Music » Music Column

Sharp Darts: The Good Kind of Awkward

The Fake Fictions make refreshingly unpolished power pop.




Fake Fictions, Kocho-Bi-Sexual, Sprinkles

When Sat 1/6, 9 PM

Where Ronny's, 2101 N. California

Price $5

Info 773-235-6591

In 2004, six years into their relationship, Nick Ammerman and Sarah Johnson put an ad up on Craigslist looking for a partner. They weren't angling for a skeevy Internet threesome--Ammerman plays guitar, Johnson plays bass, and both sing, and after being in a few bands separately they'd decided to start a project together. They needed a drummer. Ben Bilow, who'd played guitar and keyboards in a few bands in Madison, was among the respondents, and his interview must have gone well: though he'd never done anything with a drum kit but screw around during practice, he got the job.

Ammerman and Johnson originally intended the Fake Fictions to be a noisy band with a heavy Blonde Redhead influence, but they abandoned those plans a couple months in, when they figured out they were better suited to twitchy power pop. "I knew I wanted to stay in the band when we came up with 'Summertime,'" says Bilow. "It was easier to come up with parts for pop music than noise."

"Summertime," the second track on the band's first proper full-length, Raw Yang, is three minutes of 60s jangle with a flow that stalls and stutters, playing off the intentional awkwardness of early punks like the Modern Lovers the same way Elvis Costello did on his first couple records. The album came out in July on the local label Fresh Produce, and the first time I heard "Summertime" its melody was what caught my attention. But listening to it over and over, I realized that what's really compelling about it is that awkwardness. It sounds unpolished and crude, but in a good way, like something you'd hear from people making up their own form of pop as they go along--which in a way the Fake Fictions are.

Ammerman and Johnson began their relationships to popular culture largely as outsiders. By the time they met in 1998, they were both working at the radio station of the College of William and Mary in Virginia and just as obsessive about music as you'd expect, but growing up they'd had such limited exposure to mainstream media that even now there are strange gaps in their knowledge. Ammerman was born in Florida, but because his dad worked for the State Department he spent most of his childhood on a world tour that touched down in India, France, and Yugoslavia. Attending international schools in the years before global media networks matured, he made do with whatever bootlegged rock albums he could find--and he's still playing catch-up, as evidenced by his recent discovery of Steely Dan. This outsider status works to his advantage: to many musicians, the rules that dictate how pop songs work are as invisible as water is to fish, but to Ammerman they're a clear template just begging to be messed with.

Johnson, on the other hand, was raised in a religious family in rural Virginia. "When I was little I wasn't allowed to listen to the radio because it was evil," she says. "I was in church when I wasn't in school." She could hear secular music only by sneaking into her parents' room when they weren't around and listening to their clock radio. Even ordinary FM rock, she says, "would seem really evil and awesome." After her parents divorced, her mom made a symbolic statement of her newfound independence by going to a record store at the mall and buying "Greatest Love of All" by Whitney Houston. "Then she got into Def Leppard," says Johnson. "You can imagine how that messed me up."

These foreshortened perspectives meant that every act Johnson and Ammerman did manage to connect with ended up a megastar in their heads. "I was thinking about this today," Ammerman says, "the idea of the personal canon versus the music canon." Some bands just influence what you play, he explains, but others change your life. The couple moved to Chicago in 2003 in large part because Johnson loved the Smashing Pumpkins. And she says her exposure in college to the female-inclusive Pacific Northwest indie scene--mostly by checking out records from the radio-station library--is one of the reasons she's still playing music. "I went from thinking there were only like three bands with girls in them to getting really into the whole Kill Rock Stars catalog," she says.

As for Ammerman, well, he has a special spot in his heart for the British indie group Boyracer. A really special spot. In a recent interview for WLUW, he says, he talked about Boyracer "for like five minutes," none of which made it to air. He follows this anecdote by talking about Boyracer for like five minutes.

His fixation is responsible for some of the similarities between Boyracer and the Fake Fictions. Both started out with artsy aspirations, then chucked them to play thumping, reckless pop. Both get dismissed as cutesy and twee but really have more in common with early British punk. Ammerman says the Fake Fictions' ultimate goal is to be catchy, but part of what he finds attractive about pop is the way its familiar forms can be subtly subverted, resulting in music that registers as "not quite right" but isn't messed up enough to fall apart.

"Part of it's technical prowess," he says. "Ben just started playing drums when we started the band. And I've been playing guitar since 12 or 13 or 14, but I'm not the guy who sits at home and does scales all day. I can't really play leads that well in the traditional sense."

"I had a boyfriend in college for three years who was a jazz guitarist," says Johnson, "and I think he was a big influence on me not being very good. Every day, for it seemed like hours, he played the same scales and jazz classics, and it seemed so boring and unfun. It really made me play more for fun."

But while the Fake Fictions don't have the chops to play shiny, immaculate pop, somehow their music flips the same triggers in your brain as shiny, immaculate pop. Though the last track on Raw Yang, "I Miss the Dark," is built on a progression that's probably been used a couple hundred times, the way Bilow's choppy drums, Ammerman's skritchy guitar, and Johnson's yelpy vocal line build up to the hook validates the band's whole approach in ten seconds. And it sounds like they're having all the fun they set out to have. On the breakdowns of "Do the Dance" Bilow clicks his sticks together in hyperactive double time, like he can't wait to jump back in, and in the second verse Ammerman delivers the best lines on the album: "They read the Wire and listen to Wire and watch The Wire / And then talk about Wire and the Wire and The Wire."

After their first show in November 2004, when pretty much nobody came to see them at the Pontiac, the Fake Fictions were so traumatized they didn't play out again for months. But these days they sometimes average more than a gig a week and still seem pumped to practice. In June Ammerman and Johnson are getting married, and though planning a wedding is usually grueling, they seem just as enthusiastic about it as they are about the band. Bilow is pitching in too, by designing the invitations. "It's a band affair," Ammerman explains, then pauses. "That didn't come out right."

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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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