what exactly is so heart stopping about The Faint?
The critics can't seem to agree. As a lark, the boys in the band
compiled a list of who they've been compared to while on their last East Coast tour and
posted it on the Internet. Among the more than 40 names: Thomas Dolby meets Pac Man,
Braniac, Depeche Mode, The Calculators, Nine Inch Nails, Devo, Split Endz, early Duran
Duran, the Cure, Kraftwerk, Wire, Joy Division, Blondie, Sonic Youth, Magazine, KMFDM and
The Pet Shop Boys.
Comparisons are the bane of all musicians, who always insist that their
sound is singular, unique, unmatched. Well, this time, the comparisons are justified.
There's something about The Faint that you've heard before, but that you just can't put
your finger on. Lead singer Todd Baechle, for example, to me sounds like Squeezing Out
Sparks-era Graham Parker or a throaty Elvis Costello backed by, well, Thomas Dolby.
Baechle smiled at the Parker comparison -- he'd never
heard his stuff before. "We'll come up with a part of a song that sounds like a
certain band, then ask ourselves just how close we sound to it, and then try to distance
ourselves from it as much as possible."
Omaha 4-piece's new album, "Blank-Wave Arcade" slated for release Nov. 1 on
Saddle Creek Records, is a departure of sorts from the guitar-driven post-punk sound of
their April '98 debut, "Media." This time around, the band has completely
reinvented itself, in what both sounds and looks like something that came out of the '80s
New Wave art-rock scene. For example, check out their all-black color scheme. The day of
the interview at Baechle's parents' home, where they practice and sometimes record, the
band was decked out in assorted black attire -- black pants, black turtlenecks, black
collared shirts. The only hint of white was the priest's collar that synth/sampler/MC-303
performer Jacob Thiele slipped on playfully during the interview.
Bassist/guitarist Joel Petersen walked around the basement practice space stomping on
pedal controls that touched off different color floor lights and strobes, showing how the
deep-hued reds, greens, and blues just look better when you're wearing black. "We're
trying to do something entertaining, we don't want people to just stand there and watch us
play," he said.
No chance of that. "Blank-Wave Arcade" almost dares listeners to try to stand
still amidst the songs' constant electronic pings, pops, thuds and snaps, Clark Baechle's
throbbing drums and Petersen's pumping bass.
Tracks, such as the Gary Numan-esque "Call Call" with its chiming sampler
line, the disco-fueled driving lesson "Cars Pass in Cold Blood," the galloping
fuck-mantra "Casual Sex" and the electro-theremin-flavored chant-fest "The
Passives," sound like nothing on your radio these days, let alone even vaguely
resemble anything produced by the band's sad sack Saddle Creek label mates.
Although there's plenty of variety throughout the CD's 28 or so minutes, electronic
noises bathe every track in dense synthetic sounds that hearken back to '80s New Wave
while adding a stark Blade Runner sheen. Add the over-heated sexual references (the CD was
originally going to be an EP-length concept album about sex) and suddenly black never
seemed a more appropriate color. The music almost sounds modern for modern's sake.
"We'll come up with a
part of a song that sounds like a certain band, then ask ourselves just how close we sound
to it, and then try to distance ourselves from it as much as possible."
"Though we listen to a
lot of New Wave, I don't want to be called 'a retro thing.'"
guess this album has a New Wave sound to it," said Todd Baechle. "We're always
trying to stay clear of being grouped in the current label applied to bands."
"Though we listen to a lot of New Wave, I don't want to be called 'a retro
thing,'" Petersen said.
"I think there's enough modern sounds on this album that someone who really
listens to music wouldn't make that mistake after hearing the entire recording," Todd
It's certainly a departure from where the band's sound originated. Petersen and Todd
Baechle first started playing together in '94 as Norman Bailer, later adding Todd's
brother, Clark Baechle, on drums, along with Conor Oberst, now of Bright Eyes fame.
"That band was supposed to be our reaction to low-fi music and mathy rock
bands," Todd said. "We were trying to be this really clean, light rock band, but
we weren't good enough with our instruments."
Somewhere along the way, Oberst left the band, bass player Ethan Jones joined and they
changed their name to The Faint. Jones played on the debut and a split 7-inch (b/w
Ex-Action Figures) before leaving the band earlier this year. Petersen took over the bass
chores. Thiele joined in January, rounding out The Faint's new improved, almost all-synth
sound. Though the band credits Petersen on guitar, you won't likely see him donning an ax
when they perform. Most of the guitar sounds have been sampled, he said. "I was in
the process of weaning out the guitar when we started this album."
instead of a stack of guitar cases, the band will lug around on tour thousands of dollars
worth of synthesizers that Thiele says are no treat to set up and mix for shows. The
typical stage setting is three keyboards, the weird box-shaped MC-303 sequencer and
Clark's kit. Good thing they purchased a 15-passenger van before setting off on a
two-month tour Oct. 12 that will take them through the Midwest and along the eastern
seaboard. They'll head back to Omaha in November before setting off on the West Coast leg
of their North American Blank-Wave Tour.
While Thiele has booked all of the East Coast shows using little more than e-mail, the
band is looking for a booking agent to help on the West Coast leg. "I send out as
many as 80 e-mails a day, mostly to people doing DIY and punk shows," Thiele said.
"Generally, we're more interested in playing all-ages venues than 21-and-over
The band's favorite performances don't even take place in public places. For the East
Coast tour, the band scheduled seven cramped, sweaty house shows.
"Basement shows are the best," Todd said. "Your amps always sound
rocked, you can really be loud and get wild because there's no stage and the people are
right there with you."
But like the CD, it's a short-lived party. Most sets only last about a half-hour, Todd
said, to keep them wanting more and "because it's considerate for those who don't
care about you."
House parties and short sets, hardly the recipe for becoming great big rock stars.
"Making a living isn't on our minds," Todd said. "I'm not interested in
signing a big record deal. We already have a label with Saddle Creek. We just want to be
able to continue to do The Faint."
For a complete list of The Faint's tourdates,
go to the Saddle
Creek Records Page.
Published in The Reader Nov. 4, 1999. Copyright © 1999 Tim McMahan.
All rights reserved
"I send out as many as
80 e-mails a day, mostly to people doing DIY and punk shows. Generally, we're more
interested in playing all-ages venues than 21-and-over bars."