Difficult Engine Magazine | September 14,1998

Australian Interview

Much has been made about the fact that Papas Fritas were never a 'serious/real' band until you got the 'Friday Night' 7" released. Is this actually the case? Was their ever a desire to become succesful? Were you eager in any way to be known as a band on a bigger scale beyond what you originally saw as just having fun?

Well, the band really did start as a hobby. Shiv inherited some drums and I had recently purchased a 4-track so I think the group started so Shiv could learn drums and I could learn recording. Also, there weren't any good bands at our university, just lousy cover bands. We wanted to form a band for our friends' parties and for people at school who didn't want to hear the same wanking. We wanted to be a fun band that people could be inspired to feel like they could start a band too. We recorded a couple cassettes and played some friends' parties then set our sights on the local club. Once we had played there it seemed like we had made it, acheived our goals. Fun, excitement, a couple recordings. Then our pal Matt called us, he was a close friend of mine and Shiv's from high school, and said he wanted to release a couple of our latest songs on a single. I pitched in $500 and Matt put up $500 and we were off. Once the single was near completion we decided that we should tour to try and sell a couple and to see our friends in other cities. We were'nt really thinking about being popular, it just seemed like a way to have more fun, to travel, to make back my $500. Obviously we cared that people appreciated us and came to the shows, but we never gave any thought to popularity or the record biz. It just seemed like, "What do other bands we like do? Put out records and tour." So we did.

Looking back on this transition, from bedroom hobby to a band that now tours, records, and has label connections etc, could you chart Papas Fritas' progression? Maybe refer to specific records/events as examples and talk about what your motivations were and how you have changed from the early days to where you see yourselves now.

Well, I explained the first period: '92-'94 Parties, clubs, 45, tour. After that it almost seemed like we done it all until we got a call from a record company that had heard our single on a Chicago college radio station. They wanted to hear more so we sent our cassettes and they sent us a contract. At this point, we realized that we needed to hire a lawyer -- we didn't understand what it said. Obviously we signed and we were off again. Almost immediately after we signed Minty Fresh had a great sucess with their band Veruca Salt. Suddenly everything seemed really important. Initially we thought we would get $2,000 dollars to cut a record and maybe 500 people would hear it, but now the label was the focus of a lot of attention. Personally I got a little scared. The previous cassettes were very naive if that's the right word. Not very unique in their sound, nor very commercial, just sort of songs about our friends so we could remember them and the days that produced them. Now we were making a record that potentially thousands of people would hear, and not all of them would be our friends, so it had better be good. We holed up and worked hard and did it. It was a difficult process but a great learning experience. Looking back, I can't believe how naive we were. We didn't know what a publicist was, didn't know it would be released overseas, we just concentrated on booking the next tour. Obviously a lot has changed since then. We toured a lot. The US and overseas. We got a lot of press and reviews, we did a video, I don't know. Basically we did a lot of things besides make music so when we finished promoting the first record and it was time to do number two we were a bit unprepared, a bit scared. In the last year and a half this little hobby had become our lives before we knew it. Did we want this? Could we do this? After we had finished school we made an agreement that if we weren't making a living within a year then it would become a hobby again, if anything at all, A TV commercial which used the first 10 seconds of TV Movies had given us our first years lease so we decided we should keep going. We actually talked to a few larger record companies but we didn't want to make any further commitments to anyone until we were sure that we could commit enough to each other and the group to get another record made. Again we made a record and toured... only this time it seemed a bit less fun. We had bigger commitments and more traveling and less time off. By the end of 8 months we were exhausted and decided to take some time off. Also we owed a lot more taxes than we realised so we came home to big debts, and therefore, had to get day jobs. After about four years of work, 1994 thru 1997, we were no longer technically professional musicians, a bit of a bummer. But, actually, as I write this we've almost taken a full year off, it's been great. Obviously we have written and recorded new songs and played a few shows here and there but this is the first time since college that we've had time for other things beside the band and I don't think we feel that excited to go back to full time. I think we're still trying to get back to making music for fun. We need to grow and I think all the touring kind of stunted it a bit. I hope I answered your question. Basically we always did it for fun and then it turned into what we did whether it was fun or not and now we have to figure out if we can make it fun and worthwhile again.

On recording, it is apparent that you have preferred to do much of it yourselves (if not all). Could you enlighten us on why this is, and maybe mention the creation and purpose of Hi-Tech City and The Columnated Ruins etc? When most bands become successful they usually jump at the chance to record an album with a hotshot producer in a fancy studio. Why do you differ in this respect?

Well, like I said, the band started at least partially as a chance to learn how to record so from the start we recorded ourselves. Shortly before Minty Fresh contacted us we went to a "professional" studio and had a generally negative experience. We had no idea what we wanted and the engineer just wanted to record us live and make it sound good. For some bands this is an appropriate method but for us the recordings were always different than the shows. Live music is a bout excitement and spontinaiety and obviously these elements exist on record but we wanted to make recordings that had more of a sense of depth, arrangement, something that had more than meets the eye or ear on first listen. We had outgrown four tracks so, with the help of a more knowledgble friend we bought an 8-track, a mixing console and a few new mics. Minty Fresh was happy to let us do the record ourselves. Our budget was minimal and went straight into the gear. The thought never crossed our minds, but we probably wouldn't have been able to hire a producer anyway for the amount of money we had. Also, we started because we wanted to learn how to play and record music, and maybe I'm stubborn but, until you reach a point where you can't grow without direct teaching I think it's better to learn and grow and develop on your own. I think this way, a lot of unique thought is allowed to be acted on rather than limited by accepted technique. Needless to say we wasted a lot of time not knowing what we were doing, but, in the end we acheived our goal. We set up a recording set up in our rehearsal space and made a record that we liked and learned from making. Also, I think the record sounded original without sounding inferior because we did it ourselves. We wanted to create a sound that people would recognize as our own from our voices to our drums to our arrangements. So many records today sound similar whether because of the equiptment or the producer or something. I don't know. It just seems the oppisite of the spirit of most of the music I enjoy, freedom, escape, originality. Maybe now we can go back to that original pro studio and engineer/producer and create a uniquely Papas Fritas record, but at the time we couldn't. Also, I can't leave out that we brought our deck to Fort Apache studios and had Paul Q. Kolderie and Sean Slade mix it. I think they did a great job. It really turned into a record when they got mixed it.

'The Friday Night' 7" has for the most part, been a significant release in that it has become a pivotal point in the life of Papas Fritas. I read in an article that it was the first release you weren't 'embarrassed' about. Was it the point at which you realised you could take Papas Fritas to a broader audience?

To tell you the truth, I haven't listened to that record in a while but the last time I did I was pretty embarrassed. Like I said, our early stuff was more for friends, it wasn't until the first album that we tried to push ourselves. I didn't think about a broader audience util I realized it was possible because of our record company.

Your association with Minty Fresh has allowed you to spend a bit more time with your recording...is this important to you? I also hear that you love the ability to spend more time on recording - particularly to satisfy your love or tricky arrangements. Could you talk about why this is the case (assuming my information is correct of course). haha.

Well, Hi Tech city was just a small basement room in the house I lived in while I went to school. Since then I moved to a new town and set up a new studio in my house, which happens to be raised about fifteen feet above ground on columns, hence the name. Also, the property it is on is a bit run down, hence the ruins. The expression, Columnated Ruins is from the Beach Boys' song Surf's Up. (Just thought I'd finish explaining the studios) But, yeah, I love recording. I've actually started recording some other groups besides Papas Fritas which is fun. But I think down the road, the only thing that will exist for me is the records and I want them to be good. To remind me of Papas Fritas -- Shivika, Tony and Keith and the music they made together. Not just what happened when we hit record, but something that was created, developed, crafted. I'm not explaining this well. Basically, when someone listens to your song you've got three minutes to make something happen. You can surprise them or intirgue them with a sound, seduce them with a melody, shock them with a performance but no matter what something should happen that only happened on your song wether it was the beauty of the melody, the groove of the rhythm or the way the patterns of the muted guitars meshed with the piano to create a new sound. Is this making sense? I just want people to hear our records and know that they are hearing our records. That every note was chosen, every tone selected, not neccesarily in some laborious process but in such a way that at the time we we're trying to make the song come alive, exist outside of the speakers and the literal world as best as we could when we played and recorded it. This is hard and takes time. It's easier to just plug in, get sounds that are unchallenging but suitable and play your best, this method will create a recording, but not a record. whew! I'm done, that was harder to do than a record.

'Helioself' is a record you guys appreciate because it is true to what the band are about. "A direct result of band experiences". How does it differ to your first records...in terms of style, mood, structure? Talk about any thing you like. It is my favourite record and I wonder if that has somethingto do with the fact that you perhaps feel it is the best example of Papas Fritas you have produced to date.

With Helioself I really wanted to get more of a sense of the band. On the first record I did most of the singing and writing. Shiv was working on her thesis and Keith had a day job so I was left with most of the work. With this one, we had toured so much that we felt much more together as a band, from our playing to our attitude so I think it was natural. Obviously Shiv and Keith sing a lot more and I think the two songs with rotating vocals, Hey Hey You Say and Words to Sing, present the three of us well. Also, in writing and arranging the songs we worked together a lot more. On the first record I would record Shiv's drums, then add layers whereas on this record we arranged the song, meaning instrumentation, keys, feel, etc. to a greater extent before we hit record. The lyrics came more out of group discussions as well. The song Rolling in the Sand is about a gig we did at a beachfront bar where the crowd broke into a huge fight. So obviously that was a band experience. Another difference is that with the first record we knew we wanted to create an original sound whereas with the second we let ourselves record and arrange the songs more from our gut than our heads, for better or worse...some songs seem to be more natural and exciting sounding because of this and some seem a bit to "traditional" in their arrangement. But that was kind of the point, when we started the record we knew we had a lot of different styles, which I think makes more interesting records than the same 3 songs over and over, so we decided to let each song exist on its own as opposed to being part of an overall album sound, like the first record. So, for a song about a bar fight we used a saloon (thumbtacks on the hammers) piano, or a song about turning into an angel, Say Goodbye, airy, light sounds, you get the idea, trying to let each song be its own picture. Then, with the sequencing it was supposed to feel like a bit of a trip. It starts with kind of a statement, at the time people were saying shit like "Is rock over? It's all the same." To which we said give us a break, then modulated our "rock" song in B major to an Indian jam in D major (only to end in B minor --aha!) Then the album "started" continuing through a bunch of different "rock" songs, then Weight which was supposed to sound like a transistor radio, as if the previous ten songs had been different songs on the radio and here we are back where they had come from, and Starting to Be It was the end, we were becoming more of a band, we had just played those songs and it was over. Did you get all that? So, I guess we thought we could make a better record after a year of touring.

As a live band, how do papas Fritas fare? Do you enjoy playing live? How do audiences react to your performance/methods on stage (knowing that we have not had the opportunity to see you guys here yet).

It varies from show to show. Live we definately like to wing it, take requests, change arrangements of tunes, whatever it takes to have fun and stay interested. I want people to leave our shows feeling like they learned more about us as musicians as opposed to just hearing us play the songs as they are on the record. Also, because we're a trio playing songs that were recorded with up to eight tracks of instruments we can't really recreate the records anyway. I just don't care for that approach anyway, but we can get most of the vocals going live so it goes well most times.

Given an ultimatum, would Papas Fritas rather play live or record? A nice balance between the both perhaps?

Given an ultimatum I'd say record. Like I said, in the end all you've got is the records, and I think because we're more of a song band than a improv band the studio is a bit more important for doing our thing. But I love playing live so, yes a nice balance.

"When we realised you could write and record at home, it was so liberating". You made this comment in an interview (perhaps a Boston Phoenix article). Can you elaborate on this idea for us?

Yeah, I think that music is such an organic thing, it's part of your environment, when you wake up you put on one record, when you go out at night you put on another. So when we record, as opposed to locking ourselves away in a clinical environment we wake up, make breakfast and start playing what we feel like. If things get stressful we go out and play frisbee then go back to it. Also, because we aren't paying for time we can try anything we like and not worry. You know, music is part of your environment so we prefer to record in our own environment.

Much has also been made of your pop sound and it's inspiration and/or influences. Do you get sick of the 'retro' pigeonholing? You obviously do share a love for melody that pehaps can be associated with music from an earlier time? What bands do Papas Fritas listen to? Are you actually inspiredby any other music?

I love getting mentioned in the same sentence as so many groups I love but sometimes I wish they would elaborate a bit more. The reviews usually say make some bizarre comment, "Beach Boys dancing at a Johnathan Richman concert." or just say we're influenced by them, but I'd prefer a bit more critical analysis. Also, I don't think we're strictly retro. Retro is just Brian Wilson used a harpsichord I'll use one, but I think we try and take inspiration from his choices not copy. When you've got a tune you have to decide how to organize and present it, you can use any instruments, so I might listen to Brian or whoever and notice that he harmonized the rhythm with a vibraphone, then I'll take the idea of combining harmony with rhythm and apply it to my music and chose the appropriate instrument for our song. And yeah, to tell you the truth I generally prefer older music. It seems that the strength that todays music has isn't inherent in the music, notes chord, rhythms etc. It's more a product of the personality of the performer shaping the music and what that means. For example, Beck doing a Slow Jam, it doesn't seem to be about the jam, it's more about what it means that Beck is doing a slow jam. But I guess that's bullshit because the Beatles using a string quartet for the first time on a rock record had a similar sense of radical appropriation. Basically, I like music that has rhythm, melody, harmony and much of today's music isn't as interesting or developed in these areas. Maybe it is tonally mor developed, but I tend to think that this has more to do with technology. But...Also, I was raised in a musical household, I was in the symphonic and jazz bands so obviously I love music from the past, that's one of the things I love about music, when I here or play a piece from 1920 or 1620 it's like looking at a picture from that time, that time is suddenly alive again and floating in the air. Time travel does exist!!!! I guess I prefer rootsy music, I like tradition, The Band, Chuck Berry, Beach Boys, Fleetwood Mac, The Spinners. Music for me is a way to share experiences, time, ideas, etc. with people so I generally like music that most people like. I like knowing that if I get together with some friends and we name an Elvis tune, we're all going to know how to play it. But I like a lot of new music. I love the latest Sparkle single, Neutral Milk Hotel, Next,Flaming Lips and a lot of older groups have new records out or records that I am anticipating: The Artist, Lindsay Buckingham, Chaka Kahn, etc. I really like most musics that I hear and can learn from. I love learning about an artist or a group of artists and hearing their records and trying to understand the components of their music which gave rise to their recognition as a unique force, and sometimes I want a great beat or an incredible vocal that I can just get lost in. Basically music is sound organized in time and anyone can do this, and if you try to understand how and why they did so in such a way you can learn and grow yourself.

As a collective, do you guys have a favourite release of your own? I think the second record is more listenable but the first record is a bit more personal and unique, but I like them both equally. Do you have a favourite Papas Moment? A particular song you think is aspecific example of what you are all about?

I thought TV Movies turned out good. The lyric and the arrangement worked well together and the listeneing experience had a lot of nice layers. Just to See You, I liked the verse lyrics and the sound, Say Goodbye had a real good vocal from Shiv and a nice beat, Hey Hey You Say and Words to Sing had a big sound. I guess there isn't one song that does it all. But I think that's a good sign. Understanding that we have not had a Papas tour in Australia, could you perhaps shed some light on how big you are in the rest of the world? Do you have day jobs? In America in particular, how big are the band?Not very. We didn't have day jobs for a while, but no one was paying attention to our taxes so now we have day jobs. We do well on college radio and have gotten a lot of support from the press. We can probably play to near 100 people in most citys and some we can get up to 500. We do well in Spain, probably because of the name, and Japan has been real good too.

What is in store for Papas Fritas...new records? Tours? Line up changes? Solo project? haha. Tell me the future for the band...Does anyone in the band already have a side project?

No one has very serious side projects, Keith plays some bass and some clarinet with his housemate, Dormouse, I'm playing piano and guitar in a cover band, that's about it. We've tried playing with some extra members live, just to flesh out that sound but we haven't officially added any members. We're doing about a week and a half of touring in October, ummm....that's about it really. Day jobs kind of put a strain on our time but at some point we're going to start a new record. It's hard because before we had two months with no commitments but to record, now we have weekends.

Finally, as this magazine has the gimmick of only doing interviews via the internet, I need to know what you think of the Internet - it's benefits/disadvantages/appropriateness. Papas Fritas have their own 'official' website to which you contribute everything - do you see the importance of a band web site in these in terms of international exposure? Please talk all day on this one - it has been fascinating to see what other bands think of the internet.

I don't have very much experience with the internet. Sometimes I'll try to find some information but I haven't really taken advantage of it yet. Obviously it is a very valuable and exciting addition to worldwide communication but in general, I think I'm the kind of person who likes to absorb things rather slowly, to much information can overload me. And generally I think it is more rewarding and beneficial to seek out information as opposed to just reading about it, but I never really used my encyclopedia set either. In one respect that's almost what it is, a giant encyclopedia that you can make your additions to before you lend it to a friend. It's great to look up a recipe or the weather but I haven't done much more than that. As far a music and international exposure I suppose it is worthwhile, anyone can find out more about us, I don't do our website, that's actually all Keith's handywork, I'll send him the interview and see if he has anything to add. I suppose that once it's normal for people to download music from the net onto their own cd's that could be a great time for music from all over. But I wonder how people will be able to find out about groups, I guess it'll be the ulitmate word of mouth, but with all the advertising that's happening already on the net, things might not be that different, peole might buy what they see advertised. I dunno.

All the bands I am interviewing have been asked to do one of two things (some have done both...feel free to do both) A. List your 5 favourite Web Sites...and write a sentence on what they are...why you like them.(if you know the internet address, please put that as well so I can find it. and/or I really don't have any, sometimes I'll try find something on a favorite group but I don't really know any specific sites, I'll see if Keith has any. B. List your 5 favourite Records...and write a sentence as above.]

Only 5, that's really tough. But, for now....

The Beach Boys -- Smile: I know it's not released but there' senough of it out to qualify. I just find this stuff to be a completely rewarding listen on every level: funny, emotional, complex, simple, mysterious, a great American saga, spiritual, just the best most advanced yet easily understood music I've ever heard.

James Carr -- A Man Needs a Woman: One of the greatest singers ever, great playing, funky, deep soul, and Dark End of the Street is one of my favorites.

Al Green -- Call Me: Again, one of the great singers doing great songs with an amazing band. Also it's one of those records that sustains a great groove throughout the whole record.

The Band -- My favorite rock and roll album of all time. You know, you could just reprint the Al Green line here but they had three singers.

Sly and the Family Stone -- Greatest Hits: I think this one works a bit better than the anthology because there is such a difference in sound wiht Riot, but it's hard not to put that one or fresh down here too. But Sly, like the Band or Beach Boys, had this community of voices that I loved, different people with different strengths coming together to mak an even greater whole.

I gotta list a couple others, NRBQ At Yankee Stadium, Bobby Bland Two Steps From the Blues, Fleetwood Mac Tusk, Miles Smiles, Toots and the Maytals Funky Kingston, there, that's ten.

Well that is it Tony...the nightmare is over! I am really sorry I wrote so much but I have only asked a third of what I wanted to. Papas Fritas have served to play a major part in my musical life. I am glad to be able to have this opportunity to find out more about you on behalf of Australia!