A fiction in the writing

Listening Parties

It’s 1am at the Hole in the Wall, and Fiction has just finished setting up their equipment – four keyboards, a bass guitar, a drum kit, and a table of electronic thisandthats. With all the equipment, they’re taking a while to check levels, and the crowd – well, it’s the Hole in the Wall, so at least a fifth of the room looks surly and oblivious to the band’s presence. This is, I think, the fourth time I’ve seen Fiction live, and they’ve never had quite the same set-up. Or even the same fifth band member.

photo / Adam Avramescu Creative Commons licensed: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 

A year ago, as Fiction was beginning to record a new EP (then untitled), Luther Smalls left the band and Michael Zawodniak sliced open his finger with a kitchen knife.

Their You Will Never EP saw release in late October – the kind of delay that could be deadly for a band who is in this kind of developmental flux. In the case of You Will Never, it provides for some occasional unevenness. But, taking into account that what we’re hearing in this EP is in essence yesterday’s songs with today’s mixing, the finished product is promising and at times glorious.

“We’re in a put-our-feet-up mood tonight,” explains Michael Zawodniak, one of the band’s multi-instrumentalists. The band members look tired, with the exception of Jeremy Roye, the lead singer (It’s his 27th birthday). This is their second show of the week – the third, if you count that four days ago they appeared on KVRX Local Live for a live performance and interview. Once Jeremy hops on stage, he explains that it’s the band’s last show until February and invites the audience to the house party he’s throwing the next day.

The EP provides a look into the many sounds of a band finding its footing. There’s the chilled-out, rolling groove of “Chew Our Tongues”; the jazzy, lurching “Tiger! Tiger!” (more leaning than its demo version, which sounded like a dark Squirrel Nut Zippers); the slow rise of “Lights, Alarms”; the crouched and menacing “Bellydown”; and the soulful, plodding “Salty.”

For some bands this path leads to the wolves’ den. I’ve seen too many artists try to sell their first outings as cross-genre experiments, when really all that’s happened is that they’ve failed to write with consistency or coherence. The resulting album usually sounds like an unflattering mixtape that just happens to have the same person doing vocals over every track. Not here, though. The band has wisely set some rules for themselves: Strong, slow builds. Quick drops. Layers buried so deep in the mix that you’re forced to give each song 20 listens. Chanted vocals. No resolutions. Multitracking to high hell, then raw, exposed instrumentation. Lots and lots of Rhodes.

Adam Avramescu How did you choose which songs to include on the EP?

Michael Zawodniak About a year ago, when we started working on it, we didn’t have the same set of songs that we do now. We chose based on what we had, but also what we felt was indicative of the direction the band was headed. We had some more traditionally indie-rock songs, but we left those out.

Adam Avramescu Traditionally indie-rock?

Michael Zawodniak Yeah, where we weren’t really mixing the acoustic with the electronic as well. We wanted songs that were more rhythmic, more electronic, on the EP.

Fiction’s rules for their sound are distinct, of course, but they follow in the lineage of our two favorite radio-themed bands, ___head, and TV on the ___. So long as it doesn’t feel derivative, it works well for them. Cello floating seamlessly with a synth? Electronic hums cut into by an angular, plucked bass line? Yes, please. Their acoustic-on-acoustic textures feel carefully multitracked and fit seamlessly in the mix. Within their three primary moods – dreamy, menacing, and mournful – the instrumentation really, really works. Sometimes, though it’s thinned out by the recording quality (Get this band a production fund, stat!) like when the low end sounds muffled or when the piano seems to have downgraded in quality since these songs’ earlier demos. It’s not fair to call this kind of aesthetic derivative anymore, thanks to the sheer number of synthesized sounds that have wandered into rock music. In other words, it’s not about what they’re using so much as how they’re using it.

photo / Adam Avramescu Creative Commons licensed: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Jeremy Roye and Henna Chou art-rock out 

The one piece that doesn’t always fit the puzzle is Jeremy Roye’s vocals, which range from soulful to spastic. Though many of the lyrics are impressionistic chants (a la Radiohead’s “A Wolf at the Door”), I think he’s at his best when he gives a straighter delivery on “Lights, Alarms” and “Salty.” In a band like this – which is to say, where the texture is so much more important than the content – I look at vocals as another instrument in the mix. And, simply, Roye’s instrument gets a better timbre when he slithers into the mix than when he raps over it.

The band starts out their show with “16 Weeks,” a newer track that they performed earlier on KVRX. It’s a drum-machined, hand-clappy, 5/4, synth-and-Rhodes jam (with flute!) that I think speaks to the direction in which the band is headed. After that, they move through a mix of songs from the EP and newer tunes. The devoted fans in front are into it, dancing and singing, but the band has to contend with an obnoxious back-line of barflies who aren’t having it for a moment. Jeremy is trying his best to win over the crowd with constant, frenetic energy. The band pauses for tension, but it’s deflated by the dull chatter. 2am is approaching, and they close with a singalong to one of their EP tracks, “Bellydown.”

Adam Avramescu Which song went through the biggest transformation during recording?

Michael Zawodniak Probably “Bellydown.” We had a completely different second half to it originally. But we kept re-recording it because we thought we could get it closer to the sound we wanted. I think it’s the song that really reflects the band’s progress over the year we spent recording.

It’s true: The album’s high point, unequivocally, has to be “Bellydown.” The song goes the furthest in articulating what I think this band must be about. It’s built around two repeating lines – one, a gritty, fluttering bass line carried through the Rhodes and a synth; the other, an ascending melody that makes for the song’s intriguing vocal breakdown – which eventually intersect one another in the song’s third act. I bring up repetition because the whole conceit of this band (except in “Tiger! Tiger!”) is to take one or two lines and play them out in a slow build until every possibility has been exhausted. It’s an experimental-music structure being laid over pop songs. The trick, as there always is with experimental music, is making it interesting. Here, Fiction accomplishes that by demonstrating the most fluid mix of electronics and acoustic (drum machine and synth crashing into Rhodes and cello) so that once they all swirl together, you’re bombarded with a torrent of beautiful noise. And then, before you know it, everything rumbles to a close, and you’ll hear the most beautiful, refreshing, and still completely haunting major chords you’ve ever heard.

photo / Adam Avramescu Creative Commons licensed: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Michael Zawodniak plays a mean synth 

It hasn’t been a bad show by any means. As I interview Michael, we’re interrupted every 30 seconds by someone telling him, “Awesome show.” But I wonder, if it were earlier in the night, if the band weren’t about to go on a recording hiatus, I wonder if the band would have been able to capture the audience better. Unless you count the bass, there’s no guitars in their current live incarnation, which leaves only Jeremy free to move around, while Henna Chou and Michael are locked behind their keyboards and Matt LaTour is at the drum kit.

A number of Austin bands – and Fiction is one of them – seem to be rejecting the avant-garde in their live act, the idea being (I assume) that the music should speak for itself. That’s hard to negotiate when you’re not wildly popular in the way, say, Radiohead is. Fiction tried to compensate first with mystique and idiosyncracy (Check out the diction on their MySpace page: “One year later and we have finished our debut EP, You Will Never. Our 24 minute long-ish player is mixed and mastered as of tonight and we are super proud parents”), but the big question is always, How do you deliver a great show to the people who care when you’re in the same room as the people who don’t?

This is a question answered by development and progress. Fiction hasn’t toured yet, nor have they had a release until now behind which they could tour. Austin looks a lot better once you’ve played to a bar of drunks in Bozeman, Montana. It’s only a matter of time until Fiction will be able to overcome these kinds of problems, but I find it interesting for the very fact that it reflects that this is a band still writing its own narrative.

Adam Avramescu Since your songs are developed collaboratively, how did you decide on the mixes?

Michael Zawodniak Well, there were certain things we agreed on, like lots of multitracking and electronics. But even with those decisions, we’d still go and do something like on “Salty,” which has a more minimal feel. It’s more natural, more “band-in-a-room” acoustic. So basically the decision-making process was, “What can we do to accomplish each song’s emotion?” Otherwise, lots of arguing [laughs].

Adam Avramescu How are the mixes supposed to differ from the live versions?

Michael Zawodniak One thing that I’m not sure made it onto the EP was a real sense of rawness. Live we try to have more extreme dynamics. We’re more aggressive in our approach; we try to cover more ground between the songs’ high and low points.

Since the EP is built on the premise of hooks repeated until climax, it will sit better with people who tend toward the jammy or experimental – even though this is, in a loose sense, rock or pop music. I thought it was an intriguing and challenging decision to open up with what may be one of their least accessible songs, “Chew Our Tongues.” Like all the others, it has some beautiful moments once it picks up momentum, and once you’ve listened to it several times you’ll notice that each cycle within the song adds something, right up to the climax. But it takes longer than any other song on the EP to pick up momentum, and by the time the song really kicks in, you might feel like three minutes was too much build-up for the payoff you finally get – it doesn’t compare to the way, say, “Tiger! Tiger!” lashes out after a scattered, moaning breakdown then builds serious tension that’s resolved only by “Lights, Alarms.” The latter track, too, is a spacious song that takes a while to get going, but it’s prettier along the way. If experimental music is your thing, this won’t be a problem for you – the songs don’t often run over five minutes. But to those with pop sensibilities, those two tracks will probably make better background music than intensive listening experiences.

I’m generally not in the business of reviewing things that aren’t on an album, but there’s the curious exclusion of “The Rain Song,” one of the band’s most immediate songs, one that never wears out its welcome, and one that I feel captures the band’s M.O. just as well as “Bellydown.” It’s available on the band’s MySpace page and I hope it makes its way to future releases.

As the band tears down their equipment, one of the opening bands’ singers tries to lead a sing-along to “Winter Wonderland,” which might have seemed impromptu had she not passed out lyrics sheets to the few people left in the cleared-out bar. Jeremy joins in to help her out, but again, few people are having it. I’m taken aback by the lack of response tonight; people are usually more into Fiction – or, really, life. It’s probably not the best note to go out on before abstaining from shows for three months, but at least they have the promise of when they come back.

You Will Never is a fascinating glimpse into a band with a lot of good ideas and enough time to explore them. It’s also the portrait of a band influenced by other electronic/acoustic-pop acts and still trying to find its own sound. Sometimes that leads to some end-user frustration or a little wandering in the desert, but more often it’s something much more sublime and certainly worth multiple listens.

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Anonymous's picture

Nice story. I think I was one of those peeps who told him it was a good show at HITW. :)

Anonymous's picture

Fiction is a really good band. I wish you had seen them at a different show!