- Zoran Orlic
- Facs, from left: Noah Leger, Alianna Kalaba, and Brian Case
There's a notorious quote from the dearly departed Mark E. Smith that goes like this: "If it's me and your granny on bongos, it's the Fall." It's tempting to read this as Smith claiming that he was the sole crucial member throughout the prolific postpunk outfit's four decades of constantly mutating lineups—and it's true that when Smith came onstage, you knew what band you were getting. But it can also mean something very different: that the Fall's sound was about musical chemistry, about holistic connections among players, rather than about conventional competence or lone genius.
When I interview Chicago postpunk band Facs at Cafe Marie-Jeanne in Humboldt Park, guitarist and vocalist Brian Case brings up that quote. He laughs about it too—if there's a Mark E. Smith figure in Facs, it's him, but he's much less inclined to claim the role. Not least because his bandmates, bassist Alianna Kalaba and drummer Noah Leger, are sitting with him.
"I say that line in my head constantly," Case explains. "The Fall have always been an inspiration—because it never mattered who was in the room. I'm much more drawn to interaction and circumstance than individual guitar players." He does allow, though, that Johnny Marr, Thurston Moore, or both would make him pretty happy.
On the second Facs full-length, Lifelike (out March 29 via Chicago label Trouble in Mind), Case, Kalaba, and Leger have created a very good set of circumstances. Like the Fall, they're drawn to exploration in songwriting, to finding territory that's new to them. Some members of Smith's revolving-door lineup were novices to their instruments, for example, which created its own set of unorthodox possibilities; Kalaba is usually a drummer, not a bassist, which gives her a distinctive rapport with Leger. Unlike the Fall, Facs are able to undertake this exploration by virtue of mutual trust—they're not forced into it by constant turnover.
Drab Majesty, Facs
Fri 5/17, 6:30 PM, Garfield Park Conservatory, 300 N. Central Park, $30, $25 in advance, all ages
Sitting with all three members for an hour, I get a feel for the comfort they have with one another as musicians. Their repartee is relaxed, practically peaceful, as they bounce among memories of coming up in the Chicago scene decades earlier. They've all played in a long list of bands, but in the late 90s and early 00s, Kalaba was in We Ragazzi, Case was in 90 Day Men, and Leger was in Milemarker. The symbiosis they've developed isn't lost on any of them—they engineered it themselves, and they comment on it often. When Case and Leger needed to fill a gap in the Facs lineup, they sought out Kalaba because they already knew they got along with her.
Facs predecessor Disappears disbanded in late 2016, ending their eight-year run as one of Chicago's more innovative and critically praised rock acts. At the time, the band and their label, Kranky, barely made a peep about it. Disappears bassist Damon Carruesco was out, and the other three members—Case, Leger, and guitarist Jonathan van Herik—would go on to form Facs. Their reluctance to comment wasn't an attempt to control the narrative so much as a consequence of the fact that they weren't actually done.
"We made a conscious decision not to talk about the dissolution of Disappears. There was no press release about it, no 'This thing is finished,'" explains Leger. "We quickly figured out that a new ingredient was having three people instead of four. The space that inherently comes with one less person gave us new ideas."
From the start, Facs were different by design. Gone were the waves of billowy guitars and the apparent dread of approaching any sort of melody. ("There was almost an unspoken rule in Disappears: no melody," Case jokes.) The cold creak of Case's vocals was still recognizable, but much of Disappears' noisy bravado was swallowed up in welcome negative space. Facs felt threadbare by comparison. "There were just certain things Disappears could be musically and certain things it couldn't be. It was time to reinterpret that," Leger says.
At the inception of Facs, Case moved to bass, shaking up the old Disappears dynamic even further—he'd been a guitarist in every other significant project he'd worked on. This affected more than his approach to songwriting: "I had to learn how to dance again," he says. "I couldn't figure out how to play bass and move."
Trouble in Mind released the first document of that shakeup, Negative Houses, on March 30, 2018. Facs made their recorded debut a little more than a year after their live debut—in January 2017, they'd opened a Joan of Arc record-release party. Case and Leger acknowledge that Negative Houses shares some of the winding, expansive aesthetic of Disappears, because the Facs lineup was still simply three-fourths of that band. It's audible in how Van Herik melts his guitar effects down the backs of Negative Houses tracks such as "Primary" and "Just a Mirror."
But the first Facs record also clearly breaks with Disappears, both in its minimalist postpunk bent and in Case's new role. The transition to bass seems to have been out of necessity, but he claims he doesn't regret it. "I learned a lot from not playing guitar in the beginning. I could sort of refocus. I didn't feel like I was repeating myself in Disappears, but I didn't feel like I was getting outside my own box as much as I wanted," he explains. "That being said, I was very happy to switch back to guitar."
Case had switched back when Van Herik abruptly and unexpectedly left Facs in December 2017, a few months after the recording of Negative Houses and a few months before its release. "I think that Jonathan was just ready to be done. No judgment. We played a thousand great shows together," says Leger. "When I first started playing with Disappears, it was right after Pre Language and he was playing these big lush chords and using lots of effects to make these big sounds. And through the last couple of Disappears records, his sound kind of tightened up. And then on Negative Houses his sound was super minimal. He had a really big sound, and then it got smaller and smaller, tighter and tighter. And then it just stopped."
Case and Leger knew they had to find a replacement on bass quickly, with a release concert scheduled for March 30. They weren't exactly looking for someone's granny to play bongos, but they didn't care if they found a virtuoso with 20 years of experience—they preferred a bandmate they trusted and wanted to spend time with.
Kalaba joined in January and began adapting to the role of bassist. "The release show for Negative Houses was actually the first time I ever played onstage in that way," she says. "I was excited but a little scared to be at the front of the stage—I'm used to hiding behind a drum kit."
- Zoran Orlic
Kalaba had moved back to the city from the Bay Area in 2017 to be closer with family and reconnect with old friends—among them Leger and Case. Right now she's on tour as the drummer in Cat Power's band, but 15 or 20 years ago, she was coming up in the same indie-rock scene that they were, drumming in We Ragazzi, the Dishes, and other groups. She was such a good fit for Facs that nobody much cared about her lack of onstage experience as a bassist.
"The last Disappears tour, we were opening for Explosions in the Sky [in Oakland], and Alianna said she was moving back to Chicago. We hadn't seen each other in a while, but I was like, 'When you get back, let's play together,'" Case remembers. "Fast-forward one year, and Disappears has broken up and all of a sudden we're playing together."
Lifelike is the first Facs recording to feature Kalaba, and the first one on which the band don't feel like merely an extension of Disappears. The trio's narrative will forever be inextricably tied to Disappears, but their sound no longer is. Case provides much of that new distinctiveness with his command of guitar and his eagerness to search out different textures and metabolisms—but he's provided the luxury to do so largely by the tight interplay between Leger and Kalaba.
"If you have a good rhythm section, it doesn't matter what the guitars do. No one fucking cares," Case says. "And I totally believe that. Just listen to the way the record is mixed . . . it's drums and bass. The guitar line on 'Another Country' is nonsense. I can be as weird as I want—which is all I really want."
"Nonsense" is a tad self-deprecating, of course. The cycling riff on "Another Country" sounds like dozens of wind chimes caught in a three-second glitch in time—its pattern repeats in its own orbit, independent of the bass and drums, so fluidly that it's hard to hear its edges. It's one of Lifelike's most fascinating gestures. But Case isn't exaggerating about the way the album pushes the rhythm section to the foreground. It was recorded and mixed by Jeremy Lemos and John Congleton, respectively, both of whom have collaborated with the members of Facs for years, either in side projects or in Disappears. Their work places the bond between Leger and Kalaba, and the pocket they settle into as Case wanders off the ranch, at the heart of Lifelike. It's not only there on the album's six tracks—I can also hear it in my interview, as they happily analyze their alliance and compliment each other's drummerly instincts. Takes one to know one, I guess.
"A lot of our songs fit together like a strange sort of puzzle, and because Alianna plays bass like a drummer, the way the other components go together is very intuitive," explains Leger, who also drums in instrumental-rock trio Electric Hawk.
"We're breathing together to find that groove," Kalaba replies. "Counting with Noah, I always know he's going to be there at the right moment, at the right time. It's one less worry."
The harmony between all three components of Facs is best realized on "In Time," which for good reason became the first single from Lifelike on January 23. Case isn't necessarily averse to melody—you can find some in the mathy, experimental indie rock of 90 Day Men, as well as in Disappears and Acteurs, his dark electronic project with Lemos—but he's definitely curious about alternative ways to navigate it. Imagine being on a road trip and exiting the highway to take a roundabout route—only you're not taking the detour just for the scenery, you're also doing it to see if you can find your way back to the highway.
"In Time" is as direct a route as Case has driven in a long time. Held steady by Leger's skittering, kick-drum-heavy beat and Kalaba's distorted, high-sustain bass, the track embraces its melody—as dark as it is—rather than drowning it in noise. Case understands why Facs are so widely seen by critics as amelodic, bleak, and minimal, but the movement and structure of "In Time" might change some minds. "It's got a four-chord progression, which hasn't happened out of my body in ten years at least," he jokes.
On Lifelike Facs also continue to mold tracks from sounds that aren't necessarily notes or riffs—sometimes they're just noises. On "Anti-Body," for instance, Case's swirling, shrill guitar circles the choppy rhythm laid down by Leger and Kalaba, then mutates into a discordant, pounding chord. It doesn't push against the tide of the track as much as it cuts horizontally right through it. "Anti-Body" feels almost blissfully dystopic, like watching the sky burn while a double rainbow lights up the horizon. The second half of the eight-plus-minute closing track "Total History" pulls off a similar trick.
"Brian will sometimes come in with what he thinks of as a part but to me is more of a sound," Leger explains. "At first it was confusing, because I'd think, 'That's a really interesting sound—what does it have to do with a song?' Over time we learned that given the right conditions an interesting sound will blossom into a bunch of different parts with a storyline."
Case, Kalaba, and Leger would probably unanimously agree that they've set things up not only to give Facs an identity of their own but also to allow them to continue to develop past this record. Each of the three members has been around the block—for decades, they've done the writing, released the records, taken the tours. If the work continues to be its own gift—if nobody's still waiting to get rich or famous—then why stop now?
"This band is therapeutic for me, and I look forward to playing with these guys," Kalaba says. "For me personally, I would dissolve if I didn't play music. It would be like not being able to tell someone how you feel."
"We're realistic about what we're doing, but we can still do things that satisfy us, help out our label," Case explains. "Even if we never did a tour or released another record, for me the most fun is being at the practice space, writing a song, and playing it right the first time all the way through."
"It's why I moved to Chicago in '98—to do stuff like this," Leger adds. "We played a gig in Montreal, and the kids blew the fucking doors off the place. We were so well received. After our set a dance party erupted. The DJ gave me a fistful of mushrooms. We stayed with a friend, and the cops came to his house at 4:30 in the morning. I had to talk to the cops. I was tripping. That's why I still go on tour."
Facs have arrived at the right chemistry—and the right understanding of what being in a band is for—to sustain themselves with private creative labor or let themselves go at an all-night blowout. Mark E. Smith would be proud. v