A few years ago, I heard some interesting, energetic, unique, original, emphatically sincere music from a talented trio during my annual (when possible) pilgrimage to the Undercurrents music conference in Cleveland. This trio is still intact and still cranking out top-notch rock 'n roll. With Kerstin Elisabeth on lead vocals, Jim Madigan on acoustic guitar, support, and lead vocals, and Dave Sierk on acoustic guitar, harmonica, and "very rare support vocals," that band is Figure of Speech.
I interviewed Dave, and here's what he had to say about the band's current status: "Mostly we’ve been lying low, for the purpose of working on the now too-long-awaited Mess and Leave. People at the shows want the next stuff on CD, and we need to deliver that.
"The issue recently has been that our ideal is to put on CD the best natural performance the band can give at the time. And any decent band is finding out new things about its songs as it continues to play them. So having had some unfortunate delays in the recording process -- logistical stuff beyond the band itself -- now we’re hearing some of the tracks we recorded 6 months ago and saying, 'Hey, we play that better now.' So here and there we’re just out-and-out redoing songs so that we’ll have the stronger version. Obviously you can’t do that forever -- and we’re big believers in the idea that at some point you simply have to open the cage and let the songs go -- but at this point the further delay seems well worth it."
When does that mean the new disc will be done? "We’re talking winter at this point," Dave quips.
He recalls the band's roots: "A friend and I started an electric band in 1985 -- yes, eighty-five -- and shortly after that Kerstin auditioned, and shortly after that we were Figure of Speech. For a good decade, we worked in that format, with numerous lineup changes, including 4 bass players and 14 drummers, but always with Kerstin and me. At the very tail end of that, Jim came in as another guitarist.
"For many years Kerstin and I had been appearing at local open mics, and on rare occasion the two of us did some longer performances that way -- but we’d always regarded it as just promo for the electric band. Jim was very interested in helping out, so that promo vehicle became Kerstin and two acoustic guitars, and pretty soon, we started to get local interest in specifically booking that version of Figure of Speech.
"Kerstin, Jim, and I were also the main songwriters in the five-person band, and at that time our own creative stake was frequently coming up against our rhythm section. It’s not a hard thing to understand. If you have a part in writing the songs, it may not matter to you if your role in performing any particular one is fairly pedestrian. If you’re playing someone else’s songs, for some people it becomes a matter of not 'Does the song work best if I play this simple part?' but rather 'Is this part any fun to play?' I’m not saying that non-writing group members’ agendas are always this way, but it’s a tendency I’ve seen, and one we were dealing with at that time.
"So, in short, it became obvious that the best way to focus on not only writing songs, but also on performing them in their best light, was actually to strip the whole of the band down to the three of us. And so in February of 1996 that’s what we did. And that’s the unit we’ve been since. It has been by far the most creative and productive era of the band, and certainly the best received."
Dave has a bit of difficulty detailing FoS' influences. He begins, "That’s a tricky question in the sense that, as much as people have been hard pressed to describe what we sound like, there’s no particular artist or even collection of artists we’re hoping to sound like. I can tell you performers that we admire, and what we value, and what influenced how we approach music, but I’m at a loss to really directly point to what of that 'comes out' in our music or not.
"As a vocalist, Kerstin is as much or more influenced by male singers as by females, and some older male singers at that. We’re talking Buddy Holly and the Beatles, as well as a host of lesser pop singers from those eras, including Motown R&B and jazz -- basically, the stuff her father played in the car when she was a kid. Since that time she has certainly paid close attention to a wide range of music, including a good many women vocalists, and she’s been a particular fan of such ones as Sinead O’Connor, Natalie Merchant, and Annie Lennox. But I think what she responded to in them were the traits that she’d found in the earlier examples -- probably, above all, an approach more focused on delivering the song rather than on using the song as a platform for vocal pyrotechnics.
"It’s hard to say where her lyrics come from, though I’d hazard to say that it’s much more personal psychotherapy and a general nosiness about what the strangers at the next table are fighting about than any particular artistic model. She’s read all over the place, from Sappho to Dante to T.S. Eliot, but in my experience she’s more likely to get a song idea from a phone conversation than a villanelle.
"Jim’s earlier and stranger influences, as far as I know, include art rock and jam rock bands, which goes from Yes to Rush with the Grateful Dead somewhere in between. These days, though, he’ll ask me things such as "Have you heard The Corrs?"
"The interesting thing with him is that Figure of Speech generally focuses on compact, energetic, vocal-oriented songs, which of course isn’t modeled by the musical ear he acquired in his formative years. So he comes at a two-and-a-half minute song at something like a 135-degree angle, and often where it goes isn’t where you think you’d go in a song that length.
"Songwriters I’ve admired myself have included Heart’s Wilson sisters, the Clash’s Jones/Strummer, Graham Parker, Michelle Shocked, Lou Reed, and Ani Difranco. I don’t know if I’ve ever consciously modeled a song after any of them, but my writing has certainly been informed by the simple efficiency of their song structures and their emphasis on presenting the lyrics.
"As a guitarist, my epiphany came years ago when I bought Fleetwood Mac in Chicago, and heard Peter Green. He showed me the tremendous effect that you could get playing one note with just the right voice in just the right place. And I’ve always tried to apply that ideal since.
"When I switched to playing acoustic exclusively, it was great to discover Ani Difranco as a reference point. The aggressive, percussive approach she takes to the instrument simply blows away all the preconceptions people have about its limitations."
Dave's a bit humble and refreshingly honest when it comes to discussion FoS' on-stage exploits. "Although in our history we have played a few festival shows where a national name came along much later in the day," he says, "I wouldn’t claim that we’ve 'opened' for anyone of note on that scale. I also don’t feel particularly deprived for not having done so. By and large, the effort I’ve seen people put into acquiring those kinds of shows seems disproportional to the actual résumé benefits. We’ve played with a lot of great folks locally, and we’re fine being associated with them.
"Thinking bigger, however, I’d think that we could hit it off with any crowd that’s gathered to hear a songwriter play songs. That’s not just something as personal and intense as Ani or Aimee Mann, that’s also, say, Counting Crows, The Wallflowers, The Pretenders -- any place where the 'event' is the songs themselves."
Dave's equally humble when it comes to the band's achievements: "A few years ago we got picked for the New Orleans Cutting Edge Showcase, and for the last three years we’ve been in Undercurrents here. While I won’t argue that participating in either of those events is a tremendous milestone, I think they’re notable in that we weren’t the standard fare at either; we didn’t fit the profile of the other bands chosen, and we didn’t reflect what was on radio at the time.
"We’ve also consistently given our time for charity events when they’ve come up, the last being September’s Breastfest 2001 for breast cancer patients, along with 18 other bands. Again, I’d admit that this isn’t the most impressive resume stuff -- we volunteered, we weren’t anointed -- but it’s time well spent. Whether or not our songs ever inspire America, we have helped some people."
Of course, I first discovered FoS at Undercurrents, and the band performed there again this year. Dave talks about this year's Cleveland showcase: "This year Undercurrents was ten days after 9/11, and attendance was understandably sparse. I think it was important to go out and perform regardless. When civilization is threatened, it’s worth remembering that art and entertainment isn’t just the fluff off to the side, they’re core privileges of being civilized, of being able to think beyond having something to eat and a place to hide. So like so many things that month, it wasn’t a success in the ordinary sense, but the fact that it went on at all was probably worth more than the organizers could have originally imagined.
"That said, I’m all for it being an ordinary event next year.
"As for conferences in general -- those we’ve appeared at and those we’ve just attended -- I think it’s crucial that musicians master their hopes and expectations, and go in with realistic ideas and goals of what they can achieve at a conference. It’s a great atmosphere for meeting and networking with other musicians -- for trading information about where to play in other cities, for trading shows, for trading horror stories so that one band’s bad experience can save nine others from repeating it. On the other hand, a conference is not a place where a tall man in a powder blue suit steps out of the shadows and says, 'Our Big Label is looking for Bands Like You.' You can hope for that, of course -- it’s human nature -- but if that doesn’t happen, make sure you’ve actually done something constructive anyhow.
"In New Orleans, we were surprised how few of the other bands were doing banal things like advertising their shows, getting contact information in people’s hands, or even associating with other musicians. The day sessions were so poorly attended that we pretty much got to sit down at a table right across from some fairly notable industry folks and just have a conversation with them. And we got a lot of practical information and advice out of those discussions, more so than that hit-or-miss of if your showcase gets you signed or you leave supposedly empty.
"The Cleveland event has had a lot of peaks and valleys, largely because musicians’ and media’s expectations for it were so high, and couldn’t help but be disappointed, and there’s been somewhat of a backlash. There have been many good bands here that suffered for falling short of the moniker 'the band that will break Cleveland to the nation.' Cleveland in general suffers from an urge to compare itself with cities with much bigger demographics, like New York or Chicago, and winds up with a cynicism regarding how it falls short. There’s often been a good music scene here that’s gotten a bum rap among locals because another city which is X times bigger has X times as many places to play and X times as many good bands. I think your chief concern with your local scene shouldn’t be how it looks from the outside."
What of that elusive record deal? Says Dave, "We do keep our eyes and ears open for the odd off-chance of getting interest from some remote company, particularly via the Internet, where you can’t honestly rule it out, but chiefly our focus is on building our music, our fans, our venues, our contacts from the ground up. In the long run I think that’s our best bet.
"The small, repeated example is that generally if we walk into an open mic and play, we’ll then get a show at the venue. Without brandishing huge egos about it, we are good, and we’ve got experience to back up our confidence that people who hear us will like us and want to hear more. So in theory it’s a matter of repeating this, over and over, in different mediums, on a larger and larger scale.
"As you know, logistically it’s always more difficult than that. But the fact is that winning people over by performances gets something under you more solid than, say, convincing a company that they should be selling you as 'the next big thing' to people who don’t know you.
"Yes, we would like to earn a record deal, and part of getting that is constantly working on getting the performance savvy and general musical depth to make the most of that. In contrast, I think the notion of being given a deal is a dangerous one."
So, what is in Figure of Speech's immediate future? Dave muses, "Right now we’d like to finish the damn CD."
He continues, "Our short-into-long-term strategy is more or less that perform-and-repeat bit I noted previously. There’s a geographical circle of where we play, and a more abstract circle of fans of our music, and we will continue to try to make each circle bigger. Whatever happens with particular venues, or CD distribution, or industry contacts or so forth will be, in some sense, just a part of that."
Dave adds one parting shot, a sort of "words of wisdom" for other musicians:
"We were at a conference where a speaker made a very big deal out of the
idea that you need to have a definite goal for where your musical project
has to be in five years. And it made me think of the fact that where
FoS is at today is certainly more modest than what my aspirations would
have been for it five years ago, or five years before that. And it
didn’t make me think that we had failed, or that we should quit. We’re
happy with what we’ve done, and with what we’re doing, and that includes
our aspirations of doing more, but without depending on whether we achieve
that. Our music is valuable to us in and of itself, and having pursued
it on its on terms will afford us satisfaction, whatever else happens."
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