Naturalismo: How long has the group been playing together, and what are the origins of what is now Fire on Fire?
Chriss Sutherland: FIre on Fire as Fire on Fire has been doing this music for maybe four years this summer. I think it was around 2004 when we rekindled the kitchen jams. Of course, we were doing Cerberus Shoal long before with Caleb and I beginning in ’94, Tom Kovacevic involved from ’97 to ’99 and Colleen from 2000 to the end. Micah moved in the house around the turn of 2003 (I think). Anyway… it’s difficult to put a “start date” on the group.
Colleen Kinsella: We all love music and enjoyed each others company. So we played our songs for each other in the kitchen. Eventually we knew the songs too and played together.
N: What non-contemporary artists are your biggest influences?
CS: I’m not sure what you mean by non-contemporary? Dead people? Is contemporary “of the past 100 years” or “happening now”. I never really understood that word… I should look it up. But we have a shit load of influences from pre-war blues, psychedelic rock, classical Arabic and Turkish music, greek Rembetika, gypsy and Spanish Flamenco etc.
CK: hidegard von bingen, atualpa yupanqui, beefhart- bat chain puller & strictly personal, exuma, nina simone, nico, chrissy hinds, old brian eno, geeshi wiley, skip james, mississippi john hurt, old david bowie, Creedence, dylan, neil young, velevet underground
N: What contemporary artists have you been enjoying recently?
CS: Ah contemporary. Personally… I have been loving Lucinda Williams, Magnolia Electric, Camaron de la Isla, Patty Griffin, James, Band of Horses and I just heard the new Smog record which is really cool. I also am digging Big Blood and dufus.
CK: Missy Elliot, Inspector 22, Our Poor Nieghbors, Garm, Public Enemy, Kate Bush, Diamanda Galas, vialka, Picastro, pj harvey(old), visitations, wooden wand, jolie holland’s “catalpa”, IDM theftable, BJ Snowden, lungfish-pupils
N: Michael Gira describes Cerberus Shoal as an “art-punk-prog-chaos collective.” First, was the Cerberus Shoal project abandoned? And if so, why? Second, what inspired the transition into more acoustic-based songwriting?
CK: Many things…it happened completely naturally. We were always playing acoustically, but after the baby was born it all made perfect sense. And not having to carry super heavy bass amps and drive around in a gas guzzling van.
N: Do you find that there are any advantages to playing primarily acoustic music as opposed to playing primarily electric music – both in performance and songwriting?
CK: Not having to carry super heavy bass amps and drive around in a gas guzzling van. As far as songwriting it is simplified as opposed to the C-shoal way of writing everything together all at once
CS: I think Cerberus Shoal just evolved. I don’t think it was abandoned. The group and the music and the cast of characters always changed so I feel this is another era. I guess this is outside the idea of a name or specific identity which are concepts we struggle with in that they have very little to do with music. The transition was very natural in that it happened over a period of time seperately and jointly in that we were all making our own personal transitions that came together as a group transition. I suppose the obvious advantage of acoustic based music, for us, was the ease with which it could come together and happen. Cerberus Shoal was a very heavy group laden with all kinds of weight and we were looking to get away from that idea. As far as songwriting, this group behaves much more as five individuals rather than one body so therefore the songwriting is easier and maybe a bit more traditional. Cerberus Shoal hammered out music over hours and hours of laborious thinking, debating and compromising. Fire on Fire has very little of that aspect.
N: With so many players involved in the group, what is the process by which the group writes songs? My grandmother used to say that, “Many hands weave the quickest quilt, but many needles break the skin it built.” Do multiple human prisms focus the light of creation or diffuse it?
CS: Great saying! I think that we are very experienced group of friends, musicians and artists so we really flow pretty well together when we are working on the music. People bring their songs to the group with an immense amount of trust that the group will make the song better and if that isn’t happening we are honest enough to say so. So I think I would say that the “light of creation” is more focused.
CK: In this case we write the majority of the songs by ourselves then bring them to the group with the exception of “Three or More” which Chriss composed the music and the three of us-Chriss, Caleb & myself each wrote a verse.
N: In the song “Liberty Unknown,” you say: “We fought with our lungs / We fought with our hands / For liberty unknown / To our waking minds.” When I read these lines, it evokes a lot in me. It seems to me a Sisyphean task (or maybe a Möbius strip?) to fight for the liberty of a mind with physical acts (lungs, hands). Do you believe that there are inherent blocks in human consciousness from achieving true liberty, peace, stillness, etc.? I agree that true liberty is unknown to the waking mind (as its very self-awareness is the shackle it bears), but why is that the human condition? Can music help us transcend that (“those who remain are left with their songs”)? Can anything?
CS: I think that “self awareness” can lead to transcendence. I think the shackling begins at birth and the process of de-shackling begins at birth and maybe it’s a race until we die. I think anything creative that is outside the goal or aspiration of having goals or aspirations is helpful. Making ourselves and those we love happy can do wonders.
CK: WOW everything you said! You really took that sentiment and ran with it… When I wrote those words it was after seeing Daniel Higgs (of Lugfish) perform. Our very dear friend (Donnue of Our Poor Nieghbors) was supposed to play the show but didn’t. It was an emotional night. I was a few months pregos and all i could think of was Donnue’s way of making music that made us all sing –through words and his spirit–he can can get a bunch of stranger and friends to sing along, play along with him. I felt that was what i needed right in that moment. His way of inspiring us with song inspired me to write one about that great phenomenon when we shake off all the shit and forget ourselves. Not to get too touchy-feely but when a group of people sing together spontaneously it feels like love –that love is present and something bigger than us is in the room. We say “all’s forgiven” when our babe sleeps. It’s something like that. I think music can suspend some the shackle shit, but only for as long as you allow yourself to be taken by it.
N: Do you find it a hindering or helpful to live and create outside the cultural hegemony of major cities like New York or Los Angeles?
CK: So very helpful to live where we do. Great housemates, low-key rent costs help getting by working part time. You have the time to make music, art, etc. There is a warm community of artists and musicians here.
N: Although on one hand, you may have less access or connection to fellow musicians to build community, but on the other hand, insular music is often more idiosyncratic and ultimately more rewarding to the listener. Not to say that Portland is the Siberian tundra, but certainly not as expansive as the aforementioned behemoths. What is the musical community like in Portland?
CK: Very active. we have alot of wonderful contemporaries like visitations, Chris Teret, IDM Thefable & Crank Sturgeon-both kick ass highly experimental performance artists, Micah and Chriss solo, Alhan(tom k’s middle eastern ensemble), Uke of Spaces Corners, Kells Bells, Glade Swope and more. A terrific & unlikely venue called Strange Maine has been the home for many a musical oddball and an open atmosphere for unique performances.
N: Do you find that increased access to the natural world is inspirational in a way that no city environment could ever provide?
CS: I think our experience has been fully enriched by living and existing outside the so called cultural “centers” of the USA. Having traveled extensively throughout the states I think it’s obvious that there are pockets of wonder all over the country as it’s the people and not necessarily the environment. Of course one affects the other but in our case I would say the more insular the better. With media the way it is you don’t even have to pay attention and you are still full of shit at the end of the day. Portland as a city and a scene is really quite diverse and alive for it’s small population. It’s surprising how much music and art is happening here.
N: Michael Gira has certainly attained legendary status for his uncanny ear for talent. You should feel honored, as I’m sure you do. How did your relationship with Michael Gira come about? What is it like working with him?
CS: So far so good, but it’s still being formed. The relationship began toward the last two years of Cerberus Shoal around 2003 and then developed when we sent him the initial LP recordings that we did in our house.
N: Now that your 5 Song EP is out, have you been recording new material for a full length album? Where have you been recording and how has the process been different from the EP? When can we expect to hear new material?
CS: It’s kind of the opposite in that we recorded a full length first and then the EP. YGR is sitting on the LP as we speak. We have been writing new material but haven’t yet recorded. All recording to date has been done in our house by Caleb. The new, new material hopefully will be recorded around this summer and the old new material should be released soonish.
N: Your music is, at all times, both folk and beyond folk. As I said in my review of your EP, “It’s as if the band members were raised by wolves amidst the oak pillars of Maine, admiring the villagers’ harvest dance from afar but never truly understanding their steps.” Does the term “folk” have relevance any more or is it an antiquated notion?
CK: we are part of the “folk” so guess it does apply. We are americans making music, singing in english and talking about our lives, our culture our world. when I think of a country’s music — a pure expression of the culture I tend to think of acoustic folk music sung in the native language i.e. Rembetika, America
Southern blues, Philomen Aurthur & the Dung (Swedish folk). Indigenous music shares an intensity and fierceness of humans telling thier stories which I believe is what we are doing. To answer your question the term folk does have relevance.
The idea of playing “Folk music” never entered our minds when we were playing for each other. Our influences are so diverse they range way the hell past a stereotypical definition of folk.
CS: I think the word “folk” is still a good reference. But, like all words, it’s the investigation beyond the initial experience that really defines/enlightens what we mean or are trying to say etc.