The Famines are certainly a minimal group in style and format, but the substance of their music is anything but bare. Undeniably, despite a low musical output over the last 5 years, The Famines have a reputation for releasing multi-medium works and for vocalizing DIY politics. Alongside their album, “14 July, 2008,” for instance, the listener will find a tiny novella detailing the elements and people that helped create their album. And within their lyrics, themes of social commentary pervade almost every line. Garrett Kruger, the drummer behind the band, recently wrote to me, “If a band doesn’t have something to say, I’m not that interested in listening.”
The Famines formed in Edmonton in 2006, almost serendipitously. Both guitarist/vocalist Raymond E. Biesinger and Kruger’s respective bands broke up around the same time, leaving the two musicians hanging out at a local bar discussing future plans. Kruger says, “I would pester Ray about the idea of jamming. He was (self admittedly) apprehensive about continuing to play music, but I was persuasive enough to twist his arm.” Eventually, Biesinger and Kruger did finally start jamming together, resulting in a purposefully sparse – yet definitely not simple –protopunk duo. Five years later, and in spite of the two members now living on opposite ends of the country, The Famines are beginning another tour.
I recently spoke to Kruger via e-mail in anticipation of their show here in Ottawa on October 23rd at Pressed. Kruger discussed their upcoming fall tour after a year’s absence from each other, The Famines’ emphasis on context within music, and the importance of demystifying the music industry.
APT613: You and Ray haven’t seen each other since December 2012; how is embarking on tour after a year’s absence feel?
Garrett Kruger: The distance has a strange effect of making you forget about the physical quality of playing music together. You spend all this time talking, planning, brainstorming about future plans but the playing, collaboration, and creative elements are very theoretical due to our physical distance. It makes it really exciting to get back in the saddle but it is a little awkward right off the bat; I think to myself during our first run through: “Holy shit, am I actually playing with Raymond right now?” It doesn’t take long to get back in the groove though.
APT613: In a 2010 interview in Peterborough, you explained your band’s style as “musically doing as much as with little possible.” How does being a two-piece band accomplish this?
GK: Instrumentally speaking, Ray and I are only using a voice, a guitar, and a drum set to create our music. We use this stripped down set-up as a framework to work within but try to sound as large and full as possible. My drumming style in this band is very different than that of other groups I play with. It becomes necessary to step outside our comfort zones to fill in gaps that would otherwise be filled with another instrument. I find it’s crucial to play your instrument for the good of the song, showboating is a copout. It is through this parsimonious approach that we find ourselves playing in the best interest of the song.
APT613: Socially conscious themes permeate your band’s namesake, lyrics, and approach to releasing music. Has this changed at all over the years?
GK: Over the years, it has only changed by being more defined and precise. The themes, images and mediums we choose to release are paramount qualities of our manifesto. The music is a vehicle to compliment and sonically encompass the message we are relaying in our words and on our covers. Without one, there couldn’t be the other.
APT613: In an interview with NOW magazine, Biesinger discussed how any music these days with “staying” power on music charts, college radio stations, etc., is music that is being represented by a publicist. However, musicians often need to pay quite a bit of money to get this type of exposure. Biesinger remarked in the interview, “The customer in music is no longer the record buyer, but also the musician themselves.” Your band rejects this modern exchange with the music industry, instead pushing for a DIY approach to touring and output. Why is this so important for you?
GK: After 15 years of playing in punk bands you inherently become very disillusioned with the teenage dream fantasy version of “making it”, which leads to having “the help” (“The help” being resources many bands don’t get an opportunity to utilize like publicists, booking agents, or landing a release on a larger label). It became very clear that while some of those tools work, you can still achieve equivalent success on your own. It allows you to take control of your actions in a very hands-on way. Both Ray and I enjoy deconstructing our past experiences to make our next tour better. We’ve gained a lot of skill and knowledge from doing it this way; it stokes our drive to continue doing what we do.
APT613: In an example of how you guys are trying to make the Canadian touring circuit more accessible, Biesinger wrote a pamphlet called “How to book a maybe successful tour for a band that hasn’t received hype on Pitchfork, etc.” that is now available online on Weird Canada. Do you also feel it’s important to demystify the touring process for smaller DIY bands? Why?
GK: Yes. When I first started playing in bands that were touring you had to process a tangled mess of ‘telephone game’ information about what touring was or was supposed to be. Unless you get fucked over, make a bad decision, are ignorant to certain etiquette, etc., it can be very challenging to tour as a ‘lower tier’ band like ours. You make mistakes, you learn from them, and you try to get better. We thought this pamphlet would be a good resource to avoid making some of the mistakes we made in our musical ‘careers’ and potentially help break the disillusions associated with touring. Granted, these are just our opinions but at least it provokes conversation and dialogue on a sort of complicated subject.
APT613: While The Famines have a fairly low output of music in relation to the number of years you’ve been around, your band is known to release quite a bit of textual or visual mediums alongside your music. Why do you feel it is important for the listener to understand the context behind your songs?
GK: It is important because context is paramount to our manifesto. I’ll admit that we are a slow writing band, and it didn’t help that Ray moved four provinces east. That being said, these mediums exist for a couple of reasons.
Most importantly, it’s to provide context to the music. We do not like to overlook details because context is everything! Ray has historically carried archivist tendencies and sees a great value in documenting things thoroughly. He is also a very skilled illustrator, which contributes to a very focused and concise pairing of our sonic and visual mediums. We couldn’t function if our output was pretty, but meaningless. This is the same reason why we don’t like traditional band photos because they come off as a jeans advertisement. They are somewhat hollow.
Secondly, because our recorded musical output is quite slow, we use these other mediums to fill in the gaps. They are not meant to be puffy or an afterthought, but rather are an extension of the principles represented in our music.
If you would like to see The Famines in action, check out their show at Pressed on October 23. They’re playing with Average Times and Finderskeepers. The show starts at 8pm and costs $8.