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Escape Velocity

Death Soup & The Double F Federation: An Interview With Forest Fire
John Freeman , November 25th, 2011 05:17

John Freeman talks to Forest Fire's Mark Thresher about how the desire to stretch their sound has resulted in ambitious new album Staring At The X.

If timing is everything, then Brooklyn's Forest Fire suffered at the hands of fate back in 2008. Then, the scratchy Americana of their debut album Survival saw them hastily jostled into the same category as the contemporaneous releases of Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver. But that assumption was largely incorrect - Survival wasn't such an easy beast to pin down, sounding in the main like a punk band exploring their long-lost roots.

Formed in 2005, Forest Fire have bounced between Oregon and New York like long distance human pinballs. The quartet, now based in Brooklyn, were originally 'discovered' by US blogger extraordinaire Ryan Catbird, who released Survival on his own Catbird label. Having toured to within an inch of their lives during the intervening years, the new Forest Fire record, Staring At The X is an altogether different sonic experience. And deliberately so.

The band are fronted by Mark Thresher, who is painfully polite when I speak to him. However, he is gently assertive in his desire to point out that the 'folk' tag was one pigeon-hole his band didn't want to be pushed into. Staring At The X provides a necessary jolt of evidence. It's far more expansive in scope, with Thresher's writing now comfortably stretching Forest Fire's eclectic rock DNA across a range more akin to Big Apple stalwarts Television or Bradford Cox's Deerhunter.

With Thresher also part of punk band Scareplane, who themselves are finalising a debut album, it would appear that those who conveniently categorised Forest Fire back in 2008 will be forced to rethink. We spoke to Thresher about avoiding lazy comparisons with other bands, and the process of putting together Staring At The X.

I read that you described Staring At The X as your “attempt to be more of an ambitious songwriter/rock band rather than a weird folk band.” What was wrong with being a weird folk band?

Mark Thresher: There is nothing terribly wrong with being a weird folk band, but funny things were happening for us. We would go on tour in Europe and 'Forest Fire – Folk Band' would be written down on the chalkboard outside the venue, and that didn't really feel right with where we want to take things live. Really we want to keep pushing things forward and the folk thing gets a little boring for us after a while.

So the 'Fleet Foxes with teeth' description was not to your liking?

MT: Not really. Consciously we wanted to send the message out this time around that folk is not what we are really going for, and apparently we need to clarify that.

The comparison with Fleet Foxes was spectacularly lazy and seems to have been birthed from you sharing the same initials.

MT: Yeah, the 'Double F Federation'. What can you do? I named that band before I knew who Fleet Foxes were. I don't think I even knew who Arcade Fire were either when I was choosing.

What have Arcade Fire got to do with it? Oh, okay, I never thought of the 'fire' connection.

MT: I appreciate that you never thought of that.

So digging back a little, I believe that your debut album was recorded over an eight-month period in short bursts of activity, as band members were living on opposite sides of America at the time. In retrospect, how did such a recording schedule help shape Survival?

MT: Well, I think the energy that was put into Survival over the course of a long time was very devoted and intense. It really helped us with that record because we were able to make something and then kind of hold it in our hands, if you will, for a long period of time and kind of study it. Also, with that record we were trying to get live recordings and build up around them, so having all that time was perfect.

How much of that learning did you take onto the recording of the new album?

MT: With Staring At The X we sort of made two records and one of them we decided to scrap, as it was going in a more subdued direction. Halfway through we decided that it wasn't quite right and I had then written a bunch of new songs. A lot of what you are hearing is written as we were recording. Staring At The X is half quiet and introspective, and half louder and – I don't want to use the word experimental, because we are not very experimental at all – a little more experimental by our standards.

What was the problem with a subdued set of songs?

MT: We want to make records that are varied; quiet and loud and challenging, full of hooks. We want to do what we can to hit all those pressure points. We wouldn't really be happy with something that sounded all the same.

You seemed to have achieved that on Staring At The X. When you began to think about writing the album, did you have a vision for what you wanted it to sound like?

MT: Yes and no. I guess I wanted to write songs that took their time a little bit more than on Survival. For better or worse I think I did that. I guess I was a little bit more interested in expanding and spreading out more and not trying to cram everything into two-and-a-half minutes. I still love songs like that but for this record we wanted to stretch out. The last track is eight minutes ['Visions In Plastic'] and there is another one which is nearly seven minutes. I guess what we always try and do when we are working on a song is to get to know it very intimately and see if we can do what is right for the song.

One of the tracks on the album, 'They Pray Execution Style' on which [bassist] Natalie [Stormann] provides the lead vocal, is particularly different in its sonic presentation – it almost sounds like a sinister funk workout. How easy was it for you to include a song like that, which is so unlike your previous work?

MT: That song was a tough one – it was a controversial song. Half the band didn't want to pursue the song and didn't think it would end up on the record and the other half were very passionately pulling for its completion. I think we really got that one; that's an example of really us getting what we were looking for.

Which half of the band initially liked the song?

MT: Me and Natalie. I really wanted to see the song come to fruition. It was specifically written for Natalie and she wouldn't sing it if it wasn't her favourite song on the record.

You are now based in Brooklyn, but Forest Fire's history also includes time spent on the West Coast. I believe much of the new album was written in Washington state. What's the story?

MT: Well, we initially met in New York and at one point we all shared a loft in Brooklyn and we were all roommates at certain points. So, we did start in New York living together as a band and then some of us moved away to Portland, Oregon off and on, while we were making Survival. That all kind of came to an end earlier this year when we all moved back to New York permanently.

Why the permanent move – was it for career or practical reasons?

MT: It's both. You can say it is more laid back on the West Coast, depending on who you are and what you are doing, but I personally love New York. I kind of need it in a way. I work better under pressure and there is a lot of pressure in New York. In New York you never have any money and you can barely afford to eat and, for whatever reason, I work better under that kind of pressure. I don't want to say I have to be there to make music, but it helps.

If you find the hand-to-mouth New York existence an inspiration, does that explain Death Soup? I saw a picture of it on your website. What on earth is it and have you ever eaten it?

MT: Yeah, Death Soup is just cabbage soup with cayenne pepper. Every now and then when we have no money, and as it's a good idea to fast anyway, the band lives off that for a while.

The joys of living in an expensive city. I bet the apartment is lovely after everyone has been on the Death Soup diet for a week.

MT: [Laughs] I kinda enjoy eating just cabbage soup. Maybe I do need to think of another recipe though.

I believe you are in another band, can you tell me about Scareplane?

MT: Scareplane is another band that I have with Natalie – she is actually the lead singer of that band. We have a whole record done and are finishing the finals over-dubs, it is going to be called Outright Traitors.

What does Scareplane give you that Forest Fire doesn't?

MT: Scareplane is a little bit more... Well, I guess Natalie would be the best one to answer this, but to me it is more of a punk band. It is little bit more of a project than Forest Fire, for me. Nathan from Forest Fire is also in the band. It is almost the same line-up.

You could go on tour together, like Kristin Hersh does with her bands Throwing Muses and 50FootWave. That gets very confusing, especially when 50FootWave, which contains all the members of the Muses, does a cover version of a Muses track.

MT: We might end up doing touring together. We've talked about that. But, it's funny because it's all the same people making the music but I don't feel that a Forest Fire song could go on a Scareplane record, or the other way around, because – well, you'll see.

Finally, on your forthcoming European tour if there is a chalkboard outside a venue, what would you like it to read?

MT: Just the name. Just 'Forest Fire' will do.

Staring At The X is out now through FatCat. Forest Fire tour the UK from next week, calling at the following venues:

28th - Liverpool, The Shipping Forecast
29th - Nottingham, Chameleon Arts Cafe
30th - Leeds, Cockpit

2nd - Newcastle, Cluny 2
3rd - Middlesborough, Westgarth SC
4th - London, Hoxton Square Bar and Grill
5th - Brighton, Sticky Mikes