Shannon Fields has long been one of the most fascinating musicians to emerge from the NYC scene. From The Silent League to Stars Like Fleas to Leverage Models, he’s been involved with bands whose sounds have been intricately detailed visions that stray far from any given trends. Not only is Fields a talented multi-instrumentalist, but he’s continuously surrounded himself with a cast of immensely talented musicians.
No better example of this is Stars Like Fleas. An indescribable musical force of nature, Stars Like Fleas was an expansive all star cast of musicians whose associations ranged over a wide spectrum of acclaimed bands. Stylistically limitless, they experimented across the spectrums of chamber music, post rock, folk, indie pop, jazz and elsewhere with a conscious abandon of predictability. In the live setting, they took it further. With a band that would stretch as large as 30 strong at times, they gained a reputation for wild, improvised sets that often left crowds stunned or bewildered. And despite having very little commercial appeal, Stars Like Fleas managed to open for some of the most popular bands to come to town, and gain critical praise at the highest levels. Their story was an uplifting tribute to the idea that great talent and individuality can still occasionally gain the spotlight amongst all of the far trendier options.
By 2009, the future of Stars Like Fleas was left uncertain as members went on to various time consuming projects. Shannon Fields, Shelly Burgon, Ryan Sawyer, and Laura Ortman opted to continue to make music together, forming Family Dynamics. While maintaining many of the stylistic principles that made Stars Like Fleas captivating, the four members of Family Dynamics approached the new project as a much tighter unit, with each member playing an equal role in the songwriting process. Debuting at the now defunct Brooklyn venue Zebulon, and following only a few days later with a set at Hopscotch Festival in front of a couple hundred, Family Dynamics pretty instantly emerged as a band to pay attention to. Following another small tour and a hand full of local shows, in 2012 the quartet drove upstate to a cabin near Woodstock and recorded their debut album.
Three years passed without the album seeing daylight or the band performing live. They had not broken up or consciously set out to go on hiatus. The members of Family Dynamics had simply let time slip away while immersed in their other various projects. Tomorrow (Sat. 8/15), Family Dynamics finally releases the long awaited Service. There’s no plans to record or perform together again as Family Dynamics, but they’re also leaving the door open.
For all of the intricacies and dynamic changes of mood, Service is a deeply intimate recording. With vocals performed communally by all 4 members complimented by the heavenly tones of Burgon’s mesmerizing harp, the songs can act as warm, inviting glances into a small, hazy sun-drenched cathedral. Subtle nuanced atmospheric moments seamlessly transition towards anthemic heights, most notably on the excellent “Shímásaní.” Much like the work of Stars Like Fleas, it’s an album that defies categorization. An immersive listen, it’s the type of record that rewards the patient listener by continuing to reveal more of itself with each play.
Now living in the country in upstate New York, and recording and performing as Leverage Models, Shannon Fields offered to take some time and answer some questions about Family Dynamics, as well as Leverage Models.
ML: While Family Dynamics is in some ways a continuation of Stars Like Fleas, Service very much has its own identity unique from Fleas. Did you happen to notice a difference in what each member brought to Family Dynamics in contrast to their own contributions to Stars Like Fleas?
Shannon Fields: There are two things worth pointing out about that.
First, there’s a lot of time that passed between the release of The Ken Burns Effect (which is how most people know Stars Like Fleas’ who didn’t see us live regularly), and I think there’s a bigger gap between what Service & The Ken Burns Effect sound like than there is between what late Stars Like Fleas live and early Family Dynamics sounded like. Although being a much smaller unit and not having Montgomery’s voice are pretty significant in changing the character of the music as well.
Secondly, I tried to exert much more control over Stars Like Fleas both on record and live, just to hold it together. It was always in danger of being a free-improv group sometimes. With Family Dynamics I got out of the way, I didn’t lead it, it was the 4 of us making music together in a simpler, more direct, less jarring way.
ML: Service was recorded back in 2012, but left unreleased until now. How does it feel to finally reveal it to the public?
SF: It feels late. And I’m embarrassed that I didn’t do more to make it happen earlier, when we were still actively playing out a lot. But it’s also really unburdening…it’s been hanging over my head for too long. Every time someone asked me about it the inside of my gut dropped and I felt guilt and anxiety. I’m really happy to share it now.
ML: Do you think with the time that has passed that there’s less emotional attachment to the record, and ultimately less concern about how it’ll be received?
SF: I don’t think I have any less emotional attachment to the record but I don’t think I have the same motivation to push-push-push to support a really active live project. Which is good because that pressure is artificial and unhealthy and really easy to get caught up in. Records last forever and it’s okay if the whole world doesn’t descend on it and celebrate it right away, at the same time. Unless you’re trying to make a living from that project. Which, we’re not.
ML: One of the things that most impressed me about Stars Like Fleas was that despite the considerable size of the band, there was an element of intimacy to the music, especially on the records. Family Dynamics also accomplishes this, maybe to even greater success. Is this a conscious effort?
SF: Thank you! Yes, very conscious on my part. People sometimes described watching Stars Like Fleas voyeuristically, in terms of watching this thing unfold that they were not apart of but were intriuged by, from the outside looking in at something kind of uncomfortable and unexplained. I think for myself I wanted Family Dynamics’ music to let people in. I wanted it to feel like a service, something people could participate in, or were participating in whether they liked it or not. SLF could also be very imposing in its foreigness and how large and sometimes confrontational or loud and wild it could be. I wanted Family Dynamics to feel a little more immediately soft and inclusive and non-threatening than that. I mean, it can be discomfiting in other ways, but it doesn’t beat you over the head with it.
ML: There is no lead vocalist in Family Dynamics. Instead the vocals are all performed as a group. How was this decided? And was there a particular theory behind this approach?
SF: We definitely talked about it. Without Montgomery’s being part of this, and knowing that we still wanted to work with the form of ‘songs’, we had a choice to make: be an instrumental group, have one of us take the lead, or find a new singer. We didn’t love any of those choices though. Stars Like Fleas was nominally a collective but in many ways was still organized and driven by a few. We wanted this to be a truly equal collaboration. Secondly, there was an element, initially, of wanting this to be a continuation of the musical and personal relationships we’d spent years developing with the Fleas. To bring someone new in felt like it would throw that out of balance. None of us considered ourselves to be singers by any stretch of the imagination, but we had worked a lot with large group vocal experiments in Stars Like Fleas (sometimes whole choirs of untrained singers, sometimes just everyone in the band making animal sounds underneath a song) and that always felt really freeing and ecstatic and meaningful. I grew up in a pentecostal church singing in tongues and have always been drawn to the sound of groups of untrained singers feeling open enough to vocalize and emote freely. So we just arrived at the decision pretty naturally to focus on that aspect of Stars Like Fleas but without a lead vocalist on top. Kind of get rid of that notion of foregrounding vocals entirely….I thought was a lot more interesting than eliminating vocals altogether.
ML: The lyrics on Service personally make me think of fractured pieces of conversations. Thoughts are not elaborated on in detail, which allows a sense of abstraction within the introspection. Is this at all along the lines of the intention?
SF: I don’t know if it’s right to describe the lyrics in terms of intentions. I always deeply appreciated the way Montgomery handled lyrics with the Fleas, with a kind of generosity that let the words ‘perform’ instead of ‘telling’ you something. I know I wanted to carry that on. Lyrics that are overtly narrative, confessional, preachy, or in some other way are ‘speaking’ at you are always going to sortof step in front of the music a bit. So the words are designed more to play the role of an incantation, a hymn, or something that carries meaning in a more passive way that doesn’t draw your mind entirely away from the total musical or ritual experience.
ML: Does the release of Service effectively end the Stars Like Fleas/Family Dynamics era, or will you guys keep the door open?
SF: Both of those groups are about relationships and conversations between a group of friends who are thankfully all still alive and, for the most part, have some kind of relationship in tact. This record is an artifact of that and of a period of a lot of activity. The fact that there isn’t much activity right now doesn’t really point one way or the other for me. But there are no active conversations or plans about performing with either of those groups at the moment. There *is* a final Stars Like Fleas record that was recorded more or less live, right before our last tour in Europe (2009). I can’t afford to mix it and there is nobody offering to release it. I’d like that to be heard some day.
ML: You moved out to the country a few years ago. Have you noticed any impact on your music caused by your new environment/lifestyle?
SF: No direct musical impact (when I moved to the country I created Leverage Models, which is the least natural/pastoral thing I’ve ever done). But I’m not as full of constant, crushing anxiety, which in the city for 12 years, I really was. When I am in the city now, I go out dancing at every opportunity. I enjoy the city way more now that I’m not there trying to survive and feeling the need to scream for attention in the middle of that. But I also want to make sure that this interview doesn’t focus so much on me. Family Dynamics is not *my* music, it emerged pretty organically from the union of the four of us and our freindships in the aftermath of a really stormy couple of years with the Fleas.
ML: Your current project Leverage Models, is in a certain sense, a solo project. So, would you say that Leverage Model is the band most representative of your own singular artistic vision?
SF: Yes, because it *is* a solo project (not to discount the very real impact that my band has on its growth and evolution) and I feel entirely free to just dump any aspect of who I am or what I want to do into that.
ML: What have been the biggest challenges and advantages of writing and composing solo vs. with Stars Like Fleas and Family Dynamics? And what has it taught you about yourself?
That’s a tough question. A few more years of therapy and I may have a better answer. Family Dynamics came out of a very even collaboration between 4 of us. Stars Like Fleas began ran as a collaboration between Montgomery and I for two records before we ever played live, and that was really me creating the records with continued ‘workshopping’ and curatorial input from Montgomery and a lot of improvising guests. Once it became a live band it started as a very even collaboration between 6 of us (Ryan Smith, Sam Amidon, Jon Natchez, Montgomery, Ryan Sawyer, Gerald Menke, & I). But over the course of another 6-7 years as a live band that pendulum swung back and forth….there were stretches of time, or certain shows, where the Fleas were really a single musical rule-based organism with its own emergent intelligence, and other times where it was really more like a few of us building these architectures that others just kind of crawled around over. The Ken Burns Effect was almost never completed because it went back and forth between being a band record and being a record that was really run entirely through my filter. I think I thought I had to be that hands on to get things done…and that may have been true…but it was probably also true that I had a hard time letting up control of things when I wasn’t on board with where they were drifting. So there was always quite a lot of tension between the fact that it was both a free-er artistic collective and a thing I directed/ran/produced at the same time….and that wasn’t really sustainable. At that time maybe I wanted it to be something that I wasn’t emotionally capable of handling. I think Family Dynamics was a first step in allowing myself to put the reins on the ground and arrive at how I tend to work now which is: assemble the right people, draw the right boundaries, wind it up and step back…let things happen…stop steering. The results are always better than when I try to control things too much.
ML: What can be expected on next Leverage Models album? And when will we hear it?
SF: The next Leverage Models record is complete. But I can’t say much right now about when it will be released. This song will be on it. We’re working on a video for another song. What you can expect is….um….musically it’s sort of built out of the same building material as a lot of mainstream pop music. Like, some of the worst, cliched offenses of modern pop music. But we use them with love, and try to find something else in them. I’ll say that I think it’s a little more stripped down and constrained then past records, a little less dense. Alena Spanger from Tiny Hazard also sings as much as I do on it. And you can understand what we’re saying. And what we’re saying is……………not at all pop.