Fan Modine
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Fan Modine

Carrboro, North Carolina, United States | INDIE

Carrboro, North Carolina, United States | INDIE
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BY JOHN SCHACHT

In 2004, North Carolina's Gordon Zacharias - a.k.a, Fan Modine - released his second LP, Homeland, and seemed poised to make waves after key blogs and hipster-sites endorsed his lush orchestral pop and gloomy-but-resilient narratives.

But the big splash didn't happen. Despite assembling a crack band of regional musicians to tour Homeland and lay down the basic tracks for the follow-up, life intervened, momentum waned, the center did not hold. What followed was essentially six years of obsessive song-tinkering before this year's even-more-lustrous Gratitude for the Shipper finally emerged.

"It takes me that long to get something where I like it, while doing other things in life," the 39-year-old concedes, alluding as well to the six years it took between his 1998 debut and Homeland. "I tinkered with it, but didn't really have the time or focus to devote to fully realizing the album."

Psychiatrists might find fertile turf in Zacharias' definition of tinkering, since some of the songs emerged from his basement with over 100 tracks on them. But when former R.E.M. manager Jefferson Holt heard them and was reminded of classic orchestral pop like John Cale's 1919 or Procol Harum's A Salty Dog, he leapt on the Fan Modine bandwagon and enlisted producer/dBs co-founder Chris Stamey to do the wheat-from-chaff work.

"Chris is really quick at identifying standout performances," Zacharias says, "but it was a bit of a surprise for him just how many different things there were to draw from."

Stamey didn't just winnow, though. He replaced or added key elements - lush string and horn sections, guitar heft from the likes of Polvo's Ash Bowie and Mitch Easter - that balance Gratitude's delicate melodies with stirring arrangements. The dozen songs embrace that vintage orchestral majesty as well as Big Star pop, recent Wilco folk rock, and even Style Council dance rhythms.

Just as importantly, though, working with Holt and Stamey recharged Zacharias' music-making batteries.

"I feel like I have finally found a rhythm for more consistent output," he says. "The prospect of not waiting for another six years to go by before releasing another record is also exciting."

Blurt chatted with Zacharias about the making of Gratitude, what happened in between records, and what it was like working with veterans and newcomers in one of the country's most fecund music regions. (Fan Modine plays the second annual Hopscotch Festival in Raleigh this week, Thursday Sept. 8; check the Hopscotch website for details.)

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BLURT: Congratulations on the new record - tell me about the genesis of it after seven year hiatus, if we can call it that...
GORDON ZACHARIAS: It's just kind of the way I've been doing things the last three records. It takes me that long to get something where I like it, while doing other things in life. That might change - I've written a full record that I could go in and track tomorrow. It's the most natural timeframe for the type of records I've been making, but I'm ready to try something new.

This one was recorded over how long?
I started writing it in 2004 right around when my last record came out, and rehearsed with a band for maybe a year with the material. We actually recorded the basics and that sat in my basement for years, and I tinkered with it but didn't really have the time or focus to devote to it to fully realizing the album. I came into a situation where I could focus on finishing the record for the greater part of a year, last year, when I started working with Chris Stamey, Mitch Easter and Jefferson Holt.

What changed?
I decided to, sort of at all costs and at great risk, devote my life, my time to making music. It was sort of like jumping off a cliff - I was almost instantly in a situation where I had time and a decent-enough budget to focus on finishing it.

What roles did Stamey and Holt play to kick it into another gear, if that's fair to say?
Yeah, I'd had this rough disc of the songs, they weren't demos because actually a lot of them had the original drum, bass and piano tracks, I had that floating around for a while in my small circle, and gave a copy to Jefferson who I met through a mutual friend. And he was just floored. Obviously that was very exciting for me, having a lot of respect for him. He was pretty much, ‘let's finish this, let's do this. We're going to book studio time, we're going to do this, do that,' and I said, ‘Okay, do it.'

Twist my arm, right?
Yeah, exactly. It was not easy, though. And this is maybe part of where I'm hopefully heading in the future, some of the songs had over 100 tracks to them because it was literally in my basement, so whenever I had spare time I would just go down and lay down a guitar or xylophone track or something like that. It was a lot to sort through. Though I mixed my last two records, I was pretty lost sorting everything out and finding how these tracks should come across and what approach to take, even down to the drums and whatnot. Tried a couple different approaches that didn't work, and then Chris was probably the only person who could've mixed this record. He's just really quick and able to identify standout performances and things like that. He was really great to work with.

Did you whittle it down before you gave him these?
I had my own very rough mixes that sort of gave an idea of where I was headed with them. Then of course we added more tracks! We did all the orchestral stuff at his studio (Modern Sound) and a little bit at Mitch's [Easter's Fidelitorium]. So there were all these things that weren't in the original mix that I made, that I never brought up, then all the stuff layered on top of that. So when he got the full sessions it was a surprise I think for him just how many different things there were to draw from. It's really not a good way to do things is what happened (laughs).

I can imagine - leave a musician alone to tinker and...
But I hadn't done that before. I made my first record pretty quickly and mixed it pretty quickly, albeit it's definitely a lower-fi thing. I was using an 8-track reel-to-reel, there wasn't a lot of wiggle room there. But then I was into the digital realm by the second record, and that had just tons of tracks, and I really felt like I had a handle on it when I mixed it and still listen back to it and I think it's pretty good. I wanted to do something pretty different this time, and I think I kind of set my sights very high in creating it, and by the time I had everything down I was pretty lost. But, again, I'm happy with the job that Chris did and can't imagine who else could have done it, he just has the right personality for it.

So what it is in his personality?
Type A. (laughs) He's very complex, just an incredibly skilled musician and songwriter and very nice person. But once you get him working, he is just so quick. He'll listen to 10 seconds of a bass take or something and throw it away - it's really what it needed, you know? He always surprises me. He enjoys it, too. He likes that. Different people have different proclivities. Remember, he did an album with Mitch in the ‘90s with a band called Helium, and he edited all the drum tracks, I remember hearing about that. Back then, people were editing stuff, but a little bit more tape, but he transferred everything from tape to digital setup and just went beat by beat to tighten everything up. It sounds great because of it. That's not what he did with this, but he did sprinkle a little bit of pixie dust on it.

Did any of the songs change character pretty significantly?
They came to life. That was the thing. I think me giving up control in the mixing stage of this and even the arrangements to some degree was ultimately very fun. It's definitely not the type of record I expected to make, and the surprises are what I enjoy the most. It's way better than I could have done on my own because I did give up quite a bit of control to both Chris and Jefferson.

What was Jefferson's role?
He has a great, great knowledge of music, more so than a lot of musicians. So he has a very pure perspective and at times was incredibly helpful just sort of understanding what the "meta" perspective of everything was. And also put it into maybe a historical context, and weed out some of the bullshit ideas that I had or Chris had. So his role was huge. He was on board for a lot of the mixing sessions as well and went through every song. We had several more songs that we cut. It's really, really been helpful.

What do you mean by "historical perspective?"
Well, the things that we bonded on early were Procol Harum and John Cale, and those kinds of records that just sound...they're just great records. They have a quality to them. They sound just as fresh when you put it on today as I imagine it did when they came out. I wouldn't call them ‘trendy' records, and I certainly wasn't setting out to make a trendy record.
So I think that was the historical context: a record that hopefully stands up in 20 years and is rooted in a classic approach to songwriting and recording, as opposed to some of the stuff happening right now. Some of that I really enjoy, but some of it just seems like it's really just a trend, waves that people are riding. I could try to emulate it or get involved with it, but I know that that would be crap - it's not who I am. (Laughs). People have persuaded me in certain directions, the indie pop or twee kind of thing, and it's been a big struggle because I love that kind of stuff, but I also want to put some rock into stuff. So I might turn away a few listeners because my sound isn't so specific, but when you listen to a lot of classic records, they're all over the place, and I think that's what we identified with more.

I read that you'd played with Joe Pernice and Essex Green and Hercules in the interim - those are some good songwriters. How did that effect you if at all?
At the time it was a pretty close-knit group of people, and we were just kind of riding the same sort of style. I guess once Hercules came along they actually had the tools to actually arrange stuff and were really good at it, and it definitely influenced me, sort of made me realize how easy it was to add that to a recording. The work with Joe, that was more about him showing me how to make pasta sauce - I remember playing a little bit of Rhodes piano on something, but he was in North Hampton, probably still is, which I would go to from time to time to escape New York. He's just around. Everybody was enjoying a lot of the same records. There were a lot of reissues, I remember, Zombies and what-not. I think we were just all into it. The classic records, exactly.

Tell me about the title, and your lyrics in general. The images are striking but the narratives seem pretty elliptical...
I'm kind of in the same boat with you except I happen to be writing them. I leave myself little riddles that I can figure out later as well. Not to be cryptic or obtuse, it's always a good idea to leave things a little open ended, so there's enjoyment from many different perspectives. Sometimes they mean different things on different days. Even the title has taken on some different meanings.

It's interesting because if I had a nickel for every time a musician answered like this, I'd be pretty wealthy. I'm a words guy, so it interests me, but the questions rarely result in specifics - which is okay, of course...
Sometimes lyrics and titles come from the most inane places, but then they take on a whole other meaning and I think it's better to just, instead of trying to nail it down, it's more enjoyable to leave it open-ended.

Will you go as far as choosing words or phrases just for their sound?
I don't really sit down and write things too literally, usually they're consonants first and turn into the closest available word later. It's definitely an evolution, and that's sort of what I mean that I figure out what the song is about kind of late in the game because of the way in which it was written. I'm sure there's some literal stuff I've written, but I'd have to go through it (laughs).
I'll give you an example. Like the title of the album, and it doesn't mean this, it came to me when I had asked [Triangle mainstay producer Brian Paulson] to transfer the drum tracks from tape to digital file, and when he gave me the reel-to-reel tape back, the quarter inch or half inch tape comes in a container called a shipper.

Like a film spool?
Exactly. Like a polycarbonate kind of thing. To me, at the time, I was just so thankful to be moving forward with it that that just came into my head - gratitude to the shipper. Or the opportunity to make another record, to be able to put something on tape again.
And then obviously, it went on from there to become different - water and oceans ideas, and became a whole other thing. I'd forgotten that that's where I'd originally gotten that idea from. It has the big meaning on some levels, but I'd moved on from that. But when I remembered that was the time Brian Paulson transferred the tape and he only charged me $50 for it, I was ... grateful. - BLURT


*see scanned article via link* or at http://fanmodine.com/1/time-out-new-york/ - Time Out New York


*see scan* - Time Out New York


Would-be connoisseurs are sometimes too quick to dismiss certain wispy indie pop by using Mike Myers' ever-potent barb: "If it's not Scottish, it's crap!" Despite the obvious nods to The Pastels or Belle & Sebastian, that's never been true-- even if you don't have enough patience for Australia's The Lucksmiths. For one thing, forebears like Felt and The Field Mice hailed from England, not Scotland. For another, albums like Fan Modine's Homeland provide a sparkling reminder of the winsome pop gems in American listeners' backyards.

On this sophomore effort, Fan Modine mastermind Gordon Zacharias draws from the elegance of early Magnetic Fields and the groove-based intimacy of The Folk Implosion more than, say, Beat Happening, the original exception to the Scotophiliac rule. But where 69 Love Songs often focused on love's ironies ("Love Is Like a Bottle of Gin"), Homeland is an unabashed paean to its peaks. While One Part Lullaby explored Lou Barlow's alienation after moving across the country ("E.Z.L.A."), Fan Modine's latest, as its title implies, is about that elusive, invaluable feeling of "home."

The album's centerpiece is "Pageantry", which pits a hushed, theatrical vocal against burbling Her Space Holiday-esque orchestration. "Pageantry walks through the door," Zacharias exults at his most Stephin Merritt-like, "and I keep repeating track number four." Originally released as a seven-inch in 1999, "Pageantry" has been a long time coming to CD-- although it didn't really need to be slotted at track four, did it? Save that for the many hopeful mixtapes this song is sure to grace.

The previous song, "We Are All Decades", is the one most explicitly influenced by Lou Barlow's extra-Sebadoh noodlings. The prominent bass line and Barlow-esque, double-tracked vocal wouldn't have been out of place alongside Folk Implosion breakthrough "Natural One" on the Kids soundtrack, though some subtle vocoder adds a new twist. The lyrics might fit an elliptical collaboration between Sentridoh and Cole Porter: "The more you placate everybody/ The less you can escape the world/ Act tall to the street vendor."

Homeland is arguably less ambitious than Fan Modine's debut, the self-released 1998 concept album Slow Road to Tiny Empire. But improved confidence and recording quality shore up a batch of songs that find beauty in the familiar as much as the abstract. Zacharias lent his elegant voice to this year's charming debut by orchestral pop duo Hercules, who return the favor with string arrangements and co-production duties on four songs here. Wordier than Zacharias' Hercules outings, these tunes expand on the violin-soaked palette of "Pageantry", awash in pleasant decadence. Opening with modest acoustic guitar strums, first track "Newsstand of the Sun" blossoms into a Mancini-esque discovery of romance. If not for further Merritt-esque lyrics about dandies, Bentleys and lion cages, "Waiting in the Wings" could fit on Hercules' In the Alleyway-- here, the song plays like an adaptation of the Henry James story The Beast in the Jungle, with worldly riches rather than overweening egoism preventing this John Marcher from finding "one true love."

Though Homeland's theme emerges early on, a Hercules collaboration cements it. Amid the bouncy tin pan alley of "Throughout Your Life", Zacharias masterfully toes the line between fine gruyere and common EZ Cheez. "There's nothing quite like knowing where you belong," he sings, asking a lover to marry him with heartbreaking earnestness you won't find on the new Jimmy Eat World album. For now, Zacharias apparently belongs in Carrboro, N.C., where he has put together a new quintet incarnation of Fan Modine including former members of Jets to Brazil, Polvo, and Idyll Swords. Good pop belongs wherever you hear it-- thanks, Scotland, but occasionally we Yanks get it right.

— Marc Hogan - Pitchfork


Discography

1997 Slow Road to Tiny Empire - Phovsho (Vinyl)
1998 Slow Road to Tiny Empire - Slow River/Rykodisc
2000 Pageantry 7" - Grimsey
2004 Homeland - Grimsey (Vinyl, CD, DD)
2010 Owttaiks - Daniel 13 Press(DD)
2011 Gratitude for the Shipper - Daniel 13 Press(Vinyl, CD, DD, Book)

Photos

Bio

For fans of obscure indiepop who have been patient enough to weather the gaps between albums, Fan Modine is a real hidden gem. Influenced by the same brand of classic pop that have informed the likes of Belle and Sebastian and the Magnetic Fields, songwriter Gordon Zacharias only recently became career minded enough to put a solid lineup together featuring Alex Maiolo (Violet Vector, Tape Op), Missy Thangs (The Love Language), Joah Tunnel (The Never).

About 2011's Gratitude for the Shipper:

With expanded instrumentation and higher-fi recording, "Gratitude for the Shipper" sounds consistently bright, melodic and hook-happy. “It’s a struggle to think in terms of albums these days, but I still strive for that,” Zacharias says. “I wanted to make a tight, solid album that holds together like John Cale’s Paris 1919 or Procul Harum’s A Salty Dog do for me, although, I feel like we ended up with something quite different.”

Zacharias co-produced "Gratitude for the Shipper" with alt-pop pioneer Chris Stamey (who’s worked with Matthew Sweet, Yo La Tengo, Tift Merritt and Marshall Crenshaw) and former R.E.M. manager Jefferson Holt (Stamey, Dexter Romweber, Dog Gone Records, Vibrating Egg and Daniel 13 Press). The album was recorded by the band in an old millhouse and then taken to Stamey’s Modern Recording studios in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for string and horn arrangements and guitar appearances by Stamey and his longtime collaborator Mitch Easter. Most of the Fan Modine musicians backing Zacharias now hail from the vibrant Chapel Hill scene, with Lee Waters (Essex Green, Dean Wareham) on drums, Ash Bowie (Polvo) providing muscular guitar, Jeremy Chatelain (Jets to Brazil, Cub Country), bass, and Chuck Johnson (Shark Quest, Idyll Swords) also on guitar. Zacharias used several additional vocalists to fill out the lush sound. Fan Modine in its live incarnation includes even more Chapel Hill/Carrboro music denizens: Michael Holland (Jennyanykind) on bass, with added guitars from Matt McMichaels (The Mayflies USA) and keyboardist Charles Cleaver (Tomahawks).

Zacharias grew up playing piano, trombone and euphonium and then later singing in his suburban Boston high school rock band. He left Boston in 1990 to hitchhike around the country and soul search. In 1994 he returned to Boston to give music another shot while learning his way around computers. What resulted was a short-lived electronic group that combined both pursuits. Soon Zacharias began working “with real drums” again in the group Astroboy. Inspired by his friend Darron Burke at Cold Room Studios, he would recall, “ Darron was the one who helped me understand why good records sound good, and when he played me Big Star’s “Big Black Car”, I said, That’s it, right there!”

Zacharias decided to apply that sentiment to a solo career and Fan Modine was brought to life. The mid-90’s found him in New York to record and release Slow Road to Tiny Empire. What began as a DIY project was ultimately picked up by large indie label, Rykodisc, and reviews were universally positive. He pulled together a band to play around NYC, with him leading on piano and guitar, and began writing his next project, a film score called Homeland. This was to be the musical backdrop for his film script for an allegorical movie about an American Pop Star who moves to China to confront his muse. When the A&R guy at the label suggested they pitch the project towards the Christian market, it was no surprise that “things became strained.” Zacharias left the label and re-immersed himself in computers and new media. Still, the songs were written and ready, so he pulled together a rotating cast of indie musicians, and traveled from New Zealand, to Los Angeles to New Orleans to get the songs recorded. The album was finally released by Grimsey Records in 2004. After a brief tour with Andrew Bird, Zacharias returned home to write and record what would be the basis for another Fan Modine album. When Jefferson Holt heard the new stuff he became interested, and work on "Gratitude for the Shipper" began.

“I feel like I have finally found a rhythm for more consistent output. Partly due to advances in technology but moreso by working with talented and experienced people like Chris and Jefferson, and letting a momentum to the process develop,” Zacharias explains. “We've just begun on a follow-up, so the prospect of not waiting for another six years to go by before releasing another record is also exciting.”

If "Gratitude for the Shipper" is any indication, Fan Modine is on a roll.