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Interview: Friko

16 February 2024

Photo by Pooneh Ghana

Upon the initial listen, certain albums immediately strike a chord, promising a lasting resonance that will keep them in constant rotation for years to come. Friko’s debut album, Where we’ve been, Where we go from here, falls squarely into this category. Hailing from Chicago, the youthful trio has spent years honing their craft, releasing singles and EPs before delivering their full-length debut under ATO Records. Niko Kapetan, handling vocals, guitar, and piano, alongside Bailey Minzenberger on drums, draw from a diverse array of influences, infused with the musical backdrop of their upbringing.

Where we’ve been, Where we go from here is a testament to Friko’s versatility, seamlessly blending inspiration from various genres while maintaining a unique identity. Kapetan effortlessly transitions from fierce ’90s alt-rock guitar riffs (“Crashing Through,” “Chemical”) to delicate chamber pop piano compositions (“For Ella,” “Until I’m With You Again”), showcasing his prowess as a multifaceted instrumentalist. Minzenberger’s drumming transcends mere timekeeping, infusing each track with personality and depth, notably elevating songs like “Statues” and “Crimson to Chrome.”

While some may accuse me of exaggeration, I firmly believe that upon hearing Where we’ve been, Where we go from here, I’ve encountered a musical pinnacle that will remain unmatched in 2024. Despite the remainder of the year holding promise for new releases, Friko’s debut has already secured its place atop my year-end list.

You’ve got a very mid-90s sound that appeals to people who were the age you are now and were buying CDs at that time. Is your sound reflective of the music you grew up listening to because it was in your parents’ collection?

NIKO: My dad always loved playing music and was an aspiring musician. He still plays in a couple cover bands. He grew up in a very Greek family and they were like, “You have to something in school.” He never got to play music seriously, So, because of that, both of my parents have always been super supportive of all the music stuff. Because we live in Humboldt Park now, we stopped practicing in my parents’ basement. We were practicing down there for eight years. This was way before it was even Friko and they put up with all the noise. They are very, very supportive.

Did you and Bailey meet in high school?

BAILEY: We technically met in school, but we didn’t start talking until I had graduated. We were both in the same music theory class when I was a senior and Niko was a junior. We sat with one person in between us for the entire year but I don’t think we spoke once. I have it as an image in my brain of looking over and smiling at something you said, but I don’t think we ever really interacted. We technically met in high school but officially met post-graduation.

NIKO: I started playing bass in Bailey’s band and then we just kept doing stuff together. Bailey played drums in high school and before that and I knew that. It just seemed like a perfect choice because of how eclectic they played drums, it was very good to write music to.

Are both of you multi-instrumentalists?

NIKO: Yeah, especially Bailey.

BAILEY: You too.

NIKO: I just don’t practice.

Bailey, you are involved with a few projects including doing some stuff on your own. I’m a huge fan of the *Free Range album you played on last year. And, from what I’ve heard, no two things sound the same.*

BAILEY: I think a big part of that is that I’m really lucky to play with so many talented songwriters. Free Range and Friko are so sonically different from each other, but we’re all really close buds. It’s really inspiring for me to get to stretch my legs in so many different areas and to have learned how to play to different kinds of writing and with different people because everyone has such distinct voices.

Do you remember, as the two of you were getting to know each other and started writing together, when the Friko sound revealed itself and you knew that was the direction you wanted to go?

NIKO: “Crimson to Chrome” was probably the first song that felt like a completely unique to us thing. It was the first thing with the group vocal idea. I feel like we do group vocals in a very specific way where we like to keep the group vocals and instead of making something more hype, instead make it sadder. When we recorded “Where We’ve Been” in the middle of this record is when I felt like it really came together.

You’ve put out some singles and EPs. Are the songs on the album ones that you wrote after you signed with ATO?

NIKO: This record was pretty much done before we signed with ATO.

When you were playing shows in late 2022 and early 2023, were you playing the songs that are on the album? Will people who saw you at those shows recognize anything that’s on the album?

NIKO: Totally. We’ve been playing these songs for years now. Some of them we’ve barely played live, there’s maybe seven other songs that we were playing live that we stopped at some point and those songs didn’t make the record. “Get Numb to It!” we’ve probably been playing for two-and-a-half years by this point.

BAILEY: We’ve almost been playing that since the very beginning of the band. We became a band then after a few months of playing with each other, the pandemic hit so we took a really, really long break. By the time we started to pod up and reverse again, Niko had recorded and released “Get Numb to It!” on his own. I heard that song for the first time at my apartment. I remember putting on the headphones and listening in the living room and saying, “Oh my God, this is incredible.”

NIKO: It was so crazy at that time. Now, we’re at that point where if I have halfway done ideas, the band will hear it. But, at that point in time, we were still so new to it. I was still in the mind frame where I’d finish demos alone.

BAILEY: I think that’s why finding our sound as a band only happened pretty recently. We’ve always felt really musically connected to each other, but I think the way in which we create as a band has changed over time.

Because these songs are a little bit older and because of the recording cycle you’ve had to wait for a while for them to come out, I’m assuming you’ve written more material. Now that you’ve figured out Friko’s sound and identity, have you been working on music that reflects that?

NIKO: We just started that process again, and I’m excited for that. We’re jumping into that headfirst while preparing for our Metro release show. I’m hoping we can record another record before the end of the year. We have a bunch of songs that we may release as B-sides after the record comes out. The songs wouldn’t quite be a step up for the second record but we think they’re good songs.

I think when we write now, we know “this is something that needs to go this way” or “this doesn’t feel like we’re doing our own thing so we should stop going this way.”

BAILEY: From a drum writing perspective, the new stuff that we’ve been playing feels very limitless. Slowly but surely, I’ve been finding my voice as somebody who writes drum parts. I never felt like I had to put a box around anything. It’s always just play what you feel and you’ll know if it’s right. I think the ethos is really internalized at this point. As we’ve been slowly working on new stuff, I’ve been feeling that.

NIKO: With this debut record, the last thing I’m worried about is getting boxed in because I think there’s enough different stuff to where some people will say it’s too different. But, I don’t think we’ll have to be worried about being boxed in.

Bailey, do you have an instrument of choice? You played bass on the Free Range record, you sing and play guitar on your own stuff, and then you play drums in Friko. Is there a favorite instrument?

BAILEY: I actually don’t really have a favorite. I truly mean that. Playing different instruments and playing in different projects, the commonality is that it’s really passionate and it’s really exciting and I love every second of it, but it’s a different kind of catharsis in each area. I feel really lucky to get to play with different people on different instruments, and it helps me find balance as a musician and also personally. It helps me feel really fulfilled.

The interesting part about it is it does ebb and flow into what I’m doing more depending on the time period. If there’s a time period where I’m playing a lot of drums, I’m definitely going to feel way more connected with that instrument.

I think I’m definitely the most uncomfortable improvising on guitar. If I were to just plug into a situation and somebody handed me the guitar, I’d probably be really scared.

NIKO: That’s so interesting, I was going to say the opposite.

BAILEY: I love the guitar, but I feel like I have less confidence.

And the style of music you play with Free Range is a lot slower and quieter and thoughtful than the style of music Friko plays. You probably get something completely different from a Friko live show than you do from a Free Range live show.

BAILEY: Definitely. But one thing that I think is really exciting about that is even in the heavier moments with Friko, I’m trying to think about the details and the delicate aspect, even if my foot is pedal to the metal, you’re really cruising on stuff because every space matters. Whether you’re filling it or leaving it empty, every moment matters and that’s what fills up to create the whole scene. It feels like we’re a pretty detailed oriented then.

NIKO: Especially the drum parts. I feel like they have the most intricacies other than the songs themselves. You’re focusing on the drums, that’s for sure.

Can you talk about the “Crashing Through” video?

BAILEY: We had so many of our friends in it. And working with Alex was really fun.

NIKO: The breaking things scene was really dangerous but I will always remember hwo that made me feel.

BAILEY: I’ve never been allowed to do something like that. It was really weird at first because my body was holding me back and saying “You’re not supposed to be doing that.” But, once it finally clicked, it’s like, “Okay, you’re allowed to be stomping on this printer.” It was a big cathartic letting go type of moment.

The production on the album is amazing. It sounds great and there are just so many little things that stick out. Like, on “Crashing Through,” there a part where, for just a second, there’s like this little guitar scratch. These things stick out to me as the extra stuff that really makes the song even more interesting to listen to.

NIKO: Scott Tallarida and Jack Henry both did a lot. Scott did more of the overarching production and he also let us use his space for free. That was the biggest blessing. We recorded hundreds of hours worth of stuff and I’m forever grateful to him for that.

A lot of that stuff that you’re talking about, like those specific guitar chunks, we actually do that live. But, a lot of that stuff came up when we were mixing it. Bailey will add a lot of those little twinkly parts or the little piano parts in “Where We’ve Been” that are throughout the song. A lot of that ended up coming out of the mixing and how me and Jack spent hundreds of hours making these songs ourselves.

Jack is way more experienced with mixing than me and has way more hours but we were feeling out the music and were like, “How are we going to mix all these songs that sound very different or very dense.” We just had fun with it. When you’re mixing, you have to keep it interesting for yourself. And sometimes you can overdo it but we tried to just walk that line by having enough of the ear candy around the live takes.

I also love where you’ll be singing and the music just drops out and it’s you singing with just drums underneath. Or, there’s times where it sounds like you’ve backed up 10 feet from the microphone and are sort of singing from another room. Those are the things that make the record really interesting to me.

NIKO: The vocal thing is awesome, I’m glad you noticed that because that was a lot of us adding a lot of room vocals and making sure we always had room vocal because we’re all fans of that. Whenever I sing a vocal, I always want to make sure there’s one. I don’t want to be a nowadays type person but if it’s just all close vocal, you’re not playing the live show and that’s what we wanted to get through. My favorite vocal recording of all time is “All Apologies” by Nirvana and how that goes in between the closed vocal and it opens up for a scream on the room vocal. We’re all a part of every part of the process, so we have to pay attention to all that.

I read an interview with you Niko where you said that you’ll often sing along with other songs to get a feel for how you want to sing something and then use that as inspiration for your own music. What are some of the songs or artists that you sing along to?

NIKO: When I did that, a Broadcast song was what I was singing over for “Get Numb to It!” A Black Country New Road song was one I was singing over for another one of the songs. I like doing that. It’s almost like cheating where you have a cool vibe already but then you take that idea and make a completely different thing. None of our songs sound like any of those songs but it’s just a fun thing to do.

BAILEY: I also think sometimes with writing and stuff, it can be so easy to get caught up in that. If you’re singing on your own or covering a song that you already love, that connection, that emotion is already there. It’s just being able to get that moving and get that out of yourself. That can help get the creative process moving.

NIKO: That’s actually the best point, honestly. That’s probably why it is actually a really productive way to write.

I hear things in your music that reminds me of everyone from the Smashing Pumpkins to Arcade Fire to Bright Eyes to Placebo but none of your songs sound like you’re copying any of those bands.

NIKO: I’ve heard some of those comparisons, for sure. It’s funny because I never listened to Bright Eyes when I was growing up but I think I earned that comparison. Well, I didn’t earn it, but I can’t deny the vocals are similar and I’m a fan. Conor Oberst is great.

When I started writing, there was a big Chicago scene. The Smashing Pumpkins were already on a label but then the next wave of bands got signed. Some sold lots of records like Liz Phair and Veruca Salt. Some, like Fig Dish and Triple Fast Action, got dropped after a record or two. But, many of those bands played shows and even toured together. They were all pretty tight. It feels like that’s the way the Chicago scene is today. Does it feel like that to you?

BAILEY: One hundred percent. It feels like collaboration is a really big aspect of it. And that is just so exciting to me. Whether it’s in a recording setting or at a live show, if somebody needs somebody in their band for a show, there are so many places to pull from. I was at a session the other day working on something with Jack for our friend Sam. And another friend of ours came and we were all just collaborating on Sam’s work. That kind of stuff happens all the time and it’s really exciting. There’s a lot of collaboration and a lot of support and excitement for everything that’s going on.

NIKO: I think there’ll be a lot more eyes than there are now on Chicago in the next couple of years. There is a very established indie-adjacent scene. There’s a lot going on, a lot of good stuff, and it’s communal, more so than in New York or in L.A.

How did Friko get ATO’s attention?

NIKO: Our booking agent saw a show of ours in Chicago. A couple of his artists, like Nilüfer Yanya, who we love, released records on ATO. And the owner of ATO came to our show in New York at Sultan Room and he was interested. We sent him four songs and then we sent him two more. They were the most enthusiastic about it. We went out to New York, met their whole team, basically department by department. Bailey wasn’t able to come but I was able to talk to all of them and they had really good plans for what they want to do. Everybody on our team works very hard. Jaycee, our press person, was one of the first people on board.

Is music your current full-time gig or are you working day jobs?

NIKO: We both have day jobs. I’ve been working at the Music Direct warehouse. It’s a place where audiophiles get records. I’ve been working in the warehouse receiving there for three years. They’ve been good to me. They let me go on tour. I’m part-time, which is nice because music is paying some of the bills too, which is awesome.

After the album comes out, are you looking to do headlining stuff or would you be interested in doing opening slots for more established bands?

NIKO: At this point, opening would be great because we’re trying to get people to hear the music. I have been thinking a lot lately about Japan and how friggin cool that would be to tour Japan and Europe, of course.

BAILEY: I think opening slots are really fun because then you get to stay together for the whole run. Being able to form relationships and really get to know each other throughout a whole run is so fun, you just get new friends. It’s such a weird experience to get to know somebody for the first time.

You’ve done a little bit of touring already. Was there anything you learned on that tour?

NIKO: I learned to never play five shows at South by Southwest at the beginning. I’m grateful we even got to do that but this year we’re playing like two shows. Starting off the tour with that and then going into the mountains into Aspen and Denver, we were lightheaded.

BAILEY: That was crazy too because at that particular South By I was also playing with Free Range. Friko had five shows and I think Free Range had four or five. That was the most I’ve ever played in a short period of time in my entire life. It was really fun but definitely chaotic. That’s the spirit of South By.

Something else I’ve learned being on the road is that every single night you want to hang out, especially if you’re playing with a band only for that night and then you’re splitting. You want to hang and go and see the city. I wish I had infinite energy but it’s like looking out for your future self and the fact that you have to wake up at eight in the morning and drive for seven hours. It’s just learning about balance and the importance of sleep and also alone time. Even if you don’t feel like you need it in that moment, you should probably take 30 minutes to go for a walk or something.

NIKO: Which we literally did not do for the whole month we were on tour.