Dusk has barely begun her descent on downtown Phoenix when anti-genre conformists Former Friends of Young Americans gather for band practice at frontman Toby Fatzinger's home in the historic Garfield neighborhood. The area is known not only for being one of the city's oldest and largest historic districts but for being one of the Valley's cultural centers, home to a flourishing art scene and thriving music community.
The rest of the band — keyboardist Jessica Kelley, drummer Masa Schmalle, and guitarist Matt Townsend — already is here, but Fatzinger is running late. Something about work and happy hour has him walking through the front door with a slight buzz, but that won't affect much in terms of their groove. With a release party for their latest album, estas diloculo, coming up, they'll make sure to get through some songs and discuss some of the headier concepts involving the making of their ambient shoegaze rock. But along the way, the conversation takes some strange turns.
"Matt likes to tell us all how much he's going to fuck our buttholes," Fatzinger says.
"Yeah, I do like to say that," Townsend says.
"And Masa is gay, and he actually fucks bears' buttholes," Fatzinger says.
"So Matt's little joke is, as a greeting, he'll say, 'Do you want me to fuck your butthole?" Schmalle says, imitating Townsend.
"This is kind of how our practices go," Kelley says, laughing. "We get through about one song and then this happens, and we go back into the next one."
"Like, these albums are about deep shit. We talk about this deep shit for about two seconds and then we talk about fucking bears for, like, an hour and a half," Fatzinger says, chuckling.
With the light-hearted candor and banter among the friends, you'd think this musical menagerie has been together for years, but this isn't the first incarnation of the band. It's one assembled after years of sharing the stage. Like a lot of bands in Phoenix, this version of Former Friends started out incestuously as members continued working on other projects.
"Me and Masa were actually fans," Townsend says. "What Toby was doing was fucking rad — it was shoegaze-y, and nobody was doing that at the time. So we would just go out just to be able to hear it while our old band slowly dissolved around the same time."
"It seemed like everybody that was involved with the band at that point . . . I kept getting the feeling that they were just helping me out, which I totally appreciated. But at the same time, I was, like, they're not into it," Fatzinger says. "And Matt was coming to shows and shit, and we had struck up a friendship. Then I started thinking it would be nice to be in a band with somebody that was actually into the band and was a friend."
To be sure, everyone involved today has to be on the same page and have a certain understanding of Fatzinger's vision in order to assemble the dreamy guitar arrangements, warbled electronic clutter, varying time signatures, and harmonic vocals into the waning melodies the band accomplishes. It's something past members couldn't have contributed to before. "The music has evolved in a completely different way that I'm way more happy with," Fatzinger says. "We would have ended up [like] Ben Folds [with our old lineup]."
"And I wouldn't have hung on," Townsend jokes. "I would have stopped."
Had they stayed the course, they might have enjoyed some of the same success the piano-driven pop-rocking Ben Folds Five achieved with their brand of "punk rock for sissies," but Fatzinger and company decided to opt for artistic expression over a more formulaic rock pattern. That stuff they leave for their contemporaries in Tempe.
"Tempe's really not that bad," Kelley says. "I mean, you run into ASU douchebags . . ."
"That's my definition of bad," Fatzinger says.
"But there are also some really cool people that are out there. A lot of cool bands come out of Tempe," Kelley says.
"There were some cool people that lived in Nazi Germany," Fatzinger concludes with a laugh.
"Phoenix fucking rules, and that's my big dig on Tempe — they don't fucking get it," he says. "They don't know how good these bands are right here. [Necronauts guitarist] Billy [Goodman]'s a friend of mine, but the Necronauts are the Necronauts, and they're fucking a staple Tempe band, and they're really good at what they do, but that shit is fucking dated, and I don't mind saying it. I think what we have downtown is more of an art scene, and what they have in Tempe is more of a college rock scene, and that's fine."
"This shit is super-fucking-hot," Fatzinger says about the Phoenix music community. "It's super-new, super-fresh, super-good . . ."
"And always, always progressing," Kelley adds. "And, to be honest, everyone in Phoenix is fucking close, so you're feeding off of each other and constantly trying to get better."
"And now we've got our own little Tempe on Second Avenue and Van Buren," Fatzinger says.
Speaking about the Crescent Ballroom: Former Friends are some of the few Phoenicians who aren't as keen on the hipster hangout as other locals.
Downtown's popping mid-size live music venue has been host to a gang of in-demand music acts since its opening last October. Providing not just a comfortable setting, the venue also boasts an impressive sound delivery system. However, instead of enriching the local scene, Fatzinger contests that it's sucking the life out of it. "I fucking hate that place, man," he says.
"I like Charlie Levy and I like Stateside because they bring a ton of bands that I want to see here," Fatzinger says. "I've never seen Charlie operate with anything less than integrity, and I think that he's a good guy, but I do think that he's a businessman who's a slight music enthusiast.
"He's not looking to enable a burgeoning art scene," he says. "He's not a patron of the arts. That's not to discount what he has done for the art community, but it's just not our deal . . . I mean how can you build up that place, then stick a thorn in the side of places like Lost Leaf and FilmBar when those guys literally — local guys, literally — built those places from the ground up?"
While Former Friends of Young Americans aren't shy about opining on how they stack up against their counterparts, they don't argue that they are the most talented musicians in the Valley. They also know that plenty of other local bands can draw a bigger crowd than they can, but the group takes solace in knowing they're pushing their own boundaries in their musical creations.
"We're into writing a good album, so you've got to listen to the fucking album. You can't just show up and get drunk and be stoked that somebody good-looking is up on stage and that they're playing something that you can sing along to in two seconds," Fatzinger says.