Ford Theatre Reunion: Neo-carnival rock ’n’ roll

by Patty Templeton

If Gödel, Escher, Bach, and P.T. Barnum started a band, it might’ve sounded like Ford Theatre Reunion. They’re an anarchic mix of philosophical poetry, vaudevillian influence, and a fierce joie de vivre. You can catch ’em on Friday, July 7, at Balcony Backstage, 600 Main Ave.

Their new album, “We Have Only Left Earth,” is both haunting and a hella party. It’s the kind of album Oscar Wilde would raise from his grave to host a salon for, with songs that Mabel Stark coulda waltzed in white leather with her tigers to. If the business opportunity arose of running a swampy steamboat brothel only open on nights when the moon loomed large, dangerous, and dreamy, it’d soundtrack your halls. Meaning: a definite “buy-it.”

DGO talked to vocalist, clarinetist, and keyboard player, Alex Ford about the band, influences, and “We Have Only Left Earth” as she walked around the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles.

Tell me about the new album, “We Have Only Left Earth.” When we finished our second full-length, “Legends and Landmarks,” we were sitting at a bar drinking. It was immediately, “What’s next? What’s the next step?”

Our band has aged with us. We started and wrote songs that were more aligned with comic books, then songs with folklore, and then religion and discussions on that. Then it was, what do you do when you’ve covered all of that? I guess we came to the concept that you cover Hell or the fact that there isn’t one – the concept of the void.

Philosophy heavily influences my interests in where our music goes metaphorically. There’s a philosopher named Heidegger, ignore the fact that he was a neo-Nazi because that is obviously not great. Actually, not even neo – just a Nazi. But he had this discussion of being thrust into existence from non-existence and then returning to that non-existence. Then there’s the concept of the void – the abyss – that Nietzsche talks about. When you look into the void, the void looks back at you. I’m of the opinion that the only thing that you really have of your own is your nothingness.

That’s the concept we landed on for our new album.

That’s so fascinating because one of the elements that marks almost all of your music is how full it is. It’s interesting to express nothingness with songs full to bursting. If you think about it, they’re two sides of the same coin. This concept that it is very traumatizing to be nothing so we spend our whole lives grabbing things from the external world that say, “This is me. This is a part of what I am. My identity, the definition of me,” but if you really start to pick it apart, you realize everything about you came from somewhere else and none of it originated in you. Nothingness and everything-ness is all related.

Tell me more about the controlled chaos of your sound.We’re really lucky because we’re a really democratic band. A lot of bands aren’t like that. We all write our own parts. Everyone has veto power. Everyone has a say in the music. Which is one of the reasons why we have that insane-everything-happening-all-at-once quality that we have forced ourselves to make harmonious.

Everybody’s happy because all of our identities come out in the music. That’s something we find really special about the way that we write.

The more hands that are in a pot, the harder it is to get a thing done. How does band democracy affect workflow? It’s taken a lot of practice [laughs]. We’ve definitely had struggles in figuring out how to make it all work. The five people we are now have been together almost five years. It’s like being married to four other people. You learn how you work together and the way in which you interact with one another changes over time. You learn to listen a little more openly and let go of things you think are absolutely necessary and value other people’s opinions even when they’re not your own opinion.

What did you learn about yourself in making art with others? I’m really Type-A and fatalistic [laughs]. As you can imagine, most artists are very particular and love what they have to offer and find it meaningful. It’s a difficult lesson to recognize that other people can change and shape what you consider the truest expression of a work. Then, in spite of the fact that it’s not what you initially imagined it would be, the work may actually be better. You have to let go of that ego to accept that. Or to accept that everybody has different tastes and even if you feel like it’s not as good, it may be better for 95 percent of the world.

The name Ford Theatre Reunion is inherently political – it names the theatre President Lincoln was assassinated in – do y’all consider yourself a political band?We have our political leanings and they come out in our music, especially in our most recent album. I think our opinions are a lot more apparent. Initially, we were more of a vaudeville band. I think we grew into a rock ’n’ roll band, and I don’t think I would call us political, but we definitely have politic in us.

We are in the politic of breakdown.

If you could play one of your songs in front of President Trump, what would it be? We wrote a song called “Sugar” that’s about Donald Trump. So that’s what we would probably play for him [laughs] if given the opportunity to play for him in the Oval Office.

What song on the album is currently the most fun to play live? Probably the last track on the album, [“Betrayal: The Fourth Trial”]. We don’t get to play it every day but it’s pretty enjoyable because it’s very technically difficult.

Where did the rad, weirdo carnie tone come from?It’s really hard to say. Eighty percent of this band has been together for nine years. When we started, we started as a band that wanted to do sideshow as well. We wanted to be like Yard Dogs Road Show where we played music and had skits in between and blockheading and laying on a bed of nails. We wanted to do it all. As it turns out, we’re not very good at those others things [laughs].

Joe Harbison, the guitarist, had tried out a circus band in high school. We have probably two songs from that era on albums that we’ve released. Eric Myers, on the accordion, he was always fascination with [mysteriously inaudible]. It’s safe to say we all had a fascination with making the bizarre part of music … For me, a huge portion of what draws me in is being able to express myself and create fun, philosophical, poetic puzzles within music and then express it to the world.

Your band feels like there’s some booknerds in it. What are the books you’d recommend to someone who likes your music? We absolutely are readers. Boy howdy [laughs]. At least for me and Joe, we would say “House of Leaves.” I think something that comes out in the lyrics and probably also in the music is an interest in post-modern novels. So Mark Danielewski or Italo Calvino or Perec, who wrote “A Void,” a novel that doesn’t have the letter “e” in it even once.

All of these people play with their form. We like to play with our form, too. How do we trick people into listening to music that is really weird [laughs] and enjoying it? Then, finding common ground within the music, that’s really tricky. There’s a lot of incredible music that’s really difficult to understand, but we want to make music that’s really difficult that you feel like you can understand anyway.

How does folklore come into play in your tunes?Usually, anyone who is really fascinated by philosophy also has an interest in human history and anybody who likes to create finds themselves looking back at creation. It’s really difficult to express ideals as pure ideals. That’s what philosophical discourse is about. What art is about is utilizing imagery and feeling and stories to express ideals. It probably would not be the same interesting album if all of the songs were like, “Hell isn’t real. Existence is temporary. All that you are is a blank hole.” [laughs] You gotta allude to it and that way there is something to puzzle and wander on.

Who is a band who makes you puzzle and wander? Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. They have a new project, Free Salamander Exhibit (it’s not every member), and those are probably, at least for me and the guitarist Joe, some of our biggest influences. He and I write the majority of the lyrics, but everybody has a different element that means the most to them to bring in. Which is why we are so fortunate. If all of us cited the same primary influence we would probably be a much less diverse band than we are.

What’s a movie that describes fresh-beginning-of-the-tour van smell?[Yelled to bandmate] Hey Luke, what’s a movie you’d equate beginning of the tour van smell to?

“Raising Arizona?” [laughs] That’s it? OK. “Raising Arizona.”

What about end-of-the-tour van smell? Let’s call the end of it “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”

This has started a discourse amongst the boys as we stand by a bubbling pit of tar. [laughs]

The van is more like the tar pits than anything else.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Patty TempletonDGO Staff Writer


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