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Tim Harrington on Pynchon, Power Rangers and pubic-hair babies

Les Savy Fav's "Patty Lee" 

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Brooklyn's Les Savy Fav (which includes Durham-based drummer Harrison Haynes) mellowed out a bit on their most recent album, Let's Stay Friends. But mellow is relative, as the rollicking "Patty Lee" attests. It's just a more straightforward, song-oriented take on the demolished art-punk on which the group made their name. Straightforward is relative, too: With its party-starting falsetto soul chorus, multiple instrumental bridges and cosmically skittering guitars, this simple tale of an ancient Lovecraftian force embodied as a teenage girl playing some kind of bondage game has plenty of the curveballs we've come to expect from these guys, ballasted by a mammoth groove.

Les Savy Fav is as well-known for the onstage antics and maniacal charisma of singer Tim Harrington as they are for music. I have witnessed Harrington cutting off his hair with a pocketknife and then feeding it to audience members, trading shirts with a fan in mid-song, and messianically convincing tens of thousands of amped-up kids to sit on the ground simultaneously at an outdoor Chicago festival.

I caught up with Harrington for a chat about "Patty Lee" as he drove back to Brooklyn from a weekend in Vermont. We could barely keep a connection going; the background was filled with animal noises, songs and baby talk (presumably Harrington's wife and son entertaining themselves while he chatted with me). Even under ideal conditions, Harrington manages to sound like several people talking at once, all by himself. In other words, the interview appropriately and gradually dissolved into glorious chaos, just as Les Savy Fav's songs often do.

INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: Insofar as any character can be wholly fictional, is Patty Lee?

TIM HARRINGTON: I want to say that Patty Lee is actual, but I never met Patty Lee. I wouldn't want to declare a pre-Earth ancient goddess figure to be truly fictional; I might get struck down. The story of "Patty Lee" is about a teenage boy and girl getting it on, and all of a sudden, the girl decides to finally reveal that she's actually not Patty Lee, a little small town girl, but the thing whose real name takes 10 million years just to say.

It seems like there are two basic narrative parts to the song, with a pivot in the middle: First, it's just a bondage game gone bad, and then Patty Lee "sloughs her skin," and then there's this mediation on lost divinity.

Right, that second part is the character Patty Lee's speech. They're having a good time, and the party kind of goes bad; she sloughs off her skin, and what she shows him is hard to describe. It "moves like smoke and sounds like ice." That's all I could visualize of her transformation. From then onward is her speech to everybody. At the end, there's this part, "See my shadow, twice the mountain or stretched across the desert plain," which refers to the Brockengespenst, which is something I read about in a couple books. In general my understanding, it's the effect of one's shadow projected from the sun onto something huge. There's a scene in ... oh, what's that book ...

I think it's either Pynchon or Wallace. Infinite Jest?

Yeah, Infinite Jest. Which Pynchon one is it in?

It's one of the big fat ones, I think either V or Gravity's Rainbow.

It's not V. It's Gravity's Rainbow, yeah. The Brockengespenst I heard about and was obsessed with happens under a full moon on a cloudy night, by a pond. A hole opens up in the clouds that allows the moon's light to reflect your shadow off the pond and hugely onto the clouds. Me and some guys in Providence, at Fort Thunder, used to organize these weird costume dress-up party events ...

[Connection sputters out. Relevance of costume party to discussion remains unclear.]

... we used to call the party El Brocken. This theme of being scared by your own colossal shadow.

I'm kind of unhealthily obsessed with Infinite Jest. Have you ever taken anything else from it?

No, in fact, when I saw it in Infinite Jest, it was more like "Oh, there's that." I was into the Brockengespenst before that.

What does ice sound like?

Oh, ice? [Untranscribeable onomatopoeia.] I had like 50 versions of what it sounded like before I figured out the weirdest sounding thing. I thought about colored ice. "It sounded like white ice." "It sounded like rainbow ice." But that sounded like a treat from Hawaii. "It sounded like rainbow shaved ice."

[Connection dies again. Harrington continues speaking, and little snippets come through.]

We just hit a good tech corridor. There's MIT students along the side of the road holding up little satellites.

If we just do this one question at a time, we can probably finish by the time you get back to Brooklyn.

I was starting to think maybe something spooky was happening.

Maybe we were being too irreverent about Patty Lee and she decided to fuck up our phone call. Particularly in light of this next question: Did you know that Patricia Lee is the name of one of the actresses who played the Pink Ranger on one of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers shows?

Wow, I didn't know that! It would be easy to mistake the Pink Ranger for just a sweet piece of bubblegum, but yeah, give her a chance and she'll [another untranscribeable onomatopoeia, this one suggesting "slicing and dicing"]. I do know an actual girl named Patty Lee, but I don't think she's aware of the song or would care.

What about Patty Lee, the ancient malevolent spirit: Would she care if there was a song about her?

Nope—uncaring, gigantic, Silver Surfer-type titan of space.

In my experience, the characters we put in things just sort of show up in our minds one day, making their demands. Do you remember when Patty Lee showed up in your mind, and what she seemed to want from you?

I don't remember when, but I like to come up with a thing I want to sing about that's pretty specific, and then there'll be no song for it for a long time. So before I had Patty Lee, I'd been like, "I want to sing a song about two kids getting it on and then one of them turns into an H.P. Lovecraft-style primeval force." But then that "party's getting out of hand" part, I was like, "Oh, I don't want this to seem like a party anthem," but then I was like, "OK, it's just two people, that's my story." And then it all kind of came into place.

One of our other songs from Go Forth ["Adopduction"] was about this kid who gets abducted and his parents won't pay the ransom, and he and his abductors end up forming a kind of weird family together. So I'd been telling people I was writing this song, and there was no song for a really long time. This was kind of like that. I was talking a lot of smack and telling people I was going to write this song, without working on actual lyrics, and then suddenly, it all came together.

There's an old wives' tale that men think about sex every seven seconds, and then there's that song "Seven Seconds," which is kind of about the first untarnished seven seconds of a child's life. Is there any particular relevance to your "last seven seconds" before the suitor's death?

[Harrington enters semi-coherent diatribe about the band 7 Seconds: Unrelated, expurgated.]

There are a lot of nicely balanced parallelisms in the last verse. You've got waxing and waning, sun and moon, shadows and flares, poetic and plain, mountains and plain. Do you take time building your lyrical architecture this way, or is it more intuitive?

No, I put them together very carefully. I've always been an analytical lyricist. I love old Pavement-style, pure wordplay, where the words sound good together, but I'm also a stickler for a little narrative, a little embedded meaning. It's rare that I put something in our songs without having a specific goal.

So you want the narrative and the sense of play. You a Donald Barthelme fan?

Huge.

I had a feeling. Anyway, this idea that we're living after the fall, beyond some state of grace, seems to crop up a lot in your music. Is that biblical, intuition or what?

A little biblical. I like the double, the two senses to it. Whenever somebody complains about "culture," I like to say, "Oh man, once that Gutenberg guy got started, we were screwed." It simultaneously frees you from guilt for this fall, because it's so long gone. There's something depressing about that but also liberating. There's something self-indulgent about thinking we're the ones who are ruining everything. We're the nihilists of all time. I like undercutting that. But on the other side, there's this self-righteousness of being like, "We're gonna be the ones to fix it!" These ideas are academically interesting but hard to articulate except in a song.

So it's a gesture toward this idea of pre-Babylonian oneness ...

Yeah, like we went in that cave and made a little doodle, and it's been a slow decline—just staring at pictures—ever since.

On the chorus, you're singing in a falsetto soul style that we don't hear from you often. Was there any certain music you were listening to or any certain effect you wanted to create with that?

Oh yeah, I actually brought in my friend John Schmersal from Enon to do good, legitimate-sounding soul backups. When I wrote it, I was actually always singing it in ... what's the name of the guy from the Doobie Brothers? That's how I always sang it. [Demonstrates.] That's always how it was in my head, I can't explain it exactly. And that somehow transformed into a black soul lady voice. I do like a lot of that stuff, but I don't have access to any women who fit that vocal field. But John Schmersal is actually an amazing crossdresser of voices.

Let's Stay Friends is the closest thing Les Savy Fav's done to straightforward rock, and "Patty Lee" kind of follows suit, but there are some holdouts of your older style: those skittering, soaring guitars from Go Forth, and the idea of parties gone bad, from songs like "False Starts." Can you talk about how Les Savy Fav is maturing and changing while retaining what makes it unique?

We always try to keep things deliberately intuitive among ourselves. We had some really general ideas going into this record, the main one being we didn't care if it ever got finished. But also to really get into the writing of music. In the past, a defining element of our songs has been that they were really chiseled and hammered out. We played and polished in practice until a song was sitting there. And Let's Stay Friends was more a process of teasing out little tiny ideas for songs, building them into whole songs. Plus, with us being all spread out now, the way we'd worked before didn't work any more. We wanted to figure out how to continue to write and perform without being in our practice space constantly.

That makes sense. Once the band members were scattered, you had to find ways to better focus your time together.

Yeah, it's a record written in a style that's sustainable when we don't all live in the same house any more. Although that would make a good sitcom, or a least a good memoir for one of our kids.

Maybe this kind of mandatory focus explains why, despite all the decorative guitar work on the song, this big slabby groove is king.

Yeah, in the past a lot of songs were a collection of parts, eight to 10 parts going one into the next. This was learning how to write and sit with songs, to get more out of less. Sam Jayne from Love as Laughter is a good friend of ours, and I always admire how the guy can just turn a song out of anything. Or Smog, Bill Callahan, can take one tiny riff and make a song out of it. I don't think we have anything that spartan on the record, but the idea of letting it sit without having to fuck with it so much, that's what comes out on Let's Stay Friends. We're letting things be more.

You going to play "Patty Lee" at the Nasher show?

Definitely.

All those nice, different bridges on it, you guys get to stretch out a bit, maybe you take a minute to eat somebody's hair or something?

We haven't drug them out too, too long. I always mean to let that middle part ride out. Sometimes I add some extra lines. But other times, during that breakdown, all of a sudden, I'm like, "God, it sounds like nothing's happening!" So we peel out and move on to the next part. The ending feels really good to play live, so there's a bit of rush to get to that part.

And you put out "Patty Lee" as a single on white vinyl, right?

That's true, and it has a cool drawing I did of a little girl in a poodle skirt, a poodle skirt split in half ... it looks sort of like a Technicolor version of those little things that floated around Andy Capp's head when he was too drunk ... and a puff of smoke. It came out pretty good.

The white makes sense to me, and it's hard to say why. I guess it sounds like the kind of song you might rock out to in white jeans.

I think maybe there's an influence. When you say white jeans and white belt, I think of The Make-Up, and that high pitched singing is like Ian Svenonius.

Anything else we should touch on?

The thing about men thinking about sex every seven seconds and first seven pure seconds of a kid's life? I think they've got to be tied together. A seven-second-old baby has a little baby boner. It's probably true. Babies are sometimes born with pubic hair because they're collecting a lot of hormones from the mother.

It's these recombinant bovine growth hormones. I've actually heard of babies being born wearing condoms.

I buy my son inorganic milk. His six pack looks ripped, and I want him to have a little hair on his chest. Have you seen that muscle man kid online?

Whenever the Internet comes on, I usually try to close my eyes.

I've actually been trying to read the whole thing. It's really frustrating and hard. Again, I think I would have done better with just a drawing of an antelope on a wall some place. I could have covered that. Now, I'm like, "I can't believe I haven't read every single thing about karate! I can't believe I don't know how to build my own ceramics kiln!"

Les Savy Fav plays The Nasher Museum of Art in Durham Saturday, July 12, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10 for general admission, $5 for Duke employees, and free for Duke students.

  • Tim Harrington on Pynchon, Power Rangers and pubic-hair babies

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