Interview by Jim Testa
I met Neil Sabatino sometime in the late Nineties,
when he was playing guitar in Stick Figure Suicide, one of
those popular local bands that actually seemed poised to land
a record deal and reach an audience beyond New Jersey. (It
didn't happen.) At the time, he was also promoting and booking
shows at several all-ages venues, just as New Jersey's emo
scene was exploding, and bands like Bigwig and Midtown were
drawing huge audiences.
Neil Sabatino has always been the busiest man in New Jersey
for as long as I've known him, and he was right in the middle
of that scene.
As the 21st Century dawned, Neil decided to strike off on
his own and started performing as Fairmont, initially a singer/songwriter
showcase for a guitarist and songwriter who had never sung
in public. There were lots of growing pains, and Jersey Beat
covered all of it; happily, over the years, I've watched Fairmont
evolve through multiple personnel and style changes into one
of the state's premier indie bands. Neil has also helped launch
the careers of a slew of new artists and provided a platform
for many more with his label, Mint 400 Records. Neil not only
runs Mint 400, but actively helps promote shows and has been
involved in several local festivals. Busy busy busy.
Now Neil has decided to revisit Fairmont's earliest days with
a collection entitled Demos & Lost EP's, 2001 - 2003.
As someone who's always been focused on moving forward, Neil
has taken a moment to look back, and we asked him why.
Q: Obviously, the first question is why you wanted
to release this record. If you were proud of the songs,
you could have re-recorded them with your current lineup,
so there must be something about these particular recordings
that you wanted to share with the public. Could you discuss
Neil Sabatino: First, yes, you are correct, if I thought
these songs were amazing I could just have the current,
very capable lineup of Fairmont record them. That is not
at all what this is about. This is about a certain period
of time when the band was finding itself. When I say “band”
I mostly mean me, as a songwriter. I had just gotten out
of Stick Figure Suicide, a heavy fast punk band, and then
Pencey Prep, doing emo mixed with metal and indie punk.
So I was still trying to be a little bit of that while trying
to figure out what worked best for my voice and the players
that I had available. The songs are what they are, they
are missing the fundamentals of what makes some of my later
work much much better. I used to not always write a bridge,
sometimes songs needed editing, sometimes the vocals were
out of key or the band played out of time. It had an energy
and a style I wouldn’t be able to replicate. It’s
like a photograph of a specific time and place and if you
liked the sound of the local bands of that era, this is
a portrait of one of them. It’s kind of like any band
that sticks around a long time, I think there are a couple
people that want to hear how the songs and band progressed
and got from point A to point B.
If you listen to our first album Pretending Greatness
Is Awaiting from 2001, which I think is a weird, off
key mix of songs, and then you go to our 2003 second album
Anomie, there is a world of difference in the songs,
the vocals, the song structures and overall musicianship.
To me, our second album Anomie was pretty much
what The Front Bottoms were doing almost 10 years later,
a mix of folky indie punk. That was what we were best at.
It took the collection of 26 songs that is contained in
this release to get from the first album to the second album.
A lot of fans from around the world have asked us why these
songs were not available anymore, anywhere, so I think for
the few people who wanted it, they will really enjoy it.
Q: I did probably half a dozen Fairmont interviews
over the years where you came right out and say that you
didn't know how to sing when you started this project, and
learned over the years. A lot of people might not want people
to hear them learning how to sing. How do you feel hearing
those early recordings now?
NS: Bob Dylan and Lou Reed didn’t always give great
vocal performances so you either dig it and like the unique
thing I did during those years, and the unique way I sung
before I knew how to sing properly, or you don’t.
Nobody is being forced to pay attention and I think having
more art out in the world is a good thing, someone will
find value in it. Any young musician who is just starting
their journey can check this album out and then venture
forward to 2008 when we did our Transcendence album
and be awestruck that this is the same band. It seemed like
we’d never get to that point of writing a hi-fi concept
indie rock pop gem like that when we first started, but
this compilation is the roots of that.
One of the main things that drove me to never give up on
this project was how much people hated my voice in the early
days and how poor the response was to this project. I didn’t
care then and I certainly don’t care now what anyone
has to say about the music I choose to perform and release.
Not saying we’re Radiohead, but their recent release
of 18 hours of leaked demos and stuff they were working
on in the 90’s gave a portrait of a band in a transitional
period and to a much lesser extent that is what we are doing
For you, Jim, I know you love Screeching Weasel or The
Ramones or whoever. So I’m sure when those bands do
those “Deluxe Edition” things with demos and
rough versions of stuff you like, you’re going to
of course check it out and listen. I’m not saying
that more than a few people are going to find my journey
musically as exhilarating as Radiohead or The Ramones but
it’s also not every day that a local band remains
a band for 20 years putting out consistent releases and
gives you a peak behind the creative process. So far though
the people who have heard it found it nostalgic and enjoyed
Q: Is there a good story of how the "lost"
EP's were lost?
NS: It was just the whole issue of coming into existence
at the end of the analog era and the beginning of the digital
era. At first at least 10-13 tracks of this were on two
different EP’s that we did sell at shows. Then once
the CD’s were gone we made the songs available on
our website for years until the hosting companies decided
that they wanted to charge us an arm and a leg to host that
much material, so we were forced to take it all down. So
for the last probably 5 or more years, those two EP’s
were nowhere. Also the CD pressings were relatively small,
I think only about 1000 of each existed.
When I was thinking of putting this out I wanted to pretty
much get out any material that was intended to be an EP
or was a demo that we were handing out on CD back in the
early 2000’s and then in addition add a few of the
tracks that never made it to an album. The tail end of disc
1 was intended to be on a split CD with friends of ours
(The Minus Scale) who never finished their EP. Then disc
2 starts with an early 2 song demo featuring Scott Wyden
Kivowitz and two songs he co-wrote with me, “Artemis”
and “True Love Waits,” songs that would appear
on Anomie. “True Love Waits” appeared
again on 2008’s “Transcendence.” There
is a good mix of random home recordings and the whole thing
ends with the only evidence we have of Cornelius “Corn”
Moore Jr. being in our band. As one can hear he gave a whole
different feel to our music and the people who caught us
live in summer 2002 certainly would not forget seeing Corn
play drums for us.
Not sure if you were hoping for a story like a government
operative stole our master tapes and we had to go on a Goonies
like adventure to retrieve them.
Q: When the Milwaukees recently released their
20th anniversary compilation album, they did a record release
show where they had some of their old members come back
and play a few of the early songs. Are you planning anything
NS: We initially tried to do that sort of thing for our
10th Anniversary and our drummer Andy Applegate was having
health problems and could not participate. Andy has had
continued health problems and in the last year or two has
not been able to play with us. Andy is just as much Fairmont
as I am. He was with me since 2003. The other main guy has
been Christian Kisala, who joined in 2007. Those two guys
helped me write the album Transcendence,,
which I feel from that point forward was really what Fairmont
is all about, that sound and aesthetic. If anything we would
probably try to play that album as a band and hopefully
Andy would be able to participate in some way.
I don’t want to diminish what Scott Wyden Kivowitz,
John McGuire, Bruno Rocha and Kevin Metz all added to the
band during their time playing with me. I just think the
songs were not that great mostly because of me. They joined
the band when I tried everything under the sun and I think
playing a lot of that stuff now would sound kind of dated
and not all that great. They just weren’t my best
Q: Fairmont is a 21st Century Band, I think it's
fair to say. You entered the scene as the 20th Century ended
and the band has grown and evolved over the last 20 years.
Napster was born in 1999 and that started the era when the
CD slowly started to be replaced by digital files. You not
only kept a band together through that era, but a record
label. Can you reflect on how the evolution of technology
like mp3's and cable modems and now cell phones and streaming
services have impacted both your band and your label?
NS: It’s kind of crazy how far everything has come.
I just narrowly escaped the analog era. By 2001, when I
started Fairmont, I had only done a handful of albums to
tape, and it seemed at least on the recording end everything
was going digital which meant it was cheaper and quicker
to get recordings done. We were around from when MP3.com
existed and the distributor we were with changed owners
so many times until finally it all got bought up by Sony
& The Orchard, who we remain with now for digital distro.
But when I think back to how many different sites hosted
our mp3s and streamed our stuff, .from MP3.com to PureVolume.com
to MySpace.com to Spotify and others, we had a pretty good
digital run. We sold probably in the neighborhood of 10,000
CD’s, but coupled with digital streaming for 20 years,
we definitely feel like at least a million people have heard
us. That’s ok in my book.
I do remember how angry we got when torrents were rampant
and before our records were even out they were on every
torrent site. That really killed it for trying to recoup
any kind of money that we had put out. Which is kind of
why we spent years becoming self sufficient and learning
to produce and record our own albums so we didn’t
have to worry about recouping much. That’s where most
of us are at dealing with being modern bands.
I feel bad for the younger bands on my label (Mint 400
Records) because it felt like back in the late 90’s
into the early 2000’s, more people came out to see
local bands and they were more willing to buy the merch
and just being overall more supportive. Now the best you
can hope for is streaming, which pays close to nothing and
also doesn’t really give you an idea of who is checking
out your music. It becomes isolating to the musician and
the band. The crazy part is exponentially my label reaches
way more people than what we could have done in the early
2000’s. We have videos and songs that get 20k-30k
streams in a day, that is a big amount of people but it
pays less than selling five CD’s. So in the end to
the artist those just feel like numbers on a screen and
not a tangible thing.
In the early 2000’s, you can’t tell me a band
like The Components wouldn’t be selling like 30-50
CD’s and kicking so much ass on a national tour in
front of 500 kids a night and sadly they have to settle
for doing these local shows and hoping people are streaming
their songs. It just feels wrong. The artists in this nation
have been devalued. However, just like me, the ones who
got something to say will keep on saying it and creating
art and the pay check or the public adoration don’t
matter one bit. VanGogh died thinking he was a failure.
Fairmont will perform at Stosh's in Fairlawn NJ
on Friday, July 19, with Rosey Bengal, pioneer the eel,
Holler & The Hand, and 21 Kings, https://www.facebook.com/events/302954523926131.
For more information, visit
fairmontmusic.com and Mint400Records.com.