Austin-based group Mother Falcon is one of those hard-to-classify bands, a blend of rock, folk, jazz, and the occasional hip-hop beat with instrumentation that includes strings, horns, winds, guitars, and drums. Broadly speaking, you can call it "symphonic rock" in the same vein as Arcade Fire. At 15-20 members strong, there is little wonder that so many musical influences come together or that the sound they make is so big and grand. But how does this super-sized group collaborate on creating songs together? To answer this and other questions, I spoke to one of Mother Falcon's members, saxophonist Andrew Fontenot. Mother Falcon will crowd into Zanzabar on June 9 for what promises to be a one-of-a-kind show.
Fontenot, whose musical background includes playing bass in gigs with his dad and guitar in a metal band tried his hand at the singer-songwriter scene and found he wasn't cut out for going solo. He then met the Mother Falcon drummer, Isaac Winburne, and in his words, "hit it off immediately both musically and personally." The two formed a jazz band and when other Mother Falcon members started attending their shows, Nick Gregg asked him to come on board.
Gregg, one of the founding members of Mother Falcon, who sings and plays several instruments, seems to be as close to band leader as anyone, recognizing musical chemistry when he sees it and following that instinct when inviting musicians to join up. Some are friends from high school in Austin and some from college -- a network that continued to grow organically into Mother Falcon. According to Fontenot, Gregg discovered their accordion player, Tamir Kalifa, busking on the streets around the UT campus. The roster is capped now at about 16-17 members.
The challenges of putting even four people on the road to tour can be difficult, so how does a band of 16 or so do it with all those instruments? Fontenot says that having so many people actually is beneficial when it comes to dividing the burden. Guitarist Matt Puckett acts as ensemble manager, making sure everyone is connected via text and email, and various people take on roles that keep the load from landing too much on one person. Traveling in only two vehicles, Fontenot likens the puzzle of packing in all that gear to "the biggest game of Tetris you've ever seen."
How Mother Falcon actually collaborates on songs is also a bit of a puzzle, but one that they've worked out over time. "We've really been moving toward the idea of being a collective rather than a classic band," Fontenot says and explains what that means. The four primary vocalists get together and work out lyrics, while Gregg and Khalifa typically come up with the basic riffs or arrangements. "Once we kind of get the pieces of the song, the basic skeleton, then we bring it to the group as a whole, and everyone puts their emphasis on it. The reason we call it a collective is it maximizes everyone's talents and we're not making them do anything they're not comfortable doing." And so, the violinists write the violin parts and horns write their parts, giving everyone a chance to put their personal stamp on a song.
Mother Falcon has played month-long residencies in both New York and Los Angeles and scored music for both plays and films. Their second full-length album, "You Knew," came out last May and in February they released "MF Computer," an orchestral interpretation of Radiohead's classic "My Computer." Proving their musical range, they also debuted an extract of Igor Stravinsky's “The Rite of Spring” re-composed by Peter Stopschinski.
Mother Falcon is no stranger to Louisville; they played at the Kentucky Center for the Arts during Idea Festival last year, and also hit some of the area performing arts schools. "We had an absolute blast the last time we were in Louisville," Fontenot enthused. Music education is near and dear to their hearts; so much so that Mother Falcon conducts its own band camp each July in Austin, an opportunity for middle and high school orchestra students to study composition and ensemble playing, as well as more practical skills like learning to run their own sound board. Fifty percent of camp attendees receive need-based scholarships administered by The Austin Creative Alliance in order to ensure diversity. I asked Fontenot if the band had thought about bringing that experience to other cities, and he said that it was definitely something they would like to do, noting in particular that it would be great to bring it to Louisville "which has such an amazing performing arts community."
The June 9 show at Zanzabar begins at 9 p.m. with The Family Crest band opening. Tickets are available from Ticket Fly for $12 and $14 at the door (21 and over). You can check out Mother Falcon on SoundCloud and in the videos below.
[Photos courtesy of Girlie Action Media]
Mother Falcon's cover of Radiohead's "Airbag":
KLRU Arts in Context program featuring Mother Falcon: