Walking through Freelove Fenner’s Bottle Garden, the name of the duo’s analog recording studio, is like strolling through a home recorder’s dream world. Vintage instruments, percussive tidbits and professional tape equipment and effects adorn and clutter almost every corner of the basement that lies beneath their living quarters in Montreal’s Mile End.
Hand built and acquired personally over the last several years, the Bottle Garden is the physical byproduct of the songwriting duo’s desire to explore and experiment with the art of recording their own ever expanding catalogue of art pop gems.
Freelove Fenner is made up of songwriters and cohabitants Peter Woodford and Caitlin Loney (with added drumming duties from Michael Wright), two uber curious and informed music fans who have been playing music geek tennis with each other for the best part of a decade, since first meeting. Which is why their debut LP (although there’s been several releases and one offs over the years), Do Not Affect A Breezy Manner, which came out on Fixture at the end of last year, sounds like the work of indie veterans.
Not only is the songwriting brilliant, tight, and completely “free of unnecessary flab,” as Peter enjoys aspiring for, but the recordings themselves are magnificent. This is no halfway-analog recording project. The duo have actually built a real studio, in the spirit of the times past, and read technical books and interviews ad infinitum in order to learn how to capture and reproduce psychedelic techniques and modulation effects and all kinds of unique, hands-on studio trickery, all on their own.
The result is something so beautifully unique, self-referential and sustainable (as the name Bottle Garden suggests) that only they could have produced it. The songs are minimal and limited instrumentation wise, yet winding and expansive in a vintage-sepia toned way, which stems from their remarkable talent to use songwriting and arrangements and performance to deliver feeling, rather than reverb units and volume.
When asked what influences inspire the band, the duo cite records from Brian Eno, whose “records always seem to toe the line between experiment and pop. We are very interested and invested in that line. But naturally we’ve both spent years digesting and internalizing things like folk music, 60s rock, 70s punk, post punk and electronica, among all other things.”
A decade might seem like a long time to put out one full length, but that’s because Freelove Fenner have been a band for a decade in the same way that Brooklyn’s Crystal Stilts have, ie: prioritizing a lot of behind the scenes development and experimenting with ideas and ethos’ and sounds, rather than just impulsively wanting to be “a band, man,” for it’s own sake.
In terms of the recordings, theres deliberation and execution in terms of pure ear candy that maybe only other music geeks would pick up on: like the perfect way the tambourine is captured, affected and sat between the instruments on tracks like "Lash+Brow"; or the backwards cymbals at the outro of "Sad Emporia"; or the backwards guitars on "We Knew Her"; or.. the list goes on. And on. Awesomely.
And that is why the resultant songs sound like a homogenized blend of 60s rock pioneers Love and electronic experimenters Broadcast, interpreted through the lens of a post-punk band, like Wire.
But even that doesn’t really do it justice. There’s just always so much going on in terms of fandom – ideas, or lyrics, or sounds, or recording techniques - that Freelove Fenner render themselves as one of those bands where it’s kinda useless to try, and better to just put on high quality headphones and…. enjoy.
Add to all that is the composition of the record as a whole: an 18 track sonic collage of art pop songs and weird soundscapes and affectations of varying length that challenge the idea of what a track actually is. This collage-like layout results in it being difficult to recall which track is what, allowing listeners to get lost in depths of the record, even after listening to it numerous times.
And then there’s the lyrics. Handpicked and deliberated by the two back and forth for a long time before anything goes to record, the lyrics are entirely non-derivative, constantly flying left and right field, yet never feeling desperate or trying. And there’s no shortage of ideas or short stories to fill up the tracks.
Take "Sad Emporia", for example, a personal favorite, where Cait sings “Sales, Fortune, Sales, High. Arrows climbing x and y. Following your mercury line” on top of meandering, sea woozy guitar and bass lines, and bouncing drums. It sounds like math class in a gypsy’s camp or something. The duo are quick to explain the inspiration of the song being the idea of “using a psychic to get stock tips.” Well, that’s a novel idea.
But when listening, lost in the track, it feels like the most natural thing in the world. And almost all the songs and tracks are sprinkled and covered with offshoot ideas like this, cultural references, and all kinds of left vs right brained amusements.
This level of detail comes from the duo being extremely critical of each other with regards to songwriting, or what it is they’re trying to achieve, or what the band means, or how it should be presented. Even over the course of the interview, the two tongue-in-cheekishly correct each other and poke fun here and there, in a way that is productive and affectionate, maybe sometimes harsh, yet always honest. This dynamic, whilst rare or potentially destructive in the wrong hands, seems to work wonders for the duo due to a seemingly intense mutual understanding and trust.
Freelove Fenner’s penchant for analog recording is not restricted to music though, as the duo also produce all of their own photos, artwork and videos themselves, with the odd hand from friends or the label. All multimedia work is also captured and edited on film as well, establishing the duos dedication to tape and analog means.
Live, the band’s post-punkier sensibilities come out as the band put on a very DIY show, resorting to their stripped down songwriting, arrangement strength and performance to sell the songs. Considering they have the Bottle Garden as their ammunition depot, shows for Freelove Fenner basically just means picking up a handful of their favorite gear and shifting it to whatever venue or space for the course of a few hours to carry on doing for others what they were probably doing for themselves at home anyway.
Catch Freelove Fenner live this summer, who will be touring Canada with Montreal’s Ought – a genius summer 2014 lineup - and others.
Photos courtesy of Tessa Smith
Steven Viney is a writer living in Montreal. He's on Twitter.