‘Rath on Record: Fairmont

jay kundrath returns with the final ‘Rath On Record of 2010, profiling the band Fairmont …

Rath On Record #4

Artist: Fairmont
Genre: indie-folk-boy/girl-jangle-rock
Homebase: New Jersey
Players: Neil Sabatino — vocals, guitars, songs; Andy Applegate – drums, Christian Kisala — Pianet, Synths, Percussion; Sam Carradori — vocals, glockenspiel, tambourine; Clancy Flynn — violin (on occasion)

If you’ve read anything about New Jersey’s Fairmont, you may already know that frontman and songwriter Neil Sabatino once played in a band with Frank Iero — a guitarist who would later achieve massive success with the platinum-selling My Chemical Romance. This fact — while interesting — is somewhat of a red herring. Musically speaking, Fairmont could hardly be further from the high-gloss, high-octane sound of MCR. In contrast, Fairmont’s distorted, folky jangle — prominently featuring boy/girl vocal harmonies, synths and glockenspiel — stands apart from most of today’s rock bands. But for Sabatino, that bit of his past remains uniquely significant, inextricable and inspirational.

Fairmont are one of the longest-standing and most prolific indie rock bands in the N.J. scene. Having released five EPs and six full-length albums since 2001, the band has steadily developed its sound into something refreshingly singular. From the first notes of their latest album — 2010’s Destruction Creation — your ears will detect something different from the standard rock fare. Where so many artists exploit digital technology to present an impossibly perfect document of their sound to ensure its radio readiness, Fairmont are uninterested in fitting themselves into that mold. Their sound is loose, alive, and human. And while Sabatino’s delicate and often-pained tenor leads the band through a range of emotions across 10 tracks, a passing glance at the song titles reveals themes of bitterness, betrayal and disillusionment that he has explored throughout his discography. Whether howling the chorus of “Liars,” haunting the verses of “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished” or ripping riffs through the darker tones of “It’s All About You,” it would seem our hero is still working some things out.

The album, however, is a dynamic collection and shines in some lighter moments as well. The adorable “Lucky Boy Lucky Girl” is destined for many mix CDs given between adorable indie-rock couples. “In This House” is a lovely, tuneful ode to marital bliss. But this is also the same man who’s written songs with titles like “Since Day One I’ve Been Plotting Your Death” and released an album named Hell is Other People. Here is where the significance of Sabatino’s past comes into view. His relative proximity to the heights his former bandmate went on to achieve has seemingly fueled a fire of inspiration that’s been going strong for a decade. His original voice and unique sound notwithstanding, Fairmont — in a sense — couldn’t really exist as they are without that other band. This, however, only makes them and their music even more fascinating.

As 2010 drew to a close, and the metro area was hammered by a monstrous blizzard, I had a chance to send Sabatino some questions about his new record, his favorite albums, and his thoughts on Fairmont’s upcoming 10th anniversary.

ROR: You’ve studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, and you’ve designed every Fairmont album cover. How has your training in the visual arts affected your musical and lyrical expression?

NS: Actually, this most recent album cover was designed by my wife Jamie, and I think it was a welcome change from my weird drawings. I actually did not design all of our covers If there was some friend of ours who happened to have a piece of artwork we liked, we ended up using it for a cover. Our second album, Anomie, has a cover that a friend of ours had made for her thesis art show. And we were also lucky enough to have this amazing artist Matt Leines design some shirts and our EP cover for The Subtle Art Of Making Enemies. Then there are covers like The Meadow At Dusk, which was taken from an antique postcard I found at a thrift store, and the poster that came with the album was made up of art contributed from all the members of the band and a bunch of fans from ages 11 and up.

But onto the second part of that question, I feel like if art school taught me anything it was that “less is more.” I feel I’ve tried over the years to develop a style that is hopefully original, and with each album, we perfect that sound and write to the best of our abilities up to that point. I think the album artwork also defines our online look on our website and Myspace, Facebook, Twitter and so on. So it is an important part of each record. In recent years though I try not to think too hard about it. For the new album Destruction Creation, I wanted the theme of the artwork and the music on the album to reflect a real DIY homemade record and I think we accomplished that feel both with the album art and the music.

ROR: Fairmont’s sound is so unique to today’s rock landscape. Would you name some influential albums that you hold dear?

NS: I know my band definitely has their own influences that are pretty far off from my tastes, but right now some of my favorites are The Rolling Stones, Exile On Main Street; Bob Dylan, Desire; The Beatles, Abbey Road; John Coltrane, Lush Life; Joy Division, Unknown Pleasures, Violent Femmes’ self-titled; Pavement, Brighten The Corners; Nick Drake, Pink Moon; and Johnny Cash, Live At Folsom Prison. I think aside from that, I listen to a ton of 60’s garage rock and recently have been into a lot of French ’60s pop like Jaques Dutronc. I listen to new stuff as it comes out — I probably have everything the labels Barsuk and Dangerbird have put out in the last five years — but I find I return to the classics often. I kind have been very into Girl Talk as of late as they are good for anyone who has musical ADD.

ROR: Speaking of your unique sound, how did you come to acquire the services of vocalist/glockenspiel-ist(?) Sam Carradori?

NS: Sam was 16 when we met her in 2003 and she sang on our second album [2003’s Anomie] and was featured prominently in our video for “Sometimes I’m Bitter.” At the tim, she played with us as much as possible but wasn’t able to join the band full time. So years later, after having many different female guest vocals, we decided we wanted a permanent counter part to my vocals, and Sam just happened to be available and was very into the idea of joining our band full time. At first, we gave her a tambourine, but soon realized she was talented enough to handle all the glockenspiel that was on our recordings. So we gave her on,e and within in a few practices, she was starting to become an expert. As well, her strongest point has been vocal harmonies, and she really has shined on our last few recordings and has definitely elevated the band to a higher level.

ROR: Has this lineup taken your writing in different directions?

NS: I think Christian [Kisala, synths] has taken the band to place I wouldn’t have been able to explore on my own. Sometimes, he just changes the beat that one note happens on, and it changes the whole feel of the song. He has really taken what I bring to the band in new and exciting directions. It’s like I basically bring the band a rough sketch, and they choose the colors and the medium and the final product is never what I expected.

ROR: Tell me about the title to your newest album, Destruction Creation. How did that come to represent this particular song cycle?

On tour with Life Of Agony's Keith Caputo.
Photo: Getmadbaby.com

NS: I felt like this new record was was very lo-fi and simple sounding, and that is how the title relates to it. I felt like we were throwing things away that had given us comfort in the past — like working with a producer who quantized drums and made the vocals perfect, made every keyboard note perfect. We threw all of that away and just used very live tracks, not a lot of overdubs, vocals tracked all at once with no auto-tune or melodyne. We produced this record ourselves, and every member of the band engineered it, as well every member gave input while mixing. So I felt like this was a new start for us, a new era for us and it was a breaking away the way things were done in the past.

The theme of destroying to create as well falls in line with the lyrical content and the existential themes that every Fairmont record has. This album is about leaving behind poisonous relationships and spending time on the relationships that are important to me that I see as flourishing. The first time I had I actually thought of using the phrase as an album title was when I heard a character in the movie I Heart Huckabees chanting it repeatedly. It just had a nice ring to it, and all at once, it just seemed to sum up my thoughts and the lyrical content all in one phrase.

ROR: There are some familiar lyrical themes on this album: bitterness, disillusionment, betrayal. Do you feel like you’re finding any closure in your music? Or are you simply finding new sources of woe as you get older?

NS: I think at first I wrote a whole bunch of love songs because I wanted to really try to be positive, so half the album is just simple love songs. It just happened at a certain point in the writing process, some characters from my past had reared their ugly heads and had pissed me off enough or betrayed me in such a way that I felt it was cathartic to write a song about it and get all the angst out of my system. I almost always write about what is immediately affecting me and some things that other people see as negative I usually just see as the way things are. I think even though it seems as though some of my songs are still the same bitter songwriter from years ago, I hope if you really listen to the lyrics you hear an artist who has grown and is trying to get past these issues but because of the people or situations he is in, it just hasn’t been possible. I guess overall this is cheaper then therapy and maybe my bitterness, disillusionment and betrayal can help someone else out.

ROR: Your recorded output with Fairmont has been prolific, and I hear that you’re already in the planning stages for your seventh LP. What can fans expect this time around?

NS: I’m not sure. I wrote a three or four new songs and am very open to experimenting with rhythm’s and different textures. Who knows, I might throw away everything and start over again. Right now, I’m just getting ideas and trying stuff out and seeing where it goes once I bring it to the band. It’s still too early to tell where it will end up. I’ve always wanted to try some Motown-sounding stuff or some bluesy stuff, but I think in the end, a little bit of Beatles-ness works its way into our songs and they all end up pop no matter how hard I try to get away from it. Now that we are sure we can record a record by ourselves, maybe we’ll try adding some instruments into the mix that maybe never have been part of a Fairmont record.

ROR: Are there any plans for a special 10th anniversary concert this coming year?

NS: We are going to work on some special videos and songs, but I feel like this is really almost a brand new band and like there is no reason to celebrate. I’d love to throw a big anniversary show if I thought anybody cared or would be interested in hearing our older stuff, but I think at this point we’d rather look forward and build on what we have been doing and not look back.

ROR: Why should people have some Fairmont in their music library?

NS: I don’t know if anyone should have us in their library — I’m not really sure if we’re any good or not. I just love music a lot and love making music.

ROR: Can you see Fairmont making 20 years?

NS: As long as I’m alive and can find a few people who are still interested in making records with me. Well, who am I kidding? If no one is interested, I’ll be making them by myself, so that is a yes.