Chris Farren likes playing with people’s expectations, whether it’s at a live show or on social media. He titled his new album, the riotously fun, Born Hot, which features a self-portrait of himself in a topless, 1980s action star “come hither” pose. But listen to the songs on the album like “Search 4 Me” or a track like “Songs For Teenagers” – which he wrote with his first band, Fake Problems – and the seductively sunny melodies give way to existential yearning and choking melancholy. This constant dance is the balance between levity and gravity; joy and pain; light and dark, that make Farren such a captivating songwriter and performer.
He’s been on the road for 14 years now between his solo career, Fake Problems and the beloved Antarctigo Vespucci, which he co-leads with Jeff Rosenstock. He is bringing all of that experience on the road to Songbyrd Music House on February 3. We caught up with him on the road in January, between shows in Chicago and Michigan, to talk about his love for pop music, touring solo and the hilarious crime of using backing tracks at a rock concert.
On Tap: It seems like you’ve always had this pop and punk-ish sound going throughout your music. What about that sound resonates so strongly with you?
Chris Farren: I’ve just always been writing pop songs. I was just obsessed with good pop songwriting. I love the 60s girl groups and stuff like that. I’ve always gravitated toward more pop music because I find it to be, sometimes it just feels like it’s the best to convey an emotion, for me at least.
OT: I’m glad you brought up the girl groups because a parallel I see in your work is that your music is very earnest and bright and happy, but also there’s darkness and melancholy.
CF: Yeah, I’ve always really liked that juxtaposition in music in general. That’s how a lot of things are or that’s how a lot of people are. A lot of people can be sunny and bright on the outside, but not feel very good on the inside.
OT: Do you feel like that’s something your audience picks up on?
CF: I do. I think the people who truly get what I’m doing definitely pick that up. I think maybe a casual listener might not understand that or might not pick that up or might think my whole thing about “being great” – they might take that at face value. But I think once you dig maybe just a little deeper you get the picture of what I’m trying to do.
OT: And when you’re playing live on this tour – including in DC – you are actually playing solo just you onstage right?
CF: I play alone onstage. I play to backing tracks and I have a lot of visuals and I have a synthesizer.
OT: Is it easier to tour like that as an independent musician or is there something freeing you find by doing that?
CF: It is technically easier to tour like that in some ways. In some ways it’s actually very difficult. It’s definitely not a placeholder for something else; like it’s definitely the thing I want to be doing. I have Antarctigo Vespucci, which is kind of like the band I can be in and I get my ya-yas out in that way. And then doing my Chris Farren stuff, like this is just exciting to me. I’m sure there are people who do a version of what I do – or I’m doing a version of what they do – but it’s something I rarely see, especially in our community. It’s kind of exciting to have a unique thing. And it’s really exciting to be able to figure out how to do all the stuff that I do onstage, because I’m not really a naturally technical person. I’m not really a natural anything, honestly! It takes a lot of effort and work to figure out how to sync up visuals to my backing tracks or how to even make backing tracks. I don’t necessarily have a brain for that kind of thing, but I wanted to do it and I think that drive to want to do it forced me to figure out how to do it.
OT: What was the drive for you to want to do it?
CF: Just to kind of do something a little different. When I started playing under my own name I was playing acoustic and I did that for maybe a year. I just felt bored with myself. I didn’t think – I didn’t feel like I was thriving in that kind of setup. Obviously, there’s a lot people who can do that very well and I think I was ok at it, but I just knew it wasn’t what I was meant to be doing. I wanted to do something that was more bombastic and filled up the room more with light and sound.
OT: To take it back to the girl groups: you had to figure out how to be your own Phil Spector.
CF: That’s right; without murdering anybody.
OT: Well, yes, yes.
OT: And going back to what you were saying about standing out: It feels pretty sacrosanct in any kind of rock community to even mention the phrase “backing tracks.”
CF: I know, I love it!
OT: That’s what those big, sell-out pop stars do!
CF: I know, it’s great! It’s funny. I definitely – I can sense, like if I’m opening for somebody, like if it’s not my crowd, I can sense that there is a little bit of that thought. But by the end I have obliterated it. For the most part. I think.
See Chris Farren at Songbyrd Music House on Monday, February 3. Doors open at 7 p.m., show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets $13-$15. For more info on the show, visit here.
Sonbyrd Music House: 2477 18th St. NW, DC; 202-450-2917; www.songbyrddc.com