Mother Falcon on Orchestral Rock, Making it, and Touring For Love, Not Money
"Chamber rock" just doesn't seem like an adequate description of what sprawling Austin outfit Mother Falcon does. Sure, the band uses strings and brass -- and guitars and drums and vocals -- in its cinematic, fiery, sublime compositions. And the group does structure songs into choruses and verses, the way a rock band might. But, well, you'd need a rather big chamber to fit all 21 or 23 official members of Mother Falcon. And "rock' feels limiting here -- given all those players and their instruments, Mother Falcon's sonic textures reach ethereal and mighty places rock bands can only go when they hire an orchestra. So: Orchestral rock? Chamber pop? But then who cares? Mother Falcon is just interesting, which explains a sharp upward trajectory of late, propelled by NPR discovering the group last year at South By Southwest. The group headlines the Chapel this Thursday, Feb. 27, with Foxtails Brigade for a Noise Pop show. Ahead of that, we spoke with tenor sax player Andrew Fontenot about touring with more than a dozen musicians, what "success" means, and what to expect at the Chapel this week.
That is a lot of Mother Falcon people.
Yesterday you played during lunch at a middle school outside of San Diego. How did the kids like it?
It kind of felt like we were the Beatles coming to America -- all these middle school girls screaming at the top of their lungs and stuff. I don't think that actually knew who we were, it was just the concept of having a band at their school.
Is there a set number of members in Mother Falcon, or is it fluid?
There is a set amount of people, but you never know which grouping of those people you're going to get. This tour is actually smaller, it's 12 people, 'cause we have some people still in college. But I think right now the official number is between 21 and 23.
So is Mother Falcon your full-time job?
I'm actually also a substitute teacher, so that's my day job. I think most people have like a day job of sorts so that when we're back in Austin we can actually make some money to support the tours. But this is mentally the most important thing that I do.
It must be difficult touring with 12 members. And isn't it hard to make money with so many people in the band?
Well, the deal where we're at right now is we're actually not making money. The idea being that we have to get the band to float before we can add people into the money boat, you know? At this point it's kind of a Catch-22, because people are spending a lot of money on the road, but we have to be on the road so that we can further the band, so that maybe we can get paid later. There's been conversations with certain people where it's like, "Oh, I don't know if I'm going to be able to afford to go on that tour," but when it comes down to it, they hit the road with us anyway. I don't think anyone's dumb enough to let that keep them from hitting the road with the band for a month.
So you have to rework the songs depending on which members are present on tour?
This tour we don't even have a full-time cello player with us, it's just [frontman and founder Nick Gregg], and he plays guitar sometimes, and then we only have one violin. And we have four horn players. Yesterday we went into the studio and did a re-imagining of ["Porcelain"] based on horns, because on the album there's no horns on that song. We had to go in and completely rethink how we were going to do it.
This band more than any other band I've ever played in, songs are never really finished. There's the version that on the album, but that doesn't mean by a long shot that the song is done.... This tour's been really fun, because it's probably the farthest away from the actual album that we've played. So it'll be a unique experience when we come to San Francisco.
What's the goal for Mother Falcon? How do you envision success?
With so many people, pretty much any question you get 12 almost completely different responses. I've been playing in bands my whole life and leading bands and trying to get that kind of commercial success that kids dream of. But the more I really look at the people who have commercial success, the more I kind of start moving towards, "Well, maybe my idea of success is just doing something important that people can grasp onto." And having come from a place where I've already given up music once and then found myself here, I've already come to grips with the fact that I probably won't be doing music professionally my whole life. Every time we hit the road the bar gets raised a little bit, because the crowds get bigger and we get a better response and we feel more confident with what we're doing. At this point everyone's just so shocked that this is even happening in the first place. If this is the height of Mother Falcon, then I would be happy.
You've gotten a lot of attention from NPR and other outlets.
Bob Boilen's been an incredible person for us. Where we are at right now is basically attributed to this one show that Bob Boilen saw us at South By Southwest. And from there then we got the [Tiny Desk Concert] and then that has opened up all kinds of doors to do bigger and better things. I kept thinking that ... there's always that moment where you make it. But it took me probably about a year to realize like, holy crap, that one moment is what got us here, but then there's going to have to be a series of other moments, bigger moments, that are really going to push us to where we need to go.
What does Mother Falcon consider to be its musical inspirations or forerunners?
Obviously a lot of the string players come from an orchestral background as far as their playing. But even within that group, you have guys that listen to a lot of European gypsy music. I mean I grew up listening to metal and rock. Some people grew up listening to hip-hop. Some people grew up listening to jazz. There's not that much uniformity ... and odds are, if we did find one band that we were all super into, it would be nothing like Mother Falcon. It would be like [Notorious] B.I.G.
With so many different backgrounds in the band, how do you all mesh?
A lot of the meshing just comes out of we're constantly rehearsing, constantly just jamming with each other. I know a lot of the people in this band musically a lot better than I know them mentally or socially. It's a space I've never been in before.
As a band with one foot in the classical world, do you think there's been a resurgence in interest in that music among younger listeners?
I definitely think so. I'm seeing a lot more of a movement toward orchestral instruments and horns in places that you wouldn't have seen those things maybe 10 years ago, 15 years ago. [Mother Falcon founder] Nick Gregg, when he started, he was kind of trying to look around, like, what's the instrument nobody's using? And what he found out was that there's very few bands with cellos in them. So he picked up a cello. Now when you look around, there's plenty of bands that have cellos, and there's plenty of bands that have violins across basically any genre. So yeah, there is a push towards those types of instruments. What I'm not sure about is if it's a push toward the orchestral mindset, or if it's just a push towards trying to do something that hasn't been done before.