Forest Fire And The Struggle For Sonic Identity At CMJ


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Pianos, a bar in the Lower East Side, is brimming on a Thursday. Any forward or lateral movement requires an untamed drive in the body, a desire to split dense muscular systems. Drinks are ordered not at the bar but from distant tiers. The downstairs room, where music magazine The Deli’s CMJ showcase transpires, is “sold out,” according to a man with drained skin attending the door. This is the official position regardless of necessarily rotating attendance — at the end of each set people spilled from the doors in aromatic, chemical chains, having witnessed “their band” cleave an identity from a largely improvised setup. Some bands fit nicely into this fracturing, into continued disassembly and reassembly. Mr. Dream, a Brooklyn punk band, communicate through a few distorted layers on record and so seem unaffected by the haphazard levels and flaring monitors. At home, even.

The room is deemed the “Mixed Indie Room” by The Deli and so features bands that aren’t easily anchored in a sound or attitude, or even in “Brooklyn indie rock.” Snowmine is distant, reticulating—identifiably indie but also increasingly remote. Zambri is meditative and queasy, achieving a real vibrating space between dream pop and harsh noise.

Forest Fire, a Brooklyn band, play a kind of disembodied folk, which isn’t served by the mix so much as it is magnified, achieving dimensional violence. Lead singer Mark Thresher ambles softly around, compliments the crowd intimately (“I just came all over everything,” addressing his accumulation of sweat), seems to disappear in the size and depth of things. At a certain point, in the heat and noise, you could perceive an entangling.

Forest Fire released their sophomore record, Staring at the X, on Tuesday through FatCat Records. The album deepens the sound of their previous record, 2008’s Survival, which was released through music blogger Ryan Catbird’s label and attracted even more blog consideration with its small acoustic songs that picked up violence. It was eventually named album of the year by La Blogothèque.

Staring is louder and moodier than Survival, full of noisy, half-demolished songs that are also fundamentally basic and pretty. Thresher, guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Nathan Delffs, bassist/multi-instrumentalist Natalie Stormann, producer/keyboardist Adam Spittler and recently-added drummer Robert Pounding tease this exact tension out of their writing process, which I inquired about while sitting with the band at a bakery in the East Village on the windy, translucent Saturday before their CMJ performance.

“I like to quote Nate on this one,” says Thresher, focusing on Delffs. “You’ve said things to the effect of, ‘Learn a song, take it in and just follow it to its logical conclusion.’”

“I said it really well once,” says Delffs, laughing.

“It’s always hard to just say something and have the essence of it in that right way,” says Thresher, his eyes perceiving a sudden distance, pulling ideas from the air.

Delffs works his gaze vertically for the right elaboration. “That’s what we spent the last two years doing with [Staring],” he says. “Boiling it down. We had ten other songs we didn’t get to that concise feeling of being simple with a complex sentiment.”

Forest Fire’s songs do begin simply, in a calm, spare realm — ”Born Into”’s initial seconds are Thresher’s thin drawl, which mostly articulates the space beneath notes, and distant, fluttering guitar work, weak light playing on a surface. Its more pronounced form invites dizzying feedback and a looping circle of overprocessed tones from an undisclosed instrument with what seems a gnarled core. The final song is heavy and ghostly.

“The song itself we want to be pretty easy to hear the first time, hopefully,” says Delffs. “I want a really crazy song that you just get.”

The songs on Staring at the X often atrophy and reassemble newly, from disused parts in the area. “The News,” the most straightforward, pastoral pop here, is completely incinerated at the end, by saxophonish mutations in the guitar. Out of that arrives the minimal disco of “They Pray Execution Style,” led vocally, remotely, by Stormann. She lists paranoid suburban imperatives (“Don’t paint the fence / Don’t mow the lawn / Don’t go to the doctor / Don’t smile for the neighbors”) as her bass works elastically around a fixed, programmatic pulsing. Beyond them, oppressive, aerial noise. It is altogether funky, thrumming and vaporous.

For all the diverse texture on Staring, even the most radical sound is policed into a form. On two songs, “The News” and “Mtns are Mtns,” a saxophone travels a tremendous distance, from another, more fractured record, calling attention to itself, grafting strangely to the song at hand. It nurtures a dislocated feeling, this huge sound cleaving from an even space, in which one feels transplanted, placed somewhere definitively and violently, while a feeling of absence prevails; this keeps with the music, which seems communicated from elsewhere while remaining insistently present.

Imagine building a dense, layered structure out of Legos. Then imagine disassembling it, piece-by-piece, slowly accumulating distance from the final articulation. Then imagine taking a hammer to it, smashing the structure into the raw assembly — the intense engagement with the work and its destruction, cells gliding through the fists. Then, the rapid, telescopic detachment from both, as the blood settles.

Forest Fire builds this feeling progressively, incrementally. “Mark’s the songwriter, and I play a lot of embellishment and develop those songs with him,” Delffs says. “Adam [Spittler] spent a lot of time, on these two records, processing and doing post-production and making the songs pop. We also started working with Natalie [Stormann] toward the end of [Survival]. She brings a whole new element and musicianship and pace.”

The band unfurls these songs into a sum of distractions, over which Thresher relates oblique scenes, curious metaphors, recombinant phrases (from the title track, “You’re waving out at the madness, child / You embody sorcery”). “If I have any strength as a lyricist it’s impressionistic metaphor stuff,” says Thresher. “I’m not very good at storytelling. I’ve tried but it doesn’t work for me.” In the title track, the subjects perceive a vision of the future that is crossed out. Below them are exchanges between cello and guitar that most recall the withering, Western doom in recent Earth records. In sound and lyrical scope it depicts the imaginatively displaced.

Some of the band is more physically displaced from Portland, specifically Dellfs and Pounding. Pounding actually moved from Portland to New York in order to drum for the band. “Which I’m very proud of,” says Thresher, laughing. Forest Fire will regardless be pinned as a Brooklyn indie rock band, less out of accuracy than categorical necessity. At the CMJ performance, they sort of fit among the unfit. “It’s like being on tour,” says Thresher of the CMJ experience. “Except we get to sleep in our own beds at night. The downside is you often wind up playing shit venues you normally wouldn’t even consider walking into, with buzz bands who you have nothing in common with.” As hard as it is to achieve any kind of singular identity in the actual scene, there’s a tense yet comforting history in the being a “Brooklyn” or “New York band.” “I think we all consider ourselves a New York band,” says Stormann. She examines the linkwork of her fingers. “We wouldn’t situate ourselves anywhere else. New York just has a feeling. It has legend. It has all these things you want to live up to. It has a kind of anxiety about it that I think feeds into our music and the process of making a record.”

“If we had our way, which we probably never will, we would just be a New York band, not a post-2000… whatever,” says Thresher, addressing a development in the sky. “We’re not trying to be silly, though. I don’t want people to think that we’re trying to stand on the shoulders of giants. It’s inspiring to feel as a musician or a writer or filmmaker, in New York, that you’re among these mythological creations that are so important.”

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image – Guardian