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A living, breathing animal

img  Tobias Fischer & Hannis Brown

For the last two years, proggy post-rockers The Fierce and the Dead have dedicated themselves to a unique and ever-changing brand of rock that falls somewhere between extreme metal, noise, funk, jazz, and 70s rock. Their instrumentals meld improvisation with complex through-composed forms without ever approaching the divisive “jam band” category. The band’s first EP, Part 1, resigned itself to a single 19-minute track that moves restlessly between spacious atmospherics, delay-heavy jazz guitar riffing, and epic explosions of distortion. Over the course of their first full-length and second EP, the group has moved towards shorter pieces that often incorporate a whirlwind of stylistic changes within a single 5-minute track. With their next LP due later this year, we’re joined by members Matt Stevens and Kev Feazy who offer insights into their songwriting and recording processes, describe the moving parts within their collective dynamic and discuss what it means to be “a band.”

A band, as a musical entity, can only work if individual and group ambitions are combined. What are your different ambitions with regard to your instruments, if not virtuosity?
Kev: A band is a living and breathing animal that you have to react to second to second. Even songs with strict structures can be played with different dynamics or tempos in a live show – often unexpectedly! Personally, and I think most of the band share this goal, I want to be able to surprise myself and the audience. The scene we grew up in tended to be more about compositional improvisation. Virtuosity is a word that’s thrown around far too often for my liking. Listening to the musicians you are playing with is far more important that playing up and down a box shape at a hundred miles per hour. Be a musician first then be a guitarist, drummer or whatever. We have always held the view that the more knowledge and ability you have the more you can leave out.

What was it about the first sessions together that made you realise that this was "it"?
Matt: The first time we recorded and played together, it felt like a band even though it was a session for my album Ghost. It just felt right, if that makes sense. The difference between a band and a solo thing is quite subtle, it's about collective ownership of the music and who makes the final decisions. We'll probably do this for a while then do something else, no one know how long these things will carry on. But for the moment, I really enjoy the collaborative process. All the decisions are made between us. It's not my thing.
Kev: For me it goes back to being a kid and that feeling of being in an exclusive club. You and your mates making music and having a bloody laugh at the same time. All three of us had been in bands together in the past and I think we were all surprised that we still had the ability to communicate with each other so intuitively. As Matt said, it felt very comfortable straight away.

What's your writing process like? In which way are your different creative talents enhancing each other within the band?
Matt: Kev or myself tend to come up with the chords and demo the songs, then we put the parts together through group improvisation. Then, once we've recorded the songs we overdub on to them, sometimes cut them up and Kev does a lot of work on the mix adding percussion, keyboards and effects. Then the band approve what we've done.
Kev: We all seem to specialise in different areas of music, whether that be rhythm, harmony or overall sonics. Luckily, very few of these areas overlap, so that means that each person in the band has the room to express their own ideas whilst being supported by the other members.

You seem to hold the collaborative process in high esteem. Ron Geesin, on the other hand, once told me: "All too often, there is a cancelling out of individual energy in a modern group format. It does not inspire one with great structure or passion."
Kev: I agree with him to a point. I think that ‘individual musical expression’ is sometimes redefined to mean ‘solo’. When we write together, we get excited about things like counterpoint and dynamics, things that you can do as a group. Of course, there are points when certain instruments take centre stage but only when the composition leads you there. We never have felt the need to make a space for a solo, but sometimes the dynamics of a piece take you there anyway. There are no hard and fast rules.

So how would you describe your aesthetic approach towards the band?
Matt: It's about the attitude to the performance, its a way of doing things. To be open minded to different sounds but retain a central group identity. 
Kev: I like to think that we have reached a point where we are not bothered about impressing anyone but ourselves. I think that anonymity of sound comes from trying too hard to be original and ending up sounding either like everyone else or locked into a particular style. When you relax and allow yourself to enjoy what you’re doing, the results speak for themselves.

I assume this is based on a very clearly defined philosophy of distributed leadership.
Matt: Yes. No one is in charge but we all normally share a collective vision for the music. There is no leader, everything is quite democratic. Luckily we have similar ideas. A band is more than the sum of the individual parts. It's the interaction, the frustration and the sly nod that leads to an unexpected improvisation. We have played together for years and there is a level of unspoken communication.
Kev: The dynamic of the band was decided many years ago when we were kids. Our foibles and quirks have been out in the open for so long that  working together is something that doesn’t need to be thought about too much. Everyone has equal say and that is assumed and never taken for granted.

You mentioned that you all come from an environment, in which improvisation plays an essential role. In which way?
Matt: There were bands who would do epic improvisations, psychedelic stuff. Really cool and inspiring. A lot of rock musicians consider improvisation an opportunity to widdle away on solos but that was never the point. It's about the band as a collective unit exploring new musical areas.
Kev: To go further with what Matt says – a lot of the old bands from that scene were a strange mish mash of influences. You had the anyone can do it attitude of punk - especially the US hardcore stuff - mixed into the experimentations of bands like Hawkwind or Mahavishnu. This was coupled with the fact that it was a fairly small town, pre-Internet, that was culturally cut off from a lot of the industry. Nobody broke any rules as we weren’t aware there were rules to break! The idea of not doing what you wanted because it didn’t fit into a certain style was completely alien. Improvisations, as Matt said, did not mean long solos – it meant the whole band ending up in a different key, tempo, dynamic, whatever by the end of their performance. Compositional improvisation I guess you’d call it. Played without ego or expectations.

Following your ego can also lead to some fascinating results.
Kev: You can’t say that there is right or wrong way to work. Some bands have been made by the tension that is created by clashing egos, whilst some have fallen apart for the same reason. Some dissolve out of lack of leadership and some flourish. In TFATD the thing we will always have is that we are friends, grew up with each other, and socialise with each other. Nobody is afraid to say what that they think.

The live aspect still seem to be vital for The Fierce and the Dead.
Kev: I always think of live and studio as two very seperate things. Ideas that translate well on record can sometimes sound limp live and vice versa. Live is about energy, excitement, dynamics and volume. Recordings are about using sonics and space to create something immersive that moves you in a different way to a live performance. Sometimes the most ‘live’ sounding recordings are the most orchestrated. As an engineer and producer I’ve worked with many bands who want to have a live sound to their record. They are normally quite surprised about how much time it takes to set that up so it translates to the recordings.

Are you still in a „searching stage“ or do you feel that these constant changes could be part of what defines the band in the future?
Kev: If anyone says they are not constantly looking for new things you should be suspicious! We have never said ‘I think we should write a song like this’, and I hope we never will. I believe that with TFATD we have learnt to relax and enjoy our own music.

Interview by Tobias Fischer
Intro by Hannis Brown

The Fierce and the Dead Discography:
Part 1
Foreign Languages
If it carries on like this we are moving to Morecombe

The Fierce and the Dead