Interview/Review: School Of Fish At The Zephyr Club


School Of Fish is a new band out of Los Angeles. Well, sort of new. All of its members have been kicking around within various LA bands prior to the genesis of SOF, which in its short life span has had great fortune. The SOF tune “Three Strange Days” ended up on the soundtrack to Reversal of Fortune starring Jeremy Irons. A&M paid for their demo, but Capitol signed them on the dotted line and for a two-album deal. They’ve released a great first-time video directed by Kurslich (who did the “It’s Too Late” video for Bob Mould and an Urban Dance Squad video whose name I undoubtedly spelled wrong).

On their recent stop in Salt Lake at The Zephyr Private Club, SOF put on a great show—albeit to a tiny crowd—and took the time to talk to SLUG about record deals, tours and life for musicians in general.

“We’re all from somewhere else,” says New Yorker Dominic Nardini, bass player for School of Fish, as the Gamma Rays were burning it up onstage. Minneapolis, Boston and Cleveland are also home towns to SOF which seems to have settled on “melodo-grundge,” a term used by a Houston paper as best describing SOF’s musical sound.

Josh Clayton-Felt, lead vocals and guitar, and Michael Ward, guitars and vocals, met up during a stint with fellow LA band Francis X & The Bushmen. Following that experience, the pair began writing songs and performing with a drum machine.

“What happened,” says Clayton-Felt, “is that Michael and I, at the time, were doing lots of gigs with the drum machine, for about eight months, and writing songs. One guy from A&M records, named Aaron Jacoves, came down to a show, and he liked the song called “Born on the Wrong Day,” which we don’t even play anymore. So he put us into the studio at A&M for two days, but they didn’t make us sign anything saying that they had first right of refusal or anything like that. So they didn’t have any hold over us.”

Just like everybody else shopping a demo, SOF—who decided early on that a deal wasn’t worth throwing away your life or passion—hoped for the best.

“Do what you do because you love to do it, not because someone thinks it’s cool or even you think it’s cool,” says drummer M.P., who along with Nardini, joined the band after its extensive stint with a drum machine and some sequencing on tape and in its live shows. “I think people are afraid of technology, but it’s what we do.” Said M.P. “It adds to it,” says Clayton-Felt, “some industrial sounds mixed here and there with songs having heavy guitars and grooves.” Nardini adds, “It’s not like it’s over the top or industrial.”

Anyway, that A&M-paid-for demo tape made its way upstream to the A&R department at Capitol Records on a Friday night. “Literally that night,” says Josh.”They came to a gig at The Central in Hollywood—the infamous Central—and the following Monday, they offered us a really terrible deal.”

So, what does the band do? Take the first record deal that comes along or wait for something better suited to their overall goals?

According to Clayton-Felt, “The first deal they offered us was kind of slimy because it was only one album and it wasn’t for very much to make the record, so we [held out and] got two records.”

All the hard work has finally paid off, and resulted in the band’s self-titled debut, featuring clever melodies and tight harmonies spinning through graceful, picturesque lyrics, great guitar grooves and straight-ahead drums and bass work. All this combines into one great whole which is twice as good live.

As far as production goes, SOF had its pick of some of the choicest producers in alternative rock today, including Gil Norton (Pixies) and Dennis Herring (Camper Van Beethoven). The band finally settled on John Porter—”a lovely guy,” said Nardini—who has produced Roxy Music and The Smiths.

“John saw a really bad gig, but he liked it,” said Clayton-Felt, with just the slightest bit of amazement. “He loved it,” declared M.P.

Now it’s time to tour. Does a new band go for supporting a big name act or just settle on the all important East/West-coast-only tour and do lots and lots of press?

“We really want to not have things happen too fast and kind of start and build a nice base. That’s why we’re doing a tour like this—so that hopefully people will see us in small clubs and have a connection and will feel like it’s kind of intimate,” said Clayton-Felt.“We’ve been really fighting it all the way to make sure that they don’t hype us too much so people can feel like they found us, because I think that’s really important,” he adds. As far as touring is concerned, SOF purposefully are avoiding the bigger venues so they can spend the time in smaller, more intimate clubs getting to know their fans.

“We’re on a two-month tour of headlining in medium size clubs and small clubs,” says Nardini. “We’re probably gonna go out with another band in about eight weeks as a support, but we purposefully wanted to go out on a tour like this and play the smaller clubs. We’re roadying ourselves, and we’re doing all the work ourselves …the humility tour,” chimes in Nardini. “We’re selling our t-shirts, driving our van and putting up posters but we wanted to do that because we think it’s good for you,” said Clayton-Felt.

Putting their money where their mouth is, SOF played an impromptu three-song acoustic set out behind The Zephyr when it became known a group of youngsters were just dying for a glimpse of them.

SOF’s favorite bands these days, new and old, include Prince, Waterboys, The Blue Nile, Beatles, Ministry, The Cure, The Kinds, Led Zeppelin and ZZ Top—a pretty broad spectrum. So what exactly does SOF have to say with their music?

“I think life adventures and things that go on motivate you, right?” said M.P., who noted that Clayton-Felt and Ward are currently writing the band’s material. “I think it’s just everyday life. Whatever affects them they write about, and I don’t think it’s contrived at all,” said M.P.

“Usually, in terms of writing, some thought will pop into my head, and I’ll just try to express it. Whether it’s an emotion or whether it’s a picture of a place or whether it’s painting a scene or a relationship,” said Clayton-Felt, who attended Brown University, Rhode Island for one year before heading west. 

“I knew I wanted to play music, and I went back for about a week of second year and just dropped out. Like, one night, I said, “This is it. I want to play music,” explained Clayton-Felt, who added, “It seems to me that a lot of people start music as an escape to things, and then it ends up becoming something they really like. And then eventually it’s all they can do, so they’re stuck with it,” Clayton-Felt says. 

Taking the stage amidst a smaller than small, but typical Sunday crowd, at The Zephyr, SOF put on a rockin’ 15-song set displaying some of their great tunes off of their debut album and throwing in some brand new ones and special covers. Would you believe George Michael can actually rock? “Father Figure” as you’ve actually never heard it before took on a second life as done by SOF as did Prince’s “Let’s Pretend We’re Married.”

SOF is a band that truly knows how to have fun even when the crowd is as small as it was that Sunday night at The Zephyr. Check out the album, the video and the live show if School Of Fish should ever swim back this way.


For more from the SLUG Archives:
The Continuing History of Underground Music In Salt Lake City

Review: Psychosis by Coffin Break