Long-in-the-works album 'Born Hollow' comes on the heels of beloved local indie-pop quartet's last performance at Flyover Fest
About three years ago, before John Umland realized the band he'd been a part of for 10 years would only release one more album, the Tin Armor singer/guitarist grabbed a nylon-stringed guitar and began writing and recording songs on a laptop in his kitchen.
“It wasn't a very good time in my life,” Umland said on a recent morning. “In that moment, I had a bad breakup, and the reality was starting to set in for me that Tin Armor may not go as far as we wanted. … Every time we put out an album, I had this secret hope, like, ‘Oh, man. This one's going to hit! We're going to land a song somewhere!' And that wasn't happening. So it just felt like kind of a dark time, and the songs that I started crafting were very therapeutic.”
Initially, Umland didn't know if he could show the songs to the rest of Tin Armor. They were uncomfortably vulnerable. But once he mustered up the courage to bring the material to his bandmates, who then helped shape the sketches into full songs, it became a cathartic, healing experience — one that seems to be reflected in the song “Crests of Light.” “I'm afraid of things that I have seen in myself and others/So help me out now, my brothers,” Umland pleads.
Meanwhile Umland's brother, singer and keyboard/guitar player Matt Umland, was following his own creative muse. “Matt was writing a bunch of great songs,” John said. “His life was in a different place than mine. His relationship was really blossoming.”
“My partner and I had been dating for years, and this was when we moved in together. We were really affirming our long-term life commitment to each other,” Matt said recently by phone from his home in Baltimore, Maryland. “I spent my entire 20s having a part-time job; basically, being in a rock band was my number one priority. [Then] I got a full-time job that was, like, a career job. … I think in many ways that period was a very safe period for me. But it was also a huge transition.”
Matt wrestles with that transition on the synth-driven “Get Used to It.” “I know it's time that I walk home, and I might when I'm through with this,” he sings, his voice a smooth-and-sweet yin to John's salt-and-vinegar yang.
“That song is basically about sitting on [drummer] Matt O'Conke's porch, staying up late and drinking beer and knowing I have to be at work in the morning, and contending with this weird moment of knowing that my life is changing,” Matt Umland said.
Tin Armor played its most recent show at now-gone Carabar in 2016, but the foursome continued to work on a new album over the next three years even as “the Matts” dispersed: Matt Umland and Matt O'Conke to Baltimore and bassist Matty Golightly to Cleveland (John, now operations director of the forthcoming immersive art experience Otherworld, remains in Columbus).
For a time, it looked like that 2016 concert would be the last Tin Armor performance, but after releasing long-in-the-works album Born Hollow last month, the four bandmates will reconvene for one last show at Spacebar on Saturday, May 11, as part of Flyover Fest.
Born Hollow was worth the wait. It finds the Umland brothers baring their souls, and then wrapping those sentiments in sing-along indie-pop tunes. “Belle and Sebastian is probably my favorite band ever,” John said. “Growing up, that was the music that always reached me the most and felt the most powerful and comforting to me — stuff that had that sort of sweetness or ease melodically, but there was an intensity or emotional depth to it.”
And though it's the end of Tin Armor, both Umlands said they'll continue to make music on their own; they can't not make music. “Music has been a part of how we figure ourselves out and explore topics that are uncomfortable to talk about,” John said. “There are things that I have heard Matt say that I feel like the first time I have heard him say it or express it was in a song.”
While it's bittersweet saying goodbye to something that has been such a crucial part of their lives, gratitude is the primary emotion that bubbles up as Matt and John reflect on the end of Tin Armor.
“I know there are people out there who care about Tin Armor's music, and that is incredibly gratifying. I feel so privileged to be able to say that,” Matt said. “This is all just a really awesome moment to reflect on that and give ourselves this cool sendoff and, I don't know, maybe cry in front of a crowd of people.”