Interview: Upper Wilds
Above all I wanted to play guitar again. It's always secretly been what I'm most comfortable playing. I also missed being in a band, playing with friends, and the physical sensation of shredding and yelling
Dan Friel is a pioneer of experimental punk music based on noisy electronics. Friel was a founding member of Parts & Labor, a seminal band in the New York indie scene until its dissolution in 2012. As a solo musician, Dan continued to push the boundaries of experimental noise punk, focusing more on electronically generated tones. After three excellent releases, Dan decided to get back to guitar based music he couple play live with a backing band. Called Upper Wilds, the group will showcase a more traditional punk sensibility and vocals. They will release their first album, Guitar Module 2017, on September 22 on via Thrill Jockey Records.
Tim Porter caught up with Dan about his new album and lots of other things.
(((o))): Lets start at the beginning. Could you talk about life when you were young and what got you into making music?
Dan: I grew up in Amherst, MA, and was a pretty standard nerdy teen getting into punk and metal, and noise. My parents are from Brooklyn, settled in Amherst after some 60s hippy roaming, and are/were super supportive of most weirdness I got into. Being in a college town I was fortunate to see a ton of bands that came through to play either the schools or DIY spaces in the mid-90s.
I got the toy keyboard I use for all the P&L/solo stuff when I was 8, but I didn’t play it a ton after the initial honeymoon period. When I was 14 I started guitar lessons at the mall with a guy named Chris McKenna who had built a double neck guitar with his name painted across the headstocks. The double neck also had light-up LED fret markers. Chris introduced me to Black Sabbath, and politely scolded me when I showed up next week with a cassette copy of Heaven and Hell. The guitar I then bought at that shop was a $150 “Guild X-79 Skyhawk”, a weirdly droopy 80s misfit that looks like a formerly badass metal guitar melting into a puddle. https://www.google.com/search?biw=1321&bih=754&tbm=isch&sa=1&q=guild+skyhawk+red&oq=guild+skyhawk+red&gs_l=psy-ab.3…43557.43970.0.44098.4.4.0.0.0.0.126.349.3j1.4.0….0…1.1.64.psy-ab..0.1.86…0i30k1.SJHSbdTILP4
I joined a band when I was 16 with slightly older kids that were really, really into noise and hardcore. I played a bass guitar with a remote-control car joystick duck taped on that I rigged up for noise. We sounded like sloppy Man Is The Bastard and played WFMU and basement shows with Drop Dead. Bren and Shawn, the guys who formed that band, and the people I met through them, were the big turning point for me. They had zero patience for bullshit in music and were incredibly hungry for new sounds and ideas. Bren got a job at the record shop in town when I was still in high school, which really opened the floodgates, and he remains the most voracious champion of music I’ve ever met.
(((o))): What were some of your favorite bands/albums growing up and how they influenced what you do now?
Dan: Narrowing “growing up” to high school: Sonic Youth and Fugazi were the big ones for me. They were on fire at the time, and I think that influence on this album is pretty straightforward. I still love how weird and psychedelic Fugazi’s guitar stuff got within their framework. I also listened to a lot of Tonie Joy-related projects (Universal Order of Armageddon, Moss Icon, The Great Unraveling, Born Against), The Ex, Dog Faced Hermans, Man Is The Bastard, Drive Like Jehu, and Neurosis. I never got into progressive rock, but I stumbled into punk and hardcore during an exceptionally proggy era. As a result, I’m frequently dismayed at how depressingly conservative guitar bands can be about their guitar music.
(((o))): You were one of the first people I saw using guitar effects hooked into a sampler as a music source. Since then it’s become more common, but I’ve always thought of you as one of the first. Am I correct? Were there people you saw doing it that got you there?
Dan: That noise-table style set up was already well established in experimental music (Black Dice, for one), but we might have been on the early side of using it in a rock band.
(((o))): Can you talk about some of the people that influenced you specifically as it relates to noise as a musical art, and what attracted you?
Dan: I think I was looking for noise before I knew what it was. I wanted more extremity and variation in texture than I was finding, and so I latched onto Sonic Youth, Boredoms, Godflesh, and on down various rabbit holes from there. It scratches a primal itch for me. Specific entry point songs/albums in that department were Blonder Tongue Audio Baton by The Swirlies, Husker Du’s 8 Miles High, JC by Sonic Youth, Mighty Trust Krusher by Godflesh, Flying Saucer Attack, and My Bloody Valentine.
(((o))): Within the noise, especially in your solo work, there is often tremendous pop sensibility and monster hooks. What are some of the influences that you channel when you write this stuff?
Dan: Pop-wise, I think it’s just the bubblegum ambiance of growing up in the 80s.
(((o))): Does playing your music make you happy? There is something fundamentally happy and joyous, especially evident in the three solo albums.
Dan: A lot of the time it does, and it is generally my primary tool for fighting off depression. At times, it feels like a kind of weaponized joy is the only sound that will make things better.
(((o))): I’m curious about what caused P&L to dissolve. Hopefully it was amicable.
Dan: We burned out, but amicably. P&L toured a ton, especially in the early days. Then between 2006 and 2008 we released 3 albums, 2 EPs, 2 solo side projects, and put out 6 releases on our label including a 52-band compilation. We loved every second of it, but we also hoped that level of productivity might translate to a more sustainable level of visibility, and it didn’t. We kept touring and made another album but by 2011 it felt like we didn’t fit in anywhere, so we figured the 10-year mark was a good place to call it quits.
(((o))): So now after a few years doing solo work, you’re back to a band project of sorts. What made you want to focus again on guitar and return to vocals?
Dan: Above all I wanted to play guitar again. It’s always secretly been what I’m most comfortable playing, and I had a stockpile of riffs going back to the P&L days. I also missed being in a band, playing with friends, and the physical sensation of shredding and yelling. So, I took last year to sculpt all that into something that felt like a viable launching point, and hit up Zach Lehrhoff (from Ex Models, etc) and Aaron Siegel to start playing shows and take it from there.
(((o))): The new album (Guitar Model 2017) is great! Is there any undying theme or narrative to the album? There seems to be a bit of a “viewing earth from a distance” sort of sci-fi thing going on. Is that by design?
Dan: Very much so. I love science fiction, and have always liked spacerock in theory, and I wanted to reference that coming from a slightly crustier place. There’s a lot in there about actual outer space, and a lot about space in terms of solitude and isolation.
(((o))): I love the vocal harmonies. Can you talk about how you got there on that? You did the same thing in P&L and I always thought it was great. Beatles inspired?
Dan: I have to give credit to BJ from Parts & Labor, who dragged me into the world of vocal harmonies back in the day. Not so much Beatles inspired as Wire/Mission of Burma/Buzzcocks inspired.
(((o))): What does the album title mean?
Dan: It’s my guitar project, and it’s about space.
(((o))): Could you talk about recording process and any challenges there were in getting that sound onto tape. Where was it recorded? Did you do it all yourself?
Dan: I recorded it with Seth Manchester at Machines With Magnets in Rhode Island, on January 2nd-4th. I played everything, then did some more overdubbing at home, and came back for a day to mix. We banged it out pretty easily, because Seth rules.
(((o))): I cant wait to see it live – are you touring soon?
Dan: We’re doing a Midwest tour in November but I don’t have anything announceable yet.