tour was coming back and here we are!

Your Wikipedia entry kicks off by saying you’re the “co-creators” of the Get Happy tour, the latest version of which we’ll be seeing you on shortly. How did that come about?

I may have a few details wrong but Get Happy started in the summer of 2006 in the States. Then in early 2007 in the UK. Then back to the states in summer of 2007 and then a few Europe shows and UK again in fall of 2007. It’s by far the tour we’re most associated with since every date featured us and Bowling For Soup.

It came about really cause Jaret was looking for a name for their summer 2006 tour I believe. He wanted to do a really fun package. Make it really interactive. They of course have a song called “Get Happy” and it was Kai who suggested that for a tour title and Jaret loved the idea. So the tour kind of progressed into a fun interactive thing mainly because we were such good friends. We started to really create an environment at the shows where we’d have special events, kickball games, bowling nights, lunches. People started to come to multiple shows and we thought, hmm, we’re onto something here.

We went big with the lineup in 2007 in the UK and naturally with BFS being bigger there than the States, it was wildly embraced. We did the summer again in 2007 in the States and then the last one in the UK was massive with Bloodhound Gang, Zebrahead. I think it was to this day the biggest venues BFS headlined. It was kind of the last big hurrah for the early 2000s pop punk boom.

Jaret and I had all sorts of talks and plans to make it even bigger, like a travelling Warped Tour, more bands, etc. but to go back to that time when all hell broke loose in the music industry, there were just so many changes on all levels professionally and personally, it drifted off until Jaret, God love him, made a post about it and Army of Freshmen on his Facebook, and it got such a great response, he sent me text and said “Do you guys still tour? Would you be interested?” and my answer was literally, “YES”. There was not a second of thought at all. Done deal on our part.

Then we started putting things together in secret and that was hard too cause we knew all summer, Get Happy was coming back but we all did a good job of keeping quiet. It was worth it too cause the announcement was met with such great reception and lot of their fans and ours who had been asking for years were totally caught off guard. As we’re talking now it’s a week away and I am beyond excited. I hope and think the old energy and magic between our bands and the crowds will be back. It’s time to Get Happy again.

Have you been friends with BFS for a while?

Yes. I bought Drunk Enough To Dance at a record store in LA out of the used bin ’cause I had heard of them from some of our fans and I fell in love with it. I mean absolutely obsessed. “Surf Colorado”, “On and On”, “Life After Lisa”, etc. So later that year I believe, we were on a few dates of Warped Tour on small stage. They were on some of the dates too, first time I ever saw them was in Kansas I’m pretty sure. Introduced myself, got to hanging with Jaret a bit at the after party at the next date and we swapped info.

They were going on a Fall tour, I emailed begging to get on a show or two. Even though we had never played together, Jaret to my everlasting thankfulness actually squeezed us on a few shows and we got along so well. I mean like that scene in Step Brothers… “Did we just become best friends?!” Then on the last night we were with them, Jaret did something above and beyond the call of duty and asked us to stay on for the rest of the tour. We were ecstatic. We were about to go back to playing self-booked small shows and here was this band who basically took us under their wing for no other reason than they liked us.

After that there were more shows all over, then shows abroad and of course The Get Happy Tours. I am sincere when I say this there was simply no band that helped Army of Freshmen more than Bowling For Soup. And, hell, here we are 15 years later and when our anniversary came around who is still helping us? Bowling For Soup! Even in the past decade when we went our separate ways, I was always a fan, followed their career and was and still am very defensive of them. You simply don’t hate on BFS in my presence, you’re either gonna sit down and let me play you some of their songs to change your mind or we’re stepping outside. I am a BFS man to the end.

What can we expect from you guys on this tour? I’m assuming no Beach Boys covers?

Haha. Nice. No. No Beach Boys cover. For those that don’t know I was sued for 10 million dollars by Mike Love of the Beach Boys. It’s a long and wildly entertaining story but you gotta buy me a decent lunch and have at least an hour to hear it. As for what you can expect, we’re the opener. So it’s a short set. Our plan is to not mess around with new stuff and B sides. We get that Get Happy is nostalgia. So we’re gonna play songs from that era. Not that anyone knows them for that matter but if you’re at all familiar with us or remember us there’s 2 or 3 songs that we’re most associated with. You’ll hear ’em.

Beyond that, we’re coming to put on a show. Imagine waiting a decade to play huge venues again? I don’t intend to blow it. I am leaving my heart and soul on that stage. Plus I just want to have a great, great time. I really do wanna Get Happy. We’ve had a hard past year personally for a lot of guys in the band. There’s been sickness, death, divorce in our immediate families, hell the city of Ventura got hit by the largest wildfire in California history just last month. It was terrible. So point is, we need a good time and we intend to have it!

You worked with Roddy Piper on his last film, which Chris and Aaron produced. What memories do you have of that?

Oh, man. Thanks for asking. During our hiatus Aaron and I wrote a comedy film, The Bet. Straight up no film school, no screenwriting background, we just set out to do it. Then when we did write it and liked it. We set out to make it. That journey alone is another buy me lunch or dinner or a few beers but one of the highlights was getting Roddy Piper in it for a brief cameo. He was gonna have a major part but WWE called and he had to take the offer they gave him at the same time. I was devastated.

I was a huge Piper fan and had contacted via email on a hail Mary. Few days later I got a call, few weeks later I was having lunch with The Hot Rod. We really hit if off which was easy cause he such a kind human being. I mean nothing like his character on TV. Even though he couldn’t do the film he put a good word in to Dallas Page and then he even checked in on it to see how it was going. I said, come up for the afternoon. We’ll shoot a quick scene. I just got to have you in this. He said yes. I picked him up and just me and Piper drove up to Ventura and talked and talked and talked. He shot the scene, at my house no less, he was amazing, a very talented actor. The real deal.

Then we drove home stuck in insane traffic Friday rush hour Southern California traffic hell but it was one of the greatest drives of my life. We bonded. Seriously we laughed we cried. It was magic. I thought that was it. A one time amazing experience but lo and behold, we kept in touch a lot. Texted. Talked on the phone. Became friends. I was shocked when he passed just a year later.

I saved his last text, he said some very kind things to me. Insane to think that as a little kid growing up a Piper fan that I would become friends with him and cast him in his last movie role. We talked about putting him in our next film in a much bigger role. Sad that that won’t happen.

I’ve since met his daughter, she came to the film’s premiere and she was just as kind and sweet and talented as her old man. So his legacy lives on. He took a chance on me and believed in a little movie that had nothing going for it. That was his style though. He backed the underdog because he was one. I miss him.

Are there any further side project or filming ideas, or is Army of Freshmen the main focus again?

The main focus is the Get Happy Tour! But sadly that only is gonna last 9 shows. Months of planning and prep and hunting keyboards down in a foreign country not to mention spending a fortune to get over there but hopefully it’s all worth it. After that we will definitely do a hometown show sometime this year to celebrate our 20th anniversary and who knows what the future will hold.

Army of Freshmen could never become a full-time touring band again. We’ve all got steady jobs and bills and houses, etc. but I could see some more activity. We will see what the tour brings. Love to do another festival in the UK and rock Japan once more would be amazing. Wishful thinking but that’s how all good things start and, who knows, maybe Get Happy will continue in some form.

On the movie front Aaron and I already have written the script for our next film, Wedding or Not, and now it’s time to hunt down the money to make it which is hardest part of film-making. We’re excited to make it though. Hopefully end of this year or next. If The Bet was funny for an indie movie, we think we can go to another level with this one.

Which city are you most looking forward to playing in on this tour? Clue: the answer is “Glasgow”.

I am looking forward to playing every single one. Each one I tell you a reason why I’m excited about it but I will tell you this about Glasgow. There was an Italian restaurant that in my opinion had the best damn Italian food in all of the UK. There was a tour or two where it was literally the only good meal I had. I can still taste the minestrone soup warming my gluttonous American soul. If it’s still there, I’m hitting it!

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