Interview: Tu Fawning
Published on June 7th, 2012 | Jonny Abrams
Rocksucker caught up with Corrina Repp and Joe Haege from Tu Fawning before the Portland quartet’s superb performance at Shoreditch venue Cargo last week, only their second London show. Click here to read our review of their spellbinding second album A Monument, and read on for the juice of our entertaining and enlightening chat, which included a brief contribution from their trusty European sound man Fritz. First, though, do enjoy this choice cut from the record…
So, how do you like England? Are you enjoying our bland food and stale lager?
Corrina: Having just come from Europe, it’s been nice to be able to understand what people are saying again! I really enjoy eavesdropping on people’s conversations. When you’re in Germany or France and you can’t understand the language, you feel kind of isolated in a way.
How’s the tour gone so far?
Joe: It’s been great. We’ve had a ton of good shows.
Corrina: I think Vienna has been my favourite show so far.
Joe: Berlin was good, but it was early in the tour so…it usually takes about a week before you really know what’s going on. We’ve got to work on that.
We’ve featured quite a few Portland acts on Rocksucker over the past year or so. Why do you think it’s such a fertile musical breeding ground?
Joe: At the moment, it’s kind of the ‘cheap’ city in the US – it’s cheap for artists to live there. I would say that ten years ago it was unknown but it was cheap and there was a great scene there, but through word of mouth it grew, people moved there and began to get recognition, and now there’s a fucking TV show about it! (Laughs)
A Monument has certainly upped the production ante from your debut. Did you go into the project with a clear idea of what you wanted it to sound like, or did it just happen that way?
Joe: I think the first thing was that we decided not to record it in my basement and kitchen.
Corrina: We recorded it in an actual studio! (Laughs)
Who was on production duties?
Corrina: Joe did a lot of producing but we were all there and we had an engineer everywhere we went. We had Adam Selzer in Portland, J. Pellicci in San Francisco, and then we did some overdubs with Justin Harris from Menomena at his house. We didn’t really have anyone producing it but Joe definitely has the creative drive and the crazy ideas when it comes to microphone placement, or how to mix something, you know…
Joe: Toussaint and I are probably the ones in the band who are really into recording…
Corrina: …which means they’re nerds!
Joe: We’re nerds. A lot of the little ideas of sounds have a preference on – whether you want something centre and huge or sounding very small, whether a vocal sounds like it’s in a canyon or in a room – so that stuff was more the choices I made, but we worked a lot with engineers.
Apparently you’re all multi-instrumentalists. What do you each play?
Corrina: Toussaint plays the trumpet, trombone, keys, guitar, piano and percussion. Liza plays keys, violin and percussion, and sings.
Joe: We all do a lot of the same things. We [Corrina and I] mainly do drums, guitar and vocals. I do sample work for the most part, but Toussaint has started doing some on this last record.
How do you go about arranging the vocal harmonies?
Joe: That’s mainly Corrina and I, or just Corrina on some songs. I was really militant on the last record about not doing anything that we couldn’t reproduce live, so we always parse it out per person.
Corrina: That’s something I’ve always loved doing when I’m recording ideas by myself at home on GarageBand or whatever. Layering vocals is one of my favourite things to do and I didn’t get to do it that much on the last record, so on this record it was something I really wanted to do. On “Bones”, the last song on the record, that choral ending – that was me just going (revelling in it) “yes!”.
Joe: It’s kind of a challenge for me sometimes – “okay, I’ll sing that one part of yours that’s really high!”
Corrina: We wanted to make this record without thinking about how we’d perform it live – we just wanted to be creative and have a great time, and as soon as it came around to doing the songs live we were like, “Okay, who’s going to do that part?” (Laughs)
One of my favourite things about the record is the rhythm section – there are lots of really unusual drum rhythms and syncopated basslines. Is that something you plan carefully, or – again – does it just ‘happen’ that way?
Joe: It became something really early on in the band, even when it was just Corrina and I, that we really wanted percussion to be a strong element of the band. On the last record we got more into it, we tried some things and it worked really well, and it became part of the identity of the band, although it took recording a record first for it to really do so. All of us are really bored with just straight rock…
Corrina: …boring rock drumming: I’m just not into it. It does not get me excited at all, but if I hear Joe playing a crazy drum beat in the basement during practice then I instantly want to start singing over it.
Do you set up the drum kit in an unorthodox way?
Joe: Yeah, a little bit. We have them at the front of the stage – we try to set ourselves up as much in a line as possible so we can make eye contact with each other. Liza and I work a lot off just looking at each other, and when you’re syncopating so many things you really need to lock in and see the body language of someone moving. It really helps. Maybe because we’re all self-taught in a lot of ways – Liza and Toussaint are more ‘schooled’ in music, but the two of us are self-taught.
Self-taught is generally conducive to the most distinctive results.
Corrina: Yeah I suppose, to have a feeling from the gut as opposed to from just the brain. It’s neither good nor bad – I think a combination helps – but for me it’s definitely more of a guttural feeling of playing music. And my ears – I just use my heart, my gut and my ears, and that’s all I have! (Laughs) I don’t have a lot of music math and science in my brain. We don’t think too much in terms of “does this work?” or “should this go together?”.
Joe: We’ve never played in bands that wanted to sound like a certain genre. If you do that then you’re just sounding like another band, something that’s already been done, so you can say in your bio, “We sound like this band and this band put together.” That’s so boring. Maybe this will sound pretentious to some people, but there’s an excitement about going into the unknown, just being like: “Okay, we’ve got this cool harmony and this cool drum beat – where’s it leading us?” Both of us are really visual with the lyrics, and sometimes the drum beat will start the song and it makes you think of something, and that dictates everything.
With “Anchor”, the first song on the record, we had this loose melody and then Toussaint came in with the foundation of the song as far as the notes, but I really wanted it to end with some kind of percussive chaos, something bigger. The way it unfolded felt really natural, and if it doesn’t sound like anything…well, we think of it as an accomplishment, although in the eyes of the industry it can be a curse in a lot of ways. It can be really hard to get out there when you don’t sound like somebody.
Have you ever made a song so totally out there that even you guys think, “Woah, hold on a second…”?
Corrina: Not that we can’t use it, but I definitely have moments where I think, “This is weird. What the fuck is going on in this song? It’s crazy!”
Joe: I have the weirdest filter for that – what most people find weird to me is creative and individual. There’s really weird music, people like John Cage and John Zorn – and other Johns in the world I’m sure! – stuff that’s really out there. We’re still playing songs with structure…
Corrina: They have choruses, you know…
You can sing along.
Joe: Yeah, but you can sing along in a way that, if you haven’t heard it, you don’t know when it’s going to change. For me that’s exciting. Taking people on a little bit of a journey: I think that’s the best music has to offer. To bring someone’s mind and heart somewhere else.
Fritz – compared to other bands you’ve worked with, how much of a challenge have these guys presented you with?
Fritz: It’s different but I really enjoy it. When I heard the album I immediately wrote back to say I really like it, let me know…
Joe: Honestly, if we were filthy rich then I think Fritz would be with us at all times. We would have him on our side. He is seriously the fifth member of the band – we haven’t found anyone that helps us as much as he does. That’s not just because he’s sitting here, it’s the truth!
Corrina: He gets it and understands how it’s supposed to sound in a live setting. It’s not a typical guitar-bass-drums set-up – there’s a lot of mixing going on throughout the song because there are so many different elements that are not typical in pop music, I suppose.
Joe: When we play shows in the US, it can be a nightmare to get the sound person to understand what we need. You want some elements of the sound to be otherworldly, not just “okay, here’s the drums” – Fritz has really helped us feel like “yeah, it’s working”. It’s pretty amazing and I think it’s something that you might not realise the importance of when you’re young and in a band. In the studio and in a live show, the sound of everything is an instrument unto itself, and for us Fritz plays that instrument.
You probably get asked this all the time but what does Tu Fawning actually mean?
Corrina: I do collage arts where I cut up little pieces of paper and glue them together. I like to do this from old National Geographics from the ’40s and ’50s – I love the writing in those articles, it was very poetic, so when we were looking for a band name I just decided to look through them and find something that sparked something for me. I found the words ‘tu’ and ‘fawning’ next to each other, so I proposed it to Joe and we went with it.
Joe: We had a hell of a time finding a band name!
Corrina: We’d find a band name, look it up online and be like, “What? How can somebody already have that name?”
Joe: In this day and age it’s so much easier to search it out and find out if a name’s taken, but that also makes it so much more painful because you get an idea, you Google it and go, “Oh fuck, some guy in Nova Scotia has this name. Oh look, they’ve played one show.” We love the idea that the name Tu Fawning took on its own meaning – we had to create what it meant to us, and that felt good. Obviously ‘tu’ is ‘you’ in Spanish and ‘fawning’, that’s a neat combination…
Corrina: Tu is also a Peruvian god of war, and a band from Canada in the ’80s!
How did you guys come together in the first place?
Joe: I kind of helped mix and produce Corrina’s last solo record…
Corrina: …which was a while ago!
Joe: …and I have another band called 31Knots which she sang the vocals on for the last couple of records, so we basically realised that there was a huge reason we wanted to connect and kind of further it. Liza played on that record too, and Toussaint had played on 31Knots records.
Corrina: I think when we first started playing music it was kind of a break from our own projects. We all had a similar musical goal of making something that was interesting to us, and I’ve honestly never met or worked with anyone as creatively inspiring to me as Joe. He’s really challenged me as a musician and as a vocalist.
Joe: I’m a pain in the ass!
Corrina: I think we ended up challenging each other, as well as having a similar goal in mind.
Are there any other bands or solo artists that you’d like to recommend or give a shout-out to?
Corrina: We’re touring with this band AU in July in Portland – they’re a fantastic band, great people and great musicians who put on a fantastic live show. Nurses and AgesandAges from Portland as well…we could probably go on and on talking about our talented friends. Beyond that, I’m super excited about the new Liars album.
Joe: Fritz is mixing the record of this band from Leipzig called Speed Mountain – he just played us the rough mixes and I fucking loved it. It’s not out yet though. Being on tour, you’re actually just working on music so you get to take in music and that’s unbelievably exciting, because half the time you’re at home you’re kind of too busy. I worked in a bar that had live shows all the time and you just get saturated to the point that you can’t even think straight, so it’s nice to be excited by music.
That leads nicely into my final question: if you had to spend the rest of your lives with the back catalogues of just five different musical artists, whose would you choose?
Corrina: Right off the bat I would say Neil Young…Nina Simone…
Joe: Nick Cave.
Corrina: …oh, and Nick Cave. Neil Young, Nina Simone and Nick Cave – I could be okay surviving on their music for the rest of my life!
Joe: I’ll choose the jazz guitarist Joe Pass, and Louis Armstrong.
Half of Tu Fawning, thank you!