Today, we are speaking with Five Fingertips. We were lucky enough to review their self-titled album last week and had a moment to sit down.
Five Fingertips is your new album. Can you provide us with a brief insight into your process? What were the steps taken between the first thoughts about a tune or melody to the creation of a full track?
First, thanks for the interview. I really appreciate this opportunity with NeuFutur. It’s the most coverage I’ve received to date, so it’s meaningful on several levels. I was really happy when the people at my record label told me about it. In terms of songwriting, almost everything begins for me as a chord progression or riff written on an acoustic guitar. The new album release may not sound like it, but it all holds its own in an acoustic, unplugged setting. I don’t really strum the acoustic guitar in the traditional manner. I use it much more percussively. No need for drums. As a method, I just practice my guitar and improvise. Sometimes daily. Sometimes much less often. Months can go by.
And, when it feels like I’ve found something worth remembering, I’ll record it raw to my phone. I don’t want to waste time setting up microphones. And the best way to kill inspiration is to set up microphones in advance. Usually what I record is just a series of chords. A rhythm. Sometimes there’s also a vocal line. If so, the lyrics are usually just guttural, onomatopoeic sounds, or humming. That was the case with “The Lines,” until the very late stages of recording, when the lyrics were nailed down. Sometimes portions of a lyric will come out whole cloth. That was the case with the very first two lines of “Nod.” Later I’ll build the remaining song around those initial word snatches, if they’re interesting enough. I just amass song ideas. This new album is my first official release, true. But I have a back catalog of five unreleased albums worth of recorded material.
I basically taught myself the songwriting and recording process during all those unreleased records. I take a slow, methodical, yeoman approach to everything I do. Not just music. Some of that earlier material is better than the stuff on this new album, I think, in terms of songwriting, but not recording technique. It will all be re-recorded eventually. But, again, I just amass ideas, progressions, “thumbnail sketches.” When I’m ready to record more formally, I’ll listen back through all the sketches and choose the ones that interest me. I try to have two basic movements in place – a clear verse and a clear chorus. I’ll then try and capture them. But just as I’m about to hit the red record button, I’ll force myself to make up new sections on the spot, like an introduction or bridge. It’s a forced creativity, to keep it fresh. The middle section of “Nod,” for instance, was written like that, on the fly, just seconds before it was recorded. Same for the chorus to “The Poster Children.”
I’ll start recording with either an electric or acoustic guitar, played to a drum machine. From there, I’ll start layering: bass, keyboards, live drums. Bass is very tricky for me, because I love that instrument. I tend to play it almost like a lead guitar. The problem is, if you do that too much, there is no space for the vocals. So I have to restrain myself. For this record, all the initial instruments were recorded over a three-month period in early 2012, at my project studio in Athens, Georgia. It’s called La Otra Mitad del Mundo.
Next I made a rough mix of the songs. I listened to them in my car, singing along, off and on, over a long period of time. While traveling. While stuck in traffic. While running errands. For this album, that period turned out to be two years. I recorded the vocals in the summer of 2014, and then handed things over to John Keane and his studio that same fall. We replaced many things, but not everything. The more we worked, though, the more things mutated. Sometimes for the better. Sometimes it was just different, not necessarily better or worse. That’s my method in a large nutshell. It’s the one I’ve followed for years. This is simply the first time I’ve handed things over to professionals of the likes and stature of John Keane in Athens, and then Greg Calbi in New York.
A brief look into your social media profile yields a number of axioms and philosophical aphorisms. What role do these saying have on your outlook as a performer?
Truth be told, I’m completely new to social media. I don’t have a personal Facebook or Twitter profile, and likely never will. I’m a rather private person. Not that I have anything to hide. I think we as a society have less to worry about from the NSA. We have more to worry about with what we ourselves choose to share publicly, as norms of social behavior. We invade our own privacy daily. The music, this interview: they are all part of the job description of “musician.” And I enjoy them. But this age of social media, it’s all foreign to me, even though I see the utility of it, for a band. I’ve had accounts reserved for Five Fingertips for several years now. I just never used them. I knew this album was nearing completion late 2014.
I figured, well, I’d better get some “content” together. I knew I wasn’t going tell the world about my breakfast, or what a tribulation my daily shave is, or what I purchased recently at the store, you know, consumerism à go-go. Then it dawned on me to offer quotations from books that I’ve read, was reading, or that I found quoted by others. I later learned this wasn’t a particularly novel idea! There’s a regular cottage industry out there for it. Still, it was an opening for me personally. Before that, I was completely stumped as to how I was going to use these new tools. I mean, there are enough pet and cat videos out there already. With the character limit on Twitter, getting good quotations together isn’t easy.
Trying to keep it fresh and not too serious is another challenge. I’ll throw in some things from Harpo Marx, to lighten things up a little, because sometimes it feels pretentious. I mean, you would never imagine an academic philosopher singing a song a day strumming his acoustic guitar to a video on Twitter. So why should a musician quote philosophers and the like on a regular basis? I don’t know. It just feels right, for me, for now, at least. There are enough people out there saying: “Listen to my new song!” Or “Watch my new video!” These are all things I will do (or have done). I’m not judging. Everyone wants to be heard.
I’m just trying to throw something else into my mix, to interest me. I did it all for several months, prior to being “liked,” “followed,” or “following” anyone. Truth be told, I enjoyed it much more back then! I didn’t have to worry about irritating people, people who may like the music of Five Fingertips, but don’t necessarily want cheap philosophical spam in their “News Feed” on a daily basis. The quotations are just another side of what I do, I guess. Another side of who I am, beyond music. I find that writing lyrics is easiest when I’m supersaturating myself with books. A good lyric often rings like a good aphorism, and vice-versa.
As we discussed, language is powerful. Music has a similar transformative ability. What does your mélange of the two say?
That’s a great question. I’ve always wanted someone to ask me something like that! I promise not to be brief! My take on language is that it is slippery at best. Language is a smudged window looking out onto a world, a world that is always greater than our powers of description, our vocabulary. We try to understand and explain our world through language. But so much of life is ineffable, inexpressible. As scientifically and technologically advanced as we are as a society, there is no answer to the basic question of “Why?” “Why are we all here, exactly?”
That’s why, to me, music is such a powerful medium, especially more non-vocal genres like jazz, classical or orchestral music, which I listen to most often. Music is just arranged bits of sound. And when there is no vocal line, there are no words to “explain it all,” in the sense of saying: “This song is about love,” or “This song is about getting on the dance floor and arching your booty to a great degree.” What does raw sound “mean” exactly? It is sufficient unto itself. Since I write “pop music,” where vocals and lyrics are pretty much obligatory – I scarcely qualify as a jazz or classical musician – I try to make the language element work for me. I’m not a “protest songwriter” in the traditional 1960s sense. For instance, I would never say: “This song is about preserving the rainforests, or avoiding the evils of Styrofoam,” as noble as those causes may be.
That type of “topical songwriting” is very important. Don’t get me wrong. For example, I love The Clash. I love Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five. “The Message” still gives me chills. It’s so powerful. I love Rage Against the Machine. Public Enemy. They all address real-life problems and situations head-on. I do, too, but not the same ones, not in the same way, and not to the same degree, or from the same bias. It’s also important to remember that, in the end, a good song doesn’t have to be about anything at all. It can be about absolutely nothing, or nothing important. That said, my tolerance for trite, unimaginative love and dance songs is rather low. I don’t care how catchy the song is. If I end up with some asinine lyric stuck in my head, I will make a point to avoid it like the plague in the future.
We are impacted by everything in our environment. Quality control is key. But quality is relative to the tastes of the individual. As for my songs, whatever their qualities may be, I’ve always believed that an interpretation of my lyrics reveals more about the listener than about me the songwriter. The only remotely autobiographical songs on this new album are “Plainsong” and to a much lesser degree “The Swerve.” I try to push things to a point where language and meaning break down and then apart. At that point, the vocals become just another instrument in the mix, which I prefer, like Mick Jagger on Exile on Main Street. I don’t like lyric sheets for my music, and will probably never print one. Once things are printed, they take on a definitive form. All the secondary meanings, puns, and shadings are lost. I try hard to make those secondary connections work. Take the song “Nod,” for instance. In the second verse, there is the line “Roman candle opera.” But I also wanted to say “Roman candelabra.” I couldn’t decide. I liked both equally. So I tried to slur the lyrics so that even I can’t tell what I actually sang. It just depends on how close you are to the speaker, and your mood that day. There are many instances of that across this record. Take the song “The Lines,” where the chorus runs at first blush like this: “Paint by the numbers, but outside the lines.” Things get stretched and broken apart as syllables get chopped and clipped. “Paint” becomes “pain.” “By the” becomes “buy the.” “Numbers” becomes “numb,” as in “to be numb with pain.” The last syllable becomes throw-away nonsense, or “burrs.”
Usually, if a lyric can’t be taken at least two ways, I get bored. I always aim for the third and fourth level. Whether I get there is another story. Still, it’s important not to let the lyrics be all absurdities or word games. That’s a danger unto itself. The point is to have lyrics gesture in a general direction, but, then upon closer inspection, have all the meanings dissolve, yet still be about something, somehow. There is actually a “belief system” behind all this, which is why I was so happy with your question. It is that language can only get you so far in life. There is a truth beyond language, a place where words cannot reach, or they become utterly useless. This is not a particularly world-shaking observation on my part. There are traditions of this idea found in many schools of thought: East, West, North, South. It’s just seldom addressed in “popular music.” One day I’ll sell out, and write a song called: “I Love You, Darling.”
The music on Five Fingertips is distinctly your own, but hints of pop-rock, grunge, alt-rock, and other genres can be gleaned. What acts and performers were the biggest influences on the overall sound of your latest?
I greatly appreciate that. I’d like to think there is something original up in there. I have my doubts! Too often, I can almost name to a note or syllable where I stole or channeled a hero or heroine of mine. For instance, on “The Nave,” the way I sing the word “it” in certain instances only comes about from listening way too many times to “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” or Blonde on Blonde in general. Brief portions of the melody on “Astray” derive from “Dear Prudence.” So on and so forth. I hear these things. Yes, I would say that this album is the most grunge-influenced thing I’ve done. It’s curious, though, reading the NeuFutur review of the album, as well as some of the other reviews that have appeared elsewhere, comparisons are made to artists I’ve seldom if ever listened to. This is just an observation. Nothing more. It doesn’t make the comparisons invalid, either. Not at all. For example, I never listened much to Eddie Vedder or Pearl Jam. I do respect them, though. I like the song “Daughter,” both the melody and the message. Same thing goes for the others, for Jane’s Addiction, although truth be told I like them less.
When grunge was big, I was listening to other things. Then when it passed, I started listening back selectively. I don’t know what to attribute the alt-rock affinity to, since I didn’t really listen to most of those bands or that genre. I guess it’s just the basic sound of guitar-oriented rock. And, since the 1990s era was perhaps the last time that sound was truly in vogue, maybe that’s why my music sounds like those genres to someone. Or it could demonstrate how much I’ve listened to the Melvins, I don’t know. The Melvins were, in a sense, the wise founding-fathers of that Seattle sound. They have a “metal” side that I don’t, though. Some of their early records are off-kilter genius. You can hear their influence crop up in the distorted guitars of the second chorus of my “Time Is Tasteless.” King Buzzo has such a great approach to lyrics, too. Just guttural sounds, at times, nothing more. That profoundly influenced me. You think you know what he is saying. Your mind fills in the “meaning.” Then you read the lyric sheet! Off base! “Hooch” is the best example. Can I just add that “It’s Shoved” off their Bullhead album is 2 minutes and 36 seconds of sonic perfection.
These days everything mainstream is very dance and synth-oriented, or so it seems to me, which is fine. I like some dance music. But, if anyone has ever suffered through recording acoustic instruments, they understand why most people prefer to just skip it, and reach for the synthesizers and drum machines. And that’s on top of actually learning to play the instruments! Acoustic instruments are very difficult to both play and record well. As far as influences go, my biggest one will always be Sly and the Family Stone. That’s not obvious on this record, which is the least syncopated, least soulful thing I’ve done. They were such a unique band. They crossed gender and racial lines. They crossed musical genres. I’ve listened to their entire catalog so many times. It’s ridiculous. Sly influenced Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, and many other musicians of consequence. The song “Poet” is brilliant. Sly is a poet, a bard. P.J. Harvey’s Rid of Me album is also a huge influence. It’s a brash, subtle, timeless record. “Rub ‘til It Bleeds” always leaves me slack-jawed.
As far as my own recent listening goes, I’ve been trying to branch out lately, to listen to things I’ve never listened to before, or at least not to any great degree. Right now, I’ve been listening to – don’t laugh – the Beach Boys from their first record up through Pet Sounds: surf, sun, cars, women, in that order. I’ve also been listening to Sonic Youth. I had tried certain albums before — Sister, namely — but never investigated them thoroughly. So, as I often do, I’ll buy (not pirate!) a large portion of a group’s discography and listen to it chronologically. I just like to hear how bands evolve over their careers. With Sonic Youth, the Washing Machine album speaks to me most at the moment.
I like Kim Gordon’s approach to women’s issues and feminism. I like how, what is basically the ultimate garage band, is so smart and clever as to incorporate elements from Steve Reich and other modern composers, and make it all work somehow. I’ve also been listening to The Clash a lot. I had done so before, but mainly London Calling. Now I’ve been listening to their first six records. Sandinista! took some adjustment, of course. But there’s some brilliant stuff there – “Rebel Waltz” and “Corner Soul” – among all the inspired, trippy filler. If you are in the mood, it’s great. If you’re not, it’s hell. That album shows how much bigger they were than punk itself. I’d like to think that Prince, who is another artist who can really stretch, listened to that album a few times before penning his own song entitled “Let’s Go Crazy.” Prince would appreciate a group such as The Clash, I think. They took so many risks musically, and he himself has done the same thing in his career. Joe Strummer and Mick Jones should be listed on a par with Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards. “Last Gang in Town” is potent. Also, I should really point out that I listen most often to music that comes out of the “conservatory tradition.” I say “conservatory” because if you say “classical,” you are really talking about a specific historical period, before “Romanticism” and after “Baroque.” That conservatory music is best for reading to, since there generally isn’t a human voice there to distract your concentration.
Giovanni Battista Sammartini is excellent for learning how to splice together a pop song in a succinct fashion. He was back before things got all longwinded, with the late Classical and Romantic composers, although I like some of them, too. Someone I recently discovered is William Lawes from the 1600s. The ensemble Fretwork has a really nice set of recordings of his work out. Very soothing and arresting music, for me anyway. The early lute composers from the Italian peninsula are also very interesting, especially Alessandro Piccinini. I have scads of recordings made by Jordi Savall, who is alive and well in our day. His work has really helped to revive, for me and probably many others, an interest in “early music” or “period music,” long-forgotten composers and instruments.
Honestly, I don’t listen much to contemporary pop music. Most of it doesn’t interest me. Plus, if I listened to it too much, I’d start chasing the sound or flavor of the moment. I’m more interested in listening to things that speak across decades and centuries. Whether I ever create anything that stands up on its own hind legs for even 15 minutes, that’s another story altogether. I’m a fan of music in general, not just one genre or time period.
How can interested NeuFutur readers locate samples of your music?
What are your plans as Five Fingertips for the final quarter of the year?
I am working on a music video for the song “Nod.” If everything stays on schedule, my label will release it in the next month here on NeuFutur, alongside a sweepstakes giveaway with Campus Circle magazine. It will be interesting. This great opportunity with NeuFutur gave me the incentive to push ahead with the long-held idea of a video. I thank you for taking interest. I like giving visualization to music.
I have an extensive film collection, which I basically used to learn the French language, really. But somewhere along the way I also absorbed countless hours of great filmmaking. So hopefully the end result of the Five Fingertips video won’t be too shabby. If it is, I’ll blame it all on the French New Wave, especially Jean-Luc Godard, who was always too pretentious for my tastes – imagine! – although I like some of his stuff, in limited doses. I enjoyed Alphaville. But give me Claude Chabrol any day. He had more range.
Finally, do you have any additional thoughts about life and the universe for our readers?
I have many thoughts about life and the universe, most of which I can’t articulate! I summed them up as best as I could in the part about language.
Thank you so much for your time.
No, thank you! I can’t tell you how happy I was when my record label told me about this opportunity with NeuFutur. You guys are great.