Ripples of interest in alt-metal combo Fair to Midland have turned to crashing waves that have reached from shore to shore in recent times – and it isn’t hard to figure out why.
Armed with hulking riffs as well as playful whistles and soulful banjos, they charm indie kids as well as their transgressive metal brethren with an energetic mix of southern twang and hard driving rock. However, it hasn’t been a smooth ride toward peer acclaim. Though picked up by System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian’s vanity label Serjical Strike in the dawn of the new century they parted ways in 2009. After much searching, they finally put ink to paper at E1 Music under their bourgeoning metal sub-label.
“But eventually, as often happens, the mutual financial benefits waned, and we had to seek a new home,” explains the band’s guitarist, Cliff Campbell. However, the split was amicable, as Serj took a personal interest in their development. “[Serj] was very much involved. He worked as executive producer on Fables, and was involved in the developmental stages of several songs for Arrows.”
Their new album was the first record with completely new material on it – the first for seven years. Their previous release, Fables from a Mayfly: What I Tell You Three Times is True (what a mouthful) included reinterpretations of past songs afforded special production care.
“We and our label(s) thought it might be interesting to try reinterpreting some of our old songs from [first independently released album] inter.funda.stifle with a new producer, and try to distribute them on a larger scale,” says Cliff.
“Since they were released independently the first time, it made sense to try them, while the opportunity availed itself, on a worldwide audience, and re-processed through the mind of mega-producer David Botrill.”
Their songs range from the monstrous to the sublime under the helm of vocalist Darroh Sudderth. Sudderth is an anomaly in rock; he can effortlessly switch from twee as a wicker basket on the front of a girl’s bicycle to a monstrous growl that shakes the bowels of Hades without warning. With Darroh and the abundance of influences on display running through each and every track, guitarist Cliff Campbell admits himself that given the penchant for classification these days, he wouldn’t know where the band would fit in the spectrum of rock music.
“We have diverse interests and influences, collectively and individually, from rock/metal, to classical/baroque, to country/western and folk, to industrial and electronic, and we like to draw from all of them. We simply use whatever instrumentation we think is right to create the feeling we’re looking for in each track. Sometimes it’s banjo and marxophone, sometimes hyper-saturated guitar and sawtooth synth.”
Darroh had previously said he wanted to make a “simple rock album” in Arrows and Anchors, but the result was anything but –walls of sound and intertwining melodies run rampant throughout challenging the notions of simple and accessible, Cliff muses.
“I’m not sure when Darroh might have said he wanted anything to be simple. This album certainly isn’t that. I know part of the aim was to make an album which is rougher, meaner, more aggressive and direct in its tone, and with more incidental rock noise like feedback, fret noise and the like, and with the help of producer ‘Evil’ Joe Barressi, I think we achieved that very well. It is a complex and layered album, which is the inherent nature of what we do. The five of us being so different as musicians, I’m not sure we could make a simple record if we tried.”
One could run their mind around for days attempting to decipher the carnivalesque poetry evoked in Fair to Midland’s lyrics, which owe much to Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, Lewis Carroll and things astral and arcane. Though as a guitarist, Cliff focuses very much on the musical aspect of the band, he believes “Darroh is a fan of dark, antiquated children’s stories”.
“The childlike imagery and sound alternating with the dark, heavy, aggressive parts is one of the qualities which makes our music bipolar, and startling at times. We like it that way. “
Such juxtaposition of the bestial and gentle hasn’t gone unnoticed; the band have garnered the attention of some of Scandinavian metal’s biggest names, notably Dark Tranquillity’s Mikael Stanne. He called them one of his favorite artists from the past few years.
“I don’t think anyone in the band is very familiar with the Swedish death metal scene,” Cliff admits. “In fact, I just checked out Dark Tranquillity for the first time. Powerful stuff… but I’m always pleasantly surprised at how many fans we seem to have in the various facets of the metal scene, listeners and artists alike. I think that there’s something in our music for almost everyone to like, but it’s especially complimentary to me to know that people of such extreme sub-genres are fans of ours.”
Reconciling the extreme with the mellow and sublime is a hard process to bear when the band hits the studio, says Cliff. With the band currently based in Austin, Texas – the hotbed of the progressive country and rock scenes in the American southwest – band members come into rehearsals with a range of diverse ideas. “There’s a lot of debate, and the process can be long and frustrating, but in the end, we’re all pleased with the result.”
The results have been promising. Embarking on a US tour with progressive rockers dredg has opened up their music to scores of new fans. However, success has come at a begrudgingly glacial pace for Fair to Midland. In the music business it’s almost a badge of honor to feel jaded and abandon one’s dreams before they even get within a whisker of realisation. Cliff knows it all too well; “It is easy to become cynical.”
“But if you love what you do, you find a way to adapt, and survive the upheaval. It’s a hard fact that we have to find ways to make our money in this rapidly changing business other than record sales.”