LOOKING FOR THE LIGHT by Ferocious Designs (Brian Kelley) | INTERVIEW
Author: Sean Manuel
When digital signal processing made its way to synthesizers, the popular music landscape forever changed from one dominated by electric guitars to another defined by newly-affordable keyboard workstations that can emulate via electronic waveform (e.g., sine wave) manipulation. Living his formative years in and performing in bands throughout the 1980s synth pop era, Central New Jersey's Brian Kelley (project name: Ferocious Designs) epitomizes and delivers the synth soundscape on his latest release entitled Looking for the Light. The eleven-song effort sees Kelley expand from the 2021 debut EP entitled A Matter of Time and address themes of truth, motivation, love, nostalgia, and activism. If artists like Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, 80s Jefferson Starship, and Lo Moon compose your "music appreciation nexus," you will incontrovertibly enjoy the Ferocious Designs sonic palette. Let's get a rundown on Brian Kelley below:
Hi, Brian. It was a pleasure to have Looking for the Light immerse me in a 1980s synth time-warp. I read you intended to release this album in 2022. Did the extra time afforded by a release date in 2023 bring any new developments/alterations/revisions to the songs that would not have been in 2022?
Great talking to you, Sean. Yeah, I finally went away from an 80s sound when I started writing music again around 2005 after a long break from it. But I went right back to it when I launched my Ferocious Designs project with my A Matter of Time EP in 2021. For my first full-length album, yes, the plan was to release it by late 2022, but some family issues-more time-consuming than anything serious, fortunately-came up that cost me a bulk of the summer so I just decided to put it on hold and revisit in the new year. "Peace of Mind" is a song that came to me last October, around the time I had been planning to release the album, so that wouldn't have made the album if it had come out on time. And "The Greatest Love" was a late addition, as well. I thought about sending that to Lazlo for the National Foundation for Transplants benefit compilation, but decided to have my good friend and longtime collaborator Christian Beach add an acoustic guitar part and put it on the album. Lazlo got another song, "Alliel," instead.
Looking for the Light opens with the title track. In biblical studies, "light" (e.g., "Let there be light") is understood to be metaphorical and alluding to an intellectual light instead of a literal light. Is the "light" written about in this track an intellectual light?
A little bit, yes. There is the hope of finding a light in terms of a return to intellectualism-a new age of enlightenment, if you will. But there is also the biblical concept of light exposing the evil that exists in the darkness, and I do believe we are living in a bit of a dark time. In general, though, it's about looking for the light to find our way out of the darkness.
The title track features a momentous shift in the bridge section as the G#m tonality shifts to the relative major, B major. The move emphatically punctuates the lyric "light" and, as described by the lyrics "to shine," brings a sunny air to the track. Was optimism the intent?
By the way, this is my first-ever interview as a musician and my biggest fear was always that the interviewer would put more thought into my songs than I did, so thank you for making that come to fruition right out of the gate! But, yeah, that's the part of the song where it shifts to a more hopeful outlook for the future. That bridge ends with the phrase "ignite the spark," an allusion to lighting the fuse to a new age of enlightenment that I mentioned earlier.
"The Greatest Love" continues the "light" theme in a literal sense as you write about life being upended by relationship troubles and wield natural imagery (e.g., clouds, the Sun, the rain) to convey the loss of "light." An illuminating lyric is "After all of these years of this mutual neglect, I found that the person inside you is someone I truly respect." The protagonist of this storyline reaches out for a partner who listens and does not ask for anything in return; meanwhile, the protagonist finds "no point in asking why" they came to this bond. Does this song, therefore, document an unconditional love?
I guess you could call it that. It's about a very unexpected "enhanced friendship," I guess, that came about around 1993 after I had just come out of a three-year relationship. The two of us were coworkers for a couple of years and largely ignored each other. I mean, I wasn't into her vibe at all. But we somehow started hanging out and I soon discovered the way she presented herself was mostly a facade-a coping mechanism. She was an amazing person underneath it all. A strong connection developed between us and we helped each other get through some things for a number of years. We never could make an actual relationship stick because there were always complications and the differences between us were still too great to overcome. We're still connected on social media and exchange birthday wishes and the like. Musically, the song was inspired by Peter Gabriel's "Secret World" from his 1992 Us album. It's one of my favorite Peter Gabriel songs and, as unlikely as it seems, it just happened to be on the jukebox at the restaurant where the two of us worked together. Early on, for various reasons, we kept what was going on between us to ourselves. One night, we were both working late and it was near closing so I played "Secret World" on the jukebox. It wasn't my intention for this to happen, but she came up to me before leaving and said, "I heard the song... I get it." It was a nice little moment, so the song-written a year or two later around 1994 or '95-serves as a callback to that.
I found a common lyrical through-line connecting "Waiting on You," "Years Go By," and "Peace of Mind." In a similar fashion to Electric Light Orchestra's Jeff Lynne frequently including the color "blue" in songs he pens, is your propensity to include lyrics germane to memory and nostalgia an extension of being naturally nostalgic?
Thank you for that Jeff Lynne name-check, by the way. I have always been a nostalgic person, but the past few years have made that a bit of a challenge. One of the negatives about social media is that it allows you to see how people have changed, and it sullies my memories of them. "Years Go By" directly addresses this aspect of nostalgia. Against my better judgment, I was considering going to my high school class's 30th reunion in 2019. As I was coming up with lyrics, I realized I was writing exactly why I shouldn't go. Most of those people are not like I remember them, so I was telling myself to keep them as they exist in my memories.
A news release on your website explains how you rewrote the lyrics "You and Me Against the World" to be "a bit more abstract." How "dark" were the original lyrics?
That song came about in late 2018. I had just become a huge fan of the band Lo Moon, who released their debut album earlier that year. In November, the devastating Camp Fire hit Paradise, Calif. I was messing around on the piano and started playing something a bit Lo Moon-ish and recorded a quick demo on my phone. Then I read an article about how poor and negligent emergency and city planning basically doomed many of the residents of Paradise who lost their lives. I started writing lyrics about a couple in turmoil suddenly faced with a raging inferno closing in on them and looking toward each other for forgiveness and survival. In my head, though, it was either going to end with them not surviving or at least the implication that they didn't. There were A LOT of references to fire. I decided to make it more hopeful and determined-with less fire references. But I never even wrote the darker lyrics down and never recorded it, so no alternate take exists.
Another news release informs us the track entitled "Domination" was originally from your time with the Asbury Park synth rap group TMC+The New Generation in 1989. Was it significantly reworked since 1989? If so, compare and contrast the original from the reworking.
Yeah, so the previously mentioned Christian Beach and I met as teenagers in the late 1980s when a mutual friend invited me to join their upstart prog-pop project. The band broke up after our friend left, but Christian and I soon reconvened to work on electronic new age music, believe it or not. To this day, I assume we were the only teenagers at the Jersey Shore hoping to get their music played during The Weather Channel local forecast. But before that project went anywhere, Christian's dad, Gorgo, introduced us to a rapper from Asbury Park named Tariq Mohammed, who wanted to rap with a band behind him. He settled on me and Christian with our arsenal of synths, samplers, sequencers and drum machines-none of which we were expert at using, resulting in several live-show calamities. We had just set up for a rehearsal one day during the Summer of 1989, when Christian started playing a synth bass line he said he had been playing around with the night before. At the same time, I had come with nearly all of the lyrics to "Domination" written on a sheet of paper. The bass line was eerily close to what I was hearing in my head. It had a very Depeche Mode-like feel and the lyrics were right in that same ballpark. So I started singing the lyrics to Christian's bass line and the song just came together. There is a video of us on YouTube playing it live-in which you can watch me forget the words and later step on and pull out the mic cable-at the old Green Parrot around 1990. I have also posted a video on the Ferocious Designs YouTube channel demonstrating the various versions over the years. I just thought it would be fun to revisit TMC+The New Generation by recording that song and have Christian and Tariq guest on it. The song has sounded more significantly reworked when I revisited it in the past, but to me, this current version sounds like how TMC would have recorded it today.
"Now or Never" is an activist anthem connected to a cause. Please tell us about Everytown and how people can support.
That song made a weird turn, mid-writing, as well. I had this Scritti Politti-like song in my head that I hummed into my phone while driving one day. The "baby, it's now or never" lyric was more of an ultimatum on a will-they-or-won't-they kind of relationship. But I'm a big fan of the band Marillion, whose 1991 song "Cover My Eyes (Pain and Heaven)" includes the lyric "ferocious designs," and hearing the album they released in March last year, especially the first single Murder Machines," made me change that song into more of a social commentary/protest anthem. And then the Uvalde school shooting happened and it just made sense to use the song as a fundraiser for a gun-safety organization. There are several such groups I follow, but I decided to donate all proceeds from streaming and downloads of "Now or Never" to Everytown for Gun Safety. That started when I released it as a single last June, and it will always be the case. I still check the numbers on that song to see what I can send to Everytown. I wish it could be more. Another gun safety group, March For Our Lives, will be holding rallies in Washington and elsewhere on March 24, so I will be setting up another "Now or Never" Everytown fundraiser on Facebook and Instagram in coordination with that.
"G.F.Y." features a military march-like drum undercurrent and sounds like the soundtrack to a final boss battle in a video game. When did you write this track and how did it progress into a topical song about Ukraine?
It was a couple of weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine started last year. I sat down on the piano and started repeating those chords in the verse. The drums were a callback to a short piece I created as a music bed for videos I made to promote a military-themed play when I was doing PR and marketing for a theater I worked at a few years ago. The moods just all seemed to come together. At the time, we thought the defenders of Snake Island had perished with their final words being, "Russian warship, go fuck yourself." Of course, we found out later they were taken prisoner. But "G.F.Y." became a Ukrainian battle cry. It was being written on road signs to let the Russians know where they could go to do that. THEY EVEN PUT IT ON A STAMP! It's simple and to the point. It is such a human reaction to what the Russians are doing to them. My songwriting skills are nowhere near strong enough to properly express my feelings and sentiments for the horrors happening there, so it took a long time for me to finish it. And I know it still doesn't meet the moment. What I do know is that it sucks they are losing so much all because of Putin's insecurities, vanity and his base need to be a vicious fascist. I just wanted to express my support for Ukraine in some way.
Tell us about your collaborators!
Christian Beach, who most BlowUpRadio.com listeners should know, is a ridiculously talented singer-songwriter who you can find at ChristianBeach.net. He plays acoustic guitar on "Domination," "The Greatest Love" and "Peace of Mind." He and Tariq Mohammed-my former TMC+The New Generation bandmates from decades ago-also sing backing vocals on "Domination," which as I mentioned was the song we worked on together back in 1989. And Tariq also wrote a new rap break for that. Christian invited me in 2007 to join his occasional backing band and I've played organ or accordion on some of his recordings over the years. I've also worked with him on promoting his music and making music videos for him. But neither of us had worked with Tariq since the early 1990s, so it was nice to hear us all together after so long. Who knows? Maybe we'll do it again.
Would you like to tease any future releases?
I'm probably done releasing music for a while after this. I want to take some time to get better as a musician and, especially, as a producer. Both my 2021 debut EP and Looking for the Light include a lot of older material that I reworked. From this point on, I want everything to be new so I'll need time to write and time to improve my craft, but I already have ideas jotted down and recorded. Live performance isn't really for me, but I've also been thinking about firing up my old synth rig and my 1980s-era Kawai Q-80 sequencer and using all my old gear for a livestream or two in the coming months. In the meantime, I need to get back to my love of running, especially since I have to get ready for my fourth Philadelphia Marathon in November.
Where can people go to interact with and support you?
The easiest way is just to visit FerociousDesigns.com. There are links to my releases there, as well as other announcements. Also, if you scroll all the way to the very bottom of the site, there are social media links to my Bandcamp, Mastodon, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and - for ever long it lasts - Twitter profiles.
Is there anything else you would like to share with us?
It was a pleasure doing this interview with you, Sean. Thank you so much. Just to get back to that Jeff Lynne name-check earlier, the reason for my excitement is because many years ago, my wife and I were at a party with her rather large extended family. They decided to play a trivia game - maybe Trivial Pursuit, I don't remember - pitting the men against the women. My father-in-law picked out a card and read a question about The Traveling Wilburys, but then he asked the woman to name all the members of the band. The women quickly shouted out all the names except one. Nobody said Jeff Lynne. Then, he asked everybody at the table if they knew who the last member was. As I looked around the room at all the puzzled looks, I yelled out, "JEFF LYNNE! IT'S JEFF LYNNE! HOW CAN YOU ALL FORGET JEFF LYNNE?!" Then someone asked, "Who's Jeff Lynne?" and I REALLY lost it.
Artist Bio: Ferocious Designs is the DIY music project of central New Jersey-based songwriter Brian Kelley. Although he has spent most of the past 30-plus years as a songwriting hobbyist, Kelley is not a complete stranger to the New Jersey music scene. He is a longtime collaborator with singer-songwriter Christian Beach, spending time with him during the late 1980s and early 90s in a band that played the much-loved and long-gone Green Parrot Rock Club in Neptune, NJ, multiple times. Kelley has played keyboards, accordion and percussion in Beach's backing band since 2007, and has recorded with him as well. The project name is borrowed from the lyrics of "Cover My Eyes (Pain and Heaven)" by Marillion. The debut, five-song EP from Ferocious Designs, A Matter of Time, was released on July 16, 2021. That same day, the project's debut single, "Lay It on the Line," was named Makin Waves Song of the Week by longtime New Jersey music journalist Bob Makin. For more information, visit http://ferociousdesigns.com.
About the Author: Sean Manuel is a Senior enrolled in New Jersey City University's Honors Program. A Music Business major, Sean specializes in the piano and bass guitar. Outside of academia, Sean performs in and manages the Bayonne indie-pop group BreakTime: a four-piece writing modern pop tunes with generous vintage allusions to artists such as The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. Are you interested in their music? Follow BreakTime @breaktimelivenj and stream their releases on all platforms.