"We can do this ourselves," says Sprangers, the skinny-legged singer, talking from Los Angeles, to which he moved in September after Love Sign was completed. "To be on EMI, you really have to have some kind of a hit, and we just didn't."
True enough: Despite the pop-rock crunch of cowbell-and-handclap tunes like "Bang Pop" and "Dream City," nothing from Stuck on Nothing broke big-time. And after completing a two-year touring cycle, sharing bills with indie darlings such as Titus Andronicus and Mates of State, Free Energy was dropped by EMI in early 2011.
Sprangers and Wells weren't taken by surprise. But the duo - who spoke last week, along with Wells' bassist brother Evan, at Johnny Brenda's, near the band's Fishtown rehearsal space - said the association with DFA and EMI help them establish a beachhead amid a sea of start-up acts.
"I don't know where we'd be if that hadn't happened," says Scott Wells, the band's lead guitarist. He shares songwriting duties with Sprangers, with whom he grew up in Red Wing, Minn. They moved first to New York, and then Philadelphia, in 2008.
"It put us in a different league. We had to work much harder than we ever had. Part of being on a label with Coldplay is you have to think: That's what we're trying to do - make music that's big, that appeals to everybody."
"They opened a lot of doors," says Evan Wells. "They were great in that way."
"It's a business," says Sprangers. "We understand that. We learned so many practical, pragmatic things. . . . And I'm just so grateful about how lucky we are to have been on a label where people are like, 'You want to make a music video? That's cool, here's some money.'
"But now it's like, if you want to do that, the money comes out of your own pocket." (The band has two playful new clips, for Love Sign's "Electric Fever" and "Girls Want Rock.") "I think that's really healthy. You control your own destiny. It feels good. It's riskier, but it's more exciting."
As Free Energy forges ahead it helps, Sprangers says, that "we're a pretty self-sufficient band."
With money saved from touring, plus earnings from "syncs" - songs placed in TV commercials, in their case ads for Target and Flip camcorders - Scott Wells said the group had paid back the approximately $200,000 advance it received from EMI, and covered the recording costs for Love Sign.
The band members, including guitarist Sheridan Fox, who took over after Geoff Bucknam left in 2011, have had enough money that no one has had to take on a day job.
"It's cool as long as you're happy with the meager allowance we live on," says Scott Wells. He and his brother live in Phoenixville; Fox lives in Anchorage, Alaska, with his environmental-lawyer girlfriend, and drummer Nicholas Shuminsky now lives in Los Angeles.
When Love Sign was being recorded, however, members of the group were all based out of Fishtown. Producer John Agnello, who has worked with Dinosaur Jr., the Hold Steady, and Philly rocker Kurt Vile, came down from Jersey City, N.J., and crashed on the couch in Sprangers' and Scott Wells' Norris Street apartment.
At 53, Agnello is a generation older than the band members, who are in their early 30s. They bonded over mutual love of the clean, crisp sounds of 1980s acts such as Def Leppard and INXS. "Once I heard he worked with Cyndi Lauper and the Hooters," says Scott Wells, "I was like, I gotta meet this guy."
Agnello says, "They're really a focused group of dudes. I've worked with so many bands that have shot themselves in the foot being afraid of a song that sounds like a hit single. These guys have so many quote-unquote hit songs, and they write great melodies."
"We did a lot of arranging trying to suck out all the dead air of anything that wasn't a hook," the producer says. "They were awesome to work with. They're so determined."
Free Energy's strength is that they're unafraid of the obvious, and free of self-consciousness that might prevent a more ironic band from repeatedly shouting out "Whoa-oa!" over crunching AC/DC power chords before their album is half a minute old. Like Stuck on Nothing, Love Sign is an energetic riff-fest with sweet ballads like "Hold You Close" and "True Love" in the mix.
Keeping elemental songs disarmingly direct "is the trick," Sprangers says. "It should sound effortless, like 'oh, man, a child could write that' - that simple."
By self-releasing Love Sign, "we're not sharing the money with another party," says Scott Wells. "They can sell less to make more," Agnello says. "And these days it's all about getting out on the road, anyway."
The far-flung fivesome are regrouping in Fishtown this week to rehearse before heading out on a tour that will bring them back to Philadelphia for an XPN Free at Noon concert at World Cafe Live on Feb. 8. They'll spend the majority of 2013 touring. (And when the cycle is over, will Free Energy reside in Philadelphia, California, or even Minnesota? "Long-term, we need to figure that out," Scott Wells says.)
When the label dropped them, Sprangers says, he wasn't bummed "because I knew the best was in front of us. We don't live and die with record labels. . . . We're not going to stop, you know?
"I haven't figured it all out yet, but I gotta say it just feels better to know it's make or break - and it's all on us."
For Dan DeLuca's earlier stories on Free Energy go to www.philly.com/
Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @delucadan. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/inthemix.