In this industrial, disposable culture we find ourselves enmeshed in today, we’re driven towards newness. We’re encouraged to embrace fresh experiences over contemplating the past, and each day, week, month and year offers only more new doors opening before us. But maybe what we need, what we hunger for in our very soul, is reflection, a patient and clear-eyed stretch where we sift through what we’ve done, what’s been done to us, and what happened in the wider world around all that. Music, by and large, reflects this fast-forward cultural impulse, but occasionally one stumbles into a song cycle utterly removed from the semi-conscious ephemerality of the New Release cycle. Sometimes we find just the calm center in the storm we need more than we likely realize.
The 2012 self-titled debut from Field Report is an infusion of everyday wisdom and love, a work brimming over with the kind of insights and awakenings that only emerge when one slows down and takes a long, honest look into deep, dark truthful mirrors. Lead by singer-songwriter-guitarist Chris Porterfield, Field Report emerges from their musings with the marrow-deep knowledge that time is limited and it’s time to step into things and say as bravely as we can manage, “I am not waiting anymore.” Allowed some sway in one’s life, this is music that eviscerates one to the positive, scraping away the dead skin so something pink and beautiful can emerge. It dares us to try things, if only answering truthfully the questions we pose ourselves in the mirror. It reminds us that “a bird in the hand is useless if you’re too scared,” and then nudges us to grab at what’s just out of reach, doing it even though we’re frightened and unsure.
That all this works as music – lovely, measured, vibrating music – is kind of magical to the Impound. Not a lot feels spiritual to us anymore – jaded as clichés suggest as we slide into middle age – so when we feel such stirrings we’re keen to know more. So, we had Chris Porterfield pull up a chair for this ranging conversation that delves into family, the implications of the band’s name, the uses of language, and more. Like the shimmering album and the equally affecting live performances of Field Report, we felt enriched by this talk in ways we can only partially convey in words – the sort of conundrum that comes up in this chat.
This is such an emotionally exposed record. If engaged with properly, it makes the listener expose their own emotions in response. It’s a catalyst to stripping away layers.
Yeah, I think you’re right because that’s the reaction we’ve been getting from people. If you’re willing to come along for the ride it becomes something you can participate in. It’s been interesting because I didn’t know if it would come across that way, or if it was even intentional. It’s just kinda how it happened to turn out.
What is it like to lay things this bare, put them to a melody, and then let put it out in the world for anyone to see? You’re not writing “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” man.
[Laughs] No, no I’m not. When I was writing some of these songs I thought they were about other people. I thought they were more fictional, but I realized later I was in a lot of the characters. It’s been cool getting it out to people, and amazing seeing people react to it, often with similar emotions to what the narrator is trying to convey…whether that narrator is me or other people…but it is me [laughs]. The hardest part is sharing it with people who are close to me.
As a writer you face that all the time, where you realize, “Damn, I have to do this but, well, sorry, mom.”
[Laughs] Yeah, I still haven’t given my parents a copy of the record, so who knows? I have such a weird relationship with family. They’re super supportive but I just have a weird hang-up about it.
I experience the same thing with my mom, where I never know what she’ll think of what I’ve written. Or I know I’m gonna hear, “Did you have to use that sort of language?” Well fuck yeah, ma, I did [laughs]. It’s really complicated to be honest in one’s work. Even if they don’t understand things on a conscious level you know they’re picking up on the truth of things subconsciously.
Exactly! I didn’t know who we were trying to talk to with this thing. Frankly, I just assumed it wouldn’t be very many people, and it’s already been a broader, brighter reaction than I was expecting.
We went out for a month supporting Counting Crows last summer, and I wouldn’t have thought that their core audience would get what we’re trying to do, but the reaction was mostly warm and welcoming. That opened my eyebrows, and I thought, “Maybe we’re talking to more people than I thought.”
Maybe you’ve stumbled into ontological ground that’s much broader than you suspected.
It’s exciting, and I’m more curious than anything to see what the reaction on a broader scale will be. I’m still waiting on some level for people to write it off as derivative or sappy or pussy or whatever. That hasn’t happened yet though.
If you get that kind of reaction I think it will have more to do with people being scared with what this album stirs up in them rather than the work itself. This music, without being overt and pushy about it, inches one out of their comfort zone.
I think for it to work you have to invest a little of yourself into it. That’s time and maybe more than that to really get the payoff. I understand that a lot of people don’t have the time or the desire to do that, but it seems some have so far and that’s really encouraging.
Time and patience went into making this music. It clearly had a gestation process. This wasn’t, “I have some songs. Let’s go record them” situation.
The whole project was a long time coming. Some of the songs were several years old, some newer when we made the album. It took a long time to curate this process, but the recording itself went quickly. We did it all in six days. So, we had to figure out what these things were about – what they were trying to say and how we wanted to say it – but then we just crossed our fingers and tried to capture an honest moment, an honest performance.
There’s a strong sense of controlled power to the performances on this record. I think it would have been easy to throw in a Pearl Jam style power chord after the second chorus or other easy prods. You keep the reins right where they needed to be for this thing to keep its own gallop.
That’s really cool…A big part of what we sound like on the record and live too is this constant state of reckoning with things. That and musically all the guys sort of buy in and are willing to submit to whatever needs to happen at any given time. It’s incredible to be around such intelligent but ego-less players willing to embrace the struggle of it all. That speaks to some of the choices we made on the record and continue to make trying to reinterpret the record live.
There’s a malleability to this music that’s appealing. Even the one time I caught Field Report live in Santa Cruz tells me how much these songs have changed and evolved.
That’s something we really try to work towards. If anything starts to feel static it starts to feel less honest, and the whole point of this thing is the honesty. So, we continue to…well, it’s not quite trying to sabotage ourselves but just challenge ourselves as we try to figure out what a given song needs on a given night.
Something interesting happens when you step out wrong-footed on a song just to see what happens if you take things down a half-step slower or speed it way the hell up.
It keeps us on our toes for sure, and when we’re engaged in that way it makes for more compelling live show where the audience is able to ride that energy too. That’s really important to us.
That’s the difference between playing music and inhabiting music. It’s like Patton Oswalt said about Obama during the last election, where at least it doesn’t feel like an evil robot is speaking to you for a change. Things resonate on levels you can’t communicate in language when people really mean it. The same thing goes for saying things people don’t really mean. I get the sense that when Field Report comes at this music you’re living the pain and the joy of it in the moment.
That is something we really try to do, but let’s stick with political speakers for a minute. They may really mean what they’re saying but if it’s a stump speech they’ve given a hundred times in a month sometimes it’s hard to connect with those words, even in just the logistical bustle of it all. That’s where somebody like Bill Clinton shines. I heard some folks at the DNC tried to chop out parts of his [Democratic Convention] speech, and being the savvy politician and public speaker that he is he just winged it and brought back every single point they cut out.
Something he excels at – and I’ll draw a comparison between you and Big Bill – is he’s really smart but he’s able to communicate things in a way the guy just getting off work and cracking open the much longed for first PBR of the night can relate to. You do the same thing in your songs. The language you use is just gorgeous but you’re also able to hone it down to a couplet anyone can understand.
Well, thank you. In the past, I’ve worried about being too wordy and making it hard for people to understand what I’m saying. I don’t want to dumb it down and make it too easy, but at the same time I don’t want to put up any walls. If you think there are enough rocks sticking out of that wall for people to climb over without too much trouble that really means a lot [to me].
Your lyrical style reminds me a fair bit of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. It’s not the same sort of music but you share his ability to string a few words together that will haunt somebody. It’s that burr that gets under your saddle, and I think you’ve got the same knack. I’ve played the Field Report album for some pretty savvy music pals and they’ve come away saying, “Wow, I can remember parts of this verbatim after just one listen.”
Huh…that’s really interesting, and interesting that it’s the words doing that. I feel like my melodies aren’t the sorts that burrow into your ears. That’s really cool the words are doing the legwork.
There’s points on the album where I find the music perfectly non-intrusive. It’s a platform for what’s happening with your voice and the words, but always the combination dances. But that’s a challenge to pull off if you’re not going to dumb stuff down or write ditties. It makes it harder to get all those elements onto the dance floor together.
Definitely. Again, I can’t say enough about the guys in the band, who really helped put skin on these things without letting them get too fat. There’s this swirling stuff around everything that makes it work. Those guys are such good listeners and players too, but listeners more than anything.
It’s a real skill to slow down and focus on what’s happening around you as a musician instead of just focusing on what you’re doing. That’s how you pick up on what’s going on in a more total way.
That’s something we continue to work on.
From the first tune I heard by Field Report, I got the sense of a band unto themselves. The easy equation today is this earlier band + this other earlier band + a few adjectives = new band. It’s how music press generally works, and it feeds the general audience appetite for familiarity.
It ultimately ends up saving them time. These are the reference points and if you like that already then you’ll like this. You won’t have to take a chance. This will work for you.
It’s brand naming, and I understand you have to do it to some degree to convey music in words but it’s WAY more valuable to listen to what’s happening in music as it is instead of instantly shoving it into some hierarchy. And again, I get the feeling with Field Report that I’m not hearing a band trying to be any other band. And it’s interesting how little Field Report sounds like the band you used to be in (DeYarmond Edison) or any of the bands that have sprung from it (Bon Iver and Megafaun).
That’s really good, and I’m really happy about that. We share a lot of similar influences but maybe those guys are just better players or something. I don’t how we stumbled across the noises we make but I’m really happy to hear it doesn’t sound a whole lot like the other guys.
So, did you write screenplays? Your eye for detail suggests it and it comes up on “Taking Alcatraz.”
No, I didn’t. That was just something that popped up in trying to build a body of work.
Ah, just pure projection on my part as a former screenwriter. That’s what happens when you put your music into the world, people making all sorts of assumptions.
[Laughs] My follow-up line to that inquiry is, “Am I writing these sort of youthful songs that are gonna connect with old people? I don’t know.” It’s easy to feel nostalgic about those formative years, and they end up surfacing in a lot of stuff we try to make when we’re feeling reflective. So, it might be a moment of levity but also an awareness that you’ve gotta be careful with that.
I have to step back periodically to check that my writing isn’t just mired in nostalgia. I’m usually nostalgia’s enemy, so I’m generally safe. So, I gotta give you props for working the word “ulna” into a song. That’s not in the standard songwriter lexicon.
Thank you, I haven’t been called out on that one before [laughs].
There’s imagery in your lyrics that you just can’t get at without a fairly serious command of the English language. Have you always been a word guy?
Yeah, I’ve always read a lot. In school I was an English major and then I got more pragmatic and switched to journalism. And then newspapers died and I didn’t end up with a journalism job. These songs became the outlet for that word love. I’ve always been drawn to writers that enjoy challenging the listener, stuff you have to look up to get. And just like any word you look up and now get, you’re more likely to use it later, and it becomes a word you really enjoy. I love songs like that. I remember being really young and listening to Paul Simon’s Hearts and Bones, and jeez, the geography in that “title track [Chris recites the opening verse]:
One and one-half wandering Jews
Free to wander wherever they choose
Are travelling together
In the Sangre de Cristo
The Blood of Christ Mountains
Of New Mexico
Holy shit! Those geographical details help you locate yourself in the song. And there’s another one, “Rene And Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War.” I didn’t know anything about impressionist art at the time or who Rene Magritte was but I looked ‘em up and then holy shit! Putting it in post-war Europe totally shifted everything and made it meaningful. I’ve always been drawn to that stuff where you know somebody is trying to say something and when you take that extra step it just opens up a whole different world.
When you chose the name Field Report were you interested in the reporting, man-in-the-field eyewitness to events aspects of the name?
Yeah, I was intrigued by the boots-on-the-ground element, and also the clinical eye to things and the fact that you can always revise a field report; you can always file addendums and update things. So, the continuing revelation aspect intrigued me. It just seemed to fit for all those reasons.
Field Report returns to the road in June when they’ll play a string of shows with Josh Rouse. Check out dates here.