The first time I ever saw Dan Friel play music was in Parts & Labor, the gloriously urgent noise-rock group of which he was a founding member. (“Fractured Skies,” from their 2007 album Mapmaker, sits very high on my list of great side one/track ones.) Since Parts & Labor’s final show in early 2012, Friel has released two solo LPs on Thrill Jockey, moved from north Brooklyn to Park Slope, and become a father. One can find the thematic influence of the last of these on Life, Friel’s most recent solo album, released last fall. (The record itself is also fantastic.) At the end of October 2015, shortly before Friel left on a European tour with Lightning Bolt, we met up at his home and discussed Life, the evolution of Friel’s songwriting, White Zombie, Terry Riley, and more. An edited version of our conversation follows.
Looking back at your discography, it’s been over a decade since the Sunburn EP came out. You have some solo work that extended to before Parts & Labor, and you’ve released several solo records since Parts & Labor played their final show.Has your solo work being something you did in addition to being in a band to it being your primary musical output affected it at all?
I think I thought it would and it didn’t. I always enjoyed the balance of having the solo thing and the band. I would work on a record with the band and, you know, tear my hair out and be like oh, god I wish I was doing something solo. Then I would go to a solo thing and miss the camaraderie. When we stopped doing the band, I figured I would be able to pour more focus into the solo project, but it really lead to me deciding that I liked what I was doing already. At least, so far. You know, it’s only been three years since the final show. So it’s hard to say, and at this point, I do feel like it’s time for me to start figuring out some new moves beyond what I have been doing for the last 10 – 15 years in this solo project, but so far I just ended up burrowing farther into what I was doing and loving it.
What is it like for you as far as sitting down and writing a song? Has being here and having a small child changed that recording or writing process at all?
Less than you think. Moving here was great because I have a room in the cellar where I can be loud and record down there, so I’m able to find little bits of time here and there. But that’s kind of – even back in the Parts & Labor days I was always finding little bits of time in between band stuff. It’s not that different. I go in there, I turn on an amp or put on some headphones and improvise for a while, and then mold those things into songs.
Is Life all a selection of pieces all written in a fairly given sort of time? Or do you find there are certain times that there are songs you want to do, but it doesn’t work on certain records?
There are melodies on the new record that are stragglers from 15 years ago. The vast majority were written within a six month period, like last winter through this spring.
In terms of the songwriting, do you generally have an overarching theme for your records?
There is a certainly a theme with this record with the song titles and stuff like that about Wolf and becoming a parent and stuff like that, but none of them are concept albums. They are really…I make what sounds good. With keeping that in mind the whole time, what is going on in my life that is contributing to what is coming out musically.
I saw that there was a reference on the site to White Zombie having an influence, and I have to ask….
Everybody loved that! So there’s a breakdown in the middle of “Life (pt 2),” the last song on the record, where everything drops out and it’s kind of a preset in the keyboard that I use for a lot of distortion, where it just starts going duh duh duh duh-dun du-duh duh duh-dun. And totally and everything, it sounded a whole lot like “Thunder Kiss ’65” by White Zombie, which I loved when I was 15. You know, that was in the MTV days and that was before I heard about them and it totally blew my mind. I don’t go that deep with that band, I loved that record when I was 15, but in addition to me thinking it sounded a lot like it, a few people at shows were like “Wow, nice White Zombie cover man.” So I threw that in there. I already made this joke once, but when I was writing that little blurb about the record, it’s obviously a joke to reference that, but I remember thinking, “I wonder how long it will take my ex-band mate Chris Weingarten to speculate on what the White Zombie references are?” And he found things that alluded to White Zombie on the record that I didn’t plan. (laughter)
How did the record release show go?
It was one of my favorite shows I’ve ever done. I worked on organizing that thing just right for many months. Having Ethel come and play that piece I wrote for them was huge for me. They commissioned me to write a spring quartet about two years ago. I decided not to use any electronics. I left the door open, if I wanted to play with them, but I thought I would try and figure out a way to sound like me with no electronics, purely acoustically, and take advantage of these total monster players who can do things technically that I would never be able to do.
They premiered it at a concert a year and a half ago, and it was amazing. But the way things work in that world, we haven’t gotten around to recording it or anything, but I loved the idea of having them come and play it at this record release, you know, to sort of show another side of what I do, but also to make a real event out of it. And that was great.
The other thing I really wanted to do was I wanted to try to have a horn section on a couple of songs, so I had Jeff Tobias on saxophone, Sam Kulik on trombone, and Jesse DeRosa on trumpet. I had them play on three songs, worked out arrangements and things. Doing the string quartet got me to learning to write out sheet music, write out charts for other players, and it went off better than I could have imagined. Those guys totally killed their parts. In the process of it, Jeff asked about having his new-ish band Sunwatchers open, so that was the show: Sunwatchers, ETHEL, and then me with the horn section. And Sunwatchers is amazing, four guys: sax, guitar, bass, and drums. And it’s like somewhere sax is the lead instrument so there are references to the crossroads of psych and jazz, references to jazz, references to Sonny Sharrock and stuff like that. A lot of noisy ecstatic major key stuff. Awesome. That was great.
People came out and saw those three bands. Zach Lehrhoff, who does food at Secret Project Robot pretty frequently, set up his snack stand and made something we call Life Sandwiches which ended up being a grilled cheese stuffed with a bunch of mushrooms and onions.
In terms of writing for a string quartet, is that the only example of that, or has it led to anything similar?
It hasn’t, but I would like it too. I have pursued a couple things, but I think the next step is that I need to get that quartet recorded in a studio. And I can’t wait to do that, I’m really proud of it and I look forward to having a proper recording.
What are some of the techniques you have been able to do to translate your sound into an acoustic context?
A couple of things. First, I looked at things I do texturally with electronics and distortion, and figured out ways to have the string instruments–and the horns to some extent–imitate that. And there are ways that those instruments can imitate distortion. With the cello player, I had her really digging in with her bow, bowing closer to the bridge, doing things that produce a lot of overtones and create sort of a gnarlier sound. I had the trombone do some of that with the horns too. Also drone, there’s a lot of drone in my music, there is always something constantly holding down the root notes, so having some of the strings do that. But obviously, the thing with electronic music is what you can do with timbre, with texture, with anything, the door is wide open and that is what makes it exciting. When you work with acoustic interments, it’s fun to try and figure out as many different sounds as you can produce. You can’t, you don’t have the same range.
That was where I shifted the focus to their technical ability, so instead of trying to create something that hypnotic based on a combination of textures, I looked to a piece I listened to a lot getting ready for that was A Rainbow in Curved Air by Terry Riley, and the way all those arpeggios fit together, still keeping a lot of the major key stuff that I do in the pop music that is my solo stuff. But just chopping it up in a way that’s reflected the chaos that I do electronically in my music in way I couldn’t do if I was doing it myself, but that is still reflected in the spirit of the solo stuff.
When you are generally setting up to play a live set, what is the set up you have been using in recent years?
It hasn’t changed that much since I started doing this. It’s a Yamaha Portasound 460 which is a toy keyboard that came out in 1984. I have the original one in my practice space, but I’ve been buying them off of eBay for the last eight years. I use a lot of the presets in there. It’s got this function in there – in a lot of solo songs, there is a something going dugah-dugah-dugah-dugah, that very fast metal bass thing. And that is the rock n’ roll bass preset on there. You can do a lot of things to chop it up, speed it up, slow it down, hold down the drum fill button. It gives you a lot of options for doing that stuff. And you can program beats on the keyboard, but in a very primitive way, you can only store one–you know, it’s a toy keyboard. I run that through distortion, I run that through delay pedals. I do this specific thing where I imitate a Theremin on a lot of the songs.
This gets into a lot of very boring pedal technique stuff, which readers may not find captivating. I do things where I loop a single pitch and then speed up that loop and that’s how I imitate a Theremin, by just changing the speed of that loop. So you just have a pitch you can bend up and down two octaves and there aren’t any steps in between. It’s very bendy. It’s a fun way to imitate vocals. I use a mixer halfway through there the keyboard goes into the mixer on one channel and then the other channel is just plugged into itself, so it’s going out of one end plugged into the headphone out and one into channel one and when I turn up that channel, it creates all sorts of low rumbling, high shrieking feedback. It affects the other channel that is going through, in a way, it distorts it and causes it to fight with the channel that is just raw noise.
On one hand, I’m playing a keyboard I’m playing these beautiful melodies and on the other channel is just chaos, and the way the two play off each other is the key to what I think sounds good. That’s basically it. I have a little sampler with a couple of touch pads that I use to play so that I don’t have to program it by hand into the keyboard into each song. Because that would make for a very boring series of transitions from song to song, when I play live. Then I have one quarter inch cable that goes into the PA and that’s my set up.
You were talking about looking to shift directions. Do you feel like bringing in the horn players is possibly one way that could go?
Definitely. You know, one of the things I thought I would experiment with when I had more time to work on the solo stuff was that I thought I was going to get more crazy with gear and go for this bigger sound with electronic equipment. I experimented with it and didn’t like it because that is kind of what everyone else does. So instead, I have tried to hone the thing the one instrument that I play and not add to it with other electronic instruments. And then by adding the horns, it makes it feel really big. It adds variety. It also brings other people’s personalities into it. I really hope to add more of that and figure out ways to have a modular ensemble where sometimes I play with a violist named Karen Waltuch, sometimes I play with the horn players and just have a stack sheet, and play with different players and have them take solos in places where there are electronic solos on the record. Yeah, that’s one place where I really see being able to grow the whole thing.
So you are touring next month [this is a reference to November 2015 –ed.] with Lightning Bolt in Europe. Have you played shows together before?
I’m not good buddies with the dudes, but I’ve met them so many times over the years and then I ended up doing a solo tour with Brian Chippendale’s solo project Black Pus.
His solo record on Thrill Jockey came out around the same time as my previous one, so we went to the UK and did like a week there. That was the most we had every hung out and it was great, really fun. Obviously I’m a huge fan, Ride the Skies is definitely influenced my music in Parts & Labor in a huge way. Before the Parts & Labor days I was in a band in college that got to play Fort Thunder and that was really awesome. That was a great experience. I probably played with those guys for the first time at Mystery Train records in Amherst in 1998. So yeah, there is some history there, for sure.
Thrill Jockey is a label I’ve always associated with Chicago post-rock, so seeing them starting to do more and more punk and metal, even when it’s sort of on the more abstract or experimental side, has been interesting to see in recent years.
Yeah, I remember when that shift started happening. I probably noticed it in 2008 or 2009, and me and BJ from Parts & Labor were huge Thrill Jockey fans in the 90’s. Tortoise records, obviously, but also the OVAL records Ovalcommers and OvalProcess were huge for me. Mouse on Mars – those records were so playful and organic, and that was something that made me want to do this solo project in the first place. So we had this idea in our heads about Thrill Jockey, and then they started picking up bands–I think maybe Double Dagger was the one that really stuck out, because we were huge Double Dagger fans and to even talk to them about putting out More on Cardboard Records, the label that we did briefly. Then it went to Thrill Jockey, and we were like awesome, but also, what?
It was such a wonderful move for Thrill Jockey to sort of find this new path that – you know, a lot of the newer stuff we think of as not aesthetically similar to Tortoise, this really still, primarily instrumental or instrumentally focused stuff like Lightning Bolt and my stuff. Even Liturgy–there are vocals, but the focus is on the playing in a lot of ways. And it’s just so awesome to see this second coming of Thrill Jockey that focuses more on metal, in a way. I am the target audience for the vast majority of the stuff they are putting out right now.
I had totally forgotten about Mouse on Mars, but I remember getting a Mouse on Mars record to review for the zine I was doing in the late 90s and early 00s and being thrown by it. It’s a weird record but it’s also really fun, and very relaxing in places.
The Ovalcommers and Ovalprocess records stuck out to me because it just resisted the whole traditional robotic future of electronic music. Over time, I would come to love a lot of that stuff, but as a kid coming out of punk, I think it’s easy to look at a lot of traditional techno and stuff like that and be turned off by the lack of an organic element to it. So the Mouse on Mars stuff provided an in for me to like a lot more electronic music.
You mentioned Cardboard Records earlier. I still listen to the Gowns album you released.
Everybody should, man. That is a proud moment, having been able to put out that record. It comes up a little bit, not as much as I’d like, but now that EMA has become something with a lot of visibility, I’ll see people talk about discovering Gowns. We still get mail orders for that CD, even in the last couple of weeks, and it makes me really happy.
Was there anything from that period that you released that influenced you as a musician or songwriter?
Yeah, constantly. I mean, that was kind of why we did it. We did a compilation of 52 bands of bands we met on tour. We were a band that toured a lot. We used the phrase “exposing the latter” a lot. It was something we got from an interview with Thurston Moore, maybe around 2003 or something like that, where they talked about whether or not you chose to show your influences to the audience, whether or not you try to create the farce that you emerged wholly formed and all of these ideas come from you or whether or not you give credit. Doing the label for us was about giving credit. Especially that compilation, we wanted to show–not that they were aesthetically similar–this network of bands that were all doing interesting things that was totally influencing what we did.
You have now been making music and playing frequently in DIY spaces in New York for over a decade. Whenever I hear about DIY spaces closing, I go back and forth between it feeling like the end of everything and reminding myself that venues of all types open and close. I also can’t foresee a time where there isn’t going to be some sort of DIY space in New York. What have you found, as someone who has been playing in these clubs and spaces for so long?
DIY spaces are such a different thing in New York than they are almost anywhere else in the United States. If your DIY space closes in a small city, if you have a space that has been consistently putting on shows for a while in, let’s say Pittsburgh, a space like, let’s say Mr. Roboto. A city like that, when a space like that closes, you might be fucked for a couple of years. You might only be able to do shows like that in basements and word won’t get out as much. That’s a big deal. In New York, something else will come up. I think a lot of the people who really dig in to spaces like that, Edan who did Death By Audio, as he was being interviewed, he knew that was not the end. There were plenty of other spaces, and that these spaces come with an expiration date. It’s important not to get hung up on an individual location, it’s stupid. It’s more about the people that are involved and what their goals and and what the spirit is of the events you are putting on. New York is too big and has too much identity as an artistic destination to not continue having those spaces. Trying to say that the closing of one space is going to end that is just ridiculous.
It’s not taking the art seriously enough, but again New York is totally different than other spaces. I was thinking a lot about the spaces that came out of the 2000’s Brooklyn scene that are there now. Places like Market Hotel–Todd Patrick probably booked the majority of Parts & Labor shows in Brooklyn, and is continuing to be active through that. Trans Pecos is legal, Secret Project Robot is a 501-C3 non-profit, Silent Barn is headed that way. The best possible thing that can come out of this is that those places stay legal and are involved in the community there. And when gentrification comes, they can stay because they have those roots set down, hopefully. Not all of them will survive, and it’s not important that they stay around forever–what’s important is the quality of the work that they do.
There was a space I helped get started before I moved to New York in Western Massachusetts called Flywheel, which is in Easthampton in western Massachusetts. And they are still around, and they are an above-ground non-profit space with ties to the community. They have all sort of community groups use the space, but over the years, either in their space or places nearby, hosted Fugazi, Le Tigre, Dan Deacon, Titus Andronicus, you know, and it’s cool to see that become a thing in the United States. When you go to Europe, you see all these state-funded art spaces that can exist for decades doing the shows that happen in basements here because they have state funding. But we don’t have that state funding so we end up with non-profit spaces that have to work to get donations and stuff, but can outlast a warehouse space, basement space, stuff like that. So seeing those spaces come up like that in this generation of Brooklyn spaces is awesome, and hopefully that can happen in other places that need it even more.
Is there a particular space, either in New York or outside of New York that you feel is a space you have a significant affinity for?
Oh man, the list would be endless. Flywheel, obviously I have a lot of love for because of my history with that space and feeling proud to have been slightly involved with it starting. I’m trying to think of the ones that I think fondly of that still exist because I did the vast majority of my touring from 2000-2010 and a lot of those spaces are gone. One of the ones we always joked about in Parts & Labor was a short-lived space called the Philadelphia Athenaeum, which was an amazing space. We played there twice around 2006 maybe, that was where we met Gowns. They were touring with Amps for Christ, and I think the first time we played there, there were like 15 people living there and the second time there were 30. It was enormous. I don’t really think I ever saw the full footprint of that space. They had a skate ramp and a swing hanging from the ceiling. I think we played a Halloween show there, but it was in December. They had a knife-throwing room, where I think you threw dull knives at wooden painting of Jesus. This was like the stupid dangerous shit, this was not the part that was amazing about the space. There was an event called Lice Roulette–there were three hats. It was the third one that was just as nuts – that guy Little Howlin’ Wolf was there hanging out. It was fucking nuts. That is one that will always stand out to me as the most insane.
Just a short list of the other spaces: we played a lot at The Smell, that’s an institution. There’s a space in Northern Massachusetts, which is no longer around, but there is a documentary being made about it, called The Shed. It was shed in a family’s backyard and the two sons who were late teens early twenties at the time, started bringing in bands, we played there with Friends Forever, I think. Maybe I just watched that video, I can’t remember it was so long ago, but Friends Forever played there in the backyard at some point. We played there with Tyondai Braxton, and it was just a shed with 20 people. Amazing.
The Happy Birthday Hideout on Flushing Avenue, that place was doing big warehouse shows that pertained to my musical interests, so often and so early in the spread of warehouse spaces in Brooklyn, I think they deserve a lot of credit for having planted that seed and for having put on so many amazing shows. That is something that will kind of get lost in the sands of time. Happy Birthday Hideout will always be one of my most fondly remembered DIY warehouse spaces.
One place that I played in Brooklyn recently that is sort of captured a lot of the things that I liked about the early shows that I played here, like the ones I was talking about at Happy Birthday Hideout, was a place in Bushwick called Bohemian Grove. It’s a house, maybe even a duplex, and there’s a ton of people living there. But they have an enormous low-ceilinged basement that feels like you are in a college town. And a little backyard crammed full of people. There was also a bugs table. There was a guy who had a table and he was really dressed up and he had spiders and centipedes and crabs, all alive and just sort of cruising around. He would tell you about the animals and feel them and stuff. So yeah.
That also seems like a significant step up from Lice Roulette
It’s the flipside of Lice Roulette. (laughs)
I’ve been going to shows in New York – If I count the ones I went to in high school – for over 20 years. And it’s odd to go from being the one of the youngest people at the show to being in my mid-to-late 30s. I feel like it’s also inherent to New York, but do you feel like your relationship to show-going has changed at all since you got older?
I think it’s changed less because I’ve gotten older and more because I’m a parent now. My schedule is so thin and it’s hard. Being a parent played a part in me moving where I live now in South Park Slope/Greenwood Heights, which is far from a lot of the places I would go to shows. I lived in Williamsburg for 15 years, and I could walk to some of the spaces. I could walk to Death By Audio, I was a short train ride to any of those spaces. Now I can’t do that as much.
You talked about the Thrill Jockey metal world being something you have an affinity for as a listener, I mean what is your general listing, what are your general listing habits?
I think as you get older you start to lose general listening habits in a way that is great. As a teenager, in my formative years, my interests were the fringes of punk and metal, and then from there you can go to other places. So now I’ve become an omnivore. I think an omnivore is a good way to be making the music I make because of how simple and specific my instrument is, you know the distorted electronics and keyboard. I can pour a lot of different influences into that and it still comes out sounding like me. I have that mp3 collection of the entire Sublime Frequencies catalogue that I’m still, years later, still pouring through. That’s a great thing to throw on every once and a while.
As far as stuff I’ve listened to recently, as far as stuff I listened to recently, I still, I guess if I have a default, it’s to look for what’s interesting in guitar bands. That’s not where I look for the new and exciting things. Haxan Cloak is probably the most exciting music for me in the last couple of years, but I’m also checking in on guitar bands, so like Meatwave from Chicago, that’s a really good guitar band. Songhoy Blues, the African band that was produced by Nick Zinner, their LP came out earlier this year, that has awesome shit on it.
There is a cluster of bands from the UK–Trash Kit, Sacred Paws, Shopping. Trash Kid is really awesome. I still try and find bands that are doing interesting things with guitar. The new Yvette EP is really awesome. It’s a huge step up for them, especially that first track.
This is an obvious place to end the interview, but: are you starting to work on writing new stuff now, or are you going to focus on the tour for the new record?
I feel like I should make a joke here that is like, “Now that the record is two weeks old, it’s dead to me.” (laughter)
But that’s not true. Mostly, I’m thinking about this tour I’m going on with Lightning Bolt and how best to try and hold my own on a tour with Lightning Bolt. (laughter) I’m thinking about stuff, like how to do the horn section live. I’m thinking about mostly about way to interpret the record live. I guess that is another thing that comes with this being my main thing and not Parts & Labor. I’m feeling really good about my live show. It’s very comfortable, it’s very organic, I can improvise with the songs a little bit and have fun. So I want to get out there and do that. It buys me the time to get really good at doing what I do live.
Beyond that recording-wise, I’ll probably wait maybe 2 months before I start trying to work on the next thing. I have my work cut out for me because I’ve been calling the new record a rounding out of a trilogy of these solo records for a reason, because I don’t think if I made another record that sounded like those three, I don’t think I would have anything else to add to that formula. I think those three are a cohesive self-contained thing. I need to figure out what to do next. I’ve got a couple of ideas about what to do about that and I’ll be playing around with that this winter. That, and I miss playing guitar. One of these days I’m going to figure out a way to get back into that, some sort of band format. We’ll see.
Image: Sabine Rogers