Playing Through

Are the Fairways destined to be overlooked in their own country?

The Fairways are, as Tom Waits says, big in Japan. Several months after the release of the band's debut album, Is Everything All Right?, the record has sold nearly three times as many copies in Japan as in the United States. That's three times as many albums to a country the size of California, from a band that has never toured farther east than the East Bay. What's going on?

"Our sound caters more to the Japanese," lead singer and rhythm guitarist Brent Kenji says. "It's what they like there. We don't sound like Limp Bizkit or Third Eye Blind and that's what the U.S. wants."

What the U.S. wants is butt rock. It wants bands whose IQs are lower than a caterpillar's bellybutton, bands who think of orchestration as having a midget hum a few bars of "Bohemian Rhapsody," bands who yell and scream about nookie and the size of their jocks. The Fairways are too smart for that.

Some groups capture audiences through brute force or sheer visceral energy. Others use volume, histrionics, or light shows. The Fairways are far subtler. Onstage, the band doesn't move around or even acknowledge its fans much. And yet, its shows are thoroughly captivating. The Fairways have taken songwriting to a new level, one that moves the feet by using the brain. It's pure pop for knowledgeable people; thinking man's verse.

Take a song like "Close to Me" from the group's debut. It starts with a slow whirring organ, ticking drumbeat, and thick bass line. Then arid vocals and a chugging drum sample are introduced to help pick up the pace. Just before the song hits the chorus, a chiming guitar, horns, and tambourine enter, and the song shoots into the stratosphere. Nothing is out of place; nothing is there that doesn't have to be. Every sound adds to the whole.

Plenty of bands orchestrate their songs these days. In the mid-'90s, so many groups were turning to the Beach Boys and the Zombies for inspiration they spawned a genre called orch-pop. But these bands arrange their songs as if to announce "Look, a trumpet!" or "Hey, my cousin brought her chamber group." The Fairways' songs are as tight as a British soccer fan.

Lead guitarist and co-songwriter Andrew Leavitt studied music for years, both in high school in Santa Rosa (where he concentrated on clarinet and saxophone) and at Reed College. Those music theory lessons and time spent with a wide variety of bands -- including a folk rock band led by Juliana Hatfield's brother and a damaged art-pop collective called New Bad Things -- helped Leavitt develop a unique way of composing: "I think about the music as well as listening to what sounds good," is the only way he can explain it.

Meanwhile, Kenji and bassist Jen Cohen taught themselves how to play, inspired by DIY labels like K Records. When they started their first band, Skypark, the unwritten motto was "jangly guitars and reverbed-out vocals."

After graduating and spending a year in Princeton, Leavitt returned to the Bay Area in 1996. He met Kenji at a party, but didn't really talk to him until they ran into each other at Open Mind Music. When Leavitt returned from a European tour with New Bad Things, Kenji contacted him about sitting in on bass at a show at the Bottom of the Hill. By the time Skypark's six-song EP Summer Days Are Forever was released, the band had broken up. Kenji and Leavitt began writing songs together with a drum machine as A Month of Sundays.

While Skypark's songs were obviously influenced by early '90s labels like Slumberland, Creation, and Sarah, the new songs were more illusive. Kenji's portraiture lyrics meshed with Leavitt's heard-it-before-but-can't-place-it melodies. After Cohen came on as bassist and the group changed its name, Zac Stanley joined on drums. Stanley added layers of depth to the songs, creating intricate rolls and fills. With new arrival Keiko Kayamoto on keyboards, Leavitt was free to begin playing what he describes as "busy, kind of countryish" leads.

Unfortunately, just as the debut album was released and the band was readying for a West Coast tour with three other groups, Stanley quit. To make matters worse, the members were trying to finish a single to sell on tour. Luckily, Kenji had met drummer Chantel Patterson through her band, Ampersand. Even though she only had two weeks to learn the songs, Patterson fit right in.


The Fairways' small local following tends toward the fanatical. Part of the reason may be Kenji, who sings with a voice that unfurls like taffy from a wrapper. At one show, a woman was heard saying, "Oh he's so cute! His mother must love him!" Not the kind of comment that a pop star usually inspires -- more than anything, women seem to want to take him home and mother him. Men may want to be less gentle.

"I find it hard to believe when people can't tell that Brent's gay," says Leavitt. "To any gay person in this country, it's obvious."

Maybe the confusion comes from the fact that there are very few pop bands today with even one gay member, let alone two. And, as Leavitt says, "it's not like we're [lyrically blunt homocore band] Pansy Division or anything." The group's most overt song, "Don't Call Me Dear," isn't even on its debut; the tune was written after recording was finished.

Still, the album has no shortage of terrific tracks. Recorded over five months at the Alameda studio of ex-Ciao Bella member Jaime McCormick, the record is mellower than the live shows, a fact that only highlights how smartly written the songs are. With multipart harmonies, chiming guitar riffs, and "ba ba" vocals, "Phthalo Blue" appears to be all sunshine and roses until you listen to the miserable lyrics. The bouncy number "Secretive Girl" throws poison darts at a character "following every fashion trend ... from the beginning to the end," while "Get It Right" posits a music journalist clinging to youth amongst festive organ and handclaps.

"Many of the songs aren't very flattering," Kenji says. "They're about certain people; I have a scenario and I put the person in it."

"They're based on a person but they're not really them," Leavitt hastily adds. "It's imaginary things they may be thinking about." He pauses and smiles. "Does that cover our asses enough?"

Ultimately, the same intelligence and low-key charm that may doom U.S. record sales is helping the Fairways overseas.

In Sweden, a program called P3 Pop, hosted by music journalist Ika Johannesson in a style similar to revered British DJ John Peel, has been playing Is Everything All Right? like it was the second coming of Meet the Beatles.

"Everyone in the Stockholm indie scene is talking about the Fairways. They are very much loved in Sweden," says Toby Thorsen, employee at Swedish label and distributor Benno Records.

In England, the Fairways are often mentioned on the Shalala List, an Internet sounding board of indie pop aficionados from around the world. (San Francisco has its own such list at www.egroups.com/group/sf_indie.)

Bedroom mail-orders -- small distribution companies usually run by one or two people -- are selling loads of the band's records to countries like Germany, France, and Sweden, as well as the U.S. With scenes springing up all over, the Fairways' label Paris Caramel has been able to license the record to several foreign countries.

"All the records over [in Japan and the Philippines] come with bonus tracks," Paris Caramel co-owner Mark Sgarzi says. "And the Japanese kids are so fanatical they buy both copies."

A recent Japanese TV news show featured one of the band's songs in the background of a restaurant review. In a land where Pokémon and Hello Kitty are king and queen, can it be long before the Fairways have a set of cuddly dolls?

For now, Japanese fans will have to be sated with a planned tour in January. According to Cohen, who went over recently as keyboardist for the Aislers Set, the Japanese treat idiosyncratic pop bands far better than Americans do.

"All the chain stores carry indie releases," she says. "Tower has listening stations for the Aislers Set!"

Here in the U.S., though, the Fairways will have to be content living by that age-old college radio credo: "Give the people what they need, not what they want."

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