Featured Music: Wednesday, October 1, 2003
Fickle Flames

The Theater Fire’s resistance to honing one sound might be why they remain underground giants.


In a time when music has been so classified and labeled that it seems there’s a genre, magazine, and radio station for every identifiable demographic, perhaps it’s to the Theater Fire’s detriment that their music is hard to categorize. It sounds at once urban and rustic, modern and very, very old. In the Theater Fire universe, pedal steels and banjos share space with mariachi trumpets and fuzzed guitars as if this were the most natural thing in the world. But despite his band’s low profile and mildly underground reputation, singer-guitarist Don Feagin feels the music is still accessible — and he has a new c.d. to prove it. “Our music might be different,” he said, “but it’s not too weird to listen to.”

The band has been called everything from “insurgent country” (which sounds more like a playground for CIA operatives than a musical genre) to “avant garde/experimental” (by this very publication, when the Theater Fire was nominated for that category in this year’s music awards issue, even though the most “experimentation” the band probably does is in deciding which instruments to use to decorate a new song). But none of that quite captures their essence.

If you’re looking for clues to help you decipher the Theater Fire’s music, what you’ll find in Don and Aprell Feagin’s apartment won’t help. The joint’s a boho cornucopia of stuff: records, c.d.’s, books, pawnshop instruments, oddball toys. (The day I was there, Don returned home from his day job to show off his latest acquisition, a Krusty the Clown jack-in-the-box.) In the record stack, pride of place goes to a Perez Prado LP in a collection that includes ’50s R&B and early rock ’n’ roll, acoustic blues, country, and Tejano music.

The Feagin’s apartment is also the “studio” where the band recorded The Theater Fire, their debut full-length c.d., three years in the making and just released by Austin-based Christmas Mountains Records. Three of the songs are holdovers from an earlier four-song e.p., but they blend seamlessly with the other material. Now the band plans to record another e.p. to give away at shows.

The songs evoke everything from spaghetti western soundtracks to Appalachian murder ballads to the echo-laden drone-pop that Don was playing a decade ago in Carrierwave with Andrew Kenny (now fronting American Analog Set). But while the songs retain the delicacy of the Velvets’ third album, the sound is even more stripped-down, the bare bones of melody supported by the sparest of arrangements. The spareness is intentional, a challenge in a group with seven members. When working up a new song, said Don, “We think about what instruments we can use and remain practical. At the same time, we want everybody to play on every song.”

Among the magnificent seven, bassist Mark Castaneda has played with Don the longest — since 1996. Aprell, an avowed non-musician, joined the band when an earlier keyboardist bailed before a gig and her husband showed her how to play D and G chords on the piano. “A friend told me, ‘You and Don have the perfect relationship, being married and playing together in a band,’ ” she said with a laugh. “She didn’t realize that we argue about the band more than anything else.” Guitarist Curtis Heath holds the distinction of having been pronounced a “cool baby” as an infant by no less of a rock ’n’ roll personage than Iggy Pop. Drummer Nick Prendergast and trumpeter Jesse Brakefield were both fans of the band before joining up. Multi-instrumentalist Sean French, who lives upstairs from the Feagins, has been playing a lot of banjo lately in addition to xylophone, pedal steel, and harmonica.

The musicians’ painstaking recording process is indicative of the way they do most things: deliberately. “It took us six months to come up with the name,” said Aprell of the band’s moniker, which they insist has nothing to do with the First Amendment. Said Castaneda: “The majority of people just liked it better than ‘The Early Days.’” They also share an appreciation for the warm, organic sound of analog recordings. Listening to the c.d., one can imagine a modern-day Harry Smith driving by the Feagin’s funky hospital district apartment building, hearing the sounds issuing from within, and stopping to make a field recording. Heath recently discovered a ’20s-vintage wire recorder in a surplus store, and the band has discussed using it for some future recordings. They’ve also tried recording Brakefield’s horn from across the street, which, according to Don, produced a sound “like a New Orleans jazz funeral.”

Not surprisingly, the band has received a better response in Denton and Austin than they have anywhere in the Metromess. “We’re not loud or piercing enough to cut through the alcohol fog,” said Don. The Theater Fire members have been accused of being boring onstage, but they don’t care. Their motivation is more inward: “We measure our success based on our own creativity and happiness.” While live shows provide the musicians with “more motivation than we’d have if we were just rehearsing here every Wednesday,” Don said they find “hearing a song come together is much more satisfying than playing to a screaming crowd.”

That said, the band members aren’t opposed to the idea of some national touring — now a possibility, with the success of their friends in the Baptist Generals (with whom the Theater Fire will share the stage on Oct. 26 at the Fort Worth Music Festival) and Centro-Matic. While all of the Theater Fire members have full-time jobs, said Heath, “Most of us have the kind of jobs which would allow us the freedom to go on the road for two or three months” if the opportunity arose. For now, though, this most patient of bands remains content to rehearse every week and play two or three gigs a month, occupying a unique musical space that’s off the mainstream radar but still worth investigating.

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