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Saturday, June 14, 2008

Tinyfolk: Sic Semper Equis (2008) + Part 2 Interview With Russ Woods

Hi folks, today I have Part 2 of my interview with the illustrious Russ Woods of Tinyfolk, the Lo-Fi-ish, Post-Easy Listening, formally-ukulele-wielding-now-Garageband commanding sensation. You can read Part 1 here. After the interview is my review of Sic Semper Equis. Let’s get it started.

Taken by Adam Zolkover

Foggy: Often your albums would have the phrase "and sometimes Meghan Lamb". Do you have to beg her to sing on your songs or is it more collaborative? Or does it fluctuate?

Russ: I begged her to throw some vocals on Sic Semper Equis. It didn't happen. I love making art with her, but basically we get really really silly when we write together. If you've ever watched any of the Forever Wolf music videos, you'll know what I mean. I think if we were trying to do more serious things together it would be difficult just because we think so differently about music and art. Our brains work very differently, and that's why I'm consistently so amazed at the music and art she makes. I could never do anything like that. I wouldn't even think to come up with something like that. Iron Like Nylon is one of my biggest influences, honestly, and I beg Meghan for feedback on every song I write. I think I like to play up the fact that she's in the band a lot, even though she doesn't actually participate much in the recording or writing of the songs, or some of the live shows. I like to play it up because I feel like I get a lot of ideas from her, and I feel like my exposure to her tastes in art and music has directed a lot of where Tinyfolk has gone in the past two years.

Foggy: Could you explain the Y2K theme a bit more?

Russ: Basically the theme of the album is exactly what is presented in the lyrics of “Thus Always Horses” and (to a lesser extent) “Animals are Stupid.” A forest full of animals panics because they hear about Y2K coming, and they work and work and work to fix it, and when it comes, nothing happens, because they don't have computers.

Unless you mean "Why2k?" in that case, I decided to use it because a) I think it's hilarious, b) I wanted to do something that was about nature, but sounded as "unnatural" as possible, i.e. with the voices of the animals all being auto-tuned and robotic, and the only acoustic, unprocessed song being the one that was about being a person. I wanted to do a lot of mixing of the "natural" and the "synthetic" as a means of sort of confusing the two, questioning the rhetoric of naturalization, blah blah blah. Pff. Fuck that. Y2K is funny. That's why I decided to write about it. There's a short story that l wrote about UFOs and Y2K that sort of bridges the gap, thematically, between Bill and Sic Semper Equis, and I definitely got some of the ideas for Sic Semper Equis from that story.

Foggy: Did you have any concepts of sounds you wanted to do while recording or did you mess around in Garageband until you found sounds you liked?

Russ: Basically I messed around in Garageband until I found things I liked. Sometimes I would basically realize the songs as they were and just replicate what was in my head (that was how it was with “Trampled Underhoof)” but most of the time it was me coming up with one part then adding another, then another. I knew that "The Forest Knows" was going to be a hip hop song when I made it, but Mike and Pat made up all their own lyrics, so I didn't have any input in those. When I made "O Deer Lord" I liked it so much that I decided that it would be the blueprint for how I was going to do the rest of the album, and everything else was me trying variations on that formula (with the exception of "If I Was a Person").

Foggy: Why auto-tune vocals?

Russ: I love hip-hop and r&b, and I thought it would be really cool to use an effect that's basically only commonly used in those genres and do something different with it. It's neat because as I was making this album I really fell in love with Lil' Wayne's music, and his newer stuff uses tons of autotune. Though I think Sic Semper Equis has more Auto-tune than Tha Carter III (the album he's dropping this summer) will. I sure do hope someone else compares Sic Semper Equis and Tha Carter III besides me.

Foggy: How do you think you'll perform the songs from Sic Semper Equis live if at all?

Russ: I'm trying to work something out, but I don't want to give it away quite yet, as I need to do some more fooling around first.

Foggy: You've said you like singing songs about animals more than people because “people are boring,” but why do you think people are boring?

Russ: I think people are boring because everyone writes about them. That's actually a huge oversimplification. I really don't think real live people are boring, but I think the way they're portrayed in songs takes for granted the fact that we're humans and they're humans and that's understood so lets relate to these people like they're humans without even thinking about it. I hope it makes people a bit more aware of the emotional and relational aspects of a song every time you realize that I'm talking about two horses and not two people. Not to mention I just think it's hilarious.

Foggy: Any particular reason for the animals you choose?

Russ: I wanted it to be all ungulates (hoofed mammals), but i ended up with "The Bird Of Y2K" as a song because Meghan came up with the title for that one, and it being her only tangible contribution to the album, i wanted to use it. Mike Lightning used all kinds of jungle animals that I didn't even think of for his rap song. Which is awesome and I'm totally cool with. I don't think any of the animals I talked about would actually live in the forest, except maybe the bird and the centaurs.

Taken by Adam Zolkover

Foggy: With the recent closures of many DIY labels Valiant Death, Pop Monster, Sanitary Records, Agriculture Records, etc. how do you think this will affect the Lo-Fi/DIY community?

Russ: I think you just listed every label I've ever put anything out on with the exception of Dance Machine Records and Ought Implies Can Records, both of whom went under shortly after releasing something by me. I think I'm cursed. I guess WeePOP! hasn't gone under yet. I should warn them. I think Tract Records has stopped making stuff too, so there goes that as well. I don't know about anyone else, but basically CLLCT has filled the void that record labels used to fill for me. I don't see any reason to put anything "real" out anymore, unless I'm doing some serious touring, in which case I guess I can make some homemade release or something. I guess if I was going to be doing a multiple-month tour or something I would probably want to have CDs from a label. I'm embracing the Internet more than I ever have right now, to the point where it almost feels quaint to even buy a CD.

Foggy: What's next for Tinyfolk?

Russ: Next for Tinyfolk is...well, I imagine the Brother Bird split will come out in a proper version. I've got some fragments of songs that I've been messing around with, but nothing fully finished since the Brother Bird split. I feel really content and comfortable with making songs on the computer now. It feels good to have so much new material out and circulating. I'm excited to see people's reactions. I love reading what response people have to things I've made. I'm hoping for full reviews for Sic Semper Equis and the Brother Bird split from Foggy Ruins of Time, for sure. I'm working on how I'll do the live thing. It'll be a lot different, but hopefully cool. I want to do some more hip-hop. I'm thinking maybe a Dead Dead Meat album or a Deep Owls solo album might happen at some point. I kind of just want to be Jib Kidder.

Foggy: One last question. As I get closer and closer to graduating college the more tired I am at doing what I love as work. Do you think it'd be better to have a job you like, but reserve what you love as hobby?

Russ: I think the best thing to do is to have a lot of things that you do, all of which you love to some degree. I have no idea if I will love my job as a librarian once I finish library science school. I hope that I will. But, if it's just something that I do and am indifferent to, that's a success as far as I'm concerned, because there are lots of things that make me happy. I think if some people didn't make a living doing art or music or whatever, then we'd have about a tenth of the wonderful art that we have. I guess for me I just don't want to do something where I feel like I have to be constantly pushing to get ahead. I don't want to have to be competing with everyone all the time. Maybe sometimes I want to work hard and get recognized for it, both in my job and in my hobbies, but I don't want to feel like it's always something I have to do instead of something I want to do. A routine job is great for that kind of thing, and that, more than anything is what I'm hoping for right now. Maybe I'll change my mind. Maybe I'm naive.

I think it was obvious that I was going to love this record, but really it wasn’t that easy. I will spill a little secret.

When I was first introduced to Lo-Fi music (Watercolor Paintings, Blanketarms, Tinyfolk, Super Famicom, Redbear., etc.) I liked Tinyfolk the least out of all of them. I had “Love Is A Thing,” “Seasonal Anxieties,” a demo of “She Wore Antlers,” and Caj’s duet with Russ, “Let’s Date.” I remember making Lo-Fi mix CDs before I had ever bought one off of any artist (just Myspace downloads). And although I liked “Love Is A Thing” a lot, none of the others compelled me to take notice of Tinyfolk in any other way than his cute voice and ukulele.

Then funnily enough in June 2007 I had a chance play a show in Santa Barbara with him, Real Live Tigers, Jon Crocker and A Lime Tree. His performance coupled with the song “Desperation” (off of "Platapeasawallaland") made me rethink Tinyfolk and I began to understand the animal-centric, but still very intimate approach.

And now a year later, after other artists’ outputs decreased to a trickle, gone defunct or are in hiding, Tinyfolk, Russ Woods (and sometimes Meghan Lamb), sets the bar for where music is going and the opens the door to limitless possibilities.

Initially I had hyped myself up to believe that Sic Semper Equis was going to be so great that their entire discography before it would become meaningless and that I was going to throw away my own baritone ukulele. Now, retrospectively this is a bit silly and no, Sic Semper Equis doesn’t make Tinyfolk’s older music invalid at all, it simply makes the listening experience all the more astonishing and gratifying.

Sic Semper Equis, a concept album about animals fearing Y2K is more relevant than anything he’s ever done. Where singing about animals at times was a novelty, “Antlers” or a really clever “If I Were An Owl,” on Sic Semper Equis Russ infuses self-awareness within these stories that adds gravity while also being humorous and incredibly insightful. The opener, and reminiscently titled, “If I Was A Person,” purposely creates a bridge from the “Old World” of Tinyfolk and leaves you unprepared for what will happen next. I almost wish Russ had kept the rest of the album a secret so that the transition from track 1 and 2 would be even more shocking. As it is, the song is quiet, portrait painting and shows Russ playing an intricate classical guitar while addressing the listener, “If I was a person/If I was a little boy/Would you hear my story/Would you hear my story now.”

Nothing could prepare you for the next song and possibly one of my favorite songs ever. “Thus Always Horses” is a mega-epic and quite possibly the most beautiful thing Russ has ever written. It’s startlingly punchy for being a slow, almost R&B ballad. It is melancholy and hilarious while driving consciousness into your brain like a rocket. The beat is meticulous and melancholy, the piano subtle but insistent and Russ’s Auto-tune vocals are haunting. The song serves the function of a Chorus in context of the album, setting a summary of what’s to come.

But how do you follow up that? Russ pushes us further into the narrative of the world with the Phillip Glass-eque instrumental, “Bird Of Y2K” that gets more beautiful and more resonant each time I hear it. The flute is the voice of a bird, like the angel Gabriel, signaling the animals and spilling prophecy upon them.

All the songs on the album are beautifully articulated using only Apple’s Garageband as a source of instrumentation. From the beautiful piano plucking of “What Will Become of Our Poor Foal If He is Born into a Post-Technology World?” to the baroque cries of anguish on “Centaur Work Song” and “Cry Of The Centaurs” to the punk euphoria of “Little Goat” (containing one of the best lines on the album, “I know that people often don’t think things through/Horses are this way too.”), Sic Semper Equis is easily Tinyfolk’s most diverse album to date. But, it only gets stranger as the millennium approaches.

“The Forest Knows,” featuring MC Mike Lightning and Redbear. is perhaps the only song that is hampered by the effects that Tinyfolk has laid out. It’s a little hard to hear all three artists’ vocals clearly in the mix. With that said, it’s a cool hip hop track that allows for a little breathing room before the more chaotic second half of Sic Semper Equis.

On “Oh Deer Lord, Deliver Us From Y2K,” Tinyfolk’s most tension-filled song, the animals are going crazy as the fear consumes them all. “New Year’s Eve pt. 1” loses all voice completely with the exception of an eerily distorted sampled “da da da.” On Russ's cover of Prince’s “1999,” this previously orgiastic declaration of the apocalypse has been transformed into an unrelenting funeral march. When he sings, “I was dreaming when I wrote this/Forgive me if it goes astray,” it no longer sounds like a sexual plea; it sounds like a threat.

After listening to “New Year’s Eve pt. 2,” I was a little let down. Sure it’s wacky and danceable, but it was anti-climatic considering the build before it. And that’s exactly it; the deflated experience is perfectly articulated in the brilliant closer, tied for second place as my favorite song on the album, “Animals Are Stupid.” Y2K didn’t happen, the fanfare was for nothing and as such, how could we expect an epic, cathartic ending. Well, “Animals Are Stupid” is cathartic for a different reason. Russ poses this question, “What’ll we do when/ our screens all turn blue and/What will we say when/Y2K happens?” Yes it didn’t happen, but Y2K could stand for anything here. What will happen when everything we rely upon, family, friends, technology, our own sense of self, etc. disappears?

Sic Semper Equis ends with another question, “How could we be so stupid?” Constantly and consistently in our everyday lives we humans, who are capable of such brilliance and kindness, find ourselves failing to live up to our potential. We cheat, we lie, we act afraid, we act lazy, we refuse to care, we ignore, and we get jealous; we are irrational beings who constantly shoot ourselves in the foot. Yet, we are still here breathing and living despite all our efforts. Sic Semper Equis’s reframing of these issues within a harrowing story of animals in a panic about the collapse of technology says more about who we are now than anything previously and is a confident, brilliantly crafted, humanist and wonderfully resounding work from Tinyfolk. It is by no means perfect, but looking at the material with which Russ had to work with, it comes pretty darn close.

"Thus Always Horses"

Download Sic Semper Equis on CLLCT
Tinyfolk on Myspace!
Articles/Reviews of Tinyfolk on Foggy Ruins Of Time
Video of my cover of "Thus Always Horses"


Librarian Russ said...

Thank you so much. Re: The Forest Knows, I'm still trying to figure out the whole "producer" role.

I'm way glad you posted this right after your Carter III review.

Librarian Russ said...

I read this sometimes when I'm feeling daunted. I think I'm going to make more SSE tracks and release them as bonus tracks on the Oh! Map version.

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