In this week's print edition I wrote about Les Savy Fav channeling their earliest punk impulses into a band almost 15 years old. I spoke with singer Tim Harrington from his home in New York.
The following has been been condensed and edited.
MERCURY: SINCE MANY IN THE BAND HAVE GOTTEN MARRIED OR HAD CHILDREN, I ONCE HEARD THE WAY LES SAVY FAV NOW OPERATES DESCRIBED AS OLD FRIENDS GETTING TOGETHER FISHING TRIP. BUT INSTEAD OF FISHING YOU GUYS PLAY PUNK.
Harrington: I feel like there's somewhat more commitment than dudes on a fishing trip. But definitely I think the relationships that we've been in with each other as a band are longer than any of our relationships outside of our families. And because of that, there's a hard-wired connection between all of us. that definitely makes being in a band—or staying in the band— work in a way that supports our whole lives rather than atrophying is really really amazing.
It's fantastic. It's akin to the feeling of when you first have a band that anyone comes to see playing you can't believe people are actually here.
I often describe us at the world's most unprofessional, functioning band. Because of that we keep an audience that's interested in us. That they have an appetite for what we're doing, come to see us live and hear our music, is always like, "oh my gosh—this is amazing."
It feels like how I imagine rock bands feel like.
A lot of times a band that's been around for a long time, the intensity fades. Or it becomes like a normal job and you're like, 'ehh, this isn't very fun or glamourous or as exciting as I thought it was going to be.' For us, it's more exciting than I thought it was going to be.
I think that has a lot to do with that fact that we don't do it with a disciplined regiment. It's not very disciplined—the whole operation. (laughs) So you're always like, "I can't believe this didn't fall apart." The thrill of it disassembling itself is always at the front of my mind.
WAS THAT THE GUIDING PHILOSOPHY FROM THE START?
When Williamsburg became a quote-unquote "scene" in like 2001, 2000, right around when "Go Forth" came out there was a crossroads when we could've decided: are you going to make this a job or not. And I think we made the really deliberate decision to not.
The reason why we followed up "Go Forth" with what seemed like a perpetual stream of 7"'s leading up to "Inches" was because we were like, 'we want to do everything on our own time and to our own liking." Having to deliberately ignore professional music expectations at that point that was a big challenge.
There really was this sense of this weird inertia that you're obliged to follow, and to always be the motor behind our own band as opposed to get it like a train running down a hill.
SO YOU ALL HAVE OTHER JOBS OUTSIDE OF THE BAND?
Everyone in the band does other projects and I think that's a big part of it. I'm a designer, Seth's an illustrator, Harrison paints, Syd runs the label, Andrew is a filmmaker. No one in our band has sucky jobs. That makes it.
I think when a band hits a certain level it's hard not to kind of take over because it's this weird Frankenstein that you create to do your bidding and suddenly you have to do it's bidding.
The size of the audience we have, still it's not Frankenstein. It's really manageable in a way that we value and I appreciate. It allows our band to operate in a way that's different from most bands our size.
SPEAKING OF CREATING A FRANKENSTEIN, THE ACTIVE WAY YOU PERFORM, DOES THE EXPECTATION OF THAT EVER GET TOO MUCH TO BEAR?
I would never know what else to do. I'm acting entirely by my own desire and what moves me. I've always felt like the only real people I'm particularly trying to entertain are the rest of the guys in the band an myself and I think that happens handily. I don't know what to do with myself.
I remember touring with the Make Up forever ago. Ian Svenonius and I were talking about being the frontman of a band and you don't know how to play any instruments you get nervous and I just start doing stuff.
Recently Seth and I played a radio show where it was just him and me playing. It wasn't really an opportunity for me to perform. I guess it was substantially more difficult for me. More difficult than running around.
HAVE YOU EVER GOTTEN HURT?
Nothing serious, knock on wood.
The way we interact with the audience is really positive. Having been to 18 billion hard core shows in my teens and tweens (I learned how to interact).
Once I tried to swing down a rope from a 3rd story balcony. My hands weren't strong enough to hold my big body. But it worked out. I played the rest of the show with my hands in a beer cooler filled with ice.
I think I might be a savant engineer. I'm good at deciding what are load-bearing structures and what aren't. I haven't anything collapse under me or on top of me. Lightbulbs have smashed down on my head a couple of times. Not too many disasters I don't think.
YOU SOUND PRETTY LUCKY, CONSIDERING.
Whenever I see video footage of it I say "look at how slow you are." If I see video of us I am, more often than not, convinced that more needs to be done during the live show. I'm proud that our band is pretty hard to document in a way that's effective. I'm always wanting to be everywhere in the entire room at once. It's difficult to film.
You have to be there. All that stuff pales in comparison to the spontaneous energy of a real show.
I THINK IT'S EVEN HARD TO CAPTURE A LIVE BAND THAT STANDS STILL.
Why our band loves playing live, a part of our reputation as a live band, it's one of the last vestiges of things in this world that you have to get off your ass and go to. The energy that we like when we play live is sort of less common, in a lot of ways, than every single band I ever saw. There's some shade or flitter of crazy...
One of our favorite bands, which we reference in the first song on Root For Ruin is the Silver Jews. (Their frontman) Dave Berman is a guy who has this static charisma that I admire. I'm always impressed that all he has to do is switch the microphone from one hand to the other and it always feels like 'whoa, what just happened?'
There's just something for us, wanting a kind of direct, spontaneous energy that is distinctly different from what's recorded or a video tape or anything. And I think that's why people are drawn to live music—even the less engaging live bands.
A FEW YEARS AGO YOU ANNOUNCED WORK ON A MELLOW ALBUM, "RABBIT TRANCING." WHAT HAPPENED TO THAT?
I don't know. We started doing it and we'd be working with a song that was really slow and atmospheric and then the next thing you know someone would speed it up. Someday we'll put out our ambient, hypnotic record.
With Root For Ruin the band is so much more music that kind of music that appealed to us when we first started—the kind of stuff that drew us into music....
When the economy tanked a couple years ago, I was very much thinking about the late-70's scene when New York was at the depths of the depth—a temper tantrum of punk. This most recent recession had a way more pacifying affect where the music that came out of it was more of a thumb-sucking thing than cry baby freakout tempter tantrums—if you want to consider all music like babies.
In that respect I was like, 'uh oh.' When we were going to write Root For Ruin I was deliberately saying fuck off to overly musically critical albums. During Let's Stay Friends I needed a capital "A" Album—like each song had a relationship to the one before and after it.
When we went in to start writing Root For Ruin, everyone was like, "fuck all that stuff. You're in a band for 13, 14 years and all of a sudden it gets really easy to start being super snobby. And in a lame way—like putting a top hat on everything, making albums like a concept album or a precious thing as opposed to when you start a band. you're just like, "oh my god, I can't believe we have nine awesome songs that we can record."
The goal is "is this song awesome, does it get me psyched?" That's what the writing process was like for Ruit For Ruin.
THE IDEA FORCING PEOPLE TO GET OFF THEIR ASS AND THE LIMP RESPONSE TO THE FINANCIAL CRISIS DO SEEM DO DOVETAIL—OR CERTAINLY THERE SEEMS A NEED.
It all makes sense to me. One of the things I thought about a lot was what it would be like to be 13 years old, 14 years old and getting exposed to music. For me, my parents weren't big music fans. I didn't have a lot of exposure. Somehow, I accidentally stumbled on to some punk rock and hardcore, and I was totally astonished that this existed. I would read the liner notes on the back of the album and order any band that was mentioned.
There was this amazing scarcity to it. I just wonder how that differs from how everyone has ten-thousand songs in their pocket at all times. There's a kind of inevitable connoisseurship that comes from that—being exposed to such a vast quantity of music, like I'm the curator of myself music becomes a big thing. And then you turn into a why-be-normal? Like 'I heard that folk-scene from singapore from the late-70's, we were really influenced by that, and also influenced by this 1920's avant-garde guy.' You've got to kind of pick and choose from a palate where colors are not bands but entire scenes. Having less influences can be a good thing—or the meaning of the influences is less.
My high school-aged cousin is dropping all kinds of musical science on me and I'm just like, 'eh.' I have a pretty racist appetite for music.
WHAT ELSE DO YOU HOPE TO DO WITH THIS BAND?
Eh, nothin'. (laughs) We've never had anything we've wanted to do—we're already doing it. Our band is boring in it's lack of planning. We're just doing the same thing we've done from day one: "hey let's play a bunch of shows. Oh my God, there's people here. Cool! Let's keep doing it."
I think it's a macro version of the live show—there's no pre-defined architecture. It's getting cobbled together as it goes. That's how we've always operated the band. The closest thing would be "let's do a super low-key ambient record" and look what happened to that. (laughs)
WHEN YOU LOOK BACK TO STARTING THIS BAND, HOW IS WHAT HAPPENED DIFFERENT FROM WHAT YOU IMAGINED?
No one that old should be in a band, that's what I would've thought.
The band, from the perspective of any album, or from the perspective of any given live show, it's just not product oriented. It's process oriented. "What's our plan?" or "what did we project?," I think everyone in the band has a hard-line discipline about not doing that. For whatever reason it slows things down and makes more of a pain in the ass, but there's some compulsion.