TOPPLING THE STATUES Tu Fawning

On
their sophomore platter the Portland musicians chart pure expression – and also find the ultimate liberation. A west
coast tour
begins this week.

 

 

BY JOHN SCHACHT

 

The brainchild of Portland musicians Joe Haege and Corrina
Repp, Tu Fawning arrested the attention of a lot of listeners with a debut
praised for its romantic darkness as much as its musicality. The tarantellas
and tangos that comprised 2010’s Hearts
On Hold
– “haunted parlor songs,” was a reviewer-phrase reiterated by many
— were pulled off with the same lived-in vitality as those of progenitors like
Cave and Waits, names that also appeared with regularity in reviews.

 

It was an impressive debut, one whose promise seemed already
fulfilled largely due to the chops the four veteran multi-instrumentalists
compiled in their previous bands. But heard now through the filter of the
band’s stunningly singular follow-up, A
Monument
(City Slang), it’s clear the debut and its sonic footholds were
merely a stepping stone to the band’s own sound.

 

By their own admission, Tu Fawning’s members were only feeling
their way through the dark of semi-familiarity on the debut. Haege and Repp began collaborating on Repp’s last solo
record, The Absent and the Distant,
around 2007. Liza Reitz joined them on tour for that record, playing shows all
over Europe. Toussaint Perrault solicited both
Reitz and Repp’s help on his own solo album around the same time, while
contributing horn parts to Haege’s band, 31Knots. Once Haege and Repp began
writing songs as Tu Fawning, their musical fates all intertwined.

 

But it wasn’t until after
touring for Hearts On Hold, and
beginning work on A Monument, that Tu
Fawning found its voice. And what a voice – driven by lusty rhythms and
punctuating percussion so dynamic and musical it creates its own textures to add
atop those generated by shoegaze reverb, vintage synths, horns and strings and
other exotic instruments, the songs sound modern and yet elemental, engaging
but also mysterious like the hidden-from-view statuary on the cover art. Throw
in Repp’s gorgeous vocals narrating themes about emotional honesty and the
legacy of one’s true self, and you have one of 2012’s most intriguing listens
so far.

 

BLURT chatted with Haege,
one of the record’s chief architects, while the band toured Europe. (Tour itinerary here.)

 

 

 

BLURT: Congrats on the new record — you guys are in Europe right?

HAEGE: We are. We’re in Berlin right now.

 

How do you guys go down in a place like Berlin? It would seem custom-built for Tu
Fawning’s darker music…

In a lot of ways, it is. We
do really well here, actually. Also, our label (City Slang) is from here, so
that doesn’t hurt either.

 

Do you think it also has something to do with the similar
climates the music is made in? Not exactly the same, but Northern and nippy.

Yeah. I think it’s also
something to do with the sensibility, the lifestyle as well, almost more than
climate – but climate and lifestyle tend to cross over sometimes.

 

In the press I’ve read you guys have talked about coming
at this record from a different approach this time, a more cohesive, trusting
one – how did it manifest in the studio?

Well, the biggest
difference for us was we had a little bit more of an idea about what the hell we
wanted to sound like. That was a huge achievement. The last record we didn’t have
as much of a focus on that, mainly because we wanted to try and be very
spontaneous with it. And I think we succeeded with that, and made something
that led us on the path of what we were trying create, as far as a sound. And
then, by the time Hearts on Hold was
done and we had time to look at it as a whole, we realized, especially after
doing some touring, where our strengths lie.

        In a lot of ways, it just really changed
from there, where we got more and more aware of what those strengths were and
we pushed our own boundaries a little bit and realized that – I don’t know,
it’s a hard thing to put into words, just the process of realizing what you
become when you are different people in a room, and then even within that, the
different things that we would bring to each other. For me, coming from the
other bands I’d been in, mainly 31Knots, playing with different people that are
maybe focused more on melody as opposed to musicianship and trickery, it really
was a whole new experience for us.

 

I can imagine – it’s certainly a different sound than
31Knots. Do you think that unfamiliarity on the first record led you guys to
fallback positions that you all were comfortable with? The dark, ‘haunted
parlor songs’ they talked about?

We love dark music, and we
love major key, kind of soft, warming music, too. Like anything, though, it’s
like, once you’ve done it – ‘okay, we did that, let’s try something else.’ But
at the same time we just kind of found what it is we were doing, so we didn’t
really want to do some abrupt
about-face. We wanted to challenge ourselves by refining, as opposed to re-inventing before we even knew who we were.

 

Right. That’d be a lot stranger if you’d come out with an
LP of polkas or something….

Yeah, or speed metal or
something.

 

You did most of it at Type Foundry in Portland, right?

Actually, we did about half
there and half at Tiny Telephone (studio) in San Francisco with Jay Pellicci, the drummer
of 31Knots, he’s an engineer there. Then Type Foundry in Portland and recorded with Adam Selzer. Then
we did the final overdubs with Justin Harris from Menomena, up at his house. One
of the big things for us was that every step of the way we worked with people
we’re friends with. That really made a huge difference. There was no one
involved in the making of the record that we didn’t know. I personally had
worked with all of them in some creative capacity before — except for getting the record mastered; I’d never worked
with Toby Weinberg before — so that was really comforting, as cheesy as that
sounds. It just felt like we were making another record, in a spiritually
logical way. Corrina had recorded her solo albums almost all entirely with
Adam, and then Corrina and I had recorded there, and I’d recorded there with
different bands of mine, 31Knots being one of them, and then we did a tour with
one of his bands once, too. So, yeah, because of the scene in Portland and the studio we became just super
comfortable with him.

 

Let’s talk about this idea of monuments – how does this
fit in throughout the record?

It was mainly Corrina’s
first impression and lyrical idea for the record. She and I bounce a lot of
ideas off of one another for lyrics throughout the process of working on an
album. And she was just really struck by that image, that visual. So when she
explained it to me, it resonated pretty well. For me, it took on a meaning of a
million different things. She and I have been playing music together and in separate
projects for a long time, and it’s been something that we feel really attached
to – this notion of your body of work is kind of a monument in a sense, and
your dignity and your grace as a person is a monument, and really wanting to
stand behind that. With that even being the main meaning, there’s a million
other very vague and ambiguous allusions to it – and she’s got her own personal
meaning of it as well.

 

I notice in some of the songs there’s a lot of tearing
down going on – “Bloodstains” and “Build a Great Cliff,” it’s almost like a
refrain in those. In the latter I even thought of Saddam’s statue coming down…

(Laughs) I wish I could say we were that political, but…

 

Well, it doesn’t have to be him, but an idea about the
impermanence of worldly monuments…

Oh, yeah. There’s something
with monuments, too – they can be a forced way for people to be forced to
remember something, whether they want to or not. That can taint your
prospective on what’s important just because it has a monument.

 

So the record is more personal, then, more about your own
personal monuments…

That’s a huge part of it.
Wanting it to be the life that you lived, and the wounds you get along the way
that you lick and keep going. That’s kind of your monument in a way – like a
bloodstain can be a monument, the blood that you spilled. But also, yeah, the
flipside – the irony of spilling blood that in theory is around for a long
time. There’s just this element that we really wanted, to capture humanity. It’s because, yes, we love fashion,
we love aesthetics in general, and it’s easy to get lost in that world – but
for all of us that stuff is merely an artistic little playground, and at the
end of the day if you’re not conscious of who you are as a person and how you
carry yourself in this world, and just being aware of others in this world,
you’re kind of doomed. That’s literally what we’re doing, when we try to evoke
this darkness in our music — it’s more so talking about that spiritual void
when people aren’t in touch with themselves, or they’re doing great harm to
others out of being so out-of-touch with themselves.

 

So can we see dark music being a way of navigating those
dark areas?

Completely. Whenever
Corrina gets asked something in that arena, that’s the first thing out of her
mouth: Playing the dark music, and engaging in it, is exactly what keeps her
light and kind of bright in life. All of us, we’ve had our own demons in life,
but we’re fairly lighthearted in our day-in, day-out life. The music itself is
a way to exorcise the build-up that can happen in someone.

 

When you’re in the process of writing these songs, does
it change anything knowing that there’s this great voice that’s going to sing
them?

Oh, god, yes. That was the
main reason that I have to say I kind of pushed her into starting another band
with me. I really, really love writing and composing music and just having this
voice around that was amazing — yeah, it was a huge payoff. And for me, a lot
of the ideas I had with 31Knots were just hard to pull off because I wanted to
have this voice that was near-angelic. I really pushed her to explore that
quality of her voice a lot, and it’s something that I’m really thankful to work
with.

 

Tell us about the striking cover art – the wrapped up
statuary, for instance?

There are a lot of things
going on with that. It’s a monument, but it’s vague as to what it is. And we
liked the heavy-handed notion of the album cover, having ourselves on there and
this pretty obvious lyrical metaphor represented on the cover – we just thought,
‘fuck it, there’s something really timeless about that.’ That played into this
whole overall aesthetic thing we love about what we’re trying to do, which is:
We really are obsessed and love music from every genre and time-period we can
think of. So we try to cram it all in, yet do so with this weird refined angle
to it. Once I saw the image that was shot, I really felt we’d done this lost,
late-60s album cover that I really adore.

 

Because the music is different this time, what are some
of the things you’ve heard this time around in your circles? This one is harder
to put a finger on, that’s for sure…

I can’t say we have heard
any one thing – some of the songs we hear sound like ‘swampy blues,’ a little
bit of girl group vocals. But beyond that we haven’t really gotten anything. And
of course in the U.S.
that can be the curse of everything; they can’t put it in a box, so most people
can’t get into it. But we haven’t really heard a specific sound that we’re
doing, and I think in a lot of ways that’s what people, if they do like it,
that’s what they like about it – it covers so much ground. To me, that’s kind
of the last frontier to music-making. The great thing about it is that it’s
frontier that can go on forever. Now we’re in this phase of just these combinations
of so many different aesthetics and styles that it’s all in the artistry of how
you put it together. I realize that some people may not like what they view as
bastardizing of styles, but for me I really love stitching it together in this
way where it’s really hard to see one particular fabric stand out. When you go
to a museum and you see a certain painting, and it doesn’t really have any one
element that really makes it great, but when you step back and look at it all,
just the way it gels and comes together – that’s kind of a driving force for
us.

 

And these days, it’s almost like the museum itself, or
the whole cumulative collection, is the yardstick…

That’s true. It’s kind of
like having a romantic-era painting and an impressionistic post-modern painting
all crammed into one.

 

When you guys are just hanging out and listening to
music, is it like four very different musical viewpoints, or is there also some
overlap?

There’s a healthy amount of
overlap – probably more than in some bands, probably less than others. But for
the most part we all have such broad tastes that we have a lot of grey area
that we can dip into and find some area of common interest. The biggest thing
I’ve learned playing in bands, and with this one in particular, is that sometimes
it just takes a while to find that way in which you’re going to combine a
couple of ideas that make sense or that appeals to everyone’s aesthetic – and
that’s difficult. That was really hard in the beginning, and I think it’s a lot
harder for really young bands, too. They’re just like, ‘ah, that sucks, that’s
dumb.’ Maybe sometimes it’s just not gotten right away. It’s something that
takes patience sometimes and you have to just have an idea, then deconstruct
it, and then put it back together. Or record a jam at a practice and just sit
on it for five months and then take this completely unrelated idea and try and
to plug it in and see if it gets to that goal.

 

How long was the recording of this record in light of
that, then?

Well, technically, three
weeks – but in a lot of ways it was a lot longer. I pretty much started working
on sample ideas as soon as we were done with the last record.  In fact, some of them from the last record
didn’t make it on there, so I worked on them for this record. I’m basically
always cataloging ideas and riffs and parts. I’ll hear Corrina play a guitar
part, I’ll record part of it and then hold onto that idea and slowly work on it
and then when I feel like it’s ready I’ll bring it to the others. In fact, it
was kind of the 11th hour this time around that Toussaint brought a
couple ideas to the table and we were, ‘god, these are great – let’s rearrange
these songs and do ‘em this way.’

 

Which ones?

“Anchor” was one that we
really just had the end drum-beat and the melody for the “to complete my place”
part, and that was pretty much all we had. It sounded good, but then he came in
with this distorted conga recording and this synth sound, he recorded it on his
four-track,  and it just brought in these
aesthetics that we really wanted, so that was exciting. And then “To Break
Into” was another one. He had this like three-year-old drum-machine thing he
recorded on another four-track, but didn’t have that four-track anymore, so he
played it on a new one and it was a slower speed, so it came out really dirty
and slow. Then he had an acoustic guitar over it, and I just fell in love with
it so I sat with it by myself for probably six months, and just worked on this
singing idea and the lyrics.

 

It seems like you four could literally go anywhere next.
Is that part of the excitement for you guys?

Oh, completely. As dorky as
this sounds, there’s a lot to it in that we want to wave the flag of, ‘yeah,
we’re older, and we’re playing in a band, and it’s fun as hell because we know
how to avert some of the pitfalls of writing with bands when you’re younger.’
Yeah, it’s a lot of fun. And our taste in music has grown so much – it’s not
like we just got out of punk rock and discovered country music. Toussaint
collects dancehall and reggae 45s, and Corrina’s been listening to old time
music from the 20s for 15 years, and I’m kind of a classical nerd – yeah, it’s
a whole different pile of things that we get to draw from. And there’s never a
dumb idea, we’ll try anything. Sometimes it doesn’t capture
any magic, but we don’t have a scene or credo, ‘well, it’s gotta sound like
this.’ No, you just have to find your own voice in it – that’s more important.

 

It sounds limitless, and that sounds exciting.

Yeah, but that could be
dangerous too.

 

So maybe we will hear that speed metal record from you
guys?

Polka speed
metal…

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