Fair to Midland are a difficult act to explain.
For starters, there's the music, an unholy blend of influences that touch on everything from metal to prog rock to, in some rare instances, pop. Then there's frontman Darroh Sudderth's mind-blowing vocals; the guy's a hero, nonchalantly flipping from shrieking to growling to cooing. There's also the band's live displays, impossibly creative affairs that find the band adding extra performers, video displays and piped-in between-song sonic transitions to their already hugely energetic, more traditional efforts.
Explanatory as all that may be, though, it barely scratches the surface of this confounding Dallas-based, Sulphur Springs-bred five-piece. In the past, even the band has admitted to not fully understanding its role. It's tough to blame them, too — especially considering their recent trajectory.
The past four years especially have proved a frustrating time for the band, which was once one of the more promising upstarts the region had ever seen. After forming in 1998, it self-released its full-length debut, The Carbon Copy Silver Lining. In 2004, for independent label FTF Records, the band released its breakthrough of sorts, inter.funa.stifle, a disc that, coupled with the band's ever-impressive live show, caught the eye of System of a Down's Serj Tankian. He signed the band to a deal on his Universal Records subsidiary label, Serjical Strike, and the band produced two releases for Tankian — 2006's The Drawn and Quartered EP and 2007's Fables from a Mayfly: What I Tell You Three Times Is True.
Fables turned out to be a commercial disappointment, despite the band relentlessly touring behind its release.
"It just didn't do as well as we thought it would," admits bassist Jon Dicken, who joined the band in 2005, just before the major labels came sniffing. It didn't do as well as the label expected, either. As a result, the deal went kaput. A sign of the times? Perhaps.
"We're probably one of the last bands to have gotten the kind of money that we did from a major," Dicken says.
But, split among five guys, the money only went so far.
"We had to come home and get real jobs and all that," Dicken says.
And they had to start over.
This time, though, things didn't come so easily. Back home in North Texas, the band found itself in an interesting position. Fair to Midland were still revered locally. Their live show audiences never dwindled — recent years have found the band selling out venues as large as the Granada Theater and Trees — but their confidence had taken a significant blow. The disappointment of Fables hit the band creatively, where it hurt the most. They were determined to move forward, to keep the momentum of at least their major label exposure going, to churn out an album — one even better than the one they'd made for Universal — and to take their fate into their own hands, hitting the road once more with this new material. One problem, though: The material wouldn't come.
In a 2009 interview with the band, before a Curtain Club show that was meant to serve as something of a break from their writing process, Sudderth openly acknowledged the difficulties his band was having in the recording studio.
"[Writing] is an extremely long process for us," Sudderth said. Worse: "We still don't know exactly what type of music we want to play."
The answers didn't come quickly. In that same interview, Sudderth admitted to spending most of his nights sleeping in the studio, in hopes of forcing creativity. It probably didn't help that he was grasping at any and every idea — everything from roots music to a potential techno influence.
In all, it took the band three years to write their new album, Arrows & Anchors.
"We just wanted to take our time," Dicken says.
And, though stylistically all over the map — perhaps to be expected given this band's track record — the new record succeeds, likely because the band took its time. The answers, it seems, finally came.
Lead single "Musical Chairs" sounds like classic FTM, if such a thing exists, highlighting Sudderth's staggering vocal range and his band's ability to craft chugging, swirling soundscapes behind it. "Amarillo Sleeps on My Pillow," Dicken's admitted favorite track on the new release, finds the band employing a banjo and an Americana influence. "Rikki Tikki Tavi," on the other hand, is an alternately bruising metal track and gorgeously Beatles-influenced baroque pop song that confusingly, yet somehow charmingly, switches between the two.
Same old Fair to Midland, in that sporadic sense. And, yet, a new one — one that finds the band employing even newer, odder influences while coming to grips with its own limitations.
"We're not the best players in the world," Dicken admits, "but we definitely act like we are, and try to play like we are. The biggest difference these days is that we're not really expecting anything. Any dreams we had of being all-out rock stars and having record sales checks coming and making us rich — that's all out the window."
So, hey, maybe Fair to Midland are finally starting to understand themselves after all.
"Definitely," Dicken says, with something of a sigh of relief. "It's been so long since the last record that, in many ways, we're kind of a brand new band this time around. And that's exciting for me. We're all really enjoying it."