Taking nearly a decade to make an album and ending it with a song called “How Did It Used To Be So Easy?” – that’s pretty funny. But Dave Mackinder isn’t really joking. In fact, the Fireworks frontman makes multiple references throughout Higher Lonely Power to the band’s relatively carefree days as literal lab rats. “Sure you have to sleep overnight at a Pfizer facility and get poked 50 times, but 1,000 bucks for what became Lipitor? That seemed like a lot of money,” he explains. And it certainly was a reliable way to make ends meet, at least compared to the “15 or so jobs I couldn’t keep for the life of me while actively trying to tour.” Guitarist Chris Mojan chimes in with his experience testing capsaicin creams on his skin “to see if it would burn too much.” Both have more legitimate ways to make ends meet now, holding down the kind of stable day jobs that can be paused as the bomb cyclone cripples the Midwest during the Christmas holiday weekend. And the very second the calendar flips to 2023, they’ll finally share the fourth Fireworks LP, more than three years after it was first announced. But no one outside of Fireworks’ inner circle knows that right now.
Mojan and Mackinder knew that they wanted to release Higher Lonely Power with no advance warning. And when Fireworks promised a 2022 arrival in June, they really meant it. The original mix was completed in early summer, but Fireworks scrapped the first pass at mastering and had another go at it. The album you hear today was officially completed about three weeks ago. The album cover is a striking shot of a lush, overgrown forest floor with no text; unlike with the animated figures gracing Gospel and Oh, Common Life, it’s hard to imagine any former scene kid getting this as a tattoo. Rendering their thinking person’s pop-punk in widescreen with string sections, choral arrangements, expansive post-rock song structures, and juddering breakbeats, Higher Lonely Power builds on Fireworks’ impressive catalog rather than writing it out of their history. Rather, it seems like Mojan and Mackinder’s primary intention was to create a version of Fireworks that’s no longer variously sleeping in vans, flophouses, and medical facilities, or quixotically trying to make a career out of thinking person’s pop-punk.
Those were the guys I remember the last time we crossed paths in 2014, when I was on assignment covering the Greatest Generation Tour at the Hollywood House of Blues. The Wonder Years were a year removed from their artistic and commercial zenith, with enough juice to bring ascendants like Modern Baseball, Citizen, and Real Friends along with them. Fireworks were a last-minute replacement for the hyperbolically serious New Wave of Post-Hardcore titans Defeater, whose frontman had recently suffered a broken hip. I recall a celebratory mood in every green room, and rightfully so: The Greatest Generation Tour, then and now, is a time capsule of when Warped Tour traditionalism, soft-grunge, emo revival, and indie-leaning pop-punk coalesced into the sound of popular punk in the mid-aughts, a movement that was finally getting covered by mainstream publications.
And though Fireworks themselves followed up their scene classic Gospel with the well-received Oh, Common Life earlier that year, Mojan and Mackinder had already recognized the precarious position they were in – not at a level where they could headline a House of Blues package tour, but also not one of the upstarts happy to be along for the ride. “Bands would play before or after us and I would be like, ‘I don’t feel like I’m a part of anything that’s going on.’,” Mojan muses. “I’m not saying that in a cool way, I’m saying it as, ‘I feel out of place,’ but I don’t know what ‘the place’ is.” “There’s never been a template for a band like Fireworks,” Mackinder concurs. At the risk of oversimplification, there really didn’t seem to be a sustainable middle class in this realm – you’re either a band in your 20s playing for teens, or you’re The Story So Far or Taking Back Sunday, legacy acts that can reliably play to the 30-something version of those teens at Riot Fest every other year.
In 2018, the Wonder Years’ Dan Campbell reflected on how nearly every band in his peer group – for example, Polar Bear Club and Hostage Calm – faced an ultimatum between day jobs and a marginal existence in pop-punk and ended up going on “indefinite hiatus.” He included Fireworks in that group as well, and indeed, Fireworks announced their hiatus in 2015. A few months after the Greatest Generation Tour ended, the two recall a particularly demoralizing college gig laying bare the conflict between the earnest emotion they put into their music and the obligations of maintaining Fireworks as a commercial enterprise. “At a time when the grind of being in an active band was burning everyone out, driving all the way to Rhode Island to play some outside Welcome Week show to people who weren’t watching and didn’t care was a hilarious scenario,” Mojan recalls. “After the show, Dave sends us an email like….I’m good. Well said, Dave, I’m also good for a while.”
Mackinder and Adam Mercer soon formed Empty Houses, a Motown-influenced indie-pop act who released their first and only album on Sargent House in 2016. Teddy Roberts, who joined them on drums after Oh, Common Life, became a touring member of Tigers Jaw, one of the very, very few bands from their ilk that managed anything like a consistent middle class status. Mojan and Mackinder clarify that the creative side of the band hadn’t ceased during the hiatus, describing a “Saddle Creek thing” with permeable boundaries between their respective projects. Mackinder notes that Empty Houses lyrics have been repurposed for Fireworks and vice versa. And Mojan admits that Fireworks were hesitant to use the word “hiatus” while they were still writing music, doing so relieved them of the expectations that come with being an active touring band. “Why sacrifice the things that we love for grinding it out…not to be too shitty, but to make managers and booking agents money,” Mojan asks. “And nothing against bands that can do these things and make a lot of money, it’s not really who we are or who we’ve ever been. So we made a decision to put our creative energies first.”
The end result of “fucking around for a few years” became “Demitasse,” a single that represented not just their first song since 2014, but their first social media activity in two years. “The minute something materializes that you can share with others, it becomes a lot more serious,” Mackinder recalls, and even in 2019, Higher Lonely Power seemed like some very serious business. The band created a higherlonelypower.com website that included a survey touching on the same vast, metaphysical questions posed by the song itself. And then…nothing. Well, there was label maneuvering, families, deaths, jobs, the whole pandemic thing. If not exactly a Detox-type white whale on pop-punk message boards, Higher Lonely Power became something of a meme, brought up every few months whenever someone came across “Arrows” on Spotify and remembered how Gospel changed their lives.
And while the band credits “Demitasse” for setting the thematic and sonic tone for Higher Lonely Power, they decided to leave it off the final product. “Maybe there’s a little showoff quality like…we can just keep going, we don’t have to include a song from 2019,” Mojan explains. “But we were also a little obsessed with not giving anything away,” and that included playing any new material when they reunited to open a run of shows for the Wonder Years this past summer.
Had Higher Lonely Power come out on a more traditional timetable – say, three years after Oh, Common Life, or even right after “Demitasse” – I’d hear its ambitions as similar to the last couple of Wonder Years albums: the sound of Big Indie Rock reinvigorated by the enthusiasm of a band that functioned far outside the view of Big Indie Rock for a decade. Former Defend Pop-Punk types might hear an album that aligns with their maturing tastes, expertly taking on sophisticated indie-pop and blustery heartland rock. As for others in Fireworks’ self-described mid-30s “rocker dad” demographic, it’s near impossible to hear the roof-raising crescendos and accusatory lyrics of “I Want To Start A Religion With You” and “Megachurch” without thinking of Neon Bible-era Arcade Fire or even recent Perfume Genius.
As of this writing, Higher Lonely Power is unquestionably the best album released in 2023, though I imagine it’ll still be in the running for the near future. Fireworks were consumed with making a capital-A Album, and this bears out in their description of what took up most of the past five years – sorting through the armada of Arturia synthesizers in the studio with Marc Hudson, arranging strings, running every drum track through a countless filters and analog recording devices, obsessing over sequencing. In the tradition of Brand New’s “Vices” or mewithoutYou’s “9:27 AM, 7/29,” Fireworks begin a long-awaited album with the most abrasive, hardcore thing they’ve ever done, a 90-second screed that brings their long-dormant At The Drive-In and Dischord influences to the fore. The Bukowski-quoting centerpiece “Jerking Off The Sky” trudges on a distorted bass riff that makes it the most apocalyptic Fireworks song to date before it ascends on a choral hook to become the most heavenly Fireworks song to date. The penultimate “Woods II” gives Higher Lonely Power continuity with its predecessor, as does the soaring, Fuse-friendly hook of “Blood In The Milk.” The lifeblood of pop-punk was still coursing through Oh, Common Life – “I was a classic early-to-mid-20s American male: still living at home and not sure what I was doing with my life,” Mojan explained – but the perspective has clearly shifted. Mackinder recalls sleeping on hotel floors and driving to the Pfizer facility in Ann Arbor before fast forwarding to the present on the hook: “Woke up afraid to die/ When we used to think it was funny.”
“Blood In The Milk” encapsulates the biggest themes on Higher Lonely Power – the allure of false nostalgia, perversions of American Christianity, the compromises of creative pursuits under capitalism. And the chorus alludes to what might’ve been the biggest challenge of all for Mackinder and Mojan, staying in touch with the morbid sense of humor that’s kindled their friendship throughout Fireworks’ sorta-kinda hiatus. This is particularly true in Mojan’s exploration of religious fundamentalism throughout Higher Lonely Power. Raised by Macedonian immigrants in an Eastern Orthodox church, Mojan recalls a “wild…but warm” approach to faith in his youth. At least until he began to explore the Christian metalcore and Cornerstone Music Festival-adjacent scenes popping up throughout the Midwest. “Even at 16, I was thinking, ‘This shit is so weird,’” Mojan jokes. “There’s people praying in these huge groups, there’s a crust punk scene, my mind was blown.”
Mojan wasn’t particularly surprised when Jesus People USA, the quasi-hippie evangelical movement behind Cornerstone, was implicated in an abuse scandal in 2014. Nor is he surprised at their enduring cultural power, or that of any of the megachurches and evangelical groups that continue to thrive far beyond the Midwest and other red-leaning parts of America. “I don’t think people understand how dangerous and influential that world really is even though it’s not supposed to be influential,” he sighs. “It’s such a cult-y, powerful thing seeing how people can move in these herds. Those themes just really spark something, not only in an anger way, but almost in an inspirational way.”
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