Sunday, December 14, 2008

Les Savy Fav

[for PLAN B]

Tim Harrington leans back on a metal folding chair, crazed gesticulations possessing his hands, midway through the latest in a series of unlikely tales. His eyes are wild, like his thick, curling-at-the-edges brown beard, or his bedhead-of-all-bedheads blonde hair. His monkish frame clad in pastel shades, he looks like a character from Caddyshack – Rodney Dangerfield’s gregarious and gently-unhinged boho art-punk side-kick perhaps – who ended up on the cutting room floor.
Right now, he’s talking about Locusts.
“Do you get locusts here? They appear, like, once every eight or thirteen years – you see ‘em, clinging to the trunks of trees – and they eat everything in sight.
“I’ve been a locust,” he grins.
You have?
“Yeah, for a Public Service Announcement, in the States. They made me this cool costume and everything, and filmed me hassling people, stealing food from ‘em, getting in their faces. Then the voice-over comes: ‘In America, locusts are annoying. In Africa, they’re KILLERS!’
“It was such a cool costume, I really looked like a locust! I wanted to keep it, but when I mentioned this to the production company, they started talking about me taking the costume in lieu of my fee. And I wanted to get paid.” He sighs. “It was fitted for me, and everything.”
Were I a lesser writer – and who knows, perhaps I am – I would now be drawing a painful parallel between the Locust, one of nature’s hardiest of tiny beasties, and Les Savy Fav, the group with whom Tim has howled, cantered and caterwauled for twelve or so years now. After all, the group have pursued a singular, solitary path through underground rock for that decade-and-change, evading trends and scenes while making a twisted, flailing, melodic and concise noise all their own. Always eager to ditch a bandwagon at the earliest occasion, they went on ‘hiatus’ earlier in the decade, just as the New York art-punk scene they’d helped pioneer started to explode.
“I guess it all started to feel like a career,” says Syd Butler, Les Savy Bassist and honcho of French Kiss Records, the label the group have released their music on since their second album, 1999’s The Cat And The Cobra. “And we never wanted it to feel like that. We wanted to make the music for its own sake.”
“We had other ambitions we wanted to fulfil,” adds Tim. “Syd wanted to concentrate on the label, I wanted to focus on design for a while… I basically didn’t want to end up a Successful 40 Year Old Rock Star and feel like I’d wasted my life, y’know?” he laughs. “Sitting there by my pool, thinking, ‘I wish I’d pursued my passion for design’. Seriously, I’ve always had nothing but respect for professional musicians, people who play music and make their living from it their whole lives. But we wanted to do other things, too.”
The hiatus was signalled by drummer Harrison Haynes’ move away from New York, but has – as the group’s excellent new album, Let’s Stay Friends, and their triumphant appearance at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival attest – proved temporary, the lure of Les Savy Fav proving irresistible. As well it might; the stage is clearly somewhere Tim Harrington belongs.

I still remember the first time I saw Les Savy Fav, at 93 Feet East, February 13th 2001. The date sticks in my mind, because…
“It was Valentine’s Eve,” interrupts Tim. “Y’know, how All Hallows’ Day, Saint’s Day, is preceded by this messed up holiday, Hallowe’en? I thought Valentine’s Day could do with a similar event the night before, turning it all upside down. Valentine’s Eve.”
According with this new tradition Les Savy Fav wished to inaugurate, Tim garlanded the chill, cavernous 93 Feet East in hearts he’d fashioned from the pages of the hardest-core pornography. To accent the evening, if you will.
“I’m a renowned collector of vintage niche pornography,” interjects Tim. “In New York, I’m like the only guy who has a complete collection of original editions of Oui magazine, 1972-1981, in mint condition. And also Leg Work, which is a harder magazine to collect. There are all these extra editions, Leg Work Black, Leg Work Latina…”
While the three musicians in Les Savy Fav skulked purposefully in the shadows, stirring up a noise of slaloming, jagged, haywire riffs and neon blasts of perverse pop, Tim took to entertaining his audience. First, he was tearing porno-hearts from the walls, forcing his tongue through paper vaginas, just stone waggling it. Next, he was climbing the amps and gear and clumsily clambering onto a huge speaker suspended from the ceiling by girders and steel chains, swinging it violently as he sang, a good fifteen feet above the ground. Finally, he returned to the stage, dismantling the drum kit and walking off with a side-tom which he proceeded to beat, like some deranged leprechaun drum-major, leaping into the audience and completing a circuit of the auditorium. Such behaviour fair blew the mind of the audience that night. It was, however, just another abnormal night for Les Savy Fav.
“It’s like a kind of surrealism, being an adjunct of the music,” explains Tim, of his onstage performance. “The way the group plays, a lot of it is improvised – the songs have their sections, but they’ll extend them or shorten them, keep it fresh, different. And all the stuff I do, it’s all part of the same thing, so every show’s different, so we don’t ever fall into a rut, so it stays interesting, for us and for the audience. We want every show to be special.”
What’s the wildest it’s gotten?
“Oh, there are so many stories… There was this one time, some friends gave me this huge plush toy dog they found in a thrift store as a present. It was as long as I was tall, so I ended up cutting it open and pulling all the stuffing out. The next night, the band started playing, and I got inside the dog, like it were a costume, all ready to run onstage. But things started to go wrong – the guitars were out of tune, it wasn’t quite happening. And as I made for the stage, I realised I hadn’t cut any eyeholes in the dog costume, and ended up stumbling over. It wasn’t good. We kind of cooled off on costumes after that show.”

The members of Les Savy met just over a decade ago, while studying at Rhode Island School of Art, an institution heavy with punk rock kudos. “Talking Heads were from there,” nods Tim. “Lightning Bolt also. We played our first shows with those guys in the audience. I was born in New Jersey. I loved it there, but from the age of ten or eleven, I knew that I wanted to go to art college. It was just somewhere I had to go.”
This artistic bent continues through Les Savy Fav, not just from the disjointed twists and conceptual swipes of their records, but also in the design of their tee shirts, their album sleeves. Their debut LP, 1997’s 3/5, was an art object in of itself, the disk contained within the packaging of a shower cap. They want every show, every release, not just to be the latest in a stream of product, but special in of itself; this is why they could never see music as a ‘career’, why they’ve absented themselves from the indie-rock treadmill, in favour of doing their thing at a pace that suits them. The Game is not one they want to play.
“I worked at a major label for a year,” offers Syd. “It was sickening, guys in the A&R department receiving insane pay-packets and doing nothing. There’s a concept of ‘failing up’ in operation… As the owner of a small record label, I can say that the industry is fucked. Especially thanks to the internet, there’s a generation of kids who have no problem with stealing music, who think its okay…”
“We set up an ‘honesty jar’ on the merch table on our last tour,” smiles Tim. “’If you downloaded our album for free, please donate’. We got some money!”
It’s the small victories that keep you going, and Les Savy Fav keep going. Let’s Stay Friends opens with ‘Pots And Pans’, an anthemic ode to a group who “made a noise no-one could stand”, but who play anyway, because “this tour is a test”. It’s about standing up and making your own noise, your own art, to express “a human heart that’s nowhere near its end”. Tim blushes a little when I mention the lyric, asking if the words are autobiographical.
“I played the song to a friend who worked on the album, saying, the words are just kind of a joke, about this imaginary band. And he listened to it, and he said, ‘Uh, no they’re not’. And you know what?” he grins. “I guess they’re not.”
(c) Stevie Chick 2008