Perfect Sound Forever

Thinking Fellers Union Local 282

left to right: Hugh, Brian, Anne, Jay, Mark

 Interview by Paul Clements (May 2001)

The most melodious of experimental bands, the most serious of funny bands, and the most down-home of art rock bands is Thinking Fellers Union Local 282. Four of the band's five members relocated from Iowa to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1986, and in its music you can hear sounds evoking both a rural back porch and the downtown junkie squat where the group once rehearsed.

TFUL282 spikes its complex compositions with doctored vocals and a tangle of eccentrically tuned stringed instruments. Yet this band surpasses the screechy and squawky; over 15 years it has gradually mutated from a clamorous jumble of the Residents and Sonic Youth into something more stark and sublime.

On its eight albums, the effervescent melodies and emotionally charged lyrics of TFUL282's more college-radio-friendly songs collide with murkier meanderings recorded in rehearsals on a four-track or boom box. To put it politely, this lo-fi work--known as "Feller filler" to the faithful--divides and crystallizes listeners' opinions. The resulting hi-lo clash is akin to Faust's The Faust Tapes, a crazy quilt of sound that can try your patience or expand your cranium.

The band lacks a distinct image or a single frontperson (all five sing), traits that render it well-nigh unmarketable. Still, TFUL282 once batted its eyelashes at the big time. In 1995 the band accepted an offer from sub-R.E.M. anthem rockers Live to serve as opening act on that band's arena tour. The experience, punctuated by howls of "You suck!" from Live's fans, confirmed that the Fellers and commercial triumph would forever have only a nodding acquaintance.

TFUL282 retired from touring in 1996 and hasn't released an album since that year's I Hope It Lands, so rumors orbited that its members had turned in their union cards. Which makes the long-delayed appearance of a new album on the Communion Label--entitled (deep breath) Bob Dinners and Larry Noodles Present Tubby Turdner's Celebrity Avalanche--a joyous event for TFUL282's small but passionate fan base.

With Bob Dinners, the band returned to working with longtime coproducer-engineer (and Pell Mell bassist) Greg Freeman. Together they took lawn shears to the dense sonic thickets of earlier albums. Where three guitar lines once battled for attention and frequency range, Bob Dinners opens up empty spaces as chilly as a Midwestern prairie in February. Even the album's goofier moments (hello, "Boob Feeler"!) carry an ominous undertow. It's also ringed with melancholia, especially on "'91 Dodge Van," which details the band's retreat from the front lines of its members' lives. Today TFUL282's future remains uncertain, especially after drummer Jay Paget's move last year to Boston.

I met with Anne Eickelberg (bass) and Brian Hageman (guitar, viola, mandolin) in a Mission district coffeehouse on a drizzly San Francisco afternoon. (Later I talked to guitarist-banjoist Mark Davies and collaged together the two discussions. The fifth Feller, guitarist Hugh Swarts, was out of town.) I learned about the persistence of poop and how stealing the voice of the Cure's Robert Smith can make you cry. The mood was pleasant but sleepy, like a languorous dream.

Perfect Sound Forever: The new album seems maybe more serious and somber. Even the funny things on it are kind of ominous.

Anne Eickelberg: Wow. "Boob Feeler" is? [laughs]

Brian Hageman: [more seriously] Yeah, I can't take exception to that.

AE: It has a somber feeling to me, definitely. It really could be looked at as each one of us dealing with what it feels like to not tour anymore and the band starting to recede more and more into the background of our lives. But I don't think it was conscious.

BH: We sometimes entertained the idea that it was taking so long because we were drawing it out unconsciously. Nobody really wanted to finish it. I thought that finishing that last mix would kill me. But it didn't really happen. It was the most fun, I think, to record of any of them.

AE: There was a sense of freedom. We all seemed a little more open-minded and into doing more last-minute experiments.

Mark Davies: I guess some of those cuts are [serious and melancholy], although there are some I would consider pretty jubilant. I don't know that I would see any kind of retrospective feel specifically in any of the songs, except "'91 Dodge Van," and Anne wrote those words. It seems to me to be a bittersweet look back.

AE: Part of what made me want to name the song that is because the Dodge stayed with us for way, way, way too long after we stopped touring. We could never deal with getting rid of it. It was like this mausoleum, because it just sat there with stuff from the last tour in it, like itineraries and coffee cups. And every once in a while you'd have to move it, or somebody'd want to borrow it, and you'd get in and it would be kind of musty and all that stuff would still be in there. That feels intense. And we finally got rid of it, but it just took forever to finally sell it.

BH: A church bought it. A Korean church.

PSF: When you wrote and decided to put "'91 Dodge Van" on the album, did you think about all the people who would be asking you about it, like me?

AE: I would be lying if I said no. And actually there were times when I felt like, "Oh, I don't know if this should really be on here." Because it seems manipulative in a way. But it is really emotional, and it's kind of how I feel.

PSF: Manipulating who?

AE: The listener. 'Cause it's sad. And then I decided it would be OK as long as it wasn't the last thing on the record. That would just be maudlin. And we discussed that, and we all agreed. And I think because it's so short it's OK, it's just like one facet of how it feels. And we made sure that something more upbeat and flippant would follow it. Like maybe it's not really over.

BH: Actually, that riff is the same riff as that first one on the record [the harder-rocking "Another Clip"].

MD: Yeah, that riff was a really old thing. And when we recorded that ["'91 Dodge Van"] we were just screwing around, doing a slowed-down, mellow version of it that Greg taped. And I ended up liking that version better than the balls-out one. Because they were so different in mood it made sense to use them both.

PSF: What's the deal with the delay of the album's release?

BH: We were recording it, like, one weekend here and there out of a month, every once in a while. It was a lackadaisical process.

AE: It could have come out maybe a year ago. We just have a lot of inertia. The artwork is one of the main things that kept it from coming out. We absolved ourselves of all responsibility 'cause nothing was happening. We just could not get it done. So we finally just sent a package [to the Communion Label] with a few photographs and like letter saying, "OK, you have to finish it. You have to find artwork and you can call it whatever the hell you want."

PSF: I noticed that Bob Dinners is thanked on the I Hope It Lands liner notes. So it's all set up.

BH: He is? Oh, that's good. I'd forgotten that. These characters, Bob Dinners and Larry Noodles and Tubby Turdner, we've discussed for years. Basically Tubby Turdner is kind of an insensitive, gregarious fat talk show host.

AE: Bob Dinners is the Ed McMahon, and Larry Noodles is the Doc Severinson.

BH: Larry Noodles has a lot of problems with being really completely in love with Bob Dinners. And he had worked so hard on the music, 'cause he writes theme music. And finally Bob Dinners gives Larry Noodles the opportunity to play this thing on the show and it takes half the show and goes through all of this horrible, dirging screeching. And Bob Dinners just can't take it and Larry Noodles is crying through half the thing because it's just so emotional for him.

AE: And Tubby is laughing at them.

PSF: I read one review that called you "Los Weirdos Ultimos." Are you as weird as people say you are?

AE: When we're all together we can be pretty weird. We have our own particular way of relating to each other. We just take things and run with them. It's about poop a lot of the time.

PSF: Well, what isn't? Another thing you could say about this album is that there aren't three guitars going full-bore at once. There's a little more empty space.

BH: That's very conscious.

MD: There were points in the mixing where we consciously pulled things out to introduce more space into the songs. We've always had trouble with that. On some of the earlier recordings with all three guitars going and drums and bass, you ended up getting so much phase cancellation that often, the more things you added the smaller the whole thing sounded. One of the strong points about the live show is the density and the onslaught of all of that sound. But in the studio it just doesn't work that way.

PSF: Was there an effort to reach a larger audience with the more commercial-sounding records like the Admonishing the Bishops EP [1993] and Strangers from the Universe [1994]?

AE: There was, but we didn't do a very good job. We weren't trying to write in a certain way, but we were wondering if we could survive on the music, and if we could be on a bigger label and get more money to record.

MD: I don't recall any conscious intent to make it more accessible. It's hard to keep that sort of thing from creeping in unconsciously.

BH: Strangers came from a really slow and kind of a bad time for us, where we almost broke up.

MD: Those songs spanned over a couple of years. The beginning of that period, things were really tenuous, because we pretty much took a year off and said, "Let's decide after a year if we're going to start doing stuff again or not." We did sporadic things during that time, but we were kind of trying to take a break from each other. And then at the end of that period we basically said, "Let's try to push it more instead of giving up."

BH: Most of that was written in the year where we played maybe three shows, and Mark went to Indonesia for awhile. And we were practicing at this rehearsal space at Turk Street [in San Francisco's seedy Tenderloin district] when it was really bad. For awhile we were the only actual band there. Everyone else was squatting and throwing up in the halls.

AE: And doing dope all the time.

MD: I especially remember coming home from a show at 3 a.m. one morning and having bodies strewn on the stairs, and you're trying to carry big amps and not step on anybody. The bathroom was always locked because someone was either shooting up or puking or fucking in there. And somebody set the place on fire once. People with really pasty, translucent skin walking around. It was like Zombieland.

BH: The writing of those songs came out of that somehow. We weren't thinking about going anywhere, we were thinking about ending.

AE: Yeah, it blows my mind that after that [period] we made the decision, "Let's try to...."

BH: Try to make a living on this.

PSF: What do you think of the term Feller filler? [they laugh]

AE: I think it's funny that it exists and that people have debated about whether or not it should even be called that, and some people hate it and other people like it.

BH: People request the Feller filler.

AE: And I wish that we could play it, too. I mean, that's some of my most favorite stuff. One of my favorite songs we ever put on a record is "None Too Fancy" on Mother of All Saints [1992].

BH: It's really good! The atmosphere, the feeling of it.

AE: It's so fucked up.

BH: I would never tell someone that they should like the home-recorded stuff. But all of us--

AE: We're compelled to put it on.

BH: None of those things got on there without all of us really wanting it to be on.

AE: And there's a lot more that didn't make it that was under consideration.

BH: My only exception to the term Feller filler is, if you really want to hear filler, I've probably got 75 reel-to-reel tapes of two- to four-track stuff.

AE: Bad stuff.

PSF: Do you mix up hi-fi and lo-fi stuff on the same song?

BH: Yeah, that's a favorite thing. I was talking to someone recently about "Sports Car" from Tangle [1989] and how it has this horrible recording of my voice. We were talking about the beauty of ghetto blasters--they don't make these any more, ghetto blasters with built-in mics--they have this really killer automatic compression. And if you had to get a band playing and it's a really dynamic thing, just sort of crashing great improv, but it's a real song, these compressors can give you the most intense sound. Because every new little thing that comes along just squashes everything else. Violence is captured in there. It gives you the feeling that a lot is being squeezed through a small hole. And it energizes me to hear that. So we did this vocal that was recorded on the worst old reel-to-reel out on the front steps, while it was raining, while somebody inside kept hitting different distortion boxes.

That was so early for us in California that we were still having people come to us and telling us who we sounded like or who we should listen to if we didn't know. A lot of people were making really good assumptions about where we were getting stuff. They just weren't right. We hadn't heard the Swell Maps, and none of us had ever really listened to Captain Beefheart and the Fall. And the Fall had this one really beautiful song where it's going along with this really relaxed, sort of Velvet Underground feel, and suddenly you hear a tape machine and it sounds like somebody's recording of the song is in the background.

PSF: Yeah, "Paint Work."

BH: Yeah! It's beautiful. There's something about that that fills me with.... It's so much more of a story or something. It suddenly just expands the whole song into something that makes it more real.

PSF: Elf Power covered [the Strangers album-closing lullaby] "Noble Experiment."

MD: I was pretty floored by that. It's flattering.

AE: I'd love to hear more covers. I'd love to hear bands totally make fun of it. Because that's one of things that's given us the most pleasure, totally fucking up our own songs in practice.

PSF: Oh, your songs.

AE: Well, other people's, too. But doing these really supersarcastic or supergeeky renditions. And that's hardly ever come out live, unfortunately. We've had so many hilarious practice sessions where we just start covering ourselves and doing these hideous versions of songs. Like, "Let's do the new wave version of this song."

BH: When we were practicing [in late 1999] we started getting into that, and it was so much fun. I was singing like the guy from the Cure, singing "The Operation" [from Strangers] like that. That felt so good. And I was thinking, "I feel so stupid for not having started doing this eight, ten years ago, just pick someone and sing like them." It's a blast. Suddenly I felt really emotional. I was crying a little bit, like: "Oh, yeah, that's the voice I should have been using all this time. His."

PSF: The Live tour. Do you have any stories from that?

MD: We'd gotten into a cushy state where we were playing the same clubs each tour, and had more and more fans each time that were into what we were doing. We got kind of lulled into that. So doing the tour with Live was really shocking because every night you're playing to more people than you've ever played to before, and they all think you suck. What was cool about that was that you had to get your energy and enjoyment directly from the music and each other instead of from the audience.

AE: I'm really glad we did it. We talk about it a lot, even to this day. It answered a lot of questions for us, too, because it made it so clear that there was just no fucking way that we ever gonna get bigger than we were. Once you see the inside of the industry like that: "Oh, this is how it works, and this is what the majority of people want, and this is what it takes to do this." But it was a good realization. It was a joyous thing.

BH: Yeah. And it was so funny. We would sit back in the van sometimes and realize the rage that would fill the mind of a Live fan when this group of people in their mid-30s came out, and they had obviously not changed their clothes or anything. They looked like their parents on the weekend. They obviously did not take any steps to entertain or anything.

AE: Yeah. No light show. We didn't make any attempt to look hip for the kids or whatever.

BH: Or hop around energetically.

AE: As soon as we walked out it was just: hatred.

BH: I stepped up to the mic once and said, "Now we're going to play a medley of selections from the theme for A Fistful of Dollars."  And this skinhead in front of me, his eyes were going crossed. He nearly broke his middle finger off giving me the finger so hard. He was screaming at me with hatred! I can't imagine anything more horrible for him than to have me walk out there and keep him from his band.

MD: It was pretty unnerving, because people were throwing things. I had a basketball whiz right by my head.

PSF: I downloaded a couple of their songs to listen to today. And they were just despairing.

MD: That was weird too. To go through that experience each night, and then have them come on afterward and see the crowd ignite. People were really responding to this stuff they were playing. It was mystifying.

PSF: When you decided to give up touring, was it unanimous?

MD: No, it wasn't. I wanted to keep going. And I think Brian did, too. But everyone else was just too worn out by it. It's really grueling. And not just the physical nature of it, but trying to make a living off it. It was such a meager existence. People were just thinking having a day job wasn't so bad after all. At least you could go see a movie once in a while. But I wasn't quite to that point yet. I wanted to try a little longer. But I can't imagine that it would have gone on much longer if we had. Because there's not really a big-enough market for this kind of music, I don't think, to support many bands.

PSF: Do you have a sense of what the status of the band is now, with Jay in Boston?

AE: Vague.

BH: Vague, yeah.

MD: I don't know. I always feel like there's potential for something. I can't see myself saying that there's no chance of anything ever happening again. But I don't know if we'll ever do another record. And I certainly don't think we'll ever tour again, unless it's a few dates here and there.

AE: The band is definitely still open to doing some music. Like we did this Shaggs song for a Shaggs [tribute] compilation.

PSF: Which song?

AE: "Who Are Parents."

PSF: Their rhythms I just can't figure out, so I don't know what it would be like to try to cover that, because if you normalize it you wouldn't really get the Shaggs feeling.

AE: Ours I'm really proud of. I think it turned out so great.

BH: It's like a church thing.

AE: It's very smooth. But creepy.

PSF: So might there be more records or more shows?

AE: Anything's possible.

BH: We were all friends before the band started, and we're all still friends now. If we were more like strangers to one another it would be easier to say, "Oh, it's really unlikely." But the fact is we see one another.

AE: Band-related stuff is a good way to get everyone to come out of their houses, because we tend to hide a lot.

BH: Jay definitely told us when he moved that we could get another drummer.

AE: At the time we were like, "Oh, there's no way." But I actually have thought about it a couple of times recently. There's a couple of people who have even said [they'd play drums]. 'Cause playing is fun, and I totally miss it, and I get depressed when I don't.

BH: We might be coming up upon doing something, because it seems like everybody really misses that.

MD: I can see us doing little projects here and there together. When Jay left there was talk of him coming back to do a show or two when the record came out. I don't know if that's going to happen. But I hope it does.

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