“They are all within my reach”: Fang Island’s music pumps the positivity
Guitarist Jason Bartell talks Andrew W.K., harmonies, and high-fives
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Garnering the approval of critics doesn’t seem to be nearly as gratifying to Fang Island as drawing the praise of a classroom full of kindergarteners. It’s that sense of fun and freedom that soaks into the band’s insanely catchy music. The Brooklyn group’s debut full-length hits like a sonic celebratory hand gesture, thanks in part to the band describing its sound as “everybody high-fiving everybody,” but mostly due to the open-hearted guitar heroics and grand gestures of songs like “Sideswiper” and “Daisy.” Before the band’s Aug. 14 show at the Memorial Union Terrace, The A.V. Club called up guitarist Jason Bartell to talk about making friends with Andrew W.K., the inherent happiness in harmony, and the importance of not over-thinking a high-five.
The A.V. Club: You’ve said your goal is to “make music for people who like music.” Is that why your band’s music is tough to lump into one genre?
Jason Bartell: Yeah, I always thought that was the optimal description of any band, to be hard to describe or hard to lump into one thing. It makes sense to me. Everyone’s always trying to lump bands specifically into categories or link to specific influences, like such-and-such is Weezer-esque or Smashing Pumpkins-esque. So it’s better if you can avoid definitions. I don’t know if we actively are like, “Okay, here are the steps to avoid definitions: Step 1…”
AVC: You were aware of Rhode Island School Of Design’s history of great bands, like Talking Heads and Les Savy Fav, before going there. Did that influence the formation of Fang Island?
JB: Talking Heads certainly were a huge influence just because they’re simply a great band; one of the best bands of all time. You sort of knew that when you were at RISD, that the Talking Heads went there, but it wasn’t like, a big factor. It wasn’t like, “Well now we have to carry this torch now.” It was more like we like playing music together and we’re all in school together.
AVC: Andrew W.K. hosted your record-release party in New York. How did that come about and how intense is he in person?
JB: We’d always been big fans of his and before the idea for the album was fully formed, we were toying with the idea of having a big myriad of guest vocalists, like one per song. We had this whole list written out and started contacting people and he was one of our ideal guest people. I forget how exactly it started, but we had been in minor contact with him before then, just really casually. It would be us e-mailing him to say that we like his songs and he would write back and be like “Thanks.” He is the kind of guy who responds to everyone and is really open to fan mail, so it started as kind of a fan mail relationship.
But we asked him if he would sing on a song and he was down with it. Actually, there were a lot of people that were down with it, but it was hard to coordinate, which is part of why we started going in a new direction. He actually did sing on a song that we did. We covered our friend—who also went to school with—we covered one of his songs and had Andrew sing on it.
In New York he runs a club called Santos Party House that’s really like the last fun club in New York. I never really went to clubs or anything like that but this made me think that it was possible again. But he would have shows there and we asked if we could have our show there and if he would host it and he was totally open to it. We did one of his songs as the finale. It was pretty cool. He’s a really intense guy but it’s the good kind of intense. He’s an incredibly hard worker, has great ideas, and gets a lot done. He’s a really cool guy.
AVC: Fang Island’s website features a video of you guys playing at a kindergarten and the kids seem to really like it. How did that end up happening?
JB: Our friend in Providence worked at a kindergarten. I think he was a teacher’s aide or he would do after-school stuff. It was his idea. He thought it would be cool if we came in and played for the kids. I was definitely down. I thought it was going to be a more difficult thing to make happen, like you’d need permission from the parents and blah, blah, blah. But they were like, “Nah, just come in tomorrow. Be here at 6:30 [a.m.]” So we pulled ourselves out of bed, went over there, set everything up before the kids came in; I don’t think they even knew it was going to happen. I think kindergarten is still like, you just do things day by day and you don’t have homework or know what’s going to happen the next day.
So, they walked in and there are all these musical instruments and like, adults, sitting around. I guess we seem like adults to them, but I don’t know if that’s very true. And we ended up playing for an hour, with a full set and a question-and-answer thing in between. It was pretty rad. They asked really weird questions and they seemed to dig it overall. I didn’t think the kids were really into it because all I could see were the kids directly in front of me and they all had blank stares.
AVC: A lot of the joy in your music comes from the guitar and vocal harmonies. Is that based on what personally makes you happy or what you hope will make the listener happy?
JB: Originally the thing that stood out the most about [Fang Island], I think, is that we would always have a guitar riff and then the next logical step in our minds would be, “Now we have to add a harmony to that.” It was what we were into. We used to listen to any music, any song, any guitar hook that had double or triple harmony, like anything by Thin Lizzy or Metallica, and it just seemed to make sense. We would get really pumped up listening to harmonized guitar. That made us happy to write that way and we generally hope that the listener is happy as well. I don’t know necessarily what makes people happy, but we’re just trying to stay positive. If you were to analyze it, the presence of harmony in vocals and guitar is a really simple metaphor. Not that we consciously are basing our music directly on metaphors, but just the word "harmony" evokes certain things. That makes sense to me.
AVC: You describe your music as “everybody high-fiving everybody.” How deeply does the high-five factor into Fang Island’s music and mentality as a whole?
JB: Everyone always asks that, everyone latches on to that quote. But I think that people latch on to it for a reason. I’ve come to terms with it, because we do get asked that a lot. I still am into that description. I think it’s another really simple metaphor and a big part of our generation; it links us to our past. Anyone in their twenties remembers being at school, high-fiving everyone all the time. Like, you and one friend would have a different high-five than you and another friend. Not to over-think it, but I’m still into that description. I think it strikes a chord.
AVC: I think high-fives are best when you don’t over-think them.
JB: Exactly! Best not to over-think it. Everyone’s always like, “If you look at the other person’s elbow, if you’re both looking at each other’s elbows, then you’ll nail the high-five.” Just don’t think too much about it.