As with all unexpectedly great ideas, Cory Castro's one to form Free Throw nearly a decade ago in his basement with a few pals has escalated. In fact, it's to the point of his band being four albums deep. Not only that, but indeed now hitting a stride even they didn't know existed. "I can't quite pinpoint it, but something definitely feels different about this record," the frontman and guitar whizz explains. "It feels like a bunch of things came together to make this one really special for me."
Nashville's crown princes of emo have never shied away from digging into the nitty-gritty of Cory's life, and album four is no different. 'Piecing It Together' is the continuation of Free Throw's journey in doing just that - attempting to piece 'It All' together. It's also evidence of a band undergoing maturation. Friends who are constantly learning from this crazy little thing called life.
There's still ample amounts of twirling, math-laden guitar licks; a catharsis rampaging through every lyric spat from the back of Cory's throat; that deft punk framework that keeps things barreling at silly-mph. But it all feels like a band aiming even higher after a bit of well deserved - albeit, for the obvious reasons, unexpected - time off.
A sudden blank diary ended up lending itself to helping Free Throw step up to this next level. Focusing in on the itty bitty details of crafting a record, along with an unexpected twist that helped Cory - along with Jake Hughes (guitar), Larry Warner (guitar), Justin Castro (bass), and Kevin Garcia (drums) - understand just where they were going to next.
"It also made us question ourselves a lot more," Cory says. "Because especially as we're getting older, we were at this point where we're so accustomed to touring and it being our world, our careers, that when that was gone, we were kind of like, well, what do we have now?"
What they had, it turned out, was that fresh-faced feeling of being able to focus solely upon the music, just like when they were in the basement. Now, everything sounds meatier, the melodies are cranked to eleven, yet still, vulnerability seems to be the order of the day.
As always, 'Piecing It Together' often feels like you're listening to Cory's life layout before you - warts and all. The dissolution and realisations that come from being a touring band are prominent, while it also exposes just about everything rattling around his head.
On their previous efforts, using an overarching theme, Free Throw have endeavoured to pop a neat little bow across their records. In contrast, 'Piecing It Together' sits as a solo entity with a series of small vignettes living in an independent world. Citing that "this record was freeing for me in a way," it all came from this personal annexing of the deep intricacies of his life in a scenario where Cory wasn't "locked down to that storytelling aspect."
Indeed, it's an excavation of yearning to make a loved one proud. In knowing that what you're doing will all be worth it at the end of the day, but too that the world won't wait. 'Piecing It Together' is also Cory grappling with the idea that "sometimes things suck, but then again, sometimes things are great." He's a penner of lyrics that can feel like a gut punch, taking your breath away while offering a serene clarity in its barefacedness.
"It's this whole back and forth, and there is no real 100% moment where it's like 'yes, I made it'," he explains. "It's one of those things where now I've realised that you can get better, but that doesn't mean you're always going to be better, or that everything is always going to be fine and the grass is greener on the other side."
Getting better on all matter of levels, from the band to a personal one, is what Free Throw has been about for Cory. Where his songs have previously been focused on alcoholism, depression and anxiety - and certain aspects are still prevalent - Cory himself seems in rude health and ready to take on the world with his four friends.
"It's definitely therapeutic," he mentions of the exposing and vulnerable nature of his lyrics. "At times in the past, I would even use it as therapy rather than, you know, seeing my psychologist or anything like that," he chuckles heartily. "So, it has its therapeutic qualities for me. Writing a Free Throw record is always a nice exploration of myself mentally and what I've learned over the process from the last record.
"Free Throw as a band, lyrically, has grown with me through my 20s and now into my 30s. When I go back and listen to it, I can kind of tell where I was at as a person," he muses with a smile. "It's nice to watch that happen. And with this record, it was another record that was extremely therapeutic, except this time I wasn't trying to make, y'know, a novel out of it."
With his painful life moments forever entrenched in the crux of the songs he's penned, those which will also always be sitting on a setlist in a dark bar or venue, Cory admits: "I still have a hard time playing some of the older songs."
Likening playing those older tracks live to "method acting", it works to a degree, but "sometimes when we go to play them it all comes rushing back." Luckily, getting older does indeed mean he's getting "a little wiser" and able to deal with it. "Having been through it all at this point. My brain definitely knows how to handle it a little bit better these days when we go back to play those old songs [and it's] this rush of emotion."
This is partially where 'Piecing It Together' finds its centralised theme of relief, or "I made it out of that." Whereas 2019's 'What's Past Is Prologue' - if the title didn't already give it away - deals with the theme of "dropping to the lowest low, and coming back up."
Free Throw fans may already be aware of their penchant for some obvious pop culture references littered across their discography; from cult TV shows to Cory and Larry's obsession with Pokemon ("We both have the same Pokeball tattooed on our wrists," he says showing Upset the icon on his arm) they're all present, and 'Piecing It Together' continues this trend with its cheeky nod to long-running US comedy It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia ('Ocular Pat Down').
Similarly, for all their penchant for lurking about the darker side of life, Cory wants the world to know Free Throw are far more than that. Quite simply, they're a bunch of mates who like to have fun with everything. From those pop culture references to their have-fun-with-it videos and just generally in life, sure, misery does indeed love company, but these mates love fun more so.
"We have so many good personalities within our group that people don't know about unless they've met us and hung out with us, and we really want to showcase that." He continues, "especially Justin and Larry, we call them the gruesome twosome because they are ridiculous. They pair off all the time and go do a lot of dumb stuff. Hence in the video ('Cloud Sick') where they're searching through the dumpster, and they play rock paper scissors, everyone's like 'yeah, that's definitely something Justin and Larry would do!'"
As for the rest of the band, he lists them as; Jake, "he's definitely the quiet one"; Kevin is "the loudest" but also "definitely the most picked on in the band. It's been five years, but he's still the new guy." Whereas for Cory, since he's gotten himself into a better place - he used to be the "drinker guy" - he's not quite sure where he sits until they pack up the van again, but one thing's for certain, this is a band who can apparently walk in the shadows while having the time of their lives.
Now, they're edging closer to hitting the big double-digits, Free Throw know that to get it continuing with this strength they need to be on the same page. "As a band, I think we are all in the same place," Cory mentions. "We had this idea of what we want from the band and what we want it to be. We don't have to be the biggest band in the world, but we want it to continue at a pace that we're happy with. We all told each other [that] the day it starts to truly feel like a job, or we're not having fun anymore, then that's the day to say, all right, maybe time's up."
But that day isn't coming any time soon. 'Piecing It Together' isn't a second wind; it's a whole new verve for Free Throw. Not bad for a band who came together under the guise of simply putting an EP up on Bandcamp to "see what happens", and truthfully, as Cory explains, they "didn't think we'd be four LPs deep. I think our first actual possible show back from the whole pandemic is going to be Slam Dunk."
For this band of dreamers, jetting over the world, and hitting their stride nearly a decade in, it's all through self-preservation and overcoming. "That's definitely not what we expected, and we've learned over the years to adapt and to still make the band fun," Cory mentions his take on it all.
"It's a way of adapting while still having that mentality where we love to do this. It's fun to make music and not get too much into the overbearing music industry aspect of it, because sometimes that starts to suck, whenever you're consistently worried about how many records you sell or how the songs are doing on Spotify - you really start to get lost in that.
"We tried to keep the idea of the band being fun, while also tackling serious topics" - and, as he puts it with a firm sincerity while still chuckling at the absurdity of his teenage plan coming to fruition - "trying to be a professional band built out of one that started in a basement with some beer, y'know?"
Taken from the July issue of Upset. Free Throw's album 'Piecing It Together' is out 25th June.
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