Crawdaddy Interview: Fang Island

Fang Island is how art school students rebel against art school. First off, it’s hard to believe there exists a band that plays pop-punk instrumental math-rock that, if represented as a graph on the Cartesian plane, would show pretension and quality in an inverse function. It is equally confounding and refreshing that a band that started as an art project at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design would have the gall to take their name from a fictional place featured in an Onion article.

It’s possible that Fang Island guitarists Nick Sadler and Jason Bartell could have gotten away with describing themselves as pioneers of the re-appropriation of arena rock. They could argue that, much in the same way that Girl Talk allows hipsters to unironically appreciate radio rap, Fang Island provides a prism  through which to enjoy all the anthemic qualities of a band like Boston or Journey. However, they would never say that, which simultaneously reinforces that they are the best art project ever and makes me a douchebag for trying to intellectualize something so pure and fun.

Sadler and Bartell lent Crawdaddy! some time out of their busy schedules to provide insight into Fang Island’s origins, new musical direction, and bold sartorial decisions.

Crawdaddy!: So, your band started as an art project at RISD, and you’ve been known to describe Fang Island as “the sound of everyone high fiving.” What was the guise or artistic premise of Fang Island initially? Don’t tell me that’s how you described your project in some sort of proposal to the administration.

Nick Sadler: The band started with Phil [Curcuru] and Pete [Watts], and it was actually a class project. They would most likely say it was a way to get out of other classes to rock out and probably smoke weed and things like that. The whole premise of the band is basically friendship.

Jason Bartell: The class was called Rock Band, and it was during the third semester, which is called winter session. It’s six weeks that are kind of like a slacker period. You can take like, one class or an independent study, so we set up this class to get credit for what we were already doing. We made it a course, so we had to put out a self-released album and play a show, stuff like that. We were in print making so there was a lot we could do with that. At RISD, there’s no attention paid to music as an art form, so we were kind of working around that.

Crawdaddy!: At what point did it go from “Rock Band” to “actual band?”

Bartell: We’ve gone through a lot of stages for sure, but the release of our record and signing to a real label [Sargent House] with national attention—even though it’s small and independent— was probably the point where it became “actual band.” It was at the point of either taking the next stop or stopping. We were doing the multi-city thing and the band wasn’t being elevated. We would put an intense amount of time and effort to play for 10 people, and we could only do that for a song.

Crawdaddy!: And Nick, how did you get into the picture?

Sadler: A little after I joined the band, we decided to give it a go and started touring. I was dating a friend of theirs, and I would go see them at parties, and I got a hold of some of their recordings. I was playing in a band called Daughters at the time, and Fang Island approached me about being a third guitar player. I wasn’t really thinking we were gonna be so serious. Daughters broke up, though, so I had more time to focus on Fang Island, and now I’m just doing that.

Crawdaddy!: So because you have a print making background, does that mean you guys design all your t-shirts and artwork yourselves?

Bartell: It’s weird to me that all bands don’t have that as part of their aesthetic, that they have people assist them with t-shirts and album art. We take that at times as seriously as the music. We can build ourselves in a multi-dimensional way that changes the experience for people, allows it to resonate differently.

Crawdaddy!: I remember reading an interview from you around the time of SXSW last year, and I think Chris Georges said that he had just gotten back from work and wasn’t a full-time touring musician yet. Have things changed since last year, or are you still balancing the band and part-time jobs?

Sadler: I have five jobs right now. I do live sound at a church—not a church that I go to or anything like that, they just hired me to do sound. I teach guitar lessons, work at a picture framing store, a science themed toy store, and a cafe in downtown Providence. I’m actually at the toy store right now, and I might have to put you on hold if a particularly demanding customer comes in.

Bartell: Yeah, I’m on lunch break at work right now.

Crawdaddy!: How do you have jobs when you’re a touring band? Does this mean you asked for a year off in 2010?

Bartell: I mean, sometimes you take a job knowing you’ll have to quit, but I’ve been working as an artist assistant for the same guy for the past six years. He’s very giving with time off and very understanding of what I’m trying to do. We definitely have to have job jobs. Last year was technically the closest I’ve been to being a professional musician because we’re on tour for almost the whole year. It’s not like I was suddenly a professional musician because I was making a ton of money, there was just no time off to have an actual job.

Crawdaddy!: Wait, how are you in Providence right now? I thought you guys relocated to Brooklyn!

Sadler: We did for a bit. My girlfriend lives in Providence right now, so I’m here hanging out with her.

Bartell: There was a point last year when that was our home base. Nick had moved here, and he was crashing on my couch, Mike and I lived in an apartment, Chris had moved up here. But saying you’re from Brooklyn is like… no one is actually from here. Most Brooklyn bands move here after college from the Midwest or wherever, so we’re “from Brooklyn” as much as anyone else.

Crawdaddy!: What made you want to move to Brooklyn? It’s just that there’s a sort of connotation when you say you’re a “Brooklyn band,” and you really do not meet that mold, which I guess is my making the statement, “There is nothing pretentious about your music” in the form of a question. How do you guys fit in?

Sadler: We just wanted to be a part of New York because there are a lot more bands and stuff. Basically I wanted to go on a fun adventure and change my life around for a bit. I don’t think we really fit in. The only band we ever really played shows with consistently was a band called Anamanaguchi. We never felt a part of some specific scene, and we weren’t buddying up with anyone in particular.

Bartell: I totally agree. It’s hard not to have it be like, a negative connotation, because usually a connotation is negative, but there is a certain feel about that kind of stuff. It’s all based on the past and people’s preconceived notions of how a city works, and usually it’s a misconception. Brooklyn bands only sound that way because of the few bands that have gotten attention in the past few years. You can walk into a practice space here and you hear every possible kind of music in any type of genre, which is better than a small city where the scene becomes sort of incestuous 

Crawdaddy!: What was the music scene like in Providence? My entire family is actually from there, and all I know about being a 20-something in Rhode Island revolves around this story my dad tells about seeing the Talking Heads at Lupo’s once.

Sadler: I mean, the music climate here is really cool. There are always fresh ideas and creative minds because we have RISD and Brown, so there’s always new and exciting stuff happening. It’s varied. To be honest, though, I don’t really get out that much right now with five jobs.

Bartell: It was really great for a long time. Bands were doing weird, cool things. Providence is in a really rough spot as a city, and those kinds of situations tend to lend to the arts. The artists kind of get ways to be in the background making art because loft spaces are so cheap and you get theses sort-of art communes popping up. It was definitely really cool for a while: New, weird, and good. Lots of noise music. We were initially inspired by it, but we started to lean toward bucking that aesthetic by taking what we liked away from that scene and then sort of working against it. Fang Island is very melodic and positive, and I think our desire to make such listenable music comes from that.

Crawdaddy!: Who were your initial influences? I always describe your band to friends as a mixture between Explosions in the Sky and Rufio, so I was wondering if you guys grew up listening to pop-punk.

Sadler: I think Chris probably has biggest pop-punk influence. I was always kind of a death metal kid, and I listened to “punk” punk and noise music. I think we’re all pretty big fans of Weezer, Smashing Pumpkins, Queen. Explosions in the Sky is cool, but it’s not really a conscious thing. The sprawling vibe probably comes from the Who with their rock operas.

Bartell: I think pop-punk is one of those genres that got trampled with hindsight; I think people look back on it as cheesy and shitty. We all definitely have a big pop-punk background. We came up on it in high school, so I think there’s a nostalgic quality to it for us, and there are a lot of positive qualities to that genre: It’s energetic, hook-driven, positive sounding. With Explosions in the Sky, it’s funny to me that instrumental is a new thing. It sort of became its own genre, post-something, I don’t know enough about music history to talk about this, but I’m sure bands like Godspeed were referencing something. But when that genre was forming, it was new and exciting, and that was around the time that we became a band. We weren’t actively referencing them, but we became aware that you could make instrumental music.

Crawdaddy!: What’s the writing process like for an instrumental band? It’s not like you have some lead singer who lays all the groundwork for all of the songs. Not only that, but you’ve got band members living all over the place, Postal Service-style. What’s the genesis for a typical Fang Island song?

Sadler: Chris, Jason, and I write music all the time, so if we don’t see each other for a couple of months, we will turn up with a bunch of songs. It’s from the guitar up for the most part. We’re doing more piano-related stuff right now, actually. There will be more singing, too. We’re an instrumental band because none of us could sing, so we made the guitar what sang in the band. We’re getting a little better at singing, so there will be more of it in the future.

Bartell: We tried to do that—write songs through the mail—but it’s actually really hard. It takes a lot of motivation and possibly less people? Maybe two people instead of like, five people? And then there’s the matter of trying to get people together to practice.

Crawdaddy!: Are you trying to tell me it’s going to be a while before we can expect a new LP?

Sadler: We’re working on new music, but we don’t know yet. Sometimes we talk about an EP; sometimes we talk about an LP… sometimes a series of singles of videos. It’s an unending idea pool. We have a large collection of music building up at this point, so hopefully we’ll have something new out by the end of this year.

Bartell: Yeah, we’re definitely writing. Nick is planning on moving here, and we’ve been demoing stuff for a while. I really hope we can get into the studio in the next few months, and I think we’re touring Europe at the end of August. I’d like to be able to try out some new material there.

Crawdaddy!: Jason, you’re wearing a ridiculous star-covered hoodie in every performance I’ve ever seen of you. What’s the deal with it, and where can I get one?

Bartell: I had my friend make it, so it’s pretty unique. People ask me about it all the time. You could make one. It’s just a t-shirt, and we added a hood and some iron-on stars. The first time I wore it was at a CD release show, and she showed up with it. The only thing I told her was to make it big. It was, uh, pretty big. That hood practically covers my entire face. Still, it was enjoyable, so I made a point to wear it for every show.

by Allie Conti