With all the mis-labeling on the Bandcamp Shoegaze page I wrote about in an earlier post, it has become virtually impossible to find an actual Shoegaze band there. Figurehead represents that one-in-a-thousand payoff for someone silly enough to keep trying – me.
Figurehead hails from El Paso, Texas, and while there is no shortage of Shoegaze bands in Texas, especially around Austin, this is the only one I’ve heard of from that particular town. When I contacted the band, Jason readily agreed to letting me use one of Figurehead‘s songs on Vibrato 11.01*, and foolishly agreed to being interviewed by me.
NWs: Well, Jason, let me start by thanking you for taking time to participate in this little interview.
Jason: My pleasure.
NWs: How did Figurehead come to be the band’s name?
Jason: As far as a name, I just liked the simplicity of the word; it’s simple and timeless and… effortless. It doesn’t try too hard. The other reason for the name, it speaks to the sometimes overwhelming sense of self-doubt I struggle with – a figurehead is also a person who appears to have power but really has none. I like that self-deprecating quality. I have doubts about everything I write, so I felt it was appropriate to brand my material with something that was… humble, I suppose.
NWs: I haven’t been able to find out much about Figurehead from my search of the Internet, so would you, please, introduce me to the band?
Jason: The core of this project comprises me and my writing partner Leo — we’ve worked with a large rotating crew of good people over the years who have greatly contributed to what we are today.
NWs: When was the band formed?
Jason: I guess you could say there was a “Figurehead” in early 2004 when we pulled together a lineup and started acting like a band. There was a lot of writing and experimentation before that, but nothing official.
NWs: I see. So, is that original, 2004 lineup still intact, or have members continued to come and go? How long has the current lineup been together?
Jason: Leo and I have been the two constants — as I count on my hands, I see that there have been seven other musicians involved at various times. Leo does guitar and keys in a live setting while I play guitar and sing. The album was recorded in such a way that it was easier for me to play all the instruments, except drums. Dave Ng, who was our most recent drummer, also plays drums on the record. I would say that there have been some “set” lineups in the past, but it’s currently in as much flux as it’s ever been.
NWs: How do you guys write your songs? Who writes the lyrics?
Jason: This is a tough question because there really is no easy answer. Most of the songs we’ve just released were conceived during a time when I was still pretty clueless as a musician and a songwriter — many will surely say that I still am, but I’ve always been around the written word, so most the songs you hear now began as just lyrics. As time has gone on, I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable working on melodies and song structures first. I’ve found that most of what I write deals with pretty specific things, so I’d say I rely heavily on inspiration to move the writing process forward.
With respect to both the music and lyrics, Leo and I both bring ideas to the table, after which I’ll generally take anything that kind of works and attempt to turn it into something coherent.
NWs: So you play all the different parts – guitar, bass, etc. – as you work toward completing a song?
Jason: Up until this point, once there are workable ideas I’ll take the lead and hammer out all the parts. For performance purposes I’ve always put together demo versions of the songs and everyone else uses those as a guide. Everyone who’s a part of the live show always brings their unique voice to the songs, which is great. Unfortunately, the way this album was made didn’t lend itself easily to participation by other people, which is why I tracked everything but the drums myself. Frankly, the album probably suffered for it. Our live players are kind of scattered around the country right now. I do look forward to the possibility of a more collaborative writing and recording process in the future.
NWs: I know I’ve been through El Paso during several of my family’s mad, 3000 miles in four days, coast-to-coast dashes, and I do remember stopping there for lunch once – my brother and I talked our parents into buying us the first pairs of sunglasses we ever owned. Does that count as having been to El Paso, do you think?
Jason: El Paso is pretty far away from everything, so getting there is an accomplishment in itself. As soon as your feet hit the ground, I’d say it counts as having been there. Its isolation was even more pronounced in the days before the Internet, and, in my opinion, that isolation has produced some of the more unique musicians and bands I’ve heard. There are pluses and minuses to making original music in an place that always seems late to jump on board with what the rest of the world is doing.
NWs: Do you think of yourselves as a Shoegazers?
Jason: I certainly wouldn’t use that word to describe us, but only because I’m one of those annoying people that has trouble attaching a genre label to my music. But I will say this: for a long time I was skeptical of relying on distorted guitar chords because it seemed like a cop out to me — a cheap and easy way to add power to otherwise boring rock songs. But I found the songs I was writing were lacking some… punch. Shoegaze bands — Ride, Catherine Wheel and My Bloody Valentine, to name a few — helped provide a road map to get to that sound that’s heavy but also lush, beautiful, and subtle. Pinion probably comes across as more of an atmospheric, modern Rock record than pure Shoegaze — and probably as a bizarre hodgepodge of styles and influences — because of the way I grew and changed over the years that it was written, as well as the way it was recorded. I think a Shoegaze influence is much more evident in the newer stuff I’m working on.
NWs: I’d ask about the Shoegaze scene in El Paso, but I’m guessing you’re as close to being it as it gets; am I wrong?
Jason: I’m really out of touch with the El Paso scene these days. A few years ago, when we were more active in the scene, there were some great bands making big, beautiful music that I’d definitely say was Shoegaze-influenced — though to my knowledge, none of them are active anymore. El Paso is a peculiar music town, and we were always a group that sort of moved between “scenes.”
NWs: Has Figurehead been on the road at all? Have you opened for anyone whose music you really like? Someone you would consider an influence? Have you ever come across one of my favorite Texan bands: Ghost of the Russian Empire?
Jason: We’ve played around regionally a bit, but no extended tour. For the past few years, Figurehead has been strictly a recording project, and that’s been enough work.
The band I’ve been most honored to share the stage with is The Fireland Ablaze — a big influence and my all-time favorite El Paso band. I’d strongly encourage you to check them out (link) — they definitely take that Shoegaze sound and make it their own. I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to get those guys to make a new record for years.
I’ve never heard of Ghost of the Russian Empire, but now that you bring them up, I’ll definitely check them out.
NWs: And I will certainly have a listen to The Fireland Ablaze. Let me know what you think of GotRE. I wouldn’t say that they had taken the Shoegaze sound and made it their own, but they didn’t remind me of anyone else. Sadly, I don’t think they are around anymore.
NWs: In the future, are you hoping to sign with a label of some sort, or are you happier doing things your way?
Jason: Making this record really gave me an appreciation for doing everything my way; it’s a satisfying way to work. There are things that labels are good at, and I may look into that in the future, but for now it’s not something I’m pursuing. I think the fascination with “major” labels can be safely put to rest for good. In today’s musical climate, I don’t see how that kind of arrangement would be very attractive to an artist who cares about their work.
NWs: I understand that you are preparing to release Pinion on CD in the near future; what then for Figurehead? SXSW perhaps?
Jason: Pinion should be available on CD in early 2011, and then we’ll take it from there. I have a huge backlog of material I need to record, so I’ll probably spend some time on that.
SXSW would be great, but I don’t know If we’ll be able to do the legwork to find a venue by then. Also, the Pinion songs are pretty densely layered, so we’d need to retool the arrangements a bit for a live show; we’ll see what happens.
NWs: Well, I wish you the best of luck in whatever you decide to do. Another Figurehead CD in 2012 is something I’ll be looking forward to. Thanks again for your time.
Jason: With a little luck, you’ll get another CD sooner than that.
NWs: That would be nice.
*Vibrato 11.01 is scheduled to be available from 12am PST Monday, 10 January.
My Rating: ✭✭✭✩
iPod Songs: tbd