Fog began as a solo project for Minnesota-based turntablist and hip-hop/electronica artist Andrew Broder, but the group has recently undergone a major evolution. Broder left the turntables by the wayside and re-imagined Fog as something like a classic power trio, with bassist Mark Erickson and drummer Tim Glenn as permanent members. Fog remains too idiosyncratic and experimental to be pigeonholed, but the new approach paid off with Broder's boldest and most viscerally approachable album yet—the new, ironically titled Ditherer, which includes guest work from Low, Andrew Bird, Why?, and Dosh. The A.V. Club recently talked with Broder and Erickson about Fog's relationship with Tom Petty and black metal.
The A.V. Club: You've always collaborated with others in Fog, but the permanent trio is a new thing. What led to that change?
Andrew Broder: Fog always was a kind of floaty thing where it was me doing most of the stuff, but needing other people to help out. Each successive Fog record has had more input from others, but it's always been vague, in a way, whether that's just me being noncommittal, or not having the confidence in myself to orchestrate a band full-time. I held onto that one-man bedroom-music aesthetic for a while—probably too long—and then after 10th Avenue Freakout came out, I arrived at a point where I was like, "I don't want to make music entirely on my own any more." That whole feeling the music had, where you could really tell that it was mostly coming from one person, I just felt like I had taken that as far as I could, and it wasn't satisfying me any more, musically. That's the whole impetus for recording Ditherer the way that we did, and whittling everything down to this essential group of three.
AVC: How did you arrive at this particular three?
AB: Mark's been in the band since the beginning. Tim and I have been playing improvised music together for three or four years. The lineup for Fog has shifted around. It's been more based on availability than anything, but I reached a point where I was like, "I have to do this full-time, and have to have a band that can treat it full-time." Mark and Tim were the only ones out of everyone involved I knew could make the dive into committing to Fog as the full-time thing. Everyone else that has been involved is active in doing different things, which is great, but we needed a core that could move forward with greater momentum, and stay organized and focused.
AVC: Ditherer seems like a large evolution from your previous disc, Loss Leader. Did it feel that way to you when you were putting the record together?
Mark Erickson: For me, definitely, because I was very uninvolved with Loss Leader. I wasn't there through most of the recording, and I didn't hear most of the songs until they were already mixed. For this operation, we just decided that we wanted to do it all at the same time—for 95 percent of the record, all three of us were there. If you hear a difference, that's the difference right there.
AB: The shifts in aesthetic from record to record feel pretty natural for me, because that's just how I operate as far as seeking out new sounds. I kind of explore and dive into it, and I never want to hesitate about that, for fear that it would alienate a certain group of listeners, which hasn't always been the best move for Fog. [Laughs.] But that's just a natural extension of my musical personality. And there was a period between 10th Avenue Freakout and now when I definitely didn't know what I was doing, and I had to totally rethink how I wanted to write songs and work with people and everything. I knew this record had to be radically different from the other stuff that I had done. Also, there's the departure of the turntables.
AVC: Which seems like a huge shift.
AB: It is, but it's been happening gradually. I think if you listen to all the records in a row, you can hear it dissipating as time goes on. It was a conscious decision for this record, to have it be guitar-centric, but that was just where my personal tastes are at this moment.
ME: I think if there are things that can be defined as unifying over Fog's career, they've been, number one, not to repeat ourselves, ever, and number two, to try as hard as we can to not sound like anything else. So it's not that the choice is made whether we're going to make a rhythm-heavy album, or a melody-heavy album, or a samba-heavy album. It's the choice to just try to make music that means something to us. And once you do that, the record hopefully won't sound like anything else, because otherwise, you're failing at it.
AB: I always like to be surprised when I hear things, rather than knowing exactly what I'm going to be getting into with somebody's new record. The element of surprise is the one that I value.
ME: A lot of bands lock themselves into a genre and they're proud of it, and that's fine. You have mystery writers that are worthwhile, just like there are plenty of rock groups and hip-hop groups that are worthwhile, but then there are other artists that respect genre and try to work with genre, but intentionally try to undermine it or subvert it.
AVC: That's the common element among the Anticon bands that you're most commonly associated with.
AB: In a sense, yeah. Although in a way, I think that has become its own little ghetto for people to think about. Even with this record, that association was in my mind. There's been a tendency, because of friends or people we've worked with in the past, to think about us as having to do with indie hip-hop or electronica or something like that. I wanted to get away from that, because I think it definitely limited people's willingness to check us out. I think people have a lot of preconceived ideas, even working within micro-microgenres like that. That can be its own thing that you can get pigeonholed in, so we don't have any kind of religious adherence to a way of categorizing ourselves. That definitely hasn't always helped our career as a band, but it keeps things fresh musically.
AVC: With Ditherer, you've stated that you wanted to try something more visceral and heavy.
AB: I started out writing songs for this record trying to be very deliberate about writing differently than what I had written before. So Mark would come over to the house, and I'd play him songs I had written that were stories or narratives about a character—I don't know what the fuck I was trying to write, like a Tom Petty song. And they were terrible.
ME: Did we end up using any of those?
AB: No, we didn't, thankfully. But I definitely wanted to write differently. The writing on Ditherer was less about me, and that was a very conscious decision. As far as the heavy aspect, I think that has more to do with what we collectively were listening to at the time.
AVC: Like what?
AB: I got pretty deep into listening to a lot of metal in the last year or two. Our record, obviously, doesn't sound like a metal record, but I wanted to have more of that visceral, dark approach. One of the things that really appealed to me about a lot of the real intense insane suicidal black metal I've been listening to is that sense of staring this kind of dark, cruel reality, whatever you're dealing with, in the face and accepting it, and having it be a thing of beauty rather than avoiding difficult subject matter. The term "heavy music" stems from my way of categorizing music like that as separate from music that can be casual and come and go and not make an impact on your life.
ME: People that try to make "important" music usually fail. Because the more you approach an angle you think is "important," the more that is lost in translation of those things, if that makes sense. We were talking about what heavy music was, and we mentioned artists as disparate as Black Sabbath and Charles Ives and Albert Ayler, and all these weirdoes—at least to begin with, they were all outsiders, and the thing they all had in common was that they were just reflecting some truth back to the listener. That's all heavy music can ever do, but once it hits a chord and you do it exactly right, it becomes awesome.
AB: It becomes undeniable. I think that's what [heavy music] really means to me, when it comes down to it, music that you can't deny. You might like it or you might not, but you can't deny it. That's the feeling I really got when I was listening to Xasthur, or black metal, stuff like that. There's very soft, gentle music that can still have that weight to it, where you can't ignore it and it has an effect on you one way or another, like the Beach Boys.
AVC: There are soft sections on Ditherer too; it isn't loud all the time.
AB: Right, but I felt like in our previous stuff, there was too much that was on the fence, and was maybe in some subconscious way me trying to make everyone happy. Everyone says that those [earlier Fog] records are all difficult, but for me, I was too concerned with trying to please both sides of the fence, and it comes across as kind of mushy. [Ditherer] comes back to doing something that wasn't as easy to gloss over as just something kind of quirky. It had to be more than that to keep working.
AVC: Ditherer feels like a happier record than what you've done previously.
AB: It's definitely not for me. There's more joy in the music—the subject matter definitely not, but I think that there's more of a release there, and I think that's going back to the band setup. Where you're working on your own, you're kind of layering one thing on top of the other, and it has this claustrophobic feel to it, which is my problem with most stuff I hear that's in the quote-unquote bedroom style. It can't but be an insular navel-gazing experience, no matter what you're writing about, if you're doing it yourself. Unless you're like Prince.
ME: Or Stevie Wonder. See, artists like that in the past had a social element. Bob Dylan did some of his greatest work all by himself, but there was a social element. He was performing in front of other people; he wasn't locked in a room alternating between his four-track and Pitchfork Media. He had an outside world that he could draw upon. He was reading newspapers, reading books. It seems that a lot of bedroom artists, if you want to call them that, don't have any other reference point beyond their own lives. And that's fine, you know, they have a life, and their life can be as interesting as any other life, but I'd rather hear from a great artist who's interacting with the world than artists who are only interacting with themselves.
AB: Right, or if you are going to be a bedroom artist that's all about your own life, I say go full-on with the nihilism, which takes us back to the black metal once again.
AVC: Especially with the trio playing a larger part in the recording of Ditherer, has your approach to playing live come closer to the way you approach playing in the recording studio?
AB: It has, and I'm thankful for that, because it used to be basically a disservice. People would hear the record and then see us live, and be like, "What the fuck?" Now these songs are playable enough on their own that they'll be recognizable as the song, but it's not like I want everything to be completely stripped-down. The studio is still a great tool, and we'll still put whatever on the record that makes the song more interesting. I'm still all about texture. I love all the ear-candy stuff, and I don't think I would ever let go of that. Plus there's a lot of baggage with people's perception of what you're doing when you're holding a certain instrument—people see a turntable onstage, and that's a big signifier for them that you have something to do with rap, whether you do or don't Or if you're just three guys, guitar, bass, and drums, it'll be really easy to come across as power-trio Hüsker Dü punk, and that's not necessarily what we're going for either.
AVC: So how do you counter that?
AB: I think we counter that naturally, because we've had so much experience dabbling and having played shows with so many different lineups, trying this thing and that. We used to have a piano and turntables and horns, keyboards, upright bass, and God knows what. I think you hear that effort being channeled through similar instruments. I think my experience in being a musician that plays on the turntables comes through in my guitar playing. I don't know how, but I think it does.
ME: On an almost bullshit level, too, we almost have a sense that we're trying to redeem the classic rock lineup. We don't talk about it much, but we feel like that.
AB: I think it's because we're self-conscious about it, which is weird, because I'm sure it's totally normal for anyone else. Anyone else who wanted to be in a band would be, "Okay, we need guitar, bass, and drums." Whereas us, we're, "Ooh, guitar, bass, and drums… How can we make this weird?" There's a self-consciousness there that's going to prevent us from settling into the typical rock-band mode—which is good for us. If that happened, we'd all lose interest in what we were doing pretty quickly.
ME: Pretty much everybody's who's played in Fog has divergent musical interests—Martin Dosh, Jeremy Ylvisaker, Mike Lewis in Happy Apple and Fat Kid Wednesdays. I find it inspiring that people do things other than what is considered their main commercial project. That's not always easy for people, and it's not always wise for them to do it, because it takes time away from their bread and butter. But I think as musicians, it only makes you better. I wish all musicians had to do that. If I was King Of The Music Land, I would say all musicians have to be in more than one thing, because that will make you a better musician, and we all benefit from that.
AB: Playing improvised music [in the side project HeatdeatH] totally informs things that I do with Fog, and very much serves as a springboard for ideas and motivation. You can bounce those two worlds off of each other.
ME: And, you know, if you listen to the record, that's one thing, but the impression you get from being there live and listening to [a band] is a physical one. It's something that I think all people who make stuff should aspire to, to affect people in a physical, physiological way. And a band that can do that not just by rattling the seats with bass, but just kind of insinuating itself into your body, you know, that kind of thing is pretty rare. And I think it's what Fog tries to do.
AB: When I have a musical experience like that, that's one of the best feelings I can have as a human, when I'm touched by music like that so forcefully and all-encompassingly. So, to have a couple different avenues where you can strive for that is definitely the goal. That, and have a song on The O.C.
ME: [Laughs.] I don't think The O.C. is a television show any more.
AB: That's our main goal. To be on a show that doesn't exist any more.