Monday, January 26, 2009

Q&A: Fetla

Fetla (photo by Christopher Hiltz)

If you haven't seen local band Fetla or any of its three members around town, chances are it's only a matter of time before you do. The band, which consists of multi-instrumentalists and vocalists Travis Lee Wiggins and Stephen Dranger, as well as drummer Mike Regan, recently released their second LP, "Sweet Disaster," and have built up an impressive list of side projects over the past few years.

Travis, Stephen and Mike recently took the time to talk about their history, band name, new record, other projects and experiences playing in Chicago. Read on and get to know one of the most multi-talented - and busiest - indie acts around.

What’s the story behind Fetla? How and when did the band come together?

T.W. It’s the prime example of four degrees of separation - but in this case, two.

S.D. Travis and I had gone to the same high school, but we never really talked until I met him at a mutual friend's party in like 2000. When he found out we could both play guitar, he suggested we get together. We decided to form an impromptu band for a show that I was putting on, and we wrote like 9 songs in a couple weeks. After that, I didn't see him until late 2003, when out of the blue he calls me and says we should start playing again. We did, and we worked pretty well together and decided to start playing as a band.

At the time, I was in a band called Cadet. I was bassist in that band, but had some experience behind the drums and always gravitated towards them at jam sessions. Stephen and I are long time friends and musical collaborators since the days of junior high. Travis, Stephen and I would not all share a stage until 2004. We played a handful of shows in the Chicagoland area from 2004 to 2006 and self-recorded and released an EP called "Thank You Ghost" and an LP called "So Patriotic." We took a two year hiatus while Stephen lived in Japan. Upon his return home, we got together and worked on our new record, “Sweet Disaster.”

Where did the name “Fetla” come from?

T.W. If you live in anywhere in Northwestern Indiana, you’ll probably know what Fetla’s Trading Post was. It was the only place where you could go to buy a go-cart, a pair of British Knights, a shotgun, a box of old Kix cereal, and a grenade all at the same time. It closed down a couple years ago because it couldn’t compete with places like Wal-Mart. But it was pretty much a crazy store just outside Valparaiso that had been there since the early 1900s. Stephen and I were trying to come up with band names and were driving down the road just naming whatever came to mind. I don’t remember who said it, but while we were driving by Fetla’s one of us said “How about Fetla?” We were laughing our asses off and started calling ourselves that as a joke, but after a while, it just kind of stuck and we were like, why not? It’s hard to find a band name that’s never been used and is unique, and we looked it up and there was nothing close.

S.D. The place was notorious for having any kind of weapon you could imagine. You could also get dummy grenades. Rumors abounded that the place was guarded by a mountain lion. It was basically a local legend. I liked the name because I wanted a name that represented something about each of the band members, and we all grew up near this town.

The band has described the newest release, “Sweet Disaster,” as having a “new, more mature sound” than previous material. How so, and what led to the change in direction?

S.D. Our old material was basically distorted guitar 90s rock - a lot like Weezer or any of those halfway indie bands from the 90s. We used to label ourselves as "Weezer meets Flaming Lips." In 2005, I left the band to work for a couple years in Japan. Over that time, we had grown a lot more musically, and while I still wanted to play loud, Travis talked me into just sticking to a laid back, poppy kind of music. In another sense, though, the change mostly comes from us trying to let go of our own boundaries and compose something different than we usually do. We use the word "mature" because we think that we're more mature as songwriters than we used to be.

You’ve cited 1950s and 1960s pop music as an influence on “Sweet Disaster,” and that definitely comes through in the melodies and instrumentation. Was it a conscious decision from the start to play up those sounds, or did it just turn out that way?

T.W. That’s something Stephen loves to do, to put down influences and stuff. I’ve always tried to get as far away from that as possible because if you’re really good, you won’t sound like anyone else. I don’t think Radiohead or Prince have on their MySpace page a list of musical influences or who they sound like, and I’d like to someday get to that level. That 50’s and 60’s thing I guess is there because “Sweet Disaster” trims off most of the fat that could be in a song. There are no guitar solos, and everything is pieced together pretty coherently and tightly, like a lot of pop music from the 50s and 60s. There wasn’t a conscious decision to play up any era’s sounds. I think all of us in Fetla really try to get down what makes a song good, and let those parts shine, and then end the song so that the listener wants more without any wasted time.

A lot of times it's very difficult to classify the music you've made. I was watching an old Fats Domino video ("Ain't That A Shame") and I thought, "Wow, this is almost what Fetla sounds like now!" because the song structure is exceedingly simple, focuses on melody, rests on just a couple hooks, and it's only a couple minutes long. At the same time, I was very aware that I had let in some soul influences into the music, so "50s and 60s" seemed a good description, and conveyed what we wanted to accomplish with the album - simple, catchy pop songs.

Multiple members of the band are multi-instrumentalists. How does that play into recording, live performances and the band’s overall dynamic? How do you work out who’s going to play what?

T.W. It’s fun as hell to switch instruments. It’s what I’ve always loved about playing with Stephen and Mike. It keeps things fresh and lets us explore a little more. Any time you can use different tuning or play an unfamiliar instrument, it has a different setup, so you don’t get locked into the feel you’re used to. You can be more inventive. Most of the songs on Sweet Disaster were cultivated from a couple jam sessions Stephen and I had. We’d take these songs that are in a really rough form and polish them up. Pretty much whatever instrument you played when the song was being written is what you ended up playing on the recording or live, including vocals. For “Sweet Disaster,” Mike came in and wrote all the drum parts after we had the music and melodies created.

How do you feel playing music in Chicago has impacted the band? How does playing a show in Chicago differ from playing in somewhere else, such as in the band’s
home state, Indiana?

T.W. Stephen and Mike live in Valparaiso, Indiana, about 1.5 hours from Chicago. I’ve been trying to get them to move up to Chicago, but sometimes “The Region” can suck you in and never let you go. We all grew up there, but I consider the heart of our band to be Chicago. Chicago has no shortage of great venues and bands. It’s not too hard to get some good press if you’ve got good music and are willing to put it out there. I feel like the opportunity is there for any band if they’re good enough, want to make the effort and don’t act like jackasses. With that, what musician would want to live anywhere else?

S.D. Playing in Chicago is pretty much the only way to go. We used to play in Indiana, but the scene where I live is pretty much dead, so there aren't many places where kids come out to hear music.

M.R. Chicago is a tough place to play. It's always hard to get people out to the city, but I do think Indiana is even worse. Most of our friends from Indiana are too busy with things like “World of Warcraft” or work to come check us out.

What was the best show you’ve played in Chicago and why?

M.R. I think our best show in Chicago was at the Underground Lounge in Wrigleyville. We just had a really great night, great sound and a good time playing. People seemed to enjoy us. I enjoyed that show a lot, even though our merch display was stolen. I think we will always wonder what happened to it.

T.W. The best show I’ve ever played would have to be the “Dancing at Weddings” CD release show at Schubas with my solo project Essex Chanel in 2008. I sent my CD around trying to get a CD release show, and Schubas said they liked the CD and offered a date. I pretty much shit my pants because I had played some smaller venues and didn’t even know it was possible for me to play at a place like Schubas. I remember getting the email and I started shaking and had butterflies in my stomach. I had recorded the CD by myself and didn’t even have a band to play it. I thought I was going to do it karaoke style, just playing the music behind me and singing over the top. But I wanted to try it with a full band, so I got together all my friends from different bands - Mike and Stephen from Fetla, Mike Rice from The Summer Salts and Micah Trivisonno from Technicolour Stallion - and arranged it. The show sold out and we played the whole CD live, from start to finish with no stops. There was something special about that night. It kind of validated all the work I had been doing for years, and there was that nervous energy of doing something for the first time, in this case playing a CD fro start to finish in front of a ton of people at a great venue. And I was able to share that experience with my friends up on stage.

Tell us about some of the additional music projects you and the other band members have been working on.

T.W. Right now I’m working on the final mixes of the next Essex Chanel record. It’s called “Love is Proximity” and has 43 songs. I’m still trying to figure out how to release it. I’ve had a lot more people – 9, people to be exact - play on this album, and pretty much every instrument that you could think of a band playing. It’s at times folky and more orchestral and arranged than the other albums I’ve worked on. I’ve been working on it for two years, although I’ve recorded a lot of CDs while working on it.

The Summer Salts are polishing up tracks for our second album. We’ll start recording sometime in early February. I’m really excited about this album, it’s going to be great. I think Mike from Fetla will be doing the recording and producing on this album. I’m trying to work with some other people so I can concentrate more on the actual playing and not have to worry about the production, and experience other ways people record.

Essex Chanel, The Summer Salts and Fetla are my primary musical projects, and I can’t really stretch my time any wider while also working a full time job as an Art Director. I do have two other projects of note that will start developing soon that don’t have names but a lot of music. One is a project I’m working on with Allison Trumbo, who I’ve worked with for the last couple years. She plays violin. In this project I play banjo or guitar and sing. I started it because I wanted to play really small venues, like coffeehouses, and get better at being comfortable with a small audience looking you right in the eye five feet away. The other project is with a producer/DJ I know named Victor Carreon. We’ve got a project where he’s taking care of beats, percussion and scratching, and I’m playing melodies by singing, guitar, bass and keyboards. It’s a lot more electronic/beat/dance in nature and we’re using loop pedals, computers and samples. That project is going to take off sometime this year.

I'm working on a project right now called Silhavey, experimenting with some electronic sounds, but nothing concrete yet.

M.R. I am currently a freelance audio-engineer and I work on my own music from time to time. You can hear it at I am also a member of the band Suburbanite, and you can hear us at

Travis, I noticed from your site that in addition to your various music projects, you work on a lot of other projects involving visual art, writing and design. Tell us about some of these projects. How do you find the time to do all of it?

T.W. That’s a hard question! I can’t really sum everything up very well in a short space. You’ll have to read the book. I’ve never been one to subscribe to the division of human creativity and ingenuity into small separate entities, and decide that some of those are more important. That thinking has led me to be able to work in any creative medium I want at any time. If it’s about expression then who cares how you do it, whether through music, art, film, writing, whatever, you know? I had this project in mind where I would send two toothpicks to everyone I know with a card that would say “express yourself.” It would be interesting to see the results because you can be creative with just two toothpicks. You don’t need paint or a canvas or a Gibson guitar. For the issue of time, I actually just wrote a blog post about that. The shortest way I can put it: When you have it in your mind that you actually want to do something - the focus being the action, not the idea - you don’t waste your time or energy.

S.D. The man hates free time. The term “leisure” has no appeal to him. Or rather, art is leisure.

What’s in store for 2009?

T.W. Lots of music releases and touring with our various bands. We’ll probably play some Fetla shows here and there, and I’d like to record another album with Fetla where Mike gets out from behind the drum set and becomes more of a front man like he has been in some of his other projects.

Where can people pick up the music and find out more about Fetla and band members’ other projects?

You can get a hard copy of “Sweet Disaster” through, and we’ve got digital releases through and a bunch of other places. You can download a bunch of tracks off of the album for free on our Web site. If you go to our MySpace you’ll find links to most of our other projects. Stephen has a solo project called My Cat, and Mike has a band called Suburbanite as well as his solo project. My personal site has links to all my projects, regardless of media.

More Chicago music Q&As:

Lily Schaffer

King Sparrow

Mark Minelli

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