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It’s clear from the opening seconds of TU FAWNING’s debut full length, HEARTS ON HOLD, that there’s something very, very different about this Portland, Oregon band. The two note trumpet refrain of ‘Multiply A House’ that echoes like the distant sound of a battlefield, the ghostly chanting writhing around it as though in a trance, the funereal drums that boom in the background and the harmonies emerging as the chorus unfurls: these are not the sound of your everyday indie rock act.
In fact, nothing on HEARTS ON HOLD is quite like anything you’ll recognize, and that’s the very reason why its world is so overwhelming, so enticing, so exotic, so addictive. Formed three years ago by Portland musical mainstays Corrina Repp and Joe Haege – who between them cover piano, drums, percussion, guitar, vocals and samples, and who have carved out cult reputations as a solo artist and with 31 Knots respectively, amongst other things – the band have been making a name for themselves in the North West ever since, refining and perfecting their unusually otherworldly, primitively spiritual sound.
“Trying to find the exact words to describe us still seems to be difficult,” they admit. But with their influences ranging from Gamelan music and tribal percussion to Tom Waits – “for the way he’s brought back melodies from a bygone era” – to the Boswell Sisters and Jay-Z, one can see the sheer monumental task of placing that in a little box. Theirs is a sound that is not unlike Portishead or Liars; bands that are rooted in an otherworldly soundscape and yet refuse to be tied to one aesthetic. “We knew from the beginning that we didn’t want a stereotypical instrumentation,” Repp explains about the moment that they decided to move from working on one another’s records to making their own music together. “We both felt like we were reaching the end of a creative chapter in our existing projects, and we had so many common influences that we hadn’t tapped into.”
Their numbers, however, limited their ambitions, so they invited Toussaint Perrault (trumpet, trombone, drums, guitar, marching band drum, vocals) and Liza Rietz (piano, violin, vocals) to join their ranks with the intention of “creating the sound of a rock band from an entirely fresh angle”. Perrault (of Baby Dollars) brought with him a love of psychedelia, dance hall and delay, while Rietz, formerly of Swords Project, was lured back from 3 years as a boutique fashion designer, adding a twisted classical flavor, her violin distorted and cavernous.
Their shared love of ’20s and ’30s music such as big band jazz, crooners, Hawaiian and folk music lent their compositions a unique antiquated sound, contributing a sense of darkness – something they attribute partially to primitive recording techniques – while Repp and Haege’s aspirations led them to experiment in ways they’d never done before. Haege had already, within 31 Knots, begun writing on piano and with samples, but taking on percussion and drums was some- thing he had wanted to do for a while. “Restless’ barely begins to describe Joe’s insatiable need to continually be challenged creatively.” Repp confides, ” I guess I am very similar in that way. We love the challenge and physicality, whether it be melodic or rhythmic, that different instruments can offer. What has emerged is startling.
One critic described an early song as sounding like it was “recorded in a abandoned, possibly haunted circus tent in the pitch black darkness of the witching hour”, and certainly the album is full of warped sounds and eerie magic, ‘The Felt Sense’ is a rattling, voodoo-esque cascade of sound, ‘Sad Story’ a nightmare music hall drama, ‘Just Too Much’ the sound of ESG had they grown up listening to Jefferson Airplane, ‘Hand Grenade’ a thrilling ascent to the heavens. ‘I Know You Now’, however, is the towering achievement of the record, an almost psychotic mix of Portishead and Tom Waits packed with junkyard drums, taut guitars, tension and frustration. “There is plenty of music out in the world that makes people feel straight and simple emotions,” Haege concludes. “We’re trying to weave a fabric that is a little more dense, which some will undoubtedly find unnerving. For others, though, ourselves included, it seems to be the last oasis for searching out that emotional high that music can give you. There is just something magical about being able to make your songs sound as though they were played while a giant walks through a valley, a piano is stabbed in a 1920’s base- ment or that you’re playing drums on a mountaintop.”