The Providence/Brooklyn trio Fang Island makes over-the-top, uplifting rock music that could put a smile on the face of even the most belligerent, hateful, misanthropic pessimist.
The band’s sophomore album, “Major,” is out this week on Sargent House, and it’s even more absurdly ecstatic than their 2010 debut. From flashes of classical piano (“Kindergarten”) to bizarre combinations of hair-metal, saloon romps and West African riffs (“Dooney Rock”), the band reaches for '90s alt-rock glory with blazing electric guitars and colossal hooks. I caught up with guitarist and vocalist Jason Bartell to talk about “Major” while Fang Island was preparing for the next stop on their current U.S. tour.
You’re in the middle of a tour. Where are you?
Today’s our day off. We’re in Campbell, Ohio; tomorrow we play Cleveland. Tonight, we're staying in a sub-suburban mansion paradise thing owned by one of our touring band members’ cousins, who he hasn't seen since he was a baby.
This guy should be the star of a reality show, for sure. He's brilliant, but also kind of insane. He built this house himself, and all the rooms have different themes -- there's one with a Jacuzzi and a television, a pirate-themed room that he's putting a boat in, a bar with zebra prints and tiger stripes -- it's insane. I think some weird stuff is going to happen tonight.
That sounds kind of scary. What does Fang Island normally do with its days off?
We just saw “The Dark Knight Rises.” We started the tour the day it came out, and we've all been anxious to see it. The first half hour was a little iffy, but it picks up. It's a cool ending to the trilogy. We see a lot of movies on the road.
So, assuming for a moment that Fang Island is an actual place, what does “Major” say about the current state of things on the island?
Well, since it's an island, we had to hire people to work on things, like imports and exports. [Laughs] I guess it's a state of perpetual forward momentum. It's like a futurist world where everyone’s hopes and dreams are moving forward; they're doing good work, and working hard. I'd like to think it's a smoothly run place where everyone’s happy.
The album art is really austere. It looks like a tombstone.
Yeah, it’s an actual piece of carved marble. There's only so many times you can see explosions, bright colors and fireworks on the cover of an album, so we wanted to break up the visual expectations that normally come with this type of music. But we didn't intend for it to look too much like a tombstone, because that would be too far from the actual music experience.
Much like the first album, the music’s really high energy. Were there any significant changes with the songwriting process this time?
Yeah, our musical roots are definitely fast, hardcore and energetic. This time we wanted to find a bridge between complexity and simplicity. But, when it comes to production, we always err on the side of maximalism. On the last album, there was never a point where there weren’t like six guitars playing at the same time. But we learned that even if we have six guitar parts, the music can still be simple. For this album, we tried to utilize both ideas depending on what the song called for.
"There's some sort of shared longing for innocence among people in our age group, and we inadvertently and intentionally speak to that."
One of the most striking lyrics appears in the song “Never Understand,” where the line “I hope I never understand” is repeated numerous times. Is this meant as a sort of celebration of youthful ignorance?
I think so. In art, there's this idea that you can eventually reach a point where you fully understand your craft, whether it's playing guitar or drawing. There's this idea that there's an end goal and that you can keep improving on your way to it. It also applies to improving yourself, or improving the world around you. That goal is always there, but it's ridiculous because it's unattainable.
People try too hard to attain that knowledge, and try to understand things that, by their nature, are impossible to understand. It's a mantra for living in the moment and not worrying too much about the things you can't control or understand.
The glorification of youth and the desire to reconnect with one’s innocence seem to be the central themes on “Major.”
Yeah, that feeling is a byproduct of a lot of young bands and artists of our generation; nostalgia, and a return to innocence, tend to be a common theme. There's some sort of shared longing for innocence among people in our age group, and we inadvertently and intentionally speak to that.
Positivity and innocence get lumped into this, too. We're pointing out this common thread while being a bit tongue-in-cheek at the same time. It's like something your mom says, or a silly, timeless phrase that's on a poster -- like "Hang in there, baby." The message isn't really deep, but you can't deny it; it's silly, but you have to agree with it. I mean, happiness is the goal.
One of the naïve things I've realized is that that's not how every band functions. Some bands try to get the opposite reaction from people. But if we can brighten one person's day, I think we've done our job as artists. That's what we're trying to do.
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