The Evens, a duo featuring Ian MacKaye (baritone guitar/vocals) and Amy Farina (drums/vocals) have been at it a while, from punk rock, to Pancake Mountain. The two have been fixtures of the Washington D.C. scene for many years, having been members of such bands as the Teen Idles, Minor Threat, Skewbald, Embrace, Egg Hunt, The Warmers, and Fugazi. An impressive roster, certainly, but The Evens stand on their own, and have done so for over a decade now. Their third full length album, The Odds is hot off the presses, and I was fortunate enough to speak with founding member and drummer/singer, Amy Farina.
Tom Tom Magazine: At what age did you begin drumming? Was there any particular event that sparked your interest in the drums?
Amy Farina: My brother, the hero of my youth — musical and otherwise, acquired a drum set when I was around 12 or 13, I think. It was a mid 60s Ludwig blue marine pearl kit that we still have. When I first saw it in the garage I became deeply curious, and when I first sat behind it I was transformed. That, punk, and a family gone mad put it all together for me.
Most drummers are taught to “lock in” with the bass player in a band context. How much of a factor is the subtraction of the bass guitar as its own separate instrument in terms of your drumming approach. Do you write the beats for Evens songs from a totally different angle than you did, say, for the Warmers?
True — there is no bass guitar in the band, but there are no shortages of bass groves to lock in with. Ian plays a baritone guitar in The Evens, and he was a bass player in the Teen Idles before he ever played guitar in a band. So, low-end rhythmic lines come naturally and abundantly from him, and finding something to lock in with has never been an issue. Probably the most significant factor influencing my drum approach in this band is that I sing while simultaneously playing — which I had never done in a band prior to this one. That substantially shapes how/what/where/when I do/don’t play.
Do you have any advice, breathing techniques, etc. for aspiring singing drummers?
I’m not sure that I have any practical techniques to offer, other than practice, naturally. I always wanted to play the drums and I always wanted to sing but never intended to do them at the same time. So, it continues to be something that can be a little complex for me to wrap my head around. Somewhere along the way I started to think of it as if I were learning a new instrument entirely and that helped move things along. So, as opposed to playing the drums in a way that I already new how to play them, and then singing on top of that; I started over and attempted to treat my voice kind of like another limb, intertwining it with the arms and legs. Just like you would when learning a three or four part drum pattern — playing all parts together but really slowing things down, as opposed to learning the part for the first foot, then the other foot on top of that, then a hand, and so on… Just shifting the perspective a bit opened things up for me.
You have this terrifically unique syncopated style of playing, are there any exercises that you find helpful?
Thanks for saying “terrifically.” I find any and all exercises helpful and interesting. Anything I come across that I can’t do, I will do and do and do again until I can. And then do more of if, until it becomes efficient and the hope is ultimately effortless. I imagine that’s pretty common among people who really want to learn their instrument… Breathing is also something I continually try to work on. I think it became more of a necessity once I started to sing while I play — now in addition to all four appendages, from the belly up has to be in some sort of congruity with everything else too. In the frenzy of it all, it’s easy to let breathing be the first thing to go, but making sure the air is circulating to all reaches seems to be an effective way of keeping it together.
One of the things that always jumps out when listening to The Evens is the incredible rhythmic interplay between your drumming and Ian’s guitar playing. Can you talk a little bit about how this sound developed?
Thanks again for the kind words. I think this didn’t so much develop, as it was sort of the point where we began and why we thought it was a good idea to play music together. Ian has a serious riff gift — he’s always got something great and interesting going on, so responding to that comes pretty easily to me. Likewise, he’s known my playing for a long time and I think always had an understanding of where I was coming from with drums. And then when we started singing together it brought a whole new dimension to things. Sometimes you’re lucky to find someone to collaborate with who speaks an artistic language that you understand on a deep level, so I got lucky. We have of course, really worked on our song craft and playing over the years, but the foundation was there from the start, I think.
You’ve mentioned in interviews that more so than individual influences, you draw a great deal of inspiration from watching as much live music as you can. Do you pay particular attention to what’s going on behind the drum kit during live performances?
Definitely. I study drummers all the time — always fascinated to watch and learn. There are so many mind-blowing drummers on this planet — it’s dizzying.
With both yourself and Ian having been in well known bands throughout your careers, I know that shouts for songs from your respective previous bands are something that you’ve had to deal with from the start. I suppose based on the tone of the particular “shouter,” that could either be flattering or supremely annoying. Now that The Evens have been an active band for over a decade, with three LPs and one single, has that calmed down at all?
I can’t say that this ever got to a point where it needed to calm down. Fugazi and Minor Threat song requests happen on infrequent occasion (Warmers maybe once or twice, in irony of course), but it’s never really been an issue. There’s generally a lot of conversation that happens between the audience and band at our shows, which is welcome, and one never knows what one might say, or hear… Largely our audiences are profoundly cool and the shows follow suit.
Most Evens shows take place anywhere other than “traditional” rock clubs, which I imagine is a natural extension of the way both you and Ian grew up playing music that existed decidedly outside the mainstream. There must be a certain amount of freedom that comes along with this as a band connecting directly to fans (i.e. no age restrictions or negotiation of door price). What are some of the advantages specifically from a drummer’s point of view?
Yes — this was the hope/idea and for the most part this has been our experience. On a superficial level, as a drummer – not being relegated to the riser with the beer soaked carpet at the back of the stage is great. We both sit stage level and run our own PA from the stage, so having all of those parameters in our own hands is really nice, and I think makes for an intimacy that the audience generally responds to. In some ways it’s a lot more work for us, but it’s entirely worth it when everything falls into place.
Can you take us through your creative process a bit? Of course there is no standard method for songwriting. Is it typically the case that you write the melodies and lyrics for the songs you primarily sing, and the same for Ian, or is it a more fully collaborative process? How often would you say your songs are born straight from one of your drum beats, with the guitar and vocals springing forth from that?
Generally Ian shows up to practice with a bag full of riffs and that’s where we begin. I may come up with a drum part for a riff that will then shape the song, or one of us will come up with a vocal melody, and so on and so forth. Arranging is a fully collaborative process. I have lots of ideas about melodic structures, and Ian had lots of ideas about drum parts, and we both work and re-work lyrics and vocal parts together — so, sort of anything goes. Some of our songs have been written in an hour, some have taken a decade to finish.
I read some time back that Ian had dragged all of the recoding gear used to demo Fugazi songs out of storage, and that you had been using it to record Evens material. Did having this resource to demo and listen back to your new material affect your approach to this third Evens LP?
We’ve demoed as we’ve written, with various tape machines and digital devices, since our earliest practices. So, we’ve done that consistently with all of our ideas/songs/records from the start. Simply, I think for me, it’s most valuable as a memory tool. We’ve done so many arrangements of certain songs, that it’s just really helpful to have documents to keep track of all the ideas. We typically don’t do much instrumental over dubbing on records, but we do mess around with lots of vocal layering, so being able to sketch that out in the basement, before we go into the studio in earnest, is helpful.
Can we look forward to an Evens tour to support the new record The Odds? If so, what regions do you plan to play?
Yeah, We’ve got some Northeast U.S. dates on the calendar right now, and are planning on more soon. Not entirely sure where we’re going to end up, but we hope to make it everywhere.
Interview by Bradley Dean
Photos courtesy of the artist