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Escape Velocity

Jazz, Sad Songs, Puke And Rehab: Fences Interviewed
Tom Milway , July 2nd, 2009 08:45

Tom Milway speaks to Fences' Chris Mansfield about Seattle, his craft, and getting dry

Chris Mansfield, who as Fences lays out his battle scars in song for all to hear, is one of the very few artists currently mastering the genre of intimate and introspective down-on-your-luck folk music. Using artists such as Elliot Smith and Bright Eyes as springboards, 25-year-old Seattle-based Mansfield peppers his songs with brutal and vivid scenes of hardship, drinking, despair and both fear of, and fear of losing, love. This is supplemented by an interesting and unique aesthetic communicated through the band (and his own body's) artwork, promotional show posters and band merch (much of which is designed by Mansfield's artist girlfriend Jenna De Rosa).

A former jazz student at Boston's Berklee College of Music, Mansfield abandoned his upright bass after his then roommate, John Hostetter, introduced him to the world of guitars and songwriting. So, having traded in his bass for an acoustic guitar — in the process, leaving the potential of a career in jazz behind like the rotting carcass he believed it would be — he made the pilgrimage from New York (with his girl in tow) to the indie scene of Seattle, Washington to ply his trade, building a fan base one by one. At present Mansfield is still rolling DIY having put out only one self-released and recorded EP to date: The Ultimate Puke EP. It consists of eight songs of intimately wearied folk pop fused with a classic country shuffle and subtle jazz influences; much of it Chris recorded in his apartment with "random condenser microphones" and limited equipment. However, in 2009 everything is changing. Fences have recently developed into a four-piece band, they played Sasquatch last month (Washington's equivalent of Glastonbury festival) and Chris has just returned from recording his first full-length album in Victoria, Canada with Sara Quin (of Tegan and Sara fame). All he needs to do now is find a label . . . or maybe he'll just decide to get it out there himself the only way he has previously known: the hard way. It hasn't done him any harm so far.

The Quietus caught up with Chris on an unassuming weekday and hit him with a shit stream of questions about past, present, future and rehab.

What or who has been your main influence in making music?

My friend and roommate at Berklee: John Hostetter. When I was listening to Jaco Pastorius and Charlie Parker he was listening to Palace Brothers. His record collection and songs that he was writing himself just knocked me out, and I literally stopped everything I was doing and followed in his footsteps. It might make me sound like a pushover, but at the time I had no choice. I loved this new life. I was getting that emotional content so directly, when with Jazz I had to work so, so hard to feel it and get to it. Perhaps I chose an easy way out, I don't regret it though because I still use those elements of music in what I am doing now.

How would you personally describe the music of Fences?

In all reality it is a journal. The lyrics act as a journal for me. The music itself is a mix of my loves for jazz and country music. When the music is soft I am feeling shy and tired, when the music speeds up or yells I feel like yelling. It is great to be able to expose everything. I have learned though; it comes with a cost if you believe the music is you, if it is all you. If someone or large amounts of people do not like it, it is very hard to not take personally. So, let's just say it's music, it's art and it's ok to make a mess.

What is your artistic purpose?

I just want to contribute. Add my part to what is already there and will continue to be there forever really.

Do you think it's possible for an artist to want IT (acceptance, success, a chance to contribute) too much? How does one continue to keep viewing it as just art and being content to be "ok to make a mess" when existence (both mental and physical) begins to be rest and rely upon it?

I wish I knew. I think the danger of complete failure or heart-breaking defeat is what makes things interesting. If you didn't care, then what is the point? Just sit at home and play guitar for your cat? We can all say we don't care... that would be bullshit.

What interests you in life?

I hate to be cliché but you know... honestly the heights people can reach. The things we are capable of. Making music, acting, dancing - our attempts to find beauty and purpose in our lives. It is inspiring to me.

Why you didn't end up working in an office?

My mother was a very free spirit, so was my grandmother. I must have picked up on it. I always act on impulse and emotion, or at least most of the time. I am learning lately to be more business savvy and find a balance though.

Were they artistic?

My mother is extremely smart; she probably could have done anything she wanted in life. My grandmother is a big part of who I am today, she encouraged me to read books and really seek out interesting things and be true to myself at all times.

Fences – ‘We Wore Panthers On Our Hands' (Live)
Courtesy of Songs For Eating and Drinking

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Let's go back – what is your wider musical history?

Well, my uncle Chris, I would say he showed me music. Supertramp, Rush, YES... all that stuff. I was pretty nerdy, I loved Frank Zappa - anything progressive and with lots of musicianship. I would pretty much sit in my room and listen to that stuff and daydream. I miss it. I was never in any other bands I was way too much of an introvert. I didn't start playing music in front of people until Berklee.

What specifically do you miss about those days - just the simplicity of life at that age?

Yeah, exactly. Around every corner was something new. Now I sort of feel like nothing will shock me or really blow my mind, you know? It happens sometimes, like when I first heard Holly Miranda about a year ago. I was like "ok, maybe there is still more." It still happens; I still find new things to drive me - rarely though.

So, as many of us did while growing up - whether due to introversion, lack of friends or living in an isolated area - you would sit in your room and mostly listen to music daydreaming. How did you muster the courage to break out there and start playing music?

The first show I ever played was in a basement in Mission Hill, Boston. I was like 19 or 20. They were kinda just like, "look dude, these songs are awesome lets play a show, you should play!" So I did, I remember puking in the sink in the kitchen before entering the basement, I was so nervous. But afterwards so many people came up to me and told me they loved it and felt real emotion from it so I was like "wow... I can do this" - the support felt good so I just kept going. Believe me though; I was pretty terrible for a long time. I just loved it too much to give up.

What are the positive and negative aspects of being a musician in Seattle? (Other than the obvious positive that it's a good scene with press and an attentive audience, and the obvious negative that it's oversaturated...)

For me, it is impossible to remain anonymous. Everyone knows everything about you. That can be frustrating. For example, you better not say the wrong thing at the bar because the person serving you might be in a band in Seattle, then he will tell everyone you're a dick and it will spread and spread... you see what I mean? You just need to be careful here, everyone knows everyone and they are quick to shut you out. Be a nice guy! Trust me. On the positive side I have great management here and I have met some amazing people and played with some fantastic bands that are from Seattle.

Are there very strong and specific personal attachments to the songs you write?

Sometimes yes, very much so. It isn't always me though. I am not constantly sad about a girl or drunk or blah, blah. Sometimes it is just stories that I can relate to - the persons point of view or the character in the songs.

You recently went through a rehabilitation program for alcohol addiction - your output thus far has been heavily rooted in drinking - how do you perceive this will affect the future?

It has only been for the better. It makes life a lot easier. Music has a lot to do with relationships and how much people can trust you. It had just gotten to a point where I knew it would hold me back and eventually destroy everything I worked for. I don't hate drinking, or people who drink. At this point in time though I needed to take a step back and focus my energy in a different way. I am fully enjoying my sobriety. The worst part is, I don't have any friends anymore!

Yeah I can imagine that as soon as one isn't out every night, the fickle crowd of Seattle don't care any longer. How are you occupying your newfound time sober?

I watch a lot of movies, do a lot of thrift store shopping... wake up early, go to the coffee shop. My neighbourhood is really great. I don't see anyone anymore. It is a blessing. I feel like an old man, I really enjoy it.

Fences can be found on MySpace here. The Ultimate Puke E.P. is available to buy now here. All photographs by Lani Lee