Thanks so much to Terry Banks for the interview. Tree Fort Angst was a Washington DC band in the early nineties that released records on lassic indiepop labels like Bus Stop or A Turntable Friend. They were great, and I think, underrated. Later Terry was part of Glo-Worm, St. Christopher, The Saturday People and Julie Ocean. These days he plays in a band called Dot Dash that I recommend all you to listen, so there will be a Dot Dash interview here pretty soon. But now enjoy the first band he was in, Tree Fort Angst!
++ Hi Terry, thanks for being up for this interview. There’s lots to cover I believe, but I would love to start with the present. These days you are in Dot Dash and you have just released an album with The Beautiful Music. It’s a great power pop album, I would love to recommend it more and more. So first question, how did you end up working together with Wally at The Beautiful Music? And to those who are familiar with Tree Fort Angst, what would you say they can expect in this album?
Wally had got in touch with The Saturday People a number of years ago (must’ve been almost 10 years ago) about contributing a song to a Television Personalities tribute comp he was putting together. It wasn’t something we ended up pursuing (as all our recording time pretty much went to originals) but he and I kept in touch, as he’s a great guy and we have strikingly similar musical tastes. When he expressed an interest this past summer in putting out something by Dot Dash it felt like a great fit.
As far as people who know Tree Fort Angst stuff and what they should expect from Dot Dash, I’d say it’s kind of a continuation from The Saturday People and Julie Ocean — i.e., the two bands that existed “between” TFA and Dot Dash — but I suppose some of the 60s influences have kind of been replaced by a slightly early 80s-ish, post-punk thing… It’s equally melodic and poppy, but slightly darker in places; still energetic but a bit more streamlined, at least that’s how it sounds to me.
++ On the album there’s a song called “There and Back Again Lane”. We all know what that means. But I’m wondering why did you decide to write a song dedicated to that tiny tiny street? I would assume your St. Christopher connection kicked in?
Yeah, I did get the lyrical idea from the name of the Sarah comp, but it’s just a good rhyme; a cool evocative phrase that popped
++ And talking about St. Christopher, I always wondered that you live in DC but you were in the original lineup of St. Christopher? Is that right? Or am I missing something?
Ha, well I suppose this is an example of how just because something’s on the ‘Net doesn’t mean it’s true I’m not sure how this misnomer came to exist, but I am most certainly not an original member of St. Christopher. They actually started in 1980 — they were called Vena Cava for the first year or two, during which time they issued two singles, both of which sounded like an effects-y Buzzcocks or maybe a punky, early U2. They became St. Christopher round about ’82. I didn’t show up until the 1990-91 timeframe and was in the band for about a year. It was a blast, though. We played lots of shows around the U.K., plus a number of gigs in Germany, France, Holland, Belgium, etc. Really good fun.
++ You were involved with many great indiepop bands, bands that will be remembered in indiepop history like Glo-Worm and The Saturday People. I would love at some point to do some interviews about both of them, and Dot Dash of course. But let’s start with Tree Fort Angst. I have to say that I have all your releases sans the flexi. So let me begin with that elusive flexi! Is it easy to find? How many copies were pressed do you remember? And what about the artwork? Are you a big pop art fan?
I do remember that flexi and I’m not sure how it came about. The guy must’ve written to me. I know he was from France. This was all pre email, so you’d get letters (remember them?) He asked for a song to put out on a flexi and our policy was, if you want to put something out, we’re down with it. I have no idea how many he pressed, but I remember that he sent a few copies of the release when it came out and they all had a little dried leaf inside the sleeve. I thought “Wow, this guy is really going for the twee thing. He’s putting leaves inside the records…” We never considered ourselves twee, but we were kind of associated with that scene and sometimes you just have to roll with it… As far as the artwork, yes, my then-girlfriend (now wife) was very into 60s pop art – Liechtenstein, Warhol, Hockney, etc. — and I sort of picked up on it from that. I stuck with that (the pop-art thing) for record sleeves, etc. for quite a while.
++ Tree Fort Angst started as a solo project, right? So what happened? How did you end up being a three-piece?
It was a little convoluted. I lived in Richmond, Virginia. I went to college there. I played in two bands there, one was called Roy G. Biv (after the colors of the rainbow.) We were trying to be ‘pop,’ but actually sounded more like a punky, thrashy, unpracticed Housemartins. The other band that followed was called The Knievels and was more coherent and accomplished — kind of a power pop thing. Anyway, both those bands contained my good friend John Gotschalk, who was, and is, a very talented guy. The Knievels was kind of his band and his stuff had sort of a Teenage Falclub-meets-Cheap Trick feel — really great, exciting songs, but a little heavier than where I was at the time — I was really, really, really
into Postcard and The Go-Betweens and all this light jangly stuff, even verging on acoustic Jonathan Richman-type stuff… So, on friendly terms, I dropped out of The Knievels and they kept on as a trio. I then set about doing my own ‘solo singer/songwriter’ thing — totally under the spell of Edwyn Collins and Roddy Frame and Tracey Thorn and Grant McLennan. I liked the songs I was coming up with, but the ‘solo guy with an acoustic guitar’ thing felt lame and boring… I wanted to be in a band so… um… I… roped my pal John back in (to join me in TFA, on bass), which he kindly agreed to. Hunter Duke was a guy we knew in our Richmond social circle. He was a great drummer and was up for it, so we went with it.
++ What did John and Hunter bring to the creative process?
A lot. They were funny, easy-going guys, and great players (way better than me) and were up for doing my songs.
++ And where does the name Tree Fort Angst comes from?
The best way, just made it up. The last couple of bands I’ve been in (Dot Dash and Julie Ocean) take their names, obviously, from song titles of other bands. I think they’re really good band names, but I prefer the ones that are purely made up. In terms of where the name comes from, I knew I wanted something with “Tree Fort” and it needed a third word, hopefully, something kind of pretentious… I was thinking Tree Fort Society, but that didn’t quite have it. My girlfriend came up with “Angst,” sort of joking, but it was good, so that was it.
++ The first recordings were put out on a tape called “Fifteen Songs of Vim and Vigor”. This seems and sounds very obscure. What tracks were on it? And do the songs sound like the later releases of Tree Fort Angst? And why did you self-release it?
It was a cassette with a pretty elaborate fold-out sleeve with all the lyrics and these weird little illustrations from a dictionary scattered around the layout. Six of the songs from the tape were later culled by A Turntable Friend for the Six Songs EP. The other nine songs kind of languished (i.e., never went anywhere but the tape), but they were pretty good (I thought) and similar to the stuff that made it to vinyl, sort of Go-Betweens-y, Aztec-Camera-y stuff, at least in theory… I self-released it because, well, I didn’t know what else to do with it…it was sort of a “long-form demo,” I guess… One funny wrinkle is that it was recorded by a guy named Barrett Jones, who had a little studio in his basement in Arlington, and soon
thereafter moved to Seattle to become a drum tech for the then-rising Nirvana and later produced the first Foo Fighters record (sort of a weird association for an obscure jangle-pop tape.)
++ Your first proper release was on the classic German label A Turntable Friend, a label that had exquisite releases. How did you end up releasing your record so far away? Did you try other labels for your first release?
I was in England then, in St. Christopher, and kind of sending the TFA tape around to various labels, here and there…. Again this was all pre-Internet, so you really just got addresses off the back of record sleeves or out of fanzines. I sent a tape to A Turntable Friend in Germany and Ulrich, who ran the label, wrote back to me in England, saying he wanted to do a 7” EP and suggesting which songs. I was all for it. I did send tapes to other people (am sure of it), but Ulrich was up for it, so I thought why keep looking?
++ On this first single there’s a song called “Four Years, Six Months, Two Days”. Does that period of time really mean something to you?
It sort of does and it sort of doesn’t… I often take something that actually does mean something to me, or is “about” someone or something, and I weave it around other things, just phrases or ideas I like, and that’s the song… The funny thing about that song is that a TV series called One Tree Hill which titles all of its episodes after song titles, named the lead-off episode of their fifth season after that song. It’s pretty weird, as most of the other song titles they’ve used are from people like U2, Bob Dylan, R.E.M., etc. (info at: http://www.oth-music.com/titles.html) I can’t figure out how or why they would even know about a minuscule, penny-ante band like Tree Fort Angst, but it seems that the guy who is the series creator
graduated from the University of Maryland (which is near D.C.) in the early 90s, so maybe he was into the D.C .indie pop scene back then and knows the band/song that way… Who knows…
++ Throughout your releases the aesthetics are very similar. Who designed the cover art? And where did these photos came from? Im pretty sure I’ve seen the photo of Tilting at Windmills in another band’s cover art, though I can’t remember right now which band!
I guess I designed all of them, if you take “designed” to mean to I cut a picture out of an old book or dog-eared magazine and said “This is the cover.” I think I did get a little predictable with the 60s pop iconography, but I liked that look and tended to gravitate towards it… The Dot Dash album sleeve looks quite different. It’s a photo – sort of an abstract nighttime image – taken by Bill Crandall, who is the other guitarist in Dot Dash. You’re right about the Tilting At Windmills sleeve for the EP that was put out by Bus Stop. I later found out, after the fact, that Prefab Sprout used the same photo (of Edie Sedgwick) for their first single, “Lions In My Own Garden,” but that’s a great song, so I was kind of pleased by the unexpected synchronicity.
++ So yeah, “Tilting at Windmills”, perhaps my favorite of your songs. Care telling me what’s the story behind this fab song?
I suppose that one is kind of looking back at one’s then-recent past, just how time had already moved on from old relationships… I guess you’d call it ‘twenty-something melancholia’ or whatever.
++ That was your last single and it was released by The Bus Stop label, which many call the Sarah of the US. On this label your friends of St. Christopher had already released some records. How was your relationship with the label? And how important was for you to release on a such high profile label (at least among indiepoppers!)? Did it feel like an achievement perhaps?
Yeah, I was kind of thrilled for us to be on the Bus Stop label because, as you say, it was a really “legit” label, at least in indiepop terms. After that EP came out, Brian, who ran the label, had got a pressing and distribution deal for Bus Stop with Dutch East India and, in the wake of that, offered to put out an album, which became the Knee-Deep record, and that (i.e., getting out a long-player) was really the coup de grace, even if we were broken up (and I was then living in Australia for a couple of years) by the time it came out… Either way, I was very glad to have records on Bus Stop – it was a nice little validation.
++ Ok, let me backtrack to the “Buzzing with Beauty & Wonder” 7″. That was released on Velodrome Records. I don’t have a clue who were they. Care filling in the blanks? Where were they based, who ran the label, any funny anecdotes? 🙂
Velodrome was us, Tree Fort Angst. After the Six Songs EP came out, Ulrich, from A Turntable Friend, offered to put out another 7” EP, which was great, but he was saying it would be six months to a year before it came out, which in indie-label speak, could be double that. We didn’t want to wait that long. We wanted to strike while the iron was luke warm… so we put it out ourselves. It was a good little record, got some good reviews, and kind of got our name around… The affiliation with Bus Stop came out of that, and the Stickboy record, and appearances on several compilations, so it was worth doing.
++ And then the only other single we are missing is the “Hope” 7″ on Stickboy Records. Again no clue about them, though I like the label name. Who were they? And what was the deal between you and them? A hand shake?
He was a guy from Brooklyn who was starting up a label. The other band on the label was Nada Surf. The guy who ran the label sent a letter to the address on the Velodrome sleeve offering to do something. We later talked on the phone. He was a funny, witty guy who wanted to put something out so, as with other offers, we said ‘…Um… yeah… sure!’
++ Later Bus Stop compiled the singles on the great “Knee-Deep In The Rococo Excess Of Tree Fort Angst” album. So really? You thought you were excessively rococo? What’s the story behind the title?
I just made up the phrase. I thought it sounded like something The Fall would use for an album title and I dug that, so, voila… There you have it.
++ Then 6 years later Foxyboy in the UK, re-releases this compilation under the name “Last Page in the Book of Love” -ok, Im missing this one too!- with 10 extra tracks. Where did this 10 extra tracks come from? And how come, a re-release of a retrospective album? It’s not that common!
The Bus Stop CD had pretty much sold out, or gone out of print, which isn’t all that impressive as I think only about 750 copies were pressed. Maybe it was a thousand, but certainly no more than that. Anyway, Ara, who ran the label, was a friend and was up for putting it out — he was releasing quite a few things. I know what you mean about re-releases for indiepop, it’s sort of nutty, but, why say no… The 10 extra tracks are outtakes, a couple of live tracks, and various other oddities, including the title track.
++ You contributed to a couple of fanzine tapes back in the day. I was wondering how did you like fanzines and tapes, and can they be compared to blogs and downloadable mixes? I do feel fanzine writers were more enthusiastic and hands-on than bloggers, but well, I didn’t experience the golden age of indiepop, so you tell me 🙂
I liked all that stuff. I thought it was great. Yes, I suspect blogs are the new fanzines, and they’re great, too, but I suppose fanzines had a certain magic to them that’s now largely gone… But life changes, things move on, eh?
++ What about gigs? Any favorites? Any anecdotes you could share?
Unlike subsequent bands — like The Saturday People and Julie Ocean and Dot Dash, where we play(ed) live as frequently as possible — Tree Fort Angst had a very ambivalent attitude toward playing live; we were the same way in Glo-Worm – it was sort of a “why bother?” thing. That said, Tree Fort Angst did manage to do some good shows. Velocity Girl gave us our first gig, opening a sold-out show for them at the 9:30 Club. It was big fun. About two months later, we opened for Liz Phair, also sold-out, also at the 9:30. She was on the cover of Rolling Stone at the time, so it was one of those ‘industry buzz’ kind of shows. We played with Heavenly and Honeybunch in New York, and with Small Factory in Richmond. We played with the English band Tindersticks at the 9:30 right before we split up. So, not many shows, but the ones we did were fun.
++ So you list as influences Orange Juice, Aztec Camera, The Smiths, The Chills, etc. But I’m wondering about the smaller bands, which ones did you like? And yeah, what about that early 90s scene of DC. Plenty of good bands, right?
Hmmm… smaller bands… Of the Sarah bands, the ones I liked best were St. Christopher (who I saw before I was in the band) and The Orchids, who were excellent. A band that wasn’t part of that scene, but from the same era was The Dentists. They were great and I saw them many times. In America, my favorite band from that time/scene was Small Factory. They were great (and rocked the house at our wedding reception in D.C.) I kind of see them in an ‘American triptych’ of The Velvet Underground — The Modern Lovers — and Small Factory… I know that’s kind of a stretch, but, for me, it’s true… And, yes, the D.C. scene was great, too. I knew and liked the people in Velocity Girl and The Ropers, and later went on to form bands with people from both of those bands… Glo-Worm played with Tsunami and Air Miami, among other shows. A little earlier than that, there was a fun, Revillos-esque band in town called The Flying Shards, I don’t think they ever made a record, but they were great live. I can’t remember who else was around… It was a while ago!
++During those days you must have hanged out quite a bit with Mike Schulman from Slumberland Records, Pam Berry, Archie Moore, etc. I’m quie curious how did you all meet and where were the places you used to hang out? And how good were the parties?
Yes, I knew/know all those people. I suppose I met them all through Mike Schulman, whom I met in the record store he worked in called Vinyl Ink, right after I first moved to D.C. Somehow, through that, I met all those other people. Pam Berry and Dan Searing (who was in Glo-Worm and The Saturday People with me) and his sister Meghan lived in two adjoining houses on Monroe Street in Columbia Heights and, yes, they had many, many parties. They were/are really generous people, the type who don’t bat an eye at having their house filled with 200 or so people, about 50 of whom no one is really sure who they are… It was cool. Small Factory played in the basement once and Glo-Worm “opened,” I remember that. Pam moved to London in ’98-ish and that was a little bit of a turning point as far as the big parties, but Dan and Meghan kept it rolling for a while.
++ So then what happened? When and why did you decide to stop Tree Fort Angst?
My wife and I relocated to Australia (Sydney) in late ‘95 until the front part of ‘97, so the ‘Angst called it a day, a while before we left. It had kind of run its course by then anyway.
++ And then of course you started The Saturday People, but that’s a story for another time. But what happened to Hunter and John? What did they do after?
They both still live in Richmond and both still play music. Hunter is in a band called Hotel X, I think. John does a few different musical things but mostly plays in a 70’s soul band called NRG KRYSYS. He can basically play anything.
++ Today, looking back in time, what would you say was the biggest highlight of Tree Fort Angst?
I was just glad to get to do it – i.e., make some records and kind of explore the creative process… Getting the CD out on Bus Stop was a nice watershed, so I guess that was the highlight.
++ And what about you Terry, when you are not making music, what other interests or hobbies do you have?
My wife and I have a couple of kids, so we’re busy with that. I like to run. I try to do four miles a day outside, and sometimes I even stick to it. I like to read. And I’m still doing the band thing, in Dot Dash.
++ Alright, let’s wrap it here, but first answer me one last question, when are you playing a Popfest? It’s time!
Hey man, tell them to drop us a line, we’ll say yes.
++ Thanks a lot, anything else you’d like to add?
Nothing other than thanks for the interview!
Tree Fort Angst – Tilting at Windmills