The Faint

An Interview with The Faint by Mr. Sean O’Neal

In person, The Faint are not at all what you’d expect from a band whose stage presence suggests something like a Depeche Mode in their heyday–minus all the wrist-slitting sexy death and domination talk. In fact, for a band who builds its sound out of machines they’re surprisingly human. Must be the Midwestern charm rearing its amiable head. Whatever the reason, it’s abundantly clear from talking to them that this band from the unlikely place of Omaha, Nebraska is still coming to terms with their newfound status as, what some have dubbed them, saviors of the New Wave.

Before their most recent Austin show, vocalist Todd Baechle and keyboardist Jacob Thiele (with the casual assistance of their newest addition, guitarist Mike Dappen) sat down to discuss their transformation from indie-popsters to sleek synthetics, the growing appreciation for the band’s 2000 release Blank Wave Arcade, and keyboardists with severed fingers–among other fine things. Their latest release Danse Macabre hits stores on August 20th.

So tell me about your tour so far.

Todd: Our tour has been really good so far. Really successful, in terms of people coming out. You know, now we don’t have to worry about nobody showing up. In the South it’s a little bit scary still.

Jacob: I think it’s just now that it’s totally apparent that people know the songs off the “Blank Wave Arcade” record. Now when we start up a song, there’s cheering. That’s happened more on this tour, and I think it’s just a matter of time, of people actually getting that record.

Do you think that “Blank Wave Arcade” came at a specific time, like it’s the crest of some movement? For example, I’ve heard you guys referred to as “New Wave revivalists.” Do you think that there is a movement of New Wave revivalism that you’re a part of?

T: We definitely didn’t feel like that when we put out the record.

J: We’re not consciously part of the movement.

Do you think there is a movement?

T: There might be. It sort of seems like there is now. But I think the reason that record sounds the way it does is we were getting away from things–things that we had done before and things that it seemed like everybody was into. Hardcore was at a standstill, and indie rock was–to me, the stuff that was coming out was just like different versions of Superchunk, and that indie kind of guitar style. And we were like “This is the kind of music we’re used to, so we should try to not play it.”

Did you listen to your first album “Media” and say “We’re not happy with our place in the rock pantheon” and decide you wanted to go in a different direction? Or was it you were just bored with your instruments and you wanted to get new ones and experiment with those?

T: We were just moving on from Media, but it’s some of all of that.

J: It’s both of those things. We were looking for new avenues of expression and different instruments seemed to be very exciting to us, like synthesizers were more exciting than guitars.

T: Because the way we know how to play guitar wasn’t exciting to us. And we were like, “We suck live.” I mean, it wasn’t any fun to play live. I was just standing right up against the microphone with a guitar. I wanted to make the band something more fun to play live, something to see–not “fun,” maybe that’s not a good word. But something more than just Pavement-like songs. I mean, we like Pavement, but–

J: More than just us standing up there playing the songs that people know.

The songs that people know?

J: Well, I mean, nobody knew the songs, we’ve already established that. But more than just having a live version of the songs on record. We wanted to do a little more than that.

T: We wanted to make it more of a spectacle. We wanted to keep moving in that direction, but sometimes it’s hard to know how to do that or what kind of music to do it with. I think that we’re all interested in making it more theatrical or a spectacle.

So when you guys changed your approach to the music, did that grow out of what you were listening to at the time?

J: I think that always affects it a little. But it wasn’t like all of a sudden we got into New Order or Human League. It wasn’t like we had just picked those records up.

T: I think the reason that those similarities are there is because we thought we should get another keyboard player. And then we got Jacob, and I was like, “Well, I don’t even want to play guitar anymore. I don’t even like the way I play guitar, so I’ll play keyboard too.” And then we had two keyboard players, but we didn’t really even know how to play keyboards. I mean, I know the theory behind keyboard–I went to school for music, you understand. But I didn’t have any experience with synthesizers at that point. So the reason that those similarities exist is because, in the early ’80s, those people didn’t have any background either, since keyboards were new, and all we could afford were the same keyboards that those people were using.

J: Right, so there’s automatic similarities.

T: That’s the way it sounded and we didn’t try to steer away from it. We came up with a couple of songs and labeled them with “sex” in the title, and thought we’d do a sex-themed EP of synthesizer music. It was pretty fun, so we decided we’d let it be this New Wave feel but continue to put a modern twist on it. It may not be very modern sounding, really. I think that’s because all the things we add-in that are “modern” are modern to everybody, so they’re not new, they’re just contemporary. You wouldn’t really notice them like you would if you played the record for somebody in 1981.
J: Then it would have been commonplace.

T: Or awkward.

J: And the things that we added that were modern weren’t necessarily avant-garde or extremely experimental.

T: But since then–like that was our New Wave-themed sex record and since then we’ve tried to move on.

Are you talking about from the initial EP idea or the “Blank Wave Arcade” record?

J: Well, it was going to be an EP and we were excited about how the songs were going and we ended-up writing more songs, actually writing them on tour–doing stuff on four-track while we were in our van.

T: We just kind of decided that an EP didn’t make a lot of sense to do. We like EPs to listen to, but it’s kind of hard as a band trying to make it to sell EPs–you sell them for $7 or $8 instead of $10, but they cost the same to make. The vinyl you also have to sell for less and those cost even more than the CDs to make. And you can’t get reviewed, that kind of stuff. But that’s not really exactly why we did it.

J: That’s not why we did an album. That’s just something we discussed. Like, we could have done two EPs: one with a “sex” theme and one with a “transportation/bodies-in-motion” kind of theme, but I think–since all the songs were written within probably a year or so of each other–it was good to do an album.

T: We wanted to do a record that had one feel to it, and songs that fit together, whereas on the first record we were like “Hey let’s do everything” which is sort of like “Let’s see what happens.” Which is why that record wasn’t as good.

J: I think that kind of thinking is where good albums come from. It’s when there’s something that kind of unifies the whole thing.

T: Even if it is our naive electronic sensibilities.

Do you feel that adding the electronic element to your music “sexed it up” a little bit, like taking away the guitars made it less “indie rock” and therefore less emasculating?

T: Yeah. I mean, I purposefully made the vocal melodies more confrontational and the lyrics more up-front and less ambiguous, so there could be a sass and a little pizazz.

J: How do you spell “pizazz?”

It’s p-i-z-a-z-z.

J: Wait, you just spelled “pizza.”

So what was the fan response like compared to when you were playing in a more indie rock style? I know you had a smaller fanbase, but surely there were people in Omaha who liked you at the time of “Media.” What did they think of the change?

T: Well, this was before Jake was in the band.

J: But I witnessed it.

T: But he was there. And he was not a fan.

J: No, I liked the original Faint. But when Todd and I first talked about adding keyboards, I thought they probably weren’t moving in a new direction, and I was like “Well, I have a lot of other things going on.” I was in a different band at the time.

T: I asked him to play, and I didn’t even know him. We were just sitting outside waiting for some band to play.

J: I think it was Slaves.

T: Yeah, it was Slaves. They didn’t show up.

J: Yeah, they didn’t show up. Those jerks.

T: So we were sitting around and I asked him, “So do you want to play keyboard in my band?” And I didn’t know if he knew who my band was or anything–

J: No.

T: I didn’t know him. But he was like, “Uhhh….no, not really.”

J: I mean, I considered it. I said no but I still wanted to try something new. But then I saw them perform a version of a song–it was “Worked Up So Sexual” where Clark played keyboard and there was a drum machine–

T: You were at a couple of shows where we opened up for bigger groups. I think that one might have been Karate?

J: Yeah, Karate. It was the only song they played because the electronic drums broke. But when I saw them perform that song, I thought “Wow, this is something that I want to do anyway and I’d love to–”

T: But you still wouldn’t do it!

J: No, after that–

T: You still wouldn’t say that you would do it! I said, again, “Hey Jake, do you want to play keyboard in my band?” and you were like “Uhhh…” Wouldn’t answer me. And then you said, “Well, will you give me that keyboard?”

J: Oh yeah, they had this Korg that I wanted.

T: And I was like, “No!! It’s not like I’m begging for people! Beat it, kid!”

J: They had this keyboard that I was going to buy anyway, and so I was like, “Hey they got that keyboard I’ve been checking out.”

T: Or was that at the Fugazi show?

J: That was the Fugazi show. But after the Karate show I went up and I said “Yeah, I was totally into that.” And you said, “Great, do you want to come over Saturday and we’ll play?” I said “Sure!” and I didn’t really know how to play. My experience was this other band that I was in, and I had just basically learned where the notes were on keyboard. That’s probably about all I know still.

T: But then the other guy we auditioned couldn’t use some of his fingers, so he couldn’t get it together.

What was wrong with his fingers?

T: I don’t know, I mean he seemed like a normal–well, he didn’t seem like a normal guy.

J: They had fallen off or something and then he had them sewn back on. He does solo, kind of Nine Inch Nails stuff now.

T: He’s crazy.

J: He’s a pretty good musician and everything, he just can’t really play. He just does mostly programming.

T: It’s weird because I’m showing him this easy part–I think it was the “Worked Up So Sexual” part, which is just like [whistles the main melody], which you can play with one hand, you know. But he couldn’t even get the right hand part down. But that’s good because now we have Jake, and he’s like the good guy.

Jacob, are you the heart and soul of The Faint?

J: Ah, no. I’m the arrogant prick.

T: We’ve actually been pretty lucky. Like Clark and Joel and I have been the members for a bunch of years and we’ve had a few other bass players, but when Jake joined a couple of years ago, it made perfect sense.

J: I think we got lucky finding people that have similar ideas of what music should be about, and similar ways of expressing those ideas to each other. [Mike walks up] And Mike joined the band, like, seven months ago and he’s on the same page.

How’d you guys find Mike?

J: I went to high school with Mike.

Mike: Todd and I had met a while ago and we had talked about doing stuff.

T: I guess I was intrigued by his band and that he was a death metal singer for five years and then they broke-up. We had talked about doing some side projects, and then when they broke-up…

What made you decide to add guitar again?

J: When we started it wasn’t just guitar, I mean, he’s a really good guitar player which is an added bonus, but Mike joined as like–

T: We just kind of think of each other as members, more than as who plays what. Like Clark the drummer comes up with music as well as beats, I come up with guitar parts, I come up with bass.

J: Joel comes up with a lot of stuff.

T: We all just sort of rotate around on each other’s instruments. We all have to agree on everybody’s parts which takes a long time.

J: But that makes everybody happy with how the music turns out.

Sometimes we get mad at Joel. Because he’ll be like “Nah, doesn’t do anything for me” when we’re like “it’s cool!”

J: Joel’s the biggest critic.

T: But he’s like the quality control.

M: He doesn’t let shit slide.

T: But it’s almost always better once we have to redo it for him. Although sometimes songs don’t get done because of it and we have to scrap them.

So how do you write the songs usually? Does one person come up with something and bring it in to the others or do you sort of jam it out together?

J: I don’t know if we have a usual process. Different ways of doing it are when Todd will come up with the vocal melody.

T: I usually just use one of these tape recorders and think up a song, I’ll sing it, maybe write half of the words. Sometimes I just write fake words until I understand what the song’s feel is.

J: So Todd will come in with chord progressions or vocal melodies and we’ll work out the music that will go with it. Or, other ways we do it is Joel will start programming–

T: And he’ll give me a tape and I’ll try out a bunch of different melodies until I find something that works.

J: My best stuff comes out of whenever they show me, “Well, this is how this goes,” and then I sort of jam-out a part. I don’t really do anything on my own time and bring it to practice.

You don’t contribute?

J: I contribute. It’s just that I can’t really work on that kind of thing on my own time. I have to see how it works with everybody else. Because when I do stuff by myself it’s usually pretty weird. And then Mike–for the new album we had basic outlines for the songs, and we were just working on artwork and visual ideas with Mike–

T: He was going to be kind of a multimedia guy. We think of the band as an art group and a music group. We all think that we’re artists–well, not we all think we’re artists, but we’re all into visual art just as we’re into sonic art. We bicker about artwork and different designs for this and that. Just like we do in music. It was a bitch to get our new record cover done. We actually took time in the studio and brought a computer in while we were recording. And nothing came out of that.

J: We had like 60 or 70 concepts.

T: But it just didn’t describe the music, and it has to describe the way we feel about the music. We don’t want it to look like other people’s record covers. We want it stand out and not say “Hey, this is an emo group” or “this is an electronic group” or a “gothic group” or–what else do we get? “Industrial?” We don’t want it to fit squarely into that.

That’s interesting, because I’ve noticed the press has a hard time defining you guys. For example, I read some article comparing you to Kraftwerk, and the author was saying something like “Omaha may not be Dusseldorf but it’s close enough.” How does it feel to be defined in the context of someone like Kraftwerk, who, near as I can tell–

T: I think that’s a real stretch. Because they’re into cold, modernist–

J: Robotic music. I mean, I think every time someone compares us to a band there’s only one aspect of that band that they’re comparing us to. Like, we get Duran Duran a lot, and the only thing I can figure out is that maybe the basslines are similar?

T: I think that’s one of the better comparisons, actually, even though I’m not the hugest Duran Duran fan. I can see that at least, whereas Kraftwerk is just weird.

J: And when people say Devo–

T: Yeah, that doesn’t make a lot of sense either. At least it’s the right genre.

J: I think it’s their only frame of reference.

T: I guess it’s closer than the Stones.

Have you been compared to the Stones?

[laughs] T: No.

J: Not really.

T: But we’ve been compared to some bands that we don’t sound anything like. I think we got The Cult, Christian Death–which, maybe we sound a little like Christian Death. Depends on which period, I suppose. But we like to just be our band and not sound like anyone else. But everybody’s gotta compare it to something, so however they want to do it is fine, as long as they don’t say somebody I hate.

J: How would you do it?

T: I would just say, “Come listen to us.” “We’re a song band that uses synthesizers in a rock setting.” How’s that?

That’ll work. Okay, so I took a look around your website, and I noticed that 50% of the guestbook seems to be a celebration of you guys as some sort of sassy models for the indie rock boys and girls. How do you feel about that?

T: That’s pretty funny. News to me.

J: I don’t know about this “sex symbol” stuff. I don’t really go looking, so I haven’t really found enough evidence to know that that’s true necessarily. I guess I haven’t really decided what to think about that yet.

T: In theory, if what you’re saying is true, then I think I like it better than the Bright Eyes web board, or the Saddle Creek web board.

Why is that?

T: Like the Bright Eyes one is just all about certain lyrics and sightings and experiences with Conor, and it’s really pathetic. I think that in general, really big Bright Eyes fans are kind of emotionally unstable and kind of go to the guestbook every day. But I’m a huge Bright Eyes fan and maybe I’m emotionally unstable. Actually I think I’m probably not. But they’re obsessive; that’s the word I’m looking for. Whereas our fans just sort of drop by to say “Hi” or “We checked out the show” and that’s it.

Okay, well I have three stupid questions to end this interview on an upbeat note. First off: I recently got an email list of the Top 15 Best Hair in Rock, and Todd, you were number 11–

J: Wait, who has number one?

Oh God, wait. No, I don’t remember. I think it was Stephen Malkmus, but I really don’t remember [Auth. note: Malkmus was Number 2; Todd’s former Commander Venus bandmate/Bright Eyes frontman Conor scored the coveted number one position.]

J: All right, Todd got number 11!

T: I’m in between hairstyles right now, but I’ll take it.

So do you have any hair tips for the rock and roll kids?

T: Don’t ever wash it. Or if I do wash it, I wash it with just cold water.

Stupid question Number 2: Are you guys worked up sexual?

T: I hope to be.

J: Uhhh….no.

And finally, stupid question Number 3: Do you want to come back to my place?

J: Do you have a hot tub?

T: We love hot tubs. Jacuzzi parties–that’s where it’s at.

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