The Famines + Raymond Biesinger = Pushing the limitations of “as little as possible”
The Famines: The Complete Collected Singles, 2008 – 2011 [Nov/2011] — RAYMOND BIESINGER SAYS The Famines are collectors and archivists by nature. Biesinger — who writes, sings/wails and plays/thrashes guitar alongside Garrett Kruger’s flabbergasting drums — is the graphic architect of the five-year-old band’s no-frills, data-stratified aesthetic, not to mention a successful illustrator, designer and print media artist. So when he started working on cover art for this assemblage of 7-inch singles (many of them sold out), he began by simply rearranging the old record labels, cutting and pasting and mocking them up in search of a shape.
“When doing 7-inches in the past, when it came to coming up with concepts, we always wanted to make sure that the cover reflected the actual content of the A-side, instead of just being a generalist catch-all image of the band, or an attempt to depict the band conceptually even,” explains Biesinger. “With a big LP like that, it would seem funny to illustrate only the first song because there are a lot of songs, and eventually it just made sense to try to use both the front and back cover to try to show what these things were before they became the collected 7-inches.”
Biesinger had tried a few things out, and then landed on the winning formation when he was half-asleep or something. “It really reminds me of a revolver, with the chambers that bullets go in,” he says. “I think it’s a very strong shape. What is that, a hexagon? Once I mocked it up I thought it looked wonderful, but then there was a small problem: We didn’t have 14 songs, we had 11 songs.” [One of those jams, “P. L. C. A.,” was recorded for a compilation called Bloodstains Across Alberta, and there are two new bangers as well, “Hi Hi Hi” and “Faux Famous,” all of which Biesinger whipped up labels for.]
This table-of-contents utility, with most of the circles indicating A-sides and B-sides in chronological order, is just the sort of match that Biesinger loves to strike. “The contents are described perfectly by the cover and rear cover, so it’s completely informative, but it’s also aesthetically pleasing. I think that’s what [The Famines] like to do: to have purpose behind everything we do. And to me there’s complete purpose to what’s on that record cover.”
Perhaps there’s one marginal exception: the logos at the top right of the B-sides cover. Biesinger has made these little icons over the years to use in Famines merch and packaging, often as a layout device to “fill up space, finish off a thought.” He makes them with different levels of intent, sometimes “in a way that represents what we do, in other ways not at all. They’re just really convenient to have around. It’s funny, I would make posters sometimes and I would post them on gigposters.com and people would comment on what a shame the logos were.” Given that they depict things like can-can girls wearing balaclavas, Biesinger admits that “I think sometimes we fuck with people a little because there’s so much purpose in everything we do, and then you throw in something like that. What does that even mean?’ I try to avoid the subject because I don’t know.”
Here’s a hint at why Biesinger would rather deke: “When I see art that’s about nothing or art that people can’t back up, that people can’t say why it was made in an intelligent way that isn’t, like, crazy art-speak, I get angry. I really feel like there’s enough meaningless fluff, there’s enough amusing, funny things out there, that it’s our job to make stuff that actually has purpose and argument behind it.”
The resulting aesthetic is certainly purposeful, if not downright shrewd. “It’s getting harder and harder economically to be a band, and to tour,” he explains. “If you make everything in black-and-white, it’s gonna be a hell of a lot cheaper. It always blows my mind when venues have full colour posters, 11 x 17. When we started, that’d be 80 cents each — you do [B&W] and it’s 10 cents each. I would rather have that 70 cents in my gas tank than doing as much as one of these [posters] could for our show.”
Buoyed by practicality, The Famines became documentarians early on (both in terms of the subject matter they tore into and their promo materials), which gelled nicely with stark, codified B&W. “I think that now the aesthetic is just so established in my mind that sometimes it takes over and makes me make things that look Famines-ish, but which don’t necessarily have much of a subject behind them,” says Biesinger. “I’m less strict these days. If I think something’s fun, I’ll just do it, as long as it’s small. But I would never do that with a 7-inch cover or record cover just for fun. I think the world has enough of that, I don’t need to do it.”
The process of coming up with designs to represent the band’s charged, provocative songs found a natural groove early on as well. “I know all the themes, I know the songs intimately, I know everything that I thought about while making them, so the subject material I always know well,” says Biesinger. “In the months leading up to a record, I’ll usually roll through a lot of ideas, and then when I think I’ve found the right one, I’ll bounce it off of Garrett and he’ll tell me if it’s bullshit or not. He’s a really good editor, quite honestly.”
Biesinger also says The Famines mostly came to be because Kruger pushed him over the line between talking about jamming and actually making a racket. “I’m not gonna say he forced me to do it, but if it was not for his originally enthusiasm, I would not be in bands anymore.” Kruger’s old band, The Wolfnote, and Biesinger’s, The Vertical Struts, had broken up, and they kept running into each other at the Black Dog in Edmonton, and eventually it just happened. (Biesinger moved to Montreal in August 2010.) He says their personalities are very different, but that they’re “growing together, which is kinda cool. Garrett’s pulled me out of my shell so much since 2008, I owe him a lot.”
Whoever was most responsible for hatching The Famines, the band certainly seems to provide Biesinger with an essential creative outlet. And clearly — at least judging by his appreciation for small type — there’s a lot of ideas to share. “I’ve always been fascinated by context; I have a degree in history, and I want to know what is behind everything,” he explains. “The internet gives a lot of people an opportunity to get more information about things they don’t understand. So I think when I’m making physical things, I try and squeeze in as much context as possible, and that results in a lot of small type in a lot of places.”
He admits that the attraction is economical for sure, but seems a bit surprised. “I never even thought of in that way—that I have a thing for small type. I think I have a tolerance for it, and I tend to not think about people with bad eyesight, maybe. Which is very cruel.”
The Famines: Syllables [May/2010] — Biesinger recognizes the font treatment on this particular 7-inch as particularly cruel, but “pretty necessary for what it is.” He wrote the A-side song as a rough parallel of George Orwell’s famous essay, Politics and the English Language. “After trying to think of ways to express that visually, I just decided to put the full text of the essay on the 7-inch. So that required a lot of squeezing, and I went back into my distant memories of laying out newspapers for The Gateway, and brought out some pull quotes. You would probably need a magnifying glass to read it properly.” (Damn skippy: that thing’s more than 5,250 words!)
Why did Biesinger want to write a song about the essay? “Because the band has always been about having purpose in our songs. Every single one of them is an argument. Not, ‘Yeah, you guys sound angry!’ But everything is carefully measured. There’s evidence, there’s a strong question that is about something. Orwell’s essay is all about how vagueness is kind of an agent of tyranny, and how if someone speaks in concrete specifics and actual facts instead of trying to obfuscate things, they’re doing well, and how we need to take steps to become more concrete in how we express ourselves in our everyday lives. I think that’s incredibly important.”
Biesinger feels this concept is as resonant now as it was in 1946, when Orwell’s essay was published. “I think people are generally afraid of the consequences of having opinions about a lot of things. And perhaps even people who have formal arts training, because they know how to make things, but they don’t necessarily have that deep of a knowledge in other things. I think, if you go to art school, it’s very rare that you spend a lot of time reading about history or politics or economics or greater society. And so perhaps those people don’t feel comfortable going out on a limb and making statements about society that are very strong. Me, I’m just full of it.”
He cites modern music journalism as a great example of concept-dodging. “I don’t know who’s worse: the band or the interviewer,” says Biesinger, ripping on cliches like the obligatory live sound versus studio sound discussion, and the fact that you end up talking about “anything but the actual meaning behind the songs. I feel like lyrics should have greater scrutiny and singers should be asked about them far more often. But I think that makes a lot of singers uncomfortable to have to actually defend what they’re saying in some way. I feel like the biggest cop-out in the world is to say, ‘It’s up to everyone to interpret this in the way that they choose.’ To me that feels irresponsible.”
How to Book a Maybe Successful Tour for a Band That Hasn’t received Hype on Pitchfork, etc. [Dec/2010] — You might not expect it from an irreverent, eardrum-drubbing band hatched in Edmonton, but one of their most popular merch items is rooted in sharing a practical perspective. Biesinger says there was a time when the How to Book… pamphlet was outselling all The Famines’ 7-inches, albeit at $1 a pop. “I remember one Christmas, I thought we weren’t a band anymore, we’re just a pamphlet,” he laughs.
Quite the opposite, actually. The pamphlet came out of the band’s unique experience. “I’ve booked five cross-Canadian tours now,” explains Biesinger. “And I have no illusions about our band — we’re not the next thing, we’re not that great, we’re not the next next next thing either. We’re a low-buzz band. Everything we’ve built, we’ve built because of a lot of hard work and not because some magazines decided that people should see us. I think that puts us in a situation which is really different from a lot of touring bands.”
Biesinger wrote a first draft of what later became the pamphlet because a friend from a band based in Kingston, Ontario, called False Face — “a band that was kind of in the same place as us, but hadn’t toured much at all” — asked him for advice about how to do it. So during a long stretch in the tour van, Biesinger cranked out a long, meticulous and blatantly honest email. “It was basically explaining how we tour, how it would be applicable to them. And I sent it to him, he really liked it, and a couple of months later I was thinking about this email I’d saved that was full of good advice. I’d also ended up sending it to other bands that we’d played with that had the same questions.”
Eventually he decided to edit it properly, add a few sections and make it fit into a layout — “and that the type was appropriately small,” he jokes. When I bring up the writing style, Biesinger calls it “pessimistic optimism” and “really frank.” Take the first line, for example: Certain regions, like Western Canada, destroy friendships and eat new bands alive. “And it’s a fact — I’ve seen it,” says Biesinger. “It’s not booster-ish. It’s super honest. This is what you need to do if you want to make this happen, and good luck—it’s hard.”
You’ll notice that the maps Biesinger used to illustrate the pamphlet have arrows suggesting movement. His original plan, “to add to the kind of fatalism, was to have each of the maps be of a different failure in war,” but he “managed to fail at doing that, although there still some failures in there—the Tet Offensive and some others.” Biesinger says he’s kind of amazed at how many people from different parts of the country that play different kinds of music have been interested in it. “There’s a section at the end that I’m exceptionally happy with that’s all about the economics of being a C-level, D-level, E-level touring band these days, and how things have changed in the last 50 years.”
This is a subject area Biesinger knows intimately. One of his many fabulously nerdy design and illustration projects beyond The Famines has been an (ongoing) infographic that tracks the history of the Edmonton music scene back into to the 1950s. To produce that piece of work (26-feet and growing by the year), he spoke with a lot of musicians, and ultimately came to understand that there are “far far far fewer bands these days that are making a living wage touring than there used to be.” He also learned that for the larger, entertainment-hunting public, live music is no longer such an easy draw.
“There used to be regional acts that could perform, say, all over Alberta even, and play every night of the week, maybe doing moderately challenging Beatles-esque stuff, or Who-ish stuff. They could make a living doing that in the 60s. Then there’s a change in demographics, there’s more competition in terms of entertainment, the internet fragments people’s ideas of what they want to see. It makes it easy for you or me to be really excited about what’s going on in Japan now, but it’s really rare that someone uses the internet to look for new things locally. I think people who pay attention to the local scene are exceptional.”
(But I digress… or Biesinger did, I’m not sure who to blame. In any case, he says he’s “really excited about the pamphlet format these days.” He’s also made one from a talk that he does about the future of commercial art, called Doom.)
Oddly enough, in spite of Biesinger’s observations about the state of live music, The Famines have carved out a respectable following across the country. After two years of playing together they had put on 125 shows, and “that felt like a lot, so we decided to celebrate it,” says Biesinger. So, naturally, he created a big, silkscreened, B&W map that catalogued all of those shows.
He chose the odd map shape because “I was just in the mood for something incredibly geometric,” and he says it’s loosely based on the Canada’s 125th celebrations that went down in 1992. “I knew that for the regions we did not play in, we could de-emphasize them. So, sorry about everyone who lives in the Arctic, and everyone who lives near Lake Superior. I stripped Canada down to its absolute minimum, and kept what was needed to express the information.”
Drawing from a master list of all the Famines shows (Biesinger does the booking), the map lists every city, venue and date they played in chronological order. “I’m a trained historian, making records is what I do,” quips Biesinger. Originally he’d tried to include the names of all the bands they’d played with as well, “but that would have maybe quadrupled the amount of text, and any way I tried to lay that out it just didn’t look good.”
Cutting back is perhaps the most essential move in Biesinger’s repertoire — if not anyone’s. “We live in very fortunate place and a very fortunate time, when you and me can take advantage of incredibly cheap technology to do almost anything that we would want aesthetically, or in a publishing sense,” he says. “The options open to us are absolutely enormous, and I think in that setting, one of the most interesting things you can do is accept limitations and work within them, or impose limitations on yourself. So my goal for the last 10 years, aesthetically, has been all about trying to push as little as possible as far as possible. That’s why I’ve been in two-piece bands since 1999. That’s why I don’t use pedals when I play. The band is trying to make the most out of guitar, drums and singing. And in illustration, I’ve just started working with four colours, and to me that’s the frontier. But still, doing something in black and white and very simple is super exciting.”
The Famines: Free Love [July/2009] — So obviously Biesinger is pretty serious about what he makes. And to the fictional condom machine brands and ads he created (with help) for The Famines’ second 7-inch release, he says, “That’s about as funny as we get.”
He’s ain’t kidding, either. The Centipede, The Hook, and The Black Mamba seem as though they’d be particularly ill-fitting. I’d suspect The Freedom Tickler might offer an uncomfortably aggressive level of protection. Puss Shock would demand a pretty special lady. [Fun fact: the head was a made using a photo of Biesinger’s cat, Cleo.] Some of the labels are inside jokes, such as The Lobster Tail, courtesy of a friend of Kruger’s who claims his dick has a lobster tail on its end. (Nobody verified this, BTW.)
While the collection certainly draws on residual ideas from tour stops in small bar bathrooms over the years, there’s also a method to this particular madness. “The A-side is called ‘Free Love As A Sales Technique,’” explains Biesinger. “At the time, I was watching a little bit of Sex in the City with my wife, and I was noticing how it seemed like adultery was kind of becoming okay in culture. It was something that was kind of being given sanction by mass media — a legitimate thing that you could do and the world wasn’t going to end. I thought that was a very bad thing. So the track, I guess you could kind of look at it as: Sex sells, isn’t that kind of gross, and don’t we have better things to do?”
At one point Biesinger’s plan was to drive around Alberta and take photos of a bunch of condom vending machines as source material. “But then I realized, ‘Oh shit, this thing needs to be at the plant, like, next week.’ And also, how unsatifisying would that be to drive around Alberta and find out that these things are actually only in two different places or something? So I ended up going with the internet for the general ones, but I’d say about two thirds or these are completely invented. Garrett and the label and I just made a giant list of the most ridiculous condoms you could imagine, and then I took the ones that I could illustrate quickly and made them.”
The Famines: 14 July 2008 [April/2009] — At the time, a quick-and-dirty project was probably necessary after the elaborate Famines’ release that Biesinger had produced over the previous year or so. In early 2008, he’d opened up a book publishing house called the Belgravian Press. “I had a big Xerox machine, a book-binding machine, a stack cutter — I had everything you needed to make books,” he says. Having such toys had a curious effect: “There’s a saying that goes something like, ‘When you have a hammer, you think every problem is a nail.’ Well, when you have a book publishing house, you think every problem is a book.”
That summer — on July 15, precisely — The Famines had played their inaugural show, which kicked off their first Western Canadian tour and the release of their first recording, 2x7. Edmonton’s arts weekly, Vue, wanted to document a warm-up performance, so they’d arranged for Biesinger and Kruger to give their set a stomp-through on the day before, July 14. “It was the first time we’d played live — there were maybe three or four people there — and it was perhaps indicative of how Famines shows are,” recalls Biesinger. “It was crazy, we gave it our all. We were scheduled to play eight songs, but after the seventh, I broke the neck off my guitar. It was hilarious. It was the first time I’d done that. And we’re just playing for the arts weekly, in our studio, and there are six people there.”
The Vue crew produced some material from the recording, which Biesinger says “sounds really ragged, but there’s a spirit behind it that’s really nice.” The quality was too low to press an LP with it, but they wanted to do something, and settled on a cassette release. “We thought it was best not seen as a studio recording, it was better as a document of a time and place. So we established that, and then I thought, ‘Well, how do you make sure people understand that?’ I realized we’d probably need a lot of liner notes, because I wasn’t going to be satisfied with just a little J-card. So I starting thinking about how you could package it as a book.”
One of Biesinger’s priorities while producing books was to pay special attention to their size and shape. “Using Canada Post’s shipping standards, we intentionally made stuff that would be cheap to ship,” he says. A book stacked on top of a tape would mean hefty shipping fees, but they would fit through the mail slot if they were packaged side-by-side. So the next step was to figure out how many pages a book would need to be cassette-sized. The answer turned out to be 268.
“So then the problem became: How do you fill a book that small with information, and what the fuck do you include? And the answer is: everything,” explains Biesinger. “We wanted it not to be bullshit. We wanted it to be totally factual. We wanted to involve as many people as possible, and I got off on the idea of it being like a primary source. A future historian could look at this, and it isn’t about The Famines It’s about people in 2008 who were making music — where they came from, what resources they had, all kinds of details about them.”
The result is basically a meticulous record of The Famines getting off the ground. The front section details how the book was made and the context it was made in, including a chart about the band’s economics — “How much money we made and lost in the first year leading up to having our first show.” There are maps of the band’s jam space and the studio where the book was bound and created. Biesinger, Kruger and the Vue folks all filled out questionnaires that asked for all sorts of detail: height, weight, educational and employment history, marital status, gender, eye colour, net worth (“Which is hilarious”), hospital visits in the last 12 months, co-habitants, past residences, and so on. Each person was also asked to itemize the tools they used to produce the recording, to describe that day and what happened to them immediately afterwards.
“It’s a full account of July 14, 2008, for everyone who participated,” says Biesinger. When he explained it to everyone, he also insisted on honesty. “We wanted it to be true, we didn’t want any jokes. We wanted this to be as if you were reporting it to the police.” Indeed: Everyone also supplied their fingerprints. If there was something they didn’t feel comfortable discussing, Biesinger asked them to make up something plausible.
Apparently Kruger was preoccupied during production, and didn’t even see the finished product until it was printed. He was also the last to submit his questionairre, which Biesinger says was well worth the wait. “His information is awesome. His description of his morning before the recording, it’s like: I was riding on my exercise bike and I was listening to Ozzy Osborne’s Blizzard of Oz, and when Snowblind came on, I paused for a moment…”
Kruger’s level of honesty actually became a point of contention. “Garett’s parents were upset with him for being really specific about certain things, because we did a run of 300 and then another 50, and in the other 50 we removed some information about him.” Those 350 were “incredibly easy to sell” once Biesinger began putting the cassette on The Famines’ merch table. “There would be people who were at our show who just wandered in, and they’d be total weirdos, and I’d show it to them and they’d be like, ‘I don’t care who your band is, I want this.’ People were very enthused.”
This sort of reaction was hard-earned, considering the intense labour and incomprehensibly skinny profit margins. Kruger dubbed all of the tapes on their label’s dubbing machine, and the book was hand-cut, hand-scored and hand-glued. “Because we were on a tight deadline again, I had four assistants in the studio working full-time for a week making them,” says Biesinger. “It took a ridiculous amount of time. And they ended up costing us about $9 to make, and we sold them for $10, which is the dumbest thing in the world. But we ended up breaking even, or I think we lost $40 on it.”
As well as not losing too much money or too many marbles, Biesinger was surprised that the release charted pretty well on campus radio. “I’ve always been down on the recording, but other people found ways to really like the recording. So that makes me feel good.”
(Another digression, for the sake of cassette collectors: July 14 2008 is being repressed by Ottawa-based label Bruised Tongue, and will be released on October 17. Says Biesinger: “While we would’ve liked to have the book reprinted as well, it would’ve been impossible. So, the book is included as a download.”)
(Ok, just one more brief digression: Another problem that Biesinger tried to solve by making it a book was the implosion of a band from Vancouver called the Molestics. “Remember the swing craze in the late 90s and early 2000s? They were kind of dirty, absurdist, retarded swing. They did really well in Edmonton for a long time, and the lead singer, Mike Soret, a total drunk, he wrote his memoirs, and I published them. And I thought it was magnificent. I’m sure some people have read Gord Downie’s or David Bidini’s books, and I think that when you’re hearing about the Canadian music experience, you always hear the success stories. But the thing about the Molestics is that they were a self-described C-level band that did kind a well — they could sell 100 tickets anywhere in Canada on a good night, they toured Canada a lot, and the West Coast of the States. But then they failed horribly. And that’s how 99 per cent of my friends’ bands end, and so the story was really relatable. It’s about a musician who’s at a level above where I’ve been, but his experience I recognize, and it’s honest. The band fails, breaks up, he tries to kill himself — it’s all in the book. And I think that’s a story that hasn’t been told, and I think it’s important to tell.”) [The book is called Confessions of a Local Celebrity: A Tale of Rags to No Rags by Mike Soret.]
The Famines: 2x7 [July/2008] — Biesinger’s work compels because of his tremendous enthusiasm for gritty details, infographic-grade density and blunt, charming delivery. These talents, and nimble self-promotion, have taken him far. To reference just one solid example: when I interviewed him earlier this year, he gave me a copy of Spin magazine, in which his work regularly appears above Patton Oswalt’s back-page rant.
Given that his Famines work is even more deeply layered by the music it complements, there’s an enigmatic quality to the messages that emerge. As you’d expect from a self-proclaimed archivist, Biesinger’s also done a great job of assembling breadcrumbs that explore how that aesthetic has materialized. And as you’d expect from an astute businessman, he’s also released four editions (so far) of A Visual History of the Famines.
The 50-page book, which Biesinger admits “isn’t organized very chronologically,” collects Famines concert posters, design ideas and mock-ups of things that didn’t end up in production. The first edition contained posters from the first Famines show, some early art concepts, vinyl label mock-ups (with visual treats like Serge Gainsbourg’s name on what is now-obviously a Famines 7-inch) and a bunch of different variations on the 2x7 cover. Some of those early experiments also speak directly to the band’s dynamic, juxtaposing facial fragments of Hollywood bad ass Charles Bronson and Canadian broadcaster and humanitarian diplomat Stephen Lewis.
“Early on in The Famines, we decided we were never going to do band photographs because we do not like the idea of there being a connection between personal appearance or beauty and artistic validity,” explains Biesinger, “so we adopted surrogates.” Bronson represents a forceful and severe nature, and Lewis brings rationality and argument to the table. If you’ve read this far, you’ll know who’s supposed to be who.
It’s probably safe to assume that part of what keeps the band going is the tension between those two iconic opposites, and for Biesinger, the challenge that this tension provides. “Writing songs is hard,” he says. “My excuse to not write more songs is to make this stuff.”
All art by Raymond Biesinger. Story by Eric Rumble. Buy The Complete Collected Singles, 2008 – 2011 and other releases from The Famines’ bandcamp page and Mammoth Cave Recording, or buy other rad stuff created by Biesinger at his Etsy page.
ALSO: The Famines will be on tour in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes from October 17 to 28, 2012. Biesinger is designing T-shirts — “A collection of our favourite things, all through the federalist lens,” as you can see below — that you may wanna snag from their merch table (it’ll be getting chilly by then).