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Interview: Andy McFarlane of Far Lands

Andy McFarlane of Far Lands
30 April 2021

Photo by Michelle Lucille Taylor

Having given up his rock star dreams as a teenager in Cincinnati, Ohio in the mid-90s, Andy McFarlane spent much of his adult life as an educator, a profession he was drawn to after spending time in Mexico in his early 20s. It was a serendipitous reunion with an old high school musician friend, Matt Drenik (Lions, Battleme) in Portland a few years ago that inspired McFarlane to start sharing poems, lyrics and music he had been writing over the last couple of decades. Under the name Far Lands, McFarlane quietly released Oh What An Honor, Oh What A Drag in 2017 on a label he runs with Drenik called Get Loud. For his sophomore release, There Be Monsters, McFarlane worked with producer Ivan Howard (The Rosebuds, Gayngs) and the recently-released result is a mature, complex, introspective collection of well-crafted songs.

Though this Zoom call was the first time we met, it felt like a conversation with a friend that I hadn’t seen in many years and was catching up with. As I told him a few times throughout the hour-long interview, McFarlane’s led the type of life that would make for a great documentary series.

I read that you and Matt grew up together.

ANDY: Yeah, we did. From middle school on, we were buds and then lost track of each other post college. We reunited in Portland pretty forcefully. He played a show and I’d heard rumors that he was in Portland. I was like, “Oh, that’d be fun. I’d love to see Matt again.” I had a high school band that he really liked and when I saw him at the show, he jokingly dedicated the last song to the lead singer of his favorite band. It was pretty wild. He came up and just gave me a big hug after the show. It turned out, he lived 12 blocks from me and had ever since he came to Portland and started Battleme. It was really cool to reconnect and it’s been pivotal in sending me into a very sweet era of life where making art is a lot more central to where it had been.

I did some searching but couldn’t find anything about you pre-2017 when you released Oh What An Honor, Oh What a Drag. What were you doing before the release of that album?

ANDY: Interesting question. How long do we have?

When I was young, my mom took me into her deceased brother’s bedroom, he had died when we was 17 while scuba diving. He was a prolific poet and wrote some amazing poetry. My dad was a folk singer and I always paid attention to words. My dad was always pointing out the lyrics in a Joan Armatrading song or a Leonard Cohen song and mouthing the words into my ear making sure I found the sweet spots. I was always taught music and taught poems, and my mom gave me a number of books of her brother’s poetry, almost a shelf of stuff that he’d written before he passed away untimely.

Ever since I was 10, I was like, “I’m a poet. I like writing poetry.” That was encouraged at a Montessori school and it was encouraged at a language-based collegiate high school in Cincinnati. I pursued it thereafter, so that’s been a thread forever for me — caring about poetry, reading a lot of poems, and writing all the time, capturing little moments. A lot of times, melody comes with that. I wake up from a dream and I will have heard a song. I’m like, “Does this song exist? Because that’s a pretty cool melody,” and I’ll quickly pull out my voice memos and capture these little things.

The more proximal answer to your question is I came back from studying — I did some ethno musicology in Oaxaca, Mexico. I went with an old VS84 8-track as a 20-year-old and recorded a tradition in Zapotec Oaxaca of these sones, which were beautiful old folk songs that were written in Zapotec. I got to travel around and was passed around by the preservation society of Oaxacan culture. They let me meet old timers that had these beautiful songs. From that, they asked me to record this tradition of pre-Hispanic flute.

I came back from that, and I had another musical project in college, but it taught me that this idea of community is central and that we’re not doing some things right the way we do very independent society in America. I just saw this culture that was so self-sustaining, they had beautiful rituals for curing that involved inviting people’s souls back into their bodies when they saw signs of depression. I got to go back with a grant from Wheaton College to study the tradition of healing among the Oaxacans and that was just beautiful, all the while writing and all the while just gathering stories.

I came back to the States and I was like, “What am i going to do now?” Anthropology seems like a stretch if you want to be in a community and not always traveling so I went into education. I started off as an AmeriCorps member and did wetland restoration with at-risk youth and I helped an organization bring stream restoration and salmon habitat work to disadvantaged populations in a pretty large school district just south of Portland. And, quickly, I got my master’s and was a teacher and I did that for about 10 years, always working in at-risk education with a license to teach Spanish, because I speak Spanish fluently, but then mostly focusing in all subjects in small environments with kids who have just been left behind by the education system.

From there, I became a school principal and then director of equity for a school district and it was then that, if we kind of loop back to meeting Matt backstage, I was a high school principal at that point and the director of alternative education in Tigard, Oregon, and it was then that I met him and it was like only between his tours and my really busy schedule as a district official and whatnot, was I able to like polish off these vignettes of songs with him and make this all happen.

The pinnacle of that was I got a gig as an adjunct professor at Lewis & Clark College here and did that for a spell, teaching principals equity in leadership. I always knew these things were going to come to fruit. I have books and books and books and just hours of recordings of my own and I’d never sat with anybody to produce them but they always sat like a sweet, secret treasure box that I knew I would open someday and when I did, and it happened so organically and it was received the way it was with Matt’s help and with the artists that collaborated on that first album, Paulie Pulvirenti and Ivan Howard and others, it was just obvious that I had to put a pause in what was a pretty back-breaking line of work and pursue other options for financial gain but really just focused on the art for that year and since then.

The pandemic has been a pretty sweet inward time. I’m in central Oregon on the Deschutes River right now. I just spent all day on the water yesterday for the first time out in my kayak for the season and so I would say most recently I’m kind of downshifting from a real full life in education and finding a real full life in some quietude out here in the high desert and also making art with some of the best people I’ve ever met and a lot of a whole lot of new friends through that.

This is not where I thought this was going to go, but now I want to watch an eight-part Netflix documentary about your life.

ANDY: I appreciate that. I would say it was always just realizing that, in life, we put these ceilings on ourselves of what we think we can do. I’ve lost parents, they were pretty young when they passed away, and so realizing that time is finite and you’ve got to use it right and use it well. I was always like, “What’s the next thing? What’s the next little right thing?” and sometimes it’s like, flip the car around and go the other direction.

The challenge for me has been, how do you turn that into the only currency that matters of meaning? How do transmutate these experiences of the most heartbreaking shit into something meaningful whether that’s for ourselves or people around us or be there for somebody that’s going through the shit? You know my marriage was … around the time that Matt and I were making music again … it’s pretty evident in that first album that a lot of it’s a thinly-veiled breakup album, Oh What An Honor, Oh What A Drag.

If girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice, what is There Be Monsters made of?

ANDY: I would say, hands down, the friendship with Ivan that came from tucking in wherever we could on the calendar, whole days in his home studio, to find the sound behind the words and being an in an intimate process with somebody as gifted as he is who’s really listening and asking to hear things different ways. The vignettes that came to be parts of each of these songs, some of them I’ve had for 15 years, some slivers of some of those songs are lines that I’ve had for 20 years.

So, sitting in a room and having somebody who really wants to listen deeply and then work together really intimately to find the right sound and the right mood and the right arrangement, I’d say that that friendship is written all over this album. I wouldn’t say that wasn’t the case with Oh What An Honor but there’s a bit more lightness in this album and I think it was because we were both in a place of life … Ivan was working at the time, I think his first non-music, 40-hour-a-week day job, so there was this release that I think he was getting by working on something that wasn’t his own, where he didn’t have as much skin in the game, but loved the songs and could invite all the friends in.

That was going on and I had just gone to half time at work, I’d just gone to a support role for hiring a new principal to replace me, so there was a lightness about my being where I felt like I was being a better dad with more time to devote to those things and finally to use that metaphor, I finally was having a chance to really dig into that kind of secret collection of all the old writing — and new writing — and finally bring it to life.

I have this image of Portland as earthy and grey skies. I sort of expected you to join this Zoom call from an apartment complex in the middle of the city and completely blow my vision out of the water. Seeing where you are now, I feel like the music sounds exactly like your current view.

Far Lands

ANDY: My dad lived in Kentucky on a fishing lake in a log cabin from the time I was 11, but, prior, was living in Clifton (Ohio) near the University for a couple years after the divorce. My mom lived in the city. I went to school at inner city public schools, my mom made sure we did that to have those experiences that would come from it. I’ve always needed a reprieve from the city, so I do live in like deep southeast Portland primarily, I have a house there and I’m there mostly.

I’ve been restoring a little 100-year-old cabin resort here on the Deschutes in Maupin. There are all the little fishing cabins that came in on the railroad in 1900 and 1915, during the railroad wars, and they all needed a lot of love so that’s my new life. I’m here about half time, I’m up on Mount Hood quite a bit. I’ve always needed that getaway.

I would cull all of these voice memos at a cabin on Mount Hood starting probably seven or eight years ago. I would get away for a weekend, when it wasn’t my parenting time, and I would pull out all that month’s voice memos, find a way to organize them in a way that made sense, make notes on paper and then I would re-record off of that page, after about two days, all these things. A lot of this music was born in the Pacific Northwest woods and, only in the past 18 months have I been spending about half my time in central Oregon, kind of high desert.

I wonder how much of where you live and where you create music plays into the way the songs sound. Do you think the record would have sounded the same if you had lived in St. Louis or Baltimore or Raleigh?

ANDY: Given the geographical context that’s different, but still having had those pains we talked about, and still being a guy who needs to pull away from St. Louis and find some sticks outside St. Louis, I probably would have developed a similar process that involves a lot of nature bathing and breaks from it. I’m sitting, but I rarely sit, so I need those breaks from a creative process and I love to be in pretty places.

When I first heard “It’s Time,” I thought I could probably spend 30 minutes just talking about that song with you. Here’s my analogy about that song. It’s like biting into a satisfying turkey sandwich where you taste the turkey, some cheese and some mayonnaise. Then you take that second bite and you’re pleasantly surprised with the addition of avocado and roasted red pepper. It gives the sandwich a whole new flavor that you didn’t expect when you took your first bite. That’s how I feel about “It’s Time.” It’s a great song and the deeper you get, all of sudden there horns! When you were writing the song, did you always plan on having horns or is that something Ivan recommended?

ANDY: I remember writing those words in my old house in northeast Portland. The first line was “It’s time we make a pancake breakfast for the guests” and then “It’s time to lay a wreath down and set sadness to rest.” I had written those lyrics, that was more of me sitting down and writing a poem and then the melody came after that, like is often the case and so I knew that was the melody. That one I’ve been sitting on for eight years, that poem. I recited it to Ivan and I went into the “fountain” line at the end, which I really didn’t understand until I had this shock of The Goonies moment when they’re under the fountain and they’re like, “These are other people’s dreams.” I was like, “Oh wow, of course that’s the extended metaphor, we finally chased the deferred dreams.”

As far as the music of it, my original version was written with me on guitar and it was a lot more jangly. To have Ivan come in and put the synths and those kind of washes over it, and to have it be a lot more ominous, it settled so right. It’s a lot of “How about this?” and then it’ll be that atmospheric synthy sound and then I’m singing it sitting next to him, or pacing in his studio, and it was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” We didn’t record this one first or even second or maybe even third in the sequence of the 11 songs.

With that one, we knew there was going to be a number of songs where you struggle to capture people’s attention and pay attention to words for this chunk of time and then let’s come to a backside where, with “It’s Time,” it’s that lyric kind of swirling and we were trying to emulate a fountain. I do remember Ivan saying “let’s make it sound like a fountain” and so the horns and all those other pieces that come together, the goal in production was to emulate the sound of a fountain, a bubbling fountain or a swirling fountain, and I don’t remember who specifically brought up horns but Roselit Bone is on the record label that I started with Matt and we have Jordan Vale, who’s an amazing trumpet player. He’s so willing to do session work. We were like, “Who do we know that can make cool swirling sounds to emulate a fountain?” and pulled him in and, among other things, we had a saxophone player also kind of blend in and I think we maybe used pieces of that too.

When we went in the studio, we were in there a full seven days, 12-hour days, ate all the meals together, a sweet revolving door of friends and really took our time. The studio was like a clubhouse, it’s the old Get Loud one where Matt recorded a number of bands in a production role. It’s like home to us, I’d spent so much time in that place it wasn’t like we’re renting a studio, we got to get this shit done. There were lots of tools in there, there’s like old synths and a Hammond and B3 and all that stuff. I’m super pleased how it came out it.

When I saw the publicity photo with you sitting in a chair in the woods, my mind goes to “this is middle-age rock for a middle-age guy audience.”

ANDY: Let’s make that be the tag line!

Who would you expect to be listen to this album, understand it and enjoy it?

ANDY: I think I’ll go a circumlocutious route to that answer. I love that I’m 42 and I didn’t do these songs at 22 or 32. I’m so happy that I was so busy, that I’m now doing them when I can do it not thinking about persona. I’m really happy that I’m this age and that I don’t need to do much. My identity’s not tied up in recognition from these songs. I would say … I’ve never actually thought about who would be listening to the album. I only think about my own friends and my daughters and my brother when it comes to who the audience is, and the musicians on the record with me, so honestly we have a great little family of bands that are part of Get Loud. If I’m thinking about it when I’m making it, the thing that brings me happiness is that those people I know will hear it and we’ll probably have some discussions around the lyrics.

Understanding your story of how you got here, if you were 22 and I was asking you these questions, you might say that you’re targeting a college-aged crowd so that when you hit the road and play dive bars, there will be people there to see you. But, it sounds to me like you’re making the music you want to make and you don’t really care who listens to it.

ANDY: I don’t. I love that people do though. It’s really a sweet thing. I wrote this book that went into the void when I was 20. It was sold at some book houses, it was sold at Powell’s in Portland when I first moved here. My friends bought it and I had great conversations about that book. It came out with a CD of some spoken word and stuff but you realize that the same way that images have decreased in value with the world being flooded with images, the value of poetry, or a stage performance of poetry, is just so not a commodity that this culture really values. But we write these things and you’ve been through hardship and you kind of wish somebody had whispered the lyrics to “Lowlands” to you when you were going through a divorce. When you do that one-on-one and you happen to have a lyric or a poem memorized that’s really relevant to someone’s experience, to be able to share that and have it received honestly and mean something to somebody, it comes back to the concept of meaning. What can we do to increase our meaning in our lives however that plays out? That’s the currency that this music is for me. Having them on TV shows has been a sweet surprise because it funds the label a little bit, having them reach an audience that it definitely wouldn’t have met, you know, if you look at your like little demographics, you’re like “There’s a lot of young women 20-to-25 hearing these songs.” I don’t really get to sit with 20-to-25-year-old women and recite poems. That would be creepy. Jokes aside, I guess that’s the thrust of it. There’s a sweetness that you get an audience and it’s a surprise, honestly, that there’s even a moderate audience. I do hope that, as time goes on, if these songs age well, I hope that this continues to grow because it’s a sweet thing to be able to have even a one-sided dialogue when people are really listening

I’m guessing that you’re not planning on hopping in a van and touring this record across the country.

ANDY: Nope. We’ve only played two live shows on the first album and they were great. It was lovely. I loved it. I’m not at all afraid of it. I think we’ll definitely do it again. The world has dictated otherwise. Any promotion that I do for putting shows together, I’m the last person I’m putting on the bill because there’s so many bands that are really needing it and hungry for it. So, no, it’s not a touring package. I know that I will play a show and I know that it’ll happen in a way that’s a little bit more intimate. Could you see these songs at a festival?

Is there anybody that you share songs with when they are in demo form or when you complete them to get feedback?

ANDY: My brother. My brother’s a wonderful musician and songwriter and similarly has not pursued that as even a vocation but more of a hobby. I totally trust his take on music and he has a great ear. He’s a great producer of his own work. And then my partner Michelle is amazing at it. I always play my kids demos. We always sit at the table and they love hearing it and they’re both very musical. I have a daughter who’s 15 and one who’s 12. I occasionally will send the tracks to a far-flung friend and ask for some feedback but definitely my brother, Nate

Can you tell me the story behind the album artwork?

ANDY: It goes back to Athens, Ohio actually. Do you know the name Aethelred Eldridge, the professor at Ohio University who that taught topical art and was in the dictionary of avant-garde? He very much believed that he was the reincarnation of Blake and recited Blake in a non-denominational chapel at OU. He was the father, at age 70 something, of my first friend at OU. He had a an a beautiful property outside called Golgonooza and I have a number of his syllabi which were black drawn on white paper panels and the most beautiful words on one page, crazy black and white art on the other. Just beautiful stuff.

Fast forward a couple of years and a buddy from Chicago, who’s a best friend of Aethelred’s son Saxon, came and did a year study under Aethelred as an art student at OU. That’s Frank Theophani Callozzo, who’s the guy who’s done all the art.

During the process of recording, by happenstance, I hadn’t seen him in years, ran into Frank in Powell’s books on Hawthorne in Portland. We caught up, we looked at some books together. I told him what I was up to, heard about what he was up to, and he totally devoted himself after that tenure with Eldridge to mostly ink art. He had done a piece for a poem called “Face to Face,” there were a couple pieces of art in that book that I published, so at age 19 he drew a unique picture for a poem and they sit opposing pages in the book. I thought, how sweet would that be if one of my earliest visual art and poetic art collaborations could take a stab at this cover art. He drew the Oh What An Honor, Oh What A Drag at like 24-by-24 inches, maybe slightly bigger, and I was just completely floored by it. I was like, “I don’t know what all this stuff in here means” but I gave him all the words to the album and I gave him the original demos and he listened to it while he did that.

Far Lands - Oh What An Honor

On There Be Monsters, I gave him all of the lyrics and I gave him the demos and he painted that from scratch with the album in mind and having known me when we were kind of kids together. I’m actually commissioning a piece right now from him. He recently had a heart attack and a scary thing go down last year, so I’m trying to muster the funds to commission a larger piece by him again and maybe that would end up as a cover for a single or something down the road. It’s been a really sweet reconnection and a really meaningful one. I haven’t seen him since the Powell’s day, but we we catch up every few months and it’s been a nice thread of connection through him working on my words and him doing line work to it.

Far Lands - There Be Monsters

With that story I’ve now added two additional episodes to the series on Netflix.

ANDY: And you gotta check out Eldridge’s stuff. He was a force and his property down there I hope will be a museum someday, it’s just beautiful.

 

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