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The Polish American Club in Miami, Florida, seems an unlikely place for the Faint to do a concert. It's basically a banquet hall, the kind of space you might expect to visit for a polka dance -- if you're into that kind of thing. But to see a band that once toured the country as the opening act for No Doubt, and whose newest full-length, Wet From Birth, debuted in September at number 99 on the Billboard Top 200 Album Chart?
Jacob Thiele, the Faint's keyboardist, doesn't mind the club at all -- he's there waiting for a sound check when New Times calls. In fact, he's gotten used to performing at quirky venues, like the karaoke place the band just did in Philly. "We choose not to play Clear Channel rooms, so we kind of get stuck with this sort of thing, but we'd much rather do that than have ticket prices get jacked up," he says. "The next step is trying not to do Ticketmaster, but that's even harder."
If there's an easy route to rock stardom, the Faint has taken a deliberate detour.
Its dark, synth-drenched third album, 2001's Danse Macabre, stirred up a whirlwind of music-industry attention. But the Omaha, Nebraska-based quintet stayed loyal to Saddle Creek Records, its hometown indie label. "We allowed the major labels to kind of court us and take us out to dinner and try and sweep us off our feet and all that," Thiele says, laughing. "And give us free records! Which, you know, they do that, and bands are like, 'Wow! Yeah! Cool! These guys really treat us right!' But then, of course, if they would've signed us, we probably would've had to pay for all those meals and CDs and stuff."
Thiele calls the experience a crash course in the music industry. The good thing that came out of it was that the Faint figured out what its priorities were after fielding enough big-league offers to sign with a major label.
"We interviewed them, you know? You can imagine that if a band's younger and hasn't been around as much and doesn't know bands that've had terrible experiences on major labels -- which, we know plenty of those -- it would really be overwhelming. You would really believe all the bullshit they feed you, you know? And it would work. I guess it's why there's statutory-rape laws.
"That's the thing -- if you want to be a rock star, I can't think of anybody who's a rock star that didn't do it through a major label. But we don't really want to be rock stars. We would like to play a role in pop culture, but there's certain things that come along with that that we're not really ready for or not really interested in, I guess."
So far, being popular on an indie level is working just fine for the Faint -- fans are snapping up Wet From Birth. Eager to break away from a so-called new electro movement that the band was lumped into after Danse Macabrespawned so many imitators, the Faint brings different sounds to this album without abandoning danceable, industrial urgency.
Beguiling string arrangements figure prominently in "Desperate Guys" and "Southern Belles in London Sing," while "Birth" is a straight-ahead rock song with more guitar, bass and drums than synthesizer. Other unusual sound elements include a typewriter, a pen tapping on a CD case, and -- get this -- a raccoon penis bone striking a muffler. But they're not conspicuous.
"You know how they say for women, the secret to wearing makeup is to not look like you're wearing any? That's like Mike Mogis' approach to production, I think. The secret to his production is to sound like it's not overproduced," Thiele says.
On "I Disappear," the first single off the album, Thiele says the band did "the Link Wray/Kinks thing," slashing up an old speaker to get the perfect distorted bass sound. "We ended up sticking forks into it, and a smashed beer can, and Mike Mogis punched the center of the speaker. He came in and said, 'This doesn't sound right,' and he just made a fist and punched it."
Along with "How Could I Forget" and "Paranoiattack," that song still delivers the raw synth edge that's made the Faint a dance-club favorite. "We wanted the first single to be not like a single for radio and television, but just something that we could send out on a bunch of free white label LPs so DJs would play it in the dance clubs -- so people could play that song, and you could tell it's the Faint, but there's more guitar in it, and this super crazy bass sound."
The Faint's distinctive, early '80s vibe comes from using 20-year-old analog keyboards that were affordable back in the late '90s when Thiele joined the band; now those keyboards are in high demand. But while Thiele uses analog equipment as much as he can in the studio, he says the vintage keyboards can actually overheat, so they're far too temperamental for the road.