For how quickly modern music consumers are expected to make snap judgments about new sounds and sift through endless streams of new tunes, there’s something to be said about music that demands serenity. Music that would get drowned out by the clatter of life if the listener didn’t make a special effort to sit down and enjoy it. Music that holds us still, if even for a fleeting moment.
Sharon van Etten’s latest, Tramp, comes to mind, as does Zoo Animal’s new EP Departure. These are albums that recall bygone era of listening, a time when album’s were played start to finish and fans dialed in to the music so intently that the biggest distraction is having to get up and flip the record over. And filed next to these records on my sit down and shut up shelf is the debut from Fathom Lane, whose Down By Half will be released this Friday night at Icehouse.
“There’s quite the din of activity online,” says Fathom Lane songwriter and frontman Michael Ferrier. “Everything is louder, louder, louder! Faster, faster, faster! Stabby, stabby stabby! Stuff that sounds great coming out of your laptop, but you put it on your stereo at home and it just sounds like a big piece of plastic. It’s interesting to try and figure out where this fits in. And I guess if it doesn’t fit in, that’s fine too.”
Ferrier’s work in Fathom Lane surprised me at first, primarily because the last time I saw him perform was with the inventive, avant garde freak-jazz group Electropolis, in which he played the saxophone. To hear him suddenly fronting a quiet folk-pop group feels like a complete 180, and for Ferrier, that was kind of the point.
“At the end of Electropolis, not only that imploded but my personal life just went absolutely in the tank. I went through a divorce, and just kind of an estrangement from a lot of friends, and a lot of friends in the music scene,” he says. “So that was hard for a while. I had a hard time figuring out, ok, where am I going to fit back in? I needed to go back and figure out what made me happy about music again. And that was what really led me back to playing guitar and singing. That felt more real to me, and less like I was being evaluated. Because I got a degree in saxophone, so whenever I play saxophone I always have this vibe of, like, shooting notes out at people to be evaluated. That’s a weird place to be creative from. With guitar and piano and voice, I can be more creative and since I supposedly don’t know what I’m doing. I can give myself a lot more freedom.”
Now remarried with a 13-month-old son, Ferrier laughs at the dichotomy between the somber tone of his new record and the good fortune he’s experienced in his personal life. “I’m really, really happy, but I made a super sad record,” he says. “Even my wife said, ‘Everyone’s going to think you’re really depressed, but you’re in a really good place right now!’ And I just said, you know, I had to get to a really good place in order to make this record.”
“The idea started gathering around these songs about loss,” he continues, “because I think, for me, I want to connect with people, and I feel like we’ve all experienced way more unsuccessful relationships than we have successful ones. You know? It’s like, I can name one successful relationship that I’ve had; it’s my current relationship. I’m so happy right now, but I just think, to connect with people — I know I connect with this beautiful melancholy, as far as music goes. I really connect with that kind of music, because it just speaks to that experience. So there were all these songs that were kind of around that, and a couple covers as well, that led to this project.”
Down by Half contains two covers, an idea that he says was inspired by discovering Tom Petty’s soundtrack to the 1996 film She’s the One, which includes covers of Lucinda Williams and Beck. For his album, Ferrier chose two songs he felt conveyed the overall theme of loss: Petty’s “Hope You Never” and Poliça’s “Wandering Star.”
For Fathom Lane, Ferrier contacted Ashleigh Still on Facebook one day out of the blue and invited her to sing on his record. (“I thought that she would connect with this dark, quiet, kind of raw vibe that I wanted to do with this record. And she got it right away,” he says.) Still’s breathy, sultry voice dances with Ferrier’s steady tenor and complements the sorrowful tone of album, as does the pedal steel played by Shane Akers. Ferrier also enlisted the help of guitarist Ben Glaros, bassist Brian Roessler (who was also in Electropolis), and drummer Peter Hennig and pianist Peter Sands; all but Sands will join him on stage at Icehouse when he makes his debut.
An audiophile himself, Ferrier recorded most of the album on analog equipment at the Pearl Recording Studio in Northeast Minneapolis with the help of producer and studio engineer Zachary Hollander. “I knew I wanted to work with them because they’re really excited about vinyl and records and the experience of sitting down and listening to an album, and having it be your friend,” he says. “I toured the studio and it was like I was meeting celebrities. They’re showing me this equipment like a mic that the Beatles used, and they have the tape machine from Pachyderm. We recorded on the tape machine that recorded Nirvana’s In Utero and Live’s Throwing Copper. When they told us that, I was like ok, sign me up! And their space is in Soul Asylum’s old rehearsal space, so it’s just really good vibes. Super high ceilings with drapery along the walls, so you just feel like you’re in kind of a tent. It’s kind of a little music womb.”
Some of the tunes on Down by Half actually predate both Fathom Lane and Electropolis, with fragments left over from his days fronting Rev 105-supported local act Fire on the Water. Ferrier wonders what it will be like to return to the stage with autobiographical lyrics once again in Fathom Lane.
“I started feeling really self conscious getting up and singing — and we’ll see how this goes now — all these really personal lyrics,” he says, reflecting on his experience playing in Fire in the Water. “Because when someone is criticizing your songs, you feel like they’re not only reviewing your music but they’re reviewing your life. It’s hard. So then I was like, ok, maybe instrumental music for a while — which is when Electropolis came in. I could go out there and express myself abstractly with a saxophone and electronics, and not have to worry about lyrics, and people wouldn’t know a damn thing about me when I walked off stage. Whereas when I’m doing music like Fathom Lane, even though we’re trying to be welcoming to everyone’s experiences and lives, I’m still talking about my own life. I feel like I’m on a highwire.”
A lot has changed since Ferrier was last active on the club circuit, both locally and in the music industry at large. When we spoke, Dan Murphy had just announced his departure from Soul Asylum with a heartfelt and powerfully honest farewell statement, and Ferrier says he identified strongly with what Murphy had to say.
“That quote, about how you need this combination of naivety and swagger? I thought, man, he just hit the nail on the head. I’ve been thinking about that. To see someone at the end of that road is kind of heartbreaking in a way, and part of me wants to shake it off, and part of me wants to think, you know what, you’re right. To just kind of know, and walk into the situation with eyes wide open. You do need to strike that weird balance.”
“For me, I think I came to a point of peace realizing, you know what? I don’t want to be on MTV anymore,” he continues. “I just want to do this for the rest of my life. And that was invigorating. It’s not about getting on MTV; it’s about being happy and it’s about making art. You just keep making art, and just see what happens. I decided I want to do this for the rest of my life in whatever capacity makes me happy at that point in time. That was really liberating.”