Fol Chen’s Samuel Bing on How You Can’t Win With Image, and the Issue of Performing a Studio Creation – We All Make Music

Fol Chen’s Samuel Bing on How You Can’t Win With Image, and the Issue of Performing a Studio Creation

For the entire month of August, the Highland Park-based sextet known as Fol Chen have had a residency at the Los Angeles venue the Echo. Every Monday night, they were guaranteed a slot at the influential venue, and they have taken that guarantee and run with it.

Two weeks ago, the band spent quite a long time recording their audience, looking for sounds that they would use on an upcoming album. This past Monday, the lead singing duties were handled by people who responded to an ad the band posted on Craigslist. And on Monday, August 23, the thrash metal band Viscera will be performing a set of Fol Chen covers while the band looks on from the audience.

These are risky strategies, to be sure (“an egregious abuse of a residency!” raves the LA Weekly), but they’re all part of lead songwriter Samuel Bing’s considered if highly idiosyncratic vision. I spoke with Bing yesterday about the residency, his records, and the problems of performing a studio-created record, and here’s what happened.

WAMM: So, um, why are you doing this?
Samuel Bing: Well, this August has five Mondays in it, and even the idea of doing four Mondays in a row, whether that meant mixing up the order [of our songs], or doing covers, it’s not as exciting a use of the space. The Echo’s really popular, even on a Monday, and I wanted to use the opportunity to expand the idea of what you can do in a residency.

But why Viscera? Why a metal band? Did you try to get a klezmer band and there were none available?
[laughs] Well, the original idea was that Gemo, our drummer, who works with kids, wanted to get together a band of 12 year old musicians to cover our set. And that was logistically kind of impossible for many reasons: 11 o’clock, at a bar, not a lot of parents of 12 year olds are going to be excited about that idea. Then we were thinking of a wedding band, but most of us in the band grew up, to some extent, in some cases to large extents, on metal. I myself went through a large metal phase, and I always felt like our songs have metal changes, and metal chord patterns and melodies. There’s a dark, sinister vibe to a lot of the songs, it’s just a matter of how they’re arranged, and the way we arrange them is in a kind of electronic, dance-y, experimental way. I just wanted to hear these songs played in a metal style, and I went to their rehearsal last night to hear our songs and it was just amazing. It really works. I gave them both albums to choose from, and said, “Pick the ones you want,” and they just naturally gravitated toward the ones that lent themselves to the thrash/shred mode.

Are you gonna be there then?
I definitely would not miss this for anything. We’re gonna record it, probably, just release it as a free EP, but I will be there front and center.

A lot of what you do seems to be centered on the idea of the importance of image: you never expose your faces in press photos, you sometimes wear crazy makeup on stage, this week you did that Craigslist thing, and next week you’ve got Viscera. Is this all part of some larger non-musical message?
I think a few of us in the band have conflicted relationships with live performance, especially because our records are very much studio creations. There’s never a time when we’re recording the band live in the studio; our records are assembled piece by piece. And so the idea of performing that live is kind of counter-intuitive. We don’t want to use a backing track, and so we’ve been trying to split the difference and come up with a new approach to live performance, and especially with the Echo residency it’s been a chance to explore what you can do with that time in that space that you have. And keeping it musical, but introducing elements of surprise and chaos and maybe some elements of disaster. [laughs] We didn’t really know how last Monday’s – the Craigslist singer auditions – show was gonna go. And I can’t say that, musically, it was a perfect success, but as a one-of-a-kind performance it was definitely interesting.

I think if there’s a point we’re trying to make, it’s that you don’t just have to get onstage and play. We experiment and think about the broader sense of putting on a show. But we’re also not trying to take the piss out of it, y’know? It’s really not a cynical thing. I would say that we’re seeing some write-ups that were suggesting that maybe we weren’t taking the residency seriously, but I disagree. We put more work into setting these things up than we would into just showing up and playing. We were taking it even more seriously than we normally would have.

So there was never any thought of mixing up your music yourselves? Of really pushing yourselves musically to reconfigure things internally?

Well, there were two ideas we were playing with that we didn’t end up going with, but that I’d still like to try some time. One was where we’d play the whole set in 3/4 time, in waltz time. And another, and I don’t know this would have worked, but we were going to rent four pianos and we would just play the whole set on four pianos. So there were those ideas and I think we, frankly, just didn’t have enough time to get those up, but it’s something that I’d like to do in the future, just playing our music in ways that we’re not really prepared to do. [laughs]

Tell me about your new album, then. Its predecessor, Part One: John Shade, Your Future’s Made was driven by a very strange narrative, but ultimately its creation was catalyzed by the news that your favorite radio station as a child, WLIR, had gone off the air. Part Two: The New December has a similarly weird storyline, and it features a lot of the same characters and storylines from John Shade, but is it buttressed by anything personal as well?

Um, good question. It’s definitely, like you said, it starts with the world of Part One, and then it takes on this science fiction narrative which is just, you know…In a way, this is kind of a more personal record, even though it’s not about my childhood and growing up, listening to that radio station. It’s more about now, and the idea of vanquishing your foe, in this case John Shade, and not knowing what to do after the victory, which seemed kind of politically important to me, or something worth talking about. I’ve also always been kind of interested in how language works and what happens when it breaks down, and these are subjects I’m not smart enough or well-read enough to speak on, but it’s kind of easier in an album to address things like that.

The way we do it on the record is there’s a verbal virus based on the secret code. And I guess the idea of something that was once good becoming bad, and once you put something out into the world it mutates and takes forms you can’t really expect, and sometimes they take a turn for the worse.

It sounds very much like it’s tied to fears about the Internet. Was that on your mind?
Frankly, that’s not something I’d really thought of, but it makes perfect sense. There’s definitely something to that. The excitement and danger of the Internet is that you’re just not in control at all. You put out a record or anything that’s a personal thing, even just go play a show, and conversations start about the show…all you have to do is go on YouTube and look at the comments. You’re definitely in a dark world when you check out the comments on YouTube [laughs] Julian Glass, my co-producer and band member, says YouTube comments are a cesspool on the Internet.

But on the other hand I feel like our lives are enriched by all the crazy crazy shit people post on youtube, and the access we have to stuff we wouldn’t have ten years ago. But not everybody has your best interests in mind on the Internet, to say the least.

I like your idea, though. It’s about mutation. You put things out there, and people can talk about and discuss it any way they like, and it’s there forever! We’ve all heard about those nightmares of people who have posted something, or a photograph maybe and then they lose their jobs. It takes on a life of its own, and it’s something you need to account for when you make decisions.

So tying that back into the idea of Fol Chen’s image, then, is that something you put a lot of thought into, or is it more a question of just doing things in the moment that engage you?
As far as the decision-making on that, I don’t know what it is about wanting to know details of people’s lives when they’re not relevant at all. I’m not the most private person, but this is something I don’t really get. How does it help you appreciate a record if you know where the bass player went to school or something like that. But on the other hand, this is something that’s not in your control, and now our music is now informed by the idea that we’re secretive, and this and that, and so you can’t win. [laughs] They see us through this lens of “Oh Fol Chen doesn’t take press pictures, or they do weird things with their faces,” and so if the idea was to keep the focus on the music, it was an utter failure.

Martin Atkins told me recently that it’s the personality that fans are drawn to, more so than the music, that in fact the personalities are enough to help fans forgive a band’s crappier music. Is this your personality? Is this all part of a kind of misdirection strategy?
It’s definitely not a “fuck you” kind of thing, because when you’re trying to get people to listen to your music, which I’m unabashedly trying to do, you think [about what you like].

I always liked bands that were mysterious. When Pavement first started, they didn’t take pictures and they didn’t use their real names, and as they moved on they started taking pictures and using their real names, and I kind of felt that something was lost when they did that. I like the mystique, and I feel like with human beings, if you tell them they can’t know something, they instinctively want to know, even if there’s nothing to know. So I think that we knew that it would be intriguing to some people and annoying to others, and that it would be a risk, but it’s definitely an image, and it’s definitely an aesthetic, and if that’s the kind of thing that you’re into, that brings you in.