Oliver Hall raps with radical traditionalists Faun Fables.
Originally published in Arthur No. 10 (May 2004)
The airwaves are so saturated with false memories of childhood you can’t walk around without a helmet or you’ll become a legal idiot—I mean the playground loves of heartstruck emo people, the barely fetal fancies of Radiohead stillborn colder than forceps, the general irresistible reflex contractions against dilation of the idios kosmos, not to speak of Michael Jackson, Jon Benet Ramsey and her twin that lived, Britney Spears.
The urge towards the nubile has expressed itself nowhere more strongly than in folk music. Once a deeply weird idiom devoted to the mysteries of hardship, tradition, games, abundance and death, questionable politics have transformed folk music on the one hand into dead pledges of allegiance to corpses of the Stalinist left, on the other into personal confessional songwriting so banal as to make you yearn wholly and bodily for a gruesome fatal mining disaster. But there are a few musicians who have the brains and guts to struggle with the old questions, the old answers; in other words one thing you can do on a Friday night is witness the miraculous music of the Bay Area’s Faun Fables.
Mainly you should do this because Dawn McCarthy, the Faun of Faun Fables, can totally, cruelly possess an audience like no other performer I’ve ever seen except maybe Clevelanders David Thomas and Robert Kidney. Most recently I saw her do this at Spaceland in Los Angeles on Valentine’s Day, but I’d seen her do it—participated in the thrill even—seven or eight times before, in all kinds of situations. In bars throbbing with the old procreant urge, I’ve heard Dawn raise her voice to a pitch and volume no one could ignore, shutting up the whole meat market; at Faun Fables’ recent concert at downtown L. A. rockhole the Smell, she began the show walking through the audience yodeling, winning hearts and minds one by one with voice and presence. (Dawn: “If you talk about yodeling to people they laugh about it, and they go ‘Oh God, yodeling, that’s so corny and weird,’ but you just do yodeling and it does something to people. Must be a code in the DNA…”) Dawn and her collaborator Nils Frykdahl, of the heavy, funny, scary bands Idiot Flesh and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, tour the country playing avant rock clubs, churches, high schools.
Speaking to Dawn at Spaceland before her show I said, I feel like there’s something in both of you guys that likes the challenge, maybe, of getting up in front of a room of people without knowing how they’ll react?
“Yes! That’s very true, because I’ve come to realize that not all musicians like that. A lot of musicians don’t even like performing. It’s nice to play the shows where everything’s all set up and controlled, and bright lights, but there’s definitely something about the excitement of just working a room and the workout of it, almost athletic, like ‘okay! this is part of the challenge!’ In a way the worst thing is when there’s a room of people that are just still. It’s not so bad when people are rowdy, ‘cause it gives you something, even heckling, there’s something to [work with]. We both get into that. We’ve cut our teeth playing all kinds of situations, all kinds of rooms, amplification, no amplification, surprising people.”
Traditional songs are not interesting to the extent they are “relevant,” i.e. covered in video game noises and made to sound like Volkswagen ads, which indeed they often become. For sure, folk and blues music can be endlessly renewed in myriad interesting ways, maybe more, but few of these are open to cheerful positivists surveying the knowable ordinary with e-meters and iBooks. Beck and Moby, without a skeptical thought between them, are perfect products of the reigning technocratic, infantile serenity; Dawn and Nils are smart, feeling adults who have lived in the world. I wouldn’t bring this up if you couldn’t hear it in their music.
Here’s what I mean. The first time I saw Faun Fables, in late 2000, my friends had dragged me there. They were the sort of friends who thought it was healthier to drink in a bar listening to confessional singer-songwriters than to drink alone in study hole listening to the Damned’s “Drinking About My Baby” on repeat. With friends like those etc, but I went, and suffered an endless set by a bunch of whimsical carnivalists in madrigal outfits whose nostalgia for the good old days of plaguey inquisitional Europe was exceeded in terrifying stupidity only by the enthusiasm of the mobbing crowd. When they finished and the club began to empty, I was sloshed and relieved. Can we go now, I wondered.
Then Faun Fables began their performance on the barroom floor in paper plate masks as alter egos the Two Dimensions. Dawn McCarthy opened her mouth and everyone else shut up. It’s the only time a band I was not prepared to like delivered me absolutely from my cares, rages and sickness.
I asked Dawn what she thought of revivalist folk types, say people who dress in madrigal outfits. She was far more charitable than I have been, but concluded, “I’m definitely an explorer, to just say ‘I wanna go back and recreate a time that was’ wouldn’t do it for me.”
She didn’t even have to say it, you’d know from the songs written by Traditional and Anonymous in Faun Fables’ repertoire: “Only A Miner,” “The House Carpenter,” and my favorite “She Is Gone” (where does the song come from and where has it gone?). All are songs about death and a resulting sense of loss and doom compensated, sometimes meagerly, sometimes abundantly, by mysteries of faith. Towards the end of their set the Fables used to play “Live Old,” during which Dawn would age herself, drawing lines in her face before a compact mirror, as she sang its sad melody and made death sound pretty good: “better not count on dying/you just might be immortal.”
This willingness to see the complications of tradition and those of, uh, life, set Faun Fables apart from many of their neo-folk colleagues. We talked a lot about how the band lives and the small economy it inhabits in Oakland, growing food and bartering with neighbors. There was a term for their way of life and music Dawn particularly liked.
“Radical traditionalist, have you heard of that? I just saw it in some little book that was about Norse mythology and different folks that are getting into a lot of the stuff I’m talking about now…
“I realize saying ‘oh, hey, I’m gonna chop my own wood!’—I realize that at this point we have the luxury to be able to see those things as a grounding thing, to see the good things about it. Before, it was survival, and you would spend the bulk of your day just to take care of your food needs and all that. Do I wanna get to a state where that’s all I’m doing? No, I don’t, but I realize that we’re in an interesting position right now where we can look at this stuff and choose how much we’re gonna have it in our life. It’s quite a privileged position to be in, to be able to say ‘okay, I wanna make some things by hand, but if I don’t have time to do everything I’ll go to the store, I can order from the farm.’ Instead of baking bread and kneading it by hand being a chore—‘oh God, I gotta do this every day and it’s all I do all day’—we’re able to see just the wonderful, grounding things about it… I guess my point is I don’t have any romantic notions. It’s something that has to do with where we’re at now in the modern, present world.”
Since Faun Fables’ new album is called Family Album, I began the interview with a stupid question about Dawn’s family.
“They were in the show, last week. Mom played the piano, brother played the piano, brought the house down with Beethoven,” Nils said.
“The thing about Family Album,” Dawn responded politely to my stupid question, “is it doesn’t have to be specifically about my family or Nils’s family. It also expands to archetypal family themes, family issues, but also ‘family’ meaning anything you feel kindred to. I tried to get into creaturely, non-human stuff as well.”
“There’s a song about the neighbor’s dog on the record, you know,” said Nils.
Nils’s band, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, played with Faun Fables at Spaceland. After a set of gorgeous folk songs and some thrilling martial covers from postwar Europe, featuring the ghosts of Harry Lime and Holly Martins on zither and balalaika, it warmed my heart to hear Nils introduce a song thus: “THIS SONG IS DEDICATED TO ALL THE RICH MOTHERFUCKERS RUNNING FOR OFFICE,” or to hear Sleepytime Gorilla Museum’s Unabomber song, which recuperates The Man of La Mancha from tweed or showbiz ideology, casting Ted Kaczynski as Don Quixote (“to dreeeeaam the impossible dreeeeeeeeeaaaaam”). To be fancy about it, Dawn and Nils share a historical imagination: the European numbers mentioned above are Brigitte Fontaine’s “Eternelle” and the showstopper, Ewa Demarczyk’s “Karuzela z Madonnami,” or “Carousel with Madonnas,” both on Family Album. For this last song, Dawn had to go to the railroad tracks in Emeryville to meet a mysterious Polish man who translated the lyrics for her; if you’ve ever been to Emeryville, you’ll know it takes a powerful historical imagination to transform it into a setting for a spy movie.
Nils grew up in Oakland and has been playing music there over fifteen years. On the Idiot Flesh album Fancy—as in “fancy eggs”—the song “Teen Devil Worshipper Jonathan Cantero’s List of Equipment for the 12th of October,” a true crime song about matricide, helpfully annotated: “The following servants of darkness appear on Cantero’s list: Venom, Judas Priest, Ozzy, Slayer, Mercyful Fate,” is a fine example of his Rock Against Rock sensibility.
I asked him if it wasn’t kind of, you know, scary sometimes being a honky bohemian among the resentful downtrodden poor. The racist premise of the question made him uneasy.
“At that level, those people are so down and out they don’t have a whole lot of fight in ‘em. And they’re just like, ‘oh, here’s some people who’ve got more dollars than me, I’ll ask ‘em for two bucks and maybe they’ll give it to me.’ But yeah, there is a potentially heavy feeling in the areas where the artists come through, but it always starts with the bands; there was no loft scene going on then, it was just bands living in warehouse conditions, so that was not a threat, just kind of an anomaly. [Idiot Flesh’s] first opening night party, we did have a gun pulled on us. Some local gang came by, like ‘What’s going on here? Don’t fuck with our turf.’ ”
“They put the gun up to his chest,” Dawn said.
“I just said, we’re just here to play music, and we’re not the cops, you know.”
Dawn, “How many years ago was that?”
“A long time ago, ’89, ’90, something like that.”
* * *
My girlfriend at that first show cried inconsolably afterwards. “Aw c’mon, they weren’t that bad,” I joked. “It’s just that someone can… do that,” she said. Again and again I’ve seen Dawn’s voice upset and quiet people this way: in Berkeley, a train of goth girls would line up after the show for her benediction; in New York, my best friend Brie, herself a great singer and a hard sell, gushed “you’re a goddess” as she bought a copy of the band’s second album Mother Twilight. And Faun Fables’ music really did salve a wound or two of mine back when I was a sodden mess. It may be only because of this emotional commitment that Early Song is my favorite of their albums (it’s available from http://www.faunfables.net, along with tour dates etc). Anyway, it captures the band’s live sound as the other two albums don’t, and captures songs they don’t often play anymore. In terms of sheer beauty it is comparable to Astral Weeks or Sonic Youth’s Dirty. Arthur eagerly awaits the return of The Transit Rider, Faun Fables’ musical which Dawn and Nils hope to take on the road again later this year.
* * *
Singing with her face in a handheld frame, Dawn ended the Spaceland set sending framed family pictures out into the audience, one an old picture of an old woman, another a recent snapshot of two teenage girls dissolving in conspiratorial laughter. As the photos circulated the audience was visibly transformed by the tenderness of it, here by the pathos of vanity comix artists seek in lost family photos at flea markets, there by the recognition of familiar loves and disappointments in the daily ancient household tragedy, everywhere by the worry how will she get those pictures back and what if she doesn’t? Like Faun Fables’ music, the simple gesture made everyday things precious, old junk sit up and speak with the whole pagan earth barking and roiling around you. You don’t have to be an animist to visit this world but you will have to leave your room.