"We're a very schizophrenic band," says the Danforths' Neil Fasen, grinning fiendishly. "And I mean that in the most positive sense of schizophrenia."
Fasen and his bandmates, Chris Danforth and Tom Kemmer, are seated around a table upstairs at the Triple Rock Social Club, sipping from pints of draft beer and discussing the manic nature of their newest album, Amphibian. Spanning 15 tracks, Amphibian shifts from one genre to another at a moment's notice, exploring such far-reaching styles as pop, folk, country, drone, experimental, and rock. And surprisingly, the band manages to weave each new sound together into something cohesive and whole.
It's an unusual concept in these iPod-heavy times, but the Danforths have created an album that is best enjoyed when played from beginning to end in one sitting, preferably on headphones, alone, in a quiet room.
"People debate about the validity of the album format these days, how music is digested," Fasen continues. "There is maybe more of a need to release things that have a conceptual continuity—if nothing else, just so people listen to it within the context of all the songs together."
"This is not a concept record," says Danforth, the lead singer and the band's namesake. "But there are themes that we use to help tie songs together, and how it sculpts the overarching sound and projection of a story."
The Danforths started as a solo project when Chris Danforth (the person) created "the Chris Danforths" (the band) and recorded his first album in 2003. Soon after his album was released, he decided to round up fellow Fargo residents Fasen and Kemmer to see if they could translate the record to the live stage. The trio has been recording and performing together ever since, collaborating with a shared sense of curiosity and exploration.
"There's musicians who are very craft-oriented, very focused on things like, 'I am going to be the best guitar player ever.' And I'm not trying to mock that, there's nothing wrong with that," says Fasen. "But we're really means-to-an-end, meat-and-potatoes kind of guys. We all have musical experience, but I think we approached it more like projects. It was always a series of projects."
Amphibian is tied together with a general theme of love and loss, and it follows the same trajectory as an ill-fated relationship. The album starts with a handful of songs that are upbeat and lighthearted, with "Mexico" and "Too Much Weekend" taking on a sing-songy, joking tone. But things slowly start to unravel with the slow, twangy "A Tragedy Far Too Complex to Explain," and then derail completely on the epic, sparse seven-minute title track, "Amphibian Part I," which pulsates with the subtle intensity of a sonar signal heard under hundreds of feet of water.
The next track, "Amphibian II," isn't so much a song as it is a piece of performance art. It starts with the slamming of a car door and the click of a tape recorder being turned on, and then a young woman delivers a jaw-dropping monologue about her very recent breakup.
"Here I am, it's 6:30 in the morning and I'm heading to work," she begins, fighting back tears. "Jim and I broke up last night, and I didn't sleep all night. It hurts like hell. I don't know if I can take this." It's an intimate and startling confession, and it creates one of the most simultaneously disturbing and compelling moments on the album.
"I collect answering-machine tapes," Danforth says, explaining that he picks up old answering-machine microcassettes at thrift stores and garage sales. "I think it's a bizarre phenomenon, and one of the most voyeuristic ways to look into someone's life—to listen from start to finish to an answering-machine tape that they had in their answering machine."
Danforth inserts another such recording at the end of the album, "Amphibian Part III," which is an old woman named Mary reading the Lord's Prayer to her friend Marcella, and it ends the record on a pensive and somber note. Danforth says he knew he wanted to use the sound clips in his music as soon as he stumbled onto them. "When I first heard [them], I was totally creeped out and had to hear the rest," he says. "To me there's something musical about it. Something that, really, is extremely pure and very appropriate."
THE DANFORTHS play a CD-release show with The Nina! The Pinta! and the Deaths on SATURDAY, MARCH 21, at the TURF CLUB; 651.647.0486