By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
The Theater Fire doesn't have a single timely quality. That's not just a cop-out to describe the septet's sound, though the Fort Worth band is first to admit that its acoustic arrangements are rooted in the oldest days of Americana; co-songwriter Don Feagin can't even pay tribute to music as recent as the '60s without putting an asterisk on that decade's "more produced" sound.
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.
Last summer, they made a good impression on Hagerty, who invited the band to New Mexico to play a Drag City project "rehearsal." After a quick songwriting session and a promising one-take practice, the band went home hoping Drag City would "throw some money" at a proper studio version in the future. "They ended up just putting out the practice session," Heath says. "We're still kinda 'What?' about it. They literally set up a microphone in the middle of the room, we played, and they kept that."
They shouldn't have been surprised--they're one-take wonders, as anyone who's seen the group re-create its elaborate songs in concert can attest. In fact, the septet finally got a decent break at SXSW, where its two performances ended with newly converted fans, many from Europe, approaching and practically begging for CDs. "They're still e-mailing us," Heath says, and the band continues to ponder a European tour--one almost happened with the Earlies last month. "Everyone says we'd kill over there," Feagin says, stealing the words out of my mouth.
But the group's "uh, not yet" attitude is peculiar, if sensible. It's obvious the guys love these songs, but they think of Dark Side as a stopgap and a learning experience, not a turning point. National distribution through Undeniable Records and a first-ever focus on Austin and Houston are enough for right now. Hey, they still have day jobs: "For all of us to take off for a week or 10 days, it costs us a lot in terms of sacrifice," Feagin says. "So if we're gonna do this, we wanna make sure we make a dent...We need to learn more about what it means to put an album out."
Not that they lack ambition--the band is already eager to get another album done by the beginning of next year. But these guys aren't timely, and they're certainly not easily classified. The Theater Fire is happy with its disparate blend of old sounds, and winning over new fans of all kinds is making things nicer lately. "I feel proud that we're one of those groups that goes OK in an indie-rock club but...grandparents can come out and see us," Heath says. But more important, they know exactly why their "untimely" music is worth the effort.
"Usually the people that talk to us after [shows] are musicians," Heath says. "I guess musicians tend to have a broader look at it, at just music in general. And that's cool, 'cause maybe we're influencing other musicians...That's what you're really trying to do when you make music. At least for us. We know we're not going to make millions of dollars, but you want to take that mainstream, all its tributaries, and you want to get as many people on your way as possible."