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Fair To Midland's Still Getting Defined

Fair to Midland's still scratching out its identity.
Brandon Thibodeaux

A good five hours before his band was set to perform for the first time in four months, Fair to Midland frontman Darroh Sudderth awkwardly ambled about the empty pre-show confines of the Curtain Club early Saturday evening, doing his best to prepare for the night ahead.

Mostly, though, his wandering appeared aimless, his mind racing too quickly for his motions to keep pace.

"I'm always nervous before a show," Sudderth confides after taking a seat in the green room behind the stage. "I always have stage fright."

It's not just rhetoric: Nerves visibly cripple his outward appearance. His eyes shift about, never remaining on one focal point for too long; his thoughts scatter from the material his band has been writing in recent weeks to the sound check his band is about to undergo. It also doesn't help matters that no one knows where the opening acts (locals and Curtain Club regulars Dragna, The House Harkonnen and The Timeline Post) are at the moment. They should've been here by now.

Oh well.

Sudderth rationalizes his mercurial behavior, acknowledging the two main reasons behind his anxiety: "It's been a long time since we've performed, and tonight's the longest set we've ever played."

It's been almost two years since the national release of the band's Serj Tankian-approved major-label debut, Fables From a Mayfly: What I Tell You Three Times Is True, and after a near two-year stretch of incessant touring that included a stop at the 2007 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, the band has spent the greater part of the past year out of the limelight, holed up in a recording studio preparing material for the follow-up release. To say that the process has consumed Sudderth and his fellow band members' lives isn't much of a stretch: Sudderth has been sleeping in the studio on an air mattress in recent weeks.

"It's nice to get out and do a show," he says, still sounding quite harried. "But I've got a one-track mind, and right now, I'm in writing mode."

But "writing mode," it seems, is no more of a calming influence on Sudderth's psyche. The critical acclaim the band received for Fables' explosive hard rock combination of AFI-like bombast and My Morning Jacket-esque jamming-out has set the bar quite high for future releases; after months and months of constant writing and rewriting, Sudderth estimates that the band has eight or nine tracks that have a solid foundation—although he refuses to claim that any of the songs the band has begun writing are anywhere near completion.

"[Writing] is an extremely long process for us," Sudderth explains. "We still don't know exactly what type of music we want to play."

And the new songs, three of which Fair to Midland will perform later in the evening, are all over the map stylistically. Sudderth has been trying to learn the banjo and mandolin as he composes the newest material, hoping the instruments' folk-like qualities will add yet another dimension to the band's sound. One track, he reveals, is based around an "electro, dance-type feel."

There are a few reasons for this continued musical exploration. A good chunk stems from the band reveling in the fact that its sound is such a difficult one to peg as any specific genre.

(Not surprisingly, Sudderth still isn't sure where to place his band on the genre spectrum: "[When people ask,] I just say we're a rock band. Because we have a keyboard player, a lot of people call us prog. That's cool with me, so long as that doesn't mean we come off as pretentious.")

Another culprit behind the lengthy songwriting process is the uncertainty of the band's future. Fables' sales didn't match the positive press and radio airplay it garnered the band, and as such, Sudderth is almost certain that the as-yet-untitled follow-up will be released through a channel that doesn't belong to Universal Music Group. Not that he's complaining.

"We were surprised by how polished the production was on Fables when it was released—that's not our sound," he explains. "But we're not really sure what our sound is, by any means, so it's taking us that much longer [to write]. We haven't fully developed our musical identity. We second-guess ourselves a lot. We're real stressed out.

"We're starting over, in a sense," Sudderth adds. "We have more name recognition now, but that's it. That and the experience we've gained are it."

He seems overwhelmed. But once his band mates—drummer Brett Stowers, bassist Jon Dicken, guitarist Cliff Campbell and keyboardist Matt Langley—join him in the dressing room area, Sudderth's outward appearance changes. Their spirits uplift his. His shifty eyes and frown are replaced with a smile and a shrug.

"We'll try a couple songs in their current forms tonight," he says, but not without re-emphasizing their unfinished states. "We'll see how it goes."

Five hours later, after the opening acts have sufficiently warmed the crowd (The House Harkonnen, in particular, dropped jaws and raised fists with its menacing, middle-finger-in-the-air, garage-influenced hard rock) Sudderth gets his chance. The first song of the night, "Rikki-Tiki-Tavi", a song he'd described earlier in the day as a death metal band doing its best Yellow Submarine, goes off without a hitch. And the past-capacity audience (the line to enter the venue stretched well onto and down Main Street for hours as fans patiently awaited entrance), after chanting "F! T! M!" in anticipation of the stage's curtain being pulled, eats it up.

The reaction to this and the two other new songs the band performs over the course of the set is quite stunning. The crowd applauds these new efforts just as emphatically as it does the songs to which it sings along.

Sudderth seems more than pleased. As he whips his body across the stage in time with the music like a dog thrashing about on an invisible leash, he somewhat unsuccessfully fights the corners of his mouth from turning upward. It doesn't quite match the rest of the visual transformation his now-vicious persona has undergone (oh, the shy guy backstage is the same one now climbing the lighting fixtures above the stage?), but it's plenty telling of his thought process. The new songs seem to be passing the litmus test with flying colors.

They are as catchy and brutal as anything from Fables, as dancey and headbang-inducing as anything the band has ever before produced. But, alas, they remain incomplete in Sudderth's eyes—an exciting (and perhaps a tad intimidating) prospect for listeners; these songs are plenty impressive as is.

How much more work could they really need?

"If it takes us five years to finish this new record, then it takes us five years," Sudderth says, determined to let the songwriting process establish its own time frame. "We're not gonna rush."

OK. Fair enough. But Saturday night kinda made you wish they would.


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