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Q&A: Jeff Henley of Things That Fly on Working At TGI Fridays, the Ataris, and Life After God

October 18, 2010

Baltimore’s Things That Fly need a superhero movie to soundtrack like sparrows need nests–something hopeful, inspiring, and flashy, teeming with twentysomething angst and hormones and moral prerogatives and slow-motion explosions. Comic-book drama would be a perfect fit for the stirring emo-pop singer/guitarist Jeff Henley, 26, and guitarist Arthur “Paul” Hemlock, 27, whip up together. The duo’s EPs–2008’s Distractions and this year’s Missing Places, both available for free here–are raw, yearning open wounds that live and die on Henley’s over-enunciated, affectation-addled plaints and carefully chosen chords that blow those emotions up to drive-in theater-screen size; think of early-aughts mall-emo giants like Thursday, Jimmy Eat World, and Blink-182 filtered through the cathartic/regretful lens of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.”

And while Distractions found Henley and Hemlock rocking with an energy-drink intensity, Places adopts an Americana torch-song vibe that’s more Bruce Springsteen than Green Day. In a late September/early October e-mail interview, Henley opened up about the origins of Things That Fly, the Baltimore music scene, and his fondness for the Ataris.

City Paper: What was the first instrument you learned to play?
Jeff Henley: I got my first guitar when I was 12. It was a white Fender Squire that I smothered in stickers.

CP: Do you remember the first song that you wrote, alone or with others? What was that experience like, when did it happen, and at what point did you realize, This is something I definitely want to keep doing?
JH: The first song that I wrote and finished was called “Turtle.” I ended up getting a turtle tattooed to the back of my arm when I was like 18. I’ve always wanted to play music; it makes sense to me.

CP: In “The Wrong Sun,” there’s this lyric: “Watch the things that fly.” How did you guys arrive at Things That Fly as a band name, and what does it mean or signify to you?
JH: “Things that fly” is a chapter from the book Life After God, by Douglas Coupland. That book really got me. The song “The Wrong Sun” was written a few months before Things That Fly was our band name, but I didn’t want to change the lyrics and get rid of “watch the things that fly.” I just liked the words; it meant something to me.

CP: Two years, give or take, separate your EPs. Missing Places (2010) strikes me as more confident in terms of songwriting than Distractions (2008) was, reaching beyond emo-punk to something less scene-rooted, a more wide-screen rock sound that’s reminiscent of Green Day’s big epic ballads. Was that a conscious choice, or just a natural evolution?
JH: Distractions was a different time. That was a four-piece rock band. Missing Places was mainly just me and an acoustic guitar. Paul would come over to my apartment once a week or so, and he’d help me with lyrics and arranging the songs. We wanted to write big, classic-sounding songs.

CP: What circumstances led to Things That Fly meeting and writing, performing, and recording together?
JH: The band was started around 2006 or 2007, but it isn’t the same lineup anymore. Now it’s just myself and Paul. I’d rather wait and just play music being the two of us until we find the absolute right people and situation for a full rock band. We’re playing the show at Ottobar with a full band though; we’re getting some friends to fill in. Kory Gable is playing drums for us; he recorded our latest EP, Missing Places, at his studio in Lancaster, Pa. His close friend Matt is playing bass for the show.

Other than that, we’ll be playing random acoustic shows, writing songs, planning out new EPs, enjoying this fine autumn weather.

CP: In the main photo on the Things That Fly MySpace page, one of you has a sort of dual-tone mane. That looks complicated to maintain; is it?
JH: That’s Paul. He’s got great hair. He can really style it, and do whatever he wants with it. He’s got it all black, at the moment.

CP: Do people ever ask you if you’re related to Don Henley?
JH: I’ve gotten the Don Henley thing a few times. Not too often. Actually, the last time I could pulled over by the cops was in like 2008. I didn’t come to a complete stop at a flashing red light. They decided to search my car. During the search, “Boys of Summer” by Don Henley came on the radio; I thought it was kind of ironic–with my name and all of the times I’ve played shows with the Ataris, who covered “Boys of Summer.” I just thought that was wild that that was the song that was actually playing at that moment.

CP: Did you and Paul grow up in the Baltimore area? What was the music scene here like when you first became a part of it?
JH: Me and Paul have known each other since we were little kids. We grew up in Frederick. I lived in the Baltimore area when I went to school, and me and Paul lived in an apartment together during that time.

The Baltimore music scene kinda seems like the same to me. I mean, the bands are different now: 90 percent of the bands that were playing when we started are no more. Some of the venues are different now. People used MySpace; now they use Facebook. But overall I still think it’s the same deal; it just kinda recycles itself every couple of years.

CP: Were/are you and Paul part of any other bands or projects? If so, what were/are they, and which genres do they straddle?
JH: Oh yeah. We’ve both been in and out of bands and projects, growing up; I think they’ve all served their purpose. They were all punk/pop punk/emo kinda bands. I’ve got a whole library of MP3s of all the recordings I’ve done over the years.

CP: Do you have an new album or EP forthcoming?
JH: We’re planning on a three-song EP next. I’ve got two new songs written that I’m pretty excited about; they’re both pretty fast and catchy. They were written with a full rock band in mind. One is called “Stay Awake” and one is called “Escalator.”

CP: What was the largest crowd that you’ve performed for to date, and what was that experience like for you?
JH: The largest was an acoustic show that I did at Towson University. It was like 2005, I think; it was in front of 400 or so people. It was in a theater auditorium-type place, so everyone was watching. It wasn’t like playing some rundown bar or anything. It went over really well, it was a good moment. I feel like I’ve played in so many bizarre situations that it was easy for me pull it off.

CP: Who do you consider your biggest influences, musical and otherwise?
JH: The Ataris mean a lot to me. I’ve played with them like six or so times. I grew up listening to them; I still listen to them. It’s always an honor. I really like Punch Line. They’re a great band. I’ve been listening to their new album non-stop. With it being colder out, I’ve been listening to Gaslight Anthem’s The ‘59 Sound a lot lately in the car.

CP: What do you guys do for day jobs?
JH: I’m a host at a TGI Fridays, and Paul works at a warehouse.

CP: You guys are presently unsigned. Have you pursued any record labels, large or small, or have you found the D.I.Y. approach preferable?
JH: We’re just doing what we’re doing. Obviously, I’d love to be signed at some point in my life, to be at that level where your album is on the end-cap at Target or something. Free trips to Disneyworld. Someone to drive me around everywhere. That’d be nice; I hate driving.

Things That Fly plays the Ottobar Oct. 18 with the Ataris, Don’t Panic, Singleton, and Run The Risk.

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