A Word With Friday Pilots Club

Photo by Emma Zanger

By Anais Turiello

Originating in Chicago, Friday Pilots Club is a duo powered by the classic complexities of hard rock and animated with a vivacious pop presence. 

Formed in 2017 and consisting of vocalist Caleb Hiltunen and guitarist Drew Polovick, Friday Pilots Club was signed to Big Machine Records earlier this year and has grown rapidly in popularity. Even with only six songs currently released, the duo’s introspective lyrics, thunderous vocals and exhilarating guitar riffs truly set them apart from many other Chicago-based musicians.

The group is currently three dates into their “Not Even Famous” tour, and I was able to attend their set at Bunbury Music Festival in Cincinnati, as well as conduct an interview with Hiltunen. 

Polovick and Hiltunen owned the stage at Bunbury, gripping onlookers with their rockstar energy and magnetic stage presence. After spending the day with them, their deep passion for music – as well as their incredible kindness and humble nature – was simply undeniable.

Friday Pilots Club’s tour will continue for eight more dates following Bunbury Music Festival, including a performance at Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, TN – a major gig for a small band. The tour will come to a conclusion back home in Chicago, where the duo is scheduled to play Piqniq Festival.

Anais Turiello: It was a great set!

Caleb Hiltunen: Thank you!

AT: How was it? 

HC: It was good! It was really hot and, obviously, we were the first people today, so not a lot of people at all, but it felt really good. 

AT: I know you’re only three tour dates in, including today, but how has the fan reception been?

CH: It’s been amazing. I think that the coolest thing is not playing for amazing amounts of people, although that is awesome; it’s when you start seeing growth. We played a show last night and literally every single person from that show last night is here today, and that meant the world to me.

AT: I love that. So, what are the pros and cons of touring? I believe you’re in a van, right? Not a bus?

CH: Yes.

AT: What’s that like? 

CH: It’s actually really good. We did well for ourselves as far as a van goes. So, we have all of our equipment in the back trailer and then we each have a row to sleep in. We’re able to relax and have a good time. 

AT: It’s probably harder for bigger bands with a ton of people. 

CH: Oh, yeah. Definitely.

AT: How did you meet Drew [Polovick]? At Columbia College Chicago, right?

CH: Yes, we both went to Columbia. We actually met at a party and I was blown away because he was so knowledgeable about music, and I was doing a solo thing at the time because nothing was really happening with the band … and then, it just so happened that he started working on that for me. Then somebody actually left the band to go live in Los Angeles, and I asked Drew to take his spot. Then, we started writing together, and it was awesome. After that, I realized that we had something.

AT: What’s the writing process like for songs? I’m a writer myself, so I’m interested to know.

CH: Okay, yeah!

AT: Is it music first or lyrics first, and who writes them?

CH: It changes every single time, but mainly it’s just one of us coming to the other person with an idea. Then, we flush it out together.

AT: Do you have any influences, whether they be old or new? 

CH: I love Jeff Buckley. I just think that he’s … I don’t want to get too much on a tangent, but he has this thing about his writing where it’s very easy to vibe with, even if that type of music isn’t your favorite thing. I love that he writes for his voice if that makes sense. It would make no sense for me to write a rap song because I would be a terrible rapper for that sort of delivery. I just love that idea. We were just talking about The 1975 – they just write such good stuff.

AT: Yeah, they’re incredible.

CH: The thing that blows my mind is that Matty Healy isn’t necessarily a profound vocalist, you know?

AT: He writes for his voice. 

CH: Yeah, he writes so well and for his voice. 

AT: If I don’t really like the music, but I like the lyrics, then I’m going to love the song. I’m a big lyrics person, and it seems you are, too.

CH: Big time!

AT: Do you have any acts that you’re excited to see? Probably The 1975 … or acts you would like to see because you’ve been here for about a day, right?

CH: Yeah, we have. I’m just mainly excited for The 1975. 

AT: Me as well. 

CH: I’m kind of doing the same thing as you are, just waiting for that. 

AT: So, the name of the tour, “Not Even Famous,” it kind of seems incorrect because we already got stopped so you could get a picture with a fan. But who came up with the name?

CH: I absolutely did. I just love that “Almost Famous” movie. Shamelessly, I love that movie. 

AT: Oh, I get it. That’s one of my favorites.

CH: Yep, I just think it’s a funny idea too. It’s such a weird first tour. You know, it’s like not a lot of bands can say that yeah, the first time we went out on tour, like a real tour, we were playing radio shows and festivals. We’re playing an 11:15 pm slot at Bonnaroo. It’s like a blanket statement. We’re not famous, but we’re doing all this cool stuff.

AT: I mean, when I was looking through your tagged photos, I saw a ton of really dedicated fans.

CH: We have some great fans.

AT: I saw a girl who I figured out goes to Loyola [University Chicago] that is a huge fan, and I didn’t even know.

CH: Wow. That’s so cool. It’s funny, I think I know every single person who is involved on Twitter and Instagram. I think I know them all by name at this point. 

AT: Yeah, you responded to me really fast! Bands don’t really do that. I mean with your following, I feel like –

CH: It’s getting up there though. I’ll show you right now. It was much easier back in the day, but when you have 22 unread message requests, it’s hard sometimes to go through all of them. So whenever I get a moment to, I try to be on top of it. When someone reaches out saying they love us or asking about merch, I try to respond as fast as I can because I’m a huge fan of bands as well. Huge fan of The Strokes and people like that. 

AT: I love The Strokes. They were at Governors Ball at the same time as this festival. They’ll play Lollapalooza, though, if you’ll be back for that. 

CH: Probably. I don’t know at this point what we’ll be doing right then, but if I’m there in Chicago, then I will be there. It was always really hard to watch bands that were so disconnected from people – and it works for some people, but I see no point in that. We’ve got a really cool fan base, very smart and cool people that I just love talking to and hanging out with. It seems like that is a trend that keeps going on with everyone that I meet, that has become connected with the band, are just these genuinely wonderful people – and why would you not enrich your life like that and meet these people to say thank you for following us, you know?

AT: Yeah, I’ve met artists who have just been so rude, and I can’t really vibe with them after that. It kind of ruins the experience. But when they’re really nice, it makes me like them more and want to get into them more.

CH: Right. I chalk that kind of attitude up – the bad one – up to someone who got really lucky and didn’t work to get to where they’re at. Some people are super talented, and they’re out there for a year, and they get picked up then start going, and they don’t appreciate other people. I don’t know. That kind of thinking is beyond me. 

AT: I definitely agree. So, you sprouted from the Chicago local music scene … would you like to talk about it from the perspective of being a band in all of it? I mean, I go to DIY shows – but I’m not performing or organizing the shows, so I would like to hear your perspective on that.

CH: These are all really good questions, by the way. That is, in particular, a really good question. 

AT: Thank you! We’re both from Chicago so we’ve got to stick together. 

C: Fuck yeah we do! There are just a bunch of amazing bands. It’s hard in Chicago because there’s so much of a deterrent to keep going once you get into a corner. You’re like, “Oh, we’ll play this venue once every month and the same people are going to come out, and it’s going to be alright.” But it’s hard to branch out and get outside of Chicago, as far as producers and stuff like that. I’m starting to see it more and more. There’s a girl name Tatiana Hazel who is just incredible in Chicago. Although she does a lot of production with Drew, she’s branched out with the right people, and I say that’s the dichotomy of Chicago and the scene. It’s the people that are staying specifically in Chicago, where the highest point they want to get to is recording with Steve Albini or something like that. And then there are the people who want to branch out and find other people to help us out. That’s where Drew and I found our first win. We went to Minnesota and recorded with John Fields.

AT: What was it like working with him? That’s a huge deal!

CH: He’s so cool. I’m usually one of those people that’s kind of reserved and quiet, and John is one of those people where you find yourself trying to impress him all the time. It’s weird because he’s so cool, and I don’t know what to say. He’s lackadaisical. It’s so funny, we were recording “Gold and Bones,” and Drew is using this guitar and John said it was the guitar they used on the bridge of that Switchfoot song “Meant to Live.” He just put that out there and we were like, “Are you kidding me?” I jammed to that song when I was a kid. I love that because it was the same guitar. I just love that sort of thinking – where everything doesn’t have to be such a big deal but it is taken seriously, you know what I mean?

AT: Yeah, I definitely do. Well, to pedal back to the Chicago scene topic, what would be your dream venue to play in the city? 

CH: In Chicago? Um, wow. We’ve played a lot of venues in Chicago. 

AT: Or maybe your favorite one to play?

CH: Favorite? Oh, okay. What I want to play is … what’s is called? The big one downtown where the Bulls play. I would love to play that. The arena. 

AT: Oh, the United Center? That’s where The 1975 just played; I just saw them there.

CH: Yes! Drew was at that show. He was blown away. Then we saw them the next night in Milwaukee. But the favorite venue we’ve played at is always Beat Kitchen. For me, the sound guys there are just so on their shit and that makes a world of difference. 

AT: True, that’s a good venue. Okay, so the band name. I know I talked about the tour name, but for the band name, who came up with it?

CH: It was three of us, Ethan, Mike, and I. They were originally the band. The drummer and the guitar player who are both amazing musicians. We just slammed together three things and just kind of stuck with it. You know it’s like Friday, pilots, club. There’s sort of an inside joke to it, but it’s –

AT: You don’t have to share it. That’s okay, I understand. So, your fans are called “passengers,” right? I feel like that’s really clever. Who came up with that?

CH:  Thank you. Emma Zanger did. I met her at Columbia, and I just noticed that she was a hard worker. I also met Zach, our other manager, at Columbia and I realized that he was a hard worker. So I asked them to be a part of this if they wanted to. So, she really helped us get “Flight 1012” up and running, which is the fan club that we communicate with all the time. It’s great because you can show them demos and stuff like that. They’re just so engaged, and there are so many people now – which kind of blows my mind.

AT: That sounds amazing!

CH: Thank you! And it’s not cheesy or overbearing; it just works very well. 

AT: So, “Glory.” Wonderful song. Is that your first single with your record label, Big Machine Records?

CH: Yes, and it’s the first song Drew and I ever wrote together. 

AT: Have you just written each song individually? 

CH: No. The label has about 35 songs from us right now. All done. But, for some reason, they were drawn to “Glory.”

AT: It’s a good one, so I get that. 

CH: Yeah, I like that song a lot. It’s a hard song to sing every single day, I’ll be honest with you. Really hitting that G sharp that’s sustained on the top, it’ll wreck your throat. It’s made me a better singer though.

AT: Yeah, for sure. What has it been like working with Big Machine Records? You recently got signed, so how has it changed you individually as artists and as a band?

CH: They’re amazing. I had this naive perception of what a label was before, but Scott, Sean, Heather, Allison, Mike, Julian – who is our A&R guy – and all these guys at the label have just completely changed us. They genuinely care about music, and it’s not a business thing. When it comes down to business, there’s still an art to that, and I love that. It’s a game that you have to learn how to play well. We’ve been learning and are in the process of figuring out what comes next. It’s just all really exciting. 

AT: That sounds really incredible for you guys. To go back to “Glory,” there’s a lot of political undertones to the lyrics, which I really love. A lot of artists are scared to speak out on their political beliefs. Could you describe why you think it’s important to use your platform to speak up?

CH: It’s that right there. You have a platform, so why would you not utilize it, you know? I understand if people think its just their opinion, so there’s no reason to treat it as though it’s law or gospel. That’s the thing right there. If no one did that, we would just fall into this system of believing whatever we’re told. Any platform I can get to just get up and ask people – beg them – to at least really think about the morality behind their decisions and, to them, if it’s coming from a good place or if it’s coming from fear or cowardice. I would take that opportunity in a heartbeat. “Glory” is a great opportunity to do that. It’s funny, “Glory” kind of has two different meanings. As I said, when Drew and I write, somebody brings an idea and then we kind of smash them together, or sometimes we write from the very beginning. With “Glory,” Drew had this idea, and he brought it to me. I said that the chorus was good but we need to change a few things. So I brought in this song that I had been writing and that’s all the way up until the first verse, “Whispered words start revolutions / Weary souls write constitutions and Drew’s part was, and glory only comes when the good die young.” He’s got a story about that that you’d have to ask him about some time, but it’s not my place to tell it. I don’t know … it’s just a really fascinating thing because it means so much to him in a way that people wouldn’t expect, but it definitely is a political song for me.

AT: I mean, I feel like at least your fans are on your side in terms of what you’re singing and speaking about – but you’ve been getting radio play, correct? So you’re getting out there, which is pretty incredible.

CH: Yeah! Seven weeks on the Billboard Top 40 Alternative, so it’s pretty cool.

AT: Subtle flex. 

CH: Very subtle. 

AT: I guess, to conclude, do you want to say anything about any new music? I know you’re kind of under the ties of a record label, but could you talk about maybe a vibe or something?

CH: I think what comes next is really going to surprise people, and I’m excited for it. We love making so many different types of music, and the only thing that glues it together is vocals, the writing and the energy. I think it will surprise people a lot. Just be there with us. 

AT: Can you give a timeframe, or no?

CH: Honestly, no idea right now. My hope is by the end of the summer, but when a song goes on the radio – you probably know this – it’ll be on the radio, then it will be off, and then it comes back on. KONGOS has a song called “Come with Me Now,” which played on the radio when it first started. It was two years after they originally pushed it, and it just randomly came back. It was a #1 Alternative song for a while, and so everybody is kind of fearful of that because you put a lot of money into radio promotion, and you can’t tell people to play your song. You have to ask if they like it and would like to add it to their list. So we’re kind of seeing how “Glory” does, because it goes in and out.

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