This interview appears in ALARM #40. Subscribe here to get your copy!
“Seek It Out”
Fang Island is laughing. Fang Island is constantly laughing. Jason Bartell and Chris Georges, the two primary songwriters for the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Rhode Island outfit, are sitting in the Greenpoint bar where they played their first show in New York. They sip Brooklyn Lagers on a muggy evening while wearing nearly identical jean jackets. The duo is discussing whether drummer Marc St. Sauveur would don the “Denim Daddy” attire on stage, ultimately deciding that he would refuse. Bartell and Georges giggle at the thought.
The infectious enthusiasm is not an act. Fang Island described its self-titled debut as “the sound of everyone high-fiving everyone” — a statement that is simultaneously accurate and destined to lead profiles for the duration on the band’s existence. The band’s sophomore effort, Major, builds on the theme. It features more singing than the first album, which was chock full of melodies, riffs, and melodic riffs. But the DNA here is similar: free and fun, with enough hooks to hang the audience’s denim jackets. Everyone is still high-fiving everyone; now there are just more people watching.
The recording sessions for Major took extra consideration for how the songs would transition to a live set. Fang Island, which started as a class project at the Rhode Island School of Design, had only played a few shows when it went into the studio to make its eponymous debut. As a result, the band had difficulty bringing the ideas on the album to the stage. The Major sessions were different. “We still tend to take a maximum-capacity approach rather than a minimalist one,” Bartell says, “but we learned that we had to play the songs live.”
The new album sounds like summer, with a mix of bouncy piano, soaring synths, fuzzed guitars, and sing-alongs. Opener “Kindergarten” leads the listener to a happy place, and the rest of the 11 tracks keep him or her there. Positivity comes easily for Fang Island, a group based on friendship, but adding depth to that emotion is more difficult than one might think.
“It’s easy to do happy,” Bartell says. “It’s hard to do one notch past that. We try to push the sonic positivity of it so far that it becomes kind of sad again. It’s bittersweet. There is sadness to overwhelming joy. If you push it far enough, you end up there. That’s usually when the best hooks come out.”
The New Hampshire native laughs at the absurdity of the explanation. Really, he and the boys just want to play. If people show up, wonderful. If not — well, whatever.
Fang Island had few expectations for the 2010 debut, and the two songwriters sound genuinely flattered when they recall the first reviews. Positive sentiment trickled in slowly. Bartell bought five copies of the issue of Skyscraper that featured his band. They were touring when Pitchfork gave Fang Island an 8.3 and slapped a “Best New Music” tag on the record. It was a wonderful endorsement, although it didn’t change all that much.
“The night before we got that review, we were playing a show on the way to South by Southwest, and zero people were in the audience,” Georges says. “The next night, there were three or four.” But they kept playing and kept touring — eventually landing opening slots for Stone Temple Pilots and The Flaming Lips — and returned home to work on Major.
Goals for the latest album are, in order: worldwide positivity; worldwide acceptance of the guitar again; earning a trip to Japan. “That is our biggest hope,” Bartell says seriously of the last one. Fang Island would be happy — no, ecstatic — if music got the band to the Far East. This is not the most ambitious of goals, but it’s realistic for the sonic landscape of 2012.
“There’s no hope of us ever making money, at least not in the way you used to,” says Bartell, who works as an artist assistant when he’s not touring. (Georges is about to begin a job as a “manny,” which is another story entirely.) “At least that’s a total non-issue. It levels the playing field in terms of what you’re trying to get out of it. You almost have to be doing it for love at that point.”
And they are. Whatever happens — album sales, strong reviews, trips to Japan — happens. Fang Island floats on.
“I always wanted to be in a band, but I didn’t really ever think I’d be in one,” one friend says.
“Me neither,” the other adds. “But it turns out that it’s pretty easy. You just need some friends and a guitar.”
They both laugh.