Fort Lean: The Best of What’s Next

Music Features
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The difference between Year 1 and Year 4 is sometimes immeasurable. We’re talking about bands, here; at least, their germination. Or, maybe blooming is a prettier word? Not evolution, that’s clichéd. Let’s call it genre-germination.

When we spoke with Fort Lean, we reminded them how, four years prior, many early listeners expected they’d be a peg that would fit the hole of a Strokes-ian surf-pop band, all full of jangle and summer-vibed jubilance.

“Yeah…no, that is absolutely true…” says Zach Fried, guitarist and co-founder of the group. “I think you just hit the nail on the head. When we started (Fort Lean) and recorded that first EP, we weren’t doing it with a great sense of intent, yet. Back then, we had put the group of people together…” (and that group, formed back in late 2010, is Sam Ubi-drums, Jake Aron-bass, Keenan Mitchell-vocals/guitar and Will Runge-drums) “…and we liked playing music together and we just recorded (the first EP’s) songs basically so we could be able to start booking shows in New York with our friends’ bands and it kinda took on a life of its own that we weren’t expecting…”

Essentially, this New York based quintet had to put some gas in the tank to get their engine humming. With a record ready to go, it could be a launchpad for more live shows. But that was 2011; now, we all dug the cool, cartwheeling hooks and frothy reverb of their head-turning breakout singles like (the tellingly titled) “Beach Holiday,” but now they’re showing their chameleonic colors. (Wait, is that redundant? Doesn’t matter.) The point is that they’re not surf-pop; they’ve got a surplus of weirder-yet-still-fun-facets to show off, particularly on this year’s Quiet Day (on Ooh La La Records.)

“Right,” says Fried. “Now, we’re a few years in, we’ve got a bit more perspective. And, when you think about making an album, versus an E.P., it has a different weight to it. We knew, going in, that we wanted to expand our own conception of what the band is and what it could become while also expanding the possible conception for the audience of what we were capable of.”

When it comes to working out songs, Fort Lean’s knights are setting their swords (er…guitars?) upon a democratically round table. So, yes, it’s evident that you’ll see bands sculpt a much more eclectic pop song (albeit still familiar in its contours) when each of the players are edging the material together, but with their own uniquely curved blade.

Now, this group met, bonded and formed around art school in the late 2000’s (Wesleyan University), so you can anticipate Fried to be an all-too-willing partner playing along with our metaphors as we try to describe their essence.

“A song exists almost as its own organism,” says Fried. “And, we’re responding to what’s already there, to the vibe of it. I’m thinking of the song, “Quiet Day…” We took it further in the studio and wound up adding this melody to it that comes in toward the end and then there’s this high, kinda piercing psychedelic, weird, dark sound that comes in…That song, particularly, we thought of as being very cinematic and we tried to bolster those elements about it without going overboard, but still making it kinda grand.”

The band members each have backgrounds in the arts, which lead not only to visually striking album art and particularly vivid (and sometimes haunting) music videos, but also meant that their “cinematic” ambitions swirled together into a shared sublime realization; a three minute pop-song, per se, that is flush with evocative tones, bent and blustered with a measured amount of ambient-noise experimentation and yet, through it all, never distracted from its main purpose—the propulsive, freeing and flying vibe of pure pop-rock.

“One thing we talked about from the beginning is the name of the band indicating a place,” Fried said. “And we like the idea of being able to help transport people to that place in their mind, that place that is familiar and yet weird. It’s like achieving a slightly warped sense of reality or, really, a warped sense of familiarity.”

And, just to check, Zach: we’re still talking about a pop song, here, right?

“Right,” he says. “Or, just a song that’s structured the way you’re used to hearing, but then there are sounds happening or other things happening in it that are just kind of off-kilter or a little wobbly. I think, again, that’s just the things we like. To where it’s just a little fucked-up, or keeps you on your toes, but it’s still there, the vibe.”

When you hear the buoyant pop busters of their EP, it’s enticing to put the band into a certain slot on your sonic spice rack and just presume that they’ll be applicable only for those more fist-pumping road-trip montages. No… In fact, Fried’s own words, “weird, dark, psychedelic…” those are also applicable for Quiet Day. There’s some cerebral, late-night drifters, some glam-struts, some classic rock riffs and, yes, even some of those more soaring pop catapults. But the most rewarding method for these musicians was giving a freeing space, or breathing space, for each song, letting them live and grow (and get as weird as they wanted…)

“Yeah, because we think of every song as its own lifeform,” said Fried. “They all grow and then they mutate and then they each have their own needs and you have to feed them what they want to be fed. We, each of us, have our own tastes and we have a collective taste but we don’t sit down and say: Let’s write a song that sounds like this…We start making something and it starts germinating from there and then you do whatever it requires and then allow it to take you where it wants to go. The things, (the songs…,) have a mind of their own.”

You see, that gestation period is necessary, not only just for the band, from Year One to Year Four, but for the songs that they spawn. Fort Lean were keen to be careful with their wayward psychedelia, not so much in being meticulous crafters, but in having a sensitivity that stove off any reliance whatsoever on tried and true (and overly contrived) approaches. Nothing was preconceived with Quiet Day… They spawned these fun, strange chapters and then let the tones, the vibes, even the air in the room on the very day they made it, dictate the curve or the character of each… I know that sounds heavy, but when you’re interviewing art school grads, the conversation can get kinda heady.

“…We just sorta fuck it up, basically…” Fried says, with a chuckle. “Our collective vibe is driven largely by humor. We fuck around; there’s lots of joking. BUT…, we each studied lots of serious subjects and we have opinions and worldviews, but our approach to making music ins’t formed necessarily by those things. I think it’s that we all love learning and finding out about new things…”

This gives extra gravity to the suggested self-doubt or capricious creative energies of their 2nd E.P.’s title “Change Your Name,” which came out in 2012. But with the energy exuded by Fried and his assessment of their most recent time in the studio during Quiet Day, this is the most self-assured they’ve ever felt. But still…

“Still, it’s been difficult ‘defining ourselves,’” said Fried. “Especially when you’re doing something that’s ultimately collective. You have to figure out how this thing breathes…Ultimately, we wind up with this kind of tweaked reality…a tweaked familiarity.”

So, consider visiting Fort Lean. Or, if it’s the case, consider revisiting. A lot’s changed in four years.

You can find Fort Lean on iTunes, on vinyl or streaming here.