All photos Mark Zimin
Interview Shauna Alexander
EmptyMansions, with familiar frontman Sam Fogarino (drummer of Interpol) swung by DC9 last week to promote and play their first record snakes/vultures/sulfate (out now!). Enlisting the help of some friends (Duane Denison of The Jesus Lizard & Tomahawk; Brandon Curtis of Secret Machines, and, Chris Colley of School of Seven Bells), EmptyMansions is hardly a reincarnation of broody, melodies of the past. Fogarino, as frontman and main composer, is the the heart and soul of the band and his dark, rhythmic upbringing in Interpol is fully apparent. But there’s plenty else to be intrigued by as each song, both on the record and live stride toward the familiar while maintaing it’s own distinct voice. Lucky for me, Sam was kind enough to talk to me post-show about the root of EmptyMansions, his experiences with music (and bad relationships), a love for the book House of Leaves(!!) and thankfully, confirmed a fifth album for Interpol that’s in the works.
So the sound of this record, to me, is like if Lou Reed was recording the score for a David Lynch film. I mean that as a high compliment.
Oh, thank you! When I was writing a lot early on, I conferred with an old bandmate and we just talked at length about attitude verses tonality. You know being a member of Interpol, I learned to over think everything.
Yeah, you guys are a bunch of perfectionists. It shows.
Yeah and there’s a time to step out of that, to just let it go.
To be a little more sloppy and at peace with what’s being created in the moment, you mean?
And sometimes you need somebody to say what you already know. You need someone outside of your head to confirm, or debunk what’s festering inside. You know, not your voice saying it. So he just said to me, “think of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop and all these musicians who have a conveyance.” It’s about a conveyance… and so the flood gates just opened.
I love it! And, I mean it’s nice to know I was spot on with the reference. Even the obscure Lou Reed stuff, like Berlin, it has a home in the sounds of snakes/vultures/sulfate. It’s even better, as a fan, to have someone take a record or an artist they love and just… run with it, spin it on it’s head.
When I had a direction and it wasn’t just a mish-mash of half-baked ideas and sounds, I wasn’t afraid to go this is where this is coming from. These are the touchstones. These are the points of reference and this is how they fit together. You know, it was cathartic to find a stream for my affinity for Led Zeppelin and Sonic Youth, the Pixies, Bowie… all of that. And just let it naturally flow rather than surpress it, but rather to foster some originality. You know Frank Black said…
[Sam says in a smooth voice] Yes, Frank Black… [Laughs] I’m going to paraphrase… At the onset of a rock band, you are highly unoriginal. You’re just bass and drums.
Of course, because all you ever want to do is copy everything you love.
Yeah and if you kid yourself that you’re not going to, you’re going to be miserable.
But maybe put your own take on what you love…?
Well it’s kind of hard not to… I think in the sense that I am not a learned musician I can’t just go emulate something. As much as I just want to sometimes, I can’t.
Well even your take on “Down By The Water” by Neil Young is muddier, darker and even more sinister than the original version. How can you duplicate the sincerity of the original recording? You can’t.
Yeah, you know I have backed out of doing that song, four times now. So I was like, why would I try to emulate the brilliance? That’s just… you can’t carbon copy that. I was talking to Brandon [Curtis] about it and we were finished with recording, and he told me to just go do it. So I did, on the spot, on the fly created this very unique arrangement and take on it. If you listen to the original, it sounds a bit uplifting but it’s deceptive. It’s about a distraught man, riddled with insecurities who eventually kills his girlfriend. But there’s an interesting empathy he has… and going into the head of the killer, the longing for this woman, “when you could be taking me for a ride” — that just gets me.
Absolutely. I mean, it’s the dynamic of a terrible relationship which we’ve all experienced. You almost change yourself. You’re stuck realizing what you’ve turned yourself into in order to keep this something…
Exactly. Pain and loss. It just speaks volumes.
Alright, alright. Enough of that. I’m sorry for jumping in so deep right off the bat! Tell me what inspired the band and the name EmptyMansions.
I remember almost writing the first song in about… 2008, maybe early 2009. The name is actually inspired by the book House of Leaves.
Whoa, that is literally my favorite book. I had this sneaking suspicion, but I never want to assume what a musician is writing about…
Well the song “Lead to Measure” is derived entirely from the book. When Navidson measures the house on the outside and the inside and the measurements don’t add up? I got chills. It freaked me out more than anything could. Them being all “how could the house be bigger on the inside than it is on the outside,” I just… It struck me. Hard. I mean, this is the kind of book you have to go through and wait. Internalize ten pages. Reread them and go forth.
You are preaching to the converted on that one. It’s that one book I always recommend. And I’ve read so many interviews and pieces about the author [Mark Z. Danielewski] where he purposefully just leaves parts incredibly vague. And, I’ll be honest, that’s what I loved so much about Interpol. You could derive your own meanings from the clues left behind.
Again, it’s like putting your own take on things. Still within that journey, you still hope you or whoever can find meaning to apply the book or the words or the lyrics, music, to your own life. I mean, you don’t have to have read House of Leaves to put your own thoughts to the page about this album or the song.
Back to the original question! So how did the project start and where do you want it to go?
Well as I was saying, the project sort of fell flat on its face a few years ago and when Interpol started touring for the last record, something just clicked. I was bringing a guitar with me, or tracking a bunch of stuff at home or on the road and it felt right. I played the stuff for Brandon and he was totally in to be a part of it, to help produce. So I went forward blindly and kept collecting ideas and turning them into songs. So that leads us to here and the great thing is, when something kind of works out to a degree, you’ve got to breathe, take a sigh and then see what presents itself next. The moniker is established and now this is a vehicle for these thoughts and inspirations. This is definitely not some sort of vanity one-off.
Well you’ve had previous side project(s) and none of those seemed like vanity projects, but this… this seems like there’s some seriousness to it.
Yeah, I mean I would write music that someone else would sing. Which is not to say, a bad thing, but this is different.
I mean, this is the first time I’ve seen you at a microphone.
[Laughs] That’s because this is the first time I’ve been at one. It was just kind of like.. what’s wrong? Why am I not.. I mean, I was getting my rocks off playing music that way, but there was something missing. I just needed to put myself out there, to own the music I was writing and be the voice of it. And that was that. Now that its been brought to this point, there’s just no turning back. Simply put: simple confidence was built. When you know that you can just sing your own songs, there’s a lot more backbone, a lot more me in them. You’re no longer looking for collaborators or additional components.
Tell me what inspired the name snakes/vultures/sulfate. It’s pretty sinister….
If I took all the key elements that tangled and intertwined around the songs, these would be three touchstones. And I had a drug problem, so that’s where the sulfate came in.
What was the recording process like for you? I’m assuming things with Interpol are slightly more democratic, as opposed to being on your own two feet.
Yeah, it’s a struggle but it’s a democratic one. At the end of the day, with Interpol, everybody has to like the big picture and their own component. You have to have ownership of what you’re conveying within the song. Even the simplest drum beat… it’s tough. Coming out on the other side of that, it felt really good to have autonomy. It was great to have Brandon to help me rein in myself when needed.
Yeah, I’m sure he was like, “Sam… maybe a little less soloing on this one… I mean, I know you’re excited to play guitar…”
More like, “Sam.. maybe you should learn how to play it a little more before you get all crazy” or “Maybe call Duane Denison…” [laughs] It was cool to be on my own but I worked a lot with [Brandon] throughout the whole process. I’d record down at my place in Athens, GA and send it up to him for fresh ears. It was done over the course of a year, with a few ten-day joint ventures. Then Brandon took it all back to Vermont and mixed it. He’s got a really sharp ear. He understood what I was doing and became very invested in it. It felt like I could go off in many different directions but he was a safety vine so it was never over the top. He wasn’t going to write stuff for me, but he definitely offered constructive criticism.
When people listen to EmptyMansions, what would you like them to hear?
It’s a tough question because I’m conflicted.. I would want them to hear what they want. I mean, I would hope… I would never ask, but I would hope, that they hear that it’s conveyed in honesty. That it’s real.
I don’t think you can get much better than that.
Yeah, I mean, it’s not precious. It’s real.
What was the most difficult part of recording the album for you?
Probably the drums! [Laughs]
Well you are known as a drummer!
Yeah, I mean it was one of those things where it should have been a “gimme” or even at times, a gimmick. Probably at times I was over-thinking or under-thinking… or just tired.
Obviously it feels different to be out front now. You’re now responsible for the entirety of the band — the voice, the perception, the attitude, how does that differ from previous experiences? I mean, I don’t want to discredit the hard work you put into Interpol or make it sound pedestrian, but you used to be the guy who kept pace. You were the backbone for a long time and now you’re the face.
It’s not pedestrian at all. You know, it’s almost… well I feel more like the neck, right now. I mean, you sever the neck and it dies. In a way it’s almost easier than having to be dead.fucking.on as Interpol’s drummer. There’s no room for looseness… there’s a lot more stress with Interpol. With EmptyMansions, there’s just more freedom. It’s my thing and if I want to change a line, I will. When you’re responsible there’s a certain level of comfort.
That’s sort of opposite of the notion, “heavy is the head that wears the crown” though.
Yeah, I mean I actually feel lighter. I ultimately trust myself and my tastes. I know what I want to do. I’m not confused or conflicted, I have a very straightforward opinion on what I’m creating and playing. I mean, I’ve made a lot of mistakes…
And thankfully you had a few people around to take the blame off of that…
Or not! I mean, sometimes that happens.
Whatever! I love that third [Interpol] record! Fuck people who don’t think it’s good! I love that record.
That third fucking record…. You know every band has that moment where the backlash finally just hits. The Pixies! The Pixies, that Bossanova record, everyone hated it when it came out. “Oh my god, it’s so overrated….” And now you won’t ever hear a bad word uttered about it ever. And when you get to a certain level, well, it was their time to nitpick. Their time to find a little hole, stick their finger into it and exploit it. You know what, it’s funny because… the whole irony of it all is, our global fan-base increased exponentially with Our Love To Admire. It took us to a place where if music wasn’t a career before then, it certainly was thereafter. When you’re the darlings of the critics, you’re broke! And it was two records in a row, everything was going right and everyone was just waiting for a moment to just chomp down and let us have it.
But what I have to say is the entire band, internally, was very impressive with how they handled it. We all stick and stuck by the album. We were off the cool list, but man… what a relief. Now we’ll go play for people who really like it, rather than cross their arms and stare.
Nice. I couldn’t agree more with the shared sentiment. Tell me about your band, you’ve got a cast of characters that most would envy. A group of incredibly talented misfits.
Well, Chris Colley (drums), I met him when Interpol toured with School of Seven Bells and I just fell in love with his drum playing. That was on the recent tour for Interpol’s fourth album. So I’ve always kept him in the back of my head because I knew I was going to need a drummer and he just fits the bill. Tim (guitarist) is a friend and kind of a mercenary in the Georgia music scene. He has his fingers in a lot of different projects and his fiancee was my little girl’s nanny for a long time. We never really crossed paths the proper way, but I knew he was a good musician. So I just met up with him one night, told him Duane was on board to play, but I wanted to have another proper guitar player. I mean, I could have practiced my ass off to have it honed in, but I just want freedom when I’m up there so the mood can evolve naturally. So Tim volunteered, and I gave him the record to make sure he’d like it first and he did. So it was… oddly a great fit. I mean, he’s playing aside Duane Denison, who is a genius. I mean, The Jesus Lizard, Tomahawk, Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, Silver Jews…. I mean, his resume is ridiculous. It’s sick!
It seems like you’ve cultivated this band of musicians who are extremely accomplished and ridiculously talented, who aren’t figure heads in their own right, which is great. It’s like the product is bigger than the parts or the idea of it then. Perfect for a side project. Er, sorry, I didn’t mean to debase it by calling it a side project. Your other project.
As my little girl would say, it’s my ” ‘nother band. ”
While we’re talking about her, what it’s like being a Dad on tour?
Well it changes as she gets older. When she was still under a year old, Mom was her focal point. We have conversations now and when I go out on tour and come home, she’ll just look at me and say “Daddy, are you back?”
Aww! That is heartbreaking!
But she likes what I do though. She’s seen Interpol play at Radio City and got to dance around the aisles during soundcheck. All of this cool stuff and she’s very well aware of it. We’ll see if she remembers it. But yeah, I mean, there are long stretches of time where I just think of her face and all these sweet things and it sucks. But on the flip side, when this is done and Interpol puts out another record and we do that tour, and I come home, well it all makes up for it. I mean it’s not worse than being a working Father who sees their kid for an hour in the morning and two hours, maybe, a night. Nothing’s easy, you know? And it just proves the fact that, if you get what you want it’s not going to be easy. Ever.
And it shouldn’t be easy!
Yeah, I mean you’ve got to sweat for it. If we were constantly in a state of euphoria, euphoria wouldn’t exist.
We kind of touched base on this earlier, but has the lack of Interpol inspired EmptyMansions?
Now that I think of it, it was later than 2009… maybe 2010? But no, I was writing while I was on the road with Interpol. It was a needed outlet. I mean, going out on the road with Interpol means over a year and it has this cycle… it has it’s apex, and at its top it’s awesome, but then it plateaus and slowly goes back downward. So I just need to do something else to get my creative rocks off.
It’s been ten years since Turn On The Bright Lights, what do you think you’ve accomplished and learned as a result?
There was so much that was learned along the way. I’m thrilled that at this day and age it actually made it’s mark. People see it as a permanent fixture in their collections, and it’s a priceless thing — it’s hard to articulate just how that feels. I think of those bands who’s first albums struck me, the bands that had these crazy first albums that just spoke to me like Led Zeppelin or The Cars, there’s just something special about that. You’re really capturing a moment. A zeitgeist even. A spirit.
It just seems that with EmptyMansions you seem stronger about being on your two feet. It’s very apparent you took what you learned in Interpol and applied it to a new setting.
Absolutely. I’ve always approached music from behind a drum kit. It’s always been from a musicians standpoint. Playing drums was never about “Where’s my eight bars?” No matter how minimal, or restrained it might have been, it was never about me being a drummer. I once said, if Interpol needed a harmonica player I would have done it because I liked the music. And being in a band that knows how to write a song, compose a song… of course, you take it with you. It made all these lateral moves a whole lot easier. A lot of it comes with the music, but it also comes with age too. I have no chip on my shoulder. The songs might exorcise some insecurities or turmoil, but that’s the songs… it’s not me. It’s this weird contradiction about how rock and roll is the younger man’s game, but I’m almost forty-five and I have so much more to say now. It’s completely cathartic and I get more out of it now too, because I have no expectations as well.
So you covered Low and Neil Young tonight, what inspired those covers?
You know, that Neil Young song… I remember when I was five, my Mother used to blare to that song and sing the chorus at the top of her lungs. She’d pick me up and dance around the room. At five I didn’t understand what was going on, but I knew she was moved by something. So I’ve always had a soft spot, a sentimental note for it. Then all of a sudden I heard it with mature ears and it was like “fuck! That’s a–Oh my God!” and I remember just strumming the chords for her one day, and she had the same reaction. And I knew I had to do it. One day.
As for the Low song, that whole record… that’s another great first record. And at this point in my life I have a new identification with the song. I mean, I hadn’t listened to the song in years but I went and got the vinyl that was reissued and I put that song on and I was waiting for it to not have the same impact it did twenty years ago. I didn’t want to feel like, I could only feel that way when I was twenty-five. And, I told my wife, I was like like… “I just put this song on again, haven’t heard it in years and I became frozen in time. I weighed like a thousand pounds. I need to cover this.” What the hell, right? And I thought it wouldn’t be an obvious cover. I had no concrete translation of the song. It was like, “here’s the song, we’re going to rehearse in two weeks. Internalize it.” Chris had never listened to it and it was perfect because we could interpret it however we wanted.
Any parting words?
Thank you. Really. And thank you for coming tonight and for listening to the record.
It should be noted that Sam later went on to double-confirm Interpol’s fifth album (which was hinted at in our interview above). As for the case of the absent bassist, well, looks like Paul is taking on that role for now. So Interpol fans, get ready! There’s already been a few sessions up in New York with the band working hard to iron out their future sound. In the meantime, check out EmptyMansions!