Daniel Radin has a hot take. It’s that radio pop music (the kind “that you hear at a gas station”) takes its cues from contemporary Christian music, not the other way around. Top 40 is nothing more than secular Christian music, Radin declares, “except they just sing about, like, butts and stuff.”
He says this to his band, Future Teens, during a rehearsal in his cluttered Watertown basement. The group is ostensibly practicing for its first live pandemic gig, but the provocative Christian/pop, chicken/egg question sends them on a tangent. “This is worth a whole podcast,” says bassist Maya Mortman, as drummer Colby Blauvelt thwacks loudly on his snare. “I could talk about it forever,” says Amy Hoffman, the band’s lead guitarist. “About all the times my ex-evangelical ass thought I was feeling God, but it was just a really cool chord progression.” Hoffman is suddenly impassioned. “God, I am constantly trying to write something that makes me feel the way I feel every time I hear the chorus of ‘Prince of Peace,’ are you kidding me?”
“Prince of Peace” — technically "You Are Holy (Prince Of Peace)" — is a 2002 song by the Grammy-winning Christian pop singer Michael W. Smith. The song contains many hallmarks of contemporary worship music: extreme sincerity, jubilance, a seemingly endless inventory of aliases for Jesus ("You're Emmanuel/ You're the great 'I Am'/ You're the Prince of Peace/ Who is the lamb"). The music of Future Teens is the opposite, or seems to be. It is firmly grounded in the everyday. Feelings are felt viscerally and observed wryly. Sadness is not a burden to be transcended, but an existential state to be analyzed, gently mocked, even wallowed in.
And yet. Strike the word “god” from the conversation, and the two have more in common than you might think. This is the kind of music that wants to sweep you away. The kind of music that wants to make you feel.
Hoffman, who grew up “in the church,” as they say, later elaborates on their fondness for Christian pop. “If I were to translate what I thought I was feeling to what I was actually feeling, it is a sense of fulfillment and belonging,” says Hoffman, who has since left the church. Hoffman still strives to capture the best parts of worship music in the songs they write for Future Teens — the catharsis, and the longing. “But we like to throw weirder chords in.”
To understand Future Teens, it helps to know the band started as a bit. Radin and co-founder Gabe Goodman dreamed up Future Teens as a high school band that reunited in their 20s, still playing the same angst-ridden songs they wrote as teenagers in the early aughts. (Get it? They're teens... of the future.) They released the band’s first EP on floppy disk. “I don’t know if anyone ever tried to listen to it,” Hoffman says.
Goodman moved away, leaving the band without a lead guitarist. Radin invited Hoffman to join after the two matched on Tinder, an “app that is known for being really, really great for finding your bandmates and best friends,” Hoffman quips. The new lineup released its first LP, “Hard Feelings,” in 2017. The music is hook-filled and tousled, urgent and heartsick — in other words, emo. The album established Radin and Hoffman in their roles as mind-melded co-frontpeople, swapping lead vocals on songs with arch titles like “Expiration Dating” and “Girlfriend On A Gap Year.” “Hard Feelings” struck a tone of lighthearted melancholy. “I could be alone forever,” Radin sings, on the disarmingly peppy “In Love Or Whatever.” He punctuates the line with a self-effacing shrug: “Or maybe fall in love, or whatever.”
The group released its 2019 follow-up, “Breakup Season,” on Triple Crown Records, an emo-oriented New York City label. (“Breakup Season” is also the first album to feature the lineup with Mortman and Blauvelt.) With the bigger label came more pressure. “There [were] actually people listening to us who we don’t know,” Radin says. The songs on “Breakup Season” are as well-crafted as ever, but they trade the puckish self-deprecation of “Hard Feelings” for higher production value, bigger dynamics, more melodrama.
In some ways, the band’s latest EP, “Deliberately Alive,” which it released in the spring, is a return to form. The shorter format of the EP proved liberating. “I think we were a lot more free to experiment,” Radin says. There’s a forward momentum to the songs, and that trademark playfulness. There are signs, too, of a growing self-reflectiveness. “Turns out I was watering the weeds/ Hoping to root the good in me,” Radin sings on the album’s opening track, “Separated Anxiety.” “But growth’s no good with no good seed.” He sounds philosophical, at peace — for the moment, anyway.
Why does it feel good to sing sad songs? I put this question to the band after practice, as they eat Thai takeout in Radin’s dining room, which is decorated in a style he describes as “young grandma.” (Old maps, religious iconography, a portrait of his cat.) Blauvelt ventures a theory. “It’s a safe way to go through the things you need to go through,” he says — a way to process pain without experiencing trauma.
But there is real pain behind the songs of Future Teens. Take “Guest Room,” a standout track from “Deliberately Alive.” “I don’t even have a guest room yet/ How can I expect to die like that?,” Hoffman sings in the opening lines — a droll description, perhaps, of the purgatory between your irresponsible 20s and full adulthood.
In fact, Hoffman says, they wrote the song about “the really hard choice to keep living your life when... it's the thing you want to do least in the world.” “Deliberately Alive” is an homage to the daily drudgery of remaining on this earth. “I’ve talked too many friends down over the phone,” Hoffman sings, “not to meet up at our next milestone.”
And yet, you cannot discuss Future Teens’ penchant for sorrow and not account for its capacity for joy. This may be best expressed in the group’s prolific career as a cover band. Every year, they corral a collection of mostly Boston-area indie bands to join them on a compilation of cover songs, and then donate the proceeds to social justice causes. The 2018 compilation — a full-length reimagining of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Emotion” — made a minor splash on the internet, to date Future Teens’ closest brush with fame.
How to explain Future Teens’ adoration for “Emotion,” an album that can only be described as “sparkly electro-pop”? “It’s an emo record dressed up as a really beautiful, extremely well-produced pop record,” Hoffman says. Also: both artists possess a sly self-awareness that, improbably, comes off as completely uncynical. It’s hard to explain. Or maybe it’s not. “Carly just says what she’s thinking,” Hoffman says. It feels good to say what you’re thinking.
Here's another hot take: Top 40, like contemporary Christian music, is Future Teens’ other root. “Pop music is pop music for a reason. Like, those chords feel really good to a lot of people,” Mortman says. “There’s no shame in that.” Contrary to Future Teens' moody ethos, she says, “We like to have a lot of fun and feel good while we’re playing music.”
“Feeling good” — an easy condition to which there is no easy path. A Sisyphean task, a fleeting state. A worthwhile endeavor. It’s no accident Future Teens chose to name “Deliberately Alive” for the most optimistic lines in a song about wanting to die. “If I’m gonna be somebody/ Deliberately alive,” Hoffman sings, “I want to do it right.”
Future Teens perform at Boynton Yards in Somerville on Friday, Aug. 27.
This segment aired on August 27, 2021.