HAVE A BEER WITH FORT FRANCES
Chicago-based trio Fort Frances’ philosophy is simple: less is more. At the end of the day, it’s not about being the hippest band out there. It’s not about crazy guitar solos or fitting into “the scene.” It’s about creating the best music possible and playing it live.
Alongside the recent release of their EP Harbour, members David McMillin [vocals/guitar], Jeffrey Piper [bass] and Aaron Kiser [drums] are hitting up venues across the United States, including Chicago’s very own Schubas on May 5, 2013. We drank some beers with two-thirds of the crew to talk about the band’s growth over the past few years, the lucky number three and the meaning behind their Canadian name.
The Bar: Guthries Tavern
Drinks of Choice: IPAs, Bourbon on the rocks
Currently listening to: Kopecky Family Band, The Walkmen, Alt-J, Phosphorescent, Lord Huron, Wilco, Beck, The Beatles
Kristen from A Beer with the Band: I’m sure people buy you guys drinks when you’re on stage. Do you ever feel like, “Wow. I’m getting way too drunk; I can’t have anything else.”
Dave from Fort Frances: I’ve instituted a rule: I can’t drink a mini-pitcher full of beer before I play a room. I had that once before a show and I decided that was the best I was able to hear and play on a level of drinking—in terms of being relaxed without going over the edge. So many times you end up playing at 11:30, which is late, but I think we do a pretty good job of not getting wasted.
Kristen: How did you guys meet?
Dave: I did the solo thing for a long time. I met Aaron first, who plays drums and sings, and we met Jeff when we were recording the first solo full-length record in 2006. Jeff is a sound engineer and engineered a bunch of the solo stuff. We just became really good friends…When Jeff and I first crossed paths, we were the poorest people you could ever meet. We would sneak studio time until like 8:00 am. We would record from 2 am until 7:30 in the morning, and then we’d go and drink beer at this bar on Broadway at like 8 in the morning.
Kristen: Awesome. I love it. Let’s talk music. What do you guys have out there?
Dave: We have a full-length out [The Atlas] and then our new EP [Harbour] came out on April 23.
Kristen: How do you feel like you’ve progressed as a band from that first release to this EP?
Dave: The first record was recorded in Maine in the middle of the wilderness. I loved it and I’m really happy with the way it developed. Jeff and I played together even under the solo stuff, and it’s been a gradual progression of us moving towards a full-band. The old record certainly came together, but it happened more in pieces. It was a lot of me writing in my apartment, sending songs over, getting input. And the new record was more like, here’s the idea, here’s the song, let’s arrange it together.
Kristen: Do you feel like it’s more collaborative?
Dave: Yeah, I do. And I think it helped recording it here [in Chicago]. On a personal note, I have a weird escapism complex where I don’t like stability. So, it was different for me to say, “Okay, we’re going to record it here.” Ultimately, I think it’s really brought us closer together as a band and gave us more time, making it totally different than the last record. The last one was recorded in the wilderness; this one was recorded in a city. Sound-wise, I think we’re really getting to where we all want to be collectively…It’s weird, being in a band…it’s kind of like dating, but maybe even weirder because you’re expected to get in fights when you’re dating. People who aren’t in bands have this impression that it’s like all we do is get drunk and play music and have fun. But it comes with challenges and logistics. I think we’re really getting to where we want sound-wise, and I think where we’re really realizing where we want to head with this new EP.
Kristen: Where do you want to head?
Dave: Well, it’s really cliché and every band releases a record and they say, “This is more us than we’ve ever been.” One of my friends who’s in a really great band told me once, “Great first record. Now your challenge is to make something that doesn’t sound like this anymore. Make something different.” I’d love for us to do that. For us to say, “Let’s do something different.” As opposed to saying, “Let’s build on what people seem to like or what we already have.”
Kristen: Yeah, pushing yourself. Challenging yourself artistically. There are a lot of layers in Harbour, more so than in the last album. How do you get that sound with only three people?
Jeff from Fort Frances: From an instrumentation standpoint, Harbour is slightly more plugged-in. It has a lot more texture to it. Definitely more than a trio could play… At one point, we were toying with the idea of looking for a fourth person in the band. We thought we needed someone else, but we’ve really embraced the trio thing.
Dave: It would be great if we had six people because of the way we like to record. In today’s music environment, that’s so hard to do. Going back to the analogy of how being in a band is like being in a relationship: there’s a reason why the whole multiple wives thing doesn’t really work out…The challenge of trying to tour with six people is not fun. We’ve figured out a way to work as a trio and we do a lot of switching. Jeff plays drums, piano, guitar. I play guitar, but I also play piano and banjo. Aaron plays drums and bells. I think we’ve figured out a way to go with the textured stuff that we want, but we also have this trio that works really nicely.
Jeff: It has simplified some things.
Kristen: You recorded your first album in a cabin in Maine. How did that come about?
Dave: We recorded it with Sam Kassirer [Josh Ritter, Langhorne Slim]. I did some stuff with Josh when I was solo a few years ago. Through him I became good friends with Sam and he ended up doing our first record. He’s based in Boston and he has this really cool farmhouse built in the middle of the 1800s that he converted into a studio, and you can also stay there.
Kristen: Where did the inspiration for Harbour come from?
Dave: The inspiration for this one came a lot from living here in Chicago. The first track on the record is called “City by the Sea,” the sea being Lake Michigan. A lot of the songs on the first record are informed by a sense of getting away, of traveling, of not being at home. This record is very grounded. In terms of lyrical writing, the majority of the reason why I write songs is to create things that might last…I’m not saying we’re writing the most timeless songs by any means, but certainly, I like writing songs because I hope I’m making something that might last for a long time. It’s kind of like building a house, but I don’t know how to use any tools so songwriting is my construction. We’re really lucky because we write these songs, we record them, we over think them a lot like every band does, and when it’s done, it will always be there. Even in the context of people not buying music. They still listen to it, and that in itself is rewarding. We’re lucky to get to leave something behind.
Kristen: What’s Fort Frances’ philosophy?
Dave: Right now, I’m stealing an answer I already said, but I’d say construction. I think we’ve been working at building things together. We hit nails in our hands a lot.
Jeff: We aren’t—and I don’t think we’ll ever be—the hippest band out there. There’s so much of “the scene” that isn’t us. It’s not our personality, and I think we’re good about not worrying about it. We want to write good songs and we want to perform them really well.
Dave: There’s this obsession among people [in the industry] who write about music and publicists to have…it’s evolved into where songs just aren’t good enough anymore. You have to have this like…bullshit story. Some people have great stories, don’t get me wrong. But there’s this weird obsession in the music world where you have to have this other thing. What it boils down to is, most bands started playing music not because they wanted to be famous, not because they thought they would ever make money—because no one ever starts doing this because they think they’ll make money—they did it because they love it.
Kristen: One of the reasons I wanted to start this site was because of what you just talked about. I just want to have a normal conversation over a beer. What do you guys think about the scene in Chicago?
Jeff: A year or two ago, there were a string of shows I went to. I was at the Metro, Lincoln Hall and Schubas and every band kept saying, “This is the best show of our tour. This is the biggest crowd we’ve had ever outside of our home town.” So, in that sense, it’s really solid. A lot of people are going to shows. But then I have sort of an “old school” friend who really talked about the heyday of the Chicago scene, and the way he describes it, which was 15 or 20 years ago, it sounds like it was more of a community. It was truly a scene where all the bands were out to help each other and they were all out for the same goal, therefore they banded together. And if nothing else, they would all just be constantly going to each other’s show. So, maybe that’s lacking.
Kristen: You have an upcoming show at Schubas. When is that?
Dave: It’s on May 5th. Cinco de Mayo. There will be something to celebrate. Great American Canyon Band is opening for us. They’re great. Ethereal, Edward Sharpe-esque with less people. It’s a husband and wife thing, but I think they’ve got about four people.
Kristen: The husband and wife thing is kind of a trend right now.
Dave: Yeah, Jeff and I are husband and wife.
Kristen: Something we always ask is what the best advice you’ve ever received is.
Dave: The best advice I’ve ever gotten is this: if you’re working on something right now and you don’t think it’s going to matter in five years, then it doesn’t matter now. We live in this world where it’s like, “Shit. I’ve gotta send all these emails; I’ve gotta get all this stuff done.” Really, some of the stuff won’t matter in five days, so five years puts a lot of things in perspective. It was a professor in college who told me that. Peter Graham.
Jeff: Musically, I probably received the same advice from a couple of people. It goes back to your question about our band’s philosophy. If it doesn’t sound good, it doesn’t matter…It doesn’t matter what your story is, or how hip your haircut is. You just have to sound good. And do something that people want to listen to that’s fun and enjoyable.
Dave: To Jeff’s point, too, less is more. I don’t even like guitar solos at all anymore. It’s not just because we’re a trio and I’m not a good guitar player. There aren’t very many guitar solos I’ve heard recently where I’m like, “That made this song so much better.” Instead, it’s like, “That made this song so much longer.”
Jeff: I think there’s a musical maturity that everyone kind of goes through. I went through it in late college. I wish I went through it in early college. You’re so consumed with your own playing and your own instrument and how good you are at playing it and you want everyone to know it. At some point, you get over that. You’ve gotta do what’s right for the song, what’s right for the band, what’s right for that venue or that performance. That’s probably the best advice I’ve ever received.
Kristen: What’s the significance behind the band name Fort Frances?
Dave: It’s a shitty town in Canada. I’ve never been there, but it’s amazing the number of YouTube comments we get like, “Hey man, I’m from that town and it sucks!”
Jeff: My favorite was a question and it was like, “Why did you name your band after my shitty hometown?”
Dave: It’s a town of like 8,000 with paper mills so it smells bad. There’s a combination of things. One, it’s a love for alliteration. Two, I was refused admission from Canada …This is my short-term goal. We’re going to play Fort Frances. We submitted to their folk festival, but I believe it was cancelled. [laughs] We’re going to play Fort Frances and it’s going to be the most epic night for a town of 8,000.
Jeff: It always amazes me how many people have heard of it or know someone from there. Our band website now beats out the town in Google search.
Dave: That’s probably the boldest thing that we’ve done in the past year. What’s next? L.A.? Our yearend goal is to be at the top of the search results for Duluth, Minnesota. So keep checking back.
Kristen: Do you remember your first band name?
Jeff: Mine was Lush, but there was also Jose PH.
Dave: Mine was Trial and Error, and we made a lot of errors.
Kristen: You guys have come a long way.