Les Savy life lessons

Pub date April 23, 2008
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

› duncan@sfbg.com

When I call Tim Harrington, he’s in a meeting. It’s 6 p.m. in New York, and for some reason, I guess because he’s Les Savy Fav’s vocalist, I assume this is some kind of band meeting or rehearsal. When I call back in an hour, he’s still in the meeting.

"Do you want me to call back tomorrow?" I ask.

"That’s OK," he says. "I have just declared my professional day over." His professional day, it turns out, ends in a meeting room at VH1 headquarters in Manhattan, not in a practice space in LSF’s native Williamsburg. In addition to doing graphic design at VH1, he’s pushing for "interactive TV-type things," like e-cards you can design online and "schedule times you want them to be on TV so you can tell your friends, ‘Tune in and see that I’m breaking up with you.’"

The job isn’t what I’d expect from a manically animated frontperson, but Harrington, who attended the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design where the band formed in 1995, could give a fuck about giving people what they expect. After three long-players and an EP of dissonant, angular, twin-guitar rock with pop sensibilities and cutting, insightful lyrics — culminating in 2001’s Go Forth on bassist Syd Butler’s French Kiss label — the group took six years to release a new album, last year’s Let’s Stay Friends. The declaration of an official hiatus in 2005 led fans to believe it might be the end.

Instead they opted for restructuring: "It was really hard to explain without sort of tearing the whole thing apart and putting it back together again."

Gone are the incessant van tours; in their place are what he calls "guerilla touring": fly out, play a few select shows, and return to Brooklyn and "real life," which, for Harrington includes a wife and a son, Benji, who’s not yet two. "It’s the best way to tour," he says, "but totally unprofessional."

The outfit’s "unprofessional" attitude, coupled with Harrington’s interactive ideas, led to an online video contest for the Let’s Stay Friends track "The Equestrian," a fetishistic pony-play barnburner: "How many times did you think you could canter past my house / Before I called you to my stable for a little mouth-to-mouth?" In between shots of My Little Pony make-out sessions, the winning video — chosen by YouTube viewers — showcased a pink-haired eight-year-old named Bunny rolling around on the ground and dry-humping a stuffed horse like a prepubescent version of "Like a Virgin"–era Madonna. Was it weird having a little kid lip-synching such an overtly sexual song?

"I love that kind of complicated double energy — the tension of two things competing with each other," Harrington says. "In our live performance that happens a lot." Live, the singer runs around the stage, bearded, bald on top, a little chunky, and manically energetic — often shirtless or changing costumes during a song, perhaps into a sequined cape, while the band plays calmly around him, seemingly oblivious, all the while cranking out fierce squalls of noisy rock that are clearly the force driving the madman in their midst. "I think that people who don’t like us, don’t like us because they’re like, ‘I like one side of it or the other, but I can’t understand how they both can be happening simultaneously.’"

Harrington is not at all the picture of your typical floppy-haired waif of an indie impresario, embarrassed to be on stage and kicking the mic stand. He’s open and enthusiastic on the phone, sounding slightly out of breath, like he just remembered "one more thing" to say. He uses the word "passionate" a lot, and it’s clear that feeling is the key element in his art.

Without taking away from the rest of the group, it’s the cognitive dissonance Harrington creates with his stage presence and lyrics that make Les Savy Fav so powerful. Let’s Stay Friends opens with a track about an only partially fictional band called the Pots and Pans, "who made this noise that people couldn’t stand." Despite their audience’s protests, the unit sticks it out, realizing on some level that they know what’s good for the listeners.

Harrington doesn’t particularly care what you expect, yet he’s not simply adopting a world-weary pose. Instead he’s exhorting you to want more out of music — and out of existence. Nowhere is this idea more apparent than in the album’s final track, "The Lowest Bidder": "We’ve been bought and we’ve been sold / They try but they can’t keep hold / We burn, but we don’t turn to coal / We’re hills all filled with gas and gold / Take the trigger from the lowest bidder / Take the bargain back again." Don’t settle for less.

Listening to Let’s Stay Friends reminds me that there’s more to life than the quotidian world of work meetings, parking tickets, and paying the rent. "Music is the food of love, but reality is waiting for the bus" is a Subhumans lyric I can never seem to forget. For Harrington, reality is passion and waiting for the bus. "An area of interest for me lyrically," he explains, "is to be able to address whatever the harshest and most negative elements are in life and society and defy that, not with a pie-eyed optimism, but with a really cold-hearted optimism.

Don’t expect the world to change. Change yourself. Change your perception of it."


With the Dodos

Sun/27, 8 p.m., $18

Great American Music Hall

859 O’Farrell, SF

(415) 885-0750, www.gamh.com