Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 is a quirky, creative and darned impressive little San Francisco band that recently released their fourth full-length album, Strangers from the Universe, on Matador records. It's really good. Anyway, Thinking Fellers will be playing two sets at Cat's Cradle on Tuesday, so I had a little long-distance heart-to-heart with Mark Davies, one of the leading figures in the band. We began by talking about how the band does well in larger cities, but sometimes when it plays in the Midwest or the South, only about 20 people will show up.
Is that discouraging at all? Or do you just let it roll off?
I don't find it that discouraging. As long as there are places where there are people that know about us. If it was that way every show, then I might get discouraged. A lot of places like that just don't have the same sort of radio connections that bigger cities might have. You can't really expect it.
Have you been playing mostly songs on the new album? Or have you been playing even newer stuff?
We've been playing a few songs that are brand news. We've got about 50 or 60 songs on our list that we can draw from. There's probably five or six that are brand new. We only play a couple of them on any night. We are playing a lot of stuff from the new record and a smattering of other stuff.
What are the newest songs like? Have you experimented with any new instruments or anything?
No, no new instruments. A lot of the new ones are still forming. We have a basic structure that we're following, but we're still improving a lot in sections. There's one that's a short, straight-ahead blowout thing and there's one that's kind of a country/western thing and there's one that's a pop song with more noise.
Do you just come up with these while you're jamming or do the individual members write the melodies and bring them in?
Most of our songs do come from jamming. Sometimes somebody will bring in some idea, but usually other people will add their own parts over it. Most of the songs are kind of Frankenstein monsters in a way. Bits from here and there when people just throw in their own ideas.
Are you guys musically trained in any way?
I had some training like piano lessons when I was a kid and I was in the high school band and stuff like that. Ann took piano lessons for like 10 years. But the rest of the group has almost no formal instruction. We're all pretty self-taught on the instruments we play.
What do you think about the "music scene" today? The MTV-alternative sound that's getting out?
I personally feel like sort of an oddball in that scene. I don't listen to indie rock and I don't really follow the alternative scene. I don't really think of us within the currents of that. It doesn't really have much bearing on what we do. We don't consider ourselves part of the indie movement or anything. But you have to step into that world to deal with certain aspects - booking a tour, dealing with record labels - but creatively I'm not that interested in keeping up to date on what's going on. I think a lot of what we do draws from a lot of source, not indie rock.
Would you say that all of you are headed in the same direction musically? Or does one person want to play harder or -
Yeah, there's problems like that occasionally, but I don't think any of us really have a particularly strong direction. I think the band is more about exploration. When you're exploring, you're looking around for what's interesting. You go off in a certain direction for a while and see what's there, but then you explore in another direction, kind of meandering. I can't speak for everybody, but it seems like the individuals are that way too. So the intersection of all those paths is what comes out in the band.
It just seems that everything that comes out. seems right. It's really odd. Everything seems set and then something out of place or out of tune comes out, and it still seems right. Like you're on the exact same wavelength or something.
Yeah, I guess part of that is from playing together for so long. But also it's not completely haphazard. I think the way we work is a little haphazard, but we definitely distill things out. We jam and improvise all the time and tape it and use that kind of stuff to form songs. You end up with maybe five percent of it holding interest to you. It's kind of a weird mixture of spontaneous stuff, but it does get some structure.
What about the lyrics? How important are they to the band?
Well, I think they're important, but it's not our main focus. We're not like a "message band" trying to put across some political idea or something.
But that sort of thing seems to come across every once in a while. Like the last song on the new album. Almost. Or even the one about the bees on "Mother Of All Saints."
For me personally, I definitely write lyrics that mean things to me. It's not just something I throw off. But usually the lyrics do come last. But they're really important to me because for any song that we do, I get a really specific mood, feeling from it. What I want to do with lyrics is write something that means something to me. I want to be able to convey that mood with my lyrics. That's what I hope comes across. It's interesting, but it's not the most important thing.
So what do you think is the most important thing that your band is doing? Or what you're doing in the band? Is it about having fun, or is it about moving forward and creating? Hanging out with friends? Touring?
Having fun and keeping yourself interested are kind of related.
If you weren't creating music, is there anything else you'd like to be doing? Anything?
Sure, there's a million things, like traveling around the world.
Do you get to do that with the band?
Yeah, a little. We did tour Europe and we hope to do that again in a few months. We might go to Japan. But there are a lot of places I'd like to visit that aren't on the indie rock circuit (laughs). There's a million things to do besides music. Music's really important to me, but there's other things too.
Do you write or draw or anything? I was just wondering.
Yeah, I draw a little bit. I don't really consider myself much of a writer. For a while, I was doing these wax sculptures, like melting down candles and reforming them in different ways. That was a lot of fun and I'd like to do more of that, but I haven't had time.
What sort of bands around today would you consider your contemporaries? The Sun City Girls, I guess?
Well, yeah. There's a shared attitude maybe. We're fond of them as people and as a band.
So what do you see in the future? The near future?
Well, we're trying to really concentrate on the band. We all quit our jobs to go on this tour, and I don't know how long that's going to last. When we get done with this tour, we have plans to release our first tape on vinyl on our own label. I don't know exactly what other releases we'll do. Our Matador contract expired, but we'll probably negotiate with them. We'll go on tour in the spring. I'd like to do some other things too, like get involved in soundtrack work. But I'm not really sure how you would go about getting involved in that.
How has the press been for the new album?
I think it's really good. I haven't seen that many reviews, but there has been a lot of good press in the cities we've played. Matador's been really good about getting some write up in the papers in the towns we've played.
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