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Sincerity to the Core
Behind the Powerful Rock Trio, Small Town Titans
"We opened up for [Blacktop Mojo] on a Thursday night, on a wild and shitty night. The monitors fell off the stage in the middle of our set. [After] we felt, "That set sucked." And then Matt came over over to us and said, "You guys are the best opening band we've had so far....To any bands out there, you're gonna pay your dues. Know that the crap of whatever you're going through is forging stronger bonds between you and the people that you are with." - Phil Freeman
by Abbe Davis, 4/23/21
If you want to hear strong, powerful vocals, then you'll hear it soar from frontman/bass player Phil Freeman of the Rock power trio, Small Town Titans, from York, PA. The other band members are Ben Guiles on lead guitar, and Jonny Ross on drums. They are all over mainstream Rock stations these days and they have paid their dues. Phil's voice is often likened to Chris Cornell in both power and range, yet when you hear their catchy Power Rock songs, you hear Small Town Titans. They also don't mind having fun with the process, or paying tribute to classic legends. They have covered "Spoonman," "Hunger Strike," and more.
In November of 2018, the band’s cover of the Christmas song “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” went viral in a matter of days, leading to charting on various Billboard charts including, Holiday Digital Song Sales, Rock Digital Song Sales, Emerging Artists, and reaching #5 on the Next Big Sound chart. They have shared the stage with Highly Suspect, Papa Roach, Black Stone Cherry, Pop Evil, and soon Halestorm in late July. The band will also play RockFest in late September. Small Town Titans will tell you how you need to reassess at times, having gone through that over the years, and streamline your plan. Their latest album, "The Ride" is already catching strong momentum with old and new fans. It was great talking with Phil, whose appreciation and sincerity about their fans is soulful and heartfelt.
AD: Hey Phil! Very tight songs and man, you three really are a powerful Rock sound. First, "Rufflin' Feathers" the changes and songwriting, strong and original. How many years have you guys been at this?
PF: We've been together since 2011, so it's been ten years.
AD: You guys have opened up for other big acts, soon alongside of Halestorm. When did you three meet?
PF: Yes! We met a few weeks before I graduated from college, Jonny and I were friends, we jammed in college. We were right outside of Hershey, PA, at Anvil College. Weeks before I graduated, Jonny wanted me to jam with him and some guys, and we decided to stick with it from there. We formed the band before graduation and we've had ups and downs and band changes, but the three of us stuck together.
AD: Lots to ask you guys. The past few years your name has really been out there, right?
PF: We've been through the gauntlet, still paying our dues, most bands are. Yes, we've been up to no good.
AD: So, you write the tunes, you guys have a killer sound, how do you go about it?
PF: It is a super collaborative effort, I may have most of the lyrics, but Ben and Jonny share a lot. We decided that no matter who contributes what, we all split the ownership and royalties equally cause we want it to be fair. Ben will come up with a chorus or riff or lyrics, or Jonny may do the same thing, and we arrange it together. There are no rules, it isn't a set pattern. Usually I'll end up saying how it began with a riff that Ben did. (laughing) That is the only constant thing throughout. Then we build upon that.
AD: You better keep him.
PF: He's our favorite idiot! LOL!
AD: (laughing) Musicians, we're all idiots. LOL.
AD: So I saw your podcast, you three hanging out, drinking a six pack, talking about the business side of things, or tunes. It's fun to watch the podcasts. Who drives you guys around when you go out, you mentioned that? And then your song "9 to 5," talks about letting loose.
PF: Oh, well, we've had merch guys and drivers who have been a wonderful part of our team. "9 to 5," it is about having the right to take the load off, in whatever form. That is our anthem for that.
AD: It's a catchy song. I like how you guys do your banter in your podcasts, too.
PF: We are family, absolutely, we do love each other.
AD: Very cool. Let's talk about your version of "Spoonman," and tributes to Chris Cornell. Your sound is a branch off of his sound and I hear his influence on you. You mentioned on the website about how he saved you in your life.
PF: In my adolescence I was shy and didn't fit in, but music allowed me to fit in and express myself. So, one moment where I developed my voice and sound, was listening to Audisolave's first record, and then finding Soundgarden. It made a huge impact on my life. It probably saved me from pain and heartache. If I hadn't discovered Chris Cornell, I don't know where I'd be today.
AD: Yeah his emotions and tunes, they hit us all in the gut. Tell me about Blacktop Mojo, who decided to do "Hunger Strike?"
PF: They are great guys. That's an excellent question, I think it was an idea we had, and we brought it to Blacktop Mojo and said, "If you wanna record it down in Texas, we'll send it to you." And I remember Matt, in his southern accent saying, "I'll just come up, man."
AD:(laughing) You sound just like him! That's great, they are cool guys. How did you meet them?
PF: Kudos to BlackTop, kudos to Tom George at TAG Publicity. We opened up on a Thursday night in one of our hometown clubs. It was such a wild and shitty night. The monitors fell off the stage in the middle of our set. Some drama was going on behind the scenes, and we felt totally off and said, "That set sucked." And then Matt came over over to us and said, "You guys are the best opening band we've had so far." We exchanged information and got Tom's information, and from the shittiest gig we had, we got the opportunity, and it lit a little spark and it changed a lot of things for us.
AD: I love hearing this because people need to get their music out, and get past a bad night.
PF: Yes, put this out there! To any band out there, you're gonna pay your dues. There's gonna be a lot of sucky nights where there's only five people at the bar. Remember the Golden Rule: do unto others how you would have them do unto you, watch your back, watch your boys. Know that the crap of whatever you're going through is forging stronger bonds between you and the people that you are with.
AD: Thanks so much for that. I like that altruistic spirit, paying it forward. I notice at the start of "Hunger Strike," when you start the tune, in the video of you in the studio, you kept looking up to the ceiling. Were you aware of that? Or did you know you did that?
PF: I think that it just seemed natural at the time, given that the song was written by someone who had just passed away from two years prior.
AD: Your vocal soars and so does Matt's. Who was the third person on vocal in the video?
PF: Ben is on guitar there, but the camerawork was tough, doing it in a take. We didn't get Jonny on the drums enough, unfortunately, yet we wanted that round.
AD: The harmonies blended beautifully. This is not an easy song to sing or to cover, but you and Matt hit it and soar, and that must feel kick ass.
PF: It was an honor to do and I hope we do that together live at some point.
AD: Has anyone from bands told you how much they dig it?
PF: There have been some that have given a thumbs up, but there are so many great bands out there.
AD: When Eddie Vedder tells ya, it will be cool.
PF: Oh dude, I will lose it if that happens.
AD: No doubt! (laughing) Chris Cornell, his dad treating him the way he did, I've heard, had an effect on him, depression, all of that. Who knows, meds he was on, but he didn't like to be alone on the road, right? Maybe it was a slippery slope. You felt he had it all, and...
PF: Well, when I did the interview about that, there was a lot going on and it was tough. I had lost my mom a few months prior, Chester from Lincoln Park had passed, then Chris died, so loss upon loss. Since then, looking back in hindsight, you don't know what anyone is struggling with. Ya can't tell or know, really. It doesn't take away from the contributions Chris made musically. It's so scary, when you think about medication, the brain, and what can cause people to do things that they never would normally do. I mean, even people who don't have a criminal record can do some criminal act, and then ya find out they had a brain tumor.
AD: I hear you, so true.
PF: It makes you appreciate life and see how fleeting, fragile and precious it is.
AD: I agree, all of us musicians wanted to hear more of his greatness.
PF: I look back and think maybe it was selfish, what I said.
AD: But you said what many people say when they lose an artist like that. It really is hard to take, I get where you were coming from, and I wanted to see how you felt about it now.
PF: Yeah, I've lost people at a young age, people I was close to, and I did the Math on it. You know, it's like, it might be average to people but for me, every 2 and a half years I lose someone.
AD: Oh man! But you don't wanna attract that to yourself (laughing) I mean, the band might quit in fear.
PF: Exactly (laughing) "That's totally me" ha.
AD: (laughing) Let's talk about how loyal you are to the guys. You totally get it, the podcasts, and how you guys play together makes it clear.
PF: Yeah, there have been many opportunities to do side projects, and there are things I'm doing at home, but it is never a situation where, if another band wanted me to, that I'd be their lead singer. I'd go, "That ain't happenin'." We're a unit. All of us have said no to different opportunities over the years, and we stuck with it, and look at where we are.
AD: I love how you guys have "The Titan Army," for your fan base memberships. A fan can be a soldier, the captain, how did you come up with that? It's cool. People can be part of the brand, it's cool.
PF: Well we had a patriarch give people a chance to get cool stuff or get content. Yet, we decided we want to take control of it, and now we have 160 members who contribute monthly or annually. Certain ranks gets some swag. Everyone in the Army gets sneak peaks and exclusive content.
AD: If I'm in the maximum membership, am I hanging out with you at your shows?
PF: (laughing) You just get some really, really cool swag. One-of-a -kind stuff.
AD: What do I get?
PF: Well, there's a mystery box involved with it so I can't say. One thing I can tell you is that you get the T-shirt that pertains to your ranking. So, you get the shirt, the box, the access to exclusive content, behind the scene stuff; a bunch of demos only available in that membership.
AD: OK, that's a relief. Cause I was looking at the top membership, thinking, "Wait, if I make it to Sargeant, do I get to hang out back stage, how can they do this with fans?" (laughing)
PF: You know when people say, "Hey man, can you get me backstage?" It's not as easy as you think. That is decided venue by venue, It's a venue's call, unless you've reached a certain level, and even then, there are so many moving parts. I wish I had control over that.
AD: Your band's success, did that begin with your version of "You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch?" It was a Billboard hit, and a hit on Spotify, too.
PF: Absolutely, that's what brought us to the dance. There were many little sparks. Working with BlackTop Mojo, working with Tom, that's what got us our booking agency, TKO. We had modest success with the first year it released. The year after that, it blew up to the sky.
PF: I think it's just because we made the right post, and because of who we got it in front of.
AD: It's sexy, and I can see a guy who owns some strip club wanting his girls to dance to it.
PF: (laughing) Interesting view, that song in the background. Hm...
AD: Yeah, sexy! How many octaves is your range, cause you get so low and then shoot way high up.
PF: On a good day it's about four octaves. On a wild day I can get to five.
AD: Love it! That's great. Do your work "Grinch" into your tour shows, or just at Christmastime?
PF: That's something that we've been processing as a band.
AD: You did it, and now everyone wants to hear it! (laughing)
PF: I understand that, and it brought us to the dance, however we are only going to bring it out for the season. We are not "the Grinch band." We love the song, we will never stop playing that song, yet at Christmastime, unless it is an overwhelming amount.
AD: Overwhelming, yeah, like, if everyone is holding up posters of him!? Look what I'm starting... (laughing)
PF: (laughing) Let's just say you're gonna encounter a lot of resistance if it is not between October and December. It's nothing against anyone who wants to hear it, it's because we don't want to be defined as the "Christmas band." We want to create our own definition.
AD: Well, that's fair, it really is. Your band is already doing that. You've got so much music that seem permanently at this dance. I mean, your music, your big vocal. I want to know, you were talking about crowdfunding issues years ago with companies in your podcasts, how do you see that now, the business side of things?
PF: One thing I can say is, treat your fans like gold. At the end of the day, those are the people who are spending the money, giving you the time of the day, and are investing in your passion; investing in your creations and your business. I can put food on my table because of the graciousness of these people. I wanna make sure it is an even exchange. We're a small business and some things will fall through the cracks, someone might have to wait a month or so for our CD, but we will do everything we can to make up for it and let our fans know that we appreciate them immensely. So treat your fans like royalty, cause they are the reason that you are where you are.
AD: That's great. Is it true you do your setlists right before you get on stage?
PF: (laughing) That needs to be updated. We did that but we have since retired that.
AD: You're getting older! (laughing)
PF: We wanna be PROfessional.
AD: Would ever ask your fans to tell you what to play at shows?
PF: We did a livestream and did that, where people had a choice, pick a setlist, A or B, which was a lot of fun.
AD: Cool idea! You're doing a show with Halestorm in July, that's exciting.
PF: Dude, I am so excited about that, cause Halestorm grew up down the street from us, so it's great to see two York, Pennsylvania bands together; success as a result of people who love music, a full circle moment.
AD: Very cool. Will you get to talk to them?
PF: Depends on the day and the venue. For example we hung out with Black Stone Cherry, they are super awesome. It was an event at Harley Davidson in Greenville. They are having a great time and planning for 2021.
AD: Are you relaxed about going back out and touring, and are you wearing a mask? How will meet-n-greets work now?
PF: It's a moral conundrum. The guys will be getting there first shots soon. I haven't gotten mine yet, but it is being taken case by case. Whatever you do, there is some risk at times. I mean, it's tricky.
AD: Just go to CVS.com online late at night, cause the counties take forever to get to people. Just go online there at like midnight, then wait and keep trying to book it, cause by 12:50 AM they open up, and let you know which CVS near you is good, so you then book it right then and there. I did this, I listened to my friend about it, and it worked immediately like that.
PF: Thanks for letting me know.
AD: This has been a great time, what do you want to promote?
PF: We have a new album that we just released called The Ride, on any services, or you can stream on itunes, or, you can get a physical copy signed by us at our website at smalltowntitans.com/store
AD: When you play with Halestorm, you will be exactly where?
PF: We will be in York, Pennsylvania, at the York State Fair on July 30th.
AD: Cool. Are you doing shows all Summer?
PF: Things are starting to heat up here for the Summer. We just announced that we will be at Rebel Rock (festival) in Orlando, Florida on Sept. 25th.
AD: Ooh, we will have to drive up! Alright!
PF: Yeah, you guys are in South Florida, right?
AD: Yes we are. Cool, we will have to work that out. I love your power and range, and how you guys sound, very cool songs. I'm excited for you.
PF: Thank you.
AD: Thank you for bringing us your Rock 'n Roll.
PF: You've got it, thank you so much, take care.
Abbe Davis, Editor, TRR, Musician
Abbe Davis is the lead singer and songwriter for Sordid Fable, a Hard Rock band, currently recording an album for release in 21/22. Abbe has played alongside Buddy Guy at the River Walk Blues Festival in South Florida, and in the northeast with prior band, Day of Colors. She loves promoting Rock music, and co-hosts the livestream Tru Rock Show with Kreig Marks.