By Deborah J. Draisin
We've been following the travails and triumphs
of Fairmont for close to ten years now here at
Jersey Beat, checking in from time to time with
lead singer/founder Neil Sabatino to see what's
new. To help celebrate the release of the band's
fifth full-length CD, Transcendence,
Deb Draisin chatted with the current lineup to
fill in some of the blanks on the group's long
and convoluted history, and take the pulse of
these persevering indie-pop perfectionists. -
Today, Fairmont is Neil Sabatino (formerly of
Stick Figure Suicide and Pencey Prep) on guitar
and vocals, Andy Applegate on drums and percussion,
Christian Kisala (formerly of The Finals) on pianet,
synths and percussion, Clancy Flynn (a cellist
and violinist who recently recorded with Ours)
on violin, background vocals and percussion, and
Sam Corradori on backup vocals.
Q: Neil, as the one original member of
Fairmont, can you tell me how you see the band
having evolved over the last, wow, close to a
Neil: I think the band overall has evolved with the times, going from being part of the whole solo acoustic scene which was popular back in 2001 because of Dashboard Confessional all the way through its current lineup today which is kind of like The Mates Of State but with guitar, a little bit of punk and a little bit classic rock thrown in.
When I first started this band, I just wanted to keep going and going - writing record after record that explored various genres and themes lyrically, and I think I have achieved that. In the beginning, it was more trial by error that lead to the discovery of what I wanted Fairmont to be about. When I say this, I am referring to how Fairmont started as a solo acoustic project - and I so desperately wanted it to be my former band Pencey Prep, I built the band up to being a 5-piece with 2 guitars, keyboards, bass, drums, vocals and a screamer. That lineup lasted very briefly, and although seemed to be well-liked by fans, I had felt in a way that I was being fake and trying to write heavy music just to fit in with the rest of the New Jersey scene of the time.
It was the night before “Anomie” was to be recorded that an entire lineup quit on me, all except the keyboard player. This was pretty traumatic for me, and was the first step towards Fairmont getting back on track. I kind of said “Fuck it, I'm going to do mellow music that has a pop element because that is what I enjoy playing and that is what I sound best singing and playing.” The lineup that we had had for a good 2 to 3 years that played the songs of “Anomie” and “Hell is Other People” was exactly the type of indy pop I had always wanted to do but just needed the time as a songwriter to develop to that stage of writing.
I feel that “Hell is Other People” contained some very good material, although the band was not particularly happy with that record. The live material from that era is some of Fairmont's best stuff. Later when a key member, Kevin Metz, left, I felt it handicapped us for a long time. With him leaving we lost two elements - which were the second guitar and backing vocals. I believe that is why “Wait & Hope” took such a dark turn in writing style. The record was heavily influenced by John McGuire, our bassist at the time, who loved bands like The Replacements and Husker Du, and I feel like “Wait & Hope” had a very early 80's punk feel to some of the songs that probably would have been a lot more pop had McGuire not been part of the record.
Looking back, this period of Fairmont I think is when we also tried really hard to up our game as a live band. I took months of vocal lessons, Andy learned to play to a click track and we listened really hard to criticism given to us about songwriting and structure from our musician friends/producers Tom Martin, AJ Tobey, George Collazo and Matt Pelissier.
It was late in 2007 that yet again we were going through a major lineup change and had to think of where we wanted to take the band next. John McGuire had decided to leave the band, and we weren't sure exactly what to do at that point. There was always the option to try going at it as a two-piece with just Andy and myself, however, having just coming off finishing “Wait & Hope” - which I viewed as a very minimal album - I felt I didn't want to continue doing a super stripped-down Fairmont. We had few options and just started placing ads everywhere and asking everyone we knew if they knew a bass player or keyboard player that could play bass on the keys. Luckily, I had been constantly bothering Christian Kisala of The Finals to join my band for almost 2 years and this time when I asked instead of a NO I got a maybe. So we went from there. We knew it was going to be really weird to change all the songs up now that instead of bass we had keys playing bass as well as other melodies.
All the while, I was writing feverishly for “Transcendence,” and for some reason decided to write call and response girl parts in most of the songs. I had always wanted to have a female counterpart in the band doing vocals up against mine sort of in a Mates of State way, and I think after hearing how well it worked on “Wait & Hope” with Teeter Sperber, and how much fun I had singing on her project Ladybirds, I knew it was something worth trying. We did the record with Teeter and another friend of ours, Suzie Zeldin, contributing girl parts on nearly every song and I absolutely loved the dynamic of it. Live we knew this was something we had to have.
We had always thought about asking Sam Carradori to join our band but weren't sure if she would even be interested. Sam was 16 when we met her and she had sung on the “Anomie” and “Hell is Other People” albums, but she was too young at the time to come to practices every week and get to shows unless we wanted to pick her up constantly. We thought of approaching her again when we saw that she had taken an ad out on Craigslist looking for a band. We had no idea what to expect; she had sung with us maybe two times live, and on our records over four years ago, but what we would now be asking of her was to sing something on every song and really inject herself into Fairmont's sound. We were very happily surprised with how well she sang harmonies and was able to project and sing like she had been in a band for years.
We first asked Clancy Flynn to join as a violinist for the summer of 08 because she had played on “Transcendence.” The summer schedule was going to be about 40 shows and it was just a coincidence that she was able to do all the backing vocals that were on the record. Clancy joined us for Fairmont's headlining dates and for the Keith Caputo tour in August. She was leaving for school in September and this left us searching for the icing on the cake that Fairmont needed.
I feel for the first time in Fairmont's career like we are a strong band with musicians that all have an individual style but together create a sum that is greater than its individual parts. Recently, I think that audiences have been blown away at the progression of Fairmont and that they look forward to what future songs are going to sound like with this lineup. As we start to work on new material, I feel we are scrutinizing every aspect of every song and I think it's a good thing. I feel like we are writing more and more to our potential, whereas before we might have just thrown songs together and not tried to reevaluate the many different ways in which we could arrange and play it rhythmically. I think we are getting much better at writing cohesive records as well.
Christian: I think that the band is the best that
it's ever been. Nietzche said that we never evolve,
we only become more what we are, and I find that
to be true. Each album and lineup of Fairmont
has reflected (to varying degrees of effectiveness)
the band Fairmont was at the time and now, with
this current lineup, we've made the album that
Fairmont wanted to make. It feels very now, and
I'd like to think it continues the artistic growth
from “Wait and Hope.”
Q: Clancy, your background is mostly in classical music - how have you incorporated that unique perspective into your work on "Transendence?"
Clancy: My classical training is something I've needed to unlearn in a lot of ways - especially when I was working on live arrangements. I had to try to turn off the mental voices of my violin teachers and orchestra conductors going "What are you doing? You play violin, not guitar!" In that way, "Transcendence" and Fairmont helped me to just relax, improvise and experience music as well as analyze it. That notwithstanding, the ideas of texture and melodic tension that I learned from playing with string quartets helped inspire my parts and determine the role of strings in the band.
Q: Sam, as the newest member of Fairmont,
what direction would you like to shape your role
in this band into?
Sam: I would like to see my role as adding
a freshness to the band. Our music isn't just
pretty melodies; our songs represent feelings
and emotions everyone can relate to, and I want
to release that sort of energy into the performance.
Q: Christian, you add quite a bit of
spice to Fairmont's live performances, what energy
are you drawing off of that we see translating
onto that stage before us?
Christian: Well, the difference between
listening to an album and going to see a live
show should be the band's performance. There should
be something extra, something almost magical that
occurs during the creation of music. When there
are people watching and digging it, I get inspired
to add another dimension, and it's not easy, because
I can't run around like the guitarists - my movement
is rather restricted. When the crowd is less than
ideal, it gets tougher to naturally react to local
energy, so we all have to dig a little deeper
to try to draw people in.
Q: Would everyone like to give me their
own take on the message behind "Transcendence"
- what you would like listeners to take away with
them after hearing it?
Neil: I know for me, because I wrote
it, that it's biographical/autobiographical about
events that I lived through and events that my
good friend lived through. The entire album is
supposed to be the story of my friend Ron who
grew up in a spiritualist cult and is now stuck
in a small town working a shit job and all the
while dreaming of the girl he loved and let go.
Some of the songs, such as “Luck Will Change,”
which is about someone hating their day job, are
written to be cohesive with the album, and although
it totally fits into Ron's story, it was written
from my point of view about my own experiences.
I don't know what the listener will take away
from it; I hope they can relate to the lyrics
- overall it's an album that lyrically is saying
that love prevails. I hope they see that its main
character in the end finds that love is the only
thing that makes our lives matter and without
it we really are floating around aimless (as the
Clancy: The album speaks to me about the importance
of self-determination, purpose and goals. I hope
that the listener goes away feeling like they
are empowered to create meaning out of the beauty
and love in their lives. Even if it feels like
there's nothing stable to hold onto or no real
purpose to life, there is always something to
live for, potential unfulfilled. Being born into
an unknown fate and an indeterminate universe
is a scary reality - but it also means that we
are free to live, love, and define for ourselves
what is important.
Sam: All of the songs have a certain story to
them, with a distinct beauty and intelligence
behind their lyrics and melodies. "Transcendence,"
is, itself, a small portal to a storybook of the
average, everyday person. The power of the songs
brings people together and reveals something for
Andy : To me, the message behind "Transcendence" is whatever the listener takes from it. I don't know if there is a specific message from the record. It’s definitely a more positive record than the last - even my girlfriend likes it, and Neil’s mom really likes it.
Q: How have these songs colored each of your lives personally?
Neil: Performing the songs on this record definitely
leave me with more of a feeling of hope, rather
than the depressing songs of “Wait &
Hope,” which left me feeling angsty after
every show. I think the happy vibe in the newer
material shows on the band members faces, and
is moving audiences more than Fairmont has ever
before. I likethis direction and think the angst
years are all now far behind for me.
Clancy: These songs have accompanied major changes in my life - relationships, locations, occupations - you name it, it's different now from when I first worked with Fairmont. The music on "Transcendence" is all about hope. The lyrics address tragedy and disappointment, but there's still a catchy cheerfulness that pervades the album - it helped me to stay positive and focused when other things in my life seemed chaotic.
Christian: Does anyone have any idea why some people
spell it c-o-l-o-u-r? When i was little, I read
all the “Paddington Bear” books and
it was spelt that way, so I learned to spell it
like that. When I was in school, I'd always get
confused as to the "correct" spelling.
I've since learned the difference, but I do admit
to being partial tothe "u." (writer’s
note: colour is actually the British spelling,
and the Paddington Bear books are British.)
Sam: The songs have altered a portion of my life, which I thought had no meaning. Neil's lyrics paint pictures to the unique fantasies and anxieties of everyday life, which I thought only existed in my mind. They've helped me to understand that most complex situations don't really have any real meanings behind them, giving me a chance to truly breathe some fresh air and to understand that we're all in this together.
Q: Neil, the lyrics have begun bordering on...hopeful? What changes have you made recently that brought on this new approach to songwriting?
Neil: I was on tour in April 2007, flying to Seattle to play a few solo shows on the West Coast; it seemed nothing was going right with the band at that time. My good friend, Teeter Sperber, had myself and my wife as her guests at her home in Cannon Beach, Oregon and she just kept telling me how much better my life would be if I was just positive about everything. She gave me the whole summary of that book “The Secret,” and I really didn't believe a word of it, but I decided to try for once in my life to be positive about everything that was going on and concentrate on the things that were bothering me and think of solutions. Within two days of returning from that trip, the major issue that had plagued me for over eight years was resolved; it was a huge dispute with a former record label, and I felt like positivity fixed that situation. I tried this some more, and felt like everything was going in the direction I had always wanted it to go in. I let go of a lot of regrets and hate that I had been holding onto, because originally I thought I needed that angst to write good songs. I never realized that once I had gotten past all that that I would write music that far surpassed any previous work (well at least I hope that is true.)
Christian: Did everyone get that? Neil just said that Fairmont is directly inspired by the book "The Secret." Please notify everyone to include that in our list of influences: “Fairmont sounds like you're reading the book 'The Secret.’"
Andy: Well, some of the songs bring back memories (both good and bad.)
Q: How would each of you describe what you do to family, friends and the uninitiated?
Neil: I personally think that I drive everyone crazy with my obsessive compulsiveness - this goes for friends, family and fans alike. I'm like that itchy scab that never heals and never goes away (just ask my enemies.)
Christian: I don't think I have to describe what I do to them. Like, I try to just treat everyone fairly, and if someone gets hurt in the process, I don't consider it "doing" something to someone, I just think that it's something that happened. It's not like I'm running around stabbing people, or anything. What's this question leading to? Oh... it's the last question? Weird…
Clancy: Fairmont is the band you should hire to play at all your postmodern and existential crises.
Andy: I tell them I play music and they can figure out the rest on their own.
Where to catch them:
December 4 – 8:00 p.m. – The West Side – 1145 McBride Avenue, West Paterson, NJ - $7 (Christian’s Birthday Show)
December 12 – 8:00 p.m. – The Press Room w/Tim McCoy – Portsmouth, NH
February 7, 2009 – 8:00 p.m. – Fontana’s – New York, NY (with The Stationary Set, The Minus Scale and The Narrative)
February 21 – 8:00 p.m. – The Smiling Moose – Pittsburgh, PA (with Signal to the Ocean Estate)
Read up / Listen Up / Catch A Vid:
Read Deb's review of Transcendence here.