Story of the Year on Their Own Terms: Dan Marsala and Ryan Phillips Talk ‘Wolves,’ Creative Freedom, and Touring with Linkin Park in 2004

Story of the Year on Their Own Terms: Dan Marsala and Ryan Phillips Talk ‘Wolves,’ Creative Freedom, and Touring with Linkin Park in 2004

In 2003, St. Louis-based alt/punk band Story of the Year went national thanks to their breakout album, Page Avenue, and its single “Until the Day I Die.” Their profile elevated, they shined on the Warped Tour and became stalwarts in the early 2000s scene. After releasing three albums since that 2003 breakout, the band took a lengthy break after 2010’s The Constant.

In December, the band’s fourth full-length, Wolves, was released. The band sounded rejuvenated and recharged, and it was largely due to the break..but also due to the fact that they had no rules this time around. Without major label backing, they went the Pledge Music route, crowdfunding the whole operation and eventually releasing a solid, satisfying record that has a bit of everything.

Vocalist Dan Marsala and guitarist Ryan Phillips caught up with Rock Cellar about the album, their career, their experiences on the road over the years and more.

Rock Cellar: Let’s talk about Wolves. How does it feel to finally have a new album out after a pretty lengthy time away from releasing new music?

Dan Marsala: Well, it’s been seven years … a little more than seven years, now, since 2010 and The Constant. It feels pretty awesome to finally get something out again, and something that we love. It’s great.

Ryan Phillips: The craziest thing about this album, to me, is that we wrote it not knowing if it’d ever come out or happen, really. That’s weird. Every other record we’ve made has been on a record label, with a timetable, like, “Here’s your schedule, it has to be done by this date,” all that. This record is 100% independent. No label, nobody made us do anything, no management. It’s literally just Dan and I writing music, trading demos back and forth, and it’s a really weird situation to be in when you’re working like that, relentlessly, and putting in like hundreds of hours and you ask yourself, “Is anyone going to hear this? Is this ever going to see the light of day?”

Rock Cellar: That concept calls to mind one of the new songs, “Can Anybody Hear Me?” and what I imagine was your mind set throughout the process. “Does anybody need a new Story of the Year record” and all that … and then to see how your Pledge Music drive went regarding fan interest, it seems to have worked out pretty well.

Dan Marsala: I would say, lyrically, for that one, that probably played into it a lot, for sure. “Do we need to be a band anymore? Do we need to write music? Why do we write music?” All that stuff, we all had those thoughts. But at the same time, that made for a really cool, creative environment to make music in since we were writing just for ourselves, and because we wanted to keep doing it because we loved it. There was nobody telling us we had to do it, so it made for a different type of record and it’s awesome because of it.

Ryan Phillips: I think there’s a magic that comes with it, when there’s nobody telling you what to do. It’s almost like being a kid again, when you just play music because you love it and you can’t not do it. With that, came, “You know what? I’m just writing for myself, not thinking what a fan or a random person would think.” Just me in my basement, making music that I want to do, and that I want to hear. I know Dan, with his lyrics, was just working on really personal stuff that he needed to get off his chest. The whole process was super personal in a way that it’s never been before.

Rock Cellar: Obviously, most of your fans were introduced to Story of the Year’s music with “Until the Day I Die” and its music video, which was on MTV all the time back in 2003. But I’d actually say your second album, In The Wake of Determination, is very underrated. The riffs, the heavier approach and all that.

Looking back, it seems as if the band went through some record label difficulties in that era, after your debut, Page Avenue, and around that time. Based on what you just said about this new era with Wolves, it does seem like it was a hugely different experience in every way.

Ryan Phillips: Yeah. It’s the oldest cliche, but you have your whole life to write your first album and then you have two months to write your second one. Especially in that specific time in the industry, digital had come along, labels were downsizing, people were losing their jobs, panicking, and so on. There was a lot of pressure on everybody, the labels, too.

Obviously with the second record we didn’t have that smash hit, like “Until the Day I Die.” They put a whole lot of money into us and we didn’t have that big hit, that big seller. That makes everybody kinda do the blame game, but when it’s all said and done, we did what we thought was best and we turned in the record that we thought we needed to make. Honestly? I might not be talking to you right now if we had just made Page Avenue Part Two, you know? Maybe we’d have just made a super dorky record and stopped being a band, I don’t know.

Dan Marsala: A lot of our fans love Page Avenue, and then a whole other section of our fans love In the Wake of Determination way more. It definitely took a lot of our fan base in a different direction, and we wanted to do that. We were a little confused, blown away by the success of the first record too. We wanted to come back and make something heavy, so we came back with a badass record that we knew was really cool. We thought there were some songs on there that were going to be big hits as well, but we definitely took our fan base in a different direction and probably, as Ryan said, it was a big reason why we have such a strong following now, still. Because it wasn’t all mainstream success, there was that underlying aspect of people growing with us as well.

Rock Cellar: Today, John Feldmann is one of the premier producers in the alt/rock/punk scene. He worked with you on Page Avenue, and then returned to work with him again on your third album, The Black Swan. That was an interesting album that essentially meshed the sounds of your first two together. How did being around Feldmann and working with him affect how the record sounded? Was it a conscious choice to work with him because of how strong the reception for Page Avenue was?

Dan Marsala: Everything’s semi-conscious, but we just wanted to work with him again because we had such a good time the first time. He’s an amazing producer, and he does something special with everything he touches. But we only did four songs on Black Swan with him, and the rest were with Michael “Elvis” Baskette, who’s awesome in a different way.

Rock Cellar: You worked with Aaron Sprinkle on Wolves. He’s also a very accomplished producer with a rich history of bands he’s worked with over the years. Just last year, he produced New Found Glory’s new record Makes Me Sick, and it resulted in some pretty different and exciting sounds from them.

Ryan Phillips: This was a different process for a whole host of reasons, logistically. Drums were in Nashville, vocals were done in Dan’s studio at his house, I recorded all the guitars at my house. Everything was recorded in a different spot, and we’ve never worked like that before. I recorded every second of guitar by myself, alone, in my basement.

Working with Aaron as a producer, I loved it. I love that guy. When we first talked to him, we were like, “Hey dude, we basically want you to join the band.” And specifically me, the reason I wanted to work with him is I love what he does on the programming side of things. I’m really into that stuff, so I love his production and the electronic stuff he does. The vision we had for Wolves, I felt was a big part of it. So we needed a producer that was really good with technology, programming and all that. So he took my files and just made it all ten times better than I could do it.

That’s a big reason why the record sounds like it does. He did some really cool shit — the programming, the keys, the synth — it’s almost like a whole other instrument or voice in our band. I don’t think we’d have the record we have if we’d used somebody else.

Dan Marsala: He’s just super cool. The first thing he had to do was narrow down all the different song ideas we had floating around, so he’d come in and be like “nope, that one’s not that great. These ones you should work on” and so on. He was basically in the band for a few months and he loved it as much as we did.

Rock Cellar: Overall, Wolves does have a very unique feel to it, structurally. And Dan, earlier you mentioned your lyrics and how personal they tend to be. Going back to the song “Is This My Fate, He Asked Them?” from In the Wake of Determination, with its themes and lyrical content…I was curious if you have any thoughts on how songs like those are still unfortunately pretty relevant today.

Dan Marsala: It’s weird that that song in particular still applies to the world today, having written it 13, 14 years ago. Our last few albums, there were a lot more socially conscious, not so much political but socially focused, songs and lyrics on there. But for Wolves, I definitely focused more on my personal journey and digging deeper into myself and not really concerning other issues in the world. Wanted to try something different and it’s a lot deeper and more personal than previous stuff.

Rock Cellar: If you had to pick two or three songs from Wolves to recommend to anybody unaware Story of the Year has a new record out, which would they be?

Ryan Phillips: “Praying for Rain,” “I Swear I’m Okay” and “Miracle.”

Dan Marsala: Yep, those are the ones that seem to be connecting the most with people. They were kinda the ones that we loved the most from the get-go, too. Maybe also “Goodnight, My Love.”

Ryan Phillips: They all kinda have their own special thing going on.

Rock Cellar: And after looking at the album cover, is it safe to say you guys are Stranger Things fans?

Dan Marsala: (laughs) Yeah. We grew up in that era. We’re in our thirties, we’re grown up, that old nostalgia from that era does something special in our brains, you know?

Rock Cellar: Being adults, being fathers, being in your mid-thirties, that all probably plays a role, but how are you going to approach touring for this album? Are you going to tour?

Ryan Phillips: I’m going to be totally transparent with you. Music doesn’t exactly pay all the bills like it used to. We’re all doing other things on the side. Dan’s working with bands, I do photography. We all have to do other things to feed our kids.

So, the way we’re operating our business model now regarding touring…we’re just going to do everything very strategically when it makes financial sense. And do it in small doses. We’ll definitely tour, but it’s not gonna be like, “Hey, let’s hop in the van” and drive for months. We’ll do it like, “Hey, this weekend we’ll fly to New York. This weekend we’ll fly to L.A. Next weekend, we’ll spend in Australia.” Very condensed touring, but yeah we’re going to get back out there. But just in a new way, which isn’t that weird since a lot of bands do it like that now.

Dan Marsala: Yeah, it’s more about when we can afford to do it more than the being dads stuff, though that comes into play too, of course. But yeah, it’s hard to make money, especially in the U.S. You gotta do more of the festival-type stuff or just a week here and there whenever you can make it work.

Ryan Phillips: Yeah, I’m not raising my kids over fucking FaceTime.  (laughs) I love the band seriously more than I ever have, dude. I listen to our record probably 20 times a week. I love it, and I want to get back out there and play. But I just want to do it when it makes sense.

Rock Cellar: Ryan, you’re known for doing crazy back flips at Story of the Year concerts. How’d that start happening, and how are you so good at it?

Ryan Phillips: (laughs) Thank you for saying I’m good at it, but it still scares me, dude. I’ve done it a thousand times, maybe, and I still am uncomfortable doing it. Every time, I’m like, “Is this the night I’m gonna slip on some beer and land on my neck?” Short answer, we were on tour back in the day, 2003 or 2004. I took a mattress out of my bunk, put it onstage and just practiced doing flips on stage, and then wound up doing it that night at the show.

Dan Marsala: I get all the glory for it, too. People are like, “Dan, you do all those backflips, right?” and I say, “Yeah, that’s me!” (laughs)

Rock Cellar: It’s funny, I went to Warped Tour one year and Dan, you were literally eating a bowl of cereal onstage.

Dan Marsala: (laughs) I remember that! We were on like super early, so I ate cereal.

Rock Cellar: And it was just funny, Ryan, you were there doing your flips while Dan ate breakfast. 

Ryan Phillips: (laughs) yeah.

Rock Cellar: How was it being a part of the Warped Rewind at Sea, with all of those other bands from back in the day? Is it weird playing music on a boat?

Dan Marsala: It was weirdly awesome. I had never been on a cruise before, so I didn’t know what to expect. But it was super cool, we played three sets, we were on it for five days. And by the end, we’d met like everybody on the cruise, hanging out with fans the whole time, and a bunch of bands we either knew well or had toured with in the past.

Ryan Phillips: I could not believe how good the shows were. They were fucking awesome, I loved it. I think part of that is because it costs so much to be there, only people that really love the music or love specific bands are there. So it weeds out a certain amount of people, and you’re only playing to a group of people who genuinely really want to be there. Everybody was super enthusiastic. It was great.

Rock Cellar: In 2004, Story of the Year opened a big national tour for Linkin Park, who were touring in support of their album Meteora. This was, at the time, your band’s biggest moment, so to speak. The past year has seen the unfortunate losses of both Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden

Any particular memories from being on the road with Chester and Linkin Park and/or any Cornell reflections that you’d want to share? 

Dan Marsala: That Linkin Park tour was insane. “Until the Day I Die” had just started getting radio play, I think. We were getting bigger but we obviously weren’t anywhere near Linkin Park’s level. They just took some young kid band on tour with them, and…man, that was the first time we did an arena tour and it was the first time we ever did anything nearly that big.

And they were just the coolest people on the planet. Chester, everybody in the band. They’d all come into our dressing room, like, “Hey guys, we just want to make sure you’re doing OK and having a good time on tour.” They were very personal with the other bands on tour. We learned so much about how to be a successful band and treat people well on the road, just from their example. That’s the main thing I took away from that tour. It was two months of the craziest, biggest tour we’ve ever been on.

There’s a million stories we could try to remember, bring back, it was quite a whirlwind of a two months.

Ryan Phillips: That old cliche of all the people you meet on the way up, you meet again on the way back down, so don’t be a dick? The first day of that tour…we’re just a bunch of kids. It all just happened so fast. One day we’re just playing a local show in St. Louis and then four months later we’re opening arena shows with the biggest rock band on the planet.

But the very first night, we’re in our room and a couple guys from the band introduce themselves and say how happy they are that we’re on the tour, all that. That was a huge lesson, where we learned, like, there’s this huge band, by all means rock stars, but they treat everyone with total respect. Everyone from the security guards to the techs, management, to the people picking up trash in the venue, everyone. They treated everybody so well, and that was huge. I remember thinking, “damn, this is not what I expected.” I don’t know what I expected, but it certainly wasn’t that.

The thing about Chester, man? I know he had demons he was battling, I think it was apparent to anyone that was around him, in his presence for more than 10 minutes.

But he had his kid out on tour, his wife and one of his kids. I remember his kid riding a Big Wheel around through catering, and I’d see Chester just look at his kid with this big smile on his face. He was so proud of this little life that he’d made. And you can’t fake that shit. That’s an emotion you can’t fake. That was really cool to see. Four months ago I’m in my mom’s living room watching this guy on MTV and then I’m on tour with him, watching him interact with his kid.

It was really impactful for me. That’s love. That’s raw love, you know?

Dan Marsala: Before we had toured with them, I wasn’t really a Linkin Park fan, I grew up listening to 90s’ punk rock stuff. But after watching them a few nights in a row, man…Chester had such a huge, powerful voice. He was so great, every single night. He was the kind of singer where you just look at him and think, “Damn, I wanna be that good. How does he do that?”

We just learned so much from those guys, on all levels.

Ryan Phillips: Yeah, Dan would come out and sing with them every night. For me, to see my old skateboarding buddy on stage at an arena singing with this dude every night? That was the coolest thing ever.

Dan Marsala: It was life-changing, that whole experience. We owe a lot to those guys. It’s a weird time whenever the people that inspire you or that are awesome to you start to go away. And it’s the same with Chris Cornell. So much of our childhood was spent listening to Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog, all that stuff. Now it’s like, “wow, we’re losing the people that we were inspired by, not our parents’ generation.”

Ryan Phillips: That genre, the grunge stuff, that’s when we fell in love with music. That’s when we became our own people, and that’s when we really fell in love with it. Dan and I started playing to that stuff, really. He was 14, I was 15, and we started playing Nirvana covers. Green Day, all that stuff. That’s why we play music now, because of that generation. That’s fuckin’ crazy.

It’s really weird to pick up your phone and see that this person who shaped part of your musical identity took their own life. It’s crazy.

Rock Cellar: Reflecting on all you’ve done and the experiences you’ve had with Story of the Year, what’s it like to look back on all that?

Dan Marsala: (pauses) sorry, trying to think of a way to sum it up really profoundly (laughs).

Ryan Phillips: The realization I had…I had a bunch of moments over the past few years where I was like, “I’m done! That’s it!” But that’d last for like eight seconds, because making music, creating, it’s a part of my DNA and you can’t just stop. It’s something I’m gonna do forever. So I’ll do it for the rest of my life, regardless if anybody hears it. To do it with Story of the Year again, and have the reaction that we’ve had so far with Wolves, is fucking magic to me, dude! Because out of all of our records, this one is leaps and bounds the most organic. Nothing was forced or anything like that. The songs that wound up on Wolves are the ones that just happened the most organically, and that is the biggest reason to me why it’s a success. Shit just happened.

Dan Marsala: I think it’s pretty amazing to ever be able to write music and have anybody connect with it, to get something out of anything you played or recorded. The fact that it’s been 14 years or so, it’s pretty crazy that our type of music is still relevant at all, and that people still connect with us the way they do. Although as much as we said we do everything for ourselves these days, it’s pretty amazing that we can still do it on any level. And we always will, whether or not people are still listening…but it’ll be much more gratifying if people do care.

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