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Fact or Friction 

Here Are the Facts You Requested drags indie rock into the realm of performance art -- and soul music

Wednesday, Jan 29 2003
Here Are the Facts You Requested received its first piece of fan mail in 1991. The package -- a note and a blurry photograph of its author -- came from a cello-playing high-schooler named Akire Lessey, and though it was addressed to everyone, it was really intended for just one member.

"Akire saw a show, apparently fell in love with Eugene, and sent us this piece of mail," says guitarist/vocalist Eric Laine, who has a decade's worth of hand-drawn fliers spread out on the table in front of him. "I still have it somewhere."

"Yeah, I should have that," says multi-instrumentalist Eugene Chen, from where he and now-wife Lessey sit on matching magenta easy chairs.

The couple lives in an adorable home on the not-so-adorable south side of Potrero Hill, beneath a procession of pastel housing projects. Their cozy abode boasts a ferocious-looking dog named Lama, a wall of CDs and cassettes, and a Technicolor basement recording studio.

It's in this space that Here Are the Facts You Requested -- or HATFYR, as it's often abbreviated -- usually resides. Deemed too bizarre for Baltimore, the punk-dominated city in which it was founded, HATFYR brought its genre-bending dream-pop west seven years ago. But after playing Bottom of the Hill and similar local clubs, the musicians realized their pieced-together psychedelia was best received at less conventional venues. The quartet began carving out a niche in the Bay Area's underground art community, garnering a reputation through oddball gigs, meticulous studio work, and a head-turning, soul-infused groove far afield from its indie rock peers. And with their new album, Felt, the musicians have created a record more like modern art than trendy pop pastiche: Its pleasing surfaces reveal sonic shades and textures that grow more complex with each listen.

Alternately sipping coffee and Miller Genuine Draft, the members of HATFYR explain how they came together. Though the combo formed in Baltimore in 1991, the idea actually began brewing when Reading, Penn., natives Chen and Laine met on a playground in the third grade.

"There was a smooth progression from having sleepovers and doing fake radio shows into a tape recorder to actually having a four-track and starting to make music," says Chen, looking younger than his 33 years with short-sheared black hair and scattered facial hair.

When the pair finished college, they moved to Baltimore to start a band. They found their drummer, L. Bill Miller, after placing an ad in a local altweekly. Instead of outlining musical influences, the advertisement simply fired off a list of phrases, including "pop theory," "revolution duty," and "pow-wow auditions."

"I was intrigued," says Miller, 32. "I said, 'You're not really telling me what kind of music you're making,' and Eric's response was, 'Well, it's somewhere between Shriekback and Neil Diamond.' And with that I was like, 'I'd love to audition.'"

Next the group needed a name. One day, Chen was making photocopies at work and came upon a bunch of stickers that read "Here Are the Facts You Requested." He put one on his guitar and swiped the rest of the roll.

"We didn't have a whole lot of money, so if the stickers were already made, [we figured], 'Here we go,'" says Laine, 33. Gesturing around the house, he jokes, "All of this stuff is stolen office supplies."

Lessey discovered the trio when she was a teenager playing cello with the Baltimore Symphony. "I saw them at a gig," says the flaxen-haired musician, now 28. "I was stalking Eugene, because I was just a horny high-schooler." Soon after sending that piece of fan mail, she was asked to audition.

"The idea of a cello in the band was appealing," remembers Laine, "especially cello played by a woman who's barely taller than the cello and who played it while dancing."

After growing tired of Baltimore's narrow-minded rock scene, HATFYR relocated to San Francisco in 1995, where it took to tinkering in its basement workshop, Abandon Studios. (In order to help fund its efforts, HATFYR records other local artists there, among them Sonny Smith, Subnautic, and DJ Zeph.) The resultant first album, 1998's Shocks + Struts, was hard to classify -- a somewhat abstract sound collage riddled with Lessey's dreamy cello layers and Chen's synthesized bass lines. "Shut Up" wove funk-infused riffs into an amusement-park atmosphere, while a surreal and sultry version of Prince's "1999" featured plucky acoustic guitars.

"Shocks + Struts had a very planned methodology -- get really baked, have a pastry or two, and end up with 60 minutes of tape," says Chen, who also handles guitar, vocal, and electronics duties. "Then, we mine that material. We put things down spontaneously but then put them into a reasonable structure that people can understand."

What set the band apart from its peers was the lack of humble tape hiss and off-balance amateurism often associated with home recording. That professionalism was partly due to HATFYR's veritable fifth member, Ben Conrad, a freelance sound engineer who'd worked at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley and Wide Hive in S.F.

"I'm a patron, and I really love the music and the attitude," says Conrad. "Here Are the Facts You Requested really just embody what the independent record label movement is all about: Keep the inspiration and not concern yourself with selling a lot of records."

Upon its release, Shocks + Struts drew plenty of other admirers, including Jose Lopez, head of the Spanish label Testing Ground, who was so impressed that he released Shocks + Struts in Europe. (He plans to put out Felt this spring, following HATFYR's 10-day Spanish tour next month.) "I like the music of Here Are the Facts You Requested because it is chancy," says Lopez via e-mail. "It puts different styles and tendencies in a blender and mixes everything to get music that surprises everyone who listens to it."

Most groups attempt to play out as much as possible once they release an album. HATFYR, however, mostly abandoned the club circuit after Shocks + Struts. Instead, following a trip to Black Rock City in 1995, HATFYR found solace within the local Burning Man scene, playing art-oriented events that allowed a freedom not found in bars.

At one such show, the band recorded live with a four-track, rewinding the tape during the show to lay down multiple parts, and finally distributing cassettes of the performance to the audience. "The fun part was the rewinding," Chen recalls.

One of HATFYR's more outrageous shows occurred in 1997, on a fire escape at the opening of the "Defenestration" project (the building at Sixth and Howard with furniture crawling from the windows). The musicians dressed in costume and composed an original soundtrack for the festivities, which included an urban circus and a mock-superhero battle. Most recently, the band contributed a sample- and keyboard-heavy set to a Cyberbuss Costume Ball "recovery party" at the G-Spot, a Bayview warehouse space.

"We love S.F. for still having underground spaces like [the G-Spot]," Chen says. "There's just something so artificial about playing in a club. At a party, when you're done setting up, you're there with friends. Whereas at a club, you're sitting there with the bartender who's washing dishes for four hours."

HATFYR's recent live-performance hibernation can also be attributed to working on its long-awaited sophomore effort, Felt. Released three months ago, the album is more cohesive than the first one, whose meandering tone occasionally proved distracting. Artsy but warmly unpretentious and accessible, Felt is the group's twisted take on soul music.

"We wanted to explore structure and accidentally ended up exploring soul," Laine offers. "Our motto was 'No unnecessary overdubs.' Without excessive overdubs and psychedelic sound effects, all that was left was rhythm, melody, and emotion."

The welcome evolution hasn't dulled HATFYR's eclecticism one bit. While Shocks + Struts was a montage of sounds shaped into melodies, Felt is an assemblage of styles joined fluidly into one work. Chen's playful falsetto vocals on the stripped-down "Peas" recalls Beck's plastic soul on Midnight Vultures. The loping "Pony" has a kitschy They Might Be Giants edge, accented by turntables, banjo, and the oft-present cello, which also shows up on the chill-out exercise "Firefly." "Tulip" offers Bowie-like swagger without the machismo, with double-tracked, ethereal vocals from Lessey, who's just as comfortable delivering enchanting, abstract lyrics -- like that song's "Let's slow down, have a picnic/ By the windmill, in our dreaming/ Between boats and space/ Between breath and sex" -- or frivolous ones about a space cowgirl making snack food ("Popcorn").

"The working title for Felt was Simple," says Lessey. "Shocks + Struts was chaotic, so we used that working title to remind ourselves that we don't need to put every idea in until it's really refined."

HATFYR has already begun working on its next album, which Laine hints will capture a little bit of the experimental psychedelia of the first record and the gentle pop-soul of the second effort. "Shocks + Struts is Sgt. Pepper, and Felt is Rubber Soul," he says. "Next album -- Revolver."

About The Author

Nancy Einhart


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