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Grace Notes

A Decade of Dischord and Harmony with Lungfish

Sam Holden

By John Lewis | Posted 7/8/1998

Pleasantly and well-suited I walk
Whither I walk I cannot define; but I know it is good.
The whole universe indicates that it is good.
The past and the present indicate that it is good.
--Walt Whitman

I don't care nothin' 'bout bein' what you call "famous." I don't look at things that way. The way I look at it, people're all people, just like all the ducks is ducks and all the sheep's sheep.
--folk artist Howard Finster

Over the past 10 years, Lungfish has arguably become Baltimore's most successful rock group. In a local music scene that sometimes feels as if it's been skidding downhill ever since Francis Scott Key penned "The Star-Spangled Banner," Lungfish is an institution, on the verge of becoming a sacred cow.

To date, the band has released seven albums on a seminal indie record label (Dischord), toured the United States eight times, played shows abroad, and earned a loyal following that includes rock-star-turned-indie-music-maven Joan Jett. Tell that to your friends in Austin, Boston, and New York.

But unlike most of its contemporaries, the band doesn't frame its music with carefully cultivated celebrity. The members of Lungfish rarely give interviews. As one local scenester puts it, "They are, by design, not media friendly." As a result, an air of mystery surrounds the band, a slippery sense that it's more a force of nature than a mere pop group.

Over the past few months, drummer Mitchell Feldstein, vocalist/lyricist Daniel Higgs, guitarist Asa Osborne, bassist Nathan Bell, and former bassist John Chriest have talked at length about Lungfish over large amounts of coffee at a variety of downtown cafés. During the talks, a number of ground rules were laid out. The band members consistently shied away from sharing any personal information about themselves. They declined to talk about side projects, including past bands. And they displayed a healthy distrust of all types of media, City Paper included. Despite those parameters, they shed a layer of dependable anonymity and, for the first time, allowed a peek behind the curtain.

Complete symmetry is impossible to achieve in sound or substance, yet the drive toward symmetry persists. This drive is prayer fuel.

--card from Daniel Higgs, Feb. 10, 1998

Lungfish rehearses in a garage down a deserted alley in Lower Charles Village. The band members joke about blindfolding visitors so the location won't be divulged. The room is a cement shell lined with ladders, radiators, exposed pipes, and fliers for punk bands such as Half Japanese and the Anti-Heros. Wires hang from the ceiling, and an orange bicycle with a banana seat is propped against a dusty Mustang. A trail of stubbed cigarettes and empty Styrofoam cups leads past a tattered sofa to a makeshift stage at the far end of the room.

The stage is basically divided into quadrants, with Feldstein at the northeast corner, Bell at the southeast, Higgs at the northwest, Osborne at the southwest. Facing some invisible point that seems fixed at the exact center of the stage, they're locked into a metallic slow-grind that's both foreboding and alluring, a trancelike, slowed-down mutation of punk rock. It sounds like the parts of Flipper that Nirvana left behind.

The chords are heavy, and waves of electric fuzz ooze across the room. Each musician takes a simple element and works it to its fullest potential, and together, they thoroughly explore the limited territory that's been mapped out for each tune. The instructions on a package of Pura-Fit To Be Tried earplugs (sitting on a sofa arm) seem oddly appropriate at the moment. They could be guidelines for listening:

1. Clean hands.

2. Roll into smallest diameter.

3. Insert tapered end quickly into ear canal.

4. Hold until fully expanded.

The air swells with melodic drones. The floor starts to feel like creek mud, and Higgs sounds as if he's been baptized in that mud. With an intensity that brings to mind prayer, he chants and bellows lyrics that could be the product of an unholy union between Walt Whitman and Franz Kafka. On "Ann the Word," for instance, he sings of wearing amphibian skin, sleeping with informants, and vomiting up a blinking eye. As the tune unwinds, he repeats, "The world vanished in a gentle breeze," until the sound gives way to an enormous silence.

Feldstein breaks the spell. "Hey, guess what I listened to last night? [Black Sabbath's] Paranoid, on vinyl."

"No kidding," Higgs says, flashing a grin. "I did, too. A few days ago. That's weird."

"It's a fucking great record," the drummer responds. "'Paranoid' is an amazing song."

With that, Osborne launches into the song's signature riff, and Feldstein and Bell join in on a careening instrumental version of the classic metal tune. Judging by the smiles in the room, Black Sabbath lives in the spaces between the notes of some Lungfish songs.

Other artists and sounds can be heard in those spaces as well. Listen carefully and you may hear the Master Musicians of Jajouka jamming with the Minutemen. You might detect traces of Howlin' Wolf and Moondog in the mix. With the music so stripped-down, you might even pick up faint echoes of freight trains at Penn Station, lions roaring in Druid Hill Park, bombs exploding at Aberdeen Proving Ground, or water rushing down the Jones Falls. You may even hear the pulse of your own heartbeat.

Beethoven and Charlie Patton are on equal ground, musicwise. There is no soley [sic] secular music. Music sound travels from host to host. Classical, Jazz, Rock and Roll, Blues, Ethnic, etc. are primarily departments in record stores. Admittedly, they describe collective expectations of their tempos and instrumentation, etc. but never of their intent. MUSIC GIVES RISE.
--card from Daniel Higgs, Feb. 9, 1998

Lungfish fans, here and across the country, seem to appreciate what they're hearing. "I love everything they do," says Dischord Records founder Ian MacKaye who doubles as Fugazi's singer/guitarist. A Washington, D.C.-based label that practically defined hardcore punk, Dischord has released all of Lungfish's records, despite the fact the band has never been perceived as hardcore, or punk for that matter.

"When I listen to music, I'm looking for something that seems as if the artists don't really have a choice in the matter," MacKaye says. "It's just what's coming out of them. It's not a put-on. Lungfish strikes me as a band that certainly has all those qualities. They're real and they're sincere about what they're doing."

"I was in college when I first heard Lungfish," says Dan Cohen, director of publicity for Astralworks, the New York-based label that's home to electronica acts such as the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim. "They were everything I liked about the punk scene around D.C., in that they were more intelligent than most punk bands. The music was punk, but the songs were really interesting and had weird structures. Lungfish sounded so strange and yet so familiar."

"Lungfish is one of the few bands out of this city that won't be forgotten in 10 or 20 years," Joe Goldsborough, head of the Baltimore indie label Merkin Records, says. "They are the only people doing what they do. Lungfish is a definitive band."

At the moment, no one appears to be a bigger fan than Joan Jett. A former resident of Baltimore and Rockville, the leather-clad Jett was all over MTV and FM radio in the early 1980s with hit singles such as "I Love Rock and Roll," "I Hate Myself for Loving You," and a nifty cover of Tommy James and the Shondells' "Crimson and Clover." In the 1990s, she's taken a shine to indie rock and championed the likes of Bikini Kill, Fugazi, and Lungfish, who toured with Jett in 1994 at her request. (Some locals may recall spotting Jett at a Baltimore pro-choice benefit featuring Lungfish and Fugazi a few years ago. She stood alone, by the side of the stage, and sang along to every song.)

Recently, Jett took her fandom a step further by recording a take of "Friend to Friend in Endtime," a Lungfish song that originally appeared on 1992's Talking Songs for Walking disc. Jett's version is pumped-up and anthemic, more radio-friendly rallying cry than poetic statement, yet it doesn't stray far from the original. And, much to her credit, Jett comes close to duplicating Osborne's ripping guitar riff. Lyrically, she only changed one word. But it's a suggestive change worth mentioning.

It's difficult to speak to Jett without first talking to her manager, Kenny Laguna. Laguna, an old-school music-industry veteran with roots in 1960s bubblegum music, gets on the phone and declares that his client "absolutely loves Lungfish." He sounds like a guy on the corner of 42nd Street with a quick smile and a dozen watches up his sleeve.

"Joan Jett has been a big fan of theirs for a long, long time. She plays this stuff in the bus. She plays this stuff before gigs. She fuckin' loves this band," Laguna says. "Joan played 'Friend to Friend' on her VH1 special," he adds, "and the guys at Warner Brothers say it's a hit. We think it'll be on her next album. We're all way into it."

When Jett gets on the phone, she sounds a bit groggy. It's a few minutes before noon, still early by rock-star standards. Jett says Fugazi bassist Joe Lally turned her on to Lungfish by sending her a tape of Talking Songs, the band's first full-length record. "I immediately fell head-over-heels in love with it," she says. "I loved Asa's guitar sound, Dan's voice, the sense of melody--everything, really. They kick ass. That's why I invited them to tour with me. I'm a huge Lungfish fan."

When asked why she chose to record "Friend to Friend," Jett pauses. "I was listening to the disc the other day," she says, "and I was thinking, Man, I could have done any of these songs. It was hard to choose, but I've been playing that song live for the past year and a half. It's so great.

"On that song, you can't really change too much. You gotta have that guitar riff. You can't touch that. The melody is great, the lyrics are great. Everything about the song is great. About the only thing we did was put some tom-tom drums in there to make it more of a heavy, drum-driven thing."

But one word did get changed. "I think I know what you're talking about," Jett says. "You picked up on that, huh?"

In the original, Higgs sings, "We live with collision/ We strap ourselves in." Jett changes it to "we strap ourselves on," a line that's loaded with sexual connotation.

Asked if she'd like to elaborate, Jett chuckles. "I probably don't," she says. "It just popped out. You can make of it what you will. I only changed a letter."

But what a difference a letter makes, huh?

"You don't know the half of it," she says.

Guitars are our friends. Drums, also.
--card from Daniel Higgs, Feb. 9, 1998

Sipping coffee on a sunny day in Mount Vernon Square, Feldstein, Higgs, and Osborne listen to some of the compliments they've been paid and try to put them in perspective. In plain work pants and shirts, they could be longshoremen on break. There's a percussive stutter to Feldstein's voice, Higgs sounds like a sage carnival barker, and Osborne speaks haltingly, like a Southern gentleman. All three come across as solid citizens, the kind of people you'd want for neighbors.

"We all like a little bit of attention," Osborne says, "but as far as the music goes, we get a little self-conscious if people think it's too important or pay too much attention to us."

"It's not more important than other things," Higgs says. "In pop music, the media and these theoretical fans treat musicians as if they're somehow making a more important contribution to society than other people. But that's not true."

"It's just something that we do," Feldstein adds. "Danny, Asa, and I are really good friends, and our music is probably a meld of all the different music that we like."

Higgs wonders aloud if any musician can take sole credit for his/her creations. "Probably not," he says. "All the music is completely interconnected and related. There's a community of music. The music itself is a community, not the people that make it. We draw something out of music, and we make it our own, but it's rooted in the Big Music."

Lungfish has deep roots in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C. music subcultures. In the mid-1980s, the local punk scene was divided into two camps: The Devo and Sex Pistols types migrated to the Marble Bar on Franklin Street, while the Dead Kennedys and Black Flag devotees frequented the Loft around the corner. At the time, a band called Null Set packed them in at the Marble, and a group by the name of Reptile House (that counted Higgs, Osborne, and Goldsborough among its members) often played the Loft.

"I was playing with Null Set at the time," former Lungfish bassist John Chriest recalls, "and I kept hearing about this Reptile House band. I was all into punk and everything, but I didn't know anything about the hardcore scene, so one night before we played the Marble, I walked over to the Loft to see Reptile House. Wow, it was a lot different than what we were doing. It seemed like all they did was fight and get drunk, which is all cool and everything, but I was more into songs."

Still, a seed was planted. When Reptile House imploded in 1986, Higgs and Chriest were introduced by a mutual friend, the late soundman Mark Strazza. Chriest remembered Higgs from the Loft. "At the time, Straz was hanging with Danny, and he'd been talking about doing poetry readings with a few musicians," Chriest says. "Danny was sick of doing music at this point--in fact, he didn't even want to be in a band--and I was between bands, just hanging out and making experimental tapes. Straz did the matchmaker thing and got us together."

Chriest created tape loops for Higgs' poetry readings, and the two clicked. One night, the words "let's jam" were uttered and the collaboration took on a new dimension. Higgs started singing again, Chriest picked up the bass, and they got Osborne and former Reptile House drummer Gary Breeze to join them. With a rotating lineup that included numerous other players, they started gigging at Hourhaus, a club on North Avenue, and St. John's Church under names such as the Immortal Living Lung of the Esoteric Patriot, Autocannibal, and Labinnacotua ("Autocannibal" spelled backwards).

Feldstein, a Philadelphia native who'd recently relocated to Baltimore, remembers those shows. "They were some of the best shows I'd ever seen--very moving," he says. "I knew Asa and I told him, 'If you ever need a drummer . . . '"

A few months later, Feldstein replaced Breeze, and a band was born, sort of. "Danny, Asa, Mitchell, and I decided to do a band but we weren't going to do a regular kind of a band," Chriest says. "We would just do our thing. If it worked, great, but we weren't going to pursue the traditional music-industry kind of path. We'd already been in bands where we had to do stuff--the let's-push-the-product kind of crap--and we didn't want to deal with that sort of thing anymore."

With a firm lineup in place, the group needed a name. Chriest suggested Lungfish, a mud-burrowing creature known for its ability to withstand extended droughts. "It was kind of what we were about at the time," he says. "We would do our thing and then we would go dormant for a month or two, like a Lungfish would. And we weren't pretty. We were all kind of raggedy-ass ugly."

Lungfish caught on quickly in 1988. "I can still remember this one show at Chambers where I knew that we were on to something," Feldstein says. "I could just tell by the way people were reacting. It was beyond the polite-applause kind of thing. I had the feeling that something was going on."

Something special?

"'Special' may not be the right word, but something was going on."

Those early shows at the downtown club Chambers (now the Ottobar) have achieved near-mythic status in local-music lore. The band played the club regularly and it always seemed packed past capacity. People stood shoulder to shoulder and back to chest, waiting, with sweat soaking their clothing. The air was hot and crackling with expectation.

Around midnight, the band would mount the club's tiny stage--a scene that became something of a ritual. Feldstein stretched his arms, sticks in hand; Chriest jumped up and down, bass over his shoulder; and Higgs rocked back and forth, his tattooed arms folded across his chest. When Osborne leaned back on his heels, slashed a chord from his guitar, and pitched forward, the band fell in with him, as did the entire audience, and the room buckled under the ecstatic, rhythmic crush of songs such as "Come Clean," "Put Your Halo On," and "Not Only Long Ride Too High."

It went on like that for two years, until Higgs left Baltimore for California. "We thought maybe we were gonna stop," he recalls. "We didn't know what to do. We never really had a program. The first couple of years we were together, I don't think we ever played out of town. We never really thought about any of that too much. I don't know what we thought we were doin'."

Music tolerates any human imposition. Such is its grace.
--card from Daniel Higgs, Feb. 8, 1998

The release of the first Lungfish record, the 1991 EP Necklace of Heads, helped clarify matters. After the record came out, Higgs returned to Baltimore for weeks at a time and a cycle of writing, recording, and touring (not necessarily in that order) began. "It seemed like that was what a band did," Higgs says. "You had a record out, so there was some chance that people had heard it already and might come out to see you. That's why we started doing shows out of town. Plus, we liked drivin' around, havin' a place to be every night."

Sometimes that place was a leftist co-op in a bombed-out section of downtown Detroit. Other times, it was a rock club in a college town. On rare occasions (such as the Joan Jett tour), it was more of a glitzy Hard Rock Café type of venue

But the venues and cities hardly mattered. "We've never lived large on the road," Feldstein says. "We make enough money to get a hotel room and eat, but that's about it. Basically, we just like playing together. We would play together no matter what."

"With us," Higgs adds, "the only thing we could most definitely say with all certainty about our music--we're not certain that it's good music, we're not certain that it's bad, we're not certain that it's relevant--is that it's important to us. If it is important to someone who happens to hear it, we're glad of that, but we don't ever assume that. We know, at this point, that there are people who listen to our records and come see our shows and seem to get something out of it, but that's almost none of our business."

Feldstein continues: "There's never been any calculated effort on our part to make people hear this music. We've never done any promotion. Whatever happens has always been grass-roots, that kind of way. Making the music is hard enough for us without all the other things."

Even during the post-Nirvana feeding frenzy, when major labels plundered the rosters of many indies, Lungfish stayed the course, remaining with Dischord while bands such as Jawbox and Shudder to Think jumped ship. Following Necklace of Heads and Talking Songs, they recorded five other discs--Rainbows From Atoms (1992), Pass and Stow (1994), Sound in Time (1995), Indivisible (1996), and this year's Artificial Horizon--for Dischord.

"Their existence as a band is not predicated on trends or profit," MacKaye says. "It's predicated on the inevitable. This is what they do. I don't think that they even know why, and that's kind of amazing. There is no underlying agenda, other than to do it. I've often thought of them as folk artists."

Joe Goldsborough offers a similar appraisal. "There's probably a parallel between Lungfish and folk art," he says. "It doesn't occur to them to do much beyond the music, and there's a certain purity to that. It's really honest, dangerous music in that there's no contrivance to it. It has the complete earnestness of folk art."

Christ is the word, a sound; sound is music--there is only one perpetual music, all creation lends a hand in playing it and hearing it. Music survives. Music abides. Music is a true genealogy, the time line. Court music played for the Pharaohs--Pythagoras' awareness of vibrations expiring in time--Chris Toll's theory that humans sung first, spoke later--sounds of present-tense Baltimore. . . . All recorded music. Rapid autospeech. Radio & TV, scripture, news media, future music played backwards, rock and roll as in sex music, as in coupling, as in union.

--card from Daniel Higgs, Feb. 9, 1998

Over the years, Lungfish discs have been amazingly consistent affairs. As with traditional blues records, the instrumentation never varies, and the parameters for its use are solidly in place.

"The general notion is that we'd like to do as much as we can do with the same old instruments we've been using," Higgs explains. "There's a temptation to bring in all kinds of crazy new sounds but ultimately, we'll stick with the guitars and drums. It's not really a disposable ensemble."

In 1995, the parameters narrowed a bit. The band had finished touring after the release of Pass and Stow and was working on new material. John Chriest was hearing jungle, drum 'n' bass, and house music in his head and jonesing to experiment with funkier music, but the rest of the group was headed in the opposite direction. "I sensed the group coalescing into more of a singular, monolithic sound," Chriest says. "It seemed like they wanted to strip down and hone in on something."

Chriest decided to leave the band. "It was the best thing I could do for the group," he says. "It was my best contribution at that time, so they could get to the sound they're doing now. I didn't want to jinx it by naysaying it or pointing to what it was before it was even explored. It was best for me to move on."

Bassist Sean Meadows joined Lungfish and appeared on the next two discs, Sound in Time and Indivisible. More loping than propulsive, Meadows' rhythmic style was a good match for material that was increasingly austere. When Meadows, who also plays in June of 44, left the band last year to pursue other interests, the parameters narrowed even more. (Meadows, who currently lives in Tennessee, couldn't be reached for this article.)

After playing for a short while without a bassist, Feldstein, Higgs, and Osborne invited Nathan Bell to work on some new songs. Bell, who primarily played guitar, was both surprised and honored. "I immediately took all my Lungfish records and mailed them to my brother," he says. "I didn't want to cheat by listening to what Sean and John had done because I have immense respect for them as players. Then I asked myself,What can I do for the band?"

Bell decided to take a more basic approach than his predecessor, thereby simplifying Lungfish's sound even further. "I tried to lock into the bass guitar for what it is--half the rhythm section," he says. "I just tried to help Mitchell get a motion going, like a wheel rolling. Then I tried to keep it rolling to drive Asa and Daniel and take everything to a higher level."

Bell has succeeded in doing just that, his new colleagues say. "He's added just enough, but not too much," Higgs says. "He just sort of nestled in there with the kind of bass you think you hear anyway, and he just happens to be playing it most of the time."

Largely as a result, Lungfish's latest recording, Artificial Horizon, feels more atmospheric than past efforts. Osborne's guitar is less frenetic and there's more space between Feldstein's beats. Higgs has added to the vibe by significantly paring down the lyrics. Instead of 30 or 40 lines of verse, a dozen lines is now about the average.

The streamlining has helped the band widen its niche into a deep groove without sacrificing the music's distinguishing characteristics. "Three or four seconds into each composition, you have a sneaking suspicion it's Lungfish," Goldsborough says, "because they've been mining the same aesthetic for a long time and refining it. The only point in, for example, playing a song with only two chords in it is that eventually it transcends. The same thing is, in fact, not the same thing."

"A lot of people say their songs have similar feelings," Ian MacKaye says. "Somebody once said to me, 'God, they play the same song over and over,' and I thought, Yeah, it's so wonderful. What a great song. I can't think of a kinder gift to the world than doing something so nice so many times in a row."

"There are a lot of subtleties to Lungfish," says Don Zientara, who recorded all but one of the band's discs at his studio, Inner Ear, in Arlington, Va. "They move in slightly different directions, and their ideas come across better and better each time. Their aim is getting very, very accurate.

"See, the band is maturing the way any kind of artist would mature. It's like Dali and the melting watch faces. It may seem the same, but it still has something to say."

Jenny Toomey of Simple Machines--the now-defunct label that jointly released Necklace of Heads with Dischord--speaks of Lungfish's work in more spiritual terms. "Their music becomes like a mantra," she says, "and it's actually useful. In fact, people go to Lungfish music, not for entertainment, but because it's useful. It's very introspective music, and people put them on when they feel that way. And I'm not even sure what that way means. There's a deep connection between the band and its listeners."

With Higgs once again living in Baltimore, Lungfish seems more committed than ever to letting its music evolve. "It's always been like that, as far as where the music decided to go," he says. "We've never tried to consciously steer it in a particular direction. . . . Rather than trying to make it go our way, we'd rather serve it and let it go its way."

Osborne says the band sometimes tries to create more complicated songs, as a challenge, but it never works. "We start doing it and one little part of that mess we're trying to create turns out to be a lot more fun to play," he says. "We'll take a little bit of it, play it over and over, and go out of our minds."

"A person doesn't have to be Lungfish-literate to know how to hear our music," Higgs says. "If you've never heard the song before, after several seconds you have heard the song, and it's gonna do that for a few more minutes. It's easy music to hear, and it creates more of a union between us and a certain type of listener, the sort of person who wonders where simplicity and complexity intersect."

How far can Lungfish continue in that direction? Higgs smiles at the question. "With music," he says, "there's no end to how simple a thing can become."

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