Tod A., bassist and singer/songwriter of Firewater is hearing voices – his own – as a transatlantic echo bounces back his comments over the phone line. “Oh man, that's great, I get to hear how stupid I sound”. It's typical of the conversation that we have over the next half an hour, that veers between politics, music, lyricism, food and touring; his answers are delivered in a laconic self-deprecating drawl, with heaps of good humour thrown in. Contrary to the somewhat dark and dour persona presented through the lyrics.
Firewater was born when Cop Shoot Cop, a reasonably commercially successful band, broke up. “I had a bunch of songs that I didn't know what to do with. So I called up some friends, who were in various bands at the time – like the Jesus Lizard, and Soul Coughing – and they were kind enough to oblige me to come and play. We rehearsed for two weeks, went into the studio and did a record and that became the first Firewater record [Editor's note: Get off the Cross we need the wood for the fire]. I didn't expect for anything to come out of it: it was a record we did for ourselves, with klezmers and pirate sea shanties, and crap like that. But in actual fact it did really well, so we booked a tour, and none of those guys on the record were available, so I put together a different band, with friends I had met, and that became Firewater”.
Since then, they've released four other albums including the two releases from earlier this year The Man on the Burning Tightrope and Songs we should have written, a collection of covers.
They're a curious mix, with all sorts of influences shining through, from Tom Waits and his burlesque style, through to Mariachi and Tango. Is the eclecticism accidental or deliberate? “When I hear them in my head, they [the songs] all feel like they belong on the same record. Some people seem to have a problem with that, but the records I like generally are not records that remain the same the whole way through. I like records that take you somewhere. I like compilations, so maybe that's where the spirit comes through.” And what of his own musical influences? “All kinds of stuff. From Rembétika, which is Greek kind of gutter music from the Thirties, through Bollywood, to Flamenco. There's circus music as well which I love, although that's not something the rest of the band necessarily share” (laughs)
When I question him about the amount of ‘Circus Music’ influence on the songs, he grudgingly responds “Yeah. I'm not a big fan of the circus per se, but I love Circus music. I love the sounds.”What about the imagery? There's the man on the burning tightrope as a title for example?“Yeah, just another melodramatic metaphor.”It's not about George Bush then?“We can only hope” (laughs).
It's obvious that Tod listens to a wide gamut of music – he asks me about Vinicio Capossela, a brilliant Italian artist who shares some of the same styles as Firewater. To what extent do these different sounds fuel Firewater? Is it almost automatic that if he listens to Greek gutter music one day, that the next it will filter subconsciously into the band's sound? “Yeh, it can. I think you take influences from all around. At heart, I think of us as a rock band, with other influences. It's all music. You know, I've heard some great music like punk rock songs played by Hindi wedding bands marching through the streets of New Delhi, while at the same time I've heard some terrible punk rock songs played by bands in New York”.
The last album, The Man on the Burning Tightrope, was initially scheduled to be called Glittergulch. I’m curious about the name, and why the change? “It didn't seem to sit very well with anyone in the end. Glittergulch is a sort of nickname for the old part of the Las Vegas strip, with the neon signs, and also a really bad strip club – and it just seemed to sum up everything about America that I feel at the moment.” In what sense? Politically? Culturally? ” Culturally and Politically (emphatically) – a lot of big empty words, with big empty images that don't have a lot of meaning. A lot of bluster and no substance – too much icing and not enough cake, if you will”.