Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Fingers Of The Sun: Under The Influence With No Apologies
By Josiah M Hesse
Well the old world may be dead
Our parents can't understand
But I still love my parents
And I still love the old world
I want to keep my place in the old world
Keep my place in the arcane
Because I still love my parents
And I still love the old world
“There's an old rule in rock and roll, that if your parents like it, it can't be any good,” Paul McCartney tells me as a waitress hands us our drinks in a Denver bar. “And we've ignored that. We're playing the music that we want to play. We're not out to just piss people off.”
Okay, okay, it's not really Paul McCartney telling me this.
But if you saw him you'd forgive me for thinking so.
The man sitting across from me in this booth is the pure doppleganger of 1967 McCartney; complete with slug mustache, psychedelic tie and shaggy brown hair with trimmed sideburns — you'd swear he just fell out of the video for “Penny Lane.” But this is 2011 and the man's name is Nathan Brasil. He is currently surrounded by his bandmates, who collectively make up Fingers Of The Sun, the band that has been (begrudgingly) labeled Denver's sixties revivalist troubadours, carrying on that great tradition of eulogizing an era they never lived in. The time of mini-skirts, acid, and music with a distinct romanticism.
“A lot of bands in this city are afraid of not being original,” says Suzie Allegra, the other half of the Fingers Of The Sun songwriting team. “They don't want to admit that they're taking something from someone else, or not coming out with the new happening sound. And we've had that fear, but we've overcome it.”
The bar we're having this conversation in contains a few of those Denver bands. They sit in tight jeans, warming their hands after their fixed gear bike ride down here, probably listening to a Sonic Youth cassette on a Walkman, celebrating finishing an albums worth of one-minute noise songs on a Mac laptop. It's difficult to see where Fingers Of The Sun fit in with a city like this; when I ask if the Denver scene has any influence on their music they all say no, that they could make their music anywhere, some referencing Portland or Austin. It seems that, unlike those aforementioned cities, Denver's underground music scene has yet to find it's own distinct sound and culture. And in this insecurity many musicians will lazily drift into the abrasive, unromantic sounds of the avant-guard. Hiding in cynicism, masking inability with experimentation, a lot of musicians in this Colorado town deliberately avoid all of the things that make up Fingers Of The Sun.
“When I lived in Portland there were a lot of poppy bands,” Nathan explains, ordering another round for everyone at the table, “there were a lot of bands just playing nice music because that's what they wanted to do. A lot of Denver bands are riff based, and we're not. Most of them will come up with a cool riff, then put some stuff on it, then the singer will come in and just say something. But Suzie and I will have a chord progression. We like to have a melody over a rhythmic structure.”
“There's a real stigma in this town against being in a poppy band,” Suzie agrees.
Though it doesn't seem like Fingers Of The Sun are enemies with any of the riff-based bands that fill this bar. They play the same venues and have compliments for all of them, but this group of hippies four generations removed don't really fit. Not only does their sound harken back to a very un-punk era, but the songs leave you with an optimistic sense of the future. Their upcoming self-title debut (available Feb 12th) is the kind of music that could be used as therapy for Seasonal Affected Disorder, tunes with a vaseline around the lens type of romanticism, something that can rescue you after your family mocks your haircut at Thanksgiving Dinner.
On the jukebox of this bar The Modern Lovers “Old World” comes on. Jonathan Richman's song about not fitting in with a scene that hates its parent's generation is an eerily poignant commentary on Fingers Of The Sun's place in this bar and this city. Whether it is conscious or not, the band have taken the same route that Richman did with his entire career. Being unwillingly thrust into the role of punk-rock icon, Richman rebelled against the scene that had no use for his old world; his rebellion was in direct contrast to theirs, by using a drug-free cheeriness and love for his parents, Richman out-punked the punks. And whether it's conscious or not, Fingers Of The Sun are using the same tactics, embracing imitation and cleanly structured songs in opposition to the sounds of their contemporaries. After all, when you're a band in a city like Denver, whose underground music scene has pigeonholed itself into demanding a lip-curling sneer and ear splitting feedback as a prerequisite for cultural acceptance, the only route left for insubordination is to make music with a commercial sound.
“I'm definitely living out a lot of fantasies in this band,” Suzie tells me. And if there is one consistent thread throughout my conversation with her and Nathan, it's that there were a lot of things they weren't allowed to do in other bands, and that now the flood-gates are open. You want to have each band dress up as their favorite planet, collectively making up the solar system? Sure. You want to write ridiculously accessible, happy songs about thrift stores and cups of tea? Why not?
Having met years earlier, back when “Fingers Of The Sun” was just the name of a 1968 song by The Fugs, Nathan and Suzie had been in two different bands together before they formed this one. Their second, The Pseudo Dates, gained a significant group of fans in Denver and while they did have a decidedly trippy sound, Nathan proudly states that Fingers is “the most unapologetically sixties band I've ever been in.” The Psuedo Dates broke up unexpectedly in the spring of '09, but at the time it was still clear to Nathan and Suzie that they had uncommon songwriting chemistry. Continuing along the path of the Pseudo Dates, the pair began writing some even more unapologetically sixties music. Like most Denver musicians, each of them were in several other bands at the same time; Marcus (the snail) Renninger was plucked from his and Nathan's David Bowie cover band, Width Of A Circle, and recruited as Fingers second guitarist. Despite never being in a band before, Jamie Bryant, a petite olive skinned cutie, was hired on to play organ. Fez Garcia, a slim, hairy man with the look of an A-list 70s porn star, was brought in on drums, and the blindingly (yet not obnoxiously) cheery Megan Wilson was found, miraculously, on craigslist as the fourth vocalist and percussionist.
Collectively the band pulled from a deep pool of talent and creativity, writing songs that display each member's incendiary ability, yet never do they distract you from the songs with any kind of impressive instrumentation. Marcus and Nathan's dueling guitars contain a heartbreaking reminiscence of early Love records; Fez's drums at times seem dangerously sloppy, yet they hold the glue of the music together and add a subtle personality to each song; Maria's organ is minimal yet expansive, like the undertow of Al Kooper's contribution to those great mid-sixties Dylan hits; Megan's voice is strong but never arresting, delivering an opiate shot of mushy, sweet-tempered harmony right into the darkest of hearts. And Suzie is the foundation of it all, keeping those weighty yet polished songs together with simple bass playing, lacquering it all with a voice that is at times so confident and projecting it can make you squint.
Being together less than a year, Fingers Of The Sun have garnered an impressive following. Fans will come out to their shows, singing along to each song (despite the fact that they have yet to release an album). “Sometimes there are people at the shows in black hoodies that look like they never would be into what we're doing,” Suzie explains, “and they're the ones who are most into it.”
I've eves dropped on a few conversations about Fingers Of The Sun; those Denverites in black hoodies who typically only listen to cassette copies of Metal Machine Music or something by The Raincoats. And they are “into it.” They love the music of Fingers Of The Sun. But typically these statements of praise are suffixed with an apology. Just like no one will consciously admit to liking a U2 or Bruce Springsteen song without dismissing it as a “guilty pleasure,” they hang their heads in shame for liking Fingers Of The Sun and will subtly ask for your forgiveness. “I like them,” someone will say “but I don't think you will. They're just too...happy. And they sound like a band from the sixties.”
Similarly, critics will dismiss them for being too derivative. Their album received a glowing review in The Westword, but in Robert Flemming's local zine, The Pink Shovel he refers to them as “a very fun, proto-sixties garage band who excel in their musicianship so much you'd swear it was a different band on each song. But in the end they are too indebted to their sixties influences, to the point where they will be seen as a tie-die equivalent to The Darkness. In the end they are a very talented group of kids who've simply shown up to the party forty years too late.”
“It's a lot cooler to be an eighties band than it is a sixties band,” Nathan says.
Is there any decade in American history more often mimicked than the sixties? In a 1996 essay, hippie novelist Tom Robbins offers sympathy for those (like Fingers Of The Sun) who were born too late to experience our nations pop renaissance: It must be really irritating to have come of age in the 1980s or 90s to find your decade — your very own historical moment—persistently overshadowed by The Decade That Will Not Die, the ten years that have stolen the show of the twentieth century and hogged the cultural limelight for as long as you can recall.
For some, the sixties evokes disgust, a frustrating indignation at the movement that created pretentious music and self-righteous politics; even Stephen King, a man who himself lived through the time, dismisses his generation as those who “could have saved the world, but instead sold their souls for the home shopping network.” But for some, the sixties are historical gold. For those of us who were born a few decades too late to have any taste of the era, what we absorb through documentaries, albums and Time-Life retrospective coffee-table books creates a sense of longing, like the middle aged married man sighing at the sight of a mini-skirted college girl laughing at the bar. We are dissatisfied with our own time and want to leap into the photograph of Golden Gate Park, or to just stand in the back of the UFO club as Syd Barrett plays that deliciously frightening music. And romantic authors like Tom Robbins do little to help our generational blue-balls, describing his youth as a time when “music was less superficial, authority less respected, violence less tolerated, wealth less worshiped; beauty had yet to be voted out of office by the art community, flirting hadn't been demonized as sexual harassment by the cops of correctness, and tickets to any number of nirvanas could be easily obtained at any number of outlets, ancient or futuristic.”
Grace Slick is known for a lot of things (sleeping with every member of her band, trying to spike Nixon's tea with acid, drunkenly heckling a German audience about WWII), but her most enduring legacy is coining the phrase “if you remember the sixties, you probably weren't there.” And it seems like every generation since hers has been trying to remember the sixties for her.
There have probably been more sixties revivalist bands than there were actual sixties bands. Which is surprising, considering that only a few years after the murder at Altamont Speedway (historically known as The End Of The Sixties), the punk movement inspired a hatred of hippies with all the fever of ethnic cleansing. Punks hated hippies the way tea-baggers hate Obama. They saw them as hypocritical losers with all the conviction of a limp handshake. The Clash's “Hate & War” was written as a direct confrontation to the sixties slogan of Peace & Love; and journalists had so much fun with Johnny Rotten's “I Hate” slogan scribbled above the logo of his Pink Floyd t-shirt.
But around this same time The Television Personalities released their first album, And Don't The Kids Just Love It, featuring a cover with pictures of Twiggy and Avengers star, Patrick McNee, and songs with titles like “I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives.” The Television Personalities (like Fingers Of The Sun) were unapologetically sixties influenced, at a time when nothing could be farther from cool. But while their brazenness may not have earned them many record sales or appreciation from anyone but DJ John Peel and pop history nerds, they did have an impact on a burgeoning California music scene, looking to reclaim their roots of sunshine drenched pretty pop.
By the mid-1980s the LA punk movement had abandoned any sense of melody that may have come from predecessors like The Ramones and The Buzzcocks, and stripped everything down to a primal rhythm, leading many adolescent males to punch their way through the crowd with an amphetamine mania. Many bands in the city felt little kinship with this scene and, following the tactics of Jonathan Richman a decade earlier, began embracing pop sounds that were like garlic to the vampiric punks of California. Known to history as The Paisley Underground, bands like The Three O' Clock and Rain Parade had more in common with The Byrds than they did with Minor Threat, and began plucking their way through happy, jangly tunes with no hint of apology. Wearing frilly collars inside a crush velvet suit, recording videos on sets seemingly stolen from The Smothers Brothers show, bands in The Paisley Underground were in love with the sights and sounds of a time when they were most likely in diapers. At the same time legitimate sixties bands like The Grateful Dead and The Rolling Stones were trying to modernize their image, wanting to look as eighties as possible in day-glow suits and laser light concerts. The scene reached its zenith when pop royalty, Prince, formed Paisley Park Records, signing The Bangles and The Three O'Clock and recording his own album of trippy throwback music, Around The World In A Day.
And in the nineties the trend continued. Traces of Neil Young can be found throughout the grunge movement, with their long hair & flannel uniform, and Cobain's quotation from Young's “Hey Hey, My My” in his suicide note. (Though in another infamous piece writing by the messiah of the flannel army, Cobain said, “the only way I would wear a tie-die shirt is if it was made with Jerry Garcia's blood and Iggy Pop's piss.”) Across the pond Rock & Roll Stars Oasis brazenly stole from sixties music as if they owned the copyrights to the whole decade — all while blasphemously claiming they were “better than The Beatles.” In the Ondi Timoner documentary, “DiG,” west coast hipsters The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre battle it out to see who is the most relevant band to their generation, all while sounding like they're playing for a bunch of dancing zombies at a Merry Prankster Acid Test.
And there is no shortage of sixties inspired bands today. Thee Oh Sees, Best Coast, Ty Segal and Tame Impalla all owe a significant debt to the garage pop of 1960's Detroit. Though these groups have been afforded punk-rock credibility by recording music that is washed-out by a thick filter of Lo-Fi grittiness.
Fingers Of The Sun have no such filters. Their music is as clear and accessible as an LP by The Mama's & The Papas. While the album was recorded with modern technology and instruments, the sound is seriously indebted to Phil Spector and Brian Wilson. Titles like “Heaven Only Knows” and “Goodbye Summer” are clear signposts to the vocabulary of The Beach Boys; “Cup Of Tea” is a slightly slowed down version of The Hollies “Bus Stop,” continuing with the theme of flirtation and community cool; “The Leaves Were So Green” could be a Rubber Soul-era B Side; and “Dinner & A Movie” is clearly a Shangri-La's song without the monologues.
And yet, when you hear these songs you can't help but be floored by the pleasure of them. They are expertly crafted and recorded songs, pushing all the right buttons in your mind and heart. Songs like “Cashmere, Paisley, Polyester” and “Mystery Remains” speak with a clarity of vision you wish you saw more often from Denver bands. Even the most ignorant philistine could hear the sixties in every second of Fingers Of The Sun's album, but never does it feel like a deal-breaker. There is enough talent and passion in there to drive the songs into the present.
Not all of the members of Fingers Of The Sun have the same sense of Carnaby Street fashion as Nathan Brasil. Megan comes close, in short dress with maracas in hand she could be the little sister of Michelle Philips, while Suzie Allegra is pure Portland Punk, with tattoos and labret piercing, she's like a mix of Kim Deal and Zia McCabe. Marcus Renninger's look is probably the most unique of the band, unable to pin him down to any cultural stereotype, his dress is at times tragic but always distinct. If you took Nathan out of the equation, a picture of Fingers Of The Sun would look simply like any other hipster band.
“There are a lot of bands who are, like, totally retro-sixties pop,” Suzie explains, “and we're not really like that. I feel like it would be a lie if I told people we were and then they came out to our shows expecting to see something like that.” And for anyone who has heard their music this is somewhat exasperating: Fingers Of The Sun are probably more heavily drenched in the music of the 1960s than anyone listed in the history lesson above. Nathan somewhat disagrees with Suzie, stating that he will sometimes tell inquirers of his band that they are pretty sixties sounding, but he understands why Suzie would be apprehensive to label them that way. “Musician's never want to be pigeonholed into something,” he says.
When the question of influences comes up everyone at the table has something to say. They have no shortage of bands to list that have inspired their music, but not one of them mentions a single band from 1964-72. Jaimie is into Cat Power and Beach House, Marcus likes late 70s bands like Wire and Richard Hell, Suzie lists categories like Space Rock and Shoe-gaze. Even Nathan, the band's resident Mod, only brings up K Records bands like The Beat Happening, and jazz records by Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington. When I bring up Love or The Mama's & The Papas, they will nod their heads and say, “yeah, we like them too,” but never take it further than that. It is clear that the members of Fingers Of The Sun do not want to be portrayed as a sixties revivalist band...which means they are probably at least a little annoyed at being featured in an essay about sixties revivalist bands.
“Sometimes I worry that I'm ripping off a melody,” Nathan says, admitting that their music is indebted to several other bands, “but I don't subscribe to the idea of pure inspiration 100 percent of the time.” And he defends his band's borrowing from flower children culture, by explaining that the icons of the sixties were stealing from their grandparents playbook just as much as anyone today. “A lot of Paul McCartney's music could be traced back to the thirties. And at the time everyone was wearing antique clothes from the 1890s, drawing posters like Aubrey Beardsley and wearing haircuts from the twenties. That skinny, flat chested look had come back, which was totally from the twenties.”
Nathan has a point.
Every societal movement has been at least partially indebted to the generation before them. Without The Pixies there would be no Nirvana, etc. But there's no denying that in the years 1964-72 there was an oil reserve of magic tapped into by the music makers of that time. And it could be argued that it was much too heady an elixir for them to handle, all of them playing with a fire they couldn't understand or control. Screaming girls, crying and scratching their faces; the sleepless months of amphetamines, recording several albums inside a year; the mania building up to violence, overdoses and ideologies that crumble like rotten cake. Perhaps it's taken all these decades for one generation to sift through the ash and pluck out the diamonds that still remain, only now able to touch the great monolith without being destroyed by it.
And if that's true, then Fingers Of The Sun are perhaps the only Denver band with the courage to face that challenge down. In Suzie's song “The Sailor” she sings about being, “stranded between painters painting each other,” which sounds like the perfect metaphor for the Denver underground music scene. Bands that are afraid to look outside themselves for inspiration. It is obvious why Fingers Of The Sun would rather not be seen as a sixties revivalist band, such a designation pigeonholes them into being simple theater, like Civil War reenactors or Renaissance Fair jesters. But either way they are music nerds and are highly indebted to their influences, and they are also unafraid to write happy songs their parents (probably) enjoy, all in a city where if the music isn't steeped in an ear-drum splitting riff, then it just isn't worth a damn.
A week after my conversation with Fingers Of The Sun, they headlined a show at The Gothic, a Denver mega-venue that typically hosts sold-out shows by Coco Rosie or The Dandy Warhols. It was a Hot Congress Records showcase, highlighting the labels best bands. Fingers were probably the youngest band on the bill, and yet they were the headliners, bringing the sparse crowd collectively to the front to dance and sing along to songs most of the kids in the black hoodies knew by heart. A few acts before them, The Kissing Party performed equally cute songs with a delicate, early Marianne Faithful-type singer. The Kissing Party have been around for a few years, establishing themselves at shows all over town. And yet they eked through their songs, seemingly embarrassed by their own sound. Their set was like one long apology, begging forgiveness for making the audience suffer through it. It was like watching a high school freshman at his first slam-poetry night.
But when Fingers Of The Sun came on stage they projected a confidence unseen by any other band that night. There was no self-conscious posturing, no second guessing the worth of their songs. No desire to try and convince you of what and who they were. The band and the audience all disappeared inside those songs, forgetting where (and when) they were; no trace of the ideology that any art worth liking needed to be 100 percent self-inspired. Suzie and Nathan are finally living out the fantasies that so many other bands they were in denied them. Playing music that owes more than a little debt to their grandparents radio stations.