And now in your head for the rest of the week!
It’s dangerous for artists to remain in a rut.
Michael Farkas, leader of The Wiyos, one of the Fox’s little favorites answered a few questions and discussed touring Europe, the band’s new album as well as pre-war blues, baking pies and New Orleans’ jazz. Michael Farkas always got a few surprises in his bag!
Good Music Fox: How did you guys come up with the idea of that concept album and why did you choose the Wizard of Oz?
Michael Farkas: It came about somehow indirectly, we were asked to contribute to a multimedia piece by a professor of the University Of Wichita, Kansas. I was a mime student of his, believe it or not, many years ago and he knew the band, he knew me and he knew that we had a good reputation in Kansas. He wanted to do something like this Wizard of Oz concept and I said “Great, let’s do this” but then we both got busy and he ended up taking our previous album “Broken Land Bell” and somehow constructing this modern twist of a search on the Wizard of Oz story with that album and somehow, he made it work. We were to these performances and were amazed at how well he was able to craft something together. So Teddy and I said well wouldn’t it be great if we just wrote our own take on this storyline because it had a lot of wonderful references and it was so entrenched in the American Myth of movie making and had a lot of different angles and entry points. So we were thinking about it and just started writing, did a bit of demoying in the studio where we eventually recorded the whole album… We didn’t initially chose “oh we’re gonna do something about the Wizard of Oz.” It came that way and we just went with it!
G.M.F: So it’s almost like the Wizard of Oz chose you.
M.F: Yeah! It chose us for sure!
The Kickstarter campaign just paid for everything, nothing went in our pockets, it was all in the work.
G.M.F: Twist was partly made possible by online pledges…
M.F: Yes! We had a Kickstarter campaign, which definitely enabled the album to be made; We wanted to spend more money in the studio to capture the sound we were looking for. You know, in the past our albums had been done either in house by our old bass player Joebass or at Pipe Studio and we had a working arrangement with them. And although Kenny Siegal who ends up producing and playing on the album cut us a great deal, it was still a bunch of weeks working on it and there were expenses. A lot of bands don’t have the reservoirs of cash flow so we had to get some assistance and it definitely made the album possible.
L to R: Ted Weber, Kenny Siegal, Michael Farkas, Sauerkraut Seth Travins, Brian Geltner
G.M.F: And at the moment, you’re not signed either, is that a choice or simply a more natural way to work today?
M.F: No we have never really solicited labels. We thought about it and we had some approaches but because the music industry is shifting and changing so much we were unclear as to what advantages other than promotion – which is certainly a huge advantage –they would be able to work for us. I think we would like to be able to have more visibility because the bands that have a lot of money to put into publicity and promotion, whether that’s through their own resources or vis-à-vis a record label that does that for them, you see or hear them more. They’re in your ears and eyes more. Because we’re a self-made business in that regard I think we lost opportunities for more visibility. But you know, I think many artists and bands suffer that fate because they’re spending all their money making the work and touring, paying rents and bills. They don’t have a surplus …the tens or twenty of thousands… The Kickstarter campaign just paid for everything, nothing went in our pockets, it was all in the work.
G.M.F: Pretty much all the songs on Twist are signed by you and Teddy Weber. What was the songwriting process like between you guys?
M.F: This was our experiment at joining as a songwriting team. We had dabbled in it previously and found that we worked pretty well together. We have a very different approach to songs at times and very complimentary. So this album was our experiment in that and it went from every which way…I had most of a song done but I needed work on this one little section and he would help me complete it and I would do the same for him or it would be a 50-50 kind of work: I came up with a chorus and he came up with a verse and we’d split the writing. There were so many different ways the pie was divided from a songwriting standpoint. It was very equal. And we wanted something that has a cohesiveness from the song structure standpoint but also something that has a lot of surprises and twists, hence the name. We felt that we were able to achieve that by just trusting that whatever we would eventually put down on tape we would work out the musical aspect of it. As long as it was musical to our ears and it felt like it worked then we felt ok about it. And there was no ego with us, we really respect each other’s abilities and have fun playing and writing together. Because of that, the competitiveness was not really there. It was only the desire to get the best end result. And I feel this album is kind of a reflection on the best creative process where you have strong ideas and a good team in place. I’ve always been interested in that in my study of the arts in general: “How did so and so get that done?” For me this album was not just Teddy and myself but the whole band and the other people who were involved in the process. It feels like a real collaboration in that regard.
G.M.F: You’re about to start a new tour in the UK but just before we talk about that I just have to ask you about your 2009 tour opening for Dylan. How did this happen and did you meet the man?
M.F: There was a person at Creative Arts Agency in L.A I guess who knew about our work and had a copy of our album. I think the short version is that when they were looking for an opening act for that particular summer minor league baseball stadium tour, they were coming up empty. Democratically or diplomatically there was that guy who thought our album would please Dylan’s people and gave it to them. His people liked it, it was passed on to the man himself and he really liked the album. We were asked to go on the tour based on the merits of our work, which is always nice…not just because you’re paid to play or however the world tends to work in those regards…
As far as meeting them, no. All these guys, the main stars – because we were on this tour with Willie Nelson & John Mellencamp as well – you know they’re all in their 70’s , well Mellencamp isn’t… but they have their own trailer… We always had little words from Dylan’s people that he liked our sound, we got little comments here and there but we rarely ever saw him. According to his people that’s just generally the way it goes. I think everybody wants a piece of the guy, so, once bitten twice shy. When his set starts, for the twenty minutes or so before that, they don’t let anybody around unless you’re directly his people. So it’s a very closed world. But we were told that he was happy and checked out a couple of our sets so that was good enough. I wouldn’t even know what to say if I’d met him.
It’s important for bands to have a pretty good working knowledge of stage craft and the ones that don’t feel like they’re not doing their homework
G.M.F: So now you’re gonna tour in Europe from the end of this month and through February. How do you like playing over there?
M.F: Oh I love it, we all love it. My experience from touring in the UK for a few years on and off now…I enjoyed the venues and that the people and fans really come to see new acts that they enjoy very enthusiastically. They’re informed and they take more chances with music, they go out more, it’s more of a social environment. Here in the states, it’s a different world. You have to get an audience and you have to spend a lot of time wooing them, which I’m ok with, you know I understand it’s a competitive world out there. But somehow people give whatever act coming through a chance. So I’ve always enjoyed playing in the UK and I really love the topography, the country itself and the people so it’s a win-win for me.
G.M.F: We cover roots music in general but our first love here really is the blues. So…does the blues play a big role in your writing and playing?
M.F: Hh it certainly does. The early Wiyos were extremely blues influenced especially the Piedmont and Appalachian blues. Parish, the old guitar player, was a real master of the finger picking style and when I met him I was looking for a guitar player who played that kind of bouncy syncopated blues stuff I loved. I was much more of a fan of that than the Chicago or the Delta blues, although I love that as well in its own right. I really like the kind of blues that felt like it was more like dance music. And that kind of bouncy, syncopated blues definitely is integral in my musical brain at this point. Some of the songs on Twist, like the first track, bear a resemblance to that feel and style. The harmonica too, which is most known within the blues idiom; I feel like it’s still a strong part of our sound. I don’t want to put it where it doesn’t fit just because I play it so I tried to be judicious in this album. But the versatility of that instrument in the older, pre-war blues, the hollers and the stomps and train stuff…well when I’m not working with this band I’m always playing solo blues and pieces. I love it.
I think blues and early Jazz will always be something that I will be playing and in some ways probably growing old playing. That’s actually my favorite style of music.
G.M.F: Looking at your live performances, it really seems like it’s a second nature to you. When or how did you realize you just had to go on stage and play?
M.F: I did a lot of musical theater when I was a kid mostly because I had high energy […] at that point I got a bug for it, I think I was a natural at it. It wasn’t until I did street work, which was music, mime and clown many years later that I realized how difficult it actually is and that you have to learn a certain skills set. So yeah it feels natural to me but I did many years of busking and that was the best school to get used to being on stage and see if people are paying attention or not and how to get them to. And there’s the experience you can have in theater, where you can be more subtle and use the stage, the lights and mechanics of theatrics to make something very real. I also thought it’s important for bands to have a pretty good working knowledge of stage craft and the ones that don’t feel like they’re not doing their homework or don’t care about an audience enough. It’s important to have some experience in a live setting if for one thing: even with all the multimedia, you can’t take away the live theater, live music, drama and comedy. To create a sense of intimacy on stage you have to know a couple of tricks. Yeah…you are tricking them but also using it to get them to a deeper emotional place, which is definitely something I think about a lot.
I was a baker for a couple of years and enjoyed that
G.M.F: Definitely. But could you imagine yourself doing any other job?
M.F: I have to think about it! (laughs). I was a teacher for a year and I still enjoy the occasional teaching gig and I still do it sometimes with The Wiyos. We do residencies sometimes at colleges or museums. I was a baker for a couple of years and enjoyed that!
G.M.F: A baker?
M.F: Yeah! I baked cakes and muffins and pies. I must admit it was kind of solitary and the hours were late and weird but at the end you have a nice hot thing baked out of the oven, I mean, who doesn’t like that? I always thought…maybe one day I’ll get back into that! That and a good cup of tea or coffee, careers like that you know, it doesn’t get any better. If you have some good music on the background then you’re good to go!
I’m always interested in stuff that I don’t quite get
G.M.F: It’s been working pretty well for The Wiyos lately, Seasick Steve and the BBC talking about you, touring loads…yet there’s been quite a change in the band’s line up recently. What happened?
M.F: There wasn’t a lot of drama around it. Well, we were all just tired of being on the road. I mean we had been on the road at that point for 7+ years for over 200 shows a year. We kinda accomplished all the things we wanted and felt very satisfied with our goals. I think, really, for those guys it was about wanting to get out of the road and have a relationship…Joe wanted to really focus on his studio recording work and I was ready to go with that but Teddy and I wanted to do a little bit more writing together. We weren’t ready to throw in the towel but we wanted to change the structure, not touring that much because it’s just bad for any band to do it all the time. You start losing perspective and then you’re not having the kind of enriching experiences that provide futter for songwriting. I think that’s what enabled Twist to go out. For our fans, those who wanted a specific thing that we did in a very specific period well they’re not getting that anymore. They choose to abandon ship or stick around. We felt that many more decided to stay and we felt that in the UK during our last tour. Many people had never seen the original trio or quartet and so we felt we were playing to new audiences in a sense and had some of the best responses we ever had. Ultimately, it’s dangerous for artists to remain in a rut. It’s dangerous for the arts in general and the interests for them because when you starting dialing in performances and music…something is dead. And you sense it. So for everyone in the band taking those risks is important. In our case we had some good fortune. I think the audiences are excited by that because they see it and they sense it too…and they want it. Everybody wants a little surprise in life and it’s important for music to supply surprises as well! Listening to Pink Floyd or Captain Beefheart or any of these great bands of the 60’s/70’s and then bands like Radiohead, well they introduced new interesting things, pushing their own envelope. It’s exciting. You’re not always gonna like what they do but you gotta applaud them for doing it.
I love a good melody and a good rhythm and I’m a sucker for that.
G.M.F: Speaking of Beefhart and the others…who are your musical heroes?
M.F: My father was a piano player, not professionally but he played several hours a day. I wouldn’t say he’s a hero but all the songs in the Classic American Songbook of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s definitely influenced my musical education. The classic Beatles, Stones, Kinks…I love Glen Gould too, I’m a huge classical music fan. That doesn’t influence my writing per say but I’m always interested in stuff that I don’t quite get… I love Brazilian music, things that shoot from the hips and Stevie Wonder, funky music from the 70’s […] I love New Orleans’ jazz; Professor Long Hair, Reverend Gary Davis and all of those cats were huge influences and I still listen to them. All the harmonica players, Noah Lewis especially…I just adore. I lived in New Orleans for a year and I worked as a waiter all night and listened to the radio all day. The New Orleans radio stations to me were a combination of weird folk music – not like the 60’s era folk music of Guthrie and Dylan – but the weirder stuff that was even coming from Brazil or Cuba.[…]
I love a good melody and a good rhythm and I’m a sucker for that.
Interview by Pauline N.J. Nemson
Some say it’s the last year of all, some say the crisis will hit us harder than ever, Europe might fall, the US too, climate is changing for the worst and violence will be the natural consequence of this mess. Alright. Whatever.
We decided to start the year interviewing a really nice guy, busy writing beautiful songs in Los Angeles. Kelly Pardekooper is our Artist of the Week.
We also believe that a year starting with The Wiyos’ best album to date, and that’s no small thing to write, can not be that bad anyway. Twist is an explosion of creativity and talent, and therefore our Album of the Week.
2012 will also be the year we’ll manage to reach Boo Boo Davis for an ultimate Blues chat, the year we will discover more amazing steel guitar players and fall in love with sultry voices and rough countrymen. And if the crisis grow and the rain drowns half of us while the sun fries the rest, we can always hang on to the fact that the best music is very often written with blood, sweat and tears so…Happy New Year!