Les Savy Fav’s Tim Harrington on playing live

From thumping the disabled to intimidating bouncers and props that go terribly wrong, Les Savy Fav's Tim Harrington tells Niall O'Keeffe the ten things he has learned about playing live.

One of our goals was to be accepted at large as a non-professional band,” drawls Tim Harrington down a telephone line from New York City and, casting my mind back a couple of months, I can see where he’s coming from. When Les Savy Fav headlined a sold-out show at the Astoria in February, it quickly became clear that the move to bigger spaces was not going to stifle Harrington’s freeform exhibitionism. When the bearded, balding frontman first loomed into view, he was wearing a Phantom of the Opera mask cut from a paper plate, a cape, jodhpurs and riding boots. By the end of curtain raiser ’What Would Wolves Do?’, he had shed the overcoat to reveal a hideous tie-dye T-shirt, replaced the boots with a pair of brown shoes flung onstage by a punter and repeatedly invaded the audience to trade wolf howls with the diehards. The tone was set for a crazed performance that both reiterated Les Savy Fav’s refusal to play the game and celebrated their sudden, improbable ascent.

Last year’s Let’s Stay Friends album, their fourth, followed a lengthy hiatus in which many assumed that Les Savy Fav were no more. They certainly had plenty else on their plates: Harrington, for example, was busy becoming a father, designing TV graphics for VH-1 and launching a textiles company called Deadly Squire with his wife. Guitarist Seth Jabour apparently worked as an art director at a fragrance company. However the delay also had something to do with a reimagining of the band’s sound. On Let’s Stay Friends the brand of art-punk sounded tauter and more precise than ever before, providing a solid foundation for Harrington’s obtuse lyrical flights of fancy.

Yet it’s as a live band that the indie punks are most revered, a reality acknowledged by the release of a new live album, ’After The Balls Drop’, on April 29. On the eve of its release, Harrington took a call from The Quietus to ruminate on Les Savy Fav’s newfound popularity in his unusual speaking style (languid pondering one moment; a rapid-fire anecdote the next). “There’s a compulsion to grow bands,” he observed, “and losing interest in that happened to make us get bigger.”

Then Harrington set out 10 lessons he’d learned across a decade of acting like “a funny ape in a cage”|

Tim Harrington: Les Savy Fav

1. Don’t assume that the fan with the cane is a poseur.

“At a show in LA a couple of years ago| we’re playing, everything’s cool, and there’s a kid up front who has a cane. I’m like, ’That’s a cool affectation. I’m going to borrow his cane and do a soft-shoe dance routine.’ I went to pull the cane, and he thought that I wanted to let him use the cane to climb up onto the stage. He wouldn’t let got of it, so I pulled him and the cane up. I was trying to gesture to him to swing the cane around and do a dance routine, but he thought what I meant was to start hitting me with the cane. And he was doing it quite mockingly, it wasn’t that big a deal, and I was like, ’Oh, this is funny’ and singing still, but crumpled down on all fours, and I’m looking up at him with little-kid-getting-beat-up eyes.

“Then he starts hitting me harder " kind of whaling on me with his cane. And I’m tough, I can take it; I don’t want anything hostile. It’s hurting a little bit but it’s funny. But then all of a sudden I look over and he’s drawn the cane way back behind his head, and I just kind of sensed I was about to get a death blow. I’m super-non-violent and super-pacifistic, but I just turned and punched him completely in the middle of the face. Not like super-hard, but really squarely. He goes reeling back and everyone’s gone from smiling to going, ’God, I never really thought about the fact that the singer of that band could probably kick someone’s ass if it had to happen.’ I’m definitely big enough that technically I could. Suddenly it’s like: ’God, I just realised that that bear that’s been tap-dancing is a real bear. I forgot!’

“It turns out he’s got a twisted ankle " it wasn’t an affectation. I look out and I see the audience looking all aghast " ’Oh man, there’s a fight between the singer and a handicapped guy. And the singer’s winning.’ [But] one thing led to another and about eight seconds after hitting him we were French-kissing.”

2. Don’t plan.

“If we have any kind of manifesto it’s a live one, and it’s about spontaneity| The performance is so pulled out of the ass and the music is so obviously considered that seeing that at the same time is an interesting double vision.”

3. Remember that you can get away with anything.

“I remember a show in Boise, Idaho, where no-one was watching us play. three drunks were playing pool, and I remember very specifically this moment of walking over to the pool table and just hoisting the entire thing up and all the balls just rolling down to the one far-corner pocket, and the people, with cigarettes dangling out of their mouths and pool cues idling in mid-air, being like, ’What the fuck?’ You can do almost anything to people if you’re holding a microphone.”

Tim Harrington: Les Savy Fav

4. Don’t hang out backstage.

“Sitting in the backstage area where you can’t even hear the other bands and you’re like, ’I’m going to check my e-mail on their wireless connection’| that’s not conducive to having a fun night.”

5. Don’t be macho.

“The music’s pretty aggressive and there’s a lot of energy, but it’s not ever hostile or a jock energy. I think I come across as sort of a funny ape in a cage as opposed to an enraged ape in a cage.”

  1. Entertain your own band.

“My highest aspiration is for those guys to say, ’Tim that was awesome| I could barely concentrate.’”

Tim Harrington: Les Savy Fav

7. Aspire to owning a buckskin suit.

“I have this dream costume: a full buckskin suit, kind of a Davy Crockett outfit but based on this amazing photo of Charles Manson wearing one that’s always just completely blown my mind. Buckskin and a beard? It’s a good look.”

8. Play only really obvious covers.

“For the live album that’s coming out we played a show on New Year’s Day " a 3am show " in New York, and we were like, ’We want this to not be a concert " more a party’ and to that effect we played six or eight of our own songs and then eight cover songs " ’cheap shots’; songs that no music connoisseur would be like, ’Wow, I can’t believe they know that one.’ We didn’t put it on the album because AC/DC wasn’t into it, but we covered ’TNT’. And everyone goes ’T-N-T’ and sings along with that part, and I did get a total insight into why AC/DC write music they way they do because it’s completely awesome. I was like, ’Why haven’t we written songs where everyone spells letters that they know?’ Like, if we could get half the response that we got when we covered ’TNT’ with any of our songs| God, I could retire.”

9. Pick on one bouncer to win the favour of his rivals.

“If you point one bouncer out in a way that embarrasses them, you win all the other bouncers. The other guys are like, ’Oh, this guy’s hilarious! Look what he did! He rubbed Mikey’s head!’”

  1. Pick your props carefully, lest you wind up with mandarin-sized blisters.

“Last year we were playing in New York and a friend of mine had bought a rug and she couldn’t get it around the corner of the stairway so I convinced her to go to the hardware store and buy rope and we’d hoist it up two floors and in through the window, so we did that, and then I had this big giant length of rope that I got to keep, and I was like, ’I’m going to bring the rope to the show.’ There was a balcony, and I was going to make a lasso and throw it up there and then loop the rope around my foot and then I’d get dramatically hoisted on this rope by the audience.

“But I threw the rope up and someone didn’t understand me and they tied it off, like I was going to climb up myself, which I’m physically not capable of doing… I slid down this entire rope and my hand immediately exploded into blisters the size of mandarin oranges. But it was funny. I spent the rest of the show with my hands stuck in a cooler full of ice. Actually, that was better than the rope: ’He played the entire set on all fours with his hands in a bucket of ice water!’”

Tim Harrington brings his unique brand of menacing playfulness back to the UK when Les Savy Fav play the ATP vs Pitchfork Festival at Camber Sands on May 10.

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