‘Making a Setlist’ is a series where we talk about the mechanics of live music with our favorite artists.
From Hemingway to Springsteen, the aimless days of youth are a frequent source of storytelling and songwriting. Brett Emmons, frontman of the Glorious Sons, continues in the tradition, but suggests no one has quite captured the story he is trying to tell.
Drinking, drugs, wandering, fighting—life at the speed of reckless youth. But here, the cliche party bus turns into a more meaningful vehicle: Self-awareness of Emmons’ own flaws and the recognition that he is not ready to let them go. It’s all found on the Glorious Sons’ latest album, Young Beauties and Fools (due out October 13 via BMG/Black Box Recordings).
Sonically, the new record builds upon the foundation of their debut, The Union (2014), which racked up over 10 million streams across the U.S. and Canada. Mixing the Gaslight Anthem’s grit with the pop accessibility of American Authors (not to mention, at times, the vocal prowess of Bob Seger), the Glorious Sons have established a sound that borrows the best of the past while keeping an eye on the future. Post-vintage is one way to phrase it. Emmons simply calls it, “Crazy, sweaty rock ‘n’ roll.”
With over 350 performances under their young belts, the Glorious Sons’ “road warrior” mentality has earned them a growing, dedicated fan base, as well as a reverence for the stage. This fall, they return to the road with Greta Van Fleet, with a few headlining dates after. They’ll be primarily promoting Young Beauties and Fools, a transparent gut-punch of an experience that demands to be heard live and sung loudly. But the band has also promised a different setlist every night, featuring old, new and future material—a “free-for-all.”
Behind the Setlist talked with Emmons about their electric new album, the secret to making a great setlist, life lessons from the road and more. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Before we talk about the stage show, I’d like to ask about a couple new songs. “My Poor Heart” feels like a party song, but lyrically is self-aware and kind of a cry-for-help. It’s a fun contradiction and an interesting way to kick off an album about youth.
Me and my friend had just been up all night on a big bender. We were going to Toronto for some reason. I forget if it was for recording or an interview or something. Either way, we got no sleep at all. The next morning we were walking through Toronto and my friend said, “Man, I need to rest my poor heart.” I looked at him and said, “Boom [laughs]. You don’t know it, but that’s a fuckin’ tune right there.” So I kept it in the back of my head for a little while. Eventually, I sat on a piano, started playing two chords, and just started singing, “I need to rest my poor heart.”
At 24 years old, you’re no longer 20. You know what you’re doing to your body. It starts to hurt a little bit more. You’ve got that self-awareness but you’re not strong enough, not yet ready to give it up. That’s what the song’s about. About being addicted to the good times and trying to cope with the day after.
The album seems to be so much about that idea, being young, moving fast and living with the consequences of your mistakes.
Yeah. I was trying to figure out what to write about for a while, and it was sitting right in front of me the whole time. All the good parts of these songs came from voice notes in my phone. We got in the studio and the producer heard these lines and said, “This is what we want from you. We want you to talk about you. Show the real person behind these songs.”
Can you talk about “Hide My Love”? Where did that song come from?
I got into an extremely huge fight with my girlfriend. We were pretty fucked up, as you would say. Drunk and stuff. I ended up coming to her house, knocking on her door. She would kick me away. I ended up going back to her house four times. The song is about the madness that ensued from all that. And it’s all a true story. Everything that’s in that song happened that night, maybe with a few things left out [laughs].
It was super funny, because the fourth time I went back, her sister came out and was like, “Brett, go home. We can solve this in the morning.” I was like, “Come on, let me in! Let me in!” My girlfriend then came down and started laughing her ass off [laughs]. And that’s the line from the song, “Sarah, let me in. Would you at least stop laughing?” We were so drunk.
Across the album, I noticed your songs stay below the four-minute mark, most of them hover around three minutes. Is that an intentional restraint or just natural?
As I said, all of those songs were based off of voice notes on my phone. If we stretched those into six, seven minutes, we’d be doing a disservice to the them. To me, it gets boring when you stretch songs without purpose. Unless you have a full vision to trace out the peaks and valleys, I don’t see the point of long songs. If I had a song that was meant to be seven minutes long, I would’ve put it on there. But we had no songs that were meant to be big and grandiose.
We wanted to make a classic album. 10 songs. 35 minutes long. All hits. A classic album of hits, you know? I think that’s what we did.
I can appreciate that. A lot of bands tend to get over-indulgent in the studio.
It’s easy to get self-indulgent. Anytime I wanted to do something like that, our producer was like, “Brett, take a step back. Does that serve the song?” Everybody gets like that in the studio, because it’s just so fun. So creative. But you can start to get a false sense of confidence.
Which songs are you most looking forward to playing live?
“My Poor Heart” is maybe my favorite song we’ve written. I love the energy in it. It never really cooks up to this gigantic thing, but it moves along at a real good pace. We’ve been starting our set with that. Also, “Sawed Off Shotgun.” Those are my two favorites to play live.
Any songs you’re worried might not translate from studio to stage?
If there’s one, probably “Come Down.” That song is our most produced song yet. It’s our poppiest, I’d say. I don’t think it’ll be a problem, it’ll just take some work. It’s a way of playing we’re not used to. We started out as a band hammering on things. Playing as loud as possible. Fast as possible. Putting on a dirty, sweaty live show.
But now that we’re growing, we have to show we can pull off “Come Down.” There’s a certain push and pull in that song. You have to lay off. You can’t play it as hard as you want or it won’t come off as the cool song it is.
Now that you have a catalogue to pull from—two studio albums, an EP and a single—how do you balance old and new songs in your setlist?
Right now, we’re playing about five new songs, sometimes six or seven, but 10 old songs. When the album comes out, it’ll be a free-for-all. On the tour, we’re going to do a different setlist each night. Some new songs that aren’t even on the new record, but they sound great live. We’re also doing this Spotify thing, where at the end of the tour people vote for their favorite setlists, and then we’ll release a video of us playing that set.
What’s the secret to a great setlist?
There are a lot of secrets. There are so many ways to do it. You watch the Rolling Stones start a set—they don’t come at you with a bang right away. They build into their set. It might be four or five songs before they get up to top speed.
With us, in the past, we’d come out with a bang. We’d come out with “The Contender,” one of our hardest songs. Lately, we’ve been trying to slowly build it up, two songs in. We’ll start with acoustic guitar and play, “One Church Town” and then “My Poor Heart,” which picks up the pace, and then we’ll hit them with “The Contender.”
But there really are so many ways to make a great setlist. Like, for example, Jason Isbell or Ryan Adams. Some of their best moments are when it’s just them onstage. They’ll be five songs in and then the band will take a break. And it turns into this really beautiful, vulnerable moment.
But the main thing is to never bore the audience. Don’t do too much of the same thing for too long. You have to make sure you’re throwing things at them that surprises them and excites them, from the beginning of the set or five songs in. Never bore the audience.
We just ran a story on the formula for the perfect opening band. Do the dynamics of your stage show change depending on whether you’re opening or closing?
Yep. Headlining set, you have more time. That’s really all it is. You have more time to set up things and do what you want. An opening set, I wouldn’t really feel comfortable unless we were the most energetic we could possibly be. As an opener, you have to excite the fans. You only have 45 minutes, sometimes 30. That’s like six songs.
Is opening more challenging than closing?
No, we’re really good at that crazy, sweaty rock ‘n’ roll. Punch them in the faces. Most times when you’re opening, people don’t even know who you are. You just go out there and let them know who you are for half an hour. For closing, there’s more of an art to it, a responsibility. It’s more fun to cultivate the night and create something out of it, but it’s also more of a challenge.
Any concert horror stories?
We did this two-run show with Big Sugar. We had a bit of a layoff for a while, and we played the show with the same setlist we had played four months earlier. We were so bored with it, but we hadn’t been practicing enough to have a new one. Onstage, we never really found that “Je ne sais quoi,” that fire and speed. It was a one-hour show that felt like hell.
For a more hilarious horror story, we were in Fredericton and Jay [Emmons] was a little bit drunk. It was our first time playing this festival. He went back to play with [Adam] Paquette on the drums, and he was standing near his drum set smiling. I look over and he slowly starts falling—it was like a five-second fall. He falls right on the drum kit, and the kit went everywhere, all over the stage [laughs]. We had to finish “The Union” with just one drum. It was so funny. We all laughed it off. Definitely a Spinal Tap moment.
What about the strangest venue you’ve ever played?
We once played this half strip club, half bar. There were a bunch of beds in our green room, down underneath the strip club. We didn’t know if they were making the strippers sleep there or if this was the room for “favors.” We thought it was pretty funny. I actually slept in one of those beds for an hour or two.
You’re about ready to kick off a tour with Greta Van Fleet. What are some life lessons you’ve learned about surviving on the road?
Longevity and stamina is very important. The road is about survival, more than anything. I’ve lived fast—alcohol, drugs, going too hard at shows. You burn out and you’re not yourself onstage. I’ve learned to ease myself into the tour, acclimate to it.
For me, if we go on tour for two months, I get used to that lifestyle. When we come home, it’s hard to acclimate. It can sometimes take two or three weeks to come back down to earth after you’ve been all over the country playing to fans every night, and staying up late and doing whatever you want. It can take a while to ground yourself to the real things in life. I don’t really know what the lesson is there, but you need to keep your perspective on what’s important.
To be honest, I haven’t quite learned how to do that yet. It’s hard for me to switch off the tour lifestyle when I’m at home. Ironically, when I finally do switch into home mode, I usually have to go back out on tour [laughs].
Sounds like a good theme for your next album.
Yeah. We’ll see.
Photo by Samantha Falco.