The Faint was one of the main bands among the small wave of underground artists that emerged out of the unlikely environs of Omaha, Nebraska, a wave that included noteworthy acts such as Cursive, Bright Eyes and Azure Ray, all on the Saddle Creek imprint. The Faint was one of the flagship bands on that label, especially after the release of Blank Wave Arcade, an album that pretty much ushered in an era of synth driven, post-punk dance music.
Danse Macabre, the group's follow-up release in 2001, connected with an even broader audience with its brooding yet electrifying sound and insistent rhythms. We recently caught up with one of the band's founders, frontman Todd Fink, who spoke with us about the band's early days, the switch from guitar to synth-driven music and the life realization that he had which served as the subject matter of the album's lyrics and its title.
Westword: What got you into skateboarding?
Todd Fink: I think I always knew how to skateboard -- or as long as I can remember. I think that whole pop culture of skateboarding hit around 1985. Back to the Future got in on that with ["skitching"]. The ten by thirty boards with the really bright graphics and all that stuff -- I think that sort of kick started me into doing it all the time.
Were there skate parks around when you got into it?
No. Not really. There were skate parks a few years later.
Was music part of the culture of skateboarding for you as well?
Yeah. Now I see skaters always wearing headphones. For us, you'd just bring a boom box, and someone would bring some tapes. A lot of punk, not pop-punk, but old skate punk stuff and even metal and rap. We had friends that were into each kind of thing, so we kind of kept up with what was happening and all that. I liked Bad Religion, Operation Ivy, Beastie Boys, thrash, a lot of rap music, too. We kept up with that stuff at the time. I lost track of it years ago, but we were there on release days, and we had friends that were addicted [to that].
Obviously you've been interested in music your whole life, but what kind of music were you and your friends that formed the Faint with most interested in at that time?
Sonic Youth, Pavement, Archers of Loaf. I guess we started playing together in '94, late '94. At the time, we were sort of losing interest in the things we even liked, but had found a local music scene here. It wasn't happening, really, but there was a band called Slow Down Virginia that kind of changed the way that I looked at what you could do by being in a band -- how personalized you could be, how expressive you could be or something.
I saw them at the Cog Factory, a hole in the wall warehouse space that was an underground music venue. No real P.A. so much, but they had shows all the time. I think they ended up putting Omaha on the map, as far as touring bands and bands that booked themselves and all of that stuff.
The most known bands from Omaha might be Mannheim Steamroller or 311. But those were kind of the only ones. I guess there were others like Zager and Evans who had that hit in the late '60s, "In the Year 2525." There were some cool punk bands, but a lot of it didn't make waves outside of town much.
Other than the Cog Factory, what kind of local music climate existed in the early days of the Faint in terms of places to play, other bands you could play with, labels and press?
It was kind of folky, indie-ish, a lot of it, around the town at the time. Our first show was at a coffee shop called Kilgore's. Then it was called Blue Barn. It's actually still that. I only live a block away. I think we played with Simon Joyner, who's kind of a local folk songwriter classic in town. The room was about as big as a living room. I think we sat down and played. It wasn't exactly folk music; it had noise.
I think Conor [Oberst] from Bright Eyes was in the band and just played pedals. I don't even know if he had an instrument. He had a megaphone and some pedals. No, he might have played some guitar but it was just all racket. It was sort of in a folky context, lo-fi, I guess.
How did you meet Conor?
One of the first times I remember hanging out with him was going to see that Slow Down Virginia show that I was talking about. We had a friend in common. It was kind of weird for us to hang out with this kid because he was like thirteen years old or something, and we were like twenty. I don't know. He was really young, and he looked really young, but he was super cool, and he was a great songwriter. He had several records, or tapes, out by the time I met him. So it was, "Alright, this is our little friend."
When you toured here for Danse Macabre eleven years ago at Tulagi's in Boulder, Cindy Wonderful of Rainbow Sugar described you guys as something like a "new wave/heavy metal band." Would you say it's fair to comment that Blank Wave Arcade was mostly written with synths and keyboards?
Yeah, it was. We still used guitars probably because we didn't have enough keyboards to play together. But I think the guitar really added something to that record still. I'm glad it wasn't all keyboards by that point. Though I guess we've never gone all keyboards. That was the big switch. That was the time we thought if we move just to keyboards we're bound find something different and exciting. Whereas if we continued playing guitars, it's just gonna be just like it has been -- just typical.
Was there anything else that inspired that change in direction after or even before the release of Media?
I think that up until then, we'd been trying to figure out what it was we were after; what we had to contribute to the world. We tried a bunch of different kinds of things, but it didn't feel right until all of a sudden, it did feel right. That, all of a sudden, was related directly to us getting another keyboard.
For Danse Macabre, you brought in Dapose (Michael Dappen), who was in the death metal band LEAD. Why did you want to bring in guitar more prominently with that record, and what about his style of playing did you think was suited to what you wanted to do on that album?
It wasn't even that well thought out. We had a friend, kind of a new friend, and he was hanging around the house with us when we were practicing. We knew he was good at guitar, but he was also a pretty good visual artist. We had kind of invited him to participate in the band on the visual side. We thought it would be nice to have more time to do the music and not spend as much time on the videos or the artwork and have that cohesive thing.
But he ended up being around while we were making Danse Macabre, and he added stuff to it, and we started playing together, and he became the guitarist. Eventually he ended up doing lots more artwork, too. Now he does most of the video stuff and finalizes all of the artwork. I collaborate with him on most of the artwork, but he is the one that makes it all look good.
In the liner notes to the new, deluxe edition of Danse Macabre, what inspired your observation of people in essentially dead end, joyless, unrewarding jobs doing the dance of the dead? It sounds like maybe you had direct experience with that?
I think I was at a point in my life, and I don't want to speak for the other guys, where we had found what it was we were trying to do with our music when we made Blank Wave Arcade. We had toured and had had an amazing time doing that, and I just wanted to make more music and keep doing that. But I had a job -- not a hard job, not a band kind of job -- a record store job. But it was something that was on my mind: If I'm going there, I can't be making the music that I want to make.
I guess I just decided that maybe it would be better not to spend my day doing anything other than music and art. I don't need money. I don't really require much. I realized time is a valuable thing. I'd just been thinking about it a bunch and how in some people's circumstance that when they reach the end of their lives they think, "Shit, I thought I was just supposed to do this. It turns out I didn't have to. I could have been doing other stuff. I never did what I wanted to do with my life. I never found the thing I was after."
I just don't want to have it be like that. I want to at least give it a shot, whatever I'm interested in. I've found that so far that the things I've been really interested in, I ended up doing a lot. When I do a certain thing a lot, I get better at it, and, eventually, it becomes a way that I can navigate life. So I thought I'd try that with music. I ran into physical problems with skateboard, so I had to stop that. I liked shooting pool, so I thought maybe I'd do that, but I ended up playing music.
Clearly Danse Macabre is one of the classic albums of the last twenty years. Why did you feel that this year was the right time to tour playing that album in its entirety?
It all just kind of fell into place, really. It was time to make a new pressing. We had just come off of a break of a couple of years and wanted to get out and do some touring but didn't have a new record. So we thought it would be fun that if we were going to re-master and re-press the record, we could play the record, and it could buy us some time and generate the money to be able to write music and not work jobs when we get back for a couple of months.
It's a fun process, really, finding all the old stuff and going through all the nostalgia, pretty much. Yeah, we want the record to sound good, and if there is any way we can make it sound any better, why not?
Do you feel that it is especially relevant at this time? In many ways it seems like it is, considering the subject matter.
I don't know. It's hard to know. The context is really different now. It stands out less now than it did then, I think. Maybe. But at the same time, I was looking to put together a DJ set the other day and thinking, "Oh, I want to keep it in the realm of Faint-like things." It wasn't that easy. Maybe I just don't like the bands that sound like us, or we sound like, or are similar.
The song "The Conductor" is reminiscent of New Order in some ways. Was that a band an influence on what you've done in the Faint and how so?
Yeah. We're all New Order fans. I mean, any similarities that we have had with those records? We were really weird about anyone knowing if there was a similarity to the progression of another song. We pretty much did this thing that wasn't similar to anything anybody knew. At the same time, of course, it's going to sound like things that you like. I don't know why we were so protective of that. I don't think it was necessary in hindsight. We just wanted it to be its own thing. The attempt was to do something totally different.