A POLYCARBONATE KIND OF THING Fan Modine

Appearing
at the Hopscotch Festival this week, the Tarheel band’s story is a tale of
R&R excess, but not the kind you’re probably thinking of.

 

BY JOHN SCHACHT

 

In 2004, North
Carolina’s Gordon Zacharias – a.k.a, Fan Modine –
released his second LP, Homeland, and
seemed poised to make waves after key blogs and hipster-sites endorsed his lush
orchestral pop and gloomy-but-resilient narratives.

 

But the big splash didn’t happen. Despite assembling a crack
band of regional musicians to tour Homeland and lay down the basic tracks for the follow-up, life intervened, momentum
waned, the center did not hold. What followed was essentially six years of obsessive
song-tinkering before this year’s even-more-lustrous Gratitude for the Shipper finally emerged.

 

“It takes me that long to get something where I like it,
while doing other things in life,” the 39-year-old concedes, alluding as well to
the six years it took between his 1998 debut and Homeland. “I tinkered with it, but didn’t really have the time or
focus to devote to fully realizing the album.”

 

Psychiatrists might find fertile turf in Zacharias’
definition of tinkering, since some of the songs emerged from his basement with
over 100 tracks on them. But when former R.E.M. manager Jefferson Holt heard them
and was reminded of classic orchestral pop like John Cale’s 1919 or Procol Harum’s A Salty Dog, he leapt on the Fan Modine
bandwagon and enlisted producer/dBs co-founder Chris Stamey to do the
wheat-from-chaff work.

 

“Chris is really quick at identifying standout
performances,” Zacharias says, “but it was a bit of a surprise for him just how
many different things there were to draw from.”

 

Stamey didn’t just winnow, though. He replaced or added key
elements – lush string and horn sections, guitar heft from the likes of Polvo’s
Ash Bowie and Mitch Easter – that balance Gratitude‘s
delicate melodies with stirring arrangements. The dozen songs embrace that
vintage orchestral majesty as well as Big Star pop, recent Wilco folk rock, and
even Style Council dance rhythms.

 

Just as importantly, though, working with Holt and Stamey recharged
Zacharias’ music-making batteries.

 

“I feel like I have finally found a rhythm for more
consistent output,” he says. “The prospect of not waiting for another six years
to go by before releasing another record is also exciting.”

 

Blurt chatted with Zacharias about the making of Gratitude, what happened in between
records, and what it was like working with veterans and newcomers in one of the
country’s most fecund music regions. (Fan
Modine plays the second annual Hopscotch Festival in Raleigh this week, Thursday Sept. 8; check
the Hopscotch website
for details.
)

 

***

 

 

 

BLURT:
Congratulations on the new record – tell me about the genesis of it after seven
year hiatus, if we can call it that…

GORDON ZACHARIAS: It’s just kind of the way I’ve been doing
things the last three records. It takes me that long to get something where I
like it, while doing other things in life. That might change – I’ve written a
full record that I could go in and track tomorrow. It’s the most natural
timeframe for the type of records I’ve been making, but I’m ready to try
something new.

 

 This one was recorded over how long?

 I started writing it
in 2004 right around when my last record came out, and rehearsed with a band
for maybe a year with the material. We actually recorded the basics and that
sat in my basement for years, and I tinkered with it but didn’t really have the
time or focus to devote to it to fully realizing the album. I came into a
situation where I could focus on finishing the record for the greater part of a
year, last year, when I started working with Chris Stamey, Mitch Easter and
Jefferson Holt.

 

 What changed?

 I decided to, sort of
at all costs and at great risk, devote my life, my time to making music. It was
sort of like jumping off a cliff – I was almost instantly in a situation where
I had time and a decent-enough budget to focus on finishing it.

 

 What roles did Stamey and Holt play to kick it
into another gear, if that’s fair to say?

 Yeah, I’d had this
rough disc of the songs, they weren’t demos because actually a lot of them had
the original drum, bass and piano tracks, I had that floating around for a
while in my small circle, and gave a copy to Jefferson who I met through a
mutual friend. And he was just floored. Obviously that was very exciting for
me, having a lot of respect for him. He was pretty much, ‘let’s finish this,
let’s do this. We’re going to book studio time, we’re going to do this, do
that,’ and I said, ‘Okay, do it.’

 

 Twist my arm, right?

 Yeah, exactly. It was
not easy, though. And this is maybe part of where I’m hopefully heading in the
future, some of the songs had over 100 tracks to them because it was literally
in my basement, so whenever I had spare time I would just go down and lay down
a guitar or xylophone track or something like that. It was a lot to sort
through. Though I mixed my last two records, I was pretty lost sorting
everything out and finding how these tracks should come across and what
approach to take, even down to the drums and whatnot. Tried a couple different
approaches that didn’t work, and then Chris was probably the only person who
could’ve mixed this record. He’s just really quick and able to identify
standout performances and things like that. He was really great to work with.

 

 Did you whittle it down before you gave him
these?

 I had my own very
rough mixes that sort of gave an idea of where I was headed with them. Then of
course we added more tracks! We did all the orchestral stuff at his studio
(Modern Sound) and a little bit at Mitch’s [Easter’s Fidelitorium]. So there
were all these things that weren’t in the original mix that I made, that I
never brought up, then all the stuff layered on top of that. So when he got the
full sessions it was a surprise I think for him just how many different things
there were to draw from. It’s really not a good way to do things is what
happened (laughs).

 

 I can imagine – leave a musician alone to
tinker and…

 But I hadn’t done
that before. I made my first record pretty quickly and mixed it pretty quickly,
albeit it’s definitely a lower-fi thing. I was using an 8-track reel-to-reel,
there wasn’t a lot of wiggle room there. But then I was into the digital realm
by the second record, and that had just tons of tracks, and I really felt like
I had a handle on it when I mixed it and still listen back to it and I think
it’s pretty good. I wanted to do something pretty different this time, and I
think I kind of set my sights very high in creating it, and by the time I had
everything down I was pretty lost. But, again, I’m happy with the job that
Chris did and can’t imagine who else could have done it, he just has the right
personality for it.

 

 So what it is in his personality?

 Type A. (laughs) He’s very complex, just an
incredibly skilled musician and songwriter and very nice person. But once you
get him working, he is just so quick. He’ll listen to 10 seconds of a bass take
or something and throw it away – it’s really what it needed, you know? He
always surprises me. He enjoys it, too. He likes that. Different people have
different proclivities. Remember, he did an album with Mitch in the ‘90s with a
band called Helium, and he edited all the drum tracks, I remember hearing about
that. Back then, people were editing stuff, but a little bit more tape, but he
transferred everything from tape to digital setup and just went beat by beat to
tighten everything up. It sounds great because of it. That’s not what he did
with this, but he did sprinkle a little bit of pixie dust on it.

 

 Did any of the songs change character pretty
significantly?

 They came to life.
That was the thing. I think me giving up control in the mixing stage of this
and even the arrangements to some degree was ultimately very fun. It’s
definitely not the type of record I expected to make, and the surprises are
what I enjoy the most. It’s way better than I could have done on my own because
I did give up quite a bit of control to both Chris and Jefferson.

 

 What was Jefferson’s
role?

 He has a great, great
knowledge of music, more so than a lot of musicians. So he has a very pure
perspective and at times was incredibly helpful just sort of understanding what
the “meta” perspective of everything was. And also put it into maybe a
historical context, and weed out some of the bullshit ideas that I had or Chris
had. So his role was huge. He was on board for a lot of the mixing sessions as
well and went through every song. We had several more songs that we cut. It’s
really, really been helpful.

 

 What do you mean by “historical perspective?”

 Well, the things that
we bonded on early were Procol Harum and John Cale, and those kinds of records
that just sound…they’re just great records. They have a quality to them. They
sound just as fresh when you put it on today as I imagine it did when they came
out. I wouldn’t call them ‘trendy’ records, and I certainly wasn’t setting out
to make a trendy record.

        So I think
that was the historical context: a record that hopefully stands up in 20 years
and is rooted in a classic approach to songwriting and recording, as opposed to
some of the stuff happening right now. Some of that I really enjoy, but some of
it just seems like it’s really just a trend, waves that people are riding. I
could try to emulate it or get involved with it, but I know that that would be
crap – it’s not who I am. (Laughs). People have persuaded me in certain directions, the indie pop or twee kind of
thing, and it’s been a big struggle because I love that kind of stuff, but I
also want to put some rock into stuff. So I might turn away a few listeners because
my sound isn’t so specific, but when you listen to a lot of classic records,
they’re all over the place, and I think that’s what we identified with more.

 

 I read that you’d played with Joe Pernice and
Essex Green and Hercules in the interim – those are some good songwriters. How
did that effect you if at all?

 At the time it was a
pretty close-knit group of people, and we were just kind of riding the same
sort of style. I guess once Hercules came along they actually had the tools to
actually arrange stuff and were really good at it, and it definitely influenced
me, sort of made me realize how easy it was to add that to a recording. The
work with Joe, that was more about him showing me how to make pasta sauce – I
remember playing a little bit of Rhodes piano on something, but he was in North
Hampton, probably still is, which I would go to from time to time to escape New
York. He’s just around. Everybody was enjoying a lot of the same records. There
were a lot of reissues, I remember, Zombies and what-not. I think we were just
all into it. The classic records, exactly.

 

 Tell me about the title, and your lyrics in
general. The images are striking but the narratives seem pretty elliptical…

 I’m kind of in the
same boat with you except I happen to be writing them. I leave myself little
riddles that I can figure out later as well. Not to be cryptic or obtuse, it’s
always a good idea to leave things a little open ended, so there’s enjoyment
from many different perspectives. Sometimes they mean different things on
different days. Even the title has taken on some different meanings.

 

 It’s interesting because if I had a nickel for
every time a musician answered like this, I’d be pretty wealthy. I’m a words
guy, so it interests me, but the questions rarely result in specifics – which
is okay, of course…

 Sometimes lyrics and
titles come from the most inane places, but then they take on a whole other
meaning and I think it’s better to just, instead of trying to nail it down,
it’s more enjoyable to leave it open-ended.

 

 Will you go as far as choosing words or
phrases just for their sound?

 I don’t really sit
down and write things too literally, usually they’re consonants first and turn
into the closest available word later. It’s definitely an evolution, and that’s
sort of what I mean that I figure out what the song is about kind of late in
the game because of the way in which it was written. I’m sure there’s some
literal stuff I’ve written, but I’d have to go through it (laughs).

        I’ll give you
an example. Like the title of the album, and it doesn’t mean this, it came to
me when I had asked [Triangle mainstay producer Brian Paulson] to transfer the
drum tracks from tape to digital file, and when he gave me the reel-to-reel
tape back, the quarter inch or half inch tape comes in a container called a
shipper.

 

 Like a film spool?

 Exactly. Like a
polycarbonate kind of thing. To me, at the time, I was just so thankful to be
moving forward with it that that just came into my head – gratitude to the
shipper. Or the opportunity to make another record, to be able to put something
on tape again.

        And then
obviously, it went on from there to become different – water and oceans ideas,
and became a whole other thing. I’d forgotten that that’s where I’d originally
gotten that idea from. It has the big meaning on some levels, but I’d moved on
from that. But when I remembered that was the time Brian Paulson transferred
the tape and he only charged me $50 for it, I was … grateful.

 

 

[Photo Credit: Michael Traister]

 

 

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