Before embarking on a conversation with Fugitive Empire about music, make sure to order more than one drink. “You can find genius in the most mundane and normal things – it’s just whether you want to invest the time in looking for it,” he says, eyes genuinely elsewhere but his speech: completely laser-focused.
fE’s been around for nearly 6 years, and has recorded as many albums in that time – although he admits he has been writing for a little longer. “How long is a piece of string? I think if you’re looking for a definite start point, maybe 2004? Start of 2004? It was the first time I started seeing bands.”
It was all about: “The insane indie folk scrawlings of troubadours,” he says, with an unapologetically poetic description of his influences. “Angry kids writing about things that are different in the hope that someone will take that into their lives – having that faith and conviction about your music and what you’re singing about.
“So many artists these days fail to have conviction in what they’re singing about, and that why it comes out like trite nonsense.”
Clearly Fugitive Empire doesn’t do buttoned-down interviews. If you were to take on the image and persona of the music at face value, you might assume it’s all downers and cardigans. Of course, the sage advice from Shakespeare to here is: never assume – because it’s rock-tinged folk, without the most-obviously open wounds. And, what follows from even a most basic question is a passionate intelligence that spouts lyrical about the listener, influences and his own work.
Last year’s album – full title: Blown Right Out Of Sight (Songs For The Broken Hearted) had a few tracks that went out onto his myspace page. All the themes are there: lost love and lamentation, serendipity, and er, a charmingly idiosyncratic nod to Neighbours. Yes you read right. It’s cultish TV referencing time! With a title that forces a violent double-take with its semantic anomaly, track 3 is called ‘Forgotten Like Amnesia.’
“It’s a song about any girl of any place or any time. It sounds really trite and contrived. But people who’ve heard it felt like they’d created a place in their mind where they’d previously been. And, you know Neighbours – it is openly trite – so many characters suffered from amnesia! And that’s not how amnesia works.”
Epidemic amnesia. It could exist, but obviously only in an Australian soap opera. (Insert wink here.)
“It’s having that sense of jest – to say that something was Forgotten Like Amnesia is a tautology.”
The song’s got an interesting glacial edge to it and chimes well with opener ‘Comets’ – an instrumental that wouldn’t be too out of place from anyone within the Saddle Creek roster. Yet, there is a surprising lucidity – almost exhaustingly so – to portraying the personal, which could quite easily get caught up in its own reflections.
Track 8 on the album is called ‘Gathered in Omaha’. It’s a signature song by Fugitive Empire which is arguably the best on the album; a paean to his heroes (keep reading) but it’s also “about a missed opportunity. Someone asked ‘Are you sure this is the time?’ I should have taken a risk. It wasn’t their fault. All they were trying to do was let me make my own decision.”
‘Commit to the Lie’ pulls you in like the long takes in a Sofia Coppola film – appealing, but there’s a bittersweet nuance: “at least you’ll know for certain/when you die/that stood for something untrue/but you didn’t hide it away.”
‘Ashes’ is a gorgeous track that sounds like the crux of the album; the focal point – and it has track that contains the lyric with the album title ‘Blown Right Out Of Sight’. “That’s my favourite song on the album.” ‘Ashes’ and ‘Falling Lessons’ were originally recorded as a double A-side “for a girl on her birthday – I felt like it was something I had to get out at the time, two sides of how I felt about the situation,” he says.
‘(In Loving Memory of a) Golden Age’ is a summery track that is less moody than other tracks on the album, with a guitar line that could be the softer side of Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly crossed with Idlewild’s ‘Live In a Hiding Place’. ‘Deception’ is melancholic, but at the same time reaches out for someone who has “a reason to trust in nothing/Just do as you please”. ‘A Song For The Broken Hearted’ is exactly that – and a song about wanting to be saved.
“Every song has a certain story or message, and ties into a place in time. It is a bookend with track 4 (Ashes).”
‘Saturday > Sunday’ (“Saturday into Sunday”) is “a callback to a song on the second album.” fE’s untreated, sincere voice expresses something from a different time. “It a simple song on a day and night with one friend who always teaches me something about life I’ve never thought about before.”
Each song was recorded layer by layer as Fugitive Empire plays all his instruments and “any instrument I pick up really” from guitars, to pianos, keyboards and xylophones, and probably a violin, too, if he could get his hands on one. It all makes sense when you realise Bright Eyes was what blew his mind open. Interrupting what he was about to say would have been like slapping lacquer all over a near-complete canvas.
“I wondered why Bright Eyes wasn’t being heard of as much in this country, than in America,” he says. “There were artists that were doing a similar thing, Badly Drawn Boy…even Travis. Guys with guitars, singing about how they felt. Just being open and honest and brash; and with the chords that they were using to sync in with the words. And the logic behind Conor’s work – the striving to do everything from ground up – he worked in a studio until he was experienced enough to go away an use an 8 track in his basement, and then when he felt he’s outgrown that, he went back to the same studio – still working there – said, hey can I put a few tracks down, after all the other bands and acts had gone home for the day.”
“People like that, to Willy Mason who’s written a song as part of a music course – he went out there, snuck into Conor’s dressing room at a gig and tore into it, to the point where he was being dragged away by security the point at which Conor tuned around and said ‘you’re signed’ – or you know, I’ll set up a label to sign you and out the record out there. If you want to do something you have to have conviction in it. You have to make sure that everything ties together. The music, the words. Even the artwork, and the way you put it out there – otherwise that individual voice is lost.”
Doing it yourself makes for the greatest rock & roll tales. The tales where the boy played on to become a guitar hero, despite a critical music teacher. The ones where the kids took it outside the garage and despite god like status, still knew they needed to tell the world to just. Go. Eat. Itself. They’re the ones who take it out of their rooms and into the streets, and they’re the tales of those who stick to their work ethic and their guns, shying away from the tinsel and corporate whoredom. They’re probably the most idealist tales too – which wouldn’t be too many snare beats away from one of his greatest influences, which he has talked about throughout the interview. There’s a quote in Lua that could, by itself, sum up the inescapable compulsion to write: “I’m not sure what the trouble was that started all of this./The reasons all have run away but the feeling never did.”
“It’s not about writing in a dialect or mashing up some sound for someone to sell. It’s always been about honing into a memory or to a feeling, and trying to describe a way out of it.”
However, this is not to say that bands which sing in their dialect is poppy sacrilege. “Part of a writer’s revenge is to work a way around what they know,” he says. “And if what they know is this kind of shell of music that you call pop music that is deliberately so – but has a point that can be universalised – then that’s their prerogative, they have to do that.”
Interestingly enough, different dialects are what Fugitive Empire – in terms of influence at least – is all about. “I instantly had a recognition with American folk music, from Johnny Cash as a kid to Willy Mason. Seeing that it didn’t have to be this big electric guitar noise; that there are still people out there fighting with acoustics and chrome strings and copper strings.
“I’d rather be part of The Shins and the James Mercers of this world – not asking questions all the time but desperately seeking answers.”
Indeed. Not selling out – it’s more difficult than you might think. And the line between compromise and sacrifice can often be very thin. “Swear you’ll do the opposite of all those tangled hypocrites who say that the experiment has failed, don’t go there” sings Conor Oberst in ‘Beginner’s Mind’.
Check out: http://www.myspace.com/fugitiveempire