This is (tropical) hardcore
As the first few lines of a Prince record start to crackle out, Eddy Frankel, the Jewish frontman of Fair Ohs, starts clapping and swaying by the window, while telling us a joke about a Jew and a Japanese guy in an airport. “I’m not so big on this particular one,” drummer Joe Ryan mumbles at the record player. “This one’s good!” proclaims Eddy, attempting to dissuade Joe from moving the needle along. Meanwhile, bassist Matt Lewendon (or Matt Flag, as he’s known) is fretting about the room with a cigarette hanging loosely out of one side of his mouth, trying to figure out where’s best to smoke. Joe makes a beeline for the kitchen to put a pizza and chips in the oven and beers in the fridge.
They come across as a somewhat motley crew, Fair Ohs. Sure, they look like they’re in a band together, but their personalities and backgrounds couldn’t be more varied. Eddy, for starters, who was born in Africa and raised in nine different countries before settling in England at 18, comes across as cocksure and jocular, while Matt is the down to earth guy who just loves garage rock and America’s Next Top Model; Joe seems sweet-natured, frequently checking up on everyone and ensuring a steady flow of funk and soul. “Is there anything we can do to make things better for you?” he asks. “We’ve got a pizza on the way and chips aaaaaand really good music, we’ve got beer… I think we’re good to go.”
“Matt can give you a head massage,” offers Eddy. Matt suggests doing it with his head.
“Look.” Joe points at Matt’s bald patch. “He’s practiced so much he’s worn it away.” And they all erupt with laughter so infectious that you can’t help but join in.
It’s been a couple of years since we last caught up with this east London trio. Back then they had only just settled on their name as it is now – discarding five other variations – and were about to release the steadily building, chant-heavy, bright and breezy pop number ‘Summer Lake’, which is steeped in Congolese soukous rhythms and is their oldest song to hold a firm spot on their debut album, ‘Everything is Dancing’. However, it wasn’t until earlier this month that the LP finally found its way onto shelves.
“We didn’t record the album like I suppose a lot of people would do,” begins Matt. “It got to the point where we thought, ‘Oh, we’ve got enough songs to do an album, we should do an album now’, but I don’t think we’d been labouring on the fact that we’d been writing a record.”
In a series of stints with London producer Rory Attwell – and former band mate of Matt’s when they were in post-dance-punk outfit RAT:ATT:AGG together – Fair Ohs bashed out enough material for two albums and a few singles. “We pieced all the sessions together of the stuff we liked,” explains Matt, “and the stuff that we didn’t like we didn’t include. It was almost like we grouped together the first set that would work as an album. There were songs that we’d written and recorded and finished that we could have added but we left for the next record or a seven-inch.
“The new stuff we’ve written is – to us – quite far removed. I’m sure there are a lot of people who’ll think it sounds just like Vampire Weekend – that’s fine – but we feel like we’re changing and I think that’s because we’ve got really short attention spans, which comes from playing punk music, where everything is quite quick. We write songs quite quickly – if a song isn’t done in an hour or two we’ll sit on a riff for a few weeks, but then…fuck it. We’re not going to sit there and plough on it for months. I don’t understand people who will spend months or years writing a record. Our album came out officially on vinyl last week and will in two weeks time for the CD, but we’ve almost, almost done the second one.”
As well as coming from a punk and hardcore background, Fair Ohs also count jazz, Latin, soul and more among their influences. In fact, when they first started out, they were a free-jazz band. “True. Disclaimer that I was not involved,” laughs Matt as Joe points the finger at Eddy.
“We’re very eclectic people who like loads of different kinds of music,” Eddy justifies. “It’s certainly not just hardcore, African music or garage rock and I’m very into free-jazz and jazz in general.” Matt tells him that’s the most pretentious thing he’s ever said and they all have a chuckle. “Awww look, he’s trying to be serious,” Joe says in a mothering tone. “Don’t listen to him. He’s just old and bitter.”
“I’ve known Joe for a while,” continues Eddy, “and I wanted to make music with him and it was the farthest removed thing I could do from my old band as possible.” Which was a grindcore band he informs us, as Joe says he thought he would be able to do some “ridiculously fast double-pedal drum thing and then [Eddy] was like, ‘How about we do some free-jazz?’ and I thought alright then, that’ll be good,” he mutters sarcastically.
“We’re really into challenging ourselves, musically,” says Eddy, seriously, “so we thought, ‘Let’s do something ridiculous’ and that’s how it started out. Then it morphed into hardcore with our friend Fessey and that evolved and Fessey got Matt in and then we told Fessey to piss off.”
For those of you in the dark about the elusive Steve Fessey, he was their old bassist who wasn’t kicked out for being a racist, as joked about by Eddy in our previous interview with the band, but because he wasn’t happy. “Yeah he was miserable all the time,” Joe points out. “It didn’t fit in with us.” And if you haven’t already noticed in the way that they comfortably torment each other, this is one tight-knit, happy group.
“All we ever want to do is make each other happy and to stand in a room and feel content in what we’re making,” says Eddy.
“We have a thing within the band where if one person doesn’t wanna do it, we don’t do it,” says Matt.
“It’s not democracy,” says Eddy. “All three of us have to agree. With how we write songs, if someone said, ‘I don’t like that verse’ we would drop it.”
Similarly, if a giant label offered them a big deal but one of them wasn’t up for it, they wouldn’t take it, not because their DIY ethics wouldn’t allow it, simply because they’re only in this for themselves.
“Who cares what other people think?” asserts Eddy.
“I don’t care,” announces Matt. “I know it’s easy to relate us back to DIY because this album has come out in Europe on our label, so yes we’ve done it ourselves; we’ve all been in bands who’ve existed on small labels and we’re friends with bands who’ve all done that as well. But I don’t think it defines us in the music, it’s just that nobody else was there saying, ‘I’m going to give you loads of money to put out a record’.”
“The reason Matt says he doesn’t care and I don’t care and Joe probably doesn’t give a fuck either, is because it has fuck all to do with anyone else,” Eddy rants on. “DIY is only about you and I don’t care if someone thinks we’re not DIY enough. It’s only about us. We released our own record in the way we did [on their own Honey High label] because we don’t care how other people think we should release our record.” He pauses and everything is silent for a moment except for the record spinning in the background. “That was a bit of an intense round,” he laughs and the others laugh with him.
If you’ve yet to hear the album, it’s a handful of summery, tropi-punk songs with some silly lyrics – “I really wanted to have a song about Chevy Chase because he’s fucking awesome and ‘boat race’ is obviously Cockney rhyming slang for Chevy Chase,” reveals Matt of ‘Summer Lake’ – and some not so silly – ones of fear and paranoia that we’ll come to later – so, with the horrible amount of rain we’ve been having this summer, this record might just be the lift we all desperately need.
“We make everything better,” assures Eddy. “Good summers are better, bad summers are better. We take winter and add warmth to it, spring we add anticipation, summer we highlight the beauty of it, autumn – we are the memory of summer. This is the worst answer ever,” he peters out with a chuckle.
“I’ve been starting to get annoyed with the summery thing,” huffs Matt, “because I think people might listen to [the album] for a month and then realise they’re in England and go back to listening to Cold Cave. It’s us just trying to write pop songs – it came out summery and that’s probably because we don’t wear shoes on stage.”
Eddy coyly smiles and tells us that it’s more comfortable not to wear shoes on stage, but it can lead to horrible injuries. “I’d like to say now that I’m the only member of this band who hasn’t had to scalpel an object out of their foot,” declares Matt as Eddy goes into a story of his post-album launch show wounding. “The next day my foot hurt, so the day after that I had to take a scalpel to my foot and get glass out of it,” he says.
“I stepped on a sewing needle,” adds Joe, which led to him being stuck in hospital while Eddy and Matt went to Sardinia with Attwell to play a festival. “It sounds like the sissiest kind of injury, but basically it was two days before the festival and this needle went right up into my foot and snapped in half. It was lodged there and I walked to work – about a 40 minute walk – and lodged it in even more, but I didn’t think it was still in there because I couldn’t find it! So then I went to A&E and this guy looking at my foot was like, ‘I’m sorry my friend, if I can’t get this out in the next 10 minutes I think it’s surgery for you’. I had surgery the morning of the flight and I thought, ‘Ok, this is ridiculous, I can’t do this gig, can I? I’m not flying’, but they were like, ‘No, it should be fine. You’ll be out by 10am’.”
Fair Ohs were supposed to be flying at 4pm, so Matt and Eddy waited for Joe at the airport, and waited, and waited… “We freaked out,” Matt affirms. “We were being paid to go to Sardinia, so me and Eddy went – me, Eddy, Cold Pumas and Rory. And so just before we took off we thought, ‘Fuck it, let’s buy him another flight out of our own band money because Joe’s gotta come’. But when we landed, me and Eddy turned on our phones and both had voice-messages saying, ‘By the way, I can’t walk, I’m not being let out of hospital, I’m not coming’ and we were like ‘whaaaat’.” Eddy interrupts with a groan and whines, “can we change the story and say that Joe stepped on a hypodermic needle in his crack den?”
“Gotta stop doing that,” says Joe before telling us that up until the other day he still had the needle, but he ended up throwing it away. “I’ve got some pictures of it if you’re interested?” He gets out his laptop to show us bloody bandages and him in his hospital gown.
But going back to the positive vibe of their record, Eddy explains that it comes from a background in hardcore. “When we started, it was a really specific decision to make positive music, which came from growing up listening to Bad Brains and Minor Threat and things like that. We didn’t want to sit around feeling sorry for ourselves, we wanted to make music that was fun to be around and we didn’t wanna feel miserable in the rehearsal room.”
“I think it would be a real effort for us to write a song like My Chemical Romance – all ‘woe is me’,” smiles Matt. “And I don’t think this is a band we ever expected to live off, so you’ve gotta have fun while you’re doing it.”
Eddy also points out that no one wants to be around someone who’s miserable. “Say I wrote a song that was sad,” he says, “and there are a couple of sad songs on the record – it’s not nice being around someone who’s constantly feeling sorry for themselves. I think the sadness in the record is tempered by being like, ‘Well, I can’t feel sorry for myself’, because you have to keep moving forward and I think that’s probably a good way of looking at it.”
The sad songs that Eddy is talking about are tracks like ‘Yah’, which is even musically more downbeat with an extended garage-y ’60s psychedelic garage rock section and its lyrics “don’t turn your eyes away, you get older everyday”, paired with ‘Helio’ and its poignant lines “we could’ve tried, but we got old”.
“A lot of people are very quick to dismiss the lyrics on the album because there are maybe only five lines per song that aren’t necessarily about anything,” Eddy elaborates, “but other than one song, which is literally about nothing – just us trying to have fun in the rehearsal room – everything else has a lot of meaning and the old thing is my fault.”
With Eddy only notching in at 26 years old – Joe at 27 and Matt at 29 – they’re not exactly old-timers, but he elucidates on the fear and misery you can fall victim to without a sense of direction in this foreboding city. “If you’re unhappy and in your mid-twenties in London, which I was during the last period of the album, you’re probably going to start thinking, ‘I’m just getting too old to start doing what I’m doing’. Because I wrote most of the lyrics I can really tell where I was at each point [in the album] and with the last four [songs] I was quite unhappy and the ‘old’ thing is just something that was weighing on me.”
But in terms of lyrical influences, Fair Ohs also reference Eddy’s youth and various artists. “The earliest songs were about really specific memories,” he clarifies. “‘Almost Island’ and ‘Eden Rock’ are very much my last years in France when I was 17/18, so they’re very happy, sunny memories, which is why they’re such sunny, happy songs. Then ‘Baldessari’ is about the artist, but it’s actually a song about getting old as well. It’s about losing how young you’re being and not knowing how long you’ll feel young for, but it’s based on a piece of art called ‘Goodbye to Boats’ by John Baldessari – he’s one of the inventors of conceptual art. The other stuff is just normal shit, either memories or worries. ‘Helio’ – that’s another one about an artist.”
“There’s a lot of references to water,” Matt interjects.
“I think the water is quite an apt thing because the weird thing I’ve noticed with the newer stuff we’ve been writing – I’ve been using the word ‘river’ a lot and I think the words ‘sea’ and ‘lake’ were used a lot more before,” ponders Eddy. “There’s a difference between things being very still and feeling stagnant and over and stuck, compared with something flowing. Two of our newest songs that we like a lot both have the word ‘river’ in them and I think that’s the idea of moving forward and it’s quite nice. That makes me feel a lot happier about stuff.”
Another thing that bares questioning, and Matt skimmed over it earlier, is the Vampire Weekend references. In terms of the African-infused music they’re making, and a shared love of Paul Simon’s seminal 1986 album ‘Graceland’, it’s of course easy to compare the two, but with their New York counterparts hitting it big back at the start of 2008, do Fair Ohs feel like they’ve perhaps missed the boats they sing about?
“That’s actually quite an interesting question, in that it implies there’s a boat to get and that we were writing to get on it,” says Eddy. “Do you really think that in east London, amongst the people who come to our gigs and the friends that we have, they’re coming up and going ‘I’m really into East African guitar music’? Joe’s really into Latin stuff – do you think that’s going to go down well? No. We weren’t doing it to get on any boat; we were doing it because it’s in our heart and because it’s what’s fun to play.”
“I’m actually glad we get to answer this,” sighs Matt, “because everyone writes about it, but we’ve never been asked it before actually. It’s annoying because there is validity in comparing us to Vampire Weekend because yes, they do like some of the same music as we do, like, what’s the last song on the first Vampire Weekend record?” Eddy explains that ‘The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance’, the last track on Vampire Weekend’s eponymous debut album mimics the Kenyan benga band Orchestra Super Mazembe’s song ‘Jiji’, which upon hearing, does, in that the riffs are almost identical. “Kenyan guitar music is wonderful,” enthuses Eddy, “but the thing that’s hard about the situation is that we get accused of ripping Vampire Weekend off, but it’s just not true. They’re into Kakai Kilonzo, who is a Kamba musician and my first release on Dream Beach [his label] is by a Kamba musician and this has been planned for a long time. We weren’t trying to get on the Vampire Weekend boat because we never planned on doing this beyond our group of friends in east London.
“If we were another garage rock band doing the most generic music we could, nobody would bat an eyelid because there’s so much of it around. No one’s going to go, ‘They sound just like Thirteenth Floor Elevators’, no ones going to say it, even though it’s true. But there’s one band who has African influence in their guitar playing. There’s one band who have a similar delay sound and so they go, ‘You sound like Abe Vigoda and Vampire Weekend’ and it’s like, ‘ohhhh we don’t, we sound like Kakai Kilonzo and we stole from Africa, I didn’t steal from America’. I should feel worse about that really.
“No one talks about the straight beats we have,” he rages on with a mouthful of pizza. “The song ‘Marie’ has the beat from Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ and the bass line from Talking Heads’ ‘Naïve Melody’. Nobody mentions it – that we stole from Kate Bush and Talking fucking Heads and Thirteenth Floor Elevators, instead of going Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend,” he repeats while gesticulating wildly. “It’s just frustrating.”
Joe laughs and asks: “Do we sound bitter?”
The truth is, Fair Ohs still hold a very valid position in the current music scene, despite what may or may not have already been. They’re open and honest, they play whatever the fuck they like and because of that they’re becoming a huge success. Not that they’d know that, of course. “That’s not true,” Eddy responds in disbelief when I mention their cult following. “Who’s the cult?”
“Does cult mean ‘no’?” chuckles Matt heartily.
But all your shows, in London at least, are increasingly wall-to-wall rammed.
“As far as we’re concerned,” Eddy carries on, “we think we’re still playing to our 10 friends who we first started playing to.”
“We’ve done a lot more than the expectations of this band were when we first formed,” Matt discloses. “I’m still really shocked that we’re going to be on a cover. Think; every band – no matter how good or bad – can get written about online, on a blog, everyone’s got an opinion, everyone’s got a friend who will write about you, everyone can get into a magazine or somewhere at some point – it’s not about getting a bit of coverage from someone because everyone needs to fill their content, but actually being on the front cover makes it a valid thing. It’s that step up.”
“What we’re doing now,” pronounces Eddy, “this Loud And Quiet thing – it’s a weird mixture of surprising and not surprising. Because we’ve been doing this for long enough to think that – because we love our album – it deserves to be looked at and read about and listened to.” Agreed.