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The recent spotlight has been bright, from their recent Drag City collaboration with Neil Michael Hagerty to their well-attended SXSW '06 performances to their gorgeous new album, Everybody Has a Dark Side. Thing is, the Theater Fire's genre-less po' boy orchestration and no-nonsense storytelling aren't as new to the DFW scene as some would believe but have built momentum in the region's shadows for more than half a decade. If locals have been slow to catch on, the band isn't surprised.
"When people hear us at first, they don't really know what to make of it, because we don't really sound like any of the bands around here," Feagin says. The self-description is astute for a band whose '90s roots seem like a sharp turn from the group's past half-decade of old-time country, blues, Latin and jazz sounds.
Feagin got his start playing alongside Andrew Kenny in Carrier Wave (Kenny later rose to indie fame in Austin ambient-pop act American Analog Set). In 1995, he formed Vena Cava with Theater Fire bassist Mark Castaneda, a band whose spacey, ambient sounds evolved as more members jumped on board, including co-songwriter Curtis Glenn Heath, who came from the similarly spacey My Friend the Atom. But as Vena Cava grew and changed members (the rest of whom describe their previous projects as noise, experimental and metal), it abandoned the old name--and most of its musical past.
"In '96 I was so sick of hipster indie-pop: guitar, bass and drums," Heath says. "I wouldn't listen to it at all...If it had a distortion pedal, I hated it." But the way he tells it, the transition from overloaded electric guitars to the Theater Fire's folk symphony of mandolin, pedal steel, accordion, fiddle, trumpet and so much more isn't really that surprising: "For me and Don, we've always been trying to make our guitar sound not like a guitar."
Each member has a different version of the story, but the outline is the same--musician plays rock, musician discovers a wonderful old record, musician can never go back. "Johnny Cash was my gateway drug," Feagin says, while Heath points to a smattering of blues albums. "That's something we all grew up with, and for some reason, we all chose to ignore it--like we were embarrassed," Heath says. "Just like anybody, though, you appreciate your roots after a while...You realize there's a lot of substance there, and that's why it's lasted so long." The Theater Fire's end result is like a stack of beat-up vinyl platters bought from a West Texas garage sale and smushed together--no modern twists or gimmicks, of course.
"It's hard to imagine a more mainstream audience liking what we do," Feagin says. "I can't see it because, in order for me to even like what we do, I had to listen to certain things before I could enjoy it."
But a learning curve doesn't obscure the band's Southern grace and acoustic sophistication, particularly on Dark Side. There's considerable growth from their debut's Calexico-loving post-mariachi: On opener "Kicking Up the Darkness," each instrument takes a separate, tasteful bow, allowing mood to build between pedal steel wails, piano plinks and trumpet burps. Heath's vulnerable tenor wail is at its best on the instantly memorable "These Tears Could Rust a Train" ("Useless and awkward/Like a flightless bird"), while Feagin's wizened, haggard voice keeps pace with the hop-along "Valentwine" ("We traded hearts when we first kissed/Cupid's stupid but he don't miss"). Then there's the deceptively dark blues number "My Razor's Gone," the epic take on Centro-matic's "Members of the Show 'Em How It's Done" and "I Heard About You," the jazz-stomp single that should make every tourist-y New Orleans bar band retire out of shame.
"If some of our music sounds old-timey," Heath says, "it's because we're trying to tap into an era where people were communicating and creating...[when] there was more time for family, more time for things that are genuine, like music, like playing in a parlor together with your family. Everybody knew how to play the piano or banjo or guitar."
Recreating that parlor spirit is easy with seven musicians: "A lot of problems come with [so many members]," drummer Nick Prendergast says, "but one of the benefits is six other people tell you, 'That's not gonna work.'" Collaboration and instrument-swapping among the septet (and every member--Jesse Brakefield, Sean French, James Talambas and the rest--should be labeled a "multi-instrumentalist") has helped the band grow on Dark Side, but the most noticeable change is Heath's increased songwriting presence. He adds an incredible knack for memorable hooks and melodies to Feagin's story-driven songwriting: "Makes it easier to remember the songs when we're working on 'em," Feagin says.