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By Tom Murphy
Sometimes we get things off to a slow start," says Todd Baechle, revealing a trace of modesty not usually apparent as he slinks and swaggers, often in makeup, around the stage during a Faint show. "And people are a little bit creaky at first."
Yeah, right. The last time the Faint came to town, a few hundred lives -- not to mention pairs of underwear -- were changed. Surrounded by elaborate arrays of circuitry, giant projection screens and a thousand-headed blob of hipster flesh, the Omaha outfit emitted an hour-long shriek of synthesized angst and broken-glass atmosphere, the sound of pop music decaying and feeding off itself in frantic desperation. In a blur of bangs and skin-tight T's, the five players tore through a set of jagged, electro-etched rock; a host of video phantasms swarmed around them, and the exposed human skin of the audience sublimated straight into steam. As the air grew funky with the reek of overworked groins and eyes stung with sweat, the brute force of a hard-core mosh pit was deconstructed and meticulously rewired into a blinding, digitized dance frenzy.After the concert, kids stumbled out of the Ogden Theatre five pounds lighter and utterly speechless. But the look in their eyes said it all: The Faint just absolutely fucking killed it that night.
The band's new release, Wet From Birth, is as much of a choreographed, calculated, hi-tech spectacle as its live performance. But when Baechle first collaborated with his brother Clark, Joel Petersen and Conor Oberst in 1994, the result was a rough and ragged collective called Norman Bailer. Although rooted in punk and indie rock, the foursome strove to put a markedly uncool spin on its music, forging a style that Baechle describes as both "lo-fi, folky noise" and "lite rock." After various lineup switches (including the amicable firing of Oberst, who would resurface as the leader of Bright Eyes) and a name change to the Faint, the group released its first full-length, 1998's Media. An innocuous collection of indie rock with a Brit-pop flourish, it didn't make much of a dent outside the Omaha area.
Media, however, marked the start of a weird metamorphosis within the band. In their obsession to outwit, second-guess and spit on the prevalent trends of the underground, Baechle and crew threw the world a curveball with its 1999 sophomore effort, Blank-Wave Arcade. A masterpiece of anachronism that bordered on the sublimely absurd, it was a stripped-down and ever-so-slightly sloppy take on the new-wave club music of the previous decade -- an angular aggregate of Yaz's sultry blip-craft, Giorgio Moroder's galvanized disco, Duran Duran's automaton glam and the industrial-strength hooks of Nine Inch Nails' 1989 classic, Pretty Hate Machine. And while a few groups, among them Satisfact and I Am Spoonbender, had already started the '80s revival in earnest, Blank-Wave's raw textures and multi-dimensionality towered over the plastic flatness of the nascent retro fad.
Baechle, though, doesn't see the album's success as a case of cold-blooded trend analysis. "We didn't know anyone else was doing anything like that at the time," he admits. "We grew up listening to pop music in the '80s and punk music in the &'90s, and we were like, 'Here's where we put them together.' We didn't have any idea what we were doing."
Indeed, the Faint didn't fully get a grip on their keyboards until 2001's Danse Macabre. By that time, acts like the Rapture and Radio 4 were starting to get a buzz, the production crew DFA was filling up its calendar, and the first kicks of electro-clash were being felt. But Macabre managed to stand apart; its bleak, murky aura, while still bolted to the dance floor, transcended cliches even as it wallowed in them. That wasn't enough for the vogue-bucking Baechle, however.
"When we started making Danse Macabre, we were like, &'Everybody hates techno right now. Let's do something like that. Let's take our keyboards and learn how to make better sounds with them and try to completely escape from indie rock,'" the front man explains. "But it wasn't as much of a different record as we wished it would have been. As soon as it was out, I said, 'Okay, next time I want to do something that doesn't sound like this at all.'"
Before the Faint set its sights on Wet From Birth, however, the quintet -- now comprising Petersen, the Baechles, keyboardist Jacob Thiele and guitarist Dapose -- surrendered Macabre to a legion of studio auteurs. The product was 2003's matter-of-factly titled Danse Macabre Remixes. Unfortunately, some of the remixers seemed to have put as much effort into their interpretations as the band did into the disc's title. While sporting electronica heavyweights like Paul Oakenfold, Photek and Junior Sanchez, the project felt more like filler than a fully realized album -- especially considering the fact that it had been two years since the release of the original.
And what a two years it was. The Faint ended up taking a hiatus from writing to tour North America and Europe extensively in support of Macabre. "In Europe, we still get to do warehouse shows," Baechle says. "It's always a challenge when you end up playing rooms that are quite a bit smaller than usual. A lot of times the ceilings aren't high enough to fit even one of our screens, and we'll have to tape them up around us and rig up the projectors and speakers and just go for it. But we always find a way to make it into a show."
By the time the band returned to the States, however, dance-punk replaced garage rock as the newest industry-hyped pseudo-genre. But even that became just another hurdle for Baechle and company to overcome.
"For a little while after we got back from the tour, we weren't even all living in the same city," Baechle notes. "We tried to write anyway, and it just didn't work. But we knew that we didn't want to feel like one of a bunch of bands all doing the same thing. When something becomes popular, it's not interesting to us anymore. You're never going to completely escape the trends of pop culture; we're realistic about that. But we at least had to make an attempt to try to come up with something that sounded different."
Judged on that criterion, Wet From Birth is both a failure and a triumph. While way more upbeat than Macabre and richly adorned with strings, horns, twangy guitar solos and even hints of reggae, it's hardly a huge departure from the band's patented synth-core. But the delivery is stunning; as Baechle unloads his typically astute communiqués on sex, television and the abuses of political and romantic power, the rest of the group meshes with a mechanistic exactness that transfers energy through each circuit and into the Faint's massive, insidiously danceable beats.
"I think that's an ongoing interest we have," Baechle says of his band's knack for conniption-level rhythms. "That's just kind of the way that we like to hear music -- all the parts lock up together, which accentuates the beat. I think we're going to continue that, though in the future we might come up with some more slow stuff or acoustic stuff or major-key stuff. We have lots of songs to dance to already.
"We're trying not to get stuck in the idea," he adds, "of people only liking our band for one thing."
Not that the Faint seems to resent its fanatically hustle-bound following. But at the band's berserk, nearly hysterical concerts, the motion can sometimes run a little too high. As Baechle points out, "Every once in a while, there's one person in the crowd enjoying himself so much that he's just fucking up other people's moods around him. But it's not like a Fugazi show, where it's a problem all the time and we have to stop the music."
Stop the music? For an outfit as restless and kinetic as the Faint, that's just not an option.