The Strapping Fieldhands started out in the early '90s playing "Appalachian inbred squonk" on junk shop instruments. The band's sound evolved quickly and drastically in the time leading up to their outstanding 1994 LP Discus (Omphalos), but even their latest album, 2002's relatively refined The Third Kingdom (Omphalos), retains much of the slobbering, delirious quality of their first singles. Though the Fieldhands are based in Philadelphia, PA, they sound like denizens of some stunningly pretty British backwater where people fiddle with radio antennae to pick up faint broadcasts of skiffle, traditional English folk and '60s psychedelic rock. They're equally adept at shambolic, Syd Barrett-style balladry and barnburning freak rock reminiscent of Pere Ubu or the Godz; usually they strike a balance between the two and end up with music that is self-consciously strange but unpretentious, and beautiful but more than a little unsettling.
Bob Malloy, the Fieldhands' songwriter, guitarist and co-founder, answered my questions over e-mail. Special thanks to drummer Jeff Werner, who coordinated the interview and provided photographs.
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Splendid: Has your approach to recording changed much since the band's early days? I see that you still record at home, but a lot of the newer stuff (especially Wattle & Daub) sounds like it was worked out carefully, with plenty of overdubs, whereas much of Discus and your singles have a looser, live sound.
Bob Malloy: Besides our first single, which was recorded on 4-track cassette, almost everything we’ve done has been recorded on 8-track reel-to-reel on quarter-inch tape. Going the home recording route allowed us to take our time with the overdubs and mixing. We've always tried to mix it up between loose spontaneous jams and focused tunes. A few songs on Wattle & Daub and The Third Kingdom were recorded in real studios where we were able to get cut-rate deals via friends.
Splendid: How did you end up reviving Omphalos for The Third Kingdom? Is the label strictly for Fieldhands projects or do you have plans to release other stuff?
Bob Malloy: After being out in the wilderness for so long, it was like we were starting over again. It made sense for us to make it a bootstraps operation. Although none of us is drawn to the administrative side of running a label, like everyone else we had to cobble together a game plan and go with it. Omphalos #3 will be the new album that we plan to begin recording in November. Maybe after that we'll be able to release Discus on CD. Although we don't have any plans to expand the label beyond being a vehicle for the Fieldhands, you never know. If something great came along that wasn't getting out there...
AUDIO: Author In Her Ear (from Wattle & Daub)
Splendid: Your lyrics are often very literate and they seem carefully crafted, but they tend to be buried in the mix or slurred in their delivery. In a Fieldhands song, is the overall sound more important than whatever story or imagery you're conveying in the lyrics? What lyricists do you admire?
Bob Malloy: Yeah, that's a good question. People often complain to me about my vocals not being out front enough, but I always wanted to use the lyrics as sort of an abstract pastiche. I wanted to create a dense word field that became a world of its own as opposed to, "Hey, here's the tune and here's some lyrics that go on top of it and rhyme." I find bursts of growling and slurring and semi-comprehensible poem-theater to convey more depth than clearly enunciating some (usually lame) storyline. During a performance I am trying to get to a state of subconscious lucidity, for lack of a better term. I think people feel that and dig it, even though they may not know what the hell I'm talking about. That's why I love Syd Barrett, Incredible String Band, Michael Hurley, Mark Smith and other damaged, freaked-out whirlwinds.
Splendid: I'd guess from your lyrics to songs like "Ussysses", "Sad Lament of the American Indian", "Abandoned By Demeter", "The Demiurge", etc., that you're a history and/or classical literature buff. Do you draw most of your lyrical inspiration from your reading? Have you written many songs (for the Fieldhands or otherwise) that draw more from your own life?
Bob Malloy: Well, I certainly treat song-making as a form of art-making and I want to incorporate archetypal myths to touch universal themes. I'm a word man; I've always wanted to be a writer and I kind of accidentally found out that I had this musical gift as well. I've had more success with writing songs than short stories, though I've published stuff here and there. I think that all of my songs draw upon my life maybe not with the direct facts but with the feelings of the themes. One of these days I'm going to spend a few months in a cabin somewhere and try to write something excellent.
Splendid: What have you been reading recently?
Bob Malloy: Right now I'm reading 33 Moments of Happiness, St. Petersburg Stories by a weird young German writer, Ingo Schulze. Also I get a charge out of outrageous new French misanthrope Michel Houllebecque.
Splendid: I read that you played your first show as an opening act for the Frogs. Judging from your early singles and your name, it seems like the Fieldhands started as a Frogs-type act devoted mostly to Smithsonian Anthology-type folk and country music and weird Americana. Does that sound right? If so, was the shift away from Americana towards more British influences conscious? How did the band evolve from its earliest incarnation up to Discus?
Bob Malloy: Well, I had a $60 dreadnought guitar and knew a few chords and just started writing songs, never having been a musician. My partner who I started the band with, Bob Dickey, was this virtuoso cellist with dozens of bizarre, trash-picked instruments all over his house. That's why it sounded like Appalachian inbred squonk. When the first single generated quite a bit of interest we were shocked. Then there were live gigs and we had to get a "band" together and I was drawn to writing band-sized tunes to make the people happy. As for the English thing I was drawn to -- I never wanted to be in a country, folk or blues band. I wanted to be in a avant psychedelic band that could freak out a room full of people.
Splendid: Has your approach to writing music changed? It seems to me that fewer of your songs fit neatly into a particular genre now -- not as many are immediately identifiable as skiffle, sea chantey, etc.
Bob Malloy: I'm a much better musician than I used to be. I try to stretch the range and complexity of the songs and I guess they don't fit as neatly into categories. I think we're onto something. I'm obviously not making music to make money or be famous. I'm really excited about our next record because I'm crazy about the new songs. I would have stopped a long time ago if I didn't feel that we haven't made our masterpiece yet. We're preparing right now to go into a studio and lay it down and put it out early next year because these new songs are ready. Instead of our usual process of taking years to do it ourselves. I'm betting the ranch on the next record.
Splendid: Is the new record going to be a departure from what you've done so far? Are you going to record it any differently than usual?
Bob Malloy: The next record is going to be a departure in the sense that instead of taking years to record everything on our own, we want to go into a studio and attempt to lay down the songs that we've been working on for the past year. The new songs are strong and we've been playing most of them live this year so they're properly seasoned. We expect that this next record will be a make or break record for us; we are giving up the security blanket of lo-fi tape hiss and we're going to see what we sound like recorded clearly in a proper studio. A radical idea; we'll see what happens. We'll definitely be looking to tour in support of the beast.
Splendid: Has the band worked together steadily since it started, or do you have periods of inactivity?
Bob Malloy: Apart from the blow up of '97 and '98, we've being playing steadily for over ten years.
Splendid: Do you improvise much, live or in the studio?
Bob Malloy: Oh yeah. Some songs are just made up on the spot with the tape rolling. You can probably tell which ones. Then some come from jam sessions that are later worked up into full tunes. The basic tracks for "Panic in the Commune" (from The Third Kingdom) were made up with the tape rolling at practice, then the words and overdubs were added later. Jacy Webster almost always improvises his guitar parts. Like, all the time.
AUDIO: Stacy Donnelly (from Gobs On The Midway)
Splendid: Who was or is Stacey Donnelly? (The title character from a song on the Gobs On The Midway compilation.)
Bob Malloy: Philadelphia is a tough town and in this hellhole of a neighborhood where I used to live, you'd see these young Irish Catholic girls whoring themselves, being like broken-down drug addicts before they're 20. You really begin to understand the devastating effects of abject poverty when it's your own ethnic group. Being from the Midwest, I guess I thought that the only really poor white people were trailer trash hillbillies. I learned a lesson in compassion for all poor people and channelled my sorrow in seeing wasted human life into a lament for a fictional amalgam called Stacey Donnelly, a junkie prostitute who, if she was born in another place, could have been a ballerina on the stage.
Splendid: You guys seem to have a lot of friends from Ohio (Ron House, Guided By Voices, Mike Rep), and you seem to be descendants in some ways of Pere Ubu, the Electric Eels and other mid- to late-'70s Cleveland bands. Do you feel more of a kinship with Ohio bands than with bands in the Philadelphia music scene? Are any of you transplanted Ohioans?
Bob Malloy: I'm from Ohio and Tom Lax from Siltbreeze is from Ohio. There's kind of an Ohio mafia in Philly -- which is interesting, because southern Ohio was settled by people coming from Philadelphia. A reverse migration like musical salmon.
Splendid: Is Siltbreeze still around?
Bob Malloy: Siltbreeze, I think, is pretty dormant right now. I think the last current band that they put out was the Resinaters last year. But they might be doing reissues, I don't know.
Splendid: Do you guys fit in with or pay much attention to the Philadelphia
Bob Malloy: Yeah, we're friendly with everyone here. Our new bass player, Bruce Reckahn, came from Delta 72. We're friends with all kinds of bands and musicians here; Jacy owns the Philadelphia Record Exchange so he knows all the jazz and neo-soul people. We're pretty much the only group doing what we do here and tend to think of our kindred spirits as being from NY or Ohio.
AUDIO: Folk Is Tough (from The Third Kingdom)
Splendid: Just about every review I've read of your records has the word "drunken" in it, or some other expression of doubt about your sobriety. Has actual drunkenness ever played a part in your sound, or is the woozy, stumbling quality of a lot of your songs more of an aesthetic choice?
Bob Malloy: I like to think of it more of a shambling, shambolic quality. We definitely used to play up the boozy hijinks back when we were playing beer-soaked blow-outs with the likes of Guided by Voices in the mid-'90s. Though we still party, the over the top guzzling swagger is not a part of our shtick anymore.
Splendid: What have you been listening to lately?
Bob Malloy: I've been blown away by the two individual releases by the guys from the Tower Recordings. They are both phenomenal records from the East Village/Williamsburg avant-folk scene. Matt Valentine and Erica Elder released Tonight! One Night Only! MV & EE in Heaven. And Pat Gubler's P.G. Six -- Parlor Tricks and Porch Favorites -- is simply amazing.
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Scott Jacobson doesn't want you touching him like that again.
[ graphics credits :: header/pulls - george zahora | photos - mike baehr & promo shot :: credits graphics ]