The alt-rock band known as Forty Feet Tall was started 10 years ago by a group of L.A.-based high schoolers. Banding together, they began writing their own music, playing the classic L.A. club circuit, and building a local fan base. Following a move to Oregon, Forty Feet Tall released their self-titled debut album in 2014. And after a slight line-up change a few years ago, the group recently released its sophomore record: A Good Distraction.
Read on for our interview with Forty Feet Tall, where we talk songwriting and break down the new record.
How did this band form? What drew you guys together and inspired you to make music?
Cole Gann: Jack and I started the band a while ago, in L.A. Once we were all done with college, we were like ‘let’s do this, let’s actually go for it.’ Jack was playing with Brett in San Francisco, got them to come up here; we tacked on Ian a few years ago.
Jack Sehres: We visited Portland to check out the scene, ‘cos we were living in San Francisco. And we were debating should we all move to Portland or should we make Cole move to San Francisco. We visited and we kind of fell in love with Portland, on top of the huge benefit of it being way more affordable.
What does your songwriting process look like? How do you find an idea and turn that into its finished product?
Jack Sehres: We write collaboratively, so normally, somebody will bring in a riff or a chord progression, or we’ll just do it when we go down to practice. One of us will start noodling and then kind of all join in. It can be terrible or great or somewhere in the middle. Normally, we bring a small thing in and build it all together. Or we find a cool piece through jamming all together and then build it out from there. I would say our favorite part is that aspect, of jamming and coming up with the pieces. And then it starts to get to the harder part of actually putting it together and finishing the song.
When you decide to write an album, what does that process look like? Do you write a ton of songs and trim them down, or do you start with an idea, a framework?
Cole Gann: The former, I think we want to, in the future, look towards more of a concept album type of thing. But as of now, it’s definitely more churn stuff out and see how well they meld together.
Brett Marquette: We never had a moment where we just sat down and were like ‘alright, let’s make an album with this theme.’ It tends to be songs we’ve written over a period of time that we then choose what our favorites are and what works best together. But I would want to do a concept album at some point.
A Good Distraction was released in March of 2021—how different was the writing/recording process for this album compared to your first record in 2014.
Jack Sehres: As different as could be.
Cole Gann: In a lot of ways, I think that we view ourselves as a new band at this point. We were in high school and I think we’ve gone through a lot of transformation in what we want to sound like. I think that even with this album, we were sitting on some of the songs for almost three years at this point. I think the writing process is different. It’s much more collaborative now. And everyone’s different instrumental styles create a different texture.
Jack Sehres: I think the main difference between the two is one, the band members completely changed. I would say also that we just grew up. That one was high school. The next one we released after finishing high school and finishing college, so a lot more time on earth and experiences and different influences. It’s really two different albums and almost two different bands.
Is there a theme that ties together A Good Distraction?
Cole Gann: I don’t think there was a theme as I was doing the lyrics. But it definitely took on this meaning—and this was pre-pandemic, too—of just putting out something in a world where there was absolute chaos. It was the middle of the Trump presidency—some type of respite from all the bull shit that was going on. But at the same time realizing that we can’t stick our heads in the sand. We have to really pay attention to what’s going on and do something about it. Walking that line of here’s a good distraction, but don’t just turn your back on shit.
The album art for the record is very interesting and funky—how did you arrive at that look for the record?
Jack Sehres: So album art, just as a side note, is one of the hardest things for us to figure out. This was an artist that my partner recommended to us. It was one of the rare times where every single one of us was 100 percent into it. We love it. I think my favorite part about the album is the album art, right now.
The music video for ‘Julian’ is a wild ride of Pulp Fiction-inspired antics—how did that concept for the video come together and what was the filming like?
Brett Marquette: We’ve been working with that director for two other music videos. Every time we did a video we wanted to up the ante. Jack had come up with this idea, originally, for an epic beer run, where we have to go planes, trains, automobiles to get beer. And it was too complicated to make that happen, so we made it one long chase scene. Trying to make it as fun and versatile as possible. We brainstormed it with the director. Just went at it.
Jack Sehres: I think my favorite tidbit was when Brett thought he could jump onto a moving train. I think it’s on the blooper reel, but he jumps over the thing and is trying to run and catch up and slips and almost gets hit by the train. And then comes back, white as a ghost, like ‘I don’t think I can jump on a train.’
Throughout the record, many of the songs are very guitar-based—do you start with these riffs and melodies and build out from there, or do those get peppered in later on in the songwriting process?
Jack Sehres: It kind of rotates, I would say. Sometimes, it goes off of the drums and the bass. A decent amount of time it will come off of the guitar part. Sometimes, it’s a mix of both. There’s no rhyme or reason for which way it goes. We’re all jamming, it’s chaos, then two people lock-in.
Cole Gann: There’s always a moment where we’ll be jamming; something will click, we’ll look at each other and Brett will grab his phone and start recording voice memos and we’re like ‘okay, we’re onto something.’
‘Grin’ has a really interesting juxtaposition between the verses and the choruses—what was the inspiration for this track and how did it come together?
Cole Gann: I came up with the guitar riff and we often, I think our older stuff, it’s very often quieter drums and bass-heavy verse and then the chorus gets really big. And that’s definitely the form we used for this one. It was really Nirvana-style, a quiet, melodic verse and very intense chorus sections.
‘Ex Kids’ is really interesting, lyrically. What does this song mean to you?
Cole Gann: I kind of wrote it loosely based on the idea of being still at an age where we can blame something on being young and dumb, or we can blame something on being naive. It kind of to me, there were a lot of lines where it felt like it’s this song about being a privileged white person and being like ‘oh, I screwed this up and no one cares.’ Where anyone else who’s not in a privileged position will get absolutely screwed over for the same thing.
That song, vocally, had a lot of range—moments where you’re speak-singing, moments that are heavy and raspy — for something like this, how much thought goes into the way you sing a track or do you just sing it in a way that feels right?
Cole Gann: Both. I think it depends on the song. For this one, I was really into early Elvis Costello.
Jack Sehres: Side note on that, the first time we ever heard Cole sing that bridge part, where it was the yelling/talking, was in the studio recording it. We had never heard that before. We were like ‘what!’ In our practice space, we can’t hear the vocals super well. That was pretty awesome to hear. I like that song because it dances between the really intense part and that verse which is more melodic.
With live shows coming back and the record out, what’s up next for you guys?
Cole Gann: We’re playing this festival about 45 minutes north of Portland. And then we’ve got a show in Portland at the Honey Latte Cafe on August 13.
Brett Marquette: And we also got a new booker, so we’re working on trying to get tours going and potentially talking about trying to go to Europe in about a year. We’re figuring it out. We have a lot of ideas for stuff.
Jack Sehres: Everything is kind of in the mix at the moment. Everything is still getting figured out. We’re stoked. Hopefully, we’re on the road soon.
You can listen to A Good Distraction here.