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Fair To Midland: Working With Serj A 'Surreal' Experience

You may not have heard of them yet, but they’ve got a very strong recommendation coming from vocalist Serj Tankian of System Of A Down. Texas natives Fair To Midland were hand-picked by Tankian to be one of the first bands to record under his new label Serjical Strike Records, and their full-length April release date is rapidly approaching. While the band does not sound like the manic-metal genius of SOAD, it does draw on a variety of different genres that is just as intriguing. With infectious riffs and a vocalist that has a range that even the ladies will envy, Fair To Midland are likely to attract the attention of more than just their regular Texas concertgoers when they hit the road with Dir en grey in February.

Still humble and in awe over being choosing by Tankian out of millions of bands, guitarist Cliff Campbell and bassist Jon Dicken are slowly absorbing the enormity of what is about to happen for Fair To Midland. Campbell and Dicken took a break from mixing their upcoming record to talk with Ultimate Guitar writer Amy Kelly about the whirlwind year and their cautious expectations for 2007.

UG: When you were playing back in Sulphur Springs, Texas, did you ever imagine that you would catch the eye of Serj Tankian?

Cliff: Yeah, there’s not really a music scene in Sulphur Springs. There are a few bands, but the only bands there are really just 2 bands there. Sulphur Springs is like 15,000 population. I mean, it’s like a cow town.

Many of you originally came from different towns, so how did you all come together to play? Did you just start jamming together?

Cliff: Yeah, kind of. There was a band when we were younger that had this drummer. We watched that band and it just kind of made me want to be in a band. Anyway, they broke up and then Andrew and I went to play with that guy just to play or jam or whatever. We ended up doing something with it, and that was the original band. Then everybody else came into the picture.

The band has talked in the past about the very different musical tastes among you all. What kind of music are you each drawn to?

Jon: I’ve gone through a lot of different phases musically. When I started listening to rock music, it was Led Zeppelin and AC/DC and Cream and all that stuff. I got into things like Radiohead and Weezer. In the past couple of years, I’ve been a huge traditional country and western fan. The band that I was in before, we were kind of an indie pop-rock kind of band. When I joined Fair To Midland, they already had the album written – the album before this one. So I just sat down with Cliff for a few days before the tour started and he taught me the songs.

Matt (Langley, keys/electronics) is like the progressive, old school prog rock and kind of classical. Our drummer Brett (Stowers, drummer) is a stoner-rock kind of guy. Andrew (aka Darroh Sudderth, vocals), he likes the bluegrass. He likes the Irish-sounding music and is really into David Gray and Peter Gabriel.

Cliff: Whenever I was 13, I listened to Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails. I got into Nine Inch Nails when Broken came out, Pretty Hate Machine and all that stuff. Then after that, when I started learning to play guitar, I never really listened to much music. I don’t know. I like the bands and the songs I hear, but I don’t really go out and search for it or anything. I did when I was 13! They get mad at me because I drive the RV at night and I don’t listen to music. I’ll drive like 10 hours, from like 10 pm to 6 am or something, and I won’t listen to anything. It makes them mad because there’s nothing going on for them to sleep.

Jon, you mentioned that you had to learn all of Fair To Midland’s songs fairly quickly. Was that a daunting task for you?

Jon: I knew the songs because I had been going to Fair To Midland shows and I had been friends with them for a couple of years. When they recorded that in Denton, Texas, I was going to school in Denton, Texas. They all stayed at my house, so I would be at most of the studio sessions. So I knew the songs. Cliff just pretty much showed me the parts. It all had to happen pretty quick. Out of necessity, I picked it up in about a week or so.

Cliff: We didn’t make it much of an importance to him. We told him right before he came out on the tour, “When you play a show, just have a good time. Enjoy yourself above anything at all.”

Jon: Yeah, there was no pressure. Yeah, the first show was awful. The second show was great.

What happened to make your first show awful?

Jon: Fair To Midland is a very active band live. They’re all over the place and very emotional. The band I was in, you kind of just stood there and played your part. I was more worried about how to act instead of how well I was playing. So I was thinking about and concentrating on what I should do physically the whole time, and I totally couldn’t get into the music.

The next show, I think we had car problems on that one, too! We ran out of gas on the way to the show. So we get to the show about 5 minutes before we have to play. So I really didn’t have time to stress myself out or get nervous. We just got up onstage and got into it, had fun.

That’s one of the first things that stands out about Fair To Midland – that extreme energy in the stage show. Is that something that just comes naturally as soon as you hear the music?

Jon: It’s very natural. I tried to force it in the first show and it just didn’t work at all. What I do, I try to get into a character that’s nothing like my personality because I’m pretty shy and soft-spoken. Before I go onstage, I try to get in my head – it sounds bad saying it – but I try to think that I’m better than everyone else in that room and that I’m the coolest cat in the world and no matter what I do, I’m cooler than everybody. So when I get onstage, I’m cocky. But since I don’t say anything, I don’t offend anybody.

Cliff: It just comes natural for me. Sometimes I look like a scarecrow. Sometimes I look like retarded things onstage. It’s just throwing your body around in ways that go right with the music and the song, that go with what you’re doing. Sometimes the crowd changes it. It just depends. Usuallyit’s more of a personal thing. We don’t really try to make sure the crowd goes crazy and does all this stuff. It’s more like a personal thing. When we did our first tour, 75 percent of the shows were in front of like 8 people, and we played the same shows you’ve ever seen on a video in front of those 8 people that we did in front of 600.

Jon: We feed off each other more than the crowd. We pretty much try to block them out.

Cliff: We’re all scared to death to be in front of anybody, but when we stand up there it’s different. When you have Andrew, or Darroh, on the stage…

You bring up something interesting. I hear most of you call your frontman “Andrew,” but everywhere else it’s “Darroh.”

Cliff: I’ve called him Andrew since high school. I’ve known him for like 10 years, so I call him Andrew. This is a recent thing. He’s just been born into the name of Darroh…

Jon: Darroh is his middle name. It’s his real name.

How did you come to meet Serj Tankian of System Of A Down?

Jon: We had gotten into this circle of friends in Los Angeles through touring here, and one of the people in that circle happened to be an acquaintance of Serj whose name is Mike. We kind of hoaxed him into coming to the show to get him to check it out. He ended up liking it a lot. He’s a super-cool guy, which is a big help. We came down in January and he said that Serj may be coming to the show at the Roxy. I guess Serj dug it, too, and he came and saw us again the next night in Malibu. We sat down and talked with him and he wanted to work with us.

What went through your mind when Serj Tankian said he wanted to sign you?

Jon: It was very cool! The first time I met Serj, it was after that Roxy show. I was going up to the dressing room and I was the first one to go that way. I heard people talking in my dressing room, so I wanted to make sure it was ours. I opened the door and walk in, and Serj Tankian is in my dressing room. He puts out his hand and says, “Hi, I’m Serj!” And I’m like, “Yeah, you’re Serj.” I didn’t really know what to say! It was just weird. But yeah, it didn’t really seem real. I guess that was our first rock star encounter.

The Serj that we knew from System Of A Down, we had a completely different idea about how he was gonna act. He’s got a pretty intimidating persona. He’s probably the sweetest, smiliest, nicest guy that I’ve ever seen in my life. He had a huge grin on his face and was just nodding his head all the time. And he asked to have his picture taken with us!

Did you begin talking about when you’d record for his label almost immediately after that first encounter?

Cliff: It took a little while to get into that. But at that junction, when all that happened, it was just like, “Hey, I want to ink a deal with you guys. I want you to be on my label and all that.” When he was there, we probably talked for 45 minutes or so. He got to know all of us and was just, “I like your music a lot.” That was about it. But he was like, “I really want to sign you guys.” We went home and everything took the course, and we just decided to record and Universal came into the picture to do distribution. It all came along and became a whole other monster.

On the upcoming full-length CD, will there be any of the same recordings heard on the EP Drawn And Quartered?

Cliff: From the EP, there’s a live version of a song on there that might be on the record. All these are “might.” We’re recording 17 tracks and there’s only going to be 11 or 12 tracks. So there’s a possibility that any of these might be cut. There are 3 songs on that EP that might appear on the album, and they’re pretty good songs. I think some of them should appear on the album so that more people can hear them. It’s not going to really get to everybody, that EP. This full-length will cover a lot more ground.

How many new songs did you write specifically for the full-length?

Jon: We spent like 2 weeks working on retouching the inter.funda.stifle songs and then a couple of new songs we had written over the summer. Then Serj called our producer and said if we want to, he would like us to spend an extra couple of weeks on new material. So in the span of 2 weeks, we just kind of got on the ball and got about 10 new songs done. We just took little bits and pieces of things we had done over the past few months and kind of went with it. Having David Bottrill (producer for Tool, Peter Gabriel) in the room with us didn’t hurt at all either!

Was it intimidating at all to work with David Bottrill?

Cliff: It was intimidating at first, but after meeting him it’s just a gift to have him there in the room. He’s really soft-spoken and easygoing. He’s open to hear anything out of your mouth. I mean, even if you had a harsh word to say, he would try to understand it. He’s just that kind of person. It just makes it easier if you’re trying to fit a few things together and you don’t know if they’re gonna work. He’s easygoing, but he’s got a good mind for knowing what’s right and what belongs there. It made everything easier with piecing stuff together because we always second-guess ourselves on, “Is this good enough? Is that good enough? Should this be here? Is this a chorus? Is this a verse?” Just little things, but he kind of knows. So we would play something and he’d be like, “Yeah, that’s right.” So it made the process a lot quicker to come up with 10 songs in 2 weeks.

Jon: He didn’t really hold our hand in all of the process, he kind of just nudges it in the right direction. He was kind of like behind us and when he heard something in the right direction he’d say, “That’s it.

Cliff: That was good, too, because as a musician you don’t want some guy saying, “No, you need to do this.” He didn’t do that. Anything we would play, we would play the part and he’d say, “Try this.” But it would always be the music you wrote.

With Jon taking part in the writing process, will listeners probably be able to hear a distinct difference in the bass lines this time around?

Cliff: There’s a difference in the bass lines now. You can tell. It’s cool, though. There’s a lot more movement coming from the bass lines now than there was inter.funda.stifle.

Jon: We got to groove a lot more than we did on inter.funda.stifle. That was the funnest part for me. Cliff would just have a little riff and everybody would come in with their 2 cents and just kind of go with it. It was the collective 5 of us.

When the band writes songs, does it always begin with a riff?

Cliff: Most of the time, yeah. It starts out with a riff. Darroh second-guesses himself all the time. So he’ll come up with lyrics and he’ll second-guess himself. All the time he’s doing that, over and over. So it’s easier a lot of times to write riffs and get songs made, and have him come along later having mounds of lyrics and mounds of possibilities for a vocal idea. Most of our songs are written in that way.

The songs called “The Wife, The Kids, And The White Picket-Fence” on the upcoming CD has a lot of interesting lyrics like, “Two peas in a pod, a battle-ax, and a bastard child.” How quickly do lyrics like that come to Darroh?

Cliff: It usually takes him a while to work it out. That one took a while. “The Wife, The Kids,” it was never completely written. It’s always had pieces for probably a year and a half now. It just took him a long time to piece everything together the way they should be. But they’re not all that long. I’m just saying that one for one. He had a chorus that was kind of similar to what he has now. He had verse pieces that were kind of similar, but they never really stood in there like that one does. Over time it kind of came to be its own.

Jon: Before it got to its final state, I think there was probably about 16 different parts to that song! Over a year ago, we wanted to start trying to write some new material. Andrew had this song “The Wife, The Kids,” and he didn’t know what he wanted to do with it. It was the first time I had gotten a chance to start writing with him. I was just like, “Let me hear it.” He played like 7 minutes of 8 different parts. I was like, “Just take about 4 or 5 of those parts!” So far, it’s my favorite songs. I think it’s got more heart than any of the other songs.

What guitars do you like to work with?

Cliff: If I had the choice and it wasn’t so heavy, I would use a Les Paul because it’s probably one of the best-sounding guitars I’ve ever played. But seeing as it’s too heavy, I’d probably use an SG. It’s gonna probably be the Angus Young kind of style. I don’t want all the other crap that’s on it, though. So I’d probably just get the original version of that guitar. On the album, I was using an Epiphone Les Paul that had Les Paul pickups. It sounded really good, so I just use that guitar.

Jon: P-Bass guitars and Ampeg amps. Since all this has happened, I’ve gotten an upgrade. So I went from a cheap Ampeg and cheap Fender to the good stuff!

Can you sense that life is about to change in a big way for you since you’ve signed with Serjical Strike Records?

Cliff: It still feels like the quiet before the storm for me. I don’t know if everybody else feels that way. It was kind of surreal whenever we met Serj and everything because the ball started rolling. Like flying to New York – I’ve never flown in my life! I flew one flight when I was 18 for a computer science competition, like 45 minutes away from my town. After that, it wasn’t until I was 26 years old that I flew ever in a plane. But it’s kind of settled down over the past few months. We’ve been recording and haven’t seen the fruits of our labor or anything.

You already have quite a few dedicated fans who express a lot of devotion to Fair To Midland in the Drawn And Quartered EP’s kinescope portion. What does it mean to you to already have such a strong fan base?

Jon: We’ve got the best fans in Dallas. There’s no question about that. I don’t really get to talk to that many of them after the shows because I don’t know them, especially me being the new guy. I mean, they were there before I was. But we do have certain kids that will come up after a show and tell us what we did wrong! They know the songs that well! Those are always the funnest.

Cliff: There’s other fans like that. Our music inspires them for certain things. I don’t really remember fans going in extensively on what it’s done for them after shows, expect for people that have written it on a message. I guess it’s easier to write it down.

The main thing with our friends is they just come because every show is different. There’s something in almost every song that is not on the CD that you can only see if you go to a live show, and those change as well. There’s an interlude between almost every song and they’re never the same. So there’s always something new for a fan to see. We do that for ourselves and we also do that just because it’s exciting. It’s exciting for us because you get to reinvent even the songs you’ve had for 4 years. Put something new in there or change the interlude after the next song, and it’s fun and exciting every time. That’s why people go to 30 or 40 shows.

Darroh seems to bring a lot of that spontaneity to the shows. There was a picture of him all bloodied up at one show.

Cliff: When we first started like 5 or 6 years ago, he would just turn his back and kind of mumble in the mike. He would sing the words, but he would kind of say it under his breath and you couldn’t ever understand what he was saying. Or he would do something to cover himself up – anything to get him out of view. Just a couple years after that, he stopped doing that. He would climb on the speakers and it just kind of progressed, where he just didn’t care anymore. There was probably a year of that, and all of us went through that process. You don’t have to be scared.

I did the same thing. I would face my amp for the first full year we played. I never turned around. I don’t know. It all just broke, the whole being scared thing. Then he just came into his own. The bloody thing, it was just one day there was a song where we had a megaphone and he forgot the megaphone. So instead of using the megaphone he just did this (hits himself). It was just a random thing! He wasn’t like, “Hey, I’m going to hit myself in the mouth! I’m bleeding and everybody is gonna like it!”

Jon: I was watching that show and it made me nauseous.

Cliff: Onstage, he’s a completely different person. You can look Darroh in the eye, like if you were me onstage, and he’s not looking. He could be looking straight at you, but he’s not looking at you at all. You’re not there.

Do you think you’ll have a headlining tour following your dates with Dir en grey?

Cliff: I don’t think we’ll have a headlining tour yet. I think it’s gonna take a while to get us in the eye of a lot of crowds, to where we’re a name that’s known.

Jon: I love playing live more than anything. I’d rather be onstage than in the studio any day, so we can just stay on the road and traveling.

Cliff: That’s the way we represent our band the best. We have a few songs that people might catch onto and they like, but a person is turned onto this band by seeing them live. They’re not turned on by listening to a pop song on the radio. I don’t mind touring for a year. I think we’ll gain many more fans than just playing our song on the radio.

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