New Jersey’s Armor for Sleep first came onto the scene in the early 2000s during the rise of emo with their 2003 debut Dream to Make Believe. At a time when a sophomore record could make or break a band, Armor for Sleep found further success with their sophomore breakthrough, What to Do When You Are Dead (2005), a concept album following the protagonist’s suicide and journey through the afterlife. Then they followed it up with their major label debut in 2007’s Smile for Them before imploding and disbanding in 2009.
But (like many of their 2000s emo compatriots) Armor for Sleep officially reunited in 2020, hitting the post-pandemic touring world and releasing their first album in 15 years, The Rain Museum (via Equal Vision Records). But unlike some of the nostalgia-fueled emo reunions, the new album feels familiar without being rehashed or outdated. Originally meant to release pre-breakup as a concept album based on a short story written by singer Ben Jorgensen, The Rain Museum takes place in a post-apocalyptic desert world where there’s no more weather. But while the story remains at the album’s core, its concept has taken on new meaning in its resurrection all these years later.
SPIN: How did the reunion conversation come about after more than a decade apart?
Ben Jorgensen: The actual hardest conversations were about doing the reunion tours, because I never wanted it to seem like a shtick. Dan Sandshaw from Equal Vision Records — the label that put out What to Do When You’re Dead and Dream to Make Believe — really convinced me that if we did reunion shows for What to Do When You’re Dead, people would come out to the shows. I was like “Well, if people will come out to the shows and enjoy it, then we’ll do it.” So he kind of had to twist my arm a little bit for that.
In terms of the new record, that was just something that happened during the pandemic. It was definitely a pandemic baby. We were actually supposed to go on the What to Do When You’re Dead tour in 2020, but the tickets got announced two weeks before the world went into lockdown. So we were in this state of excitement to do this 15-year anniversary tour and get the band back together, but everything shut down. Everyone was alone in their houses, which sparked the idea in my head to resurrect this idea for an album that I had a long time ago, but never got to make — and then things spiraled from there.
Speaking of the idea behind The Rain Museum, what sparked you to revive it? What was that creative process like?
The reason why the band was dormant for so long is because we took an oath with each other that we never wanted to bring the band back unless it was for a legitimate artistic reason. When we went into lockdown, everyone was looking for their pandemic projects. People were doing jigsaw puzzles and sewing quilts. I just remembered this idea that I had wanted to do after What to Do When You’re Dead, which was our big concept album. After that, I was excited about concept albums and the world-building you could do. I had this idea to do an album that would come with a book, potential comic books and all this artwork. But when we signed to a major label, the people around us said we couldn’t do a concept record and needed to simplify things. It was just “Armor for Sleep Light” for the major label debut. I was bummed out that the concept record never happened, so I viewed my time in quarantine as a really interesting time to resurrect this old idea that I had, but in the voice of Armor for Sleep. It could also be a resurrection for me to revisit that style of music and those emotional musical concepts that I played with the band — almost like a dual resurrection. But my life took a surprising left turn in the process, and I think that really made the album what it is.
You went through a divorce, correct?
Yeah. Right when I was starting to blindly go into this creative process of making this album — which was a super fun experience for me — I unexpectedly went through a terrible phase of my life. My marriage of nearly eight years fell apart, and I didn’t have the same tools that people going through breakups normally have because the world was on lockdown, like meeting friends and hanging out with family. The one thing that I did have was focusing so hard on this album. So I decided I was just going to keep creatively focused on it, and it would help me get through it. Then something weird started to happen. I was trying to write this album about this completely fictional world, but I couldn’t help but write myself into the story and into the world. After a few songs, I was like “OK, should I stop at this point and split the two ideas up?” But it occurred to me that the whole point of doing The Rain Museum and exploring these old ideas was a lot about looking back at past things, and that’s exactly what I was going through in my breakup. I was examining my life, how I got there and the heartache I was going through.
Seeing as you originally tabled The Rain Museum due to advice from a major label, did returning to Equal Vision Records allow you the creative control to make this record on your own terms?
Yeah. What to Do When You’re Dead is probably the album that our fans connected with the most over the years, and the process for us making that album was Equal Vision trusting us and saying “Go make the album you want to make.” We didn’t have to sit in a meeting with them. They weren’t coming to the studio every day. So with this album, I called Dan [Sandshaw] from Equal Vision and he was super supportive. “Whatever you want to do when Armor for Sleep wants to come back, we’ll be there.” I didn’t play Dan a piece of music. I didn’t show him a demo at all. He completely trusted me. I think that’s because in their experience working with me, the best results come out when I’m just left alone, for better or for worse.
The music landscape has changed so much since your last release due to streaming and social media. Is that intimidating as an artist coming back to this new playing field?
I don’t think so. We used to exist as a mysterious band where we would never explain what we were doing and, to a certain extent, that can’t exist anymore because of social media. People are so used to getting content delivered all the time that you almost can’t be a mysterious band anymore. Instead of looking at that as a bummer or like we might not fit in, I think it’s really cool. When we broke up the first time around, there was really no social media. I’m actually kind of excited to have Armor for Sleep as an active band with social media around. I’m not saying we’ll start doing Armor for Sleep TikToks next week or anything, but it is cool to have these channels. It’s a way we can communicate with our fans better.
How have the band’s dynamics changed over the last 15 years?
We toured together through our early 20s pretty much nonstop. Then when the band took a break, we all became adults — and then we got back together to play shows. It’s a really interesting relationship that I don’t think we’ll ever have with anyone else. We’re all adults now, and we all come together to do this thing, even though our lives have been very different. I moved to Los Angeles in 2015 and the rest of the band is in New Jersey, so we haven’t been able to hang out like we did when we were kids — but when we come together as a band, it’s this really special thing I feel like we’re so embedded in each other’s DNA. So to get to do that again with the same guys is just really special.
Given the current resurgence of bands from the mid-2000s, what was it like to come back when some of your peers are also coming back?
I definitely feel a little bit vindicated. I grew up going to shows in northern New Jersey when I was 13 years old — seeing the rise of so many bands that shaped all of our lives — and then we got to play this kind of music for so long. I feel like this whole scene had a black eye after the mid-2000s, and I feel like a lot of us left that whole scene with our tail between our legs. It was always such a bummer to me, because everything came from such a real place. It really did help me grow up and face a lot of darker emotional things that I was going through as a kid. I know that my band and bands like us really did impact people, so when “emo” became the butt of a lot of jokes after that, it bummed me out a lot. To see it come back again and to see people in their late 20s, 30s and 40s coming back around and saying “Wow, that was a really important part of my life, and I want to show support for that scene of music again…” It’s a little bit of vindication for me and some of my peers too. It feels like it wasn’t all for nothing, and that it did really matter like we all thought it did.
What do you hope the future holds for Armor for Sleep?
I’ve never been one to think too many steps ahead, so in the immediate future, I hope some people in the world are able to connect with the album. I used to make the mistake of trying to put too many flavors into an album — to be like “This is for someone who’s going through this, but I want to have a song that’s like this for someone” — but I knew that this album was basically about a relationship breaking down and looking at that in the context of your life. If someone wants to put on a record to go party with their friends, they’re probably not going to pick up this record — which is totally fine. What would be awesome is the possibility that this could speak to people who are going through their own dark times and just looking for something to connect with. When I was going through what I went through when writing this album, connecting with the albums that I loved and hearing other people going through their own dark times definitely made it easier for me. Just hearing that someone else is going through that human experience is very helpful. I hope that there might be a couple of people throughout the course of time who can find this record and connect with it. That’s literally all I could ask for.