Andy Friedman and his band the Other Failures have become a fixture in the Brooklyn country scene, bringing Friedman’s offbeat poetry and dirty shuffle to bars all over the city, in particular Pete’s Candy Store, where they recently finished up a seven-month run. They are about to embark on a two-week tour through the Midwest with Blue Mountain, a Mississippi-based country rock trio, which will end at the Hank's Saloon in Downtown Brooklyn on May 10th. Through various connections I met Andy last year and started playing drums with the Other Failures. At the beginning of April we went down to Maryland to play in Chestertown and Baltimore. We crammed our equipment and four musicians into Andy’s car, where I got the chance to ask Andy a few questions about his music.
Owen Roberts (The Brooklyn Rail): You’ve made your name primarily from your illustrations and cartoons, which have appeared in tons of magazines and publications. Are there similarities between your drawings and your music?
Andy Friedman: The similarity between the drawings and the music exists; in fact, I do both of these things strictly for the money. No, I’m kidding. They really come from two entirely different places. I enjoy wandering around and exploring and accomplishing things in both of these areas, but they don’t cross. Occasionally I’ll use a rejected cartoon one-liner as a lyric. I do, however, feel that some of the great country songwriters and the great New Yorker cartoonists share a very similar working process: Sit in a diner or a bar with a notebook and write down the good stuff. If you’re a cartoonist you go back to your studio and draw it out, and if you’re a songwriter you “rhyme it up,” to quote the great country blueser Furry Lewis.
Rail: So what subjects do you find yourself writing most about? Has that changed since you started writing songs?
Friedman: I’m always writing songs, making paintings, writing poems, or taking photographs about people or things that are either gone, going, or have yet to arrive. Very rarely do I muse on the present tense. I guess my art has always sort of filled potholes.
Rail: You have a new record coming out in the fall. How different will it be from the first record?
Friedman: The new album features my band, the Other Failures, whereas my previous record, Taken Man, was more of a solo project with Paul Curreri (who produced and engineered it) and musician friends from all over the country contributing to the sound. The current Other Failures lineup has been with me for almost two years now, and we’ve played a lot of shows, and I’m quite sure that our connection with these songs rings through on record. We’ve got Matt Rockteacher on electric guitar, Greg Donahue on bass, and Ian Fry, for the most part, on drums. As for the songs themselves, with the exception of a rocker or two, I think they are a bit darker and slower than on Taken Man. More like Frank Sinatra’s Songs For Only The Lonely or Waylon Jennings’ This Time.
Rail: You mentioned last weekend that your first record took a few days to make, while this one has taken a year or more. How has that process been different for you?
Friedman: Taken Man felt to me like a Wyeth pencil drawing, while the new album feels more like a Wyeth egg tempera.
Rail: Tell me about your musical influences. I know you love Dylan and Springsteen, but what artists have most influenced your music?
Friedman: If you’re going to name Dylan and Springsteen, then you’ve got to include Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Willie Nelson, and Frank Sinatra. Right there, to me, are the seven basic food groups. Apart from that, these days I seem to snack on some Rodney Crowell, Kathleen Edwards, and, for the first time in my life, really got into Creedence. I love the Willie and the Poor Boys record. As for obscure recent influences, check out the Turkish folk-pop from Selda.
Friedman: No, I’m not kidding. We heard it in a record shop in Baltimore and my drummer, Ian Fry (who recently left the band to pursue musical interests in Los Angeles) picked it up, and I ended up doing the same as soon as I could. The music sounds like some kind of mix between Sinéad O’Conner singing Bob Marley’s “War” at the Bob Dylan thirtieth Anniversary Concert in Madison Square Garden in ’92 (my first concert), but it’s in Turkish, with beats that seem to be sampled from Beastie Boys Check Your Head— though Selda predates that album by about twenty years. There’s also some Led Zeppelin “Whole Lotta Love” guitar thrown in for good measure. The beats are incredible and if you read the liner notes and translations, the songs are pretty angry protest songs. But the cover is the most curious thing. Selda looks like she could be a waitress from the seventies sitcom Alice, but with this huge blonde guitar.
Rail: Before you started playing songs with the Other Failures, you toured with a slideshow act that included stories, poems, and projections of your visual art, drawings, and paintings. How has that act influenced your current one? How did you make the transition from slideshow artist to singer-songwriter?
Friedman: It’s actually the other way around. This life, meaning the life of the touring songwriter and musician, influenced the old slideshow. When I started doing that show in 2002 I was strictly a visual artist. Never sang a note or played guitar in my life. I put out a book of my pencil drawings and poems called Drawings & Other Failures and envisioned this as offering the closest thing I could to what a songwriter offers as an “album.” To me, it was a collection of music and lyrics that you look at, all unified and housed as a cohesive whole. The way I thought about it, if I had an album I had to have a live show, and hanging my work on the wall wasn’t going to cut it, so I traveled around with a slide projector and a small screen accompanying projections with spoken lyrics and stories in the same kind of rock clubs and bars I now play with the band. Somehow it worked, and after two years I introduced musical accompaniment to the process. It all sounded a bit like Hank Williams as “Luke the Drifter,” but with visuals. It wasn’t long before I learned a few chords and started strumming along with the band, singing the spoken stuff, and ditching the visual element to emerge as a bandleader, all quite by accident.
Rail: You call your music “art country.” What does that mean to you?
Friedman: “Art country” is a term I came up with to describe the tone of the slideshow, actually, for obvious reasons. It was a combination of visual art and country music. When I ditched the slideshow and devoted myself entirely to playing music, critics just carried that term over. I can’t take credit for calling my music “art country,” nor can I explain what it means, exactly, since I didn’t intend for it to be used to describe the music I am now playing and writing, but I like it. Maybe it’s just an updated version of what Gram Parsons called “Cosmic American Music,” or another description for what Alex Battles calls “Brooklyn Country.” Or maybe the “art” part of it has less to do with painting and poetry and more to do with the verb art, as in “art thou?”
Rail: Where do you see folk/country music going in the future?
Friedman: Folk/country music just keeps going, plowing through and picking up new passengers along the way. It carries on as long as the new folk/country songwriters are writing good songs about what they genuinely know, and [as long as they] feel it’s in good shape, and new directions and ideas are inevitably presented along the way without much plotting. It’s never been the kind of music that’s going take over the Billboard charts and sell a million albums to teenagers—Taken Man only sold about 400,000 copies, so I wasn’t even close—and that gives us the freedom to sing and write and play what we want without having to consider the idea of the mainstream radio hit single, and the benefit of having this kind of burden off of our creative backs is longevity.