How a High School History Teacher Became the Voice of the Year’s Most Moving Rock Album

How a High School History Teacher Became the Voice of the Year’s Most Moving Rock Album

Between the Richness, the second album from post-hardcore quintet Fiddlehead, is an emotionally pummeling meditation on grief, nostalgia and the passage of time defined by leader Pat Flynn’s ragged wail. Flynn focused the 25-minute follow-up to 2018’s Springtime and Blind on his complicated feelings regarding the 10th anniversary of his father’s death and the birth of his son, both of which happened last year.

The result is a lean, absorbing record that, upon its release on Run For Cover Records in May, earned the biggest commercial success of Fiddlehead’s career — peaking at No. 68 on the Top Album Sales chart and selling 7,000 copies to date in the U.S., according to MRC Data — all while Flynn, a high school history teacher in the Boston area, was wrapping up his school year.

“I’ve got a couple students, and some former students, who like some of the music that I’ve done,” Flynn, who teaches tenth and twelfth grade history, tells Billboard. “A couple students this year would be like, ‘Ahh, the record’s greeeeat!’ And I’m like, ‘That’s cool — but you didn’t do your homework, and that’s what I care about.’”

Flynn, who broke through as the singer of beloved Boston hardcore group Have Heart in the early ’00s, formed Fiddlehead as a genre supergroup with members of bands like Basement and Big Contest. The band has recorded and toured intermittently over the past half-decade, but the critical response to Between the Richness — rave reviews on Pitchfork, The Fader and Stereogum, with the lattermost naming the album the best of the first half of 2021 — has helped drive overall interest in the project.

Fiddlehead will get to perform their new songs for the first in September, during short run across weekend dates on each U.S. coast, before heading to the UK for a February 2022 tour. Flynn chatted with Billboard about the passionate response to Between the Richness, balancing his day job with his music career, and the author he turns to for lyrical inspiration. (The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

What’s it been like experiencing the reception to this album over the past few months?

Pretty good. A little stifling, I guess, because we just really want to play the record live. The record came out in May, and it’s been done since April of 2020, so we’ve kind of been sitting on it for a while.

It’s just interesting how records take on a new life once they’re finally in the public arena. We knew that we liked it, but it’s even greater to make something that other people enjoy as well. So we’re pleasantly surprised — but if people just sort of said nothing about it, that’d be fine too, because we’re personally satisfied with the record.

Have you heard from fans and listeners since its release — people who have responded to certain moments on the record, or just its general raw emotion?

It’s always the added bonus, when you put yourself in a vulnerable position. I just write about whatever’s eating at me. You go to any therapy session, and a good therapist doesn’t, in my opinion, give you advice. You’re not fixing your problem. They’re helping you walk through your own logic and sort of noting the flaws of your thinking and your decision-making, and the strengths as well. And I see writing lyrics similarly, even if it’s about something that’s bringing me joy in my life. That central feature of my experience with writing lyrics — in a way which I have to do, and will — is that it’s good for my mental health.

But the added bonus of releasing those lyrics is that it’s almost like you’re giving an opportunity for someone to watch a good therapy session — like a pay-per-view therapy session gone well, where people are like, “Oh, yeah, I’ve had a similar situation in my own life.” I don’t really think I’m offering any solutions in any of my songs that I use. When someone’s found some solidarity in what I’m writing, it’s great. But it’s definitely not the intended purpose. I want to write a song that feels compelling for the listener — and what’s more compelling than someone singing about something that’s genuinely bothering them or eating at their mind?

Has the process writing and recording these songs been personally helpful in your own healing process?

Yeah. I mean, by no means are the woes of my life totally fixed, but I definitely have been more at peace. Anything about like, my father not being around to see my children, and also the passage of time — that kind of stuff I was writing about, I’m way more at peace with that, and that’s been great. I was kind of caught up in my own mind about the graveness of life, the “I’m going to die one day, and my son won’t have me around.” I have a tendency to quietly catastrophize, and look at things in doom scenarios in my own mind. And I don’t like that. It’s not healthy. So writing about those things, I don’t have the same level of stress as I found myself with.

I was curious about the type of artists you were thinking about when you were trying to kind of pour this record out of you.

When I get stuck, I’ve always found solace in Raymond Carver, in terms of literary influences. When I’m writing lyrics and I find myself going off into a level of ostentatious-ness I don’t personally like and I want to bring it back home, for something more honest, I’ll just read a Raymond Carver short story, and I’m reminded of a style of prose that I personally found compelling.

It’s the simple slice-of-life stuff that I find really appealing — and I don’t even know if I really, truly communicate that in my lyrics, but when I think about this Fiddlehead record, the song concepts aren’t too grandiose. There’s a level of complexity in there, but I try not to create a mathematical equation for my listeners to solve. There’s still a lot of poetry to find in the simple things in life.

In terms of music, I’ve been obsessed with Archers of Loaf pretty much my whole life, since I found them in middle school. Eric Bachmann’s got a really interesting lyrical style that allows the listener to interpret it however they want, which I love. And the early vocal styles of [Weezer’s] Rivers Cuomo are just like, totally perfect. Not that I can come anywhere near singing like him, but I’ve always appreciated his vocal melodies on those first two records.

The Fiddlehead album came out in the spring — and you were teaching at the time, including during the week of its release. What was that period like for you?

It’s always fun. Punk music is usually going to be in the minority in terms of listener numbers, so it’s not like I have all of my students at the school plugged into what I’m doing. But it’s totally awesome. I had one student who was kind enough to say, “You’re a model for pursuing multiple dreams.” I thought, “Yeah, that is kind of what I’m doing here.” But my profession allows for me to tour in a way that I think is conducive to a healthy touring lifestyle for me, and writing time, so it’s really not too difficult to do both.

There are rumors that go around that I’m this rock star on tour for 10 months of the year, and then it’s such an anticlimactic letdown to meet me — which I’m super happy about. The mystique that some musical artists try to create? Sometimes it’s genuine, and I’m like, “That’s a great mystique, they’re taking it really seriously.” But I’m not that much of a serious person.

When my students inquire about the music, they might perceive a lack of enthusiasm about it, like I don’t want to talk about it. I’m just not obsessive about it — and I’m also very wary of what it might mean to come off as a teacher who’s trying to be cool. If I have a useful anecdote about my world travels, I’ll bring it into the fold.

In terms of touring, you guys announced what amounts to weekend dates for September and then you’re going overseas early next year. How did you work that out, and figure out a schedule that works for you and your school schedule?

We really like the fact that we’re not dependent upon this band, and think it helps us write more clearly — because we’re not letting the success or failure of a record impact our financial stability as individual human beings. We play when we can and really enjoy that, and try not to get too pissy with each other when one of us can’t play.

We have the shows in September, we’re going to try to work out going to Russia and Germany, and I’d love to get over to Southeast Asia, which has such an awesome music scene. But summertime and winter break and February break and long weekends — if you want to get a read on when Fiddlehead can play, look up the calendar of the New England public school system. You’ll get a rough idea.

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