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Chris Conley, the creative force behind the 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, and on his albums, the precociously gifted songwriter has publicly navigated the perilous waters of both early adulthood and the music industry.
He has weathered label troubles — the band was dropped from its major label, Interscope, upon the release of its fourth album, In Reverie. It re-signed to indie imprint Vagrant and then left that label again. And along the way, Saves the Day has gone through a rotating cast of players, now boasting more former members — nine — than the number now 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. And that was 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."
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Indeed, Soloway's signature riffs and fill-ins, deceptively pop-minded but 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. (What the band did in the late 1990s might be pointed to as part of the beginning of emo's mainstream crossover.)
After much consideration, Conley decided to dust himself off. "I realized all these songs came from my heart, and I don't want to stop playing them," he says. And his friendship with Soloway is still very much intact — the two will collaborate in Two Tongues, their side project with Max Bemis and Coby Linder of Say Anything.
And thus a permanent replacement has been tapped: Arun Bali, a friend of Saves the Day drummer Durijah Lang. And 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. Daybreak, due out later this year, will wrap up what he describes as 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," he says. "The whole arc of the trilogy is about me exploring my inner alienation and isolation and feelings of fear."
The new material, though, hails a marked uptick in lyrical content and sonic mood. "It's really just showing that that didn't kill me, that I'm actually transforming and becoming a positive person. It's definitely fun to listen to, and it's definitely gigantic pop music," Conley says. And if fans are turned off by the change in direction, well, he's made his peace with that. "Now I really focus on making myself happy with the music. If I really enjoy making it, I'm really excited about it. If I think it's really good, then that's as successful as I can hope for it to be."