It's about 11:30 p.m., at the tail end of an interview with most of The Theater Fire crew, when a strange mechanical sound approaches from down the street.
Maybe it's the hour, or the traffic stop of an SUV that's taking a curiously long time across the street from the front porch of multi-instrumentalist James Talambas' East Dallas house. Or perhaps it's just the heebie-jeebies lingering from singer Curtis Heath's story from early that morning, when he was bicycling to work in the dark and someone jumped out in front of him with a flashlight—the person turned out to be a policeman looking for a suicidal runaway.
But whatever the reason, something doesn't feel right about the scene. Headlights appear, and, gradually, the shape of a white pickup truck takes form. It's a City of Dallas truck, and the noise is the motor of the mosquito sprayer on the back.
Heath quickly points out that the pesticide kills beneficial and nuisance insects alike, and wonders whether a handful of West Nile cases warrant the associated environmental and health risks. Don Feagin, the band's other singer and songwriter, takes it in quietly. Bassist Mark Castaneda, who excused himself from the interview twice on beer runs, shrugs and says he tries not to worry about such unknowns.
Their differing reactions to the spray truck seem to illustrate a big part of what makes The Theater Fire tick. Heath and Feagin each has a distinctive lyrical and musical approach that distinguishes him from North Texas' glut of folk, roots and alt-country artists, as well as from the other. The differences are also quite evident on the band's new album, Matter and Light.
Heath addresses social justice issues with dark narratives and bleak humor. "Dahl Parts," for instance, is written from the point of view of a cow being butchered alive and grimly makes a case for his vegan stance. As he wrote for Matter, he was listening to a lot of old folk music like "John Henry," which inspired "Swashbuckler Blues." Meanwhile, the norteño-influenced "Coyote" tells the dark story of a hopeful illegal immigrant's ill-fated journey through the desert in a cargo van—all over deceptively upbeat rhythm and infectious melody.
"In keeping with the rest of my songs on the album, I wanted to write something socially conscious," Heath says. "The song is about these coyotes that bring Mexican immigrants across the border. A lot of times, like in Farmers Branch, you hear people make it out like this very easy thing, like 'They come over and take our jobs.' I think that's a very simplistic, naïve view. It's hard to come across the border. It's life-threatening... I just wanted to write the fairy-tale version, like 'Oh, it's so easy to cross and steal jobs.' I guess it's a bit of political satire.
"In this current economic and ecological climate, it almost feels irresponsible to write a love song."
On the other hand, Feagin stays away from such political fare. In fact, the album title comes from a line in one of Feagin's songs, "God Was a Child," which envisions creation as the result of a toddler hurling rocks through the void.
"I tend to write about things that are philosophical or spiritual, and that works its way in," he says. "I kind of thought the last album [2006's Everybody Has a Dark Side] had more of that. With lyrics, it's just whatever comes out that tells a little story or makes a point. Something to leave you with, rather than just 'Hey baby, I love you, yeah yeah.' Not that there's anything wrong with that."
As Heath and Feagin talk about their songwriting, the other musicians, particularly Nick Prendergast, chime in with compliments and their own interpretations of lyrics. It's obvious that these longtime friends and collaborators have a deep kinship and respect for each other that goes back to earlier bands—even before Feagin and Castaneda formed their first project together, Vena Cava, in 1995.
In spite of the songs' often-heavy subject matter, the music itself is just plain fun. Ironically, it's the perfect soundtrack for having a beer, hanging out with friends and forgetting about the very problems and philosophical quandaries that inspire the words. "It's a Secret," which Feagin wrote years ago, during what he calls his "space-rock days," was born of that kind of fun. It's an improvised drone experiment played on acoustic instruments—imagine John Cale with a fiddle—and features Red Hunter (from Peter and the Wolf), Emma Hertz (formerly of Peter and the Wolf) and other friends of the band.
"[Hunter] wanted to get together and do some recording, and just kind of have a party," Feagin says. "We had a bunch of friends come over, and me and Curtis each did a song and had a bunch of people clapping, using shakers and whatnot, and Red did a couple songs. So that song came out of that."
And then there's "The Testicle Song," a ribald gonad celebration that, if you're not listening carefully, sounds a lot sweeter and deeper than it really is.
The album is a direct challenge to anyone who ever thought of the band as a "country" outfit—no matter how many modifiers like "alt" or "indie" couch the term. If you had to stuff all the songs from Matter into a single genre, folk seems to leave the fewest loose ends. But the band's wide range of influences and voices reference blues, soul, mariachi, norteño and—OK, fine—a bit of country, as played by guys weaned on rock, who've spent plenty of time in below-the-radar experimental rock bands.
As great as the original songs on Matter and Light are, the band's instrumental take on Elliott Smith's "Say Yes" provides as clear a definition of their unique sound as any of their own songs. Banjo, piano (toy and full-sized) and trumpet take turns playing the melody, each rising from and then fading back into a swirl of fiddle, accordion and ghostly moans. It's haunting and joyful at once, a celebration and requiem, familiar and comforting in spite of some very weird moments. Better yet, the story behind it epitomizes how a bit of good fortune can shine on talented musicians and validate everything they work for.
Jessica Peters first heard the band in 2006 at the Wall of Sound music festival, where she fell in love with the song "Beatrice." Peters, who happened to be working on a documentary entitled Future Butterflies about Smith's fans, became a dedicated fan of The Theater Fire's, catching as many of the band's shows as she could.
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When she found out that the guys in the band shared her Smith affinity, she asked them to cover "Say Yes" for the film. She also introduced them to Smith's grandfather, Bill Berryman, at her birthday party that year.
A musician himself, Berryman talked music with the guys, complimenting them on their tunes and regaling them with stories about his grandson. At the end of the night, he left them with a precious parting gift: seven CD-Rs of unreleased Smith home recordings.
"That's why you become a musician," Heath says.
No matter the varying approaches to The Theater Fire sound, that's something everyone in the band can agree upon.