A MORE PERFECT UNION
Hugh Swarts, one fifth of Oakland, California's Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, is having a tough time adjusting to the digital age. In fact, the guitarist/vocalist/percussionist hasn't even purchased his first compact disc player yet.
"I'm kind of atavistic in that way, I guess," he concedes. "I don't really like CDs that much. I prefer vinyl, because the disc is more substantial and the artwork is more substantial. It's just what I grew up with, I guess. I haven't really listened to CDs enough to condemn their sound quality, though. Eventually, I'll buy a CD player. So then it may turn out that after listening to the two, I'll decide that I do prefer analog to digital. But for the time being, I can't really claim that."
The guitarist for one of America's most progressive and offbeat pop units a hopeless Luddite? Who would have guessed? Then again, those familiar with the Fellers' delightfully cerebral creations know that the only thing predictable about Swarts and his colleagues--Mark Davies, Anne Eickelberg, Brian Hageman and Jay Paget--is their almost obsessive unpredictability.
Strangers From the Universe, the quintet's most recent release for the Matador imprint, proudly displays this idiosyncrasy. Recorded last year at San Francisco's Lowdown studios, Strangers veers off in so many bizarre and inventive directions that less experienced listeners may need a trail of breadcrumbs to find their way out of its complex sonic grooves. For a clearer mental picture, think Pavement whooping it up in a sensory-deprivation tank.
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Still, the platter contains more than its fair share of catchy material. The jumpy "My Pal the Tortoise" and the jazzy "The Piston and the Shaft," in particular, have good beats, and you can dance to them. Swarts insists that these friendly qualities are important to the band, even though most folks--particularly music writers--tend to dismiss them. "Journalists usually talk about the weirdness and the difficulty of the band," he points out. "Which dismays me sometimes, because I think they focus on that at the expense of what I think are some of the music's more cohesive elements. I think on every record that we've done, there are a lot of weird, out-there, hard-to-grasp things that people won't like if they're into more traditional song structures. But we've always had things with a more melodic or linear sensibility in there, too."
The combo has had plenty of time to refine this mix; the players first teamed up in 1984, while attending classes at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. After playing Iowa's sparse club circuit for a number of years, Swarts and his bandmates migrated to the Oakland/San Francisco region, home to like-minded no-wave musicians such as the Residents, Tuxedo Moon and Snakefinger. The Fellers were most profoundly affected by the Residents; until recently, they covered the eyeballed ones' "Sinister Exaggerator" as part of their live sets, and they just finished recording a reverential version of "The Electrocutioner" for an upcoming Residents tribute album. Nevertheless, Swarts is hesitant to cite the trio as an out-and-out inspiration. In his words, "We definitely all like the Residents, but I don't know how directly they've influenced us. Obviously, that stuff affects us at some level, so subconsciously it's going to come out one way or another. But there's a lot of other stuff thrown in there, too. I can see where we use some of the same elements, but the context is completely different."
In 1988, shortly after settling in the bay area, the Fellers released their debut, Wormed by Leonard; Tangle, their first full-length, followed a year later. Bristling with the sort of kooky riffs, obscure tape samples and demented lyrics that have helped define the Fellers' subsequent efforts, Tangle immediately caught the attention of Matador founder Gerard Cosloy, who signed the group to a three-album contract.
Lovelyville, the band's second long-player (and first for Matador), hit stores in 1991. To this day, the record remains one of the strongest, most challenging entries in the company's catalogue, in part because of the inclusion of violas, keyboards, mandolins, woodwinds and other musical devices not readily associated with rock. According to Swarts, using a broader musical palette "was an idea that developed over time, really. I think it started in 1988, when Brian started getting into some Cajun music. He decided he wanted to play violin but he couldn't find one, so he bought a viola instead. He also bought a mandolin, because he wanted something he could mess around with in the van. You can't really play a guitar in those cramped quarters. Eventually, we just decided to incorporate them into our music."
Soon, Swarts and Davies were also getting into the act: The former started experimenting with oddly tuned guitars, while the latter took up the banjo. Before long, balloons and an erhu (a two-stringed bow from China) were part of the Fellers' arsenal as well.
All of these instruments were used in making Mother of All Saints, the Fellers' third, and most tumultuous, album. With this offering, the performers pushed their singular sound to extremes, often with mixed results. "Tuning Notes" and "El Cerrito" for example, could easily be mistaken for test signals for the Emergency Broadcasting System. Yet despite its intermittent flaws, Saints still represents some of the band's best work. It also served as a springboard for the group's next two releases: the much-lauded Admonishing the Bishops EP and the aforementioned Strangers. These collections find the Fellers at their poppiest. Strangers' "February" is a prime example: Despite its Mad Hatter-like interludes and dreamy storyline ("93 million miles back to the sun/Close your eyes, it'll go away/Sleep is better"), the tune could hold its own alongside any of XTC's brighter material.
Swarts promises that the Fellers' upcoming album, slated for release on the Communion imprint sometime in early 1996, will be just as impressive, even though he can't quite figure out why at this point. "I don't have a handle on this record just yet," he acknowledges. "Sonically, it's a lot different, because it was recorded in a high-end studio. Also, some of the stuff on the new one is a return to the noisier, louder stuff that we've done on earlier records--although this time around, it's not quite as dissonant. Speaking in general musical terms, the loud passages on this one are more consonant than dissonant."
So does this mean that the Thinking Fellers Union, a band known for breaking all the rules, is beginning to mellow in its old age? Hardly. As Swarts puts it, "Songwriting has never really been a conscious thing with us. Stuff usually just comes from all different directions. The last record was more cohesive, and this one may or may not be quite as cohesive. That remains to be seen. It's just whatever we arrive at. It's all pretty arbitrary, really."
Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, with Secret Square. 9:30 p.m. Saturday, November 11, Club 156, CU-Boulder, $6, 492-7704.
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