Interview With Neil Sabatino of Fairmont – New Album ‘A Spring Widow’ Out Friday

by Ed Magdziak • March 30, 2017 • Arts & Entertainment, MusicComments (0)127

Though Fairmont has been through multiple line-up changes over the course of their history, one thing has remained consistent—well written songs and musically interesting indie rock. What started out back in 2001 as a solo acoustic project by guitarist and vocalist Neil Sabatino has evolved into a band with musical muscle, abundant with sounds you don’t hear on records everyday. Vibraphone anyone? The band is releasing their new record A Spring Window on Friday and the album is a stellar example of their rich and varied music.

The band’s fuller sound is courtesy of their current roster including longtime Fairmont drummer Andy Applegate, Mike Burns on bass, Christian Kisala on vibraphone and Matt Cheplic on guitar. With the addition of guest vocalists former Fairmont member Sam Carradori and Steven Donahue the voices are as deeply layered as the music.

The album open with “Bones,” an upbeat, rollicking song with a political bent. Sabitino sings of politicians “they never practice what they preach, dirty hands soaked in bleach” and suggests we drag these scoundrels into the sun so they burn. Topical and timely to say the least. “Strangers” has a folky feel to it and the addition of horns from Erin Lockett is a nice touch. “Little Bird” is a standout number very melodic and that vibraphone certainly stands out. This one has single written all over it.

“Box of Crickets” starts with the sound of, you guessed it, crickets before turning into a 60s influenced, breezy number with great backing vocals in the chorus. “NYC” pulses with the beat of that city though I take exception that “they don’t want Jersey boys hanging around.” With its mellow vibe “Shadows” is the perfect closer on this album full of excellent, meticulously crafted indie rock.

A Spring Widow will be out tomorrow in all digital formats from Sabatino’s label Mint 400 Records as well as streaming on Spotify.

Catch Fairmont live at their CD release party on April 7th at Stosh’s in Fair Lawn. They will be joined by The Bitter Chills, The Maravines, Tri-state and The Clydes.

We chatted with Sabatino about the new record, his label and how he he manages to juggle his always busy schedule.

The basics. How did you form and why the name Fairmont?

Back in 2001 I was playing in the Eyeball Records band Pencey Prep and we were young and doing our first big tour. Three weeks through the midwest and we would be staying with my wife’s parents (she was my new girlfriend at the time) and they lived in Fairmont, Minnesota. Future My Chemical Romance guitarist Frank Iero was our lead singer and the other guys as well as Frank were all about 4 years younger than me, still teenagers. It was after a few rough shows, band members (I felt) disrespecting my future in laws and our van breaking down, a lot, that we had a falling out while staying in Fairmont and I had made the decision to start a new band right then. It helped that after the tour was over we got in a huge fight and I was asked to leave. I was home from a 3 week tour for about a week and had written an 8 song EP and booked studio time to record it as a solo thing and called it Fairmont after my wife’s hometown. The band moved forward for the first couple years with a revolving cast but by our second record in 2003, Andy Applegate had joined the band and he is still the drummer today. That was kind of the first moments of consistency was the combination of Andy and I on everything from 2003 forward.

The band has been through many line-up changes since it started including a new one for this album. What does the current line-up bring to Fairmont?

Right now in addition to Andy Applegate who has been in the band since 2003 is longtime member Christian Kisala who joined in 2007 when we were writing our most successful album to date “Transcendence”. From about 2009 up until 2015 Sam Carradori was part of the band lending backing vocals and playing bass but she had relocated to North Carolina and we needed someone to fill that void. Although Sam was nice enough to lend vocals to the song “Your Side” we needed someone consistently to come to practices and play shows so we couldn’t do a long distance relationship type thing. We had initially got in touch with Mike Burns who played in a 90’s band with me called Little Green Men and I knew Mike came from a jazz and indie rock background and that fit very well into what we were looking for. For the past few years because I have kids, we all have day jobs and Andy has suffered some health setbacks we kind of took touring off the table. This allowed us to add more members because we didn’t have to worry about stuffing everyone into a mini-van for shows. It was at this point Matt Cheplic, lead singer of The Bitter Chills had offered to play with us, adding lead guitar and backing vocals to the lineup. Initially I was concerned with songs being too busy and had tried over the course of writing our record to back off what I was playing on guitar and Matt is a seasoned musician who works very well with Christian because they have known each other for years and have been playing in The Bitter Chills together for almost 10 years or more. In addition, owning a record label has its perks because I know a bunch of amazing musicians. On this new album I asked Steven Donahue to add some backing vocals to the song “Box Of Crickets” and he introduced me to Erin Lockett of the band Of Love who added trumpet to three tracks. I think overall one of the more interesting things about the band is the way vibraphone is worked into our sound because  it’s not always easy to figure out what it should be doing in a band that is pretty much indie rock.

On the new record I hear touches of indie, folk, jangle pop, and Spingsteen-esque rock. How would you describe the overall sound of A Spring Widow?

It’s interesting that you hear Springsteen because although I do like Darkness On the Edge of Town and Nebraska I wouldn’t call him one of my influences. It may sound that way though because the band is a 5 piece and there is lots of instrumentation throughout the record. As I was writing the record I just kind of did what I normally do and bring a fleshed out acoustic song to the band and we re-work them quite a bit to get them to final form. I think everyone in the band has such different influences that we all just add our little part and it just ends up how it ends up. I think initially I was going for something that was Wilco-ish but I think some older influences of mine popped through. For instance I think “Bones” and “Little Bird” almost sound like The Bends era Radiohead, “Shadows” reminds me of later Radiohead and “Strangers” sounds a little Tom Petty-ish mixed with alt-country. Then tracks like “Box Of Crickets” is very Wilco. I remember the track we were having trouble with initially was “A Spring Widow” which kind of sounded like a Cake song and then I decided to remove all funkiness and told our bass player to just play it like it was a song on a Weezer record and that helped it flow better. Other songs like “NYC” I specifically kept simple so that the other guys had a little freedom with it. “Oh Your Bitter Heart” was not supposed to be on the album and was going to just be a B-side to go along with “Bones” because it was previously on our “Destruction Creation” album, however I felt like we did it in such a different way, making it almost a bossa nova / lounge version and I didn’t want it to just be a throw away thing. Like I said, I think I come into practice with one intention for all my songs and then once the band gets ahold of them it becomes something completely different and that is fine. That is what playing in a band is all about and that is what keeps it interesting is bringing it to talented people to see what they can add.

With song titles like “Bones”, “Strangers”, and “Oh Your Bitter Heart” and some somber lyrics throughout would you say the new record has a darker edge?

I would say the new record is definitely dark and it wasn’t on purpose. Just different situations had come up that I wanted to write about and was inspired by and this is what came about. I think usually I never sit down and write about anything but what is directly affecting me but when sitting down to record this record the political climate of this country I think seeped in a little bit. “Bones” and “Shadows” both I would say are veiled political tracks, or at least that is what I meant them to be. As Christian always tells me though, it doesn’t really matter what my intentions are, people will derive their own meanings and intentions are worthless. A couple songs are directly about dealing with some very difficult artists on the label side of things and I just needed a way to vent. Other stuff I think is leftover things that maybe I should have discussed with a therapist but worked out in a song instead. Just knowing the future material I am working on, I can say this is the last batch of darker songs and newer stuff is a little brighter. I even told the band in the last few weeks that playing a set of all songs from the new album is getting to be to somber so we started working in some of the more poppy melodic stuff from older records. It’s funny you put “Strangers” in the list because I thought that song kind of feels the least somber of the stuff on the record. I kind of thought of it as positive even since it talks about how the writer has moved on and this person who used to be somewhat of a problem in their life is not even a thought anymore. The others I’ll give you are dark but hopefully the trumpet and vibraphone make it sound a little cheery even though the lyrical topics are dark.

You wrote, produced, mixed and mastered the album in a DIY fashion. Do you feel the need to have complete creative control over the entire process?

It’s partially that and it’s partially the cost of making a record. In the past we were making lo-fi records for a few hundred dollars when we started and gradually started using producers and upping the amount we spent per record until it was costing anywhere from $5,000-$10,000 to put out an album. I knew probably about ten years ago that if I wanted to continue to put out records consistently that I would have to learn how to do everything myself. Especially once I had kids there was no room in the budget for making Fairmont records. Also when I started a record label I wanted to be able to do all of those things for the bands I signed. It is always hard producing your own band but I do try to also take as much advice as possible from the members of the band and other trusted associates. I think what I initially got fed up with was bad experiences with a few producers who didn’t care what the final product was as long as they got paid. I remember when we were working on our third album “Hell Is Other People” we had practice demos that were just a cassette recorder in the room that sounded better than the actual album did. We also were rushed through the process and had this idiot cutting parts here and there and making creative decisions with the mix that were all the wrong decisions for what we were going for. I remember in that same session the guy wouldn’t let us be present for mixing and in one part where we asked for some sound effects underneath a part of a track he recorded himself whistling and opening and closing a desk drawer. Then we got handed a record at the end of the process that still bothers me to this day. So as you can see, it’s points like that in a band’s career where you either except that level of bullshit or you figure out how to never put yourself in that situation again. Even at the time we knew we were scammed. Luckily following that debacle we got to work with some amazing producers like Dean Baltulonis and Bryan Russell and learned a lot. I would love to have enough money to do more records with someone like Bryan Russell or even producers we always dreamed of working with like Steve Albini, John Agnello, or Phil Ek but alas I have a mortgage to pay so I did it myself.

Who is a musical influence that people may be surprised by?

I find myself more and more hardly listening to anything current. I listen to mostly records from the 60’s and 70’s and find more and more that I appreciate bands that I never really liked when I was younger like Chicago or Steely Dan. I grew up listening to a wide array of stuff from The Beatles to Minor Threat but I think as I get older my tastes have definitely changed. I’m finding more and more I like mono records or records that don’t have hard panning like the late 60’s. Sometimes I’ll listen on headphones and it drives me crazy when all the drums are in one ear and all the vocals in another, it’s been a turn off lately. I find Stan Getz has been a recent favorite and although we are so different from what he does, I feel it influences us in a roundabout way like choosing to do a loungey version of “Oh Your Bitter Heart” was almost completely because of the Getz/Gilberto record. Recently I have enjoyed a lot of MC5 and Iris Dement, which are two artists pretty far apart from each other style wise. By next month it could be something completely different. I also find inspiration in the bands on my record label. I think bands like Young Legs, Sink Tapes, The Maravines and a bunch of others write amazing music that I get to see so up close that it’s definitely an influence.

A lot of attention on New Jersey music is focused on Asbury Park and New Brunswick. Do you think North Jersey is sometimes overlooked?

I think for a long time North Jersey hasn’t really had a spot to shine in. We used to always play Maxwells in Hoboken and Uncle Joe’s in Jersey City (and later on The Lampost) and both places kept a steady flow of cool indie bands flowing through and that was our scene. Right now I don’t know where you would call the hub that all North Jersey indie rock people play. The Meatlocker is fine for younger bands but my friends don’t want to hang out in a basement with no bar that looks like a bomb hit it. Most of the older bands on my label who have a five piece band and acoustic instruments need some sort of sound system to play through, not just one working microphone like some of the DIY spots. I feel the North Jersey scene is so fractured without that one indie spot that it makes it hard for anyone to catch on to who the up and coming bands are. I think that is the core reason that when people look to North NJ they don’t really get a good understanding of what bands are around. I think Jersey City is still such an important spot and through people like Dancing Tony and his great shows at spots like Porta or through 4th Street Arts over at Cathedral Hall I don’t think there is a lack of trying to build a scene. I know for Mint 400 and Sniffling Indie Kids we are always trying to figure out cool spots to do shows in and get a consistent thing going like at spots like Stosh’s in Fair Lawn which we are doing monthly showcases at. Sometimes North NJ also gets overshadowed by stuff going on in NYC or Brooklyn so there’s that competition too. I know spots like Boon Tunes and Cat Circus among others are working their asses off to have spots for bands to play in and to bring in touring bands. It’s a rough thing when you don’t have a consistent club to do shows at or a group of clubs in one centrally located area. Also, we’re finding that we want to do shows with free admission (but still have the club pay the bands from bar money they make) and it has to be in a place people want to hang out in so you’re not forcing people to come, they are just showing up and hanging out no matter who is playing, not just coming to see their friends band who they were forced to come and see. I’m sure sooner or later a spot will emerge but as you know with the original Maxwells closing it left a big hole, it was North NJ’s CBGB.

How do you find the time to be in a band, run your own record label and raise a family?

It’s rough, and don’t forget the day job. Luckily my wife has always been supportive and our kids love hanging out with bands whether it’s at a show or when they are recording in our basement. The label sort of works like a well oiled machine and I have so many great artists that contribute that it never feels like work. My own band does get the short end of the stick sometimes because I am so busy with other stuff but we also aren’t delusional, we know we aren’t ever going to be the band lighting the indie world on fire. So when there is no pressure it makes it a fun and easy thing to do. I think because of the people I choose to work with that doing it all is a very fun and easy thing.

Five words to describe Fairmont?

As you can see I’m no good at brevity.  Can I do a catch phrase type thing instead? Like, Fairmont – that band you thought broke up a decade ago but has made a bunch of pretty ok records.

Copyright, You Don’t Know Jersey, LLC (2010-2016)

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