Fathom Lane on music composition, the Pearl, and Polica's Channy

Fathom Lane on music composition, the Pearl, and Polica's Channy
Photo by Tony Nelson

Michael Ferrier has been around the music scene for a while, but has recently found a new writing voice. His new project, Fathom Lane, has the melancholy of a Tennessee Williams play, and the simplicity of someone finding their way in life. Most albums simply describe the feelings of love and lost, but Fathom Lane's Down by Half is an album that conveys them, weary and ready to bloom.

Gimme Noise spoke with Michael before the band's album release on Friday to talk about his long road to Fathom Lane.

Band Members: Michael Ferrier (vocals and guitar), Ashleigh Still (vocals and piano), Ben Glaros (guitar and vocals), Shane Akers (lap steel guitar and dobro), Brian Roessler (bass), Pete Hennig (drums)

Gimme Noise: Why do you think you veered in such a different direction from what you were doing with Electropolis?

Michael Ferrier: Frankly, I was a little lost after Electropolis. We had a crazy last run at the Southern Theater involving aerialists, dancers, silent film, human powered surround sound, the works. I just felt like I had taken that aspect of what I do with the saxophone and electronics to the end of the road, and I wanted to reboot, but not in the same direction.

Simultaneously, my personal life was imploding in just about every aspect. In the midst of the turmoil, I picked up the guitar and started singing again. I noodled around with the Fender Rhodes, which is a seriously inspiring instrument. There were some songs laying in the weeds for a while, so I started there and then ended up writing a bunch of new songs.

How do you feel that studying music composition benefited you when making this album?

I have always been inspired by music that breaks rules, both large and small, and studying composition showed me all of the rules out there that need breaking. I also learned that you need to churn through a lot of seemingly useless crap to get to the good stuff. In order to get the material you want to keep, you have to make a big pile of stuff that will never see the light of day.

It also helped me hone in on material that all hung together, both thematically and musically. Composition is about telling a story, understanding that without tension there aren't those cathartic or orgasmic moments of release. Those moments of release are what I do this for.

Do you feel it was beneficial to go to school for music, or do you think it was something you could have learned on your own?

Well, for me it was beneficial. I learned so much that I would never have come to on my own, but it also had its soul-sucking drawbacks. I ended being so jaded by the process of evaluation by the time I got my degree that I just stopped playing for years. I had to get back to the place of: "Hey, music is a good thing to be enjoyed!"

Performing music isn't just a yardstick to see how you stack up against the insurmountable wall of music history or your peers. It's something to be shared between the audience and the performer, and it's also not just a stream of perfectly played notes and rests that you shoot at the audience. I'm not sure how you find that when you're in the middle of the "Land of Evaluation" -- certainly not the way I found it. I feel like I lost a lot of time being chased down by the demons of academia.

How do you feel the music industry has changed since performing in in your first band Fire Under Water?

Wow, how has it not changed? Just speaking about our little world of the Twin Cities music scene, we now have The Current, which has expanded the opportunity for radio play for local musicians. Also, the explosion of blogs, social networks, and other ways for fans to talk about and share music has been revolutionary. It's a bit daunting going from being in a fairly established band like Electropolis, knowing the rules of how to promote the music and performances, to now being in a "baby band," but it's also exhilarating doing something fresh, taking that leap into the new paradigm.

You worked with quite a talented roster for Fathom Lane. What did each musician bring to the project?

Ashleigh Still brings the breath of life to these songs. She's the other side of the story I'm trying to tell with Fathom Lane, and she got that right off the bat. "Sweet Sept" is a great example of that. That's rare. Ben Glaros is my oldest friend in the world. I don't have to say much to Ben for him to know exactly what I mean, and he puts it into the music. Shane Akers plays the lap steel guitar, and I swear that thing is strung with heartstrings. So much soul. Brian Roessler is the MAN. Just check out that bass on "Snowbride." He left us shaking our heads in the control room, saying, "Did that just happen?" Brian does that a  lot. Pete Henning is so versatile, and makes his drum set into a little mini orchestra. So many great sounds and expression. This band is really an embarrassment of riches; each of the members is an artist in their own right.
How did you meet Noah and Zach Hollander, and how did you come to choosing to work with them?

I met them after I read an article in City Pages lauding them as "Artist of the Year" last year. When I read that, I had been in the process of recording demos elsewhere, and it became clear to me that I had to check those guys out.

We met and hit it off immediately. These guys totally get that I wanted to create an album, not just record a CD. They love records at least as much as I do, and not just the cold hard product, but the overall experience of records. Putting it on. Dropping the needle. Sitting down. Looking at the album artwork. Getting up. Flipping it over. It's really having your own magical world for a little while as a tiny diamond dances on a seemingly soulless hunk of petroleum. They get that big time. Zach became such a partner in the process that he got a co-producer credit on Down By Half, and I'm sure we'll be working together again both on my stuff and for other artists who work at the The Pearl. In fact, I can't wait.

Why do you feel the voice you wrote in for Down By Half has such a sad tone to it?

All of these songs come from a similar place, looking at various aspects of loss. The songs and voice of the record come from all of the personal turmoil I had been through over the last few years. Also, I wanted to make a record that "vibed." You know, sort of like Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. When you reach for that record, you know what kind of tone it has. You're looking for a certain feeling. I was also think about how we all experience so much more loss in our lives than otherwise. Again, it's the idea of churning through loads and loads of crap to get to the good stuff. I've always been attracted to dark and beautiful music. It's what speaks most clearly to me: that lovely melancholy, the high, lonesome sound.

What does Down By Half mean?

Part of it is an inside joke in a way. I tune by guitar down a half-step because I like the throaty tone it brings out, and some of the older tunes sounded better for my present voice turned down. But it also refers again to the idea of loss. When you lose someone or something, or drive it away, you're diminished, and since the story of the album is about people, about breaking up, losing your better half, there you have it: you're down by half.

What song do you embody the most when performing live?

I'd say the tune "Ghost of Me" is the one that I get the most catharsis from playing live. It travels from a lonesome whisper to teeth-crunching rock and the dynamics are exhilarating.

What's your favorite song from the album otherwise?

As far as picking a song that I would pick as a favorite, I'm with Keith Richards. I think he said something to the effect of, "They're all my babies; I can't pick a favorite." Yeah, I'm with Keith on this one. That's actually a question I ask myself a lot when making music, no matter what type of music: "What would Keith do?"

You included a cover of Polica's "Wandering Star" on this album. Why did you choose this song to make your own?

That actually happened really fast. I went out to Record Star Day and picked up the Polica record on vinyl which had the lyrics printed on the sleeve. I was reading the lyrics. When I put the tunes on the turntable, I realized that there's a sad little folk song in the forest of electronics, and the lyrics hit right on where I was coming from with the loss theme of Down By Half. So I called up Ashleigh and Zach, told them I had a crazy last minute idea to do a cover of the tune, and twelve hours later, it was done. It ended up being the closing track of the album. I'm so glad for happy accidents like that. You have to be open to them, and luckily, I was working with people who are. I hope Channy likes it; I think we did her tune justice.

What can we expect at the album release show?

Well, honestly, I'm not even sure what to fully expect. How exciting is THAT? But I can say that I hope we all, audience and musicians, head home with a sad tune stuck in our heads that manages to put a smile on our faces.

Fathom Lane will release Down By Half at Icehouse MPLS on Friday, October 12, 2012 with Todd Clouser's Song.
21+, $5, 10 pm

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