Leanor, saxophonist for Five Iron Frenzy, talks change, the band’s maturity, and why their new album won’t end with a song of worship.
THE END IS
2003 wasn’t the best year for me. I was a sixteen year old brace faced, acne covered teenager who spent his days fighting off the ladies with a replica lightsaber. 2003 was also the year Five Iron Frenzy said goodbye. After a nationwide farewell tour and album, the band hung up their brass instruments for good. Eight years of music came to a close in a neatly tied bow. Five Iron Frenzy was dead.
On November 22, 2011 the resurrection began. Out of thin air, a Kickstarter project was launched. “New Five Iron Frenzy Album” buzzed across the page, along with a link to the band’s new single. Fans almost broke the internet when they heard the news. The outpouring of support couldn’t be contained and within an hour the project goal was met. Reese and the gang were back. Five Iron Frenzy had returned from their self-imposed exile with a vengeance.
Now, a decade after their “Winners Never Quit” tour, the band that called it quits is quietly traveling the nation and prepping for the November release of their new album, Engine of a Million Plots.
It wasn’t too long ago that I sat reflecting on how different my life is now as compared to the last time I saw Five Iron play in 2003. I don’t have acne or braces anymore, though the lightsaber is still used from time to time. I’ve grown up, just like the rest of Five Iron’s diehard followers. Their fans are no longer sixteen year old adolescents, but adults. We’ve gotten jobs, some are married, many have children. Not only that, but the music industry has changed as well. CDs are quickly becoming obsolete in favor of instant downloads and internet streaming. Five Iron is reunited, but they’re being reabsorbed into a world much different than the one they left behind.
How will they cope in this new digital age? Is this the same Five Iron Frenzy that we tearfully waved goodbye to ten years ago?
Recently, I had an opportunity to speak with Leanor, the saxophonist for Five Iron Frenzy, about the band’s return, how they’ve changed, and most importantly, their new album, Engine of a Million Plots. Leanor, or “Jeff the Girl” as fans dub her, began by detailing just how the reunion came about and the ultra-secretive nature of the Kickstarter campaign.
“Even though we had gone to New York as a band and recorded, ‘Dark and Stormy Night’ [the new single], my father didn’t even know. No one knew. Our best friends didn’t know,” Leanor explained. “When the news came out that we were back together and were trying to fund an album, we wanted to put out a free song to show people we were serious.” And that’s how it all began, again. In the figurative darkness of night, Five Iron launched a massive comeback that took everyone by surprise. Whether it was the sheer shock of the announcement or the new single, something clicked with their fans. New technology was suddenly harnessed to bring life back to an old band. When the Kickstarter project ended, $207,980 had been pledged out of the band’s $30,000 goal. For those of you who aren’t mathematicians, that’s 693% of Five Iron’s original budget. Maybe waiting for fans to grow up and get jobs wasn’t so bad of an idea after all.
The fact that Five Iron still generates such a strong response, is a testament to the band’s impact over the years. Five Iron stood for more than just ska music, they represented a group of people who lived outside of the norm. “I think our fans are so unique,” Leanor said. “The band had a message. It wasn’t a new message, it was a message for people that already existed. It was for those in high school who didn’t fit in with the status quo or with other Christians. They looked differently or believed differently than their parents did.”
Over the years, Five Iron meticulously built an almost cult-like following. Telling someone you were a Five Iron fan instantly said something about your personality, your humor, and how you viewed the world. Five Iron seemed to embrace the line between odd and honest, reserved and in your face. As a result, they became a symbol for something much bigger than themselves.
While Five Iron still retains these same, unique qualities, they’ve also evolved over the last decade.
For starters, longtime bassist Keith Hoerig has bowed out of the reunion, making room for Scott Kerr to rejoin the group. Scott, an original member of Five Iron, left in 1998 after his religious views clashed with the rest of the band. His return has added an interesting dynamic to Engine of a Million Plots. Kerr, no longer a Christian, wrote most of the music for the new album, assuring fans that some of the band’s vintage sound will be back with a new twist.
There is, as well, a greater sense of purpose that’s developed between the band as each person has continued to mature in the last decade. “You take all of these guys who were used to living in their parents’ homes and then in their first band house 10-15 years ago, and now they are the fathers of their own children. They’re husbands and the head of their own household. You have these people who had strong opinions then and we have even stronger ones now.” That same sense of responsibility has spilled over into the overall message and tone of Engine of a Million Plots. Fans can expect a stronger, brazer voice than previous Five Iron releases. “Now, there’s even more of a message of redemption. There’s even more of an urge to change and even more finger pointing at others and ourselves.”
Being fully funded by their fans also opens Five Iron up to new creative options. While the band had to work within the bounds of label restraints for previous releases, Engine is a different story altogether. For the first time since their conception, Five Iron was completely free to express themselves unrestrained in the studio. “The album is even more strongly voiced because we are not on a music label, so we don’t have to be censored,” Leanor explained, also noting that while none of the lyrics are inappropriate, they are certainly more aggressive.
“Lyrically you just can’t separate Five Iron from our voice. I think we’ve always felt the burden to make the world a better place, or more interesting place, or a more loving place and we pray that the lyrics are redemptive, but you don’t change by saying that things are okay.” That being said, Leanor is quick to add that the new album isn’t all serious. “As always, there’s some humor and that’s true for this album as well.”
Engine will also feature a sense of gritty realism that only ten years of life can bring. This change will be most apparent to fans in the closing piece of Engine of a Million Plots. “One thing this album is not going to do, is wrap up neatly with a bow at the end as usual Five Iron albums have in the past. Usually we end with a beautiful worship song of prayer and praise. This time, and it was a struggle for me to be okay with it, this time we’re going to end with a question.”
While this might make some followers uneasy, Five Iron collectively agreed that an open ended conclusion reflected a more honest approach to life. “It was very difficult for me to end it with a question, but the reality is, life isn’t tied up in a bow, at least not on this side of our redemptive process. So I’m okay with that because it’s more Five Iron. It’s more honest. It’s really honest. It feels right ending an album with a question.”
A question much like the one looming over the band’s future as Engine of a Million Plots nears release. “I have no idea what’s next for Five Iron. I have no concept,” Leanor said when I asked about the band’s next step. “The future always looks like a big beautiful question mark, I’m never afraid of it, but it always exceeds what I thought to hope for.” It seems that, much like Engine of a Million Plots, the band’s future won’t necessarily be wrapped up with a neat bow this time. Their path is still somewhat undecided.
As Engine of a Million Plots hits shelves this November, questions swirl about for fans. Will this resurrected version of Five Iron be the same one we saw leave all of those years ago? Will their new album be what we’ve come to expect from the band?
The answer is both yes and no. Yes, they’ll still brandish their unique blend of humor. Yes, their music still features all that we’ve come to love in ska. Yes, they’re still promoting a message of love and redemption.
But they have changed. They are older, wiser, and by all accounts, grown up. This isn’t the same band you waved goodbye to a decade ago. But maybe that’s okay. I sure know that I don’t want to go back to sixteen and I certainly don’t miss carrying my Walkman around. I’ve done that before. I’m ready for something new.
Five Iron Frenzy is too.
Make sure to grab Five Iron Frenzy’s new album, Engine of a Million Plots on November 26. You can also catch Five Iron Frenzy live in Dallas on September 20 and Houston on September 21. Check out the rest of Five Iron’s tour dates here.