Fond of Tigers’ newest album, Continent & Western, offers the curated chaos listeners have grown to love, but this time there is a new focus on melody, distinct arrangement, and the first appearance of lyrics. Don’t think, though, that the album is a radical departure or transformation of their ethos; rather, for Fond of Tigers, the traditional is unexpected, and the unexpected has become tradition. Continent & Western offers the same intelligence, space and shades of previous offerings, as well some amazing collaborations from old friends. Discorder sat down with Stephen Lyons (guitar), Morgan McDonald (piano) and J. P. Carter (trumpet, electronics) to talk about the record, collaboration and defining the indefinable. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.
Discorder: I’ve noticed more of both a brightness and a darkness, an aggressiveness, on the new album. Does that sound accurate? Was this your purpose?
Stephen Lyons: When I was listening to it played back through the speakers, it sounded pretty chaotic, but also maybe a bit more musical than our previous [albums]; not that the other albums weren’t musical, but there seemed to be more melody, maybe, and more directness. A more chaotic directness … I feel that the “brightness” and “darkness” that you mentioned, all those things have always existed in some form or another throughout our whole time [as a band]. Each album is just a different angle looking in on what we do; either of those [previous albums] could have been taken from a different angle and revealed different things. This album is just sort of another angle looking at what we do; it doesn’t feel like a radical departure. It’s more just a different presentation of some of the things that we’ve been working on for a long time.
D: There is obviously one radical thing on this album, which is the introduction of lyrics.
SL: That is the biggest thing, yes.
D: You said once [in SoundProof] you might start singing to “upset the relationship with the audience.” Was that your thinking behind adding lyrics, or did the songs just call for them?
SL: That song [“Vitamin Meathawk”] really did. We had been playing it for a while without lyrics. But it always needed some lyrics, I thought. I thought of it as sort of a pop tune, and I tried a bunch of things out at times, and some things were working. And then when we did that collaboration with Sandro [Perri], he’s a pro at it, so we gave it to him and he came up with [the lyrics]. Yeah, so all that work I did on my own was kind of a waste of time.
But, yeah, the thing about upsetting the relationship with the audience, I think it’s also more about upsetting our relationship with how we play, our habits and norms as musicians. A lot of what we’ve been doing these last couple of years has been taking a look at, what are the regular ways we make music. There is a default that everybody has … when the same people get in the same room, which we do, on occasion, there are certain defaults you get into. So I guess I think a lot about trying to shift the way we think about things, the way I think about things, and so the lyrics are part of it. And things like [our collaboration with] Secret Mommy, kinda challenging the way we look at our music, and other people’s music … and how to make music.
D: So the name Continent & Western, obviously it’s a pun on country and western.
SL: A lot of the songs, when we’re working on them, we refer to them as this or that … like “Vitamin Meathawk” was kinda the “pop song.” You have these genre definitions that are funny more than anything else. They don’t really fit. Like, “Country and Western” is “we play both kinds of music,” country and western. And obviously you’ve read the articles; everybody’s spending half an article trying to define the music we play.
D: I probably won’t do that. There are only so many adjectives for “hard to define.”
SL: By adding “Continent,” it changes the scale and weight of that phrase, and also shows how ridiculous that phrase is. And it kinda grows out of [the track “Continent & Western”]: part of it has a country feel and part of it has an African feel.
D: Do you think that the idea of scale, changing scale, applies to the album in general?
SL: I think scale is something we always talk about. We have [musical] phrases within phrases, longer phrases, overarching things, modules within them. I think everything we do is looking at scale and relation. From that perspective, it seems applicable.
D: When you listen to this album, or Fond of Tigers in general, the phrasing seems lyrical, even when lyrics aren’t present.
SL: I’ve always been a real word person. Writing, reading, stuff like that. Somehow … maybe I just put that into the phrasing without it necessary being explicitly lyrical. Implicit lyrics, throughout the rest of it? Usually when I write anything, I don’t write one part that I’m hoping will [become] another part, I just write as a big jumble. And the rest of the band [picks] at this car wreck of things. So in there I think there are all sorts of things, and the phrasing, it could be sublimated lyricist.
D: Do you find the experience of playing a jazz fest different that playing a “rock show?”
J. P. Carter: Every time we play a jazz fest, it’s like playing a rock show anyways … doesn’t really feel like a “jazz audience.”
D: Is the feeling that it’s not a jazz show but a rock show is that because of the audience that comes?
SL: I think it’s more the programming because jazz people don’t really see us as jazz, rock people probably do, but jazz people don’t really. … So they put us with more rock bands. Like [opening for] Deerhoof, Deerhoof’s not jazz; we’re not jazz. We’re both playing the [same stage at the Vancouver] Jazz Fest, you know? The only thing that makes it feel like a jazz fest is there are a few guys with fanny packs and floral shirts on. They come out of the woodwork at all of the shows! That’s the only thing [with jazz festivals we’ve played] it is a slightly different audience. Yeah, all those jazz fest shows haven’t been very jazzy.
JPC: There’s all those fans that are into our experimental stuff, and a lot of people seem to enjoy our music, come to our shows. They’re kinda jazz fans in a weird way, you know? They like the kind of jazz that is not traditional. The spirit of it is adventure, and that’s the jazz part of this band.
SL: I like that we’ve played a lot of situations to a lot of different people. It gives us many different looks into [our music] … If we only played a certain type of club, with certain types of bands, and really codified what we do, it would be limiting, and that’s not what we’re about, at all. So we’ve played with Shad, Tortoise, the Grande Mothers. … I like it.
D: Do you think that the same diversity is reflected in the music you listen to?
D: What is spinning for you right now, what are you listening to? Besides Continent & Western of course.
JPC: I was pretty stoked when we opened for Deerhoof because they’re one of my favourite bands, contemporary bands. So I like listening to them.
SL: I listen to a lot of hip-hop, mostly.
Morgan McDonald: I was watching some N.W.A videos the other day.
SL: I used to listen to a lot of N.W.A, and then sometime in the late ‘90s I got jumped on Granville Street and punched out by this gang of dudes, and the sentiments in the N.W.A started not feeling like, “Oh, let’s just throw on some N.W.A and do the dishes and enjoy your life.”
D: Did it get real? It got too real?
SL: It got real real. It got reel to reel, and it played back in my mind. It chipped my tooth, and bent my nose out of shape. That’s why I snore on tour, and when I’m not on tour, too. …
MM: I am definitely a big fan of the early Tortoise and was happy to play with them. I bought some Debussy, listening to some good orchestral stuff. … I have a collection of ‘80s vinyl that always keeps me entertained.
D: How was collaboration with Sandro and Matts [Gustaffson]? What was they flavour they brought?
SL: It wasn’t so much that we called them out of the blue; it grew out of things we did. Last year’s Jazz Fest, we played together with Matts, and we felt good about it … He has a sort of firey [way]. He’s pretty full on, so he joined us and it felt … really natural. Same thing with Sandro, like “Oh, there’s this other guy in the band.” It wasn’t like cold calling, we knew that [the] chemistry was already there. It felt right. … We’d had a few experiences lately that were interactive, so it seemed like a natural part of what we’d been doing. So, Matts just sorta did what he did with us last year, just ripping baritone sax.
MM: And they’re good collaborators too, they know how to enter into something where there’s a dynamic and some history, I don’t think they stepped on anyone’s toes.
SL: Yeah, both of them were really gracious people. They both have a very distinct, strong ego in what they do. Matts [has] been doing his thing so long, and same with Sandro, … so they’re not stepping into things thinking they have to be dominant or subservient. They were very level. We felt that we were on the same level of the “hierarchy.”
D: Going back to the album, do you have conceptions or expectations or hopes for the album? Do you have hopes for what people get out of it?
JPC: In making music I never think about that, I realized, because after a show people say, “Oh I loved the show,” and they’re saying why, explaining why, and I’m thinking, “Oh yeah, that is what we were trying to do.” So I never go in thinking anything, except in the broadest sense of making music. I think that with this band, though, it seems like it’s such an animal unto its own when we create the music. … There are seven of us, that’s just the nature of it. We don’t think about how the audience is going to receive it.
MM: I think the lyrics will be an entry point for a lot of people. It will open a door to listen.
SL: I don’t think that was the intention. I think that I want it to be something for people to really engage with, and maybe that’s becoming [a] harder and harder thing to get from people. It’s very easy to disengage as quickly for people. I want it to be a fairly total experience—I mean, it’s like that for me. I feel certain things while playing music that I wouldn’t mind other people feeling, when it’s an interesting, transcendent feeling. It’s like the universe starts vibrating a little bit and you’re not thinking about anything else. It’s very immersive.