Firewater's frontman on actually leaving the country like others threatened when Dubya won
Disgusted with the re-election of George W. Bush, in 2005 Firewater ringleader Tod A left New York -- where he'd lived for the previous two decades and where he'd fronted Cop Shoot Cop -- and headed out of the country on a three-year journey that took him to the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia.
Along the way, he wrote songs for Firewater's sixth album, 2008's The Golden Hour, and two years ago, he moved to Istanbul, where he recorded the act's latest album, International Orange, during the Arab Spring, while bombs were going off around the city, as well in Tel Aviv, where the record was mixed. We recently spoke with Tod A about the new album, and he told us that some of that energy of change seeped into the record, and that he also harnesses a bit of fiery punk vigor and injects the songs with worldly flavors, from bhangra to Turkish rhythms to ska, dub and mambo.
Westword: How do you like living in Istanbul?
Tod A: It's cool for now. I really like it. It's got the energy that I felt when I first moved to New York that I don't feel any more in New York. It's a pretty multicultural place. The population of Turkey is pretty young and forward looking, as opposed to America, which to me seems pretty aging and backwards looking at the moment.
How long have you lived there now, a few years?
I was wondering if you could touch on making the record during the Arab Spring and some of the friction that was going on at the time, and if that seeped into the music at all?
Well, Turkey is right next to Syria. It's right next to Iran and Iraq. That's where we recorded, and we mixed in Tel Aviv in Israel, which is pretty close to all the other revolutions that were going on. I really like that energy of change. I think that seeped into the record in some way.
I don't mean to knock on America, but every time I'm back here, things feel like going down, slipping backwards, and there, I just feel an energy of change and positivity.
Is that what "A Little Revolution" is about?
That was inspired by some friends I met in Istanbul. They were guys that escaped from Iran -- Tehran -- and they were just young guys, like eighteen, twenty year olds in a band, and they told me what life was like in Iran and how they hoped things would change. But they were very frustrated, and that's why they moved to Istanbul, and then they were able to move on to Paris. That's what inspired that song -- people that were very frustrated with dealing with old men with beards and having them tell them what they should do.
It looks like you've got quite a few Turkish musicians on the album.
We recorded the record in the middle of what they call Flotilla Crisis, which happened in 2011 between Turkey and Israel, where Israel was blocking these boats that were coming into bring aide to the Palestinians. It almost looked like war was going to break out between Turkey and Israel.
But at the same time, we were working on this record, and mostly it was Turks and Israelis working together -- people that both don't really support their current governments. So to me that was kind of a positive thing. Ordinary people were able to get together across the border while the governments were bickering and threatening war with each other.
Were there any other things that were happening while making the album that were along the same lines?
Well, there are bombs going off in Istanbul quite often. There are bombs going off in Tel Aviv. But I think that when you live there, it sort of just makes you live for the moment a bit more.
Did that scare you at all when you first moved there, or do you kind of just get used to it?
No, it's a big town. Istanbul is a really big town, as big as New York City. Things happen everywhere. It was very interesting for me to meet a lot of Kurdish people. Kurds make up like 20 percent of the population of Turkey, and they're really this sort of oppressed minority, but there's a lot of them in Istanbul. Man, I don't know why they're oppressed because they're like everybody else. It was interesting for me to meet these people face to face rather than hearing about it on the news.
From reading your blog, it sounds like that was one of the reasons you left the U.S. in 2005 and traveled because you wanted to meet these people in person.
Yeah. I've never had much aggro with anybody that I've met all over the world. I've got much more aggression and problems from governments and from cops, but everywhere I've been, I've been able to deal with people as individuals, and that's kind of how I like to do it.
You mentioned on your blog that you were thinking about writing a book. Is that still a possibility?
That's done. I'm meeting with some publishers in New York. Wish me luck. We'll see what happens. It's done, and I think it's good, actually. I think it has a good shot.
Good luck on that. Your blog was really quite interesting. I'd imagine you're various travels would kind of make their way into songs. Was there anything on the new album that was inspired by your travels?
"Strange Life" was inspired by when I was touching down in Istanbul on the plane for the first time coming from Pakistan. I think "The Bonney Anne" was inspired by taking the boats all over the Bosporus. It's a beautiful area in Istanbul, and often times there's fog that comes up, and I think one time it was six in the morning and I was on this ferry going through the fog, and I felt like all the ghosts of my past were haunting me. That's what inspired that song.
One of the lines that caught me in "Glitter Days" was "the things that kill you are always the ones you love the most." What would you say you love the most?
Well, I still smoke and drink like a fish. It's something I'll have to change. I'm about to be a father very soon. I'll have to change that.
I was reading about how you were inspired to start Firewater after you came across some old Russian cassettes on 14th Street in New York. How did the original concept first come together for Firewater?
There was no original concept. It was just that I was bored with kind of Wonder Bread American music and American rock. I was looking for something new and New York has a lot of different flavors so I just started kind of tasting those flavors and they naturally kind of made their way into my songwriting. There wasn't any kind of preconceived idea. I just got bored with country and blues-based music. Nothing against the U.S.A.
Is there any significance to releasing the album on 9/11?
No. It's completely accidental. I don't know if you know this, but in America you can only release a record on a Tuesday. So that was time that we wanted to do it, and we were available to tour at that point. So it because 9/11 and I thought, "What the hell?" Maybe the bad mojo make it so we were one of the only records coming out on that day. But no, it's really nothing more serious than that.
What does Tamir Muskat bring to the table with the Firewater albums?
After the first record, he was the drummer in Firewater for about seven years, and after that he started producing Firewater records. Then when I had my nervous breakdown and ran off to India, he started his band Balkan Beat Box. We're old buddies. So he's a collaborator, and he's a great producer.
For a drummer, he's incredibly musical and can bring orchestrations to a track. He's just a great producer. For this record, he wasn't able to come to Istanbul when we were recording, so I produced, and he mixed. But the last two records he produced and mixed. But he's just a good buddy, and he's, like, a friend for life.
Are you touring with the same guys on the album?
Yes. The only difference is that we played with a Turkish percussionist who will not be coming on the road with us because he plays in a band called Baba Zula. I think they're in South America right now. We're playing with our usual percussionist, who is Jasmeet Singh Bhambra, and he's an Anglo-Indian guy from London, who plays the dol and tablas and lots of other stuff.
So how many guys all together do you have with you?
On a little different subject, I know you're a big fan of Tom Waits. What was it about his music that resonated with you?
Well, I mean, originally, the fact that he draws from a lot of different traditions and different flavors and different styles. Just to paraphrase something he said, it's like you have to find the right suit for the song. Like he'll write a song, and he'll try it as a mambo or as a polka or whatever. That's something I learned: Just because you've got the right chords and the right words doesn't mean you have the right approach.
So, that's inspirational to me. I think, these days, I think I'm kind of less into his theatricality. He's still a big influence on me, but the stuff that I do is a little less theatrical. I try to be a bit more honest and not so L.A. or not so Vegas or something. Not to diss Tom Waits because he's amazing.
There definitely seemed to be a lot more worldly elements rather than his influence on the new record. On your earlier records the Waits influenced seemed a little more prominent.
He's an amazing songwriter and always will be. I mean, I went through a point where I was extremely influenced by him, but then I've sort of gone my own way.
What are you into these days?
I heard about this great band called the Bombay Royale. I've been a big fan of Bollywood music -- the classic Bollywood period from the '60s and '70s. These guys do... half of their record is covers of those songs and half is originals. The main thing that excites me is that I've been trying to turn people onto Bollywood stuff for years.
But it's so badly recorded and so tinny and awful, and when you play it for people they just put their fingers in their ears, since it's so trebly and thin. This band is redoing those songs in total hi-fi, and you can blast it. It's amazing. They also have some great original songs. I've been in touch with them, and we're hoping to tour with them.
I think it was the "The Monkey Song" had sort of a Bollywood feel at the beginning.
That's just sort of a bhangra groove, and that comes from our percussionist Jas Singh.
One last question. I was kind of curious about your songwriting process. Do you write stuff on guitar and the flesh the songs out later?
I write on the guitar, and for the last ten or fifteen years, I've been using various MIDI programs, so I can orchestrate stuff. I'm really a musician. I had no training or anything, but I find with using MIDI stuff I can try out different parts with different instruments and kind of get a feel for how it's going to sound. So, I'm kind of idiot savant meets MIDI geek.