The members of Fingers of the Sun love to push themselves.
"The fun is in the challenge of utilizing everybody's instrument without making it excessive," says Suzi Allegra, one half of the songwriting team for the band. "It takes thinking more like an orchestrator," agrees Nathan Brasil, the other half. "I have a sound in my head, and my whole goal in life is to hear it. But when a song only needs one guitar, what do you do? You have to double up stuff and get new and different sounds."
To spend even the smallest amount of time with Brasil is to know how passionate — at times unnaturally obsessed — he is with getting this sound out of his head. And yet he and Allegra understand that messing with that sound, complicating the arrangement with several instruments and other creative minds, is a challenge that improves their songwriting skills.
Fingers of the Sun
This is nothing new. Jack White has spoken about challenging himself by placing his piano just a little too far away on stage, and Bob Dylan used to rehearse songs with his band one way, then announce a completely different time signature minutes before showtime.
As the songwriters for the six-piece band, Allegra and Brasil have developed an amazingly effective method for cranking out infectious, highly memorable pop songs. Fingers is often described as a throwback, '60s-styled group, and had Allegra and Brasil actually lived during that decade, they would have had an in-demand career as songwriters. It seems a shame that these two didn't live in the era before songwriter and performer became synonymous; they could have cranked out hits the way Carole King did for Aretha Franklin, or Kris Kristofferson for Johnny Cash and Janis Joplin.
That's not to say that Brasil and Allegra are at a loss with Fingers of the Sun. The challenges they face in manipulating their songs to fit a six-piece band are often offset by the benefits of pulling from such a pool of talent. Singer/percussionist Meghan Wilson adds a warm layer of harmony and all-smiles energy to live performances; Jamie Bryant's steadying, Al Kooper-style keyboard work provides an expansive foundation for the songs, affording lead guitarist Marcus "The Snail" Renninger the opportunity to decorate each song with some sparkly, glam-rock-inspired licks. "I like being the window dressing," he says.
Drummer Fez Garcia faces his own set of challenges in keeping the beat. "It's kind of ironic, but it's actually harder for me to play more reserved and straightforward," he says, referring to the band's more poptastic sound. "I come from bands where I just pound the shit out of [the drums], really loud, really fast. I hate to use the term 'hold back,' because it's not like I'm holding back creatively, because this opens up new options."
"It's the same for me with guitar playing," says Brasil. "Because if I were doing lots of crazy shit, I'd be cutting into Marcus's and Jamie's space."
And though Brasil is very careful not to cut into his bandmates' musical space, he does cut in verbally. The others seem ill at ease trying to explain their musical approach with words (seemingly wishing they could just talk through their instruments), but Brasil always has a response to or a comment for any inquiry thrown his way. It's obvious that he spends a large portion of his time not only playing and listening to music, but also thinking about music. "He's a little more intellectual about it," Allegra concedes, "whereas I'm a little more emotional. But I think it works together a lot of the time."
The two were working together well before Fingers of the Sun formed, back in the spring of 2010. Playing first in Games for May, then later in the Pseudo Dates, team Brasil-Allegra has maintained a fruitful musical partnership spanning five years and three bands.
In February 2011, Fingers of the Sun documented its catalogue of intently crafted songs on a self-titled LP. Widely considered one of the best releases of the year, Fingers of the Sun was the kind of infectious, headphone-worthy masterpiece that only got better with each listen. From the Hollies-style sunshine melodies of "Cup of Tea" to the adorkable soul ballad "Dinner and a Movie," the album was without a single bit of filler, a truly inspired yet mathematically calculated effort.
But while critics and wide-eyed fans eagerly soaked up the album, there were those who saw Fingers' music as cheap and derivative. Citing the undeniable influence of '60s radio pop in songs like "The Leaves Were So Green" and "Goodbye Summer," and even the post-postmodern influence of '60s revivalist bands like Brian Jonestown Massacre in the song "Cashmere Paisley Polyester," the band was dismissed by some as simply not worth paying attention to.
"I think for us to bitch about being called derivative or whatever is dumb," Brasil says, referring to earlier days when he would bristle at such criticism. "The way I look at it is, I write and make the music that I fuckin' want to hear. And if that's derivative, then so be it. I mean, every band is derivative; it's just a matter of whether your derivativeness is in style at the moment."
"Because of the wide variety we have from song to song, it's hard to say that they're derivative of just one thing," says Allegra. Garcia agrees, noting that it's only after a drum track is laid down that he realizes the debt the song owes to history. "But that's just the nature of influence and inspiration."
Allegra's defense of eclectic inspiration holds water when you consider the expanse of the band's influences. While Brasil is obviously a fan of the Summer of Love, he also cites a variety of other interests, from jazz musicians like Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington to K Records bands like Beat Happening. You can hear the indie rock of Beach House or Rilo Kiley in Jamie Bryant's keyboard, and many of Allegra's contributions veer closer to late-'80s shoegaze than to psychedelic pop. And guitarist Renninger embraces the decade in rock that immediately followed the hippies.
"The majority of all the music I listen to comes from the '70s," notes Renninger, who landed the gig in Fingers after playing in a David Bowie cover band with Brasil — performing as the cracked actor himself. "You've got Black Sabbath, Iggy Pop, Bowie, Funkadelic, and then punk came around with Richard Hell and Gang of Four. I'm more interested in artsy expressions of the guitar — more interesting than technical."
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Fingers of the Sun has continued to find inspiration through restriction with its latest release, Sleepy EP. A collection of five songs all thematically and sonically rooted in the subject of sleep, the record contains the same strength and textural beauty as the band's previous release — though with a considerable absence of the hooks and energy that made Fingers such a captivating live act. "We wanted to break out of trying to play up-tempo, fast, happy songs to get people dancing and paying attention to you," Brasil explains.
Still, there's a strong psychedelic element throughout the songs, particularly the disorienting, 27-minute space jam "Careful With Those Sleeping Pills, Percy," a song that will go a long way toward gaining the band credibility with the noise enthusiasts who dismissed Fingers as just another overly cutesy, derivative indie-rock band.
Not that the band minds being called derivative.