I first saw Tom Christie play as Fraternal Twin was this past June in my friend Alyssa’s basement in Lancaster, PA. The basement setting was fitting for Tom, who lives in one of New Brunswick, NJ’s infamous punk houses, and plays bass in the popular DIY twee-punk band Quarterbacks. At the show, I stood among mostly friends, all of us gathered close to hear him and his guitar. A string of colored christmas lights and a small second-hand lamp were all that kept him from obscurity, and I smiled to myself as I noted he was wearing “the” green striped button-down shirt I’d seen him wear every other time I saw him. I’m not sure if his decision to wear the shirt was conscious or not, but it reminded me of how I depend on comfortable and familiar clothes to get me through difficult times and moments of vulnerability.
Maybe it was my momentary conflation of our identities, combined with my insecurity about my own musical capabilities, but I wasn’t prepared to be steamrolled by his set. Tom drew me into his intricate and strange, yet undeniably beautiful, guitar melodies with introspective and effective lyricism. When he delivered the line,“I’m a liar, cause I look over my shoulder/ and start to think about you”, from “July (Turn Around)”, I let out a quiet “oof”.
Since that June show, Fraternal Twin added two members to its roster, Quarterbacks bandmate Max Restaino on drums and and friend David Grimaldi on bass, and they’ve played packed shows with Girlpool, Told Slant, and Stephen Steinbrink. The extra instrumentation added to Fraternal Twin’s songs amplifies the slightly wonky and haunting qualities that create the sound Tom has coined as “skelly pop”. It’s a sound that permeates his first full-band record Skin Gets Hot, the follow-up to his sole Bandcamp release release, “g h o s t g r a d u a t i o n”, a split with fellow New Brunswick-based project Long Beard”. The album is coming later this year on Apollonian Sound.
Skin Gets Hot has taken Tom four years to craft, and, in punk fashion, includes friends’ input and instrumentation. The album proves that DIY does not mean lack of quality or intricacy. I talked to Tom last week about his songwriting process, writing as a means for healing through heartbreak, on being compared to Elliott Smith, and drawing influence from The Microphones.
You’ve told me that there are numerous musicians on Skin Gets Hot, compared to your first release Ghost Graduation, which you recorded yourself with just yourself on vocals and guitar. Why did you decide to include numerous people on this record, how did you decide which people to ask, and where did you do these recordings?
I met Chris Daley from Salvation Recording Co. four years ago and we wanted to make a record together, but it didn’t happen until a couple summers ago. I had a bunch of songs that I actually wanted to tape and I had this tape machine, this reel-to-reel that I wanted to use. But a week later, Chris got a better tape machine than the one I had and we recorded on that instead. It was a weird part of my life, I was working weird hours of the day and night.
What was your job?
It was a dishwashing job. It was the end of summer when we first started recording the songs, a lot of which didn’t even make it onto the record. People were passing through, and I had some of those friends play on the record. I had them play weird baritone guitar leads, and lapsteel guitar. Like a revolving door, I had friends put their ideas on the tape. At that point, I didn’t have a constant band.
So you never intended the songs to be played by just yourself? You always envisioned yourself with a band?
Yeah, I wrote the songs myself but I always wanted to find a couple musicians to work on the songs with more, but that didn’t really happen. I had a lot of support from my friends that I’ve made over the years by playing music, and they were excited to help me out. Whether they were passing through town, or I called them up and said, “hey I need this part finished, can you help me? I’ll pay you gas money, we can hang out for a couple days and have a good time.” It really is a product of having friends and having them believe in what you do. It feels good because without that support, I probably never would have finished the record.
Other than not having a consistent band, was there a particularly difficult part of trying to finish the record?
The biggest problem with finishing the record was getting a drummer to record drums on a handful of songs, but that’s when we called up Aaron Maine [of Porches.]. He came up, and we spent about two or three days just playing around and he ended up playing a few other parts on songs, a bass part here, a synth part there. It was really fun to work with him.
Can you tell me something about your songwriting process? Because something I particularly love about your songs is that they’re really… different, and intricate, especially compared to the louder punk music that permeates DIY culture. I wonder who you’re inspired by, and how you choose to write them.
My palate of music has changed and grown a lot since I started playing music at the beginning of college four or five years ago. I used to listen to a lot of folk music and I still think that my music is informed by that, especially some of the finger-picking songs. Since I started Fraternal Twin a couple years ago, I’ve been writing new songs that are different from the closer-to-traditional folk songs I wrote years ago. Fraternal Twin was me leaning more toward pop structures and melodies and not holding them back in favor of a more controlled folk melody. I feel like, for the most part, it was a re-identification process for me from the songs I started writing for the record. But songs like “Like the Comet” and “Werewolves” are the folk-folk songs. The rest of the songs were written after them, after I went through a reassessment of who I was. It was after a really serious break-up, where I was left to look at myself a lot more. This record makes me feel like I grew by being more honest with myself.
That’s great. On the subject of pop songs that sound folky, or visa versa, I recently watched an interview Elliot Smith did for MTV back in the 90s, and Carson Daly asked him if he considered his songs to be folk songs. Smith replied that he didn’t, because even though he employs fingerpicking, the lyrical content was more pop-oriented, and unlike traditional folk songs, which, as you said, fit a certain structure and tell a certain story.
Right, the lyrics are more relevant to our time as opposed to trying re-create some sort of environment or aspire to some sort of cannon that isn’t relevant to our lives.
Exactly. I was listening to Elliott Smith in depth for the first time recently, and his songs reminded me a lot of yours.
I’ve heard that before.
I’ve been sitting on this record for a second. But it really sums up a period of my life, when everything broke down and broke apart.
Who are some artists you used to listen to that you think informed your sound?
I was listening to some Japanese psych rock, and was interested in cool guitar tones. I also took a re-visit to The Microphones, and was thinking about the process of recording in different ways. I liked the idea of the recordings being a representation of the songs instead of a perfect recording of them, and trying to manipulate the sounds of different instruments. When we were recording the record, I had this Martin acoustic guitar that I’ve had for years now, and I had electric guitar strings on it. I had them on for a like a year, and they just sounded so dead, very skeletal, and I really liked that. Some of the songs are recorded on that guitar through an amp, and it sounds kind of dark and murky, and I’m not sure if I’ll regret that or not.
Yeah… I’m also fan of boring piano music. My favorite musician is this guy Gigi Masin. He did this song called “Clouds” that’s been sampled by a bunch of people like Bjork and others, and he does a ton of amazing things with synthesizers and piano melodies.
How has your experience playing bass in QUARTERBACKS affected your Fraternal Twin songs?
It’s amazing being in that band, and I learned how to play bass being in that band. I originally started out in QUARTERBACKS as the second guitar player, and we wrote second guitar parts, but then Dean and I just decided I should try playing them on bass and they sounded way better. Those early songs, like “Point Nine” and “Last Boy”, they are all guitar parts I play on bass.
Is there any last thing you want to share?
I’ve been sitting on this record for a second. But it really sums up a period of my life, when everything broke down and broke apart. Then everything came back together with this record. The title track is a re-affirmation of being alive in the fact of physically feeling things when you’re emotional state is very stunted or kind of destroyed. This is something I’ve thought about a lot, how your physical reactions and emotional reactions are always aligned, or at least affect each other, and you can treat it as a symbol of being a person and being alive. So it’s a positive record, nothing to something.