Features Interviews

High Tension: In Conversation with FACS’ Brian Case

We talk to the Chicago singer about the band’s sensational new album, ‘Present Tense’.

From an artistic standpoint at least, it’s not a stretch to suggest that Chicago’s FACS have owned lockdown, solidifying their position as one of underground music’s key primal forces.

FACS are vocalist/guitarist, Brian Case (Disappears, 90 Day Men), drummer, Noah Leger (Wreikmeister Harmonies, Taking Pictures) and bassist, Alianna Kalaba (We Ragazzi, Cat Power, Boredoms).

Last year saw the release of what can be considered the band’s first water-mark in Void Moments. A thick toxic cloud suffocating the atmosphere. It was post-punk cloaked in a new shade of darkness.

Just over 12 months later, the stirring tension, scorching anxiety, and sunken gloom continues with Present Tense. FACS’ captivating follow-up.

Like Void Moments (which featured in Sun 13’s Top 50 Albums of 2020), Present Tense is sonically menacing. Music brimming with tension through shadowy hellscapes and militant rhythms.

Where Void Moments is best experienced through headphones, the best results with Present Tense can be extracted from the stereo, with FACS emitting a tranquillising proto-rock hybrid that frazzles the mind and drills through bone.

At the first time of listening to the album’s epic cut, Alone Without, I had to press pause and step outside for a cigarette in a bid to regain some composure. It was the result of the acerbic, hypnotic spell FACS cast over you through their sweltering walls of sound that build, rumble, and erupt into something truly frightening.

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Backtracking from the post-apocalyptic drone storm of Alone Without, it all begins with the tribal blitzkrieg of XOUT. The band’s most aggressive song today. The burgeoning resonance of lead single, Strawberry Cough, follows. A song tailor-made for these times.

Following Alone Without is perhaps one of FACS’ finest moments yet in General Public. A song that sounds like the full length of a machete blade scrapping against glass.

FACS don’t let up there, either, as the bruising finale of Mirrored caps off this memorable journey. “Your shadow split/They are following you,” intones Case. It’s the kind of paranoid grip that FACS operate in. The present is, indeed, tense.

Like its predecessor, Present Tense arrives via on the underrated Chicago label, Trouble In Mind. A label which, earlier this year, also released Case‘s latest ambient-based solo album, Practice Tape.

“They are such music fans and they sign what they like,” says. Case. “I think they are the most consistent label out there right now. The music they are putting out is new, it’s all exciting stuff.”

We caught up with Case over Zoom at the beginning of April to talk about Present Tense and what the last 12 months has been like in the world of FACS.

FACS (photo credit: A F Cortes)

Sun 13: Wracking my brains and I think FACS are one of a handful of bands to have actually release two records in lockdown. Have you thought about that?

Brian Case: (Laughs) “Well, we try to just put 30 minutes of music out every year. That’s the motivation for us, writing and staying busy. When Void Moments came out right at the beginning of the pandemic, we had to cancel a lot of shows, we were bummed.

“We wanted to stay productive, so we were like, ‘let’s keep pushing forward and see if we can get another record done’. We had to chill out for a few months when everyone was really locked down, but then we started writing and ideas were coming and we were like, ‘yeah let’s do this, it’ll be weird’ (laughs).

“I don’t know whether we’ll be able to do anything show wise on this record, either. Now that it’s coming out and people are getting vaccinated it looks like by the end of the year we’ll be able to play a show in Chicago, we’ll see.”

FACS performing at Chicago's Metro Theatre last week.

S13: It’s funny because I know you guys are friends with Activity and you released your albums on the same day last year, Void Moments and Unmask Whoever. Some weird prescience going on there…

BC: “We were actually going to do some shows together which would have been really fun. Hopefully next year, or something.”

S13: Can you tell us a bit about the writing process of Present Tense?

BC: “Yeah, it’s kind of the same thing we always do. We just get into the room together and either someone will have an idea or concept for a song and we’ll try and work it out musically, or one of us will actually have a piece written and we can show it to each other and we’ll talk about where we want it to go or what we want it to do. Or we just all play different things, until it all runs together as something, then we try and expand it into something else. We try not to get too locked into one way of doing things. We try to keep it organic and make sure that everyone’s input is respected.”

S13: Do you see a connection between Void Moments and Present Tense?

BC: “It’s weird. Usually putting out a record involves playing a bunch of shows and the songs change as you play them more. Some become your favourites and some may lose their spark, some work really good with other songs… we don’t have that now because we didn’t go on tour with Void Moments. So it still feels really new to us and with Present Tense, I still don’t really know what to think of it.

“We didn’t consciously try to change how we were doing it or anything, and I think Void Moments was still very much on our mind while we were making it. It feels weird to me, I don’t know if I know what it really is yet.”

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S13: XOUT sounds like the most aggressive song you’ve written. What was the inspiration behind this one?

BC: “It felt like a good way to start the record after being inside for a year (laughs). I don’t know… we really try to centre in on the idea of tension in the music. That song came from that, making it physical and I think we did a good job. It’s different but it feels good.

“There were a couple songs off this record that just kind of… we went into the practice room with nothing then came out with a full song, those songs didn’t change much after that first time. XOUT was one of them.”

S13: Strawberry Cough feels like it may be inspired about COVID…

BC: (Laughs) “Yeah. It was a reference to that movie, Children of Men. Have you heard of it?”

S13: Yeah, but I’ve not seen it.

BC: “It’s really good. Michael Cain is in it, he’s sort of like a rogue hippie (laughs). It’s a really good movie, you should watch it.”

S13: Okay.

BC: “It feels very now even though it was made almost 20 years ago. He’s always smoking this weed called Strawberry Cough and trying to get people to smoke it and cough because it smells like strawberry. It felt surreal and weird, the song is about being in the present and being confused. It was a funny joke at practice so we just stuck with it.”

S13: Like a happy accident, almost?

BC: “Yeah, absolutely.”

S13: Thinking about it, I would say that Void Moments was the best produced album of last year and so far in 2021, Present Tense isn’t far behind it. How important is Sanford Parker to the band’s sound?

BC: “Sandford is very important. The last two records we’ve tracked with him and it’s been really easy and comfortable, there’s lots of room to experiment. We try and do things really quick in the studio. Like first thought, best thought. We usually go in with almost everything written but we like to leave room for inspiration to guide some songs that aren’t completely done.

“Then we send it to our friend, John Congleton who lives in L.A. and he does the mixing and production.”

S13: He’s one of the best producers around these days…

BC: “He’s a really good friend of ours. We really trust John, he’s great.”

S13: He’s been a part of some great records. I love [Steve] Albini’s work, but I think he did a better job with that third Cloud Nothings record.

BC: “Yeah, they’re totally different approaches to the same band, it’s cool.”

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S13: Going back to Sanford and it feels like he really gets what FACS is trying to do. Not many guitar-based bands seem to create their own world through sound but I think you do. Is this something that you’ve thought about?

BC: “Yeah, I mean… I like that we’re a traditional trio of bass, drums and guitar but I think it’s not obvious if you hear us. I try to step out of the guitar playing role and do something different, you know? Like, Noah and Alianna are so solid and their connection is really good, so a lot times my idea is to stay out of their way and I try to do that by being a little bit more abstract.

“I also feel like if I’m bringing an idea into them, I don’t want them to just follow what I’m doing, so I try to come in with things that are open to interpretation so that they can change my mind about what I’m hearing. Because I hate when you write a song and you can already hear the bass and the drums and when that doesn’t happen it just leads to some confrontation or you’re hearing the demo as the best version of the song. I try to sidestep that whole thing and throw them something that has no grounding. They always come up with something that becomes more interesting and original.”

S13: They come from very different music backgrounds. Alianna has been in Cat Power and has also been a part of Boredoms. I didn’t know until earlier this week that, prior to Disappears, Noah was in the more hardcore/metal scenes, like with Pelican and those kind of bands…

BC: “Yeah. He definitely has a heavier pedigree than us. But also, Noah was also a member of the Blue Man Group. Do you know this theatre production?”

S13: No.

BC: “It was cool. It ended, COVID shut the whole thing down. It was a theatre company that did these three person performances and Noah was a part of the band that backed them up. His range is huge. His ability to pick up on a cue, or just taking a moment in a different direction, it’s really cool.”

(Both laugh – Brian’s dog, Sylvain, enters the Zoom chat to say hello).

S13: I read an interview with Noah and Trevor from Pelican from about 10 years ago and people have called him the best drummer in Chicago. I mean, he’s pretty incredible, I can’t really think of many drummers these days that have the range that he does.

BC: “He’s got lots of range. When you see him play it’s very physical. We put him up front because he’s way more fun to watch than me.” (laughs)

FACS - Present Tense

S13: With that own world thing, I’d say that Alone Without really underpins Present Tense. Would you agree with that?

BC: “I think so. It’s the first song we wrote [for the record] and we wrote it in a different way. Noah and Alianna played drums on it together. And I played this instrument called the Bass VI. Do you know what that is?”

S13: No.

BC: “It’s a six string bass but plays more like a cross between a bass and a guitar. So it’s was just the one string instrument and two drummers and we just wrote those riffs, focused in on the rhythm. Noah and Alianna played keyboards and I put a little guitar on it. We went into the studio just to record that song, the idea being we’d try something different and get out of our comfort zone.

“It helped set the tone for the record, we liked how it worked out and we could build around it and fill in the rest of the pieces.

“I never really think of it as a centrepiece, more like the beginning of something different. The first step. We recorded it before Void Moments came out.”

S13: Oh, wow!

BC: “We basically had a free studio day and we thought, ‘let’s see what happens, let’s go in without too many plans’.

“We didn’t have the pressure we’d normally have when you feel like you have to get all of this stuff done and we’ve only got a couple of days. It definitely helped set the mood for the record, we could follow our instincts and go down some different paths that we don’t normally go down.”

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S13: It definitely has a improv’ vibe. It reminds me of the song, Version from Void Moments when the song ends and you say “Sanford did you record that?”

BC: (Laughs) “That was Noah, actually!”

S13: (Laughs) Ahh, okay. It kind of feeds into what FACS is about.

BC: “Yeah, for sure.”

S13: General Public is next which is one of the strongest tracks off the album, for mine. Was the tracklisting important with General Public following Alone Without? Like, was it a conscious thing to have those two songs back-to-back, as they work so well together?

BC: “We didn’t really know until after the recording how it was all going to fit together. But yes, coming out of this really open nebulous thing into something very direct and focused was intentional. If you have the vinyl, Alone Without ends side one and General Public starts side two. It felt like a good turn.”

S13: As the second single, General Public along with Strawberry Cough work well, too. I don’t know what singles are anymore. Some people love them. Others like the full album…

BC: “Yeah, get some songs out and get people interested. It’s so hard to get people’s attention now.”

S13: I was going to ask about that. You’ve been in projects for years with 90 Day Men and Disappears – part of a music scene where physical product had value and people actually wanted it. Now, it’s all about streaming. How economically viable is it for musicians such as yourselves?

BC: “It’s not! (laughs). Not for bands our size. I mean, even for bigger bands I imagine it’s an adjustment. It still affects their bottom line. I’m sure you’ve seen the numbers, the difference on what you get for a stream and selling a record is insane. There’s no comparison.

“I have been in bands that were selling a lot of records and bands that sold not so many, but basically I was always able to live off playing music. Now, that’s changing. It’s really hard to make music the main source of income, and streaming plays a part in that, for sure. Even in the last 10 years the way it’s changed things is significant. Going from the Apple Store where you buy MP3s – that bit into your physical sales but then turn that into Spotify and it’s brutal.”

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S13: This may sound a bit idealistic, but it would be cool if bands got together and abandoned the likes of Spotify to give the likes of Bandcamp an exclusivity to their music.

BC: “I really like Bandcamp, and over this last year I think people have learned just how much it helps bands. I don’t know whether people really know what it’s like when a band can sell 20 shirts in a day, Bandcamp is very direct about helping artists.

“With Present Tense we talked about not putting it on any streaming service, and our label were going to support us in doing that. But we looked at how streaming paid out on our last record and decided it wasn’t time for this yet, in a year that is still so uncertain in terms of us promoting an album.

“From our perspective as artists, we could find a way to do without that money and supplement that somehow, but for our label, who we love, they put a lot of money into our project and work their asses off to get it out there and that’s sort of taking money away from them.

“So our decision was that we don’t want to take money away from them, even if it means playing a game with this company we disagree with. I think that’s a position a lot of bands are in. Everybody’s scrounging for change, and while you don’t want to give these people access to your art, there’s still a bottom line. When there’re people spending money on us I feel like there’s a responsibility to get that money back to them.”

S13: Younger bands are at a point where streaming is their go-to, they didn’t grow up in the culture of physical product. My sympathy is with bands like yours that have been a part of a culture where making music was economically viable for a time and now it’s like, ‘what are you going to do?’

BC: “It’s a weird spot, because streaming is the predominant thing, it’s hard to see that changing, but something new always comes along. I’m more wary about every band having a year off, tons of cancelled tours, lots of people sitting on records to release once the pandemic is more under control… when shows happen again and festivals come back, it’s going to be a mess. So many things are going to happen at the same time – it’s going to change things for bands in a way no one can even predict yet. I’m curious to see what’s going to happen.”

FACS (photo credit: via the artist's Facebook page)

S13: Yeah, shows over here are getting announced. July onwards. Maybe a few in June, as well. I still think there’s going to be a consumer confidence issue, particularly if people aren’t fully vaccinated…

BC: “Clubs can’t really operate consistently at a lower capacity. Bands, particularly ones that tour internationally, can’t really make less money to accommodate for that. There’s a bottom line that doesn’t go away. When you’re overseas and you need to make x-amount of money every day because you’re renting gear, a van, a tour manager or sound person, those costs won’t change to reflect the changes the clubs need to make to get moving again. All those things start to stack up on each other and it starts to eliminate touring possibilities for a lot of people.”

S13: It may come to a point where house shows could become a thing. Fans getting bands over and putting them up in their own place.

BC: “Yeah. The thing I’m looking forward to is that people have had a year to think about what these things actually mean to them. Is music a part of your mental health? Is it a social thing? I think that will help people organise and come together in a different way when shows do happen because, as you know, there are so many bands around and there’s so much happening at all times and you can’t participate in all of that even if you wanted to. How are people going to change the way they view events like this, you know?”

S13: The lyrics to the last track, Mirrored. “There is another world mirrored, distanced tomorrow said with different words. No ritual no regret”. That feels like a pretty prevalent statement to end Present Tense

BC: (Laughs) “Yeah. The idea for the album title… Like a double entendre. It means things are tense. The present is tense. But also right now, this is happening.

“For the lyrics on this record, any time I had a word or a phrase, I’d put it down on a list. Like, on my notes app. So I had all these words in one big document and then I started to pull connections between them and bring songs out of that. Mirrored was one of the first three songs we wrote. I’d see the words and start putting them together and when you look at them long enough, it’s like, ‘I think I know what this means now’.

“But yeah, it felt like… all the lyrics on this record, even now, I’m like ‘wait, what does this mean?’ (laughs) I’ll go with what you said, I like that. That’s intense.” (laughs)

S13: You talked about the space in your music but lyrically, your singing style has a lot of space too, like less is more. Quality over quantity.

BC: “Yeah.”

S13: It reminds me of Mark E. Smith mixed with Scott McLeod from Girls Against Boys.

BC: “I love both of those people. Thank you! I like to be vague, too, because I don’t like to tell someone how to interpret a song. I want them to be able to put themselves in the narrative or decide what they think it means. I’m more interested in what someone else thinks vs. me telling somebody that this is what you’re supposed to be thinking.

“We always struggle with whether we should put the words in because I like when people say the wrong words back to me, when they hear something that’s not there – I think that’s really cool. It’s one of those things. I’m way more interesting in what someone else is hearing than what I may have said.” (laughs)

S13: People talk about punk and whether it’s a sound or attitude and I think the same argument applies to music and politics. For instance, I’d say that someone like Godspeed You! Black Emperor sound political. I guess what I’m gearing at is that FACS strike me as having a similar aesthetic. Do politics play a role in your songwriting?

BC: “We talk about it with each other a lot. It informs our perspective. There’s also things we don’t want to participate in or associate with, so I think that’s political. Anytime you’re putting yourself out there as an artist you’re making a statement. Like, with the punk thing – there is a politic connected to what you do, it’s unavoidable. I’d rather be saying something than not and if that’s political, then yes [we are].”

FACS (photo credit: via the artist's Facebook page)

S13: You’ve been in many bands around the Chicago scene for years now. It feels like FACS has more of a longevity to it, though. Do you see it that way or is it a case of reflecting after each album is released and making that decision?

BC: “Well, I mean, you bring up the fact that I’ve been in a bunch of bands and being in so many bands I can tell you, one day it’s just over! There’s never a big thing where a band got to a point where we were like, ‘We’re gonna break up after this!’ or whatever. It just stops.

“So, the thing with me, as I get older, I’m afraid if I stop making music for too long, it’s going to be really hard to start again. It’s so easy for other things to take over your personal life or dominate your landscape, because they are important. I try to keep moving forward because I’m afraid I’ll lose the ability to play if I stop.

“I’ll always make music. I make solo stuff and that’s cool. I enjoy that, but it’s a whole different thing. With a band, it’s hard to find people to play with and connect with, so I just try to keep something on the horizon for us so there’s always something to look forward to. Along with that, just respecting what everyone else wants to do with the band or what works for them, in terms of going out on tour or whatever, that’s important, too.

“I think about it pretty often, because I’ve seen it go away so many times. When you’re young, you’re just out there doing it. 90 Day Men would go out on tour for two months straight. We were 20 years old, it was all we had, it was everything. But now, Noah, Alianna and I out on the road for two months straight might not be the best idea (laughs).

“You’ve got to be conscious of one another, and that to me is how you continue to play music and be creative.”

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S13: With festivals like Primavera giving a platform for smaller cultish bands of the past, would you ever look at getting 90 Day Men back together?

BC: “I don’t know. We are currently in the process in getting the rights to all of our masters back. So we’re getting all that music back. It’s really important to all of us that it’s back in our possession and we have control of it because it’s super important to us, that period of our lives.

“That said, I don’t know if we’ll play again (laughs). Obviously, if somebody threw a stupid number at us we would probably talk about it. I don’t have a problem with every single band getting back together, but I just don’t know if I want to be a part of that.

“But I would love to play music with those guys. Only Cayce [Key – drummer] and I live in Chicago now. We’re all spread across the country and busy doing other projects. I don’t know… if the price was right we could maybe figure it out, but as of now I would say playing together again is probably not going to happen. But 90 Day Men is some of my favourite music I’ve played and some of my favourite people I’ve played with. I love those guys.”

S13: How much do you think the landscape of Chicago influences FACS?

BC: “Fully. Everything. Musically, it’s a super open community. There’s a lot of cross-pollination between bands and genres. Everybody’s hanging out at the same places. I’m friends with a lot of younger people that are playing music, it’s really inspiring. It’s amazing here.

“I have a hard time thinking of playing music somewhere else, there’s a motivation here that keeps pushing people forward. I don’t know whether that exists in other places.”

S13: As an outsider, comparing Chicago to other North American scenes, New York blew up in the early ’00s, kind of like it did in the late ’70s and ’80s. L.A’s had its scene. Chicago always seems to be constant, though…

BC: “It’s a real community and that’s its strongest attribute, I think. There are so many labels, booking agencies, clubs, publicity companies, musicians… it’s still relatively affordable to live here, so that gives people the time to focus on art.

“I think the Midwest is a special part of the country and it gets overlooked a lot. People call it the flyover because they think of New York or L.A, on the coasts, being the major destinations. There’s just so many smaller cities, Chicago is in the middle of that and draws so many people from these smaller places that makes the perspective here so unique. Like, there’s competition here but it’s healthy. It’s the kind of competition that inspires you to work harder.”

Present Tense is out now via Trouble In Mind. Purchase from Bandcamp.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

19 replies on “High Tension: In Conversation with FACS’ Brian Case”

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