By Eli Enis
It wasn't very long ago that Chris Farren didn't want to be funny. The 33-year-old singer/songwriter/self-producer has been a cult staple of contemporary punk, emo, and indie rock for the better part of a decade. And within that ever-amalgamating multiverse of underground rock acts, Farren is most known for his comical personality— perhaps even more than his actual music. His shtick, in a scene that's largely devoid of shticks, is simple yet endlessly clever. Farren writes remarkably candid pop-rock songs about self-loathing and depression during which he ceaselessly refers to himself as a monumental failure. But the version of himself that he presents publicly, both onstage and on social media, is that of someone who's tremendously self-absorbed and ludicrously confident.
His sets feature a backdrop of projected headshots, videos, and phrases like "Another perfect set by Chris Farren!" His tweets and Instagram photos are outlandishly narcissistic and frequently reference his own perceived attractiveness, even though he sings frankly about being dissatisfied with his appearance. And on his third record as a solo artist, unflinchingly titled Born Hot (out Friday via Polyvinyl), he leans heavily into that "character" in order to fully link the dedicated irony of his public persona to the music itself. At this point, five years after his debut, Like a Gift From God or Whatever, the Chris Farren project is so thorough and well-developed that it seems like he must've been carrying it out forever. But that's not at all the case.
Farren grew up an only child to a loving single mother in Naples, Florida. As a self-described "annoying, extroverted child" who was always identified by his sense of humor, he naturally gravitated toward community theater. His mom always thought he'd be a comedian, but that path never appealed to him. As a teen, he quickly became obsessed with music and soon decided that doing it professionally was his career path.
"My mom always tells me this story where one day I came into her room said, 'I'm not funny anymore,' when I was 15 or something. And it was a choice I was making. Like, 'I'm Mr. Serious now,'" Farren says during a phone call with MTV News. He remembers thinking that in order to become a successful songwriter and a capital-A Artist, his comic disposition had to go. "I thought that it could not go hand in hand with being fun and funny."
In his late teens he formed and fronted a melodic indie-rock band called Fake Problems, which he ended up grinding in for nearly a decade. They toured for eight months out of the year and put out a couple records on now-defunct punk household SideOneDummy Records, but they never got to the point where they could properly headline entire tours. In the early 2010s, prior to recording their fourth record, their guitarist suddenly quit and the band unceremoniously fizzled to a halt. Farren was devastated.
"At the time it felt like the worst thing that had ever happened to me, and now I'm so happy that it happened," he says. "It really made me examine myself and my desires in life and what's important to me, and all of that shit. And I think it really, really forced me to grow as a person and as an artist."
It also catalyzed his unexpected friendship with fellow punk underdog Jeff Rosenstock, who was simultaneously experiencing the disbandment of his longtime group, Bomb the Music Industry! While Farren was trying to figure out what his impending solo career would look and sound like, he reached out to Rosenstock to do a split. "That sounds boring, we should just start a band together," is how he remembers Rosenstock responding. They decided to call themselves Antarctigo Vespucci, and after releasing an EP called Soulmate Stuff in 2014, they immediately became more popular than Fake Problems ever was.
Regardless, Farren still wanted to make a solo record, and he wanted to be the one who recorded it. "I was sick of paying somebody $10,000 to be mean to me," he says only half-jokingly. Perhaps it should've been expected given lines of his like, "Why can't I bear to be alone with myself?" (2016's "Say U Want Me") and "I hope you never see me like the way I see myself," (Born Hot's opener, "Bizzy"), but Farren's chronic insecurities are woven into the fabric of his musical history. He was so nervous about how people would react to his independent work that he decided to make his debut a Christmas album (and donate all the money to charity) in order to protect himself from negative criticism.
"Nobody can be mean to me about this," he remembers thinking.
He was happy with how the record came out and people generally liked it, but once he began touring on it he became incredibly frustrated that his live show was just him and an acoustic guitar. "When somebody would ask me, 'Oh, I'm coming to the show, what's your set like?' And this is not a dig on other people who do this because there are people who are incredible at doing this. But me saying, 'Oh it's, like, me standing there with an acoustic guitar singing,' it hurt coming out of my mouth."
Out of a desire to entertain himself more than anything, he began playing along to the backing tracks (drums, synths, bass) of his album. He liked it, but he still felt like something was missing, so he decided to teach himself how to make iMovie video montages with images and videos that vaguely lined up with the music he was playing. As he became increasingly comfortable with the charming kitsch of a one-man-band singing about crippling depression in front of a projector screen, the comically self-involved attitude began to emerge.
"I think that's also kind of a result or reaction of when you're a solo performer performing under your own name, when somebody says, 'Chris Farren sucks,' that's my name. That's, like, me. The only way I could feel comfortable doing it is if I was, like, 'How can I make this entertaining for myself?' Or so ridiculous that it's either definitely a joke or you can’t tell what's real and what's fake."
Farren thought the contrast between his brutally self-deprecating lyrics and his over-the-top arrogance was the best part of his set, and as he gradually became more comfortable in that role — and fans began to embrace it, both online and in concert — he began feeling a renewed sense of purpose as a creative.
"Ironically pretending to be confident gave me a level of confidence," he says. "Before, in Fake Problems, I never felt like a good front-person. I felt very awkward in between songs and never knew what to say. But taking on the character thing is a fun thing to write for."
Beyond just being funny and strangely comforting for him, his tongue-in-cheek egocentrism triples as a commentary on a trend within music that he absolutely loathes: false humility. "There's a lot of bands who take pride in that they have no gimmicks," he says. "The type of people who say, 'Man, our show sold out. Life is weird, I'm so humble.' And I'm just like, 'Shut the fuck up, you are so full of crap, it's so annoying to me. It's so fake to me."
Farren wanted to turn that on its head by being so blatantly obvious about what every performer truly wants. "I'm like, 'I want attention,'" he says with puppy-dog glee. "Maybe because my dad wasn't around, or I don't know why it is. But I just want attention."
He couldn't have been more direct about that than titling his new album Born Hot and making the cover a self-portrait of him laying down seductively, shirtless, and questionably muscular. He wrote the album with his live show in mind, but the music is still his usual fare of '80s synths, glittery power chords, and bombastic hooks that he sings with the swagger of a pop-punk king and the tenderness of John Darnielle. There's also a heavy dose of easy-listening influence in many of these songs, which likely stemmed from Farren's unexpected dive into Burt Bacarach's catalog.
His latest merch haul includes Born Hot oven mitts, an apron with his face on it, and a throw pillow emblazoned with a photo of him (in just his bathing suit) lounging dramatically in a trickling stream. But his real double-down came in the form of a rented billboard on "Sunset freakin' Boulevard, baby." Farren says he brought the idea to his label, Polyvinyl, but didn't think that they'd actually be able to make it happen. "I almost had to stop myself from convincing them not to do it," he says.
There's a song on Born Hot called "I Was Amazing" that begins with the line, "What if I was amazing? / What if everything worked out?" Like all Chris Farren songs, he wades in self-doubt for a few verses before mustering just enough hope — or simply unloading enough emotional baggage — to make it to the next one. But hearing that line, "What if everything worked out?" while giggling at Farren's Instagram feed full of glorious concert photos, hilarious Photoshop jobs, and a fan tattoo for an album that hasn’t even come out yet — it almost makes his lyrical anxieties, as real as they may be, feel as outrageous as his onstage bravado. Things are clearly working out for Chris Farren.