Today Is Fire, and Finch’s What It Is to Burn Still Blazes

“We were thrilled that we got to make a record.”

Randy Strohmeyer wasn’t one of the founding members of Finch. He joined the band over a year after the band’s inception, making him the youngest member. But even Strohmeyer saw something special in what was going, with the five members jamming together before signing to Drive-Thru in 2001. Growing up in the small Southern California town of Temecula, the guitarist states “there wasn’t much going on” and there “weren’t many like-minded people” compared to the people that made up Finch.

He said, “We had all the equipment in my upstairs bedroom in my parents’ house, and we were just fucking shaking the house down with the songs we were writing, having so much fun. That’s kind of what started it.”

Temecula, caught about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, is a big tourist destination, while at the same time acting as a fair definition of suburbia. To a bunch of wandering teenagers, this is the experience that so many American youth can relate to: trying to find yourself amid everything else going on.

“We had no idea what we were doing. We weren’t a part of any scene. We just were kind of five people locked away in the bedroom feeling the boringness of suburbia, like most kids out there do. Those are hard times, and you always look for things to support you and support your cause. Our cause was just, “Oh God, I wish the ‘awfulness’ would go away.””

The vehicle for Strohmeyer and his fellow band members to relay their cause was music. In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, Drive-Thru signed punk and hardcore bands that brought the energy and angsty lyrics that teenagers like themselves could relate to, and by 2001, Finch became its newest addition. The band released their first EP later that year, Falling Into Place. With all of the feelings of youth suddenly transitioning into adulthood, the name was a reflection of five similar people coming together in different ways. 

The members all listened to different music, seeking common ground through the few artists they all enjoyed. This included Deftones, Hum, and Weezer especially; the band all loved The Blue Album both in its sheer heaviness and immaculate songwriting. Thus, Strohmeyer describes the early years of Finch as “trying to figure ourselves out.”

“We tended to get squashed together, and luckily, we all ended up together. It was sort of insane just how things work out like that, the “fate” thing,” he said.

The year after the EP release, the group worked on their debut full-length, which was produced by Mark Trombino. What It Is To Burn came out in March 2002, and in its wake was a slew of positive reactions. A mix of post-hardcore, pop-punk, and hard rock, the record was praised by publications for Finch’s “trademark sound” and “110% effort.” It led to massive exposure, which included a performance on Live on Jimmy Kimmel, a song feature in the TV show One Tree Hill, and dates on the Vans Warped Tour that summer. 

Most of all, too, fans loved the record. Burn not only left the band with a passionate underground following, but it also made a lasting impact that continues to exist within listeners today.

“It surprised me from the get-go. It meant a lot to us,” Strohmeyer said. “We had no expectations in the first place. We were thrilled we got to make a record.”

Producer Mark Trombino had a huge role in the punchy punk sound captured in aspects like the thomp of the bass drums and thick, driving riffs of songs like the bouncy “Post Script” and “Perfection Through Silence,” a firestorm of guitars re-recorded from the first EP. Trombino is known for his work on Blink 182’s Dude Ranch and two Jimmy Eat World records — both of which have had a huge influence on Strohmeyer.

On Jimmy Eat World, he said, “I never really understood Jim Adkins’ lyrics. Like, on Static Prevails or even on Clarity, they’re pretty vague. But there’d be these certain lines that you hear and something about it sticks to your bones. It’s the music that kind of sets it up around it, and there’s this grand emotion. It’s so dense.”

The density in both instrumentation and lyricism was also a major factor in What It Is To Burn’s staying power over the past 15 years. Whether it’s the ultra-relatable chorus to “Letters To You,” the left and right emotional hooks of “Awake” and “Without You Here” and their heightened musical hooks, or the stirring build-up on “Ender,” every moment on the album can be felt — and in waves.

On the song “Ender” specifically, noise is used to bring out as much emotion as possible. Many parts of Burn are full of melancholy and confusion, and the album’s second-to-last track conveys those feelings as it blasts from its punk-meets-piano sections into seven minutes of feedback, electronics, and lots of effects. Strohmeyer cites Radiohead as a huge influence, paralleling the song “Motion Picture Soundtrack” with “Ender.” While the final track on Kid A uses harps and angelic choirs to pull hope out of sadness, Finch hinges everything on an “unknown” with their penultimate punk ballad.

“It’s dark. We don’t know. I’m not a Christian man. I don’t know what happens next, and I think that’s exciting. And I’ve always sort of loved that approach to that song, developed by these weird sounds and sort of cut-up vocals,” Strohmeyer said.

Following that song, the title track closes out the record with soaring melodies and incendiary screams. “Ender” was originally meant to be the closer, but the label urged Finch to add “What It Is To Burn” after loving the demo. Before that, the band still planned on calling the album What It Is To Burn even without the title track, hoping to release a re-recorded version of the song later to be funny. Compared to the other songs on the album, it’s less direct lyrically, using lots of analogies and leaving openings for the listener to climb in and take shelter.

Strohmeyer believes much of the record’s resonance stems from it being a “genuine product.” Its poetic lyrics — all written by vocalist Nate Barcalow — have a broad scope and are chock full of meaning. They meant different things to all of the members, and eventually they translated on a more universal level. For former teenagers who felt music as hard as the members of Finch did when they were 16 and 17 years old, it ended up making a connection similar to that of Strohmeyer’s own favorite bands. He recalls the way he would sing along to Third Eye Blind songs, often amazed by the alt-rockers’ unrestrained lyrics about drugs and mood rings.

“You can connect to it. If we’re a band that kind of does that with people, awesome. Fucking sweet. That makes me feel so great. That’s so neat to even think that maybe somebody’s in the car right now and they’ve got it cranked up, or that they had in the past,” Strohmeyer said.

The connection comes not simply on a musical level, but on a human level as well. It’s the individual complexity of the members, living in small-town suburbia and figuring themselves out as they grow up, that made bands in Finch’s time so relatable. Brand New worked in a familiar way, with frontman Jesse Lacey writing songs on acoustic guitar in his bedroom similar to Finch’s in-home jam sessions. Kids latched onto the emotions-to-the-brim personalities of both Deja Entendu and What It Is To Burn, however different the members’ hearts bled within the songs.

“I’ve always thought the best thing you can do is embrace who you are,” Strohmeyer said. “We’re all human and we all have sort of the same emotions, but the way you spill your guts from a music standpoint is to be sort of flowing and have this stream of consciousness that is only yours.”

Taking from Burn’s personal storytelling, Strohmeyer relates well to The Get Up Kids’ Something To Write Home About — a record written about specific events and experiences while on the road. Back then and even now, it helps him “identify” home as a member of a band that’s made connections with fans the same way the Kansas pop-punk players did in the late ‘90s.

Strohmeyer pondered, “What is home? I guess home is where you feel happy. For me, it was always on the road, and when I’m actually at home, I kind of get a little anxious. Like, I want to be out there on the road and playing. That’s where I feel like we’re getting the most love. It was always fun, hanging out with your friends’ bands and your band, and putting together tours with The Starting Line and Brand New. When everyone at the show loves your band, it’s so fun.”

Following their debut, Finch moved in a much different direction on Say Hello To Sunshine, their second record. Much of the public exposure the first album brought disappeared with the sophomore release’s experimental rock sound, despite being praised by many hardcore music fans. Cryptic lyrics and wiry song structures highlighted the band’s sharp turn. However, the forward movement became a struggle at times, with drummer Alex Pappas’ exit in 2004 over musical differences and the group’s eventual hiatuses. 

Yet, feelings like those Strohmeyer experienced with The Get Up Kids were brought back to life when Finch decided to reunite and play a few What It Is To Burn anniversary shows, where they played the record in full. A few phone calls by a former manager got the members together amidst their new schedules. The couple shows turned into a huge chunk of dates, and fans – many of them from long ago – showed up in hordes.

With the connection that album made with fans and the way music has affected him over the years, Strohmeyer loved the sensation of playing those shows. On those anniversary shows, he said, “I always feel a connection with the people at the shows. I think we all kind of took the same trip together. Everyone has different lives, but there’s always something that can tie you together with anybody.”

The guitarist even attended a Starting Line show that year, resurfacing memories of touring with the punk rock group along with Brand New in 2002, shortly after the release of What It Is To Burn

“It kind of just brought me back to that place that I just want to be. But you don’t remind reliving. This is kind of more about having fun, and going out there singing like you do in your car full-blast and just letting go of all of your problems. It helps. And being on stage especially, playing. You’re, like, fully purging all these feelings and whatever it means to you. That’s always fun. You always feel so good afterwards.”

By early 2014, the anniversary shows finished up with the band’s future uncertain. At that point, though, it didn’t matter where they went. They lived and relived the dream: playing for crowds of dedicated fans who would give anything to see one of their favorite albums torn through live. People went crazy, and all the band had to do was show up.

What It Is To Burn is 15 years old, and its impact has still not reached a peak. It culminated the years the quintet spent in adolescence, developing into the artists that took to heart songs of density and honesty before making ones themselves. Celebrating the anniversary was a last hurrah to everything surrounding its genuine makeup, though it will continue to live on. Even with Finch moving forward from their early years as a band and settling into a new form, they recognize the impact that record has had not only on their fans, but also on themselves.

“It’s the CD that changed my life. Out of every CD, I could say that OK Computer changed my life, or something else in a different way — musically maybe it showed me this new light or something,” Strohmeyer said.

“But the album that changed my life is definitely What It Is To Burn.”

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