Reviews

Danse Macabre

Author: Toby L
05/01/2003 | Rockfeedback.com | www.rockfeedback.com | Feature
There's a chance you've heard of this buzz, a likelihood even that you've experienced it.

A band clad in black, so dutifully associated to it as if they invented the colour, purveying a striking wave of implicitly wide-eyed, haunting, genre-boundless funk-trance. A searing coalition of thrilling synths against growling guitars and a camp, gravely voice coating the surface. It cuts through you for the first time like the news of a significant event that's about to change your life. Except this revelation is one of guaranteed pleasure.

Omaha, Nebraska's The Faint were destined, in many respects. In spite of their quintet-status today, their initial years grew from a core-unit three-piece, comprising vocalist Todd Baechle, his brother and drummer Clark, and Joel Peterson on bass. The trio's origins spanned mostly local horizons, straight-ahead rock-surges and not-so-showy performances – and prior to that, dances with lo-fi pop-folk – making presence in venues and coffee-houses in their surrounding State. 1998's debut-LP 'Media' formed from the period, but little more existed in the way of stealthy interest; something needed tweaking.

And so it was with second album, 'Blank Wave Arcade', and the introduction of keyboardist Jacob Thiele to the fold, that events made a turning-point. Gone were the standard contemporary cliché stylings of a group too overly infatuated with repetitively-aired, generic guitar-based templates, and instead rich, hefty slabs of wiry electronica, cutting keyboards and a distinctly harder, more brooding edge became the concern… Success in sound at last – heads turned further afield, and the final addition of former death-metal guitarist Dapose to the ranks added the unique dance-rock hybrid that would go on to form their trademark.

Fast-forward even still, and 'Danse Macabre' is the word on the street: a nine-track record so enigmatically fuelled with a burning desire to pulsate and arouse as it is to intrigue and compel, it's tuneful, hostile and the most rambunctiously complex groove around.

Taking it to the streets, to the right audience, would obviously be the next challenge.

'When we agreed to do it, it was because we simply thought that their fans would be interested in our music,' reminisces Thiele over the band's recent tour-sojourn with almost-gothy pop-industrialists Placebo, a series of dates that led to a predictably mixed response.

'I think there is a crossover between theirs and our audience, though,' considers singer Todd. 'But if a crowd doesn't know who you are, they're not going to be hugely interested… Even if they like you, there are too many people that have to wait until they've read about it in a magazine or have become familiar towards it first. A lot of people aren't able to form their own opinions, from my experience; it's just a natural thing, obviously depending on how old you are, and how many shows you've been to… You may be scared to say to your friends, 'Hey, this band are great,' because they might make fun of you. If you've been 15 before, everyone knows how that goes…'

You suspect it's not just a challenge a teenager would have trouble with; 'fessing up to liking, effectively, the 21st Century's eerie alternative to Duran Duran could prove a mean feat for any grown human-being… Well, if it wasn't for the fact that it's fashionable these days to be both danceable and heavy in the same breath.

'Sometimes we feel a bit more unified playing with certain groups, where it feels right,' ponders Jacob over the current 'disco-punk' scene, 'like The Rapture, where they're just trying to get the crowd dancing, or !!!, maybe Radio 4.

'The trend I see is that a lot of bands are finding something from the past that they can relate to and doing that,' includes Todd, 'but the ones I appreciate look to the past and then add something on top, something modern, with its own characteristics to it. I don't work at a music-store anymore, so I'm not sure how many bands are around these days doing such a thing, but there are a few.'

'Some are surprised by what we do, especially if they haven't read about us before,' interjects Jacob. 'They turn up to shows and say, 'I just thought you guys were like a couple of people with turntables – I had no idea that you did this!' But, in many cases, people have read things, and presume that we are an electroclash type thing, and then they see us live, and realise we're more of a rock-band as well. Or that we're as energetic as we are. I think a lot of people are turned on more by the live-shows than the records…'

Todd stirs. 'Yeah, but we do try hard on both, though…'

'… But I think it makes more sense when you see us performing,' retorts the keys-operator.

Todd concedes. 'Whatever, I think we're tricking people into liking music that they wouldn't usually like… I think that's what's exciting about switching to keyboards and doing something that was totally different at one point many years ago. If people like one of your songs, they have to overlook what specific type of music it is, in a way.'

And would you venture so far as to say that people aren't experimenting enough these days, musically?

'People are better now with it than when we first started, at least in America,' deduces Jacob. 'The reason we switched and stopped using so many guitars was because we were just incredibly bored with the number of bands that just had two guitars, a bass and drums, playing the instruments in a similar style, using the same guitars and same amps… Always having the same guitar-tones…'

'We sucked,' exclaims Baechle of The Faint's early days. 'But, at the time, when we recorded the record, we were like, 'Whoa, this is great! It's gonna be fun to play…' And then we'd get out there and do a couple of tours and realise, 'Oh God. We suck like all these other bands do.' You'd just stand there and watch other groups play and say, 'This sucks,' and you'd think about why it sucks, and it's like, 'We suck for the same reasons! So if it doesn't interest me, then why do we do it?'

'We tried to find our own voice, and we were trying to find that for some time, and that's possibly why 'Media' isn't as easy to pick up these days. I can't even listen to it anymore, but for some reason, they're still being sold... I look at it more as something that people wouldn't want to buy and listen to, but something that, if they've got the other albums, they were curious about.'

Jacob grins over the point. 'It's interesting in that it shows how bands are allowed and able to evolve and change a lot. And for the better. It could also be the case where they hear it and go, 'Whoa… I didn't know bands could improve this much (laughs).'
Tonight itself is the evidence of what happens when a musical-ensemble is able to evolve so fantastically. The band are performing at London's 800-capacity ULU, a venue commonly perceived as the gateway environment that bands play within before moving on to bigger and greater things. Rising to the occasion, there are special-effects in store for all, thanks to an elaborate system the five-piece have recently assembled for current shows.



'We now have two projectors that display images, and play off each other when we play live,' announces Jacob, comfortably residing in a chair in the band's dressing room, and swigging generously from a bottle of British ale.

'It sets a mood, and it's like our lighting,' Todd explains. 'We want to take control in the way that the show looks, and it's tough because we don't have a lot of money and access to things, but we've been trying to do this for years… And to finally figure out a way to, er, borrow the money (laughs) and make the videos, has been great.'

'The video's interesting,' he proceeds excitedly, 'as there are 30 images per second, times 13 songs, times two screens… I'm not saying, 'It's oh so amazing,' but it took us a while. The main appeal of doing it is that we can have a visual-idea – whether it's still or moving – and then make the music go with it, where it becomes one thing, rather than just the way music-videos are – which just tend to be commercials for the band. Or a commercial for the record, than a great visual representation. Sometimes they just seem such an afterthought.'

'We are interested in art in all its different forms,' outlines Thiele for the move. 'And we do consider ourselves as visual-artists. We're trying to incorporate more media into what we do. We've always been the ones that have designed our own merchandise and packaging, and stuff.'

And those thrusting, gyrating body-moves onstage are all a part of it…?

Jacob sniggers. 'What we do is really the opposite of contrived. We basically, and I hope I'm not speaking for just myself, get up there and try to feel the music, and let it move us however it will. I bet half the time, I probably look pretty ridiculous. But I just want to inspire other people to move in a similar way, so they're not scared to come out of themselves.'

'It might look slick,' acknowledges Baechle, 'but nothing's worked out; we certainly don't do dance-routines.'

Aural-wise, as is the hazard of electronic-music… Just how potentially 'live' is a Faint concert?

Todd gets scientific. 'We have a sequencer that Clark will hear a few clicks from, and will then start playing drums along to; only when he screws up does he hear that click again. The sequencer will also tell he keyboards to change sounds at a certain point; there could be an instant where we're playing keys, and the sequencer will say in its own way, 'Now this next part is really loud.' So we have to change the knob and make it work. We also have electronic-y noises that occur, plus we may play the first note of an arpeggio. And we may tweak sounds throughout. And then there are samples.

'People do get confused,' he comments, 'because we're in the rock realm, and they look on thinking, 'Well, there's something there that I can tell they're not playing.' And, for us, it's, 'No shit,' as we're not acting as if we're actually playing certain parts to it… It takes us a while after recording a song to learn how to play it live, to figure out who plays what physically, what's possible, what isn't, which instruments. I like the way we do it, though; it frees itself to not actually have to play the song. We'd have to have more people and more equipment to do it totally live, but it's good just to plan it in your head, record it, and then interpret it a certain way.'

'Human League got into a bit of a mess, recalls Jacob on the matter. 'At one point, they had 12 people onstage… Nothing sequenced – just everyone playing different stuff.'

Todd gasps, 'Really..? I guess that's just technology for you. Before we could sequence things, the bass-player was in control of everything with his feet – the lighting and it all. But it became a bit too tough after a while; he said that he'd rather hit a wrong note on bass than the wrong light…'

Jacob smiles, 'Yeah, he became a busy guy onstage. And he couldn't dance as much as he wanted, because he was hitting switches all the damn time.'

How laborious is the studio-process in comparison to such a process?

'We haven't had enough time in the studio to really do anything yet,' sighs Baechle. I think we only had three or four weeks to record the last record with mixing and mastering. We didn't have loads of demos for them either. We'd work 15 hours a day.'

'It was pretty intense, but good in that way,' backs up Jacob. 'It was all we thought about, and all we did… Well, not strictly true – because we also tried to fit in designing the artwork, too. Which didn't work at all until we were done. We'd make a new record-cover everyday and it'd be like, 'That's great, but I've gotta go and record the keyboards now!' We had about 100 record-covers sitting on a computer by the end of it.

'I think that the difference with us in the recording,' Thiele persists, 'is that we want people to really be able to pick apart the songs, to listen and know what all the words are, and still have that same appreciation… We want to present something where that's the way the songs are supposed to sound, and the way they'll go down in history. It's probably a shitty thing to say, but I think our songs hardly ever sound the way we think the songs should sound on records, they're just as close as we can get to at this point in one try…

'When we play live, it's a little too much to take in and think about; 'Just what is he saying,' 'Oh I missed that line,' 'Does that bass-line fit in there?' You want people to ignore all those sorts of questions, and treat it like an event you know? And that it takes over your emotions and throws your inhibitions out of the window.'

Todd: 'On each of our records, we've just had one track where we think, 'Oh God, I thought that was gonna be a better song that that!'

'On 'Danse Macabre',' smirks Jacob, 'we think it's 'Your Retro Career'…

Todd is in full agreement. 'I think that's better live; on record, it didn't really work. I think we've learnt more and more about engineering and producing and we get a lot better at it, but there's always going to be a little something like, 'Oh, we should have mic-ed that hi-hat a little closer…'

Sound-check time in the venue is arriving; the least we can do is end with a statement-of-intent parting-shot – what's The Faint's?

Todd ponders introspectively. 'If I meet people on an airplane and they go, 'Ooh, you're in a band – what's the kind of music,' I usually say 'electronic-rock', as that's about as specific as I'd care to work with.'

'And that's still loose and open,' affirms Jacob thoughtfully. 'The things that will be consistent is that we want it to be something that can always be enjoyed in the live-setting, or if you were listening to it at home or in a club. We'll always try and evolve with the technology, we're always buying new stuff…'

'Yeah, trading old stuff in every week for new stuff,' the singer details. 'We spend everything we get on making it better. And it's not like a spending-frenzy, as it is well thought out…'

The conversation's building to something…

'We just don't think you can truly progress if you don't take advantage of such things, that's my opinion, whether fact or not,' Jacob religiously pins down. 'But if you want to keep pushing the boundaries, it has to be done through technology.'

'So, yeah,' affirms Todd finally. 'We're constantly trying to search for a sound that matches all of the members in the band, and that has its own feel… I think we enjoy the difference that we have, and we'll keep trying to seek it out.'

And Amen to that.
Danse Macabre

Danse Macabre

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