Artist Spotlight: The Wildfires Projekt talks new EP, working with Ronnie Winter and helping fans through honest music
Johnny Zirkel is back with a new collection of songs tackling subjects like mental health and anxiety through a lens of stark truths. From Which We Came was released on April 7 in the middle of what was supposed to be a lengthy tour with The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus. Unfortunately, that tour was forced to reschedule due to concerns regarding the coronavirus outbreak, but the music plays on. Atlas spoke with Zirkel before all hell broke loose about these new songs, working with Ronnie Winter and writing music that speaks to people.
What brought you to this project?
I had been touring with a band prior to this that I had been in for a very long time and we eventually decided that that had become a little convoluted and we stopped for a little while. During that break, I had started going through a lot of mental health issues and when I decided to start writing new music and pursuing a new project, that kind of became the root of what it was and what I wanted to do with it.
What inspirations are you drawing from now during your creative process?
A lot of stuff happened during that timeframe that a lot of different songs got written about. I’m still looking back to those moments and trying to figure out how to write songs that can reach people going through similar things. On this new album, I wanted to try and look at other things that maybe I didn’t go through- the intro track has to do with multiple personality disorder- and just all sorts of creative ideas that can branch out from what I have personally gone through.
What names come to mind when you’re thinking about your influences?
I’d say with this project specifically, there’s definitely a lot of Senses Fail and Taking Back Sunday as far as direct influences. There’s just a bunch of other stuff that we ended up having similar sounds to like Saosin and some other artists like that.
What was it like working with Ronnie Winter (The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus) on this EP?
Ronnie’s a great guy. What made it especially different about working with him is it wasn’t always just about going in, working on the song and going home. There was a lot of open conversations- he’s a very Christian guy so there became a lot of different times where he’d start diving into more spiritual things and developing songs around that. And I think what was really different too is, instead of writing music and then lyrics on top of it like I’ve done in the past, while that was done it also kind of went full circle where the lyrics were written. We then looked to see if it matched what the music was doing.
I don’t know if this is the right word, but it was a lot deeper of an experience and a lot more connected between who we were as people as well as the music.
What are you looking forward to most about this tour with RJA? (Edit: tour has since been postponed due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.)
Getting back out on the road again. It’s been a little while and it is what feels like home. Just being able to tour with a band that I had admired as a kid. In my original band, we had a really terrible CD that we came out with that we had given them- I think that was over a decade ago when I was still in high school. So it’s interesting to me that, so many years later, not only is he (Winter) working on our music but we’re actually touring with them.
Who would be on your list of dream collaborations?
Outside of The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus- because that was for sure- I’ve always thought it would be really cool to work with or tour with the guys in Senses Fail. Obviously it would be great to do something with My Chemical Romance, but we’re originally from New Jersey so just those big New Jersey bands that have had an influence on us- to be able to do something with one of them would be a lot of fun. And then completely outside of this genre of music- I would love to write with Ryan Tedder from One Republic. He’s just fantastic.
What do you hope people take away from your music now and do you have any advice for fans struggling with mental health issues?
I think there’s two different takeaways that can happen that are ideal. There’s the people who are going through a situation in their life and it’s important for them to know that other people have been through the same thing and have made it through. And then for the people who aren’t going through that and just enjoy the music, realizing that someone they know probably is going through it even if they don’t realize it and to be available for those people.
Advice-wise, might sound cliche at this point, but talk to somebody. It’s a very hard thing for people to do, very difficult, and they don’t think they need to but it’s important and it helps a lot.
What else is coming up in 2020?
Right now, those [new EP and tour] are the two big focuses. Outside of this, I also do a punk TV series [Sounds of the Underground] that airs late night on CBS in a bunch of cities across the US. I’m restarting production on that at the end of this initial run of tour dates and it’s going to be a lot of fun. That’s actually how Ronnie and I met was through that show and he performed a song with us and then one thing led into another. I’m always working on that and then for sure will have some more touring not yet announced.
As far as Sounds of the Underground goes, who are you hoping will make an appearance?
This year, we’ve been talking to some great people. I mean, we’re going on tour with Red Jumpsuit, Dead American and Eyes Set to Kill so they’re obviously going to be on the show. We’ve been talking to people that I can’t confirm. Our PR company happens to work with a lot of bands in our genre. Bayside’s going on tour, Scary Kids Scaring Kids- that’s a big one for our scene.
Do you ever think about a master plan for this project?
While most people would say success and financial means is a great goal, it’s more than just that for us. It’s being able to use what we earn and our influence to help people that are going through different mental health issues. Whether that’s having our own non-profit work that we start doing or just supporting other non-profits. Right now, a portion of the money we make on tour is going to Heart Support, which is Jake Luhrs’ non-profit from August Burns Red. But being able to do more than just perform and actually have a platform to reach people and help them- that’s pretty much the ideal situation.
Is there anything else you’d want people to know or anything you’d like to talk about that you may not get asked?
That’s a good question that I have not thought about. I guess something that’s not so much asking me, but asking other people is finding new things to write about in this field of mental illness that might not be…the issues we don’t know about and knowing what’s important to other people is better for us because then we can write things that speak to people.
From Which We Came is out now!
Story by Olivia Khiel
Photos courtesy of The Wildfires Projekt