Statues, Snakes, and Plaster Casts: An interview with Fear of Men

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Fear Of Men

Brighton, UK’s Fear of Men are as interested in art and aesthetics as they are in crafting enigmatic pop music. The band was born when Jessica Weiss and Daniel Falvey met at a 2011 Goldsmiths art show, where Weiss was exhibiting work inspired by the diaries of Anaïs Nin. The two discovered a shared interest in art and decided to channel their creative energy into a band. After releasing a compilation of singles titled Early Fragments in 2013, the band has now recorded their first full-length, Loom. The record offers more polished versions of several Early Fragments tracks, continuing to explore themes of birth, death, sex, art, vulnerability, strength, and introversion. Weiss’s lyrics are reminiscent of the e e cummings poem “somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond”: “Nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals the power of your intense fragility.” This dichotomy of the intense and the fragile permeates each Fear of Men song. While their clean, classical image may suggest softness, their lyrics explore the darker side of the human psyche.

Since Fear of Men’s albums are adorned with images of classical statues and pottery and their music videos have referenced the work of Marina Abramovic, I decided to center my conversation with Weiss and Falvey around art and aesthetics.

I saw you guys last summer at New York’s South Street Seaport. You've played several shows in the United States, and you are going on tour here soon.

Jessica Weiss: We haven't actually toured America yet, which is why we're so excited for next month when we're coming over, but we've done little trips. We've played in New York a few times and we played in L.A. and we did SXSW, but we haven't been to all the rest of the country, so we're to get to drive around and go to some backwater towns.

How do you entertain yourselves on tour?

Weiss: We've never been on a tour anywhere near this long, so it will be kind of interesting. In our last tours we've watched a lot of David Attenborough nature documentaries. I think we'll take a lot of photos as well, I like to write a lot when I’m traveling.

Daniel Falvey: I think that's the key thing. It will be really nice to just see all the scenery. It’s going to be quite a long road trip and there are huge parts of America we haven't seen, so we're excited to do that. The first time we went to America, we went to Boston and then got picked up there to go to Mexico to go to a festival, Festival Nrmal in Monterrey. I was looking out the window the whole time, I’ve never seen scenery like that, it was beautiful and it stayed with me, so I’m just hoping to see a lot of America. I never really did any traveling before, and I always said since I was young that if I did any traveling, I want do it with a band.

What was the difference between making a full length album versus curating a compilation of singles?

Weiss: The singles compilation just came about from Kanine wanting to work with us but we weren’t ready to do our album or anything, so that was just everything we’d done so far put together chronologically, whereas this time there were themes I wanted to go deeper into and we were thinking about the shape of the whole thing. It needed more of a narrative structure and also we kinda worked on it over a year at least, so we were always taking things out and putting new bits in.

Falvey: We wanted to make a coherent album and I think if you listen to it now, it does have a sort of narrative which we didn’t really mean to happen but that’s what we wanted. We went into the studio and recorded in natural blocks, rather than just going in for a weekend and recording a single, so I think from that the album is more coherent and more of a statement.

Listening to the album feels like a full journey.

Falvey: It marks a very specific time, we just really locked ourselves away, either working or recording for quite a long time or we would going off on these trips, like the festival to Mexico or SXSW that was almost like our spare time because that’s when we took time off work, so it really was this chapter in our lives where that’s all we did and it really got quite intense and I think that fed into the record as well.

Weiss: I feel like we have been constantly working on stuff and pushing ourselves and when we’re not recording stuff we’re working on videos or working on the artwork. Like tonight, after we finish talking to you, we’re working on the zine which is going to be part of the “Luna” single.

Can you tell me about that?

Weiss: Well, it’s like 20-page zine which is photos of us making the cover art of the record and the guy that we recorded the album with, Julian wrote a piece for it.

Falvey: And you wrote an article about Francesca Woodman.

You’re also releasing the single on a flexidisc, right?

Weiss: Yeah, it’s “Luna” backed with “Outrun Me”, another track that is a B-side on the album, and the zine.

<p>Who are your favorite artists?

Weiss: I studied fine art and art history. I don’t know if I could choose one! Maybe David Hockney? I really love his etchings and his line drawings, particularly the ones from the ‘70s and ‘80s. I think he has a really beautiful line. I really like Goshka Macuga. I don’t know how big she is in America. She’s Polish and she does installation art. They’re very mysterious, they are very formal but they are based on very deep research into peoples lives, like a series of sculptures based on the relationship between Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich, who were architects and designers. They did a lot of Third Reich stuff and were involved with Bauhaus. I like when you see something which is really pleasing on the surface, but is possible to understand it in a lot of different ways.

Falvey: I’m an english student so I didn’t do art, but I really like David Hockney too. Who do I like, Jess?

Weiss: Freud, Egon Schiele.

Falvey: I do like Schiele.

Weiss: I’m really into psychological paintings and that sort of dimension of work.

The “Mosaic” single has an image of a bust of the Virgin Mary and Early Fragments shows classical statues, and then Loom has the plaster cast. What about these classical themes really interests you?

Weiss: Well, the reason that we went with them to begin with is because our first 7” had a piece of work that I made when I was in Goldsmiths on the cover, which was influenced by Freud’s The Uncanny where he particularly talks about Egyptian statues having this kind of weird permanence, but also making us mourn for ourselves because we’re not permanent, so that kind of led me down that route. Also Walter Benjamin's The Origins of German Tragic Drama where he talks about myth and allegory. So that’s kind of the reason we were interested in them because I often touch on those kind of themes or they’re worth thinking about when I’m writing songs. We like the kind of museum-archival aesthetic. At the time when we were first starting there were a lot of skater dude bands around London and they all have like a girl with their boobs out or something on the covers of their stuff and we were like, “Nope, we’re going in the complete other direction, we’re just going to have something super classical, super clean.”

Falvey: I think that’s one of the reason why we like to talk about art and try to incorporate it, because it’s against the kind of apathy and slacker style of a lot of the bands we’re around in the DIY scene. I think some of that classical imagery, like the Mosaic cover, is quite European as well, and obviously we live in England. I always feel that your art or music should be informed by your environment and you should try to be a product of that, and that’s very much what me and Jess have always wanted to do. Jess sings in her accent. We try to be inspired by the things around us. It’s important to be who you are and I think what we do, a kind of more direct pop music, is what Jess enjoys listen to. I think that’s what we want to be, we want the band to be an extension of ourselves as truly as possible.

To me, your lyrics are so intelligent and enigmatic that I would call your lyrics anything but direct. However, your sound is very accessible.

Falvey: I think that’s the thing. There’s this kind of belief that if you write pop music, it must be kind of dumb, it must be easy. I’ve never really agreed with that, and that’s why we like music that disarms you because it feels like it should be a certain way, that you should be singing about the same things. but it’s got hooks and you find yourself singing along to something that maybe has more depth than you realize.

Weiss: It kind of also feels like there are two kinds of listeners. I zero in on the lyrics in whatever I’m listening to, so it can really ruin a song for me if I think they are just doing something to rhyme and it’s not something they care about. I think a lot of people just listen to songs for the general ambience anyways. One of our favorite bands is The Smiths. The lyrics are second to none really, and it’s still these classic pop tunes.

Falvey: We are interested in pop music. Loose, the album by Nelly Furtado! I really like a lot of that album, the ballads kind of ruin it for me. It has some really catchy songs on it. So I often think if the lyrics are good, if they’re singing about something a little bit different, it would be so interesting. You could use those melodies as a kind of vehicle to talk about something else. I’m interested in pushing that next, seeing in some respects how “pop” we can go.

Weiss: We’re just getting started on album two so this is the kind of palate we’re drawing on but you never know how it will end up.

Falvey: We haven't even released our first album yet!

Weiss: I really love bands like Pulp and The Cure and they all have really good lyrics.

Falvey: But to be fair I think actually the truth is that you would always just sing the lyrics that you would want to sing anyway.

Weiss: I used to have a thing against love songs, but now I don’t mind that as long as it’s saying something that’s more interesting than, “You’re really great,” it just has to have something individual which shows you why the song was even written.

I wanted to ask about the plaster sculpture on the cover of Loom. Did you guys make it?

Weiss: Yes! We worked with my friend from art college, Tom, and over three months or something we built it and we built the case for it.

Falvey: We had just finished the album but we realized that we had to get the album artwork together quite quickly. We came up with it in a bookstore. I think we were thinking, oh maybe we’ll do what we’ve done before, maybe we’ll just start researching images and maybe we’ll use an image if it works with the album. What we’d done before was go to libraries, book shops, charity shops, and just look through a bunch of images until one spoke to us. The album feels very personal to us because it took so long to make and it really involved us and we produced it ourselves, it took all of us. I think it felt right for us to take the same approach with the artwork and not use a stock image from a museum or something.

Weiss: Generally, when we have an idea and even if it’s quite impractical and will require us to learn a lot of new skills to achieve it we tend to just go for it and jump in head first.

Falvey: We had a very clear idea. On page, it was inspired by the body casts from Pompeii and that seemed to really work with the themes of the album and how we felt about the album. Bits of the lyrics feel like they’re linked to that even though Jess would not have be thinking about them at the time. So I started looking at getting a body cast done. We were quoted thousands of pounds. Jess and Tom, who are the art students, worked out a way to do it. It’s kind of amazing that we managed to do it.

Weiss: It was really satisfying when we got the photo because also we only had one day in the room that we photographed it in. We were looking through all the photos and they were all blurry until the last one.

Falvey: It could easily have been three months work for nothing, we had a backup shot if it didn’t work.

Speaking of going the distance for your work, the “Luna” video seems very calculated. Can explain the thought behind the video?

Weiss: We were deciding what to do for the video and I really like Marina Abramovic and I thought those pieces would work really well. I kind of wanted to hold a snake because I had it in my head that it would look good on film.

Falvey: For the bridge, I really wanted for the bridge, we were talking about how we can have something that builds tension in the same way as that they bridge does where it sticks on that one note and Jess is singing you give up for a slightly awkward amount of time.

Weiss: We needed tension. Kind of like the love songs, I don’t like music videos that look like music videos, that just have cliches and tropes, so we thought we needed to take it into art territory.

Falvey: The songs starts with these drums and there are big crashes, and I wanted a mixture of crashing and movement, but also waves, liquid. The songs feels very liquid to us so that’s kind of where the idea to smash the vases with the paint came from. That was really fun, we had to find someone with an air rifle.

Weiss: We wanted to do this shot where I was standing looking at the camera and Dan shot the camera in front of the camera. There were holes in the wall of the place that we borrowed.

Falvey: That’s what scared me—I hadn’t shot the bow and arrow until after we’d done all the scenes with Jess. When I was doing the scenes with Jess, I was quite relaxed because I knew I had it, I knew I was holding it but I was kind of like, oh whats it going to do. I’d never seen a bow and arrow later. Later, we were working on this shot with the arrow going past the camera and it instantly made a dent in this wooden wall and I realized that the wall was a lot further away then Jess was and I was pulling it a lot less…

Weiss: It’s kind of funny. I was really into going in as fearless, but I really don’t think we had thought about how dangerous it was.

Falvey: You were really brave in that video. Those snakes around you, like going up your shirt, and you just kept singing. We like to push ourselves.

Fear of Men's Loom is out now on Kanine Records.