By Ryan Dembinsky (Ryan Demler)
Occasionally, a band puts out a debut album with so much of themselves in it, that it seems impossible to to top, or even match, when the sophomore album rolls around. You see bands come up just short all the time. In their second acts, bands – especially bands with energetic uplifting music – have a tendency to spread their wings, show off their chops and serious up. It’s the dreaded, “We’re going in a different direction” move.
Think about MGMT, The Strokes, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah or the Polyphonic Spree. Bands whose debuts moved people emotionally and got the endorphins flowing, but the follow-ups deviated and ultimately perhaps fell a bit short.
But for every band that does an about face and changes directions, there’s one that doesn’t. There’s one that brings what they do best to the next level. Think about bands like Passion Pit, LCD Soundsystem or even The National. These feel-good bands knocked it out of the park on their respective sophomore efforts and never looked back.
Fang Island falls in that latter camp. Their sophomore full-length, called Major, took what they did on the self-titled full-length debut and took it up a level. The band weaves tight progressive guitar melodies in “major” key frameworks (part of the reason they chose the title) to create highly addictive fanfare music. Fang Island is dude rock at its best. In the era where refined Americana and introspective indie music reign supreme, Fang Island brings the welcome return of music that actually kicks ass.
Fang Island’s and guitar player and co-lead songwriter Jason Bartell joined me for a chat about the new record. While you read along, give the new album a listen. I’m willing to bet you’ll be out of your seat by song three.
Hidden Track: To kick off, I’d love to get into a little bit about how you guys write your music. I always enjoy how you weave together a lot of guitar melodies, so I was curious how those pieces come together to form the whole. Do you guys usually jam and then pick and choose from the jams or it more composed?
Jason Bartell: It’s a bit of both actually, especially now. Around the time we did the last record up until now, Chris and I – who is the other main songwriter; we lived in different cities. Initially, when we started the band, we all lived in Providence and there was a lot more jamming and a lot less individual composing. When we moved to different cities, we had to change the dynamic a little bit, but we always try to keep an element of jamming, even if it’s not the full band.
At this point, Chris and I have been playing together for around seven years and both learned together – or at least learned the next stage of musicianship together – so we’ve been through a lot musically and have a really solid rapport. So, we try to jam and there’s always something that comes out of that, and it’s definitely the most fun and most intuitive way to come up with riffs or songs. So, it’s always a bit of both, but we try to keep jamming in there as much as we can.
HT: On that note, I was going to ask you this a little later, but you kind of alluded to it already about the full band. We noticed that it’s a three-piece now, what happened to the other two guys?
JB: At the time we were touring the self-titled record, the original bassist had moved to away to Texas with his future wife. So the record was in the bag and we had been signed, so he did a little bit of touring with us before the record came out, but right before it was released was when he moved away. So the guy that toured with us and who was in a lot of the photos, that was my friend Mike who was my roommate at the time.
He’s this natural, amazing musician and he started touring with us and we were thinking that he was a member and that we’d write the next record with him in mind, but he started a business when we had some down time. It’s really cool. It’s a food truck business. He’s a chef at heart as well as a musician. That’s one of his many passions. It was cool, it was good timing. We decided we’ll just keep it tight in terms of writing.
At that time, it was a four piece and the other guitarist just sort of quit when we were on tour, before we really went into the studio for real. Without getting into it too much, there’s a lot of contextual stuff that doesn’t necessarily translate if you don’t know all of us personally, but he had joined after Chris and I and the original guys started the band, so he was an additive element originally. This doesn’t really translate to an interview well, but he wasn’t really a chief songwriter. It was hard, but it kind of made it easier in a way. This is sort of what we’d been working toward for seven years is this, almost the purest form of what this band is. It’s really down to the crucial elements. We still want to have the five-piece live sound, and we’ll have some really good friends who are going to tour with us, so it’s looking good right now.
HT: It sounds like you guys have really made progress on the vocals. It that something you’ve been focusing on more?
JB: I think so. We’ve always sort of been moving that way. We had two EPs that we released that haven’t gotten as much attention, but they are like our roots kind of records. From the very beginning we were mostly instrumental except for this one song had a vocal part that was just “whoas” and “oohs.” We wrote it into a part of the song where we didn’t have any music, because we didn’t have any microphones, so it was the only way we could all hear it.
So, that was how it started and that quickly became the people who came to the shows’ favorite part of the set, and our favorite part of the set. It sort of became the part we were always waiting for, because this burst of interactivity between the audience and us would come out of nowhere and it seemed to really excite people. So, we’ve always been moving this way and each record has more and more vocals.
The more we toured, the more that feeling came out. Every time someone would sing along or know a lyric, it’s the most exciting part of any show. We’re trying to move toward that a little more and it’s always been the original intention.
HT: I really like the integration of the bluegrass sound on…
JB: Dooney Rock [laughs]? Yeah, I know exactly which one you’re talking about.
HT: Yes [laughs]! Have you been working with bluegrass and other types of music more?
JB: I wouldn’t say bluegrass so much. That was Chris’s song and I don’t think he really listens to bluegrass, but I think it’s inspired more by Irish stuff as well as country. He’s a big country fan. Well, I guess bluegrass and country are similar, I don’t know the exact distinctions. Anyway, he’s more of a twang player, so that was just a riff that he came up with. Just from the reaction that song has been getting, I’d like to explore that more. I think genre aside, that’s just one more sound to infuse into the oeuvre or whatever.
HT: It’s funny you say that about the reaction, because I just got the record like four days ago and I’ve listened to it about 40 times already. It’s awesome.
JB: [laughs] I think that song is the core of what we do with that bluegrassy, almost silly riff and then turning it into almost like a Ride the Lighting era Metallica song. It’s not something I think many people would think to do. If there is anything on the record that is uniquely us, it’s probably that song.
HT: That’s a good point you made in referencing Metallica that I wanted to ask about. I’ve definitely seen some comments on your references to your influences in other interviews and various places or via cover tunes you’ve done, but I was curious about what kind of more sophisticated, you know, crazy music, epic guitarists, stuff like thhat you grew up with?
JB: I would definitely say Metallica is probably my biggest personal influence. It’s between that and stuff like Smashing Pumpkins and Weezer, more ’90s music. I think when I first started writing, I was actively referencing Metallica over almost any other thing. All of us sort of share the same background and we all grew up around the same time.
So, there is a pretty diverse ’90s background and some weird things. The ’90s were when weird pop sort of had its day. There are similar backgrounds in the ’90s with a bit of a metal background, but also in that there is complete open mindedness towards some of the weird stuff.
I feel like we cover the Mariah Carey song, and this may be speaking for myself, but we’re genuinely inspired by that song just as we are by And Justice For All. [laughs] If you have an open mind, the world is kind of your oyster in terms of influences, especially nowadays.
HT: When you guys toured with Coheed & Cambria, how did you find their fan base took to you guys and vice versa?
JB: That was interesting time, because we segued from a Matt and Kim tour into a Coheed & Cambria tour. Musically, those are probably two of the more dissimilar bands. So, we were really curious. That was a real experiment for us. It’s hard opening for any band really, because there is always going to be a percentage of people who just out of the gate are not going to care what you’re doing. You could be U2 opening for Coheed & Cambria and some people would still be like, “When is Coheed coming on?”
So, there’s always that element, which can be exciting and fun too. Playing for new people is always fun. Chris and I definitely both went through a big Coheed & Cambria phase and there are definitely some similarities there.
I think the other thing about trying to draw from as many influences as we can is that hopefully we can keep being painted with the brush of “hard to label.” To me, the best possible genre to belong to is the “indefinable” genre [laughs]. I feel like we could open for a hip hop band and then Matt & Kim and then Coheed & Cambria. All of them have elements that make sense to us, whether its energy-wise or aesthetic-wise. It was fun though. We played some great shows on that run and they were all super nice. Same with Matt & Kim.
HT: I just had one last question I wanted to ask, which is pretty general, but I’m sure you have had some good experiences with the reactions that fans give you guys. A lot of people talk about the happiness and the joy of the building anthem sound, and music lovers definitely get super pumped up. So, I was wondering if you have any cool stories of people telling you what your music means to them?
JB: Yeah, that’s one of the greatest things that has come out of being in this band. It’s something we all hoped for when we were starting. We would get those comments from our really close friends, but we had very close relationships with those people. That’s how we started – just playing for our friends, but there was a lot of love there [laughs].
But then branching out and being lucky enough to play for new people on tour and via the internet and being on a label like Sergeant House who promotes hands on growth and fan base and being about the fans and not the dollar sign, all that combined has been amazing because it promotes these encounters.
Every once and a while, even if it’s just a Facebook comment or an email, you’ll get one that says “I was going through a really hard time and your music really helped me out.” There’s nothing better than that. Even if one person ever said that remotely earnestly, then that’s our job as a band. That’s why music exists – regardless if it’s optimistic or aggressive – if someone can find something in it when they are going through a hard time, that’s exactly why music exists. Were very lucky to have that even be a possibility.