Interview: Dan Friel

Photographer Sabine Rogers
February 28, 2013

When I speak with Dan Friel a few weeks before the release of Total Folklore, the former Parts & Labor frontman’s longest and most colossal-sounding solo album to date, he’s sitting in a taxi cab, lugging a heavy projector from his Williamsburg apartment to a high-ceilinged warehouse. Like the noise-rock scene Parts & Labor was practically synonymous with for the greater part of the aughts, Dan Friel is on the verge of moving out of Williamsburg, and in the thick of a number of life transitions that typically mark one’s passage from youth to full-on adulthood. Since the band played its last show in February of 2012, he’s been settling into a day job, preparing to become a father and getting increasingly comfortable with the idea of moving to a residential area like Greenwood Heights, far from the endlessly spinning wheel of Brooklyn cinderblock-walled nightlife. Still, he says he's only “trying to get sick of [the neighborhood],” and seems legitimately proud that he recorded his most recent album on the same 2001 PC he used to capture his first solo experiments. Over a decade later, his music still splits the difference between hyper-melodious synth-pop and seriously blown-out noise-kid electronica, but somehow sounds more wide-eyed and gleeful than ever, and plays like the soundtrack to a video game about walking around the grungier parts of North Brooklyn and getting a coin for every successfully dodged fire hydrant and wasted tourist. Total Folklore is out now via Thrill Jockey.

Given the sound palette you use on Total Folklore, there’s a certain irony to the title. Folklore conjures images of centuries-old wooden instruments, not electronics. Well, I think a lot about the toy keyboard and the cheaper end of electronics and how they’re not quite folk instruments, but becoming something close to that among suburban and urban folks. I’ve also been thinking about folklore being this thing that is, you know, not totally invented, but fairly nonexistent in the real world, in the physical world. This record that I made, basically none of the sounds are ever made out loud. I made it entirely on headphones in my room, and there was something about that that also brought that word to mind for me. It was never a buzzing string or vocal cord or drum being hit. It was a cutting and pasting together of this toy keyboard and all these other things just going right into the computer and right into my ears. It’s also just words that somehow fit the music better than anything else I could think of, in ways that are bigger than I can explain well.

How does that differ from previous solo work of yours? There’s a few examples from solo stuff of things that have been not completely artificial like that, but mostly it’s consistent with what I’ve done on other records. I guess it’s just bigger. Most of the solo stuff I’ve done has been for EPs or short things. The first song on this record is 13 minutes long, probably three times the length of any solo thing I’ve ever done. I just went for scale, something that was bigger and encompassing all the different solo things I’ve done before, but also expanding outward in every way from that stuff. Basically, it feels like its own, self-contained world, as opposed to a series of tracks on a cassette or something like that.

I read that this album was inspired partly by your experiences walking around Brooklyn. I tend to be a walker. I don’t bike that much and I don’t have a car and I just tend to [walk], whenever I’m going to shows or whatever. I used to do a lot of hiking and walking around mountains when I was growing up in Western Massachusetts and I don’t get that as much here, but I do enjoy going for long walks around Brooklyn. Also, I used a lot of field recordings I made on my phone from those walks. Like walking by basketball games. There’s a ConEd strike in there. There’s also stuff from outside the city—from when Parts & Labor went to Japan in 2011, there’s a recording from walking through a Pachinko Parlor, which is such a crazy sound. That was something I hadn’t experienced before: all of the winning buzzer noises and crazy clinking sounds, kind of like an American casino condensed into a room the size of a bathroom.

Did you chose the field recordings for the sonic qualities, or the personal autobiographical moment of passing something that moved you? It’s mostly sonic. If it doesn’t sound good, it’s not really worth the story.

Were you deliberately making music for walking? Yeah, I was thinking about that a lot actually. I don’t listen to headphones that much when I’m walking around, because I like hearing the sounds that I wander by, but it definitely occurred to me, and also just looking at all the people walking around with ear buds. “Ulysses” more than anything, the first track, feels like a very long, very walking-paced journey. That was something that got me really thinking about that as a theme. I think that one works really well, and some of the intermissions that are built in there work as like stoplights or something like that.

Do you ever start writing melodies in your head while you’re walking? I do, absolutely. Rhythms, too. I know people who are always sort of humming things into their phones or whatever. I tend to stop and tap out rhythms more than anything.

Why did you chose to record the album on an out-of-date PC, instead of a technologically more contemporary set-up? Because it works, and I liked what it was doing. I feel like it would be a bad idea to get rid of it and move on just because I can. It’s started to finally fail me in ways that I don’t think I’ll be able to fix, so it’s gonna be new computer time pretty soon, but I think a piece of equipment like a computer should last 10, 12 years. They never do, but they should. I think I was probably trying to make a point by forcing it to last that long: that if you care for them, and also are willing to not rely on having state-of-the-art shit all the time, you can get by just fine.

So it’s kind of the idea of using whatever materials you have lying around. Yeah, that’s definitely a theme. The keyboard that I use is a keyboard that I got when I was eight. It’s a Yamaha PortaSound 460. One of the projects that I did relating to the album is I built music boxes. I assembled these hand-crank music boxes that play one of the songs. As resonators I used coffee cans and olive oil cans from around the house and stuff. So there was definitely a theme there.

Your music is noisy but also extremely accessible and melodic and catchy. Do you like to think of pop and noise as compatible? I do. I think of a lot of examples pretty frequently, but I did an interview a couple of months ago—[the journalist's] name was Clifford Allen, and he brought up an Albert Ayler quote that I wasn’t familiar with about how he wanted to write melodies that people could hum. Hearing Ayler when I was a teen was huge for me because I was getting into aggressive and abstract music and here was this guy who was just unflinching about putting simple, beautiful melodies right in the center of it. I’ve been thinking a lot about “I want to make melodies that people can hum.” It’s not off-limits. If anything I feel something that feels right, that’s why I do it more than anything. Also, just working purely with abstract sounds sometimes feels like I’m not adding something to the mix that hasn’t been done a lot already—like I’m not really adding anything to the game, to the world, to the collective.

Interview: Dan Friel