Over the past four years, the Faint has been quietly developing a new-wave sound that harks back to the golden era of '80s pop, all analog synthesizers, danceable beats and snotty lyrics. Some who've followed the band's progression -- from an unknown Omaha act to an indie phenomenon currently selling out shows across the country and enjoying the courtship of several major labels -- have repeatedly pegged it a retro act attempting to emulate the mock-'80s sound that bands like the Rentals semi-successfully co-opted a few years ago. If that was indeed what the Faint was up to, it would be hard to find fault with it: American commercial radio is flooded with nostalgia for the '80s. How natural, then, that a young band should look back, rather than forward, for inspiration -- not to mention audience share. As marketing strategies go, it'd be a brilliant move.
The only thing is, the members of the Faint are neither revivalists nor ironists. For one thing, the band's members -- who hover around a median age of 23 -- grew up deluged by the sounds of Nirvana and Soundgarden, not Depeche Mode and Devo. To hear the Faint's players tell it, their music is a response to the bloated alternative-rock "explosion" that dominated airwaves, and brainwaves, during their teenage years in the mid-'90s. So while its sound does draw upon the same tension and raw emotion that informed the Reagan-era Cold War climate and the pop acts that inspired, the Faint remains a thing of the present, perhaps even the future.
"We're not the kind of people who would consciously try to emulate music we heard growing up," says bassist and founding member Joel Petersen. "I actually grew up listening to a lot of obscure hardcore stuff, like Agent Orange."
No Doubt, with the Faint
Fillmore Auditorium, 1510 Clarkson Street
8 p.m., Wednesday, April 3
While the Faint's strength lies in crafting a synth-heavy, and often happy, form of melodic pop, guitars have always been a big part of its music. Traces of punk, along with the energy of hardcore and the restraint of indie rock, are evident as well. In fact, full-fledged keyboard sound was a late addition. In 1994, current members Todd Baechle (vocals, synth), Clark Baechle (drums) and Petersen (bass) formed under the name Norman Bailer, a lo-fi pop band that released cassette tapes and played in coffee shops around Omaha. At the time, the Nebraska capital was just coming into its own as an unlikely hub of smart underground music, an epicenter of the indie-pop and math-rock/emo stylings that surfaced in groups like Cursive. Fed up with what they saw as the conformity of the city's scene, the players made a conscious choice to sound different from other area outfits. They released the light-as-air lo-fi single "Light Rock" as a sort of jab at Omaha artists who were trying a little too hard to sound hard.
In 1998, the band rechristened itself the Faint and released a debut full-length, Media, on LBJ Records. After months of touring in support of the album, Jacob Thiele was enlisted as a full-time keyboardist, rounding out a lineup that also includes guitarist Mike Dappen. The group's music moved further away from conventional indie songwriting and evolved into a darker form of synth pop. Blank-Wave Arcade, released in 1999 on Omaha's Saddle Creek Records, proved to be its breakthrough record, one that drips with buzzing, punk-rock, basement-party analog-synth vibes. Songs like "Worked Up So Sexual" gained the Faint an almost cult-like status in certain circles with their angular guitar lines, infectious synth-driven choruses and pulsing rhythms -- not to mention the steamy undertones penned by Todd Baechle, the band's primary lyricist.
"That record really captured the intensity of our live shows," says Petersen. "We weren't really going for a polished sound. That came later."
Indeed, Danse Macabre, the Faint's late 2001 release, sports dance-club-quality production.
"Surprisingly," continues Petersen, "most people agree with us that it's a better record."
From the opening creep of analog bass lines and nervous guitars, Danse Macabre crackles with melodic intensity only suggested on the Faint's earlier recordings. It's as if the band has found the formula for meshing the urgency of punk with the precision of technology. Lyrically, the album marks a bleaker, more thoughtful direction. Gone are Blank-Wave Arcade's sexual themes; in their place are straightforward musings on death, betrayal, and cultural and emotional paralysis. A good example of Baechle's new lyrical mode is found in the verses of the CD's opener, "Agenda Suicide": "The element of progress/ that you mention is gone/It devolved to something you were headed toward/As I lay to die the things I think/Did I waste my time/I think I did/All we want are just pretty little homes/Our work makes pretty little homes." Not exactly ready for TRL, but that's the way the Faint likes it.
"People are always trying to put their finger on our sound, like, 'Oh, you guys are an industrial band trying to make synth-pop' or whatever," Petersen says. "But all we're trying to do is make music that is challenging and melodic at the same time. We're always trying to evolve musically."
The Faint's desire for growth and change is most evident during its live shows: carefully staged arena-rock-style spectacles replete with the requisite dazzling lighting effects, matching outfits and even regular freeze-dried wafts from the oft-derided smoke machine. Some might find the live show over the top or tongue in cheek, but lead vocalist Baechle says the Faint simply aims to give fans their ten dollars' worth.
"We play dancey music because we want to have more fun live," Baechle says. "The lights are part of that, but it's not like we choreograph dance moves. It's not a coincidence that we're all wearing black, but that's about the only thing we do plan out. We just want people to dance. When we book our tours, we try not to play bars, because people just aren't as interested when there's alcohol to be had."
"A lot of people don't know what to think when they first see us live," Petersen adds. "But usually, by the end of the show, there's a good portion of the crowd getting down with us."
The record industry is interested in getting down with the Faint as well. Over the past couple of years, representatives of three major labels have flown to Omaha in an attempt to lure the lads to their respective camps. While the bandmembers agree to talk to anyone and entertain all offers, they're in no hurry to leave Omaha-based Saddle Creek records, the label best known for breaking fellow Nebraska-based acts such as Cursive and Bright Eyes. The Faint actually helps run the democratically spirited label; considering that the cut they receive from each album sale is larger at the indie level than it would be if they were aligned with a major, the arrangement works to both the label's and the band's advantage. Danse Macabre has moved a respectable 17,000 units and continues to sell well weekly, making it the highest-selling Saddle Creek album so far.
"Generally," Petersen says, "in the major decision-making processes, there are eleven people who vote and have discussions about the label as a collective. As far as the day-to-day business operations go, there are three people who do that full-time at Saddle Creek. The success of the label has a lot to do with the fact that it all started as a strong circle of friends."
That success has prompted some to speculate that Omaha, a smallish Midwestern city most often associated with an erratic climate, a devoted football fan base and corn harvesting, might step up to become the next -- dare we say it? -- Seattle. In actuality, the artistic happenings in Omaha more closely resemble the creative outburst that emanated from Olympia, Washington, in the mid-'90s, when a tightly knit group of similarly minded artists made low-end rumblings within the underground while avoiding the hype that eventually deflated the Emerald City's music scene.
"I think Omaha is pretty much like most cities," Petersen says. "There's not that much going on, but there is a lot of creativity coming out of Omaha these days."
If its current opening gig for No Doubt hints at what's to come, the Faint may eventually have more in common with 311, Omaha's most commercially successful outfit, than with Bright Eyes and other artists who remain outside the mainstream.
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"At first I was like, 'No Doubt?'" says Petersen. "But then I started to wonder what they were up to." Out of the blue, he says, the million-selling band asked the Faint to open up for nearly all of the shows on its spring tour of the U.S., which stops in more than thirty cities. The pairing is not all that surprising, really. As No Doubt's latest CD, Rock Steady, demonstrates, the two bands share an obsession with early-'80s music, even if their respective strains of that style vary considerably.
"Their new record sounds amazing," Petersen says, "and personally, I'm excited about [opening for them]." When asked if the move might alienate some of their diehard indie fans, Petersen shrugs off the "sellout" suggestion. "It's something we've thought through as a band a lot. It may not necessarily help us, but I think it will in the long run. Basically, we were just like, 'Well, let's try it and find out.'"
No doubt, the Faint's current outing will bring the band in contact with two camps: those who consider it a throwback outfit mining the melodic, modernist terrain first popularized by the Cure and other black-outfitted acts of the '80s, and those too young to know Robert Smith from Bela Lugosi. No matter. The band's focused, intense music is at once escapist and real, forcing listeners to draw their own conclusions about what it means or what era it belongs to. Here's to future days.