Fang Island started as an art project by several students at the Rhode Island School of Design, including current member Chris Georges. They claim that the inspiration for their name came from an article in the satire newspaper, The Onion. Fang Island’s lineup quickly grew with the addition of guitarist Jason Bartell, drummer Marc St. Sauveur and guitarist Nick Sadler. In 2007 and 2009, the band independently released two EPs before signing to Sargent House for the release of their self-titled debut in 2009. Their first studio album gained them serious buzz. It was featured on end-of-year lists of several prominent music blogs and helped the band get deemed “honest and life-affirming” from Pitchfork Media’s Ian Cohen. Their most recent album, Major, was released in July 2012.
When Brooklyn trio Fang Island release music, no part of the artistic process is overlooked. Having originally met at the Rhode Island School of Design, it makes sense that Jason Bartell (guitar, vocals), Chris Georges (guitar, vocals) and Marc St. Sauveur (drums) keep the artistic stakes high, even beyond the music itself. Take, for instance, the cover of their second and latest album, 2012's Major. It's a picture of an actual album-sized piece of marble that has the words 'Fang Island Major' painstakingly chiseled on. Beyond the crafty cover, Major is an album brimming with everything from the infectious indie rock hooks of “Make Me” to the heavy metal-influenced “Chompers,” and even a hint of classical music with the twinkling keys in “Victorinian.” We recently spoke with Bartell about how Fang Island balances art and music, their transition from being an instrumental band to having vocals and what laws he would establish if he was the king of Fang Island.
Band of the Day: Question: Coming from an artistic background, how much time do you devote to music versus other artistic endeavors?
Jason Bartell: I'd say like 90% of the time [laughs]. I only say that because outside of music, my job for pay is an artist assistant. I do a lot of drawing every day. That's my job. In that sense, I do a lot, but I devote almost no time for my own personal art. It's hard to balance [working] with your own art, but I'm always doodling at the very least.
Band of the Day: Do the rest of the members of Fang Island also have day jobs?
Jason: Yeah, for now. Our main goal is to change that, to devote 100% of our time to the band. Right now we're working to make the band stay afloat. The money we make goes back into the band, too.
Band of the Day: You guys started out as an instrumental band. Can you tell me about the transition into incorporating vocals?
Jason: Our first EP was seven instrumental songs, and one song with no lyrics, but a chanting part. We quickly found that it was our favorite part of our live show. We were always waiting for the crowd to sing along. So we instantly became captivated by the potential of lyrics, and interested in vocals, so now we just have a lot more singing. No one would describe us as an instrumental band [now].
Band of the Day: Some of your fans used to make up stories about your instrumental songs. Do you remember any?
Jason: I wish I could! There's an old song called “Tickle Mountain,” but I can't remember any of the stories that people made up. But the kind of nice thing about instrumental songs is that people can put their own meaning, make their own stories, whereas lyrics can kind of guide the tone.
Band of the Day: I saw a YouTube video of Fang Island playing in a kindergarten class. What do you think kids get out of music that adults don't necessarily?
Jason: I think music for them is more visceral and immediate. Kids that are dancing as it flows through them, that's an immediate reaction. I've thought a lot about that show. It was really memorable, and we actually played a whole hour for the class. I'm not really that great with kids, I was pretty nervous. What you can't see in the video is that the kids in the front are completely standing motionless and look uninterested. I was pretty nervous and shy, because all I could see was the front row of kids who looked like they couldn't give a damn [laughs]. It wasn't until I watched the video later that I could see that the kids were actually having fun. But I think in that moment, what was going through my head was, “oh man, they don't like it” because they weren't reacting to it like adults would.
Band of the Day: So was it actually more nerve-wracking performing for the kids than for adults?
Jason: For me, probably, because I'm not that great with kids, and it's something I'm trying to work on. I tend to treat them like adults and don't know what they're thinking. In general, I have a hard time in front of crowds. It's not something I'm naturally good at. With adults I can put on an air of confidence, but it's harder with kids.
Band of the Day: What's your fondest memory from kindergarten?
Jason: Oh man, I really liked art class! I really liked nap time, and I really liked snack time. I guess that's pretty much all kindergarten is. I wish we had nap time, like in Europe. You know, mid-day, lie down for a nap...
Band of the Day: Do you have any sort of Fang Island band motto?
Jason: We all try to be as positive as we can about any given situation. It takes a lot of work to stay positive, especially when things aren't working out, but we're pretty close so it happens naturally. It's not like a mantra we say before a show or anything...maybe we should start doing that [laughs]!
Band of the Day: Your music tends to be pretty positive, but why do you think so much of the new music out there is more on the depressing end of the spectrum?
Jason: It's hard to say. Initially Fang Island was deliberate about being counterweight to that type of music, because outwardly negative music is a lot more common. But why can't you be outwardly positive as well? It's more important to just ignore trends, to be honest with your art and music, whether it takes the form of positivity or negativity. Just stick to your own sound.
Band of the Day: On Fang Island's Facebook page, one guy named Marcos wrote, “please release the album quickly before my boner explodes my pants, I beg of you!”
Jason: [laughs] That sounds like a pretty serious medical issue, I hope that Marcos is OK.
Band of the Day: I hope so, too! Well, so I'm wondering what are some of the nicest things fans have said or done for you guys? Outside of boners, obviously.
Jason: Non-boner related ones? There's not that many, once you cut it down like that [laughs]. No, I dunno, it's always cool going on our Facebook page and seeing the comments, and the tweets and all that. I really like handwritten notes. It doesn't happen very often but sometimes someone will come up at a show or something and write this really lengthy, handwritten note about how a song or something has struck them, and that's always really cool. I never get that kind of stuff so it's nice. Oh, a guy in New York knit me a hat one time and threw it onstage. He said it was his first time ever knitting anything, so that was nice.
Band of the Day: What kind of hat?
Jason: It was what you would knit if you had knit for the first time...but I've never knit before, so it would probably look like that. It was wintertime, and was like a beanie...and it was very cutely off. But in a nice way! That stuff is cool.
Band of the Day: If you were the king of Fang Island, what laws would you establish?
Jason: First of all, I AM the king of Fang Island [laughs]. Hmm...probably a lot of ice cream related things. Depends what kind of world, reality or pseudo-reality?
Band of the Day: Let's go with pseudo-reality.
Jason: Definitely flying, no working, a lot of nap time...yeah, let's bring nap time back! Nap time for adults!
Band of the Day: Finally, what do you love most about being in this band?
Jason: We have a really close bond, we're closer than ever right now, and it's really great. You can't really understate that amazing feeling you get when playing onstage, making something together, and having people hear it. It's the most rewarding thing I've ever been a part of, for sure. These dudes are so talented and awesome, it wouldn't work in the same way if they weren't. We're working hard, but having fun.