Words by David C. Obenour
Dan Friel has been adeptly uniting the sounds of pop and fuzz for a number of years with a number of collaborators. Whether it’s playing guitar in Upper Wilds, crafting sounds for video games or experimenting with noises, instruments and friends under his own name, the constant threads are infectious melody and compelling sound exploration.
For his latest album on Thrill Jockey, Fanfare, Friel has enlisted a horn section of friends with Sunwatchers’ Jeff Tobias, Grasshopper’s Jesse DeRosa and former Parts & Labor collaborator Sam Kulik. The result is an unrelentingly uplifting experience as horns buoy the spirit of songs and the ebb and flow of noise adds intensity to each emotion.
Off Shelf: Fanfare is easily one of the most affirming and blissful feeling albums I’ve heard in awhile. Can you talk about your headspace when you were writing this music?
Dan Friel: I wasn’t feeling blissful, but I wanted to. And I definitely wasn’t feeling victorious or even optimistic, but I wanted that too. I have a room in my basement full of old amps, wires, show posters and Christmas lights, and I wrote most of this stuff while sitting in that room, almost in the dark. I think in general I usually end up making the music that I, personally need to hear.
OS: The world is in a pretty dark place these days. Did that affect you at all when you were creating Fanfare?
DF: How couldn’t it? But I don’t feel I have as much to contribute by directly reflecting that darkness in my music. People are out there doing that better than I ever could. Instead I thought about marching music, and protests, and people in the streets.
OS: It’s such a wonderful underscoring for your knack for melody, what inspired you to work with a horn section for Fanfare?
DF: Jesse [DeRosa], Jeff [Tobias] and Sam [Kulik] have been playing with me at shows on-and-off since this one in 2013, where we did fully unplugged versions with a Branca-inspired acoustic guitar army.
I wrote live arrangements of two songs from the next record, but it took me until now to get the courage to write specifically for them and try recording it. In terms of what inspired me, it just seemed special from the start, and I couldn’t think of anything that sounded like it. Also, if I’m being honest, I thought it would look sick on stage.
OS: Did you pretty much handle all of the horn arrangements or was that more of a collaborative endeavor? Either way, what went into finding how horns could best work with these songs?
DF: I wrote the arrangements, and then Jeff, Sam and Jesse generously gave me guidance. We did it all pretty quickly. I had the experience of the 3 or 4 songs we’d arranged before, so I had a pretty good idea of what would work, but I made a point of adding full solos for everyone on “Errorbird”, and experimenting with running the horns through my pedalboard on “Auxiliaries”. Some of the songs changed in mixing too. I removed myself from the opening of the song “Fanfare” to highlight the horns.
It’s also worth noting that everything was recorded in my basement, also a learning process, with the exception of “Errorbird”, where I kept and modified a recording that Jesse made on his Zoom recorder at Jeff’s practice space. It was just a monster take from one of the first times we rehearsed it, especially Jeff’s solo. So I added some drones, gave Jesse’s solo the Tony Iommi overdub treatment, and put it on the album.
OS: “Beasts” has this interesting, sort of chugging along rhythm that feels like it could have been pulled video game. How has soundtracking video games affected your approach to making music for outside of them?
DF: I have never actually soundtracked a video game, game-makers take note: I would. I did provide a set of sounds to build beats with in Bleep Space, a toy sequencer app developed by Andy Wallace, but I don’t think it counts as a soundtrack. I played a ton of 90s games as a teen, and it definitely rubbed off, but I think my chosen musical equipment transforms any musical input into something that reads as “broken video game”, and I like the flexibility that gives me.
OS: The sequencing of this album had a great flow – varying from these unrelenting anthems to slower and sludgier explorations. Can you talk about how you pulled the songs together and the order that you decided on?
DF: I’ve resisted the urge to open every response here with “thanks!”, but man that one means a lot to me. I wanted the album to have some tracks with horns and some without, both for aesthetic reasons, variety, contrast, and logistical reasons, not asking too much of my horn-playing friends, still playing solo shows. But then weaving them together at the end was challenging. I’m really glad you like the way it flows.
OS: Can you talk about your relationship with pop music? Who are some of your favorite artists for melodies and what about them resonates with you?
DF: For straight up hooks I like The Kinks, Magnetic Fields, Van Halen, Buzzcocks, also Ex Hex and Dehd.. I’ve been thinking a lot about both Dolly Parton and Sam Cooke lately. I don’t know what specifically resonates though. It’s instinctual. You hear something and then you can’t stop hearing it.
OS: The flipside of the coin, can you talk about your relationship with experimental noise music? Who are some of your favorite artists for what they add and what about them resonates with you?
DF: I got really into noise and experimental music as a teen. Between RRR records and folks like Borbetomagus, New England had a lot of that going on when I was coming up. Some of my friends from back then are still doing great raw shit, like Noise Nomads and Bromp Treb.
Noise and related stuff for me was one piece of an overall interest in extreme music, and just taking in as much as possible in general. I gradually worked my way back to incorporating melody and psych influences after hearing Circuits by Amps For Christ and the late-90s Boredoms albums. But that early access to noise and experimental music definitely broadened my ears, and highlighted for me that ambitious sonic experimentation wasn’t at all limited to academics or exclusive technology. In terms of favorites, Justice Yeldham is one of the best performers I’ve ever seen.
OS: What appeals to you about making music that straddles both worlds?
DF: When done right, both have a simplicity and a purity of intention that I want, and combining them with the least amount of dilution seems like a worthy challenge.