Andrew Fitzpatrick in transition
The experimental musician catches us up on his move from Madison to Eau Claire and playing with Bon Iver.
Andrew Fitzpatrick has spent a good chunk of the last decade playing a kind of secret-weapon role in electronic and experimental music in Madison, making vital contributions without drawing a lot of attention to himself, and for a few years there actually living near Fond du Lac. A guitarist and synth/electronics manipulator, and particularly gifted at melding the two to create things that sound like nothing a reasonable person would identify as guitar, Fitzpatrick is best known for playing in the complex but accessible electronic outfit All Tiny Creatures and more recently in Volcano Choir (which also includes his fellow All Tiny Creatures members Tom Wincek and Matt Skemp, Milwaukee veterans Chris Rosenau, Jon Mueller, and Daniel Spack, and Bon Iver's Justin Vernon). Less appreciated is his diverse solo work under the name Noxroy and a ton of collaborative projects, including Exurbs (a Krautrock-inspired studio-only project with drummer Jeff Sauer and former Smart Studios engineer Beau Sorenson), Cap Alan (an abstract, abrasive project with Sauer and sometimes Wincek), and live performances with acts including Spiral Joy Band (whose live recording 13 Moons Of Doom: Birth Of The Water Dragons features Fitzpatrick on guitar and piano) and Spires That In The Sunset Rise. He also plays guitar in the Talking Heads cover band Houses In Motion. This past May, he played an improvised live set with bassist Rob Lundberg as part of the Strollin’ jazz series, and the two will collaborate live again at a Tuesday, November 24 show at Mickey’s Tavern. Fitzpatrick will play a Noxroy set on Thursday, January 7 at the High Noon Saloon.
During this July’s Eaux Claires festival, Fitzpatrick played his first set as a member of Bon Iver, and in August he moved to Eau Claire. He’s handled this all pretty unceremoniously—not really talking about it publicly, not even tweeting about it. I can’t even find Fitzpatrick mentioned in all the coverage of Eaux Claires and Bon Iver’s much-anticipated set there. (Side note: it’s funny how little people talk, even in Wisconsin, about the fact that Vernon has surrounded himself with experimental-leaving people like Fitzpatrick and Mueller, who outside of Bon Iver and/or Volcano Choir are making far less accessible music. Both good bands, but for all their popularity and press coverage, there’s woefully little attention paid to the formidable well of talent and experimentation involved.)
Fitzpatrick met up with me last month while he was in town to rehearse for the most recent Houses In Motion show. "I've been slowly working on music that may or may not eventually see the light of day, and have some things happening in 2016 that I'm not able to divulge yet,” he says. Most of the bands he’s involved in are still alive but somewhat on hold: All Tiny Creatures leader Tom Wincek has been focusing more on solo work and toured as a live member of Field Report earlier this year, and Vernon told Grantland (RIP) before Eaux Claires that he didn’t have any definite plans for future Bon Iver tours or records. Cap Alan did some recording this year in Madison musician/engineer Ricky Riemer’s home studio, and Fitzpatrick says he still needs to mix it. He’s also constantly amassing new solo material, though he’s only ever put out a few Noxroy releases, the most recent being last year’s Anverloss, which showcases his ongoing dive into free-form, maddeningly detailed modular synth work. He talked with me about being in between bands, how his interest in synthesizers has evolved, and his in-the-works recording with Spires’ Kathleen Baird.
Tone Madison: So what are you doing in Eau Claire?
Andrew Fitzpatrick: Right now I feel like I’m pretty much in between bands. I played with Bon Iver at the Eaux Claires festival, so leading up to that I was working on some stuff, and then rehearsals. I mean, I'd lived there before. It was kind of a wanting to scale down. I like the size city of Fond du Lac, but it's just an awful... just ultra-conservative... I dunno, it's not great. But having grown up in La Crosse, which is pretty much the same size, there's an all-ages nightclub that's been going on since before I was a consumer of music, a great record store, a world-class guitar shop, and just more going on there. Right now there aren't any shows in the books for any bands I'm involved with, so it's kind of just working on recording stuff—who knows what will happen with any of that. I felt like I wasn't really doing much here and it was just like, well, might as well do the same amount of stuff and pay less rent, I guess? Through my own fault, I guess I've never been really active in the scene in Madison, whatever that means—booking and promoting shows, or even going to shows I guess too.
Tone Madison: What all did you have with you in the live set at Eaux Claires?
Andrew Fitzpatrick: Guitar, baritone guitar—which is really fun to play, it turns out—and then a lot of OP-1, it's this Swedish sampler thing. Justin and I both got into them separately around the same time, and then on the Volcano Choir tour we both had them around and were both nerding out on them. I think there were at least three onstage during that set. There were like 120 total inputs. [Laughs.] It was insane. Well, we had a full brass band and contemporary-classical ensemble, or a five-piece ensemble, I think? But yeah, mostly guitar and sampler.
Tone Madison: So how does the balance shake out right now between solo stuff and the various bands and collaborations?
Andrew Fitzpatrick: Most things are just kind of on pause. I'm sort of figuring out how to balance that. I mean, solo stuff, I'm just in that world. I keep recording stuff and abandoning stuff and then rediscovering stuff that I abandoned and then getting sick of that stuff, and it's just kind of a whole cycle... A lot of that is me being in Eau Claire and figuring out stuff, which I guess I could do anywhere, but it's maybe easier, slightly more isolated environment to do that—without sounding dark or anything. Just kind of plotting the next move, whatever that might be.
Tone Madison: Over the last year in your live sets, you've been using modular synths a lot more heavily. Is that something you're going to keep pursuing?
Andrew Fitzpatrick: Yeah. It's one of the many tools, I guess, that and maybe one or two other synths. It has its own world of things that it can do, just like a guitar does its own thing, piano does its own thing. I got introduced to that world back when Smart was operating, because the studio tech there was a former employee of this insane modular-synth company that's based near Oconomowoc now, but originally based in the Bay Area. Sound Transform Systems is the name of the company, and they make Serge modular synthesizers, which are super high-end modular synths, and there were several racks of them at Smart. Beau Sorenson was working there and said, "Yeah, if you want to come in and mess around with it, it's here." I was still kind of figuring out the basics of synthesis in general, let alone making all the connections. I didn't know what I was doing. At some point when All Tiny Creatures was recording Dark Clock, Beau brought a couple racks there, and there was a point where it kind of clicked and went, "OK, I think I understand how this works now."
Luckily, that kind of coincided with this huge surge in all these companies starting to make synth modules, really creative ones. I mean, it still is prohibitively expensive on some levels, but there are some companies that are doing cool stuff that actually isn't the price of a used car or something. It's ridiculous. But at thalle same time too, there's stuff I can do with software that's super exciting too, but sometimes there's something about the actual—it's corny and cliché to say, but just the actual, "Oh, OK," because it that moment when I realized I was basically setting up this network, and once you understand how things interact, it gets pretty potent. And then it just becomes, "Oh man, what if I had this module?" That's why it's good to go, "OK, I know there's cool stuff out there, but this is what I'm gonna stick with and figure this stuff out." There is this whole message-board fetishism associated with the modular-synth stuff. I kind of despise that.
Tone Madison: But it's like that with a lot of music stuff. If you're a guitar player there's a lot of silly wormholes you can go down that have nothing to do with playing music and enjoying it.
Andrew Fitzpatrick: Three Legged Race, he's making this otherworldly stuff, but the last time I saw some video of his live set, he's using an iPhone app, a looper, and it doesn't really matter, in addition to a really cool analog synth and stuff. But as long as it sounds cool, it shouldn't really matter. Unless it's just outright ripping someone off.
Tone Madison: Are there other people you're collaborating with, or hoping to get some things going with?
Andrew Fitzpatrick: Kathleen Baird [of Spires That In The Sunset Rise] and I have something coming out. I'm not sure in what format exactly. We did a handful of recordings, sometime during the last year and a half or so. I know she's been doing a lot of stuff in New York and just put out her own piano LP [under the name Sapropelic Pycnic]. I haven't ruled out—it's not like, "I have left Madison forever!" or anything, because things are starting to get a little more vibrant in Eau Claire, and there are lots of talented musicians living there, but it's not like there's tons of shows going on all the time or anything like that. The Twin Cities are very attractive too. There's a lot more stuff to do in general and eat and stuff. Cap Alan, it's all dependent on me finishing a bunch of mixing and editing.
Tone Madison: Did the thing with Kathleen grow out of when you and Jon Mueller played with Spires at the final show at Kathleen's living-room venue?
Andrew Fitzpatrick: This is where the timeline is fuzzy, but I think Kathleen and I did a duo set sometime before that. She asked me for the masters of this recording that we're going to be putting out, and we had recorded more than I thought we had, and it took me a little bit to figure out which one. Spires and I did a session at Shockrasonica, just recorded some stuff, including a song that ended up being on their last record, but then some other stuff too.... But yeah, I’d like to think that I’ll be back here soon, but I’m not sure. It’s kind of a transitional phase for me right now.