by Ryan Dembinsky (@itsathinkpiece)
As much as it pains to say it, it’s probably time to accept the fact that Fang Island is no longer with us – maybe not forever, but at least for now. The band never experienced an actual break up or irreparably hard feelings amongst members, but ever since the explosion of the self-titled debut LP in 2010, the band struggled to juggle the schedules of the triple guitar, bass, and drums lineup, all of its members holding down day jobs, and the geographic challenges of bandmates living between Providence and Brooklyn. The band slimmed things down to a four piece for the follow-up full-length, Major, to great success, but weeks, turned to months, turned to years and it became evident that the life hurdles won out and the band was on hold.
In the meantime, Fang core member, guitarist Jason Bartell, hasn’t let the endorphin rock stop flowing as he recently announced the formation of his new musical outlet, Mythless, with a four track EP entitled Patience Hell. Care to venture a guess as to the significance of the EP title? See above. Building a band from scratch; investing years of creative and emotional energy; and then letting go can be a difficult thing to experience. It’s really not much different than the break-up or loss of any long-term relationship - especially for Fang Island who built up a devoted fanbase and exponential trajectory for success. Seeing it fizzle out can be heartbreaking.
Hence, we’re delighted to see that Bartell found a new avenue for musical expression. Mythless looks to be an ever-evolving channel for recording, performing, and collaborating with an evolving cast of former bandmates and new musical comrades. Mythless is based around an idea Bartell calls “maximalism,” which affords him the flexibility to add as many layers and musicians as he sees fit for any given environment. It’s built to last with a malleability to handle different circumstances ranging from solo shows to nine or ten-piece lineups. The maximalist approach seems to ensure that the Fang Island sound will not be lost as the punchy harmonizing and thick layering that gave the band it’s defining sound remains omnipresent. Also, Marc St. Saveur (drums) and Nick Sadler (bass) added their skills to the EP and will likely be regulars in the live setting.
In a long chat with Post Trash, Jason discussed the winding down of Fang Island, the maximalist ideology of Mythless, the “cheat codes” for forming a great live band, and the story behind the famous wizard hoodie.
Post-Trash: With this project, I get the sense that you are excited about ridding yourself of any limitations in terms of layering as alluded to by the “maximalist” description you coined. What are some examples on the EP where you have taken advantage of that flexibility to pile on some of these ideas and overdubs?
Jason Bartell: It’s kind of an approach I’ve always used, and if you think about Fang Island, you can see it there too. We went from one guitar, to two guitars, to three guitars, because we had all these cool harmonies, but we thought if we are doing these guitar harmonies, there is nobody there to play power chords. So, even then it was always about adding, adding, adding.
Now that I’m solo, I can approach it a lot of different ways and it’s more open, but I still want to have that layering. There is a trick that I pulled that is sort of reminiscent of the Fang Island thing, which gets at what I have been calling maximalism. You can hear it on the final song called “Copper Mirror.” There are a couple things that get at the core of that idea. First, the drums are playing a waltz beat, which if you were to slow it down it’s a kick, snare, snare beat except that every hit is three hits. It’s like a rapid-fire rhythm that takes a simple thing that adds a lot of color by essentially filling in every point between the points. It’s zooming in and focusing on that space between the beats.
Then, the guitar is essentially a single eBow note, which makes a constant note [an eBow is a battery-operated handheld effect designed to make the pick hand function like a violin bow], but that note is being split into three signals to make harmonies out of that single note with volume pedals with my feet making polyrhythms. It sounds like three or four guitars, but it’s all stemming from a single original note. I think that really gets to the ideology of this maximalist approach. It’s about taking a root concept and adding to it in all kinds of ways until it reaches the end stage conceptually.
P-T: So, when you eventually take this to a live setting, you will do everything yourself besides the drums?
JB: Right, I’ll be playing with Marc [St. Saveur] the drummer from Fang Island who is also an instrumental part of making the music. I also got Nick Sadler, who is one of the original Fang guitarists to play bass on the record, so I think he will do live stuff as well. In terms of everything else, it’s open. The downside of this maximalist approach as opposed to a singer songwriter with a guitar and a voice recording in the bedroom is that in order to truly do it right it would require about a nine-piece band. I’ve never been that married to the idea that records and live shows have to be the exact same thing. I think of them as distinctly separate. I want it to be full, but we’re rehearsing some of this material with the three-piece and some of it already sounds pretty great. It’s totally simplified, but it’s also way more energized.
Some of the weakest shows I’ve seen, subjectively, are bands that sound exactly like their record. It’s a common complaint. People spend a lot of time trying to make their live shows sound exactly like a record and it really sucks a lot of the energy out of it. You take a lot of risk out of it. I think over the years, it will range from totally solo shows with no drums or a two piece with drums, but then I really want to do the nine-piece. I see it as a living thing that will probably change over the years based on circumstances.
P-T: Will this become your primary musical outlet then for the foreseeable future?
JB: Yeah, I see this as the vehicle for my output, which is why I think it could become anything. That’s what I want to cultivate at least. I have the EP recorded and I already have a whole crop of new songs. I kind of want to just go whatever direction it wants to go in at any particular time, which is something I didn’t feel particularly able to do with Fang Island. I think everyone would agree that with the idea that with Fang, we accidentally made this very specific thing, which was great and I am super proud of it – and in some ways it is harder to do that – but once it was set, we weren’t able to go out and make a black metal album or whatever the opposite of Fang Island might be [laughs]. I don’t even know what that would be, but I can picture a lot of things that could never be called a Fang Island record. Again, that is something very cool, but I’m glad to have the flexibility with this project.
P-T: I recall speaking with you right before Major came out a few years ago, and you mentioned how some of the band members had wound up in different cities and you were collaborating between Providence and Brooklyn, so I’m guessing it wasn’t a conscious break up of Fang Island as much as people just winding up with different situations due to geographic locations and jobs and circumstances. I’m not trying to drudge up a whole, “Why did Fang Island break up?” discussion, but I wasn’t really sure what happened there.
JB: That’s accurate. A lot of it was people moving on and going different directions, and it started to become pretty slow moving. I wound up kind of becoming the torch carrier and I still have trouble saying that we are broken up, but I think it was just circumstances. I could definitely see us playing shows again in the future. It was such a slow roll that when people would ask me what was going on, I would say, “We’re figuring out,” but eventually it became clear that I was lying to myself.
P-T: So, you were the person holding it together toward the end there?
JB: I was just holding on to the hope. I wanted to do it and I still want to do it. I imagine everyone still wants to do it, at least to some extent. There is definitely no bad blood there. There was a period that was really hard, where every time I would sit down to right or jam and a Fang Island song would come out and I would feel handcuffed a little bit because I couldn’t really do anything with it.
P-T: Did people get so-called “real jobs?” Is that what happened that made it become increasingly difficult to manage?
JB: We actually all had real jobs all along. I know when I read a review of a band, I kind of imagine them living the lifestyle of a professional musician, but that’s rarely the case. People would probably be shocked a lot of times when they read a review of their favorite bands how many have jobs. We never didn’t have day jobs. I don’t know exactly what that is indictment of, but it’s an indictment of something [laughs].
When we started Fang Island in 2005, there was still some sense of a music industry. That was seven years before Spotify. Spotify wasn’t even a remote concept at that point. I’m really curious to see what the environment younger people grow up in where there is no concept of music making money. I mean, I had Napster growing up, but it was still nothing like it is today. We grew up with Guns N Roses. Now, Pirate Bay and Spotify are all you know as your reality [laughs]. Our value system is not the same value system that even most twenty-year-old’s have today.
P-T: Right. The value system has flipped to the point where young people almost have a taboo about paying for music. It’s almost as if you’re not in the know if you can’t get everything for free.
JB: I think that is fine in a sense. I actually don’t have malice toward that anymore, and some elements of that are kind of cool. But people do still need to be paid for their art. You can’t even expect it anymore, which is interesting. The fact that the reality of this value system is that you have to make music full-well knowing that you’re going to have a job throughout the entire life span of your music project is definitely interesting. It’s interesting that it is a fact, not a maybe.
P-T: One other thing I was curious about is that you are obviously getting more and more interested in lyrics. Is that evolving pretty naturally?
JB: I would say, no [laughs]. It definitely does not come naturally, but I am interested in challenging myself in that way. I don’t think I have ever once started a song lyrically in the traditional songwriter way like I am going to put music to this, these words. It’s always after the fact. I do think they are important and I’m trying to do it in a way that it doesn’t become a reductive thing.
I want to like them, and I usually do like them. I want them to be in the songs. It's important for the songs. I think it is kind of dutiful. I don't think that makes them less meaningful or potentially meaningful to people if anyone cares to listen. If anyone listens to the lyrics, they will find stuff. I put thought into it along the way, and actually my process is that I try to sort of trick myself into writing lyrics [laughs]. Usually have a melody and I always like hooks, so I also like finding vocal hooks - maybe a vocal hook that is a fun phrase that will become central and then I sort of build out from there. I sort of plant that in the melody and walk around with it. I like to infect myself with an earworm kind of effect and then I will eventually kind of accidentally write lyrics to it because I'd just be walking around with it.
I've always found meaning after the fact, where I realize, “Oh, that's what I was talking about there,” as opposed to setting out to write this heartfelt, attached concept that the world needs to hear. I never really set out to write that way.
P-T: So, you're not really interested in topical lyrics necessarily, but more opaque words and stream of consciousness?
JB: Right, I would say I am rarely topical. I'm more into tropes about things that people like to write about, love and death. Every song is ultimately about death [laughs]. That’s a joke of mine. It’s probably half true, but even a good song about love ends up being like, wow, that’s amazing, we're all gonna die someday though. So, we've got to really love someone right now [laughs]. I have a lot of those type of themes in the back of my mind, but the themes and lyrics are rarely literal.
P-T: In terms of instrumentation, are you still working with mostly guitar as a starting point? I know there is some other stuff on here like harpsichord and keyboards, but are you still writing mostly on guitar?
JB: I think of myself as an electric guitar player first and foremost. If I ever had formal training, I think I would be a more natural drummer, but I'm not good or anything. I have no practice or training, but I like to think like a drummer and I like to write drum parts. The level of training between me and someone like Marc who is an actual musical genius and drums are his actual instrument is vast, but I do often start with drum parts. The thing I like about guitar but I'm not quite natural at it, so I think it makes me ride that edge of being not very good or as good as I wish I could be, so I think that kind of pushes me to happen upon interesting things or things that are interesting to me in a way. I get something out of riding that skill deficit.
P-T: Did you teach yourself? It seems like you obviously you know scales, keys, improvising, and things like that.
JB: Yeah, I never took any lessons [laughs]. I learned on mostly tabs, so I think of things in numbers, which seems to work.
P-T: I was thinking in terms of your covers, for instance when you were playing the melody for the lyrics of “Always Be My Baby,” where you can obviously tell you know where to look for the notes and what key you’re playing in and things like that.
JB: That is just all ear. It’s actually grueling for me to learn songs [laughs]. I did a Smashing Pumpkins cover band recently with Delicate Steve [Steve Marion] with Marc on drums. It’s one of the things that I am most proud of in my musical career. It was a live show for Halloween a couple years ago at Silent Barn in New York. It was sold out and I think we destroyed. It was so fun. It just did something to us and the audience. Leaning the songs was so grueling, because it was totally done by ear and I had to just play them over and over again to slowly get there. It’s all muscle memory. I have no knowledge [laughs]. I just have to do it enough times so that my body remembers when the parts come up.
P-T: Is there a recording of that? I’d love to hear it?
JB: I don’t think there is a very good quality one. I could maybe find some little snippets here and there, but Delicate Steve might have something. That reminds me of another one of my little tricks, which is surround yourself with actual musical geniuses [laughs].
Getting Marc on drums for example is such a cheat code. Like on the “Copper Mirror” song, he wrote that waltz drum part. A lot of times, I’ll just send him the chords and maybe I’ll have a drum idea, and he’ll take it and make it perfect. Sometimes we’ll do 50/50 like that, but "Copper Mirror" was all him. He’ll ask me, “What are you thinking or what do you hear?” Then, he’ll come back and say, “How about this?” And it’ll be an absolutely perfect, shredding drum part. He really is one of my artistic idols. I have never seen an artist like that where it just pours out of him and comes that naturally. I don’t think I have ever seen a medium come as naturally to any other human. I know he is my friend and I am biased, but we toured a lot and I’ve played with a lot of drummers and it is just different with him.
The same is true with Steve Marion. As a guitarist, he is an actual genius. There is a huge difference between me learning by playing Rage Against the Machine tabs in high school versus him being a living embodiment of something.
I have to just get it out there that if we opened for the actual Smashing Pumpkins reunion tour that they are doing, I think we would be better. That sounds completely arrogant, but there is something about the people who grew up on it playing it, and playing in a small sweaty club that made it so much cooler. Steve’s guitar playing was totally insane. It was all completely insane.
So, the trick that is so important is surrounding yourself with actual players [laughs]. That is something I plan to do a lot with this new project.
P-T: You’re underselling your chops [laughs].
JB: I hear that. It’s just different. I have a very rote mechanical approach. I say that not as a self-deprecating thing, but as a very freeing thing. I like to focus on the writing, the production, and the feel. In doing that, you can’t really fuck up too bad [laughs].
P-T: In terms of engineering, are you getting into the production and sequencing and all that?
JB: Yeah, I usually demo things at home on Logic and then eventually bring it to the studio where we have always recorded called Machines with Magnets in Providence. I worked with Seth Manchester, who we’ve always worked with to engineer and produce. I forget every time how much I love the studio and working with him. Doing things at home is really frustrating and I spend like two hours trying to figure out a plug-in or an edit. He practically writes in shortcuts. I should video it next time, because it’s amazing. If he is doing edits, even if it is something somewhat time-consuming, he types as fast as like a personal assistant who works in an office, but it is all shortcuts. It’s unbelievable [laughs]. The shit he can do in five minutes would take me actual days to do. He is invaluable in that way, but he is also a great person to bounce things off of and to help sharpen ideas.
I’ll usually come in with a really rough idea. On this new one for example, I had an idea to have two drum parts on it and maybe play with two drummers live at some point. I wanted a really distorted and compressed drum sound, so we worked on that collaboratively and experimentally trying different things and tweaking it until we got what we wanted.
P-T: The last question here is very important [laughs]. I was curious about the story behind that wizard hoodie you wear for shows?
JB: [laughs] That was just another random idea I had. I wore it for the first time for the self-titled album release. I had the star shirt before it ever had a hood on it, but I got thinking that I wanted a hood on it that matched the shirt. I just sort of wanted to have at least a little bit of a stage presence. I really like basic looking stages, but I thought I could use a little something. So, I gave it to my friend Laurie and asked her if she could make a hood for it. She found the material and matched the color and pattern almost perfectly.
I told her that I wanted it a little big, and she gave it back to me on the day of the show at the venue [laughs]. It’s so big that if you wear it properly, it can cover your entire face. So, she definitely followed my instructions [laughs]. I guess it just kind of became a thing eventually. I found it very comforting. The more I got better at playing our live shows, I could start playing things without looking so I would start to hide out under there more, which is really fun. Plus, I can kind of look down at my guitar if I need to and nobody can really tell.
In hindsight, I was never super comfortable on stage, so it was a nice way to work through people looking at you up there. I would just go in there and feel like I was totally by myself. It really kind of helped me grow through that, and now all I wear is hoodies – they’re not all that big though.