They’ve performed over 1,500 shows in 43 states and 13 countries. They’ve appeared at music festivals around the world like Japan’s Summersonic Festival and England’s Download and Sonisphere Festivals sharing the bill with artists like Radiohead, Kiss and Iron Maiden. They can count among their fans everyone from hip hop legend, Chuck D from Public Enemy, who has joined the band on stage, to former WWE world champion and bestselling author, Mick Foley. They’ve been slapped with a multimillion dollar lawsuit by The Beach Boy’s, Mike Love, which found the band being deposed alongside Brian Wilson in a true story that has more twists and turns than a movie. They’ve broken down international barriers when they were the only American band to perform at China’s massive Midi Festival. Their fiercely loyal fan base has even tattooed lyrics and logos on themselves and spends hours every day discussing the band’s music online.
You would think a band with such diverse accomplishments and ardent supporters would have to at some point have had the backing a high powered record label or management company, but, when it comes to Army of Freshmen, long before it was fashionable or necessary, they’ve done it all on their own.
Now, as the six piece Ventura, California rock band prepares to celebrate their 15th anniversary, and the release of what has already been called “a career defining record,” the appropriately titled, Happy To Be Alive, Army of Freshmen are out to prove that slow and steady really does win the race.
Started by lead singer, Chris Jay, who moved as a teenager by himself to California from his hometown of Cape May, New Jersey, and met fellow AOF members, Aaron Goldberg, Owen Bucey, Dan Clark and Kai Dodson at a local coffeehouse where he was performing, the band first made a name for themselves in the Ventura County area. Local success led to their own self booked regional and national tours along with dates on the Warped Tour and slots opening for a who’s who of acts in the rock, pop and punk world.
Their growing following and reputation as a hardworking, energetic and spontaneous live band, led to Army of Freshmen traveling overseas, first to Japan, a country where the band enjoyed massive success. From Asia, the band’s international touring spread to England and mainland Europe, where the band played everywhere from major festivals to the smallest pubs, playing each show with the same intensity no matter the size, making one fan at a time no matter the language or cultural difference.
From handstands on keyboards, to diving off balconies, to spontaneous freestyle songs, to staying outside of the venue long into the night never turning down a picture or autograph, to sending personalized postcards from abroad to fans, to speaking and performing for free at public school music programs, and even impromptu visits to fans in the hospital, Army of Freshmen defined themselves as a band that clearly cared about their audience just much as their audience cared about them.
As the music industry changed dramatically over the course of their career, Army of Freshmen held steady, year after year. Releasing 4 full length albums and 2 EPs of hook and harmony filled upbeat rock with the band’s signature sound of dueling piano and Moog and Chris Jay’s unique and story filled lyrics, the band also released a series of fun and comedic videos that became mainstays on Japanese and United Kingdom music channels.
“We’ve had a front row seat for the dramatic changes that happened in the music industry,” explains front man, Chris Jay. “When we started, the definition of success was to be on a major label and selling music was how bands made a living. We watched so many bands around us throw in the towel when things became too difficult or when they were no longer on a label. With Army of Freshmen never having known that support structure, we didn’t really know any difference. We just kept plugging along. Working a day job between tours was always the norm for us. We just always wanted to put on a great show and improve as songwriters.”
Improving as songwriters might be an understatement as their new record can attest to. While the songs on Happy To Be Alive, produced by longtime friend of the Freshmen, noted metal and hard rock producer, Jay Ruston (Anthrax, Stone Sour, Steel Panther), still maintain the hooks and harmonies the band is known for, the subject material tackles some serious issues, such as the struggle of a recovering alcoholic in the driving, “Paperweight”, dealing with the loss of a loved one in the anthem worthy, “We’ll Always Have Forever” and the pain that comes at the end of a long term relationship in the haunting ballad, “Skyscrapers”. The band hasn’t abandoned the positive and energetic sound they’re known for though as songs like the record’s single, “Ava”, “Cape May Diamond Ring” and “Devotion” are destined to be fan favorites with their undeniably pop perfect choruses.
“There’s a lot of real life on the new record,” says Jay. “We’ve been through a lot personally and professionally. I think it’s natural that as artists we’re going reflect that but our band’s story is one of hope, devotion and believing in dreams, sometimes maybe a little too much, and that’s always going to come across in the music. We’re not grumpy old men just yet. We’re still having a lot of fun.”
So out of curiosity sake, 15 years in, what would happen if the new record is finally the one that breaks Army of Freshmen to an audience larger than their already devoted following?
“Well, it would be nice to finally make a living doing what we’ve spent our whole life doing,” laughs Jay. “But we’re rich in experience. We’re still best friends and we get to travel to some amazing places. I’d put our fan’s loyalty and passion up against any band’s fans in the world and after 15 years of blood, sweat and tears, I think we’ve made the best record of our career. The title of the record really sums up how we feel as a band… we’re happy to be alive.”