It’s the sort of day that gives words like “muggy” a whole new meaning. People are practically swimming through the atmosphere at the Vans Warped Tour, trying to find stage schedules, merch tents, band signings, beer vendors.
Just off the main drag, Far From Finished has started their set on the Skull Candy stage. As they play, people walking by pause to watch, and a crowd collects, watching Patrick thrash and Oscar spin in circles. Pesky’s crouching on a handy road case, watching the crowd, and the Steve, the lead singer, is currently perched on the barricade, screaming into the audience’s collective face. In the beat it takes the band to transition from verse to chorus, Steve hops off the barricade and lands in the middle of the audience. Smiles start to form, people look at each other, though Steve–face sweaty, feet tangled in the mic cable, eyes closed–seems oblivious, lost in his own musical cocoon. There are no overpowering sharing-the-mic singalongs of the sort that people with cameras love to photograph, but when Steve scrambles back to the stage, he leaves a circle pit behind him.
I hung out with Far From Finished (okay, that’s not right–I straight up mooched off their hospitality) for a month when I followed the Warped Tour. Since I was traveling by myself, I was pretty much unsupported, and somehow Far From Finished sort of became my home base. They let me hang out in their merch tent and drink water in between sets, let me drop my stuff there, helped me get into the venues. I spent more time watching them and how they work than any other band on tour. And I don’t want to violate the friendship that we sort of formed–they knew I was keeping a blog about traveling around, but we were by no means “on the record,” and I don’t want to give the impression that I was an embedded reporter, or an internet gossip, or anyone other than a person that they helped take care of–but they did help define my summer in a way that no other band did. Originally, I wanted to try my hand at writing a band profile of the sort that shows up in AP or Rolling Stone when they talk about up and coming artists, but at the end of the day, I’m just not an experienced enough (or objective enough) writer/interviewer yet. And Far From Finished, at least over the summer, was in a sort of weird in-betweeny place that made it hard for me to write about them and feel like I was being honest and non-formulaic.
Far From Finished has been around for eight years, but I just found out about them at the end of 2009, when they opened for the Mighty Mighty Bosstones at the Middle East at the tail-end of the 12th Hometown Throwdown. They’re officially known as “Boston street punk,” but they’ve always had a melodic or pop sensibility running underneath it (and though Steve’s lyrics are of the more or less typical youthful disillusionment/alcoholism/destruction theme, I would put him up with Dicky Barrett and Dave King as a guy whose lyrics can almost cross over into the world of poetry; stand on their own without the musical props). Then they got on the Warped Tour, and onto Old Shoe Records, and I guess I thought that I was going to see another iteration of the story that you see repeated so often in the punk scene–Far From Finished was the “next big thing,” they were going to break out, maybe be the next Street Dogs or Rev. Peyton or Fake Problems or whatever. Rocket to stardom on the momentum of a new album and the new audience they’ve been exposed to at Warped.
But this is where my ability to tell the story breaks down, because I really don’t know what happens next, and there are factors at work that make me unable to predict it. Forgettable, FFF’s new album, is a major stylistic departure from East Side of Nowhere or Living in the Fallout, their previous two albums. Even before it came out, people were talking about it on message boards online, and though people seemed to like the songs (they’d heard them performed by FFF at shows), there were definitely a fair number that were disappointed by the execution. Violins? Singing? A touch of autotune? What the hell is this? One person said the album was clearly Far From Finished’s “play to get on the radio.” When, of course, it’s never that simple.
Laying aside for a moment the band’s artistic choices, the music business just doesn’t work that way anymore, even if all of the major labels and a fair number of bands haven’t noticed or admitted it. When Green Day got big in 1994, it started a trend that has gotten really old and repetitive for those of us who have spent any time in the punk scene. The major labels seem to look at the punk scene is as if it’s a rookie camp for bands that they don’t have to pay for, and they have gleefully been preying on punk bands, plucking them out of the punk scene where they’re well-established, and elevating their visibility to the “national stage” for the past fifteen years. And bands play along. You have a year to enjoy an amazing new band that’s not from your hometown, and then they sign to Epitaph or Fat or Universal and transition to “the national stage.” When a band climbs onto the “national stage,” their audience changes–sometimes quite a lot. (This can happen even when bands don’t sign to majors, but get phenomenonally huge all the same–Hello, Dropkick Murphys.) Everyone’s sick of the college frat boys and girls in flip flops wandering themselves into mosh pits, but it’s been that way for as long as I’ve been a part of this scene (1997, for the record). Punk can try to keep itself more or less insulated from major label machinations, they’ve never been able to entirely separate themselves. And though punk is as egalitarian as it can be, there has always been the usual separation between producers and consumers, and the usual marketing and whatever that goes into making sure bands get attention and get heard. You can find out about cool new bands through Rolling Stone or you can find out about them through Maximum Rock n Roll, but up until recently, you still had to find out about them through some third party.
But we don’t live in that world anymore. Youtube and Myspace and Facebook have broken it down. The major labels and magazines can only hope to keep up, they can’t define it. This is the world where CNN gets its news from Twitter and Antoine Dodson writes a song without even trying that probably got more hits in three days than the official top Billboard single had all week. The geographic separations that used to separate the Austin music scene from San Francisco’s are broken down; the internet is filling in the gaps that were once filled by Maximum Rock’n’Roll’s scene reports. I can do a search right now on iTunes or punknews.org and find any number of bands that play the style of music I love. The guys in Far From Finished are good enough to get attention no matter what kind of music they play, but punk’s internal myths and monologues about DIY vs sell outs vs selling yourself haven’t changed yet to match this new world. We still talk about the next big thing and selling out and playing for attention like it’s something that actually matters. The FFF guys are savvy enough to know that suddenly playing like Nevershoutnever is going to lose them as many fans as they’ll gain, and Boston punk is big enough–street punk is big enough–for them to happily and productively occupy that niche if that’s what they feel like doing. In this new world, why wouldn’t you just play the music you love? If you’re good, you’re likely to attract attention no matter what you do. It’s not necessary to emulate the bands that get profiled in AP anymore (if it ever was). And FFF knows all this. So why the sudden, drastic sound change? I don’t know. I can guess, but I don’t really know, and don’t like to put guesses out on the internet. When the new songs are played live, they don’t stand out from the band’s corpus all that much. They haven’t changed how they write, or how they perform live–what changed was how they performed in the studio. (It reminds me a lot of what happened to H2O when they released Go, actually–but that’s probably another blog entry for another time.)
And the whole debate is doubly immaterial when you consider that FFF’s lineup has had some pretty heavy turnover over the past couple years, including the time between when Forgettable was recorded and when it was released. Which implies that their next album is going to sound different from both Forgettable and the next-most-recent, Living in the Fallout.
The whole debate of selling out eclipses the newer, more important debate that’s just beginning (as far as I’m concerned) to be wondered about, which is how you sell yourself. Hang out near a Warped merch booth for a few hours and you’ll see, in a single day, a concentrated example of what bands must now spend enormous amounts of time doing: trying to get people to listen to and buy their music. At Warped, it’s pulling people to your merch tent; in “regular life,” it’s keeping your Facebook and your MySpace and your Twitter and your website updated; it’s being out there on iTunes and last.fm and Pandora, it’s punknews.org and booking your own tours and making your own merch and trying to get yourself in this magazine or that magazine and worrying about when and how you’ll get into the studio again. One of the good things about larger record labels, or about publicists, is that traditionally they’ve done a lot of the legwork for this kind of thing. Printing promo material and setting up interviews and making sure the rounds get made to radio stations. These days, what used to be true only of the most DIY and indie artists is becoming true for everyone. Which is not to say that publicists really ever had a place in punk rock, but it does feel like the burden on bands is increasing, but maybe that’s just me, maybe I’ve never been looking closely enough. But still–how do you sell yourself, spend all this time flirting and schmoozing, and still maintain a sense of your own center, a general idea of your own passion for this scene? How do you fulfill all these obligations and still maintain the sense that you do this for yourself, and to fulfill yourself, and not to fulfill all these other people who want a piece of you?
That Far From Finished loves playing music I have no doubt. That they would play it even if nobody showed up to their shows I do not doubt. And watching them play every day for a month gave me new respect for a lot of bands–I worked in the Denver scene for awhile, but I never managed to go on a tour, so I’ve never had the chance to watch bands pull the same energy out of their asses day after day during the long slog of a tour. The audiences change, sure, but the songs stay the same, the set list stays largely the same, but you can’t let the routine stay routine or you let down the audience.
If they can get through the next two years or so and maintain their center, if they can stabilize their audience and fight their way out from under the “sell out” storyline that doesn’t apply to them but might bury them anyway, if they can get another couple of albums out and stay on tour, they’ll be fine. They’ll be better than fine.
Don’t ever put your faith in me, I’ll only let you down. Don’t pick me up when I’m stumbling, just leave me on the ground. And right or wrong, I’ll stick by the things I say, And I couldn’t give a shit if you go or if you stay.
‘Cause I don’t need your pity, I don’t need your bullshit lies, And I don’t want your opinions on the faults of my life. You can talk all you want, but I won’t hear a word you say, I’m an unforgiving prick and I’m just living the bastard’s way.
–Far From Finished