Feature: Are You Living Deliberately?: A Conversation with Fairweather
by Chad Jewett
I sit down with Jay Littleton and Ben Green of D.C. post-hardcore greats Fairweather in a side room of the Black Cat, likely Washington’s most venerated club, and, tonight, the site of the band’s rebirth. It is pouring out and I’m parked far enough away that getting back to the club is largely guesswork. The pair, Fairweather’s founding members are exceptionally polite, amiably nervous and excited about the evening’s set in a way that belies their age. I find myself remembering that, besides a one-off show here and there, they haven’t been a band in any solid sense since 2003. I ask them about their thoughts on their new album, the quick, angular, explosive Fairweather, and their feelings about the 2003 classic, Lusitania. But before all that, Jay clarifies something.
“We tend to have our guard up about what people take away from the stuff that we’ve done … Lusitania was a pretty bad experience for us.”
This surprises me. When Lusitania came out, it felt like a masterpiece, like a long, gorgeous tone-poem from a band who had figured out how to synthesize emo and pop-punk into impressionist fugues. But in between its more subtle, abstract stretches, it was direct, sharp, melody-rich. It felt like nothing if not a well-crafted confection. I ask Jay and Ben about this, about the reception of the album.
Jay: There were a few people who liked it.
Ben: Like five or six.
Jay: Fans thought that we abandoned them. It was a departure from the more bouncy, more straight-forward stuff we’d done.
Ben: Lusitania was such a weird transition for us. Then we put this thing out [the band’s newest album, Fairweather] … it was funny, sort of a release. When you think of that last song on Lusitania it goes on for 10 minutes with no pay off, then we release a one minute hardcore song. It’s sort of about throwing people for a loop.
Jay: Lusitania sort of denied pay off…there was a lot more tension
Have you thought about Lusitania in connection with albums like Saves The Day’s In Reverie. An album that people were so angry about for similar reasons, because it was different, because it was trying new things, being daring.
Jay: I loved that record when it came out. It was getting so interesting, I didn’t care that [Chris Conley’s] voice changed because he was doing new harmonies, strange notes that weren’t obvious.
Did you consider Lusitania as part of that era of bands growing up and getting rejected?
Jay: We were probably the same age [as Saves The Day] too, so the same stuff appealed to us as we were growing up – Gorilla Biscuits, Lifetime – that stuff was what I grew up on, that was the kind of band I want to be in.
Ben: We were children. The songs we wrote for If They Move, I was 18. I had no idea what was going on … I still don’t. But I don’t know if we thought consciously about other bands in that way.
Jay: I wouldn’t say we considered ourselves contemporaries, but I think we were finally in a place where we could take ourselves seriously a little bit: “What are great records we listen to, what are great bands that mean something, and let’s look to them.” Obviously there’s a song that’s influenced by My Blood Valentine. If you look at the master disc, the first song says “MBV” because we called it “The My Bloody Valentine song” That’s why we called it “Derivative Opener.” We were thinking of My Bloody Valentine.
Ben: (Jokingly) If you’re stealing from us you’re stealing twice. … We thought about sounds that interested us. We wrote a record we wanted to hear. We actually wrote that record.
Did you find solace in other bands getting this mixed reaction?
Jay: I think I was listening to In Reverie more when I got home from tour and spent some time with it, so I wasn’t sure I was aware of a shift.
Ben: We also turned a lot of stuff down.
Jay: Pragmatism comes with age, there was stuff I turned down that I wouldn’t now.
Ben: “We don’t want a manager…” “We don’t want to go on that tour…” We never had a lawyer or a manager, we thought we could handle it ourselves. But maybe that record would have reached more people if we had decided to work with more people. And we ended up on tours that were really, really difficult. The shows where we fit were ridiculous, super fun, bands where we connected, where fans were receptive, they were great. RX Bandits for instance.
Jay: RX Bandits were progressing in this really interesting way. I think they were super influenced by Fugazi
Ben: Even Fugazi was influenced by dub and reggae.
Jay: Yeah. So they’re fans were able to move on from that ska background as the band progressed to more interesting experimental stuff they were doing, and I think the fans on that tour were the most open, receptive to what we were doing.
Ben: But we did a lot of metal tours and nobody wanted to hear it. The bands were cool, American Nightmare, Give Up The Ghost…
Jay: They were great, but the fans were not stoked on us at all. I’ve never heard us boo’ed so many times. “Fairweather is up next”
(In unison) “Boooooo.” It was a hard way to go out.
Has there been a trickle of fans who liked Lusitania? You re-released it on vinyl…
Jay: I think it has grown, for sure. I feel like I just see reviews every once in a while, and say, “Oh wait, this is a few years ago, this is awesome”. So I’ve noticed a little bit of a trend.
Ben: We definitely hear people talk about that record. We feel differently about that record because we made it with a solidified lineup. Since Alaska it’s been the same people. Before that we didn’t really have a consistent feel for who we were until then. We had to find the right people.
The new album seems to be something where you wanted to catch the energy, something more spartan, but was it also something about how Lusitania went over, a reaction to its reception?
Jay: I’ve thought about this, and I don’t think it has anything to do with Lusitania. I don’t think it’s a reaction in any way really. I think we got back together after a really long time, and it was just really fun to play really loud, really fast.
Ben: It was just a visceral understanding of “us.” It was very gratifying. I would expect people now to dislike the stuff we just recorded: “What the hell, this doesn’t sound anything like Lusitania” when ten years ago it was “What the hell, this doesn’t sound anything like If They Move.” We never win. (Laughs) But the response so far has been good.
Why call the record “Fairweather”?
Ben: I think every real goal with this album was “really straightforward.” It’s not really about much other than us, so I guess it makes sense for it to be self-titled. We had a strong intention to make it simple, not overly embellished. We wanted it to sound like the five of us. When the five of us get together, it sounds like the band, we all do weird things and it matches up.
Jay: I don’t think there was a whole lot of thought about any other angle. There’s really no angle at all. This is what’s coming out of us. This is what we wrote, and it’s all loud.
Ben: Good luck everybody.
Was there any sense of this album as a last statement? A summary?
Jay: I had to approach it that way. I wanted to be prepared, more prepared than any other record. We demoed this record for a lot longer. I consciously made the decision that if this is the last record, I want it to mean something, I want it to be deliberate, I think Lusitania was great, but I wasn’t prepared, I was a nervous wreck. What came out [on Lusitania], I’m totally happy with, but I wasn’t as deliberate. The music was all super deliberate, but I was waiting till the last minute lyrically. I’m not unhappy with that album, but I’d be unhappy if it was our last.
Ben: I think we’d all say it’s hard to think about this record in any particular way because we’re all friends. If we have the time, we’ll do another one. We’re all very good friends. I wouldn’t write anything off. We love playing this music with each other.
There seems to be this interesting trend of bands making records as stand alone things: what people are getting is the record, even if live shows are supposedly the thing that makes it possible, because records are supposedly less meaningful. Yet you guys are making the record the thing, you are officially defining yourself as a band that makes albums rather than necessarily tours.
Jay: We had to redefine what it meant to be this band. And records last forever; if there’s someone who’s interested, who wants to pick it up and listen to it, that’s success.
Ben: People talk about how records aren’t as meaningful anymore, but that might just be a blip. But we’re doing this for us. We listen to records most of the time. We don’t have much intent other than for ourselves. We have the ability, we like each other, and we like making records, we always liked making records.
Jay: If there is a reaction to Lusitania, it might be how we approach the band. When we broke up, the reception was so bad, we decided we either had to tour full time or break up, and relationships were suffering, we weren’t making enough money – we had to break up.
Ben: When I think back, it’s kind of crazy. But the stress of Lusitania... Nobody knew what to do with it. I love that record, I think about writing, recording — it was just such an intense thing, it was exactly what we wanted. And then it came out, and we were so proud of it, and people just didn’t get it.
Jay: Band’s got it. We heard “band’s band” which means people don’t like you, but musicians think you’re cool; which doesn’t mean anything other than sometimes you get on a tour.
Ben: I was in a mode where, if a song could have cycled around one part for 19 minutes, I’d have done it. I was in a mode of “forget everything, forget pop.”
Jay: Meanwhile he was in a band with this poppy singer.
Ben: But there were other forces to say “That’s not the way it’s gonna be…we need to write songs.” So there was this weird combination of stuff. The last song on the record is just two people playing a riff for ten minutes. It was dumb. (Laughs) But when I listen to that, I think back to that time. It was just Peter and J. Robbins and I in the studio, and it had just started snowing and it was the last day at Inner Ear and Peter and I just started playing together and J. Robbins let it go and we just sat there and played it together until J. said “Alright guys the tapes about to go” and to me that is a moment. That record is full of those moments. It’s a record, a thing happening. I always think a lot about what it means to make a record, to record a performance, a thing that will never happen again. And that record’s filled with that stuff. We were real meticulous, but that record is full of performances, weird things happening. There’s that weird little interlude, “Lusitania Redux,” where it does the Lusitania lead, but in a harmonic minor. There were just so many things happening. We knew what we wanted to do but there was so much happening. It’s really cool to think about the record that way. And I don’t know if that came across at the time. I don’t know what came across. “Silent Jury” has that single-note guitar part (hums the melody). Who was doing that? But it was fun to play.
Jay: But your take on the record gets to the root of the problem, which is that people are confused by us, because I think this music, with another singer, would be far more “serious” sounding, would have a far less “pop-punk” song. We didn’t fit into pop-punk shows because we were too serious. But I had a high voice, and our first record was poppy. But what I think was great about Fairweather is that my voice contrasts the music in a nice way. We temper each other; they can’t be so droning that it’s boring, I can’t be so poppy that it’s bubble gum.
Ben: It’s this weird give and take of style. It all just happens, and it sounds like us. We could make a record that’s really slow, and it would still be the same, all those abstract elements about how we write together are still there.
Jay: Very little of what we’ve done has been contrived. We’ve maybe tossed a song or two out if it hasn’t fit, but in a general sense, we just write what has come out of us. There’s little sense of “We’re going to do this”
Ben: All our music is written together. Nothing is decided upon till everyone casts their vote. It takes a very long time to create the music.
Ben: When I think about influences, things that shape our sound, I take everything. Everything I hear is just something happening in an expressive way: I understand that, I can use that. We all have things that speak to us; there are all different things we digest – music, film, literature — they all inform our sense of expression.
What’s going through your mind now that it’s done?
Ben: It’s great to hold the thing.
Jay: Yeah, that’s amazing.
Ben: I’m excited to have it. For me, I did the recording, so for me it’s a little difficult. I’m too involved with it to think about it any other way than I’m proud of it.
I ask the band about the cover, a striking night-time sky with the pale hint of a white picket fence lined below.
Jay: I was trying to find a way to express where are, to try to reflect on what life is like now, so it was a concept I feel like I had for a while. I kind of wanted to be looking at the sky, the tree-line, but I want this fence, and it’s going to be be really important because that gives you the context of being confined by the structure that I put around myself, be it my job, my family, my mortgage. There’s subtext expressed just by that fence, specifically.
Ben: And not everything is revealed. It’s super dark. It’s a question. What’s out there?
Jay: And what are you doing? Are you living deliberately? Are you just surviving? Just going to work and feeding yourself and just checking those boxes that allow you to do that exact thing, without reflecting on whether that’s how you want to live – that’s awful. So that was part of our motivation for that cover.
Ben: And it’s the first cover with our faces on it.
Jay: And then we have something to do with it being self-titled. Like, “Hey this is us.” I guess the more we talk about it, the more self-referential the whole thing is. It’s pretty navel-gazing isn’t it?
Jay and Ben laugh in unison at this. It’s possible they’re realizing, for the first time, exactly what their new album is about: Fairweather. They go on to explain the inner gate-fold image, a hardwood floor, as direct reference to Lusitania. The hardwood floors are an exact contrast to the wild verdant grass of Lusitania. The idea: “You have a home, you have a place”. The question: “Is that where you should be?”
Later that evening, Fairweather move through their set with a precision one could describe as hungry, or desperate, or joyous. Perhaps all three. Jay’s voice retains its upper-tenor glint, the twining interplay of guitars is honed and athletic, charging the new songs with the angular bite that the band surely had in mind as they wrote Fairweather, an album that leans on the most taut, tense parts of their sound, a short, harried album of minor-key bursts. Cheers and applause follow “Lusitania;” Jay jokes, warmly, “Where were you ten years ago?”. At one point, someone yells out “Play some old shit.” I can’t imagine someone who yells “Play some old shit” at an artist does much creating themselves. But Fairweather oblige. Much of the set is gleaned from Alaska and If They Move…Kill Them. The band plays every song they know, then asks folks to talk to them if they’d like to. By the time I leave the Black Cat, preparing for a marathon drive that will get me to the Maryland/Delaware border at around 3am, the band is still talking to folks, likely people they know, just as likely people they don’t. Leaving Washington, D.C., the band’s roughly-geographical home, I follow directions I assume must be wrong as I head down smaller and tighter side streets, until I nevertheless find New York Avenue, and then 95. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere, about detours and blind alleys and finding one’s way through a new-found interest in intricacies and oblique angles. But I like Jay’s better, the bittersweet contrast of a hardwood floor and a carpet of green grass.