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Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2009

Farms in Trouble’s Mid-Fi Sound

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"It's been doing really well out of state," Zack Pieper of Farms in Trouble says of his band's recent 27-song, 42-minute album, The Gas Station Soundtrack. "Some people are really into it in Philadelphia, some people really like it in Seattle, and in Minneapolis a guy is putting out a kind of beautiful, handmade cassette for us.

"One thing really cool that I didn't realize is that cassettes are still a really big thing as art," Pieper adds. "People keep them in their cars and see it as a punk-rock art object to have a cassette."

Pieper and his main Farms in Trouble cohort, Riles Walsh, view their music in much the same way cassette hounds do, as an extension of art and culture in general. Farms in Trouble is so taken with the model that they have released an additional split with their Activities labelmates Trash Crack in cassette form.

"Cassettes just sound good," Pieper says. "You can distort things a little bit easier on tape, and it's still very, very beautiful."

The band is happy to apply an unconventional mentality to everything involved with their project: the varying cast of contributors, the hodgepodge of instruments used for recording on various 4-tracks ("The weirdest instrument we ever used was probably a bike spoke," Pieper says), the seat-of-the-pants writing and recording techniques at the "Activities Center" (Walsh's basement), and the constant experimentation that leaves their live performances lost in translation. Pieper recalls one basement show where a punk told him, "You guys are great! You know why? Because you'll never fit in."

Defying punk norms by showcasing everything from bike-spoke sounds, samples of late-night conservative Christian radio with bottle-percussion, horns and guitars, and clocking some songs in at a mere 22 seconds, the 10-member band rarely ventures to the stage. Their recordings aptly showcase what some would consider a "lo-fi" rendering.

"I'd say we're more 'mid-fi,' because we take everything that we record on cassette and dump it onto a computer, " Pieper says. "We sometimes add bells and other sounds after we've put the raw tracks into the computer, and use a lot of different combinations of lo- and higher-fidelity stuff. I think some bands take the whole lo-fi thing and use it to sound as 'bad' as they can."

Pieper says that among bands that did lo-fi well was Guided by Voices, which he compares hearing for the first time to discovering an old artifact at a flea market.

"I think [Guided by Voices'] Robert Pollard has a great approach as a songwriter," Pieper says. "You know that guy Joseph Cornell? He's a really famous American artist. He was a Surrealist who made these beautiful collage box constructions. There's some in the Chicago museum. He did it constantly and made a vast body of work and there's a sort of romanticism to it that's particularly American, because it's made out of junk and shit, and castaways and stuff taken from old magazines, bits of letterings. I knew about him as a kid, before I knew about Pollard, and Robert Pollard, I'd realized…here's someone who's taking clumps of pop music and is piecing it together-that pastiche kind of thing. … Riles is into a lot of composers who have that sort of collage aesthetic, too, so we had a lot of common ground on that.

"Even if we make sounds that other people might find to be 'junk,' we've found we can cut them and fit them somewhere, like they were supposed to be there, even if it was random, by accident, whatever," Pieper concludes. "Everything has its place."

Farms in Trouble releases its split cassette with Trash Crack at the Cactus Club on Saturday, Feb. 14. Also playing: Possible Fathers and Charles de Gaulle.