Interview: The Fierce And The Dead
“I didn’t vote for Brexit, I thought it was a con and I think that the mess we’re in now is as a result of that. I just hope things improve, let’s see what happens. I like to see the best in people. Lets hope love and kindness prevails over fear and hatred, that’s all I’d say”
With the imminent release of their new live album Field Recordings, The Fierce And The Dead have been putting the finishing touches to preparations for their appearance at this years Rosfest, a three day celebration of progressive rock over in Gettysburg, PA. As the instrumental nature of their music is unlikely to see them making any big addresses lyrically to match that of the founding fathers of the US, we felt it only right that we give guitarist and genial prog gentleman Matt Stevens a chance to enlighten us. Much like the proverbial prog rock song with its ever changing moods, the conversation veered towards Slayer, “weird music”, gigging and Marxist biscuits…
“I started playing the guitar because I was into the metal stuff that was around in the late 80’s…Guns N Roses, Iron Maiden through to Napalm Death, Carcass and Slayer. When metal was quite punky. Then I got into all sorts of indie rock like the Smiths, Ozrics and Hawkwind, jazz/rock like the Mahavishnu and King Crimson and US hardcore like the Dead Kennedys when I was still a teenager, onto stuff like Nick Drake and the Beach Boys, but metal was the gateway for me really. I really loved the more experimental end of metal like Celtic Frost and Voivod even Rush”. Matt Stevens, one fourth of instrumental prog cultists The Fierce And The Dead, is in a reminiscing mood as he recalls his teenage years sat in his bedroom, listening to the music that would eventually form the basis of both his solo work and the band, “Me and the others in the band used to play together in the 90’s, just jamming around from when we were at school together. Doing epic psychedelic jam music with lots of delay and too long guitar solos. When we got back together in 2010, just jamming again really initially to add some stuff to one of my solo records. And this new sound came out that combined all our influences from all the music we’d done in the interim.”
Any listener of TFATD will no doubt recognise any number of the artists mentioned and it is this melting pot of music and influence which has driven Matt through his career. New album, Field Recordings, presents the many facets of this experimental band as they perform live in front of a massed crowd at last years Ramblin Man Festival. This multi-facetism being a reminder of those formative years feeding into the birth of the band, “So you get psychedelic stuff and mathy stuff, but also Husker Du and Voivod and Radiohead, Can and Hawkwind. Lots of pop music. All sorts, it’s all in there. Sonic Youth and King Crimson were big for a while, but Monster Magnet and ambient stuff too, stoner stuff like Pentagram. We all have a lot of influences and no one thing dominates the song-writing. We really love playing together.”
With such a disparate nature to the music, the death metal bass rumble of ‘Ark’, the out-King Crimsoning of ‘Let’s Start A Cult’, they were always going to be up against the odds in terms of a mass market, a point not lost on Stevens as he ponders the path towards Ramblin Man, “We weren’t worried about that when we were making the records, but it’s a bit of a problem afterward. We just make music we like and then think about selling it when we’re done, we focus on the art first. The audience has grown organically, a few people at a time online and via the solo music I used to do”, he states before recognising some key moments, “the tour we did with Knifeworld and Trojan Horse in 2012 made us better known and then the momentum has grown after we got onto the festival circuit in 2014 when we did Celebr8 and onto Summers End, Arctangent and before you know it you’re in front of 10,000 odd people at Ramblin Man. This year we’re playing in the US, which is nuts, there was never a breakthrough it all sort happened a bit at a time.”
Even now the journey has a kind of surreal tint to it, “You don’t start playing this sort of weird instrumental stuff and think you’re going to be playing with Whitesnake that’s for sure. We went down shockingly well, the audience reaction was really good. I remember looking over at others in the band and just feeling really happy that we’ve taken it this far, we certainly didn’t expect the shows to get so big that’s for sure. This year we’re playing in the US, which is nuts, but there was never really a breakthrough, it all sort happened a bit at a time”. Huge gigs aside, there is still a recognition of the roots of the band and what is essentially their bread and butter, “we tend to play mostly rock/psychedelic/post rock/prog festivals so it’s hard to see how popular the band has become. For small gigs we’re still playing to small but lovely and keen audiences in small venues, we still really enjoy that, some of us prefer them to the big shows. I just like playing and being in a band with my friends.”
Picked up by the prog community, TFATD seem to be a bit of a square peg in a round hole. “As far a prog goes I’m fine with the term, it’s just we’re not fit for purpose if people want stuff that sounds like 70s symphonic rock, Yes or Genesis and all that. We’re not like that and we’ll only disappoint people”, but then maybe it’s the nature of prog in this new era that a band such as these can relate to fans of this genre, “We’re just trying to take all the stuff we like musically and do something we like with it because the influences are all over the place it comes out in some way a bit progressive rock but also a bit post rock, punk, metal and ambient and other stuff. There are even some quieter pieces on our records with sax on, bits that sound like The Smiths. It’s just down to what we like really and we love loads of different music”. There is one thing Matt is keen on reiterating though, “The prog scene has been incredibly good to us and I really love the people.”
Being involved in prog circles has led to a number of appearances on other artists albums, and also support slots for some rather high profile prog musicians. Stemming from his solo work, its a part of his career which Matt sees as an evolution of himself as an artist, “I don’t really do solo stuff anymore because it sort of evolved into what The Fierce and The Dead are doing now. The last solo record was heading that way with lots of heavy guitars and more experimental stuff. I feel like I took the solo stuff as far as you can go and the last run of gigs I did with Jon Gomm and Steve Rothery was so good I felt I’d finished that story”. It’s a story which has continued on in progressive style through TFATD, “I feel I can pretty much explore any ridiculous idea with TFATD, we’re all pretty open minded and the band became a lot more successful so needed more attention to fulfil it’s potential. Gigging at the level we require a lot of intensive rehearsal so it just takes up so much time.”
This experimental nature has become the driving force behind the music now with a recent synth purchase promising ever more expanding sounds, “The new record is more downtuned and heavy in some respects and then more tuneful and melodic in others. Someone said more stoner and psychedelic but that’s only the one song people have heard. There are more synths there and I could see us making music in the future that doesn’t have any guitars on it”, Matt enticingly states before giving an insight into the songwriting, “It’s about the composition not the instrumentation. We’re all into Aphex Twin and soundtracks and classical music and we don’t see ourselves particularly as a guitar band, it just happens to be the instrument we know and play best. And we love the riffs. If you see us in practice it’s straight in to the Slayer riffs when we soundcheck.”
Of course, there are other factors that come into play when making what he likes to call “weird music”, “Financially it’s not really possible, we all do other stuff to pay the bills. That leaves us free to do the music we want. I’m mates with most of the better known progressive bands and they mostly all do other work to survive whether that’s inside music or other things. I think we’ve already become better known than i thought we would really, to get the opportunity to play with your favourite bands and play in other countries, we’re already living the dream. We’ve been very lucky”. It’s a humble view which fits the very nature of the man, and in many respects the honesty in his music. It’s a demeanour which pays off as an independent artists too with a discussion on the differences facing a band such as Radiohead changing a sound from OK Computer to Kid A becoming a recognition of a certain free nature, “No pressures commercially really, we have a big enough following that buys our stuff to keep going, for which we’re hugely grateful. They’re brilliant and we don’t take their support for granted. We have to keep an eye on budgets but we want to release super high quality recordings with amazing art, so we’re not going to compromise. I think we can take any chance we want really musically, we’ve never released the same record twice, it’s always different, that’s what keeps us interested. Hopefully the fans will come along where we go.”
But even for the most independent of artists there is still a need to find a niche or market, unusually for TFATD they don’t seem to fit any particular one and maybe it is this that has provided them with a great reputation, “I’m just glad people listen. I think people do get put off by the prog term, we do get “I don’t like prog but you are really good” a lot. We cross over because we’ve played classic rock festivals, psychedelic festivals, prog ones, post rock festivals. I don’t feel really trapped because we always try to do different things. We’ve played with Chuck Mosely one week and PFM the next and it worked in both contexts. We’ve opened for Frost* and then Dave Lombardo and Hawkwind and people seemed to like it in all these contexts”. With this lies the curious dichotomy at the heart of “prog” where prog and progressive become two separate terms. By not getting stuck with a generic term, TFATD have been able to flourish.
“I saw The Algorithm and enjoyed what they were doing, that glitchy sound with guitars. I think the new Radiohead record is awesome and people like Thundercat are exploring new sounds with an eye on the past”, Matt opens up to talk about current music which is exciting him, “I love the Orange Clocks album and they’re friends of ours. I saw Hawkwind and they’re still doing new stuff and not really just doing all the old stuff, as are Gong. Lately I’ve gone back to stuff like Coil, Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine, Mogwai, 80’s Rush, Autechre, Big Star, Flaming Lips and found different sounds. I think they are lots of things left to do with music. I’m very optimistic.”. It’s an optimism which is shared at E&D and hopefully into wider music circles as the industry faces upheaval.
This “death of the industry” may actually turn out to be a freeing thing though with “weird music” breaking through in unusual ways. “I think it can if it’s on a soundtrack, for example take something like S U R V I V E coming through playing synth instrumentals on the back of the Stranger Things soundtrack. Instrumental stuff crosses over in a weird way. I never thought we’d play mainstream festivals and go down well, but it’s happened. If it crosses over with something in mainstream culture then I’m sure it can break through again”, reminding of not just the pop culture hit of last year but also that the reason we are here is because a band as unusual as TFATD played alongside legends such as Whitesnake and Hawkwind. Musically it may be unusual to a mass market, for Matt and TFATD it is a well deserved success after all the hard work.
Shifting the questions back to the new album and that idea of hard work is paramount, “It all about the work we’ve put in playing lots of gigs since we did Spooky Action and then the Magnet EP. I think we’ve really learned how to play the material live now and the record is celebration of that. I think we’ve become a different band, going from playing pubs to playing these big festival gigs, we’ve got a lot more confident”. With gigs getting bigger and different audiences to reach, there is always the question of the setlist, “We tend to play the stuff we most enjoy playing. really. We always open and finish with a fast one to get things moving, as we do a lot of short fast songs it throws people who may expect us to be some ponderous prog band. When we do a song less than 2 minutes long to open with that’s not far off Slayer speed people don’t expect that. We don’t really change our approach for festivals, we play to lots of different kinds of audience, we just do what you do. If you’re passionate about what you do and have integrity I think people sort of warm to you. We love playing and hopefully that comes across. We always play ‘666…6’ and ‘Magnet’ and usually ‘Ark’, they are songs people seem to know us for but we love playing them, we’re not bored of them. ‘Palm Trees’ as well. But if we’re not enjoying them we’ll stop”
There’s no sign of stopping yet though with another big festival date on the horizon, “It’s all about presenting the sound of the band as we are now and that’s constantly evolving. We need to keep moving forward, you can’t keep the same excitement by playing the same stuff. Our set at Rosfest is longer than normal, 90 minutes so that is a celebration of the last seven years of us as a band and we’re going to be making a live DVD as well”. It’s not just the extended setlist which is a change either with a whole new audience to win over, “We don’t honestly know what to expect, but it’s a massive deal for us to play in the US. All our friends who have played say it’s incredible. To be invited to play is so cool and the festival have been so good to us. We’re quite left field for them, I can’t wait to play and we’re all so excited.”
Also raising its head is the prospect of Brexit and with an already arduous task of obtaining visa’s for Rosfest, forthcoming European dates may provide further hurdles, “Well, I’ve just spent months sorting out visas for the US. It’s a huge job, it took up a lot of time and Rosfest were super helpful. If the same was to occur in Europe it’d be an absolute nightmare”. A viewpoint no doubt shared by many a musician yet Stevens still finds a positive outlook, “I didn’t vote for Brexit, I thought it was a con and I think that the mess we’re in now is as a result of that. I just hope things improve, let’s see what happens. I like to see the best in people. Lets hope love and kindness prevails over fear and hatred, that’s all I’d say”. It’s such positivity in the face of adversity which makes Matt Stevens such a likeable man and in TFATD he has a conduit for all those good vibes. It seems there are hidden political ideals though as the subject of biscuits is broached…”Any named after a high quality revolutionary. I’ll stick with the Trotsky Assortment”. A prog outlook if ever there was one, and with that it’s off into the windy night to rustle up some more riffs.