Experimentation is good. Deviating within a group can also be considered rebellious at times, but other times, it's a very welcoming thing to have around. Meet The Fights, a new-ish local outfit composed of a variety of members of other local outfits, making their mark as one of the best new acts around town. They play country music without fear.
I had the opportunity to sit down with a few of the members, Cole Rabenort and Nick Stine, prior to their show tonight at Cowboy Monkey with C-U alt-country staple Tractor Kings and folk singer-songwriter Morgan Orion.
It was a good opportunity to discuss some aspects of the band that might be unknown to many around town, but there are certainly a lot of backstories here to pay attention to. We discussed the "country-ish" style arrangements and songswriting from the band, the dynamic former Elsinore drummer and C-U vet Dave Pride brings to the band, as well as what we should expect from The Fights in the upcoming months.
Smile Politely: How did you guys know each other before The Fights?
Cole Rabenort: Nick and I grew up together. We've pretty much known each other since we were 3 or 4 years old. In one way or another, we've always tried to play music together. In junior high, we both started playing in bands, but we weren't in the same bands. They were rivial bands, I guess. [laughs]. He was in the hardcore punk bands and I was in the pop-punk bands. We were about 13 living in the town of Okawville. It's about two and a half hours south of here. Really small town with small schools, so we were always playing music parallel to one another. In high school we started playing together in cover bands. We'd just play these bars for like, four hours and play 60's and 70's cover songs, basically. So that's how we started playing together and how we met Clayton [Deering], who plays in The Fights, too. He grew up in southern Illinois along with us.
Around the same time I moved up here, Nick and Clayton started playing together more, but I don't know, it just sort of grew up together with the three of us. I met Dave [Pride] when I started playing with Elsinore, so we became friends through that. Our bass player, Joe [Gerard], just moved here. It was a totally random thing where we knew we wanted to start a band like this, and we needed a bass player. So, I originally asked Aaron McCallister, who plays in Tractor Kings, if he wanted to play bass and he said he was too busy, but he said I could ask this guy, who I'd never met before. Aaron and Joe work together at Analog Outiftters, so that's how they know each other. I just called him one day and we had one of those weird conversations where it was like "Oh, you like music? I like music, too..." [laughs]
Nick Stine: Joe is the most agreeable guy. You could've said it's a death metal band and he would have said, "Oh cool."
Rabenort: We basically just agreed as long as the music feels good we would play. It's worked out really, really well.
Rabenort performing with Anna Karenina/Anna Karina.
SP: So Nick, talk about what sort of bands you've been involved with for a while leading up to The Fights.
Stine: Well, I guess it's sort of similar to what he said. Clayton, the guy who plays lap steel for us, him and I both played in jam band outfits, that kind of stuff. As much as looking back it was kind of like, "whatever," it totally helped be a better player and learn how to improvise and all that. That's really pretty much it. All the rest is pretty much the youthful rival bands, or being in the same band together. Whenever we wrote original stuff, like later on, I think everything we did was very acoustic whenever we were older. Clayton and I come from jam band-y stuff, and Joe, too. He plays in another band called The Great Waltz, who is out of Decatur.
SP: So did you guys all come together before The Fights started and knew this was the type of music you wanted to make?
Rabenort: I feel like it kind of started with when I had written some songs that obviously didn't fit in with Anna Karina/Anna Karenina, the other band I write songs for. This was just something entirely different. For the first time in a long time I didn't feel the need to try to change it. I just kind of write simple, folk-country style songs, but then for whatever reasons, with other projects I felt the need to change them into something else. With this project, I let the songs happen naturally and leave them alone. They are in this simple, country format, and I got really excited about that ... Really embracing that sort of songwriting. I mean, Nick and I have played together for so long, and talked about what kind of music we would want to play, or ideally what we would sound like, and it feels all at once giving up, but also starting over and just embracing the fact that the songs sound like country songs, and we should play them that way.
So, I had a couple of songs, Nick was still living in southern Illinois, but was still coming up on the train every weekend for pracitce. Dave was ready to play drums, he just likes having fun and playing music. I don't know if it was necessarily like, "We're going to play country songs," it was just sort of like that.
SP: What was the hardest part, or the biggest challenge, to getting this whole thing going? It seems like the pieces kind of fell all in place as they went. Did Dave's work with Elsinore or anything like that cause any issues with The Fights?
Rabenort: No, he was still meeting up even when he was with Elsinore. once he decided to play with The Fights he was still playing with them. There's a lot of history there with him and that band, but I don't know, if anything, I like to think it all happened so easily and we didn't have to try very hard to get things going.
Stine: There weren't a lot of complications or anything that we had to overcome, really.
Rabenort: It's just mostly fun and I'm glad Dave had the expereince of starting to play with The Fights and I think having played in Elsinore, I feel like it's just an entirely different band dynamic and experience. I'm glad he enjoys it and keeps wanting to play together. In all honesty, nothing had been difficult. At this point, there are three songwriters who all sing lead vocals. I write some and sing, Nick writes some and sings, Dave writes some and sings.
SP: It's a more balanced attack, almost...
Rabenort: I think so. It keeps things interesting and fun, even for practice. You know, every couple of songs someone else is singing. It's a slightly different feel, but as a band, we've managed to create our own sound with the arrangements. If anything was difficult, it was that Nick was in southern Illinois and taking the train every Sunday. He's moved back now, so this is pretty much the first week he's been living here.
Stine: Like yesterday, basically. [laughs]
Rabenort: If anything was difficult, it was getting practices to work for everybody.
Stine: Even that, once I decided to start this, it was, "OK, Sunday, I'm making the trip" and from then on, it just worked. I don't think I missed a single week. Like you said, it was so much fun, I didn't ever want to miss out on it. I can't let everyone have all the fun without me [laughs]. Once Dave was playing with Elsinore, he always would talk about practice with those guys in terms of, not cracking the whip, I guess, but just trying to use every second of practice for practice. I've been in bands that are like that, too.
Rabenort: We use a 50-50 goof off and work on songs mix [laughs].
Stine: We'll take a cigarette break and it turns into 30 minutes of us drinking, and drinking, and drinking. It's very laid back, so no one minds practicing as much. It's just meeting up with friends and goofing off, then you're magically better by the end of the night, somehow.
SP: ...or drunker...
Stine: Kind of both, really [laughs].
Rabenort: We always joke that it's good to practice in that sort of way. You're more inebriated and in a different mental state.
SP: How's it been playing live so far? You guys have played a handful of shows at this point, when was your first show?
Stine: It was at The Velvet Elvis, actually.
Rabenort: My friends were getting married and they had a big wedding show. It was a bunch of friends and bands that he knew or played in, which is great because it was a lot of punk bands like Alleyway Sex and Midstress, there were like 8 bands. There were a lot of punk bands and it was our first show ever, and it was really refreshing. I haven't really been too concerned about how the band could be received, but it was interesting playing juxtaposed right next to punk bands. Granted, we love Morgan Orion, he was also playing. I think Morgan played, and then we played. For this crowd, a lot of people came up and said, "I thought I hated country music, but you made it OK." That was the best compliment we could have ever gotten.
We played that, and we didn't have Clayton in the band yet. It was just me, Dave, Nick and Joe. The next show was Thee Deathtower. Again, Clayton wasn't playing with us yet. Since then there has just been Cowboy Monkey and Mike 'N Molly's. I feel like I'm more inclined to enjoy house shows, I just have a better time personally and individually. But the sound of Cowboy Monkey and Mike 'N Molly's, with a real person actively running sound, is great. I'm such a nerd for things to sound good, and you don't always have the most control over the sound at house shows.
Playing bars is good in its own way. I feel since we've started playing in bars, Clayton has been playing with us. We always say Clayton is the instrument that ties everyboday together. Makes the sound make sense, basically. Shows have been really exciting and we're in the stage where songs are happening pretty fast. Each show, we've had a new song or two to play. I feel like it's not to a point where we have played two shows of the same set. We haven't had to do that. So every song is exciting and new. Same goes for Thursday, we'll have new songs that we haven't played yet.
SP: It's kind of interesting how a lot of local bands are very indie rock based, but you guys are something a bit different. Were you afraid that wasn't going to mesh well? Or are you kind of glad you guys have something different to add to the mix?
Stine: I think as far as when we were meeting up and practicing, we were almost not caring about the shows until it was time for those shows. Then we were almost curious — almost like we just wanted to do it just to find out if it would work, or something.
Rabenort: I never felt worried about it. If anything, in this band, I have an underlying mission which is to debunk putting music into categories. Whether that be indie rock or punk or alt-country. It's just sort of coming back to the idea that when people play music honestly and sincerely, it's good. It's just great. People shouldn't be drawn to, "Oh, well they sound like this other band that I like" or "I like music that is fast and brutal, only."
It puts music in a box. I don't like that. It's the belief in soul music — that soul music is transcendent, and soul music is country. It's punk. Because my two favorite kinds of music are good, old country music and punk bands. That's it for me. Usually it seems like those two things are mutually exclusive or something, but they are so similar. I love that. Just trying to play music and not trying to achieve anything really other than a genuine moment. I think that's it for me. It's just having faith that we can play music like that, and people will respond genuinely to that. Hopefully not cast us off because we might have a country label or something.
Rabenort, courtesey of Doug McDannald.
SP: Where have some of the direct inspirations come from for this? You're in Anna Karenina/Anna Karina, and that has a particular type of sound, where does this inspiration come from to write these songs?
Stine: i feel like that's kind of just the songs we'd naturally write. Any other type of band we might change it to fit a certain type of sound. Say, when Dave introduces a song, he'll play it acoustic, and it won't necessarily change a whole lot to when the bands plays it. We just kind of fill it in. We're never like, "Oh we need another this here."
Rabenort: Well, I think like you said, a lot of these songs just come very naturally. I don't feel like I'm trying to force it to be anything where it has to be one way or another. You just have these deeply engrained musical influences that you have. It might be just a lot of older country music or it's just being obsessed with 60's folk music like I was.
Stine: The melodies and stuff from where we're from, which is a lot of places, even here probably. You were raised listening to whatever kind of country it is. All the old-timers and your parents friends all listen to country. It's just kind of in us, and we always just tried to stop it from seeping out. Now it's all falling out, and we're just letting it happen.
Rabenort: It was one of those things like growing up in Okawville you were surrounded by country music, but you didn't want to be cool with whatever everyone else was cool with, so you started playing punk music. Then at this point it's just sort of like, I've been trying to hide this for a while, but I actually like the country music.
SP: Are you guys making an album or recording or anything? How have the songs come along since you have started because you are relatively new.
Rabenort: There are some songs still in the works, but we have about 10 songs or so. It seems it all happened really fast. We do a cover that was in the first show, we only did 5 songs. 4 originals and we played a Tom Waits song, "Poncho's Lament," (above) which was a song from the early year's compliation. It was just an acoustic song of his, and I've never heard another arrangement of it. So, basically, I knew the song acoustically, and everyone had to write their own parts with more guitars and bass and all that. In a way, it does sound like a Fights song, but it's a Tom Waits song. It was a lot of fun because it was a lot like building your own kind of song. At this point there are 10 or 12 songs. We just booked 3 days out at Earth Analog in January, so we're going to record five songs and release an EP.
SP: Talk about the show on Thursday with Tractor Kings and Morgan Orion.
Rabenort: I got really excited, along with Morgan. We've played a couple of shows with him already. Something about playing with us gets him really happy. The first show we played was with a bunch of punk bands, and Morgan has always been that dude who plays punk shows but plays these sad folk songs [laughs].
Stine: He was the lone wolf there for a while defying the punk show — it was awesome.
Rabenort: When we started playing Morgan got really excited, so we kind of nerded out with each other to play country music and we wanted to make a country show happen. We all love Tractor Kings so much. I think they are such a great band and have been around for so long. I don't think they will ever be as popular as they should be, but they are such a good band. Aaron is a really good friend and he's going to record us in January out at Analog. So along with Morgan, we talked about putting together a good country rock show, so we ask them and it happened really easily. The initial plan was a Brass Rail show, which would have been really fun, But I guess they aren't doing shows right now. So, Cowboy Monkey just kind of worked out.
Stine: I just think it's cool to stress the ideas where we're not billed with bands that are strange compared to us, or we're strange compared to them. It's really connected this time.
Rabenort: We went into the show to book something that would give people in town a nice night of alternative country music. Within that even The Fights, Morgan Orion, and Tractor Kings, we all sound different. Really different.
SP: It's even like putting everyone in the box, like you said, even though they are all very different. Putting everyone under the umbrella.
Stine: If we're all the same box, it's like one is an orange, an apple and a banana. We're not all apples in an apple box.
Rabenort: The first few shows we played happened really fast. This sort of feels like the first show we've organized, and that sort of feels like just a moment of pride where we're like "we're The Fights and we play country-ish music," and we wanted to have a night celebrating that in a way. I'm sure from this point on it'll be us and whatever random bands.