When it snows here in Richmond, even just an inch or two, things tend to shut down. Stores close early. Employers send workers home. Schools cancel classes before a single snowflake’s hit the ground. It can be a little ridiculous.
But there’s one intrepid organization that doesn’t scare so easily. A quintet that stares down Old Man Winter with ice in its collective veins. I’m talking about post-punk/New Wave-influenced indie rockers Dead Fame, who were kind — and brave — enough to stay late after practice two Thursdays ago, while a particularly wet, slushy snow was falling outside, and chat about their evolving stage setup, pre-Dead Fame musical experiences, favorite albums from 2012, and more.
Despite the inclement weather, this turned out to be the perfect time to catch up with the band. They’re performing at The Renaissance this Friday, February 1, for WRIR’s Party For the Rest of Us 8, and they’ve just released “My Body, My Fool,” which is the first in their new “Mask Singles” series. We kicked off the conversation by talking about the round of Pedro Aida-helmed recordings that gave birth to The Mask Singles.
You Hear That: What was working with Pedro Aida like?
KC Byrnes: He’s super-fast.
Christopher DeNitto: It was a pleasant experience. He put a lot of effort into it.
KB: I would say it was a good deal.
Eric Klemen: I didn’t know Pedro, but I was like, ‘If we just get a clean recording out of this, I’ll be happy.’ But he exceeded our expectations, at least mine.
Sadie Powers: By far, yeah.
EK: He was just really focused the whole time, I think because we did it in a small amount of time. He was like a machine, just hammering away, non-stop, little breaks in between.
YHT: You were able to play a number of shows outside the central Virginia area in 2012. I saw you went to North Carolina and New York… What did you take away from those experiences?
KB: You have to set up fast. It’s a cold, cruel world out there. [laughs]
CD: We have an intensive setup, with our lights and everything.
KB: We streamlined our setup time, I would think, since our early days.
Michael Means: We’ve gotten so much better about that.
EK: We definitely try to optimize. I think we learned that from the two New York shows we played.
CD: We also learned that you won’t always get a sound check.
SP: I kinda like the spontaneity of not having a sound check, because I’ve noticed that whenever we have a sound check, something always happens badly in between the sound check and when we actually go on. And then if there’s something that’s not quite working in the sound check, you stress out about it until you play. You just are so much harder on yourself, I think, instead of actually enjoying that moment.
YHT: Is there any situation in which there was a problem that was insurmountable and you had to take a left turn and do something different?
KB: I feel like we’ve always gotten through it.
CD: I’ve had problems with equipment failing, with all the MIDI stuff I have going on, like all the electronics. Sometimes something won’t work, so I’m constantly changing things to streamline and minimize our setup.
EK: We’ve had power problems. For some reason, we tend to trip power wherever we go. [There] was a recent show where we had to cut two songs because the power kept going out. Eventually the guy who was running the venue had to run to the back and grab an extension cord so he could plug into a different outlet so we would have more power on stage. All these venues don’t have the power supply you’d think they would. It’s kinda interesting.
YHT: What’s your idea of the perfect crowd? I know from firsthand experience that your music is extremely dance-friendly. Would it be a big dance party?
CD: Me, personally, I like house shows and small venues where people came to dance anyway. I like those scenarios better than playing a huge venue.
KB: You can put me down for huge venues where people are going crazy!
CD: That’s just me personally. I like small spaces and being really close to the audience, instead of having that big buffer where people are standing there watching.
MM: It’s just good when you have a crowd that, no matter what the size [is], everyone who’s there is ready to have a good time. And I guess we’re kinda dancey, but not everything’s so dancey. So you can get a crowd, too, that actually wants to mellow out a little bit, and then you have the highs and the lows of the show.
SP: We’ve had crowds that weren’t necessarily there to dance, but you could definitely tell that they were into it, and they were really feeling it and going there with you. I really appreciate that. It doesn’t mean that everyone’s dancing all the time. I know when I go to shows, I’m that creepy person in the front just staring at the musicians with dead eyes.
KB: Oh yeah, I’m standing beside Sadie staring at the musicians. [laughs]
SP: I don’t move the entire show, really for any show I’ve been to, because I’m so intent on what the musicians are doing. Yeah, I’m probably not going to dance, but the thing is, it’s being engaged with what’s happening.
MM: You just want the audience on board with whatever’s happening.
YHT: Are there any albums that came out in the past year that made a strong impression on any of y’all?
SP: The new Swans album is fucking incredible… They’re absolutely fantastic. I got to see them. I think every album that I really was into this year I got see them play live this year too.
MM: You did go to a lot of shows this year.
SP: I did go to a lot of shows this year.
EK: [To Michael] What about your guy?
MM: Yeah, Ssion. I’ve listened to that a lot this past year, and I saw him live. He was great live. He was in Baltimore, and he was fantastic. It was the last date of their tour.
KB: The longer we’re in a band, the more I find out how great Michael’s musical influences are. Everything he likes I think is good.
CD: That new Crystal Castles is awesome.
EK: I’m trying, personally, to find new music that influences me, because dance beats can be boring, or they’re not humanly possible, because it’s being played by a machine. It’s trying to find something that can influence me as a drummer that’s a little different and [hasn’t] already been done, so it’s kinda hard for me to find. My interests prior to this band were more like indie or punk rock. To me, those were the funner beats to play. And I’m having lots of fun playing what I’m doing, just trying to turn it into something else.
YHT: Christopher and KC, as compared to the vision you initially had for Dead Fame, how has the group evolved? Is there an aspect of the project you didn’t foresee but are particularly proud of or excited about?
SP: What was the initial goal?
CD: I don’t think we really had one.
KB: I honestly didn’t see us getting such great players and people that were going to do as much with the band and be as committed. I thought it was just going to be like, we’d be lucky to get some dudes that wanted to practice every once in a while and play some shows. But yeah, I’m really happy with all the people that are in the band and how hard they work and how committed they are and how good they are at the respective things they do.
YHT: Michael, I’ve read that you write lyrics as the song is being born. Are there any songs you had trouble with at first and had to go back and revisit?
MM: No, only because I don’t like to go back. Once I’m done with it, I’m pretty much done. I don’t to go back and say, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll change this phrase.’
CD: There’s a whole saying that a song is never finished, that you’ll never be satisfied. There’s a point where you have to say, ‘OK. That’s it.’
KB: We kinda throw the baby out with the bathwater. If somebody doesn’t like one little thing, we just throw the entire [song]. We’ve probably seriously thrown away…
SP: Close to 10 songs.
KB: 10 pretty complete songs and probably 50 or 60 almost songs.
MM: I don’t like to come with something already.
KB: In most bands, they’re like ‘Here’s the riff, here’s the new song, here’s the thing.’ We never do that.
CD: “We Can Run” was probably the fastest song we ever wrote. Did you really write the lyrics for that that fast?
MM: Yeah, that one went fast. It depends on how long we work on it, but sometimes I’ll get lyrics done in that practice.
KB: Before they’re even in your head!
MM: Yeah. Like tonight, there was something there, but I’ll probably have more lyrics next time. But once it’s done, it’s done. I don’t like to go back.
EK: Do you work on them in between practices?
MM: Right before practice the day of. [laughs] The day of, I’m like ‘Oh OK, I have half an hour. Lemme try to get some lyrics down.’ I never understood writers that come with their little notebook with poems and whatever they have, and they try to make it fit. I’ve never understood that. I like to write organically like everyone else comes up with parts.
YHT: Staying with the lyrics, I think there’s a really cool dissonance between the deliberate, controlled way that you deliver lyrics and the amount of energy that you put out at shows. Do you feel that dissonance as you’re performing, or does it flow naturally?
MM: It’s what works. There are certain spaces that I have as a singer… When it goes live, you fall into the gaps the right way, if that makes any sense.
CD: It’s been a slow evolution into how you are now. When we first started off playing, everybody was kinda not sure. Our energy level increased the more we played together as a band, live. We started off not really sure, now we all really get into it.
SP: We know who we are on stage.
CD: We really open up and just let loose.
EK: Sometimes at shows, I have to turn away from Michael because I just start watching what he’s doing and forget that I’m actually playing.
KB: I’m always just trying to guard my pedals from getting the knobs turned by a cord. [laughs]
SP: I’m like, ‘I hope my amp doesn’t explode again tonight.’ [laughs]
YHT: I’ve read that, for both Eric and Michael, this is the first band you’ve played in, but I absolutely wouldn’t have guessed that from seeing you live or hearing your recordings. What was your musical life like before joining the band?
EK: I’ve been playing drums since I got my first kit in seventh grade… I did have a 3-year hiatus, because I had some tendonitis in my wrist, so I had to stop playing for a while, when that was bothering me. I’d just been playing at home, mostly, like in high school, playing with friends in garage bands, but nothing serious, just monkeying around. Then little stints in college, trying to making something work with some musician friends, but [it] never really materialized.
MM: I cried a lot as a baby, so I think that developed some lung capacity. [laughs] I sang a little bit in high school.
CD: Did you ever do karaoke?
MM: I never did a lot of karaoke.
CD: Because I was surprised you’d never been in a band, too.
MM: But in my mind, honest to god, I always knew, ‘Oh, I’m a performer. I just haven’t had the opportunity yet.’ And the opportunity happened. But in my mind, I was always developing myself as a performer, as an artist anyway, just with no outlet.
CD: Were you singing in your bedroom and stuff?
MM: Yeah! I put on little concerts in my mind and everything, even when I was little.
EK: I remember when Michel first [talked to] me about trying out for the band, I remember him saying, “This is something I always wanted to do.” And I was like, “I had no idea this is something you wanted to do.”
MM: I was like I finally had an outlet for all this stuff I’ve had in my mind the whole time.
YHT: Sadie, I always get excited when I see a fretless bass on stage. What drew you to that version of your instrument?
SP: I have a classical background. I started playing violin when I was 8, and I switched to upright bass when I was 14. So I started playing bass guitar when I was about 15 or 16, and it felt really weird having frets. Like when you put tape on a cat’s paw and it can’t feel anything. I feel that way playing with frets. It completely throws off my feeling of what’s going on, so it just made sense. When I found out they made fretless basses, I was really happy and got a custom neck.
YHT: Do you think that changes your approach in any way? Do you think it changes the way you think about the instrument?
SP: Not really. There was only one band I ever played in in college where I played a fretted bass, and I kinda dealt with it. But I got my fretless neck when I was 20 or 21 and have been playing with it ever since. I think the biggest change for me was playing with a pick. Up until about 3 years ago, I was vehemently anti-pick. Like really disparaging, anti-, look down on anyone who used one. Starting to use a pick definitely changed my approach.
CD: Do you think it made you more aggressive on the bass?
SP: That’s actually why I started using a pick, because I saw My Bloody Valentine back in 2009 and Deb Googe, their bass player, was totally tearing up her Thunderbird on stage, just absolutely destroying it, and I looked at her and was like, ‘I wanna look like a badass too.’
CD: I think you do look more badass.
SP: For a while I was thinking, ‘Maybe I won’t use a pick. Maybe I’ll just use my thumb and slam it in.’ But I’ve dropped picks before and played really aggressively, and there’s nothing fabulous about bleeding onstage. Playing with a pick has really, really changed my approach. I am more aggressive and definitely more rhythmic. I think that also comes with playing in this band… Most of what I would do on bass is already being covered by guitar and keys, so I get to play more rhythmically, which is a change, and more percussively, which is good. It’s definitely made me a better bass player.
YHT: What’s one thing as a band you’re itching to do and haven’t had the time or opportunity to accomplish yet?
CD: Cover “Father Figure”?
SP: I think we could own that… For me, the two things I really, really want to do are go on an extensive tour in a decent van [laughs], and have room to stretch out, and I would love to do a whole studio album, with a producer in the studio for two, three weeks.
KB: Yeah, I gotta make that my answer. I want to make a real album with all the time to check out different sounds.
CD: We’re kinda holding back from doing a real album, until we get to another level. We’re happy doing singles and EPs for now.
SP: I think we’re at the level musically, but financially… To be able to shape our sounds the way we wanted, it would be multiple takes of playing the same thing, going through different pedals, going through different amps, trying different instruments out to get that perfect tone. And that takes time.
MM: I still would like to go on a nice tour.
CD: I’d like to go on a European tour. That’d be awesome.
MM: Maybe where we have a roadie or two. [laughs] That would be fantastic.