The Safes’ Frankie O’Malley talks with Pollstar about how the Chicago-based indie band is a true believer in the DIY way of doing things, the group’s upcoming projects and how members ended up playing each other’s instruments.
Described as “old-fashioned, fuzzed-out power pop” by The Washington Post and “wild and crazy, family style” by the Chicago Tribune, The Safes are O’Malley brothers Frankie, Patrick and Michael. The band has been touring coast-to-coast for 11 years, playing high-energy shows and making new fans with every single gig. The Safes’ latest album, Record Heat, was released earlier this year.
The Safes have big plans for the future, including exploring other musical avenues as well as bringing more O’Malley kin into the picture, reminding us that when you do everything yourself, you also call all of the shots.
Everybody plays different instruments depending on the song. How did that come about?
We do all interchange. We all play several instruments. When we started, our brother Sean was on our first album. [But] he couldn’t go on the road anymore. We had some temporary drummers, people we considered joining the band. We had one [three-week] tour in particular booked where a drummer committed to doing it. About a month before the tour he was like, “I’m sorry. I can’t do the tour.”
I sing and my brother Patrick sings [and] we both play guitar. But we also played drums in other bands [also] bass, keyboards and stuff. … When the drummer backed out of the tour, we were like, “We’re not going to cancel the tour. We’re going to practice these songs as a three-piece every day. I’ll play the drums on your songs, you play the drums on my songs.” We hadn’t played drums for a few years but since that tour we’ve constantly played the drums. In the studio … I’ll play organ, vibraphones, piano, and Patrick will do the same thing. Michael plays a little guitar.
So it really is a family affair. Are there other brothers waiting in the wings?
The thing about us is that we still play with Sean, the original drummer. We also have an extended family. We’re currently working on a new album [and] when it’s done it’s going to have 21 blood-related family members on it and no other musicians. I was looking around and you’d have to put the Jackson 5 or the Beach Boys, Bee Gees, Everly Brothers, The Cowsills and The Carter Family all together to make an album like this. We have seven sisters, six of them have kids, and all of them play various instruments – violin, clarinet, piano …. Over the years as we’ve been making these rock ’n’ roll records, we’ve also been writing. It’s a different style of music. In this album we’re incorporating all of the kids. Some of them are away at college, some are in high school and middle school. They’ve been playing since they were 3 or 4. They’re playing Mozart and stuff like that. To play these small parts we’re writing for this kind of departure album is turning out to be pretty amazing.
Is The Safes a true DIY band?
Yes. We record our own records, book our own tours [and] we manage ourselves.
And you can do all of that without too many disagreements?
We’ve been around for 11 years. … Every band gets into fights and every family gets into fights. But there’s something about our music that kind of trumps any of that. We love making music, performing, writing and recording. Of course, there are fights. In the end the music takes over.
If someone was to come along and say, “We want to get involved in the business and help you …” We had offers from people that weren’t in our best interest. We’ve been at this long enough to know, we shouldn’t do that. You know what I mean? So we’ve kept it DIY, where it’s like, “Oh, this is an opportunity. Someone who hasn’t been around as long as us might have jumped at.” You see a lot of bands, and this is part of show business, come and go. There’s something about staying that feels good.
Did you and your brothers know what The Safes would sound like before you made your first record?
A little bit yes and a little bit no. From the time I decided I wanted to sing songs and have a band for a living, I had a few albums where I was like, “I want this album, I want this album, I want this album,” at least for the first rock album. Some kind of combination of Joe Jackson’s first album and the early R.E.M. stuff … and something like a classic punk album.
Once we went out and did gigs for a while and wrote a bunch of songs, it was when we were making our third release, I realized “This is the album.”
When I was really young I used to wonder what it felt like for musicians. I wondered what [Cheap Trick’s] Rick Nielsen felt like when he was in the recording studio listening to the final playback of the mix of “Surrender.” Our third album, I kind of felt like, “This has gotta be how it felt.”
We all listen to a lot of different music and our music is kind of going in a different direction in the future. … We’re working on a country album and have been for a long time. This next LP we’re working on is all acoustic guitars, pianos, strings, clarinets and weird instruments. Growing and doing different stuff, like our favorite musicians have done.
How does the fanbase handle the band’s different directions?
We’re kind of like those college bands in the ’80s that were pet bands or whatever. If you dig The Safes you’re part of an elite crew. There’s a small corner of the universe where they’re like, “We get this band that the rest of the world is missing.” When we go on tour we’ll meet people and it’s like, “For the past 11 years this [person] has made it out to every show.” Everybody has their favorite album, their favorite song and their opinion of what [the band] is. Generally it leads back to when they first discovered us, and [they’ll say], “Family Jewels is my favorite album” or “Boogie Woogie Rumble is the best thing you guys ever did.” It’s funny. Sometimes people who have been around and have listened to the earlier stuff hear the progression and like the growth. And some people stick to the moment in time when they first saw us, first heard the CD or whatever.
As a music fan have you ever related to another band or artist in the same way your fans relate to you?
For sure. I’m a Beatles fanatic, first of all, from before I knew my ABCs. I was really into early R.E.M. and Cheap Trick. I followed their careers. There are a handful of albums, I have every Warren Zevon album, every Joe Jackson album. R.E.M. and Cheap Trick did little deviations here and there. Joe Jackson had a Top-10 hit but he went off into classical directions. All those bands I’ve seen play live more than I’ve seen other bands. They all have some kind of mega-success but also have kind of a cult fanbase and I follow the cult fanbase.
The show is definitely high energy. Do you make your fans work as hard as The Safes work onstage? That is, are the fans as spent as you and your brothers after a gig?
I wouldn’t say we’re spent. At the end of a Safes show I am on top of the world. It’s elation. There is no exhaustion. We’re ready to go until 4 in the morning and the fans coming along are ready, too. I’d say it’s a contagious, positive energy.
What’s the longest show you’ve ever done?
We’ve played full nights, from 10 p.m. until 2 a.m. That’s not common. Generally, we’ll play a 40-minute set. But when we’ve played some kind of thing locally where we’re the only band and we’re on the bill to play the whole night. There’s where we can play all night into the morning – and love it. It’s not as common and people don’t have the attention spans for it, and the occasions for us to do it aren’t as often. But we can. Sometimes we get to dip into playing Bo Diddley songs and stuff like that.
How did you gather the people for the video to the song “I Would Love To?”
The director of the video, Mickey Mangan, is a devoted Safes fan. Another thing is he is a multi-linguist who travels the world. Everywhere he goes, he turns people on to our music, strictly word-of-mouth.
Two years ago, I think, he got a job in Germany. He didn’t speak German but he went there to work in a TV studio editing commercials and he learned to speak German. He made a short video [about his] year learning how to speak German. It was really clever and cool. When he got back from Germany, I was trying to run ideas past people for a video. I didn’t intend on making the video but I was asking for creative people for ideas. And Mickey was like, “I’ll make the video.” … Then we just started talking. I was like, “What I would like to do is find a way for people who like the band all over the world to film themselves and submit the video.” And he’s like, “I’ve got friends all over the world who I have been sharing your music with for years.” So it’s honest, word-of-mouth. I have messages from Mickey saying, “I’m in Chile with the family I’m staying with and we’re listening to Well Well Well. How does it feel to have your music listened to from halfway around the world?” … All those places in the video, it’s basically the director growing our fanbase by word-of-mouth. There’s no b.s. to it. It’s just one guy sharing music with other people. … If you go to his website, he refers to us as “the greatest band in the world.”
Where do you think The Safes will be in five years?
Hopefully, we’ll be on top of the world, the biggest band on earth. That’s where I hope we’ll be. Artistically, I’ve already gotten the next five years taken care of. Our next LP, we just recorded the last tracks day before yesterday. We’ve got a couple of overdubs to do on another song or two. … So the next LP is pretty much done. We’re going to mix it after the tour. The album after that is probably going to be more like a country album. The album after that is completely written. It’s kind of like … a singer/songwriter version of rock ’n’ roll stuff but it’s still rock ’n’ roll. It’s more like Elvis Costello or something, or Nick Lowe. The lyrics are a little funnier, a little more lighthearted. It’s still piss-and-vinegar but it’s funny. After that we’ll do an album of pretty much singer/songwriter stuff, acoustic guitar, piano and slow to mid tempo. We have 40 songs that we have already decided “this is this album, this is that album …” Our next four albums, all the ducks are in a row. One of them is almost done. The next two are completely demoed and the one after is pretty much demoed. Creatively and artistically, they’re all figured out.
Now, as far as the music business goes, your guess is as good as mine. We’re doing everything we can … and we do a helluva lot for a DIY band. We’ve been very lucky and we’re very grateful and blessed to be able to do what we do.
Our brother Patrick was very smart in … having our music licensed about seven years ago. That’s been like a financial blessing, being able to build our own recording studio and get a new tour van. [We’ve] made enough music to have cool, independent labels pay for manufacturing. And We have the work ethic and love to continue to go out there and kick ass. One of these days somebody is going to see it and say, “We have to offer these guys the deal of a lifetime.”
“At the end of a Safes show I am on top of the world. It’s elation. There is no exhaustion. We’re ready to go until 4 in the morning and the fans coming along are ready, too.”
Upcoming shows for The Safes:
Nov. 11 – Pittsburgh, Pa., Howlers Coyote Café
Nov. 12 – State College, Pa., Darkhorse Tavern
Nov. 13 – Philadelphia, Pa., Ortlieb's Jazz House
Nov. 14 – Boston, Mass., P.A.'s Lounge
Nov. 15 – Portland, Maine, Bayside Bowl
Nov. 16 – Providence, R.I., The Parlour
Nov. 17 – New York, N.Y., Pianos
Nov. 18 – New Haven, Conn., Cafe Nine
Nov. 19 – New London, Conn., Oasis Pub
Nov. 20 – Annapolis, Md., Metropolitan Kitchen & Lounge
Nov. 21 – Baltimore, Md., The Sidebar
Nov. 22 – Bowling Green, Ohio, Howard's Club H
Nov. 26 – Chicago, Ill., Live Wire