One man, one suitcase, a whole lot of electronics
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Brooklyn resident Dan Friel has come a long way from being an unruly teenager obsessed with grindcore to becoming one of the founding members of experimental psych rock outfit Parts And Labor. Last year, the multi-instrumentalist (and former employee of The Onion) took a break from his Parts And Labor duties to venture into more electronic and melodic solo territory with 2008's Ghost Town. Prior to his performance tonight at The Rock And Roll Hotel, The A.V. Club caught up with Friel to discuss touring with just a suitcase's worth of equipment, the future of the music industry, and the role Christmas lights play in his live show.
The A.V. Club: What does your setup consist of when you play solo?
Dan Friel: The main thing is a toy keyboard that I've had since I was eight, a Yamaha PortaSound. It came out in the '80s and it was like 50 bucks back in the day and 50 bucks on eBay now. I run that through some bass overdrive pedals and some delay pedals that I had originally to play guitar through. There's also a mixer with a feedback loop that sort of feeds it through itself. It gets some of the harsher sounds. I used to use walkie-talkies and remote-control-car joysticks to make sound but I stopped doing that because they were a little bit more unreliable. And I lost my best one on tour. It's a bummer.
AVC: In an interview from 2004, you said that you started out as a solo act, and then formed a band because—as you put it—you didn't think you were "interesting enough."
DF: Well, it wasn't much to look at.
AVC: What made you return to solo work after being in Parts And Labor?
DF: I like the consistency of sound that I get from instruments that are all electronic. It's also kind of a more personal music for me in a way because it's just me and my headphones at home with this instrument I've had since I was a kid. I can just crawl inside sound and texture a little more. I also like the idea of being able to tour by myself with just a suitcase.
AVC: What does the audience experience from your live performance that they won't get from just listening to the last record?
DF: Well, I definitely improvise and change the songs around. It's almost frustrating to me that—songs I released years ago—when I play them over and over again, I make them better. I almost want to go back and change the recordings because I can't listen to them. Also, there's the volume through a good PA. I played a show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg a couple of months back and to plug these little toy instruments into something that's that loud and has that much bass is really just fantastic.
AVC: Do people ever give you funny looks as you're setting up toy instruments?
DF: Oh, yeah, all the time. Totally. That's my whole life, people just coming up to me and pointing and saying "what's that?" Which is awesome. Other than that, I think what people get out of it is me sewing all these different sounds together into one cohesive thing. I try to make movements out of the set. And I have Christmas lights.
AVC: Christmas lights?
DF: I usually just turn out the lights in the venue and have the Christmas lights in the board. I have this box, it's like a suitcase, and I open it up and the top comes off. It was originally a DJ Coffin that my friend found in a garbage can and I just shifted the keyboard into it. There's a power strip in there to power everything, so I just string Christmas lights around everything. I turn out the lights so you sort of get this campfire feel. I think it works with the music. It creates a minimum of light, enough that I can work by, and it creates a visual that is pretty and soothing.
AVC: In an interview with Bostonist, you mentioned that the '80s/'90s model for D.I.Y. indie rock labels is outdated and that bands need to find a more current way to operate. Any success with that?
DF: Well, that interview was like a month and a half ago, so...[laughs].
AVC: You were talking specifically about your own Cardboard label.
DF: We slowed things down after our first 10 releases, essentially, which is a lot in four years. Everybody is trying to figure out at what point you stop making CDs. We're trying to figure that out too. All of our first releases were vinyl, then we figured that we would try CDs for awhile. Some of them did really well, but for the most part, we have a lot of copies of them around and you wonder if they are going to be of any use to anybody at this point because people can just get those files. I think we make pretty good packaging, but still. And we don't want to be cranking out more plastic and shrink wrap, especially if there is no demand for it currently and if there is no demand for it 10 years down the road. The question for everyone is that if you switch to just doing vinyl and digital, which seems like the obvious step, how are you offering anything to the bands just by putting their files up on a website?