Tim Fite on Crafting the Perfect Concept Album

by | May 2, 2012 | Interviews and Features

Shuffle is For Pussies

I realized something on my way into Tim Fite’s apartment, climbing over a guitar in a shopping cart and a homemade, wooden boombox. I didn’t want to write about Tim. I wanted to be his friend. Fite has been living in Brooklyn for 11 years. His music is defiantly innovative and yet inexplicably familiar. His creativity is contagious.

Fite’s records are genre-defying and multi-dimensional – twang, samples, guns, and guitars. All humorous and in despair. His lyricism unpacks what it is to be alive today, from the social and economic complexities of surviving under capitalism to the simple sound of a breaking heart. He moves from hip-hop to folk with an enviable fluidity.

He has released three albums thus far for ANTI- Records. In Gone Ain’t Gone (2005) and Fair Ain’t Fair (2008), Fite worked solely from samples taken off dollar records. His latest, Ain’t Ain’t Ain’t (2012), was fleshed out of a stockpile of sounds Fite recorded with friends.

His projects have ranged from the “acoustic twang core” of Mudfite, to the “candy coated hip-hop” of Little T and One Track Mike, to the “bad ass rock and roll” of Homeschool. Tim Fite as a solo artist is “all of that shit rolled into one.”

Tell me about your most recent record, Ain’t Ain’t Ain’t.

I usually steal wholesale from other bands. I jack big chunks of music. For this record I teamed up with my friends, engineer Rob Badenoch and Justin Riddle, who’s a brilliant drummer. We went to the woods to a barn in a high school auditorium and we recorded hours and hours and hours of crazy drum sounds at every different BPM and rhythmic style. I made this huge bank of sounds, and from that bank I began to build my songs. Then I started building banks of other instruments besides drums, like guitars and banjos and horns, until I had tons of sounds that I could steal from myself.

Why did you choose to take that route?

Mostly because I wanted a new challenge, and because when I put out records with ANTI- I have to clear the samples so that they don’t get in trouble. I don’t really care if I get in trouble for stealing music, but they care if they do.

On creating a cohesive album: “I like albums. With a beginning, middle, and end. I listen all the way through. Shuffle is for pussies.”

Each of your albums has a thematic concept. Why is Ain’t Ain’t Ain’t about being a teenager?

It’s the last one of the trilogy, which means that it’s sort of an ending, and I tend to get reflective, I think, when I see things coming to an end. I want to look back and figure out where it all started. I didn’t originally intend on it being an album about teenagers; the songs just started coming out.

Is that how you come up with an album, by letting the concept emerge?

I record three times as many songs as I would need for a record, and usually about a third of the way into that I’ll see a common thematic thread and I try and grab onto that and flesh it out with the other two thirds of songs. Then I cut most of them and keep the good ones. And the rest… they just live in the ether.

How involved were you in the production process for this record?

I am all the way close, with some help from Rob [Badenoch] to make sure everything stayed in phase. I am a control freak. I want to be able to perfect every moment in every song. I let go of some of that control for this album, but only because I could trust Rob to water the plants while I was away.

When you’re writing a song do you hear the sounds before you find the lyrics?

I almost always make the music first. Coming from an MC background you would think that I would just write any old rhymes and fit them to a fresh beat, but I really do think the song comes first.

When you’re putting an album together do you have a specific structure in mind?

I like albums. With a beginning, middle, and end. I listen all the way through. Shuffle is for pussies. I always have the same structure in mind when I pick songs… a brick shit-house.

On songwriting: “I almost always make the music first. Coming from an MC background you would think that I would just write any old rhymes and fit them to a fresh beat, but I really do think the song comes first.”

Now that your ANTI- trilogy is over, what are your plans for future projects?

Right now I’m making songs for the Brooklyn Philharmonic. I’m also going to make a record of songs with my friend Osei Essed. We’re going to record a tribute record about Paul Robeson, who’s our favorite guy. Me and Pow Pow from Man Man, we’re going to make a rap record. And I really want to focus on my visual art, in a way that I haven’t – because making pictures makes me happy.

How did you get involved with the Brooklyn Philharmonic?

Anybody who’s a musician in Brooklyn can apply for an Outside-In Fellowship. They choose three people a year and team them up with the Brooklyn Philharmonic House Composer, Randy Woolf. The artists do a performance of a string quartet and a full reading of a whole orchestral arrangement. It’s a really dope opportunity for someone like me who has limited access to that kind of instrumentation.

What do you use when working on your arrangement?

I use the computer and a lot of MIDI, and I just sort of arrange it there and export it into Sibelius. Randy [Woolf] is helping me make sure that all the notes are written the way they’re supposed to be, because up until doing this I never learned to read music. It’s an uphill battle because I blew off all of the learning that most people do while they’re young. I can’t read the notes, but I know what the sounds are.

Is that an obstacle for you when working with others?

No, because I can sing everything I want to have played, and I can describe it with words – just not with notes. Now I’m learning to describe it with notes, which is great. It’ll give me another tool for communicating, but I don’t necessarily know if that language is one that comes naturally to me. I think the reason I avoided it for so long is because it actually is mathematics, and I’ve spent my life avoiding math.

You come from an artistic family. Both of your parents are renowned painters. Can you talk about this?

I grew up in the woods…way off the road in a small farmhouse with a barn and a milk house my parents used as a studio. We had to walk up the path to get to the road when we were kids. Our dad would put the orange on us and make us yell, “I’m not a deer! I’m not a deer!” My parents are both painters. They’re the ones who taught me what it means to do what you love and to try and get better at doing something for your whole life, which I don’t think is a concept that a lot of people get. People try to pass the time; they don’t try to improve the time. They taught me you could improve forever and ever, which is really great.

When did you form your first real band?

We had a band, me and [my brother] Greg and the two kids who lived in the valley with us in the woods. Most of our songs were just big old runs of cuss words, like every cuss word you can say all in a row. We were like a bike gang. You know, we’d ride our bikes and they’d be like ‘Jujujujujujuju’ and I’d be like, ‘Fuck! Shit! Ass! Bitch!’

Talk about some of your early recording experiences and first learning to play music.

I quit piano when I was six. My teacher cried. After that, I didn’t do any formal music study. I learned some chords from a cool guitar player in high school, and started to skunk around with a 4-track and a Roland TR-505 beat machine. I made a whole bunch of super lo-fi albums. Some on my own, some with my friend Keith. Eventually I got a computer with Pro Tools, and that really changed the game. With a limited amount of gear, I can make studio quality music. It also makes stealing really easy.

You have an energetic, engaging live show. Why do you perform the way you do?

I don’t know any other way to perform. It’s like, ‘Why do you use your left hand?’ Well, that was the first hand that grabbed the pencil! I don’t like boring shows. I see a lot of them. I really think it’s important as a performer to be 100% there, to interact with the audience and perform for them. Not just turn in on the music and get wrapped up in it. It’s fun for me and it’s fun for the crowd.

You’re about to go on tour. How do you prepare?

I learn the new songs and learn ’em good so I can perform them well. I have to do a lot of content prep. I’m not like a normal band. I have a multimedia show, so I have to make all the videos and draw all these crazy pictures and do all of the visual stuff for the show beforehand. In a lot of ways it’s even more work than practicing with a band. But in the end, once it’s all done, it’s a lot easier to just keep banging out good shows because it’s all ready. All I have to do is put it in the microwave and warm it up and serve it to the people!


Photos by Carlos Detres