Published on The Deli Philadelphia – Thursday, August 26, 2010
Where Is My Mind?: Terrible Things’ Fred Mascherino
By Annamarya Scaccia
To Fred Mascherino, Coatesville is more than just his hometown – it’s still his home, even though he’s lived in West Chester for the past two years. So when the depressed steel mill town was ravaged by a rash of fires from 2008 to 2009, the ex-Taking Back Sunday guitarist, and mastermind behind the new rock powerhouse, Terrible Things, couldn’t help but be distraught, frustrated, outraged and moved to put his feelings into words. What came out of that is Terrible Things’ self-titled debut (releasing on August 31 via Universal Motown) – a commanding, emotionally gripping concept album that explores themes of isolation, trepidation, heartbreak and aggravation. For the record, Mascherino and co. (which includes Coheed and Cambria’s Josh Eppard and Hot Rod Circuit’s Andy Jackson) will play two CD release parties – one tomorrow Friday, August 27, at First Unitarian Church and the other, Wednesday, September 1, at The Note with in-store performance at FYE in Broad Street earlier in the day. They’ll also be heading out on a two-month stateside tour with Mae starting October 1. We had a chance to chat with the Terrible Things frontman about the fires, getting politically involved and his favorite fake meat in a deli.
The Deli: What was it like growing up in Coatesville?
Fred Mascherino: I had a great childhood, and I lived in town there and never really thought about if there was any where else on earth. I just played in my yard and eventually started playing guitar. I would say as I got older, in like high school, you never really did anything in Coatesville. If you wanted to do something, you usually have to get a car, leave town, then go to the mall or anything like that. So therefore, I stayed home a lot and those were kind of the years I was starting to play guitar, and I think that led to a lot of my creativity because, really, there was nothing else to do so I had the choice to watch TV or write songs, so I just didn’t watch much TV. I just sat on my bed and played guitar obsessively for hours. I actually found, when I grew up and I met a few other musicians from there, and they kinda had the same story and they were really, really awesome. There may be something to that [laughs]. There weren’t a lot of distractions, in other words.
TD: Even though you are living in West Chester now, do you still visit Coatesville?
FM: I drive through if I’m going that way, but again, there isn’t really a night life there. It’s kind of an old steel town that’s just been deteriorating since even before I was born. It hasn’t gotten much better and I think that actually allowed for the bad things that were to come.
TD: Were you shocked, then, when the fires started happening in 2008?
FM: I heard about it in 2008, in December, that’s when the newspapers started covering, and they said there had been nearly a dozen fires there and I thought, “Well, how many are there normally?” I found out there was normally only one and so they definitely knew it was arson, and then I started to think, “How could they let this happen?” Unfortunately, when a town is sort of down like that, it’s easier to get away with these things and go unnoticed. But in December, they did arrest someone, then January  came and there were 15 fires just in that month alone, so in February – and these fires, just like one fire was a row home of 14 houses that put 40 people out of homes and one lady died and they were all very serious – they actually arrested two people that had admitted to it. They said, “Oh, we caught the right guys. It’s over. Don’t worry,” and that weekend, there was another fire. So it stretched on and it was about, at that point, where I felt really kind of angry and sad and I wrote the first song [called “Steel Town,” which didn’t make Terrible Things] thinking about it. As things will, I started to read about it more and looked up news articles, even things people were saying on blogs, and the next thing I knew, I had four or five songs because something would inspire me to think about it in another way. So they finally arrested another person [who was] actually a firefighter and then it did stop.
A lot of it is still very mysterious, and I kind of touch on that. I don’t fully know the whole story, but the first single [off ofTerrible Things] is called “Revolution”, and the chorus says, “This is not a revolution until we say it is.” That was sort of…my anthem for a town saying, “Let’s do something about the problems that are here.” I feel that, as more people hear it, it’s more of thing all kinds of people can relate to. It’s just sort of more of a universal message. I haven’t fully got a handle, still, on what’s happened, but I do always try to live my life where, when I believe in something, I get involved and try to change and not just sit on the couch and wait for it to come to me. My previous work with my previous bands, we’ve always got in the global warming issue for that reason, and I drive a car that runs on vegetable oil – it’s a ’82 Volkswagen Rabbit. I’m kind of all about living life to the fullest.
TD: At its heart, Terrible Things’ self-titled debut is a reflection of how you felt about the fires, but did you also draw from other people’s reactions and feelings towards the fires?
FM: Yea. There’s a song called “Conspiracy,” which is kind of the most poppiest song on the record and upbeat, but there were definitely some blurbs on the message boards talking about how it must be a conspiracy. I never found any proof of that, but I thought it was part of the story and would add to it. I [ended] up kind of writing my song not so much related to Coatesville because what I did with the writing was, rather than follow a storyline, it’s a fictional story about a couple working at their relationship, but the background is what’s happening in the town. A lot of people [in Coatesville] couldn’t sleep at night, and they were staying up because they were told to keep their lights on, so they were sleeping on their couch downstairs because [the arsonists] were basically lighting trash cans on fire and throwing them on people’s back porches, and it would spread pretty quick. So people were sleeping downstairs with their lights on with one eye open. There’s a song [on the record] called “Hills of Birmingham”, where the lyric is, “We will sleep when we are dead.” There’s another song called “Up at Night”. So I sort of tried to get inside the heads of what people there must have been feeling like [and] what my brother [who left Coatesville recently] was going through because he has seen a suspicious car at a school and called the police and the next morning, he found out that 12 of the buses were caught on fire. It was happeningright down the street from where I grew up. People were terrorized. It was a town under siege that never knew any excitement before, which is what makes it so unusual and scary. Another thing that this subject did was it kind of gave my album a darker tone than the sort of like emo, love songs that I’ve been a part of in the past. It’s more serious and real, and it’s more of a straight-ahead rock feel because I thought it suited what I was talking about. That’s really where I wanted to go with my music, anyways…I couldn’t believe that my little town that was previously unheard of had made national news but for something so horrible. It was really frustrating because I think everyone involved felt very helpless because every Saturday night between 2 and 5 a.m., there would be a fire and you didn’t know what part of town it was going to happen in, so they were just getting away with it so many times. By the end of it, there were almost 50 fires.
TD: Did writing this album help you make some sense of what happened, and how you felt about it?
FM: I think it’s gonna really be determined when other people hear it because, not that I normally wait for a reaction, but I want to know what people specifically from Coatesville think when they hear it and if there’s some fans there that might be helped by it or think more of their town or may be motivated to do something to better the town. I have plans down the road of the same types of dreams for the town, but that’s really where it’s going to become more than music for me. It was definitely like more of the nights pulling my hair out and wishing I could change it, but I couldn’t, so all I could do was write and then I felt that maybe it would give the town some hope to keep this from ever happening again. That would be really the most rewarding thing that I think could happen.
TD: What hopes and dreams do you have for the town?
FM: I don’t talk about “Let’s make a change” and then not do it. I’ve been following some of the politics out there, and I’ve thought about going out and helping the guys that I think have their hearts in the right place, go out and help them get elected next time. But it’s not just that the normal people that let this happen [are] still in power. But I don’t really like politics and music. They don’t always mesh well. I’m not even talking about having a concert or anything silly. I’m talking about I would go door-to-door for a guy if I believe he would help make the town better. Honestly, normally, I have the time and energy to do these things. I write my albums and I go on tour, and when I’m home, I can sort of get into projects. Those are the things that I would like to see happen and be a part of. I’m not gonna be able to make the change, but maybe the people that are gonna make the change, I can help them or visit their office and tell them about what my thoughts [are]. I don’t know, really. It’s to be seen. I didn’t want it to sound like I was gonna run for office or something, but I do think that those people make a lot of difference in the end, and they’re the reason that things were around to happen and that no one noticed them until there were already over a dozen fires. If there’s one a year, after three or four, a better run town would have figured it out sooner.
TD: Speaking about politics, you say Terrible Things is not a political album. So what would you call it, if not political? More of a profound journal entry? Observational storytelling?
FM: It’s hard times music. It didn’t help that there was a recession happening at the same time as this hitting us. Really, it’s just an expression…I have [stories], as I go through life and things happen. I was carjacked in that town when I was 17 and taken on an adventure for three hours. I definitely consider myself a storyteller. Anytime I’ve been able to write all the lyrics, that’s what you’re hearing – is a part of my life. I don’t have high hopes for it changing the world and music, but I just hope that it could touch some lives and that the stories can be related to, even outside of Pennsylvania and around the world. I think that’s happened so far because a lot of my previous fans feel like this is the best thing I’ve done in a long time, and I’m really, really excited about that and thankful.
TD: With that concept of storytelling in mind, Terrible Thingswasn’t initially meant to be a concept album, so what happened to change that?
FM: I’ve always seen concept records through the years, and I’ve always thought to myself that I didn’t have enough focus to write that many songs about the same subject, but what I realized was that I have never found anything that kept my focus so well and I don’t know that it would ever happen again. I just really think I was so driven by this and also, at the point in my own career, where I had left a fairly successful band and went out on my own and I was just living out here in the suburbs, trying to figure it all out and this was all very healing to me, and I ended up trying to work things out the only way I know how, which is just writing songs the way I have since I was in fifth grade. It really just happened naturally. It wasn’t anything I knew I was doing until I had five songs already written and then I thought that I was kind of on to something. It was also some of my music that I had ever written. There’s a song called “Lullaby”, where I had originally played with my very old band, Breaking Pangaea, and that was a song about me out in California on tour and meeting my wife and bringing her back to Coatesville and we kind of decided that was home for us. We redid that song but I added a chorus that sort of pertains to the theme that “The city sleeps except for you and me/We know better.” I thought that was kind of cool to bring in the history of how I decided that, even as an adult, I wanted to kind of live and then sort of tell that story, as well. It’s really a biographical piece.
TD: Did having Josh in the band also help steer you in that direction since he is so familiar with the concept album?
FM: Yea, absolutely. Josh was there for every minute of the writing of the music, so he added immensely to what was going on and, also, whenever he had input on lyrics, it’s very valuable. Then [guitarist] Andy had actually had a fire in his house where he lost everything. He lost about five guitars and all his belongings, so he really related to what I was saying, as well, and thought, “I’ve been through this.” There are actually two songs on the album that Andy wrote, [“Not Alone” and “Wrap Me Up”] completely, as well, and they just kind give a sort of different perspective. We really all kind of got into the whole thing and the artwork that we did with the cover and the inside, it was all pertaining to this and it was all done by us with the photographer, Ryan Russell.
TD: Well, let’s talk more about the cover. It features two kids having a tea party with a dollhouse burning in the background. Why choose that image to convey the theme of the record?
FM: It’s sort of that thing about, “Why did you not notice when the first fires happened? Why was it a state of emergency after 30 fires?” So the people there – and in this case, it’s children – they’re just sort of enjoying themselves and going about their playing and eating and all that, and, meanwhile, there [are] giant flames in the background that they should probably do something about and probably, at the very least, noticing. It spoke to me a lot. I had originally had the concept of a burning house. I found [the dollhouse] out on someone’s curb for the garbage. It was from the 1950s, this old dollhouse. It was so detailed. It had hardwood floors laid inside of it and wood frames around all the windows. It was quite a piece of work, and it was pretty painful actually, when it finally came time to burn it, to do that. It was actually a little emotional for me with the history of everything. I was wrapped up in with this album. It was [Ryan] who had the idea of the children just sort of not noticing the fire and just kind of sitting there. The inside of the artwork is the actual house all decorated up with furniture and things, and then also the inside of the house all burned up with burnt furniture and everything. It was a full concept thing.
TD: So this debut is basically Terrible Things hitting the ground running – a really powerful opening statement to the band?
FM: Yea. How do you follow up three long careers in music by trying to do something that’s going to be even scarier to follow up down the road? I think we all pushed ourselves musically a lot. Jason Elgin, who produced it, just demanded a lot from us, from our performances. There were days when our drummer, Josh, just wanted to quit because he was being pushed so hard. He had never really been through that in Coheed and Cambria, where it was like, “Try it different ways until we get it right.” We rewrote songs. We rewrote lyrics. If it didn’t speak to us, then we would say, “Well, this really doesn’t [fit] this album,” and there were about six or seven songs that didn’t make the record. They were great songs but we set a really high standard because of where we are in our careers.
TD: What’s your favorite thing to get at the deli?
FM: I’m actually a vegan. They got a little four store chain out here called Capriotti’s and they have a vegetarian turkey hoagie that I think is amazing. It seems kind of weird, fake meat in a deli, but it’s definitely tasty for those of us who do that [laughs].