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CAN YOU HEAR THE MOST UNLUCKY SOUND?: Federation X drags the Rawk kicking and screaming back out of the Northwestern woods

by Jeremy Hart

Federation X pic #1 I miss the '90s. There are a lot of reasons, but one of the biggest is that music back then seemed, well, rawer, somehow. Sure, there were the overproduced, sparkly-shiny pop bands, same as now, but even the most mainstream of the grunge wave of bands always felt like they didn't give a shit about making things sound clean or pretty. Hell, half the time they didn't even worry about making sense. Amps could be loud and distorted; you could do things to a guitar that you really probably shouldn't; you could howl unintelligibly without sounding like you were trying to imitate the voice of Satan. The music could be sloppy, and rough around the edges, and sometimes dumb, and it could fall apart and still be okay. God, it was fun playing guitar back then. Screw the Nuno Bettencourts and Yngwie Malmsteens of the world -- even talentless kids like me could play, and if it didn't sound quite right, who cared? It wasn't about virtuosity, but about what you did with it. For me, at least, it was probably the last time music felt truly free.
Am I being that Grumpy Old Man all us guys swear we'll never-ever-ever grow up to be, grousing about How Cool Things Were Back When I Was a Kid? Maybe. It just feels like even the roughest, loudest, most rocking music that's coming up now is all clean, clean, clean, as technical as can be, and emotive while still being street-cred hard, yo. Which is fine, for what it is -- I've got a soft spot in my heart even for the new crop of bands being designated as the inheritors of the prog-rock mantle. But no matter how good some of it is, no matter how loud it is or fast it is, it'll never just step onstage and rawk.

That's where Federation X come in. I could make some snappy joke about it being the constant rain in the thunderously loud, hair-swinging, beer-loving trio's home base of Bellingham, Washington, but that'd just be crap -- it rains just as much in Vancouver (if not more), and the bands that come out of there all seem very arty and strange, nowhere in Fed-X's neighborhood. On their latest for Estrus Records, Rally Day, the band seemingly mines the sounds of the dirty, grimy side of the '60s, mashes it up with all those old K, Kill Rock Stars, and Sub Pop seven-inch wonders (and a little Cop Shoot Cop-/Barkmarket-style NY nastiness, as well), and then blasts it out through a broken speaker in a fashion so over-the-top, so bombastic, so we-don't-give-a-fuck raw that even Jack White would have to dig it. The guitars are buzzsaw-sharp but still meaty and muddy (dual guitars, no bassist, natch), the drums are crushing and relentless yet still able to get a good head-bob going, and the vocals cover that median ground between young Ozzy Osbourne and older Chris Cornell (which, needless to say, isn't bad territory in which to find yourself).
Heck, even if I am turning into the Grumpy Old Man and pining for better days that never existed, so what? The past is the past, and Federation X is here right now, and Rally Day is one fine, snarling mess of heavy, highly addictive rawk goodness. After finally digesting the album as fully as humanly possible, I contacted frontman/guitarist/vocalist Bill Badgley with some questions -- given that their official "bio" on their Website traces Fed-X's lineage back to colonial times and claims that they are actually "18 crazy Mexicans who all know Don Rickles," I wasn't sure what to expect, but he was remarkably lucid. Here goes...

SCR: Here's kind of a big question for you: how did you end up here? I mean, how did you end up playing this kind of heavy-ass music? Were you all raised on nothing but Black Sabbath?
Bill: No, we weren't raised on Black Sabbath -- we were raised with Karp by the Melvins, who were raised on Black Sabbath.

Have you been able to play with any of those folks, or been in contact with 'em? I was just wondering if there's much communication within the Northwestern "heavy rock" scene.
Uh, we've run into all those bands, certainly. Played with some. Definitely know Jared from Karp well, after playing shows with his subsequent bands, The Whip and Big Business. Played with Mark Arm's and Tim Kerr's band Monkeywrench, Dead Moon, Murder City Devils, Zeke -- Zeke actually wrote a song about us; it's the last track on Dirty Sanchez, called "1999".

So, what music influenced you when you were initially putting the band together? Do you all listen to the same stuff?
We mostly listened to and were highly affected by the early '90s stuff that came out of Olympia, Washington -- K Records, Kill Rock Stars, all those bands of that time. Ben [Wildenhaus, guitarist] and Beau [Boyd, drummer] are from there and were in bands there then, and I lived about 120 miles away but followed the scene there and traveled a lot.

Do you guys see yourselves as being part of the "Northwestern sound", kind of continuing the tradition of bands like Mudhoney, Karp, Unwound, etc.?

In an era of super-processed music, it's nice to hear something that sounds, production-wise, kind of like a throwback to the '60s or '70s. How do you guys get that heavy, fuzzed-out sound?
Broken amps...I guess? We've had the exact same equipment for seven years, so it probably doesn't sound like it's supposed to.

-- Federation X record cover
Federation X, Rally Day


"Nightmare Nation"
"Hydrogen, Nitrogen, and Bullshit"
(Music courtesy of Federation X.)


Federation X

Estrus Records

The Molasses Manifesto


Any fun stories from recording the new album? Why'd you decide to go with Ryan Anderson this time out, instead of Steve Albini?
Ryan asked us if we wanted to record a record, and we weren't planning on doing that, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Oh, okay -- so you guys hadn't planned on making Rally Day?
Yeah. No, we just recorded it 'cause all of sudden it felt like the obvious thing to do.

Federation X pic #2 What's it like up in Bellingham? Are there other folks up that way that you like? Are you three from up there, or did you flee from some sad land-locked state?
Fled from a sad land-locked town: Yakima. In the central desert section of the state. Wash is awesome. I live in Brooklyn now, so I know just how awesome. It's clean, pretty, nobody really gives a shit about money. People talk to you. It's great. It's a paradise for people with souls.

I'm envious -- down here we've got the rain, but the nearest mountains're a nine-hour drive west. I guess NYC's a little cold, people-wise?
Uh, naw -- the people in NYC are great. Everybody's just closer and hotter. You know, it's the pressure cooker, I like to call it. But it's chill. It's a very non violent time for New York. It's pretty nice.

Is that a permanent thing, or are you just splitting your time between there and Washington?
For the time, I am permanently based out of Brooklyn, but I am in Washington a lot.

Why the move? Was it to do with the band, or...?
There were a trillion reasons to move out of the NW, but mostly when it came down to it, it was just 'cause I grew up there. In the end, you never know if it was the right decision -- I don't know if there are any right decisions, you just deal with what you did or didn't do, and go from there. I always say the better you get at living in New York, the worse you get at living anywhere else, so you never know; might be here for awhile.

While I can't decipher a lot of the lyrics, there seems to be a kind of political undertone to some of the songs on Rally Day; was that intentional? And, uh, what's a "rally day"? I'd only ever heard the term in conjunction with religious stuff.
Well, "rally" means to excite and reorganize from a state of slumber or inactivity , as in "to rally the troops," and a "day" is a 24-hour period in which the sun circles the earth.

Yuk, yuk, yuk... So there's not really any kind of political thing underlying the songs, like there was on some of X Patriot? Can you give a hint on what some of the songs mean? I mean, "Nightmare Nation"'s pretty clear, relatively, and "In This Sad Room, In This Dark Gloom, We Live Like Beasts" sure sounds like a breakup song, but I've got no idea what "The Most Unlucky Sound"'s about...
"Most Unlucky Sound" was initially supposed to be about two kids who move to the city together on a bus, and the girl ends up realizing how she could do better with someone else. And by "better," I mean she starts to get bitter about where she comes from and decides that she'd like to erase that as much as possible, so she starts dating really rich older dudes, blah, blah, the guy basically gets left behind, and he's singing the song to her. A lot of that got lost in this version of the song. The lyrics that explain the story I just described are more clear on the piano version of this song, as this song was originally written on piano. Some excerpts from that are:

"And what of the rich old man, that called you his 'honey dew'
and the home that he took you to, was a home like you never knew
and how with a bleeding hand, you took the money from his mouth
and everytime he put the touch on you, you were a game that he played to lose
oh, there's money coming down, it was the most unlucky sound."

Who writes the songs, by the way? Do you all do it together?
We all write the music, dude.

Federation X pic #3 I have to say that it's damn refreshing to hear good, heavy, sludgy-sounding metal that's actually got a brain. You guys seem a heck of a lot smarter and more sincere than some of the bands out there now, even in the stoner-rock camp -- what's your take on the state of metal and rock these days?
I can't say that I care much for rock music or rock bands these days -- even though I find myself in one -- although there are a few, such as Oakland's Drunkhorse and Raleigh, North Carolina's Birds of Avalon. However, metal slays.

Any favorite metal bands out there now?
Big Business.

I know you're out on tour right now, so what kind of a response have you been getting? Do the backpacker kids with the sweatshirts just snicker, or are they into it, too?
They're just confused by us, usually. They can't tell what the deal is. Friend of foe? Until we hang out with them and then loosen up.

Is that what most of the crowd's like -- indie-rock people who're curious because of the Kill Rock Stars connection -- or is it more the fans of the heavier stuff who come to see you guys? Maybe a mixture of both?
Uh, yeah; it seems to me that heavier music has not been completely reclaimed for the jockos as of right now -- that always seems to be a paradox for loud folk. It goes back and forth. I don't really see jock types at the show, it's just that I get the feeling that some kids feel like liking that music is gonna put them in that group in some way. I really like the days of very powerful, non-violent, non-hateful music that was just super fun and kickass. Those days survive, though, for sure -- I hope someday they will be back full-force.

What, no Houston tour dates? Us Texans like our rock heavy too, y'know...
We played at notsuoH, and it was awesome. I'm still regretting not stealing a bit of junk from upstairs as a memento.

Ah, notsuoH -- a fine place, before it burned. No plans to come back any time soon?
Not right now, I don't think.

What the heck is the "Molasses Manifesto"? I saw that on the CD sleeve, but couldn't find out much about it. Is that you guys' record label?
It's a way of life. Actually, it's a legal document from the mid-19th century in which enslaved men were protesting the exploitative manner in which they were in involved in the harvesting of molasses for the molasses industry.

Sure it is...
It is, seriously.

I know you guys are pretty famous/notorious for doing everything yourselves. Are you still trying to work everything that way? Does it wear you down at all?
It makes you crazy. But we have help off and on -- a lot of good friends and dedicated peeps. Dave [Crider] at Estrus is the hardest-working man in showbiz, including most Broadway dancers.

Are you involved in any other projects -- other bands, films, whatever?
Films. Love documentary film. Working on one right now called Nightmare Society, about a friend of mine.

Is it going to be kind of a _Crumb_-type thing or something?
In the sense that the guy is eccentric, definitely.

The album's just out, so this may be a bit premature, but what've you all got lined up next? Any future plans?
Uh, we're touring easterly in September for CMJ, westerly in November for fun, and east-easterly to Europe in Feb/March, and to wherever Japan is in April to get French fries from vending machines.

Finally, the useless trivia: what does "tonka" mean? And what's this about you guys touring the country in a Chevy Impala? While we're at it, what's a "Zorbatron"?
"Tonka" is what you call a small boy's penis when it becomes erect. Just kidding. I have no idea what that means. Zorbatron is our drummer. He thinks he's a robot. END


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