Broken Saints

Paul Fonfara finds life ain't easy for a man with haunted visions

A Painted Saints song is first an image in Paul Fonfara's mind:

"A stuffed deer on a wall, wondering where its legs are."

"A folk-y Mexican tin painting of the Virgin Mary with bright red and yellow halos faded from years of sun."

Saints on the Tracks: Josh Granowski, Paul Fonfara, and Chris Hepola
Allen Beaulieu
Saints on the Tracks: Josh Granowski, Paul Fonfara, and Chris Hepola

"A gypsy reading tea leaves to tell you your fortune, a guy eating apples doused in gasoline, and a puppet made out of junk like black coat buttons for eyes and razor-blade teeth."

Fonfara, the group's leader and creator, cites the above imagery as inspiration for songs in the Painted Saints' canon. They are the visions of a dark and skeptical man attempting to make sense of reality, a spirit tempered by the dizzying highs and frightening lows of existence, a battle-worn troubadour still reeling from the last crash.

It's the week before the release date for the latest Painted Saints album, The Bricks Might Breathe Again, and last-minute business is on the Denver transplant's mind. He slinks down the hallways of the Bakken Library and Museum, an Elizabethan-style mansion near Lake Calhoun filled with oddities of electrical and magnetic studies, and worries that his CDs won't be printed in time for the release show.

"I've been on two record labels—David Byrne's Luaka Bop (as a touring member of Jim White's band), and Glitterhouse, in Germany, when I was with 16 Horsepower. All I know is that when I was on a label I got treated well. Now that I'm not, I spend all day on horseshit emails." Such is the burden Fonfara bears as a bandleader.

Back in his Denver days, the versatile multi-instrumentalist didn't have to deal with such headaches. He played with a number of bands—Devotchka, the Denver Gentlemen, 16 Horsepower, and Woven Hand—but never had to be the motivating force behind a project. With Painted Saints, he is both visionary and practitioner.

Fonfara was a clarinet student at the University of Colorado, but he's one of those people who could pick up a wet noodle and find a way to make music with it. In addition to his formidable chops on the clarinet, he also sings, whistles, and plays guitar, cello, viola, violin, saxophone, and bandoneón with considerable proficiency. At one point during the interview, he pauses to fiddle around with the vintage theremin the museum has on display.

At the helm of Painted Saints, where he's aided by the current lineup of Jonathon Kaiser, Josh Granowski, Chris Hepola, and Kelly O'Dea, Fonfara uses a variety of orchestrations to create symphonic landscapes for his oddly evocative visions. On The Bricks Might Breathe Again, Painted Saints' sophomore effort, Fonfara has crystallized his dark and bitter outlook into 10 memorable songs that bridge the gaps between klezmer, jazz, folk, rock, and Southern gothic sensibilities.

Although it's difficult to finger, there is a sense of commonality that runs across The Bricks Might Breathe Again like warm wind over the open prairie. While the disc's strongest tracks stand on their own, an overarching chiaroscuric aura provides the cohesive appeal of an Ennio Morricone Spaghetti Western soundtrack. The death-toll rocker "Tinder," for instance, is built around a clanging, open-string guitar strum that's like nothing else on the record, but the ethereal whine of layered strings places it firmly within the rest of the album's oeuvre.

Among the album's highlights are the opening number "Ipsifendus and Introductions," a beautiful instrumental piece built around a climactic clarinet solo, and "Oh, Comely" a Neutral Milk Hotel cover filled with droning, otherworldly saw sounds.

Opening with the line "God she only knows how to follow," Fonfara's voice is drenched in bitter despair from the outset. Both the title track and "For the Brokers of Bottlecaps" paint frightening pictures of factory workers trapped in a life of backbreaking labor, a reference, no doubt, to Fonfara's experience rupturing a disk in his back while on tour with Jim White. After struggling to finish the tour, Fonfara caved in to his body's pain and his doctor's recommendations, opting for the necessary surgery—an expense that led him to file for bankruptcy a year later.

"I think because I've been very poor for the past few years, I've been thinking all human energy is driven by economics," Fonfara states while looking over a frightening eye-magnet contraption invented to remove metal particles embedded in eyeballs. "The whole record is about human nature. It's about money," he explains.

Having experienced the music world as a student and teacher, academic and performer, Fonfara has a bleak view of the biz. He speaks of downloading not as toppling the industry, but of ruining the art form. "I read something in the City Pages about a record label here in town that was just giving their stuff away for free. That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard!" he laughs, though visibly upset by the idea.

"I sent it [the new record] out to labels, but no one even listens because they just get miles of shit. It's the MySpace generation—it's like a wall, everyone's putting out records and there's just miles of shit."

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