By Ashley Zimmerman
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Chris Conley, the creative force behind long-running New Jersey quartet Saves the Day, is a man who knows disappointment and loss. In fact, these feelings have been his stock in trade, at least for the first large chunk of his almost-15-year musical career. Conley is barely 29 years old but a precocious and gifted songwriter. On his albums, he has publicly navigated the perilous waters of early adulthood and the music industry.
Saves the Day's first studio album, Can't Slow Down, was released in 1998, when Conley was just 18. Three years later, the band's third LP, Stay What You Are, was heralded by many as millennial emo's magnum opus. It reached number 100 on the Billboard 200 chart and scored the band a major-label deal with Dreamworks (later absorbed by Interscope).
Then came the follow-up, In Reverie, in 2003. Although it reached even higher on the charts, paradoxically it was ignored by the label, Conley has said, and alienated many longtime fans who were put off by its unexpectedly upbeat tone. Interscope dropped the band, which eventually headed back to indie Vagrant as it went through a rotating cast of supporting members. Saves the Day now boasts more former members – nine — than the number currently in the band.
But just a few months ago came yet another change that this time truly shook Conley to his foundation. Longtime guitarist and friend David Soloway, in the band almost since its inception, announced he was quitting just weeks before Saves the Day was set to embark on its current tour. Conley considered throwing in the towel, for real this time. He still takes a second's pause when asked about it. "It's really hard not having David around," he says by phone on a recent afternoon, seeming to slowly consider his words. "He was definitely like the glue in the group for so many years."
Indeed, Soloway's riffs and fills, pop-minded and technically adept, distinctly shaped Saves the Day's signature sound. His guitar work plus Conley's songwriting plus the fraught turmoil of their late teens and early 20s sparked some of the best bittersweet, introspective pop-rock of the past decade.
The earliest Saves the Day material was raw and fast, a suburban translation of uptempo punk rock with the inward-looking spin of a predecessor like Lifetime. Favorite song subjects were Conley's mysterious demons and perceived personal and romantic failings. His lyrics were surprisingly erudite but swollen pink with naked, picked-at emotion — perhaps a little self-absorbed but honest to a fault. It appealed to a fan base the same age as the musicians, and band and fans have since grown up together. Those most understanding readily took to In Reverie and subsequent records Sound the Alarm and Under the Boards, with their bigger, more mature pop stylings and slightly more hopeful themes. The rest seem to have grown into it over time, Conley says.
And while the band has lingered at a sort of cult-plus status, selling enough music to make the independent charts but still usually playing clubs and small theaters, it's gained a sort of permanent underdog status — one that endears it further to its fans and that perhaps reinforces Conley's notion of himself as an embattled but ultimately triumphant survivor.
So, after much thought, Conley decided that the departure of Soloway would not signal the end of Saves the Day. "I considered disbanding the group after David left," he says, "but I realized all these songs came from my heart, and I don't want to stop playing them." And his friendship with Soloway was still very much intact — the two will still collaborate in Two Tongues, their side project with Max Bemis and Coby Linder of Say Anything.
Thus, with the clock ticking down to the band's April departure for a national outing, it was time to find a replacement. On a tip from Derek Grant of tourmates Alkaline Trio, Saves the Day drummer Durijah Lang contacted a former classmate from Berklee College of Music, a guitarist named Arun Bali. Bali had played in a couple of indie-rock bands called Remainder and Eons and had toured extensively. Once tapped, he had just a few days to learn the highlights of Saves the Day's catalog, truncated out of necessity from more than a hundred songs to around 20. The guitarist was such a quick learner, though, that he was made a permanent member of the band. "Arun's definitely our guy," Conley says.
Bolstered by this resolution, Conley will take the band back to the studio this year and pick up the thematic and sonic skein of Saves the Day's previous two efforts, 2006's Sound the Alarm and 2007's Under the Boards. Where In Reverie was happy, almost bubbly, and aiming for Beatles-esque songcraft, Sound the Alarm was again tormented, featuring tracks with titles like "Eulogy," "Diseased," and "Hell Is Here."
And thus began what Conley announced would be a three-album conceptual arc, a loose autobiographical exploration that did not come from a pretty mental or emotional state. "Basically it's a story of feeling alienated, just not feeling like you belong, and feeling confused and lonely and frightened. And it's about how living without much guidance in this crazy, distorted cold world can really turn you into a monster inside. The whole arc of the trilogy is about me exploring my inner alienation and isolation and feelings of fear."