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Fort Wilson Riot has gone small in a big, big way. Starting life as part of a mammoth musical-theater experience—2007's critically acclaimed rock opera Idigaragua, staged at the Bedlam Theatre by a six-piece band and nine actors—the group has reemerged as a dynamic duo bearing little resemblance to its earlier incarnation. Formerly a baroque, minor-key rock unit with a penchant for bombast, the slimmed-down Fort Wilson Riot that returns this month with Predator/Prey is a sly and seductive pop-leaning twosome.
"As soon as we were done with Idigaragua we knew we wanted to try and go in the opposite direction and write shorter, catchier songs," says vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Amy Hager, who carries on the Fort Wilson Riot name with her romantic and musical partner, Jacob Mullis.
Hager's words ring true when spinning Predator/Prey. Apart from moody ballad "Snakes & Scorpions," all the songs hover around the three-minute mark, and the nine tracks fly by in just a shade more than 30 minutes. The concision shouldn't be mistaken for lack of ambition; Mullis and Hager prove themselves skillful chameleons as they morph repeatedly over the course of Predator/Prey. Beginning life as wistful pop-folk practitioners on album opener "Forgotten Language," they shift their sound effortlessly over subsequent tracks, tapping into their Blondie-copping inner disco-rock divas on irresistibly slinky single "All My Friends" and bringing the album to a close while striking their finest garage-rock pose on "Lead Me On."
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Repeated listens to Predator/Prey reveal the album to be both exhilarating and slightly jarring in its idiosyncrasies. The transition from a Mullis-sung slice of laid-back pop like "Gold-Flecked Morning" into Hager's lush, high-drama ballad "Heira" isn't exactly seamless, but the end result is a true original. Mullis, for one, wouldn't have it any other way.
"I love the tension that can be found when you have an album with two different, distinctive songwriters sharing space on it," says Mullis. "I'd like to think that Predator/Prey has a bit of that going on. Our voices are quite different, obviously, but I think our songwriting styles are as well."
With its ambitious, genre-mashing balancing act and ample array of atypical rock instrumentation at play—xylophone, accordion, clarinet, and heaping helpings of trumpet are all prominently employed—it's hard to believe Predator/Prey was recorded almost entirely in the couple's home. Their bedroom closet doubled as the recording studio. The upside of such an intimate arrangement is rather obvious—the clock's never running out on studio time—but, as Hager explains, the situation presented its own unique perils.
"Because our recording setup was literally right in the closet, we couldn't even get to our clothes very easily without having to stare down our gear," recalls Hager, while eyeing Mullis playfully in a way that hints that the closet-studio concept was likely his idea. "The physical inconvenience also led to being drained emotionally somewhat, because I'd always have that feeling of 'We should be working on the music right now' whenever I went into the closet. It was hard to learn how to carve out breaks."
Breaks will be few and far between for Fort Wilson Riot if things go according to plan. Hager and Mullis have put the wheels in motion to leave full-time employment behind come September and hit the open road for months on end to spread the word about Predator/Prey to the masses. It's the kind of gamble bands are increasingly less willing to take in the file-sharing era, but one the couple sounds eager to jump into with the same world-conquering zeal they applied to their home recording.
"We did the rock-opera thing and now we really want to do the band thing," says Mullis, audibly excited about what the future holds. "That means going on tour and trying to push everything else aside so we can really commit to playing music more and being as productive as possible. We've decided to get rid of our day jobs and see how long we can last doing that. We're setting ourselves up right now to live out of a van and live with friends as we're traveling. The long-term goal is to be self-sustaining from music. All we can do is try to start building something and hope that whatever we put into it we get back out."
If Mullis and Hager can throw their recording gear into their closet and take out one of the most intriguing and irresistible slabs of Minnesota music released this year, I like their odds.
FORT WILSON RIOT play a CD-release show with Zoo Animal and Phantom Tails on FRIDAY, JULY 30, at the KITTY CAT KLUB; 612.331.9800