By Liz Tracy
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The members of The Faint are in limbo, between two stops on their five-week tour in support of their newly released album, Danse Macabre. The industrial-strength, new-wave quintet is on its way from Urbana, Illinois, to Bloomington, Indiana, as one of the headliners at Bloomingtonfest, a three-day weekend festival of punk, indie, and postrock bands. The Faint (which makes its home in Omaha, Nebraska) often recalls the fluffy synth-pop purveyors of the '80s with an added aggressive edge, and Danse Macabre -- the group's third album for its tiny hometown label, Saddle Creek -- takes the band further up the evolutionary ladder of its hybrid sound.
The Faint fills Danse Macabrewith roaring, dense, stadium-size synthesizer chords and screeching electronic blips, beeps, and zips. Beats -- whether acoustic or electronically processed -- are hard and heavy. When guitars decide to crash the party, they ferociously rip through the layers of electronic melodies only to disappear into the darkness to await the next surprise attack. Vocalist and synth player Todd Baechle often sings songs of death, revenge, and bitterness in an exasperated, nasal tenor that sometimes slips into a faux British accent or is processed through a Vocoder for maximum malevolence. All this from a band that used to wander a lite-rock, ballad-only desert.
The group has accumulated a refined knowledge of music, which, even without technical virtuosity, allows the group to pull off a variety of genres. "I've learned it's not really what you can play but what you can hear," explains Baechle, talking on a cell phone while sitting in the back seat of the group's tour van. "What you understand about what you're hearing is more important than learning exactly how to play something."
Baechle has been feverishly soaking up music since 1981, when he was but six years old. He remembers walking to the local grocery store to purchase tapes and records by the likes of A Flock of Seagulls and the Stray Cats. Much later he majored in classical guitar in college, but a serious music career resulted only from a fluke.
During 1994 Baechle and his brother, Clark (Faint's drummer), along with Faint bassist Joel Peterson, frequented singer-songwriter shows in the coffeehouses of Omaha. They arrived in support of a friend, Conor Oberst, now well-known as the indie-pop singer-songwriter Bright Eyes; Oberst offered them an opportunity to perform, but the trio of amateur musicians didn't have even one original song. Given two weeks to come up with material, they slapped together a set of nine tunes and decided upon the moniker Norman Bailer. With its brand of low-fidelity, noisy folk-rock, the young band staged a well-received debut show that helped it stake a claim in the Omaha music scene. In 1995 Norman Bailer released a cassette on Lumberjack, a bedroom-based label run by Oberst's brother.
After Lumberjack became Saddle Creek Records, the band made a recorded appearance on a compilation titled Music Me All Over with an untitled track in the style of easy-listening ersatz rock. "We did a set of songs like that, and only ended up releasing that one," says Baechle. Eventually Norman Bailer began revealing its experimental colors, and its sound seemed positively avant-garde when compared to that of the more typical rock bands that surrounded them in Omaha.
Next it was time for a change in identity. The trio dropped its hastily adopted handle and changed it to The Faint. "It's a name that we could kind of live into," explains Baechle. "If you name your band something like Peanut Butter and Jelly Taco, you can never overcome that with your music. No matter what you sounded like, there would always be the image of what those words mean, rather than your band name. We felt "The Faint' was something we liked the sound of, and we felt like our band could sort of take on that meaning, to some degree."
The Faint wrote and recorded an eclectic bunch of tunes that Saddle Creek released as Media in 1998. "Each time we'd write a song, we would want to make it have a completely different feel from the last song we wrote," says Baechle. If that's done on purpose, Baechle isn't owning up to it: "It wasn't really so much a gimmick," he says defensively. "A gimmick sort of gives the idea of someone trying to sell something to somebody to get them to buy into it. It wasn't that at all. We didn't even have any fans or anything." Undaunted, and bolstered by positive national reviews, the band went out on the road.
The touring experience inspired The Faint to explore yet another musical concept on its next album. After taking on an additional keyboardist, Jacob Thiele, the group released the very '80s-sounding Blank Wave Arcadein late 1999. "The underlying theme was to do new wave but not to completely jump into it," Baechle explains. "There are more-contemporary tricks that wouldn't have happened in the '80s. We wanted to change the production quality, too. We wanted to make it sound live -- an in-the-basement sort of sound rather than something really slick."
The quintet received much attention for Blank Wave Arcadeand was even being selected as one of the "100 bands you need to know in 2001" in the influential altrock monthly Alternative Press. Baechle says he is only slightly bothered by the retro references foisted upon the band by critics. "We always had a new-wavy type of sound," he insists. "People would compare our first record to Elvis Costello or the Cure. We weren't trying to turn into a new-wave band as much as have fun with a sound that seemed to be coming naturally to us."