Save rock before Les Savy Fav kills it! At least that's what Tim Harrington, lead singer of the acclaimed post-punk outfit, threatened to do when I spoke with him last Friday. As with The Strokes and Radiohead, Les Savy Fav has been given the distinction of "the band who will save rock and roll" . . . only they're not having any of it. Speaking to Tim, the manic vocalist behind Les Savy Fav's reputation for incendiary concerts, was a daunting task to say the least. Luckily I found him to be outwardly "normal," at least when it came to responding to my questions.
Harrington: Hey. [laughs] We're looking at the Sean Na Na press photos. They're really good. Syd [Butler]'s putting out the new Sean Na Na record and their press photos are so funny. It's this totally absurd '70s-style picture of him riding this white pony.
You're known for awesome live shows, so I was wondering how you manage to keep up that crazy energy for such long periods of time.
Do you draw from some mysterious reserve?
I don't know. I don't get that crazy well actually I guess I kind of jump around. It's not like a reverie sort of thing that erupts when we play. I guess in general I'm a pretty bouncy sort of person. It's not like I just go crazy when we play I'd like to act like that all the time but it would be inappropriate. That's the only time when I feel like, "everybody paid to see me do something, so I guess I'll do whatever I want." I mean whenever I go see a band I wish I could just jump and dance around and I wish everybody would jump around like crazy but it's kind of weird. If you're in the audience and that's not the vibe in the rest of the audience then it's kind of like, "Hey, check me out!"
It's kind of weird for me to be talking to you and having a conversation with you because I've only ever known you through your records, when you scream and sing and whatnot.
Right on. [laughs] Everybody says something different about that. I guess I can sing for you if that'll make you more comfortable.
That's O.K. [laughs]. I haven't actually been to one of your live shows but some people say the passion of your live shows isn't fully captured on your records. I was wondering if you agree with that, and if so why you've had trouble converting that aura of the concert to CD.
Well, that's never been entirely our goal. I've always felt that our goal with our recordings hasn't been trying to make an identical match to it; there's an imitative fallacy to what lots of people think. People are always like, "you should distort everything, just freak everything out when you record, and that'll be what it's like when it's live. 'Cause you'll be going crazy, but going crazy in the studio rather than on stage." And I've never felt that that's true. For us the main thing about our live shows hasn't been the energy, but instead the spontaneity, and that's usually expressed through craziness. And so on record we've always tried to create a more spontaneous feel, to make it something that you can hear three or four times and still get new things out of it, get a richer experience, unwrap new layers of subtlety. It's a different energy. You know you can't jump out into audience on the CD. Marilyn Manson records have a lot of crazy energy on them, [but] I don't really like those records. Records are for listening to, not for imitating the live experience. A tension between the two is what we're into.
In light of that, I should mention that Go Forth has had mixed critical response. Where on the one hand some people have said that you've mellowed down a lot because Phil Ek (of Modest Mouse and Built to Spill fame) produced it, others have said that it's even more passionate than your earlier work and closer to your shows. Which side do you think is closer to the truth?
People have said it's the songwriting style, that it's more stripped down like our Rome (Written Upside Down) EP but in terms of production value it's more like the Cat and the Cobra, our last full-length. The EP is ultra-stripped down, it's really not live. But then when it's those two things combined it makes sense that some people will say, "it's the EP, it's less live. And others will say, it's the last album, it's more live." But it's definitely our most controlled record, on a technical basis, that we've done so far, but it's also our most spontaneous songwriting[-wise]; we were often just freewheeling it during the writing process. So both.
I know that sometime between The Cat and the Cobra and the Rome EP Gibb Slife left the band. Was that amicable, the circumstances surrounding that?
Yeah, it wasn't over the top. Basically it was the summer after we had recorded The Cat and the Cobra and we were about to release it. So before that we had all been in college, then in grad school, so our ability to focus on the band had been impeded, but with that record we all agreed that we should start giving more attention to the band, like touring and stuff. So the record was coming out, and Gibb is a painter, and had a good situation working for The New Yorker that he really enjoyed. But he said, "I don't know that I can come along for the whole six weeks. Maybe two." So instead we got John Schmersal from Enon, and from Brainiac before that, to come along on the tour and play Gibb's parts. But it was unfeasible to record with Gibb and always get somebody else to tour, so that's how that worked out. It wasn't a battle or anything cool.
No blood was shed?
Nothing exciting. I probably cut my finger within the week, but that was unrelated.
How do you think that his departure from the band, and stripping it down to just one guitar, has affected your sound on the Rome EP and Go Forth?
I thought it was great. I mean, obviously we were nervous at first, but it turned out for the best. Seth [Jabour] is a pretty amazing guitarist and having that freedom and responsibility for the entire guitar section let him shine and do some pretty amazing stuff. It gives him all these opportunities to play, and to decide how it should sound. When it was all five of us, it was kind of like Tetris trying to get us all to fit, and now all of a sudden it's like a big open field, and that's really satisfying. That helps us to get songs that are more dynamic, which is what we want.
Yeah, I also noticed that you guys have started to use keyboards and synthesizers.
Oh yeah! I got to play the keyboards when Gibb left.
So was that your idea to enhance the sound?
Well that's just something I had been into and now all of a sudden there was room for it.
So basically the reason that you opted not to hire another guitarist is that you liked the new stripped-down sound and the possibilities that opened up?
Well . . . maybe even more of it was for personal reasons. We were in a good place band-wise. Things were as we wanted them to be. Bringing somebody new in would have meant introducing them to the politics of the band and changing the chemistry. We didn't want to mess with that.
How'd you guys come up with your band name? I think I saw something on your web site about the Fauves
Yeah, well that's true, but it may or may not have influenced our decision to name the band Les Savy Fav.
Lots of critics have said that you're going to save rock and roll - they've said that about Radiohead and The Strokes too and
It's so weird because those bands are awesome. I mean only bad bands are going to save rock and roll we won't; we're going to kill it.
[laughs] So you're not up to that task?
I don't know man. I don't think it needs saving at all. We're not on that kind of a mission. I mean those guys are insanely hyped. We're not really that hyped of a band. We're a little more level-headed than those guys. I like to think we're a little less . . . puffed.