Making 14 albums in 18 years, Seth Faergolzia – the polymathic musician artist and occasional fashion designer described as “freak/genius” – has clocked up an almost Fall-worthy discography and cast of former band members.
For all the number crunching though, that’s where the similarities between Faergolzia and Smith-uh end. Playing shows under the name Dufus from 1997 until 2010, Faergolzia became known for an unusual, bold and rather utopian approach to band formation, simply recruiting a new rag-tag bunch of willing musicians throughout each tour.
As we chat in the Brixton Windmill’s backstage shed (or Reggae Shack, depending on who you’re asking), you can see how this seemingly implausible approach worked. Measured, sweet, and smart, Faergolzia is a natural teacher; a sort of good-vibes, in-it-for-the-love chap who you know would welcome a novice tamborinist as much as a classically trained cello virtuoso. “I was raised by two teachers, maybe it’s in my blood,” says Faergolzia. “I want to help people feel welcome. I always felt like they were doing me a favour though, they were helping me make my musical dream come true.”
Nick White, an illustrator who plays in the band Owen and the Eyeballs, found himself playing in Dufus briefly about ten years ago. “We met Seth in Essex and it was this really amazing experience,” says White. “I didn’t know what I was doing, I was sat in a toilet playing a miced up melodica. It was a really interesting experience as he was saying “just go for it” – like a conductor almost. There’s an anger to the music but there’s a positivity too. It’s this huge conglomeration of different sounds.”
Faergolzia’a openness and penchant for sets and albums that vacillate wildly between different songwriting styles has garnered something of a cult following, and seen him play with the likes of Jeffrey Lewis, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Animal Collective, Regina Spektor, and The Moldy Peaches. Yet for all his successes, Faergolzia seems to have operated under an almost stubborn refusal to try and be “cool.”
“He’s never wanted to bend to what people would like to hear and what would catch on – he wanted to make it as art,” Seth Faergolzia’s Multibird band members tell me. “Seth just has a vision about the things that he wants to do and how to get there. He’s never faltered from that. Tweaking things or trying to become more mainstream isn’t want it’s all about, he’s not interested in that. It’s just about his way of expressing himself, he doesn’t need to tailor himself just to please the masses.”
We spoke to Seth about making a rock opera, fatherhood, and learning the beauty in simplicity.
There was a time when you set up a different band in every town you played in. That can’t have been easy.
Yeah that was pretty weird I guess, but it was fun. I did that just to meet people locally, it worked ok. I think there’s probably a better way to do it that’s more advanced, like sending a specific recording or audio tracks or something. To wing it like I did, it worked well maybe three times out of 20.
There’s something democratic, and pretty punk rock about that though. And you were also working with people like Robots in Disguise, Herman Dune and Animal Collective. It feels to me like that was a bit of an intervention, showing people how to make music free from any of the normal conventions.
There was an open door policy for a time – it’s changed now. I just wanted things to be better quality. Where you have an open door though, sour things are going to happen. I wanted to be making better art and some people just were there not to be musicians, but I wanted to make them feel welcome. I always felt like they were doing me a favour though, they were helping me make my musical dream come true.
What’s the most difficult part of working with so many people?
People just kind of peter out. They do three practises then don’t come back. There was a period when people were getting really lazy. It was a 17 person project for a stretch, and sometimes we’d have like 10 people there. People think ‘it’ll be fine without me, there’s 16 other people there.’
That mentality feels almost more like an art collective than a band, and you’ve made clothes, theatre and all sorts of other stuff before. Do you see yourself as more musical or artist?
Yeah I did a musical theatre thing, a rock opera…I don’t feel that conscious about the work I make. Actually I used to write pretty much only like stream of consciousness stuff but lately I’ve been writing songs about things, which is a different phase of the creative process. We talk a little bit about ‘how’ we present ourselves, we don’t think about the ‘why’ though.
What makes a good show?
People listening…it really depends. We played some great sit-down concerts on the [summer 2016] tour, with people just sitting and listening, or more a folk show. We headlined a great festival in the mountains where there were like 500 people dancing like crazy and none of them had ever heard us before, so that was pretty phenomenal.
With such a vast back catalogue, how do you select what you’re going to play?
We’ve got about 45 songs that the band’s pretty well rehearsed on now, so that narrows it down with the back catalogue. I always try to pull up a new old one that I like or that fans like just to keep those songs , so each tour we’ll add five to ten songs to our…what’s the word…
Yeah repertoire….sorry I’m a little hungover! I tend to avoid playing love songs from past relationships – but in the end sometimes I do play those songs if they’re good songs, a lot of people like my song Wee Ma Moo which came from when I was living in England 20 years ago, I was on exchange in Liverpool and I was in a relationships that wasn’t quite…what I needed. I made a song about it.
How much can you separate seeing a song as a song, or a piece of art, rather than something that’s very personal?
My music’s gone through phases and I can look back at it now and see those phases pretty clearly. When I was younger I felt like I knew everything, and wanted to tell people how to be better people, and then I thought I didn’t actually want to tell people what to do at all. I just started writing more like diary sort of music which is very personal from my life, and nowadays I try to write stuff people can relate to, and the songs are about subjects rather than my personal experience.
What sort of things were you trying to tell people before?
I went through a phase where I was quite revolutionary in my standpoint. I was basically like in my early 20s, and realising that how ridiculous the things people considered important were – I stopped watching television at that time and took myself off the grid. Now I look back at the music I was making, I think it was preachy…I was more opinionated and believed I was right and other people were not right. Now I feel ok with who I am and I feel ok with people being different from me. People can coexist with different opinions.
Do you think anything helped you come up with those conclusions, or was it more about growing older?
There’s some wisdom and some experience – meeting different people, things happening to me in my life… I went though a long period of serious illness and that was a big wakeup for me.
What were your first experiences with music?
I was raised by musicians – my father was an orchestra director and my mother taught children’s music, and also was in a bell choir, so I’ve been surrounded by music my whole life. I think my first paid gig was when I was six years old singing in a church choir, it was like $15 a month or something.
What records did you hear at home growing up?
Oh! Hmm… The first one I owned (and still own) was Mickey Mouse Disco. That one turned out to be my daughter’s favourite album for years too! My folks listened to a lot of classical so I got that exposure. My dad was into Barry Manilow and he and I sang that in the car together. Nice memory.
Aw! Has having kids affected how you write and work? It must be harder touring.
Having a child got me off my ass actually. I realised I needed to start making money to support more than me. Got out of the starving artist phase, and moved into the struggling independent artist bracket. I think I swear a lot less in my music too now. I feel like having a kid really crystallised my personality and gave me more confidence as an artist.
Do you think the ‘struggling artist’ idea is romanticised too much?
I think artists should be able to make a proper living and earn a predictable wage just like any other person’s career. That’s why I’m getting into the subscription thing online.
What do you see the meaning of ‘antifolk’ to be? Is there still an antifolk scene?
Antifolk to me is a crew of friends. We all create music with acoustic instruments involved, but the music is not typical folk music. Most of the antifolkers I know are kind, caring and loving people who live to support each other. Is there still a scene? Tough to say. Not sure if there ever was one scene. I’ve had my feet in a number of scenes for a long time. A lot of us are still active though, and I see the ripples of our influence spreading all over the world.
Sounds very utopian! Why the ‘anti’?
You’ll have to ask someone else about that. I always loved our crew, but never liked the name. When we entered the scene, our little crew was calling what we did Pro-Anti, which I thought was a bit more even. Self negating. Antifolk is definitely not anti folk… The people I know involved in it are very pro-folk, meaning they care about people.
Yeah it does seem a weird label. So of all the hundreds of people you’ve worked with over the years, what’s been the most important/influential thing you’ve learned from them?
I’ve learned how to keep peace among disparate personalities. I’ve learned how to lead large groups of people in art. I’ve learned the beauty in simplicity. Jeff Lewis has taught me a ton about helping friends out, being fair with money, being generous and working hard. He’s been my biggest help of any of my successful friends, bringing me on tour and promoting my stuff through his channels. He’s a very hard worker on both art and business, and watching him has taught me a ton!
Interview by Emily Gosling
Images ©2014 Seth Faergolzia