My DC: A Conversation With Humble Fire
Photos by Mark Hoelscher
When I ventured out last week to interview Humble Fire, it seemed there was little doubt as to which spot the band wanted to meet to discuss their forthcoming sophomore album, Builder. Sitting down with members Nefra Faltas, Dave Epley, Jason Arrol and Xaq Rothman at Don Juan Restaurant, a staple of Mount Pleasant since 1978, it became evident that there was more than the affordable pupusas that draws Humble Fire to this spot and the neighborhood at-large. Between interview questions and bites, the band chatted with friends and neighbors as they passed our table, illuminating in part why Humble Fire has called the area their favorite neighborhood and home. I spoke with the group about their community, its activism, and how it all plays into next month’s release of Builder.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
Recently you all proclaimed on Facebook that Mount Pleasant is your “favorite DC hood.” Is there anything in particular about the neighborhood that drew Humble Fire here? Why do you consider it your favorite?
Xaq Rothman: I think I was the first Humble Fire member to take up residence in Mount Pleasant. I don’t live here anymore, but I used to live in a group house on Lamont Street called the Jam Jar. That’s where [Humble Fire] played our first show, which was my 24th birthday party. Eventually Dave and Nefra also moved into the neighborhood. I think it’s, infrastructurally, the best neighborhood in DC because there’s not a lot of through-traffic; we’ve got this nice little main street and it’s really diverse. I feel like I used to know a lot more people who lived out here, and there were a couple years where my whole life happened in Mount Pleasant and it was pretty awesome.
Nefra Faltas: It feels like a very insular community because of how it’s set up, structurally, as Xaq said. I love how diverse this neighborhood is; you have young professionals, you have small business owners who have been in the neighborhood for decades–when it was a very unsafe neighborhood–you have young families. It’s just a really nurturing place to live and spend your time, and it might sound cliché but I really do have this sense that when I go to the grocery store, or when I go to Marx Cafe, that it’s kind of like Cheers. Everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came… you just saw Dave with a neighbor passing on the street, saying hello. You really have a sense of community here.
Jason Arrol: I think there’s a strong music community connection here too. I can’t come to Mt. Pleasant without running into someone I know who’s in a band.
Why did you suggest Don Juan’s as the spot in the neighborhood we should go to?
XR: What really clenched it was that time Dave and I showed up here at 3 a.m. and they were closed, but our best friend Oliver who works behind the counter gave us chips and salsa just because we needed it so bad.
Dave Epley: We all live near here, so a lot of times the [band’s] gear would live at my house or Xaq’s house. After we would play a show and drop off our equipment, Don Juan’s was it, so we spent a lot of time here.
JA: I feel like pupusas and Salvadorian food is just really classic DC. And they make them so well here.
We’re also a short walk from the Marx Cafe right now as well as the Otherfeels house, where you debuted your single “Builder” from your forthcoming album of the same name. I imagine there’s a component of the venues in the neighborhood that makes it stand out to you.
NF: When Xaq first moved to the neighborhood, he lived in this big group house that was nicknamed the Jam Jar, and they’d host sometimes even nationally-touring bands regularly. It was a very open, DIY community.
DE: That’s where we had our practice space too, for many years.
NF: There’s also this surreally beautiful, enormous mansion, and its nickname is the Scooby Doo Mansion. Some of our friends live in that house. They’re often hosting house shows, but also other community events in the wake of the election.
The last time I saw Humble Fire play was with Sports and Julian at Comet Ping Pong, which was a couple days after the election. In general, how would you say the changing political climate has motivated or changed you all as a group?
DE: For me personally, my work life and career has been dedicated to green building work, which started from environmental activism and was part of what brought me to DC. So my work life has obviously been affected by it, but only recently did I begin to think about how the band could also take on an activist role through our music. It was not something we really focused on up to this point, because I thought that was reserved for my work domain, and music was something a little bit different.
NF: Even before the election, community organizing and working towards the advancement of social justice in some way, has always been integral to our own personal and professional lives as individuals. Being in this band has been a logical extension of that way of thinking… I’m the daughter of Middle Eastern immigrants, so I’m very sensitive to some of the rhetoric leading up to and following the election. I’m a female who used to work for Planned Parenthood in metropolitan DC, so I feel very committed to reproductive rights. And I think being in a band and being able to leverage your social media platforms or opportunities to play shows, to raise money or to spread the word about small acts of civil activism that people can engage in is a really powerful thing to think about.
XR: Last summer I feel like we had two or three shows in a row that were immediately proceeded by a police killing of an unarmed black man. For a while I was trying to take a second during some of our shows to bring attention to that. But it started to feel as if it were not enough. And then after the election, I felt like it really wasn’t enough.
That was a weird day, that show at Comet Ping Pong. One thing I did tell myself was that it’s good to create a space where people can feel comfortable and welcome, and that’s what music is really good for. Just creating a reason for people to come together and make a community. I don’t have any answers to the political questions of our time other than, just, “everybody get in the same room and be nice to each other!”
JA: We started playing this cover of “Mad World” a couple months ago, just as a response to the political climate, and it sort of has this nightmarish quality to it which I think reality has right now as well. I think in some ways the band has become self-care for us. We like to play benefit shows and bring awareness to other charities, but in some other ways it’s our little escape, it’s recuperation time.
Shifting gears, you recently did a string of shows in Mount Rainier and Falls Church, plus a single release in DC last week. How has the reception been thus far, especially with regard to the new music?
NF: So for me personally, I think my head still hasn’t fully caught up to the reality of being in a band with some of my best friends and chosen family, who are also incredibly talented people, and being able to make music pretty regularly with them. I never would have imagined myself singing in a band –it was kind of a happy accident. You get to that point where you’re playing shows, and after the show you get really positive feedback from someone who is neither a friend nor a friend-of-a-friend who has come to support you. It’s really a special experience when someone who has no personal connection to you still feels connected to your music… it’s just a really powerful and humbling feeling.
XR: I think we put a lot of effort into recording these songs the best that we possibly could, in a very deliberate way. I feel like, on a technical level, that it’s paid off and people are noticing that, and that’s really gratifying. We worked so hard on writing songs and working on the details, both the composition and recording… in that respect I think that the songs can speak for themselves.
NF: And all of that became easier with this second album, as opposed to our first album [The Great Resolve] because we have a stronger sense of the kind of sound we want to make, and the kind of aesthetic we wanted to put forward that we felt was complimentary to the song.
Speaking more to aesthetics, I wanted to talk about the music video for “Taliesin,” which had a large choreography component to its visuals, but was also staged in an apartment as well. What motivated its production as a promotional part of the build up to Builder? Why use choreography and this particular aesthetic?
XR: It started in kind of a hurry, really. We didn’t have a plan to release anything this year, but everything just came together in the last few months. Before all that, I thought that it would be nice to at least put out a video for one of these songs, and my sister, Sadie [Leigh], is a choreographer, and one of my best friends, Bruno Falcon, is a video editor. And I know Mark [Williams Hoelscher] who is great with a camera. So we just assembled the team and were like, “what do you want to do?”
JA: Sadie also is a superfan of Humble Fire too.
NF: We always felt we could put this precious “child,” sort of, in the hands of someone we knew we could trust. And “Taliesin” was the song that spoke to us most as a music video because it rhythmically has a very strong point of view. When we were chatting with Sadie, she expressed interest in collaborating with us on the video because of just how rhythmically driven it is. It would lend itself well to some playful choreography.
“Taliesin’s” beat has this really strong polyrhythmic backbone, and instrumentally it’s pretty divergent, but it all works really well together. What was the process of recording the instrumental component of the track like?
JA: You’re right that it’s certainly different–we approached it in a very different manner than any of the other songs. It started initially with Nefra’s loop pedal and this looping idea, and then we decided that we were going to write this from a hip-hop or electronic music perspective, where we take basic cycles and give Chris Freeland, a person we work with, sort of these Lego pieces and say, “hey, here are the pieces, put them together.” The drum part I just started playing to a click drive for five to ten minutes, and [Chris] picked out these two or three second cycles and built out the drums with those.
DE: He put an 808 on the kick to give it this big sound… I think the real challenge for us was that we have all these layers, and the question was how these layers exit and come in to make a dynamic song. The layer that I did was extremely simple, it was just an off-beat piano and guitar part, but Chris took that and started to do these really cool and weird ping pong delay effects.
NF: The divergent sense that you were speaking of was a consequence of our intention to be both intentional and economical about the placement of each voice, of each instrumental part. Using that extent of restraint was really challenging, so we played around with it a lot. The song has three layers of vocal looping… I do a lot of traveling for work, and that leaves me with a lot of time alone in a hotel room in Africa recording voice memos on my iPhone. I had come up with this melody, but I didn’t have a drum beat to go with it. What I would do is take a voice memo, email it to my laptop, play it on my laptop and while the laptop was playing I would record another voice memo into my iPhone. I created this loop… the first time everything really congealed was when I went over to Xaq’s place with about two pints of blueberries and the three sort-of loops as well as my vocal melody, and we really just played with the entrances and exits of those parts.
XR: The drum beat came out of that session too, it’s the only time that a computer has been involved in the composition of a Humble Fire song. I was using Ableton Live, bringing Nefra into it… we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Louis Weeks, who helped polish it off with some really sparkly high end melodies, which sound almost like a distant space piano. That’s all Louis Weeks, our good friend and co-conspirator.
“Taliesin” is also the name of Frank Lloyd Wright’s estate. How does his art and architecture play into this song and its lyrics?
NF: One Thanksgiving I was visiting Taliesin West with my then-partner, and it made me think of my dad who had passed and who had originally trained as an architect before he became an economist. I was thinking, standing on the property, about how much my dad would have enjoyed experiencing that with me. It then sort of became a thought exercise on how I was dealing with his passing, and some of the regret I was feeling on not having the chance to say some of the things I wanted to before he passed.
When someone you love passes, in what I understand is a common experience, you ask yourself, did they know how much I loved them?
Let’s talk about Builder’s overall structure. What experiences informed its production and theme, and how does it depart from your last release, The Great Resolve?
XR: Chris Freeland, the producer we work with, is a magician and also mixed the album.
I went to school for music, but I feel I learned way more in the three months it took to record The Great Resolve. Recording The Great Resolve was an excellent learning experience, and I went into recording Builder knowing what to expect, how to achieve certain things, and honed in on our sound that much more.
DE: We also did pre-production with Louis Weeks on a bunch of those songs, which was really helpful. He helped us think about everything, like the way we approach vocal melodies to choosing where the guitar would fit with respect to the rest of the vocal lines. And yeah, Chris was really wonderful to work with, as a friend and a personality. He was really gentle and soft with us, but at the same time had an opinion and was firm, which was really helpful. And I think with Builder we had a really clear narrative that’s reflected in the music and the lyrics, but also in the artwork… from that foundation, we were able to be really clear about what we wanted to say without being all over the place.
Lastly, you have some performances coming up, including a show at Rock and Roll Hotel on August 11. What can we expect from these performances and your album release show, and what’s next for Humble Fire in 2017?
NF: Lots of pyrotechnics.
XR: Bring your safety goggles.
JA: Splash zone.
DE: For the Rock and Roll Hotel show we’re playing with a lot of bands we’re really excited to play with: Near Northeast, NUEX and Frenemies, which is Chris Freeland’s band from Baltimore. We’re really just pumped to be on the same stage with those folks and have a night of celebration with them.
NF: It’s a really diverse bill which we’re really excited about.
DE: Also, Jason is from North Carolina and I’m from Tennessee, so these next couple of shows we’re really excited to get down South and see some old friends and family.
JA: It’s gonna be a hometown kind of weekend.
DE: And then New York on the 12th, which will be at [Xaq’s] buddy’s house up in Brooklyn.
XR: We’re playing a house show at the home of the bassist from the band Haybaby. They’re doing us a solid and hosting us there. We like house shows.
DE: As far as what’s next, we’re going on tour to support the album in the fall and get further out of our current circle, but also go back some places we’ve been to already… and maybe eventually get back to writing some music. It’s been a lot of emailing and band business for the last few months, so we’re gonna get back to creating eventually.
Listen to Humble Fire’s new singles (“Builder,” “Taliesin” and “Fine Line”) below. Builder is slated to be released on July 28, and Humble Fire’s album release show at Rock and Roll Hotel will take place on Aug. 11. Doors 8 p.m./Tickets $12