Recently I managed to get ahold of Phil Freeman, the lead vocalist and bassist of PA-based hard rock/heavy metal band Small Town Titans. They are a three-piece with Jonny Ross on drums and Ben Guiles on guitar. I first saw them back in 2015 when they opened for Sebastian Bach in a club in my hometown. I was under the age of twenty-one and couldn’t get on the main floor when Phil was handing out CDs of their first EP, so a very nice woman who was next to me went down to get one from him for me. I was very amazed by the set, so to my surprise, she later went down to get Phil, bring him up, and I got to meet him as well as get my CD signed.
Fast forward to the present day, and I thought it would be interesting to ask Phil some questions for the Vault. They’ve got a lot going on, so to make it easier we decided to speak on the phone for this. Phil had a lot of very interesting things to say regarding how the band came to be, his background in music and singing, how the band went viral with a Christmas cover, and much more! I’d also like to give a big shout out to Luke Krizner (guitarist of The Stonewall Vessels) for allowing me to use his phone during our lunch break at work, so that I could record with mine, and make this possible. If you’re reading this Luke, you rock!
Indy Metal Vault: I’d first like to thank you for agreeing to answer some questions for us here at Indy Metal Vault. I’ve been a big fan since I saw you guys open for Sebastian Bach in 2015 at the Chameleon Club. I’m always interested in hearing about how a band came to be, so what’s the story behind the formation of Small Town Titans?
Phil Freeman: That’s awesome that that’s where you saw us first! So we were three completely different dudes that went to Lebanon Valley College that ended up joining forces at the very tail end of the semester of spring 2011. We got together in a band room. Jonny and I were good friends through the music business program and we worked pretty closely together in different clubs and classes, and we developed a good relationship there. He had known Ben previously from jamming with him, and Jonny asked Ben if he wanted to be in a band at the beginning of his freshman year, and Ben actually said no! *laughs* Ben wanted to focus on football and school and didn’t want to be distracted by being in a band. And what’s funny is come two or three years later, we end up jamming together the three of us, and we’ve been playing together ever since; roughly seven and a half years now. We like to say that we formed the band officially on May 4th of 2011; whether that’s accurate or not remains to the history books but that’s what we like to say!
IMV: Good stuff! So what inspired you guys to play the brand of hard rock/heavy metal that you’re most known for?
PF: Well it’s something that I’ve always enjoyed, it’s something I’ve always had a liking for since middle school when I started to get into it, and I had a dream of being in a power-trio rock three-piece ever since then. It’s funny that this band has turned into that dream. It’s also interesting that Small Town Titans has been in my back pocket ever since middle school and it ended up being the name that this trio decided on at the very beginning of our career. So it’s sorta cool to see the trajectory of how that came to be. *laughs* The middle-school aged Phil Freeman would be freaking out immensely at everything that has transpired since. *laughs*
IMV: Ok, so if you came up with the name in middle school, what gave you the idea for the band name Small Town Titans?
PF: Yeah, so the story is that there is a great movie out there that stars Denzel Washington, Ryan Gosling is in it, amazing cast, and it’s called Remember The Titans. It’s a movie about football, it’s a movie about unity, and it’s an excellent movie with an excellent message. It made a big impression on me, and I’m from a small town, ya know, so I thought “Small Town Titans, ooh, that’s a good name” and I wanted to keep that in my back pocket for a while. I had other projects through the years that I spent as a musician, but for whatever reason, I just kept that name in my back pocket.
IMV: I’ve actually seen that before, as soon as you mentioned the movie I figured that’s where this was headed. *laughs*
PF: It’s a great movie! So props to Denzel and Disney for making a great movie that’s based on a true story!
IMV: Nice! So I noticed that a lot of the lyrics have realistic and relatable themes; so are songs like “Rowdy And Reckless” or “We Owe You The Truth” supposed to reflect society as a whole, or were they written more from personal experience and feelings?
PF: Well, I would say it’s a mixture of both, honestly. Ya know, “Rowdy And Reckless,” the origins of that song were written on a piano actually, in between voice lessons when I was teaching at this place I was renting at the time. I just started playing this riff on the piano, and that’s how it came to be. And for whatever reason, I was watching a lot of Iggy Pop documentaries and listening to Tom Waits a lot. So that song sort of came out of those influences and that environment. And that one line “I don’t wanna get on the bandwagon, I’ll burn the wagon down and join the band” is a reflection of what we’ve done as a band. We’ve gotten on the bandwagon and done what other bands have done because there are certain things that all bands do that work. But there are other things that a lot of bands do that don’t work, that are part of a stale, dying, old model. So we wanted to do what everyone else wasn’t doing so that we would stand out. That song is about the real reason why we do what we do. It isn’t a glorious job, we shed a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, but it’s all worth it at the end, as everybody gets rowdy and reckless at the shows. *laughs* That’s the end result, it’s always fun, and lately it’s been coming to fruition; it’s pretty amazing to see the energy at our shows recently.
IMV: Cool stuff, so going way back to the first self-titled EP, the first Small Town Titans song that I ever loved was “Party In Hell.” It was played live back when I saw you guys open for Bach, and I’ve gotta know the story behind that one! It seems like such a short and fun burst of energy! *laughs*
PF: Yeah man! As a side note, we actually didn’t start as a three-piece; we had two other guys in the band and actually had a bassist that lasted a month or two with us, right at the beginning of this project. We were in a room with those guys and we came up with this riff that was a very simple beat, came up with a riff for the chorus, and the thing we were thinking at the time was just trying to have fun with this riff and I started writing these lyrics as a joke. *laughs* Well it turned into this song that was very much like AC/DC, a very fun one to play that essentially talks about wreaking havoc and having a good time. It talks about the dichotomy between putting on the breaks and hitting the accelerator. It’s a lot of fun and a good time!
IMV: Sure, love it! So I also understand that your cover of “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” went viral and brought a lot of attention to the band. I discovered this song about a year ago when it came out, and I’d never heard anything like it. It’s honestly probably in my top five Christmas songs ever! So my question is, where did the idea of making a heavy, slower, almost doom driven Christmas tune that’s littered with hooks come from?
PF: We started covering the song in 2014, we premiered it at a Christmas party that was sponsored by 105.7 The X (local radio station to Harrisburg/Lancaster PA). That was the last time we had ever played it up until the summer of 2017 when we were headed into the studio to shoot six videos and mix, master and record some tracks through Hybrid Studios with Kevin Soferra. Our business manager, which we call “band-dat-chill” made the suggestion that we do a Christmas tune, and the guys and I looked at each other and said “you know what, we can do a Christmas cover. We’ve done it in the past, let’s just change it up a little, add some bells and whistles, and revisit it.” We added a few overdubs here and there and it turned out really really well. It got some great responses the first year that it was released, and we were excited about what it got for us. It locked us in with our PR guy, it locked us in with our current booking agent, it got us a few opportunities out in Los Angeles, and a tour with Adelitas Way that summer. But for whatever reason, this last year, this past Christmas, it really picked up steam. It picked up steam to a level that I could only imagine in my wildest dreams, but here it is, and it’s real. It’s reached thirty-three million views on Facebook and counting. It charted on Itunes, Billboard, and other places too. It was the number one viral song for a week during Christmas in the United States and Canada on Spotify. It’s unprecedented the amount of exposure it has gotten us. It has translated into more people at shows, more followers on our social media, just more overall, and it’s amazing. We’re super thankful for it, but with great power, comes great responsibility to quote Stan Lee.
IMV: Well good, good! So I’ve got two more for you. There are a lot of curve-balls in the Titan-timeline, and by that, I mean unexpected turns that veer away from the heavy style that comes to mind when people hear the band name. The slew of covers including Billy Joel and Johnny Cash, or the acoustic recording “Social Drift Away” which is one of my favorites, etc. Were ideas like this built off of something or was it more of a spontaneous decision like “hey guys, let’s grab some acoustic guitars and jam some soft stuff!”?
PF: Honestly, it’s an organic process man. We write a song, and if it’s more suitable for the softer side of things, we’re gonna go in that direction. We’ve heard the advice that you should stick to your genre, that you shouldn’t explore other options, but we admire bands that push the limits of that. Avenged Sevenfold for example; their main thing is staying heavy but they have classical influences, they’ll throw in an acoustic ballad here and there, try new tunings and explore different territory. That’s what makes them so unique and stand above their competition if you will; by exploring different sides of themselves. What’s so amazing is that people who come out to the shows, they tend to dig everything we play for the most part whether it’s a slow ballad on acoustic guitars or if it’s one of the heaviest songs in the set. People stick around and enjoy all of it. You want life to be full of spontaneity and changes of colors and we like to keep it that way at our shows and with our songs; it’s all natural.
IMV: Got it! So lasty, you’ve got a very unique voice, and I’m aware that you’re a vocal coach as well. Did you take lessons when you were younger or was everything you do self-taught?
PF: I had a slew of incredible and amazing voice coaches and instructors throughout my entire life. My mom was a working voice coach for as long as I can remember on and off throughout my life, so having her as an influence was huge. I had quite a few instructors in my middle and high school career as I was doing musicals on a regular basis who were very influential. My college instructors Dr. Mark Mecham, Dr. Rebecca Lister, and Professor Heffner were all super useful in my evolution as a vocalist. Just essentially, picking it out in the field and running with it, trial and error. The experience playing shows, getting the opportunity to teach full-time at what used to be The Perfect Fit Musical Arts Center. Most of the people of that organization have now gone to Keystone Musical Arts Center which is where I now currently work, as well as at Creative Pursuits Studio. All of that has collectively allowed me to take from a library of experience and academics and put them together in the field and bring them to people that I instruct. It’s thousands upon thousands of hours in the field and studying that I’ve done, and that’s what gives me the confidence to share that with people. If I had learned all of this on my own without any proper instruction, I would not be comfortable sharing the knowledge that I have. Honestly, I think it’s something for voice coaches to consider. Test what they have in the field, make sure what they’re doing aligns with the consensus of what most vocal coaches understand, but also push the limits and test it out in the field.
IMV: Thank you so much for your time!
PF: Absolutely, and thank you!
Small Town Titans have multiple releases out, as well as many singles and videos. Most can be found on their website.