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Interview: Band of the Week – The Evens

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The Evens played a show in Syracuse, New York on June 26th. A review of that event is also published here in the Music section. The band is composed of Washington DC musicians Ian MacKaye (ex-Fugazi, Minor Threat) and Amy Farina (ex-The Warmers). While the definitive interview with The Evens can be enjoyed in issue #68 of the now-defunct Punk Planet, I had a short chat with Amy via email. I had informed that band that I'd show up in my Pancake Mountain t-shirt — a DC cable access children's program; hence, the first seemingly incomprehensible question.

Speaking of Pancake Mountain, did you guys write that vowel song? (Maybe I slept through that one in grade school…) How did ya'll get involved with it, and do you do any other education/kids arts stuff (outside of activist stuff that Dischord bands are notably involved in)? And are the dance parties as fun as they sound?

Yeah, we wrote "Vowel Movement." The folks who produce Pancake Mountain are good friends of ours and asked if we would write a song for the pilot episode. I haven't actually attended one of the PM dance parties, because they are for toddlers and young children, but from what I gather they are a serious good time. The Evens' have not been involved in any other children's entertainment; however we have been guests at a few high school music/art/humanities classes, not to perform, but to interact with the students: answer questions, tell stories, that kind of thing – and they have been great experiences.

Could you talk a little bit about your experience with The Warmers? The music sounds similar to Ignition and I was curious about how much of The Warmers' music was Alec's influence and how you contributed to its creation?

Alec MacKaye was the singer of Ignition and he sang (along with Juan Carrera, our bass player) and played guitar in the Warmers. His voice and delivery is totally singular, and I can see how his mark is central to both bands. He also has a totally unique guitar playing style which was integral to how our song writing developed. I think that all three of us contributed pretty equal and significant pieces to the creative elements and overall operation of The Warmers. We were all in the room together when every song was written, so it was a true collaborative process – sometimes easy, sometimes tedious too. Largely though just totally joyous to play music and travel with both Alec and Juan, and they taught me much about being in a band and being good human, period.

Were you in a band between The Warmers and The Evens?

I played with a few bands in between The Warmers and The Evens. I was briefly one of Ted Leo's Pharmacists and sat in with other friends' bands in and around DC with some regularity. I wasn't in a full time band at any point, but I played as much as possible around that time.

The sound of The Evens is quieter than either of your or Ian's previous projects. This reminds me of something I'd heard Phranc say. She used to play guitar for the political punk band Catholic Discipline in the 80s and eventually turned to folk because she wanted her listeners to hear the message in order to think… and not be so distracted by the energy and anger of punk. Was there a similar motivation for your band?

Prior to the Evens, I was living in an apartment, where the kind of band practice that I was acquainted with (loud) was impossible. I kept my drum-set there but obviously couldn't play full volume, so I started to experiment with mutes and different implements and sounds and what-not. It was a really liberating experience and it occurred to me that despite what I had thought, I could actually play the drums anywhere, not just in a sound proof room, or a club built for rock music.

At that time, I think Ian was pretty saturated with volume and large rock venues from his years in Fugazi and I think he was thinking about finding ways to play music outside of that structure too. Music shouldn't have to be limited to spaces that can accommodate loud volumes. Playing at a lesser volume meant we could play anywhere. I think that was ultimately the motivation.

Your first release was so… happy. Even songs in which the lyrics were overtly political had, I don't know, a softness about them. The new release has a few songs with a more agitated edge to them. "Everybody Knows," for example. Is this the direction the band is heading?

Well, truthfully, I don't really have any idea what lies ahead, the song writing is an organic unfolding. We're always working on things, but never with a concept of which direction we want to go in other than direction: forward.

Would you mind ranting a bit on how your band creates its music?

We both spend a lot of time playing our instruments on our own and a lot of time playing together – both practices generate lots of ideas. When we get together for practice Ian typically has a zillion riffs that he's been messing with and I'll have some sounds/rhythms on my mind. We throw it all in the mix, respond to what feels good, and take it from there. Sometimes one of us starts singing immediately and we build a song around a vocal, other times we create strictly musical arrangements and then we work the vocals on top.

We do a lot of recording on our own to facilitate the writing process. We also go to a lot of shows and study (in a non-academic way) all kinds of music as much as possible, which I'm sure has an effect on how we play and the songs we write. When we are writing well there's a momentum at play, kind of like something's being born and we're just there to catch so the baby doesn't fall on the floor.

In this sense, sometimes it's like the songs almost write themselves. We also spend lots and lots of time working and reworking and pushing and scrapping, so pretty much anything goes.

Do you feel that your experience touring and being in a punk band is somehow different because you are a woman?

Different than what? Different than being a man in a band? I guess that's something I will never know, as I've only ever been and likely will only ever be a woman. Really, I don't think of playing in a band within the context of gender. Generally, I think of myself as a person in a band, not a woman in a band.

Other musicians like Kim Gordon have wound up in role model status for a lot of young women in our scene. Is this something you've experienced? Do you try to mentor other female musicians, either in an active, overt way, or in a more diffuse (not passive) way?

I think I'm kind of off the map and radar, so I don't know if I've had an impact on young women (or young men) or not. I don't actively seek out mentor sorts of relationships, at least not where I'm the mentor (I have definitely sought out mentors for myself) but when I do find myself in a situation where I think I can offer some guidance, I try to do so as thoughtfully as possible and take it seriously, and usually I find out something about myself in the proceeding too.

Do you do any other kind of art?

I paint. I worked for years as a scenic artist and mural painter and try to keep that up as much as possible when we're not on tour. I just finished a posthumous portrait of the late wife of the man who commissioned the painting. It was a serious challenge, but totally rewarding and I'm eager to do another.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Thanks for your questions and for coming out to The Evens gig in Syracuse. It was hot in there, and it was a great show. Ian and I were both psyched to be there amongst the good people.

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