Images courtesy of The Faint
Saddle Creek: if you know, you just know. I've been a very-emotional listener since long before I figured out what my ears were, and for help finding said ears, I have gigabytes of music from the Omaha-based indie record label to thank.
So when I heard that the Saddle Creek upstarts, and dance-punk patriarchs The Faint were releasing Doom Abuse, their first studio album in six years, on record label SQE, and have a national tour which features a whole bunch of crazy new software and technology designed by the band themselves (including generative video panels and an Arduino/LED drumset & more etc., etc., etc.), I literally jumped at the opportunity to talk to the dudes from whose distorted, dystopian tunes I curated all my awesome dance moves.
I spoke to drummer Clark Baechle over the phone, and he was nice enough to send us exclusive images of their new setup, and an all-new rendering from the live show. Below, in all its fanboy-ing glory, my interview with The Faint:
The Creators Project: So, Doom Abuse. First album in six years. What took so long?
Clark Baechle: It definitely wasn’t the writing process—the whole thing was written and mixed in about 3 months. After the last record came out in 2008, we toured for like a year straight and when we got back it was… That record took us forever to write. We’d just gotten a new studio, so with all the time in the world, we took it and ran with every idea. At the end, we were all just burned out on it, and after touring, we needed a break. Todd [Fink, vocalist and keyboards] moved to LA for a bit, then Athens, GA. We all did different things, some electronic projects, and kept busy. In 2011, I was on tour with Bright Eyes for almost a year.
We were taking a break from The Faint, but then Todd moved back to Omaha. We were all in the city together again, and all of a sudden it felt like fun. We were waiting until we wanted to do it, not like, 'Well, we’re a band, we finished an album, we should make another one,' you know? We wanted to feel good about it.
We did a 12-inch EP right before we did a tour because we wanted to have some new music out, and when we came back, we gave ourselves what felt like a ridiculous deadline. I think this record feels more inspired and fun, and I like it better than our last few just because it was so easy to make. We didn’t second guess anything, just started recording as soon as we had ideas. It just popped out.
I was going to suggest that if you had been laboring for six years, it would have been running against the current wave of really rapidly output music.
We’ve always been pretty slow at it, or at least for the last couple [albums]. But for Danse Macabre, we spent a good amount of time writing it, then were in the studio for two months. At the time, that was forever, but compared to the last record, relatively nothing. That was what we wanted to get back to—we mixed it with Mike Mogis, and he had to be done with it by a certain time, so it was an actual deadline and not just one we tried to give ourselves. That helped knock it out, and to have to make decisions and commit to things.
So tell me about the first video from the album, Help in the Head, and about working with Tim Nackashi.
We needed a video done, and it came real down to the wire. Usually we have more to do with it; for that one, we accepted video treatments, picked one, and when all was said and done, Tim had about four or five days to shoot and finish the entire video. I think it turned out real good for how rushed it was. We’ve shot a couple since then in Omaha, and we’re going to have more of a hand in the editing and VFX and stuff. But for the pinch we put ourselves in, it turned out real great.
Five days is nothing for an entire video, including delivery.
Yeah, I was surprised. But Tim’s a pro. But we made it in LA, where you can find other pros and get things done fast. It probably would have taken us longer.
Can you talk about the new show, and the programming you’ve done for it?
We’re certainly still in the middle of it. I’m using a few programs to create the content. We have lights that are programmed, many via MIDI, and that’s the way we’ve done it for ten years or so.
We’ve got a strand of video panels straight back and scattered around the stage, and thats what I’m just starting to create content for: the videos, that will show up on the screens. They’re triggered via MIDI at this point, and we’re using a variety of programs to make that all happen.
There’s this program called Isadora: we’ve been using it since the very first time we did projections back in 2000. The program was recommended to us by a friend, and it worked great, but didn’t have one thing we needed. We got ahold Mark, who writes the program, and he wrote a new section of the actor that we could use so the videos preloaded and would start instantly when they were hit with any note. It’s user-friendly like that; he’s helped us out every time we’ve run into an obstacle. There’s just so much you can do with video, lighting, and MIDI with that program, it’s amazing. Any time I have an idea, I seem to be able to write a program in Isadora that will do it.
Do you have a programming background?
Other than The Faint, no (laughs). This is all stuff that I’ve figured it out. The first time we got a Groovebox, I’d never touched anything like it. I started figuring it out, then we started running our show on an MPC. I guess I’m the kind of guy who decides to learn something he doesn’t know anything about. I always enjoy that stressful process—in the end it’s rewarding; I’ve figured something out. Once you start to understand the aspects of one programming language, the others start making more sense. I randomly dove into Isadora, bit by bit.
One other element of the show is this clear drum set I had made by C&C, and I installed LED lights in them that are all custom programmable through this Arduino board I built. It’s a little micro-controller, so I built a little Arduino controller.
This is my first Arduino project, using the first board I’ve bought. Basically, Adafruit sells these strips of NeoPixels with sixty LEDs per meter. They’re each individually programmable, and you have to write software in Arduino to get them up and running. I built a little box that powers them, and I can send the data and power through quarter-inch cables. I have quarter-inch jacks built into each of the drums, and so I can trigger the MIDI with drumsticks, or a sensor. As far as what the patterns do, it’s however many looks I program in the software. I’ve got some software writing to fix for sure, because I’m just guessing, and when it doesn’t work, guessing again.
Do you find any intersections between writing code and writing music?
They’re very different, but if I'm in the same process of writing a song or jamming out on things, I end up with parts in my head when I go out to eat. You hear little melodies and you think, ‘Oh, I should try that.’ Oddly enough, the same thing happens with writing code. If I’m in that mode, I’ll be out driving around, and my brain starts running functions to turn the turn signal on. You get sucked into both, and in that way it’s similar. But as far as actual thought processes go, it’s pretty different. I wouldn’t relate it other than that your mind gets locked into whatever creative mode when you’re doing it a lot.
Since 1998, your growth as a band has run parallel to the dawn of all this contemporary technology. The world has changed very drastically since. I’m wondering how you guys have responded to this brave new world, and where you see it going.
Technology has changed a bunch, which is good for us. Originally, we always had ideas for things that didn't exist yet. Or, we’d find crappy versions of those ideas, implement them into our set, and by the end of the tour, find out about new programs that would have made things way easier. We’d been running the set on MPCs for years, and at some point I was like okay, if we switch over to a laptop it’s going to be a lot safer to go out and back it up. In a day, you could have your show ready for that night, and try out your software. An MPC is a solid machine, but if something does go wrong, it’s hard to find one that has the right amount of RAM, and all the outputs, plus they’re getting rarer and rarer...
We had to shift, like, 'Let’s update into the modern world for our live show so we don’t get stuck too far behind.' I think in general, we keep up on most things. I don’t feel like I’ve really embraced the social media part of technology, but everything else I feel like I’m in tune with, as far as computers and knowing what’s up are concerned.
If you could have any equipment that doesn’t technologically exist yet, what would it be?
Transparent LED walls and screens. Originally, we were hoping to use them, but they’re really expensive and not that great yet. There’s gotta be material for a fiber-optic glowing net that’s transparent and cheap.
I’ve seen things like this, and most of them work well from far away, but you can't see through them and see the video well, too. Up close, they’re bulkier than the products I just dreamt up with you.
Well, I could literally pick your brain for hours, but I do eventually have to cut a cohesive interview. My last question is a fanboy thing: Steve Berra's been into The Faint for a long time. Did you guys ever get to skate The Berrics?
We have, a few times. It’s been a few years, though. It’s an awesome place, and a cool skatepark. We’ll usually have a couple hours every now and then, but we try not to skate while we’re on tour because we get hurt!
Doom Abuse, the sixth studio album from The Faint, is out today on SQE. Visit their website to order it on vinyl, cd, or digital download, and to order tickets for their upcoming national tour.