UTG INTERVIEW: dsfečo on ‘Watch It Sparkle’ and Being an Independent Artist

dsfeco

“So my expectations are modest: that for some folks unknown to me, my music and poetry might open a window–maybe just a little bit–and allow them to get a glimpse of the secrets of their own heart as it tries to make sense of this world.”

David Fetcho, better known under the musical moniker of dsfečo, has been involved with music nearly as long as he’s been alive–coming up on 70 years. His newest solo EP, Watch It Sparkle, features six tracks of something akin to what he describes as “medieval folk music for the 21st century.”

We were able to speak with dsfečo, well in depth, about his newest works and far too much else to even summarize, so just follow us below to read our conversation in full.

Firstly, can you tell me a little about the name you took for this project? It’s closely related to your real name, correct?

Right. My given name is David Fetcho, and growing up Catholic, I took the name Stephen as a confirmation middle name (after the first Christian martyr who was stoned to death, largely for indicting the hypocrisy of the religion of his day). I was always uncomfortable with the name “Fetcho” and was teased a lot as a kid—you know, “fetch this” “fetch that.” But when I discovered the Slovak origins, and spelling, of my paternal grandparents’ name, I found a new way to own my name and heritage—not to mention a name that looks kind of cool graphically. Hence, dsfečo.

At 67 years old, you have a vast history with music. Where did it all begin for you? What originally inspired you to want to get involved with music?

My mom tells me I started talking at a very early age, around 7 months, and began singing not long after (and she loves to add, “And he hasn’t shut up since!”). I can’t remember a time I wasn’t interested in music, or didn’t think of myself as somehow involved with it. My maternal grandfather was a piano savant. He never took a lesson, but could play anything he heard after just one hearing. I think I picked up the feeling from him that I should be able to do anything at all with music. Of course, once I began piano lessons at age 8, I found out pretty quickly that it wasn’t going to be quite that easy! Growing up in a blue collar, Eastern European community in Pittsburgh, PA in the ’50s, there was a lot of “Polka pressure” to deal with, and after a couple years of piano, I switched to the accordion. Fortunately, I had as my teacher the great Joe Zarnich, who was a bear on theory, as well as a brilliant improvisationalist. I studied with him for six years, becoming quite a good accordionist, and, I think, internalizing a great deal of music theory that’s allowed me to take a more intuitional approach to composing without losing track of structure. Throughout my early years, I also sang in a touring boys’ choir (we were even cast in the opera, Tosca, at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Music Hall), and studied recorder with a German recorder teacher, so that now alto recorder is my primary instrument.

Having spent decades in the industry, what would you say have been some of the biggest ups and downs you’ve experienced along the way?

There are a couple ways to answer that. First, in terms of public recognition and notoriety, it’s always a disappointment when people don’t give one’s work an attentive and honest appraisal, and instead resort to categorical thinking about the work they’re encountering. But it’s likewise a joy when folks have actively appreciated what I’ve done, and really encouraged me by opening opportunities to produce more work. Touring performance work with my wife, Susan, performing and giving workshops in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Bali, as well as locally, were obvious high points. Every time I finished a commissioned work for a dance company or other project and saw it performed was, naturally, a great boost. But living through how hard it was for us–and many, many independent artists more worthy than we were–to really make a mark could, at times, be quite depressing. But collaborations that have turned into long standing friendships have been the greatest reward.

The other way to answer your question has to do with my relationship to the work itself. The biggest ups come when a piece is finished and it feels really satisfying. The biggest down comes when I realize I shouldn’t have been satisfied so easily!

And how did you get where you are now with dsfečo? What inspirations have led to the sound you’ve taken on with this project?

You know, I’ve metabolized so many strands of music that it’s impossible to pinpoint any particular inspirations. As a choirboy I sang Gregorian Chant every week. The first songs I wrote as a young teen were doo-wop knock-offs. Folk and protest music came next, then listening to groups like The Fugs and Pearls Before Swine, then psychedelia and rock. I was fascinated by experiments in synthesized music in the ’60s, so jumped at the chance, in 1970, to take a class with Patrick Gleeson at Different Fur Trading Company in San Francisco on the big studio Moog they had acquired for a Jefferson Airplane project. I was totally hooked, and subsequently spent many late night hours every week on the Moog at Mills College Center for Contemporary Music, through their incredibly generous community access program. All through the ’80s I listened mostly to world music, late Medieval, Ars Nova and early Renaissance composers, and the bunch of post-modernists and minimalists doing the most interesting work of the decade (the Eno/Byrne collaboration on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts was, for me, a high water mark). Vocally, I drew a lot of inspiration from Meredith Monk’s extended vocal work, which was a liberating influence. I also attended a demonstration at Stanford University in the early ’80s of a new sampling technology that allowed merging wave harmonics of various natural sounds to create a new, unsynthesized, “natural” hybrid sound (e.g. a trumpet that roared with a lion’s roar). I began my own digital sampling experiments with my first computer in 1985. So it was in the ’80s that my own compositional style started to form, which has evolved along a continuum to the present body of work.

I’m also interested in microtonality. For example, in the title track I’ve juxtaposed both singing and ocarina playing in a 19-tone scale against modal backgrounds. In addition, for the past 16 years I’ve been singing traditional, early American shape-note music, both here in California and in visits to traditional singing communities in the South, where the tradition got embedded in the early 19th century. I can’t put my finger on a specific thread of influence on my current work, but I feel so saturated with this music that I’m sure it’s left its mark.

As you’ve been involved with numerous bands and projects over the years, what is it now that has you wanting to focus on a solo endeavor as opposed to working with other bands and such?

Well, can you imagine getting a band to play the music on this EP? It could be done, of course, but I wanted to first articulate the vision of the music without the complexities of managing what would amount to a small orchestra. Theoretically, I can see myself touring with a group of stellar players who would contribute their own creativity to my music, making it a truly collaborative expression. And, if a producer somewhere decides it’s worth an investment, I have no doubt that I could create a far-out show. But for the time being, I’m enjoying the freedom of being able to seriously focus and playfully experiment in my studio in service of a pretty clear vision of what I want to say. Plus, I’m an ingrained introvert.

As an independent artist doing something truly unique, I can only imagine the challenges with getting your name and music out there. What about this has kept you going despite the obstacles you may be faced with?

Pretty much every musician I talk to who’s not Taylor Swift or Kanye West finds the current turmoil in the music industry really trying. Used to be you could sell CDs. Then it used to be you could sell downloads. Now with everybody streaming, the only way an independent artist can hope to make a living and sell some records is to gig endlessly, and hawk their merch after every show. And any independent artist whose work is in any way divergent (even assuming it’s well-crafted, smart music) is immediately in a needle-in-ten-thousand-haystacks situation.

In a larger sense, the absolute glut of streamable music has, I think, devalued Pandora-cized music per se in the minds of listeners. The reliance on spectacle to tickle the attention of the herd on what are often the most inane songs is really off the charts. Look at the Grammys. I mean, how many hyper-sexualized cyborg twerkers in cat suits (or lack thereof) can you take in one sitting? Sure, it’s nice that some dancers are getting a paid gig, but, really…

In my case, maybe putting out a studio EP was not the smartest move from a financial standpoint? While the EP has received quite a few very positive reviews–as well as a couple dunder-headed ones–I still have a box full of CDs in the studio.

So what keeps me going?

For decades I’ve been guided by a paragraph introduced to me by the late poet, William Everson, with whom I’ve been privileged to share a few readings when he was still alive and active.

Writing in 1937, R. G. Collingwood, concludes his ground breaking work, The Principles Of Art, with this paragraph: “The artist must prophesy…in the sense that he tells his audience, at the risk of their displeasure, the secrets of their own hearts. His business as an artist is to speak out, to make a clean breast. But what he has to utter is not, as the individualistic theory of art would have us think, his own secrets. As spokesman of his community, the secrets he utters are theirs. The reason why they need him is that no community altogether knows its own heart; and by failing in this knowledge a community deceives itself on the one subject concerning which ignorance means death. For the evils which come from that ignorance the poet as prophet suggests no remedy, because he has already given one. The remedy is the poem itself. Art is the community’s medicine for the worst disease of the mind, the corruption of consciousness.”

In a recent interview with Bill Moyers, the novelist E.L. Doctorow made an observation about current American writing that I think applies to popular music as well. He says, “I think we tend today to be more Miniaturists than we used to be. We’ve constricted our lens. We’ve come in the house, closed the door, pulled the shade, reporting on what’s going on in the bedroom, the kitchen but forgetting the street outside and the town and the highway. What is the big story? The national soul is always the big story; who we are, what we’re trying to be, what our fate is, where we will stand in the moral universe when these things are reckoned.”

For me, these two statements give me all the encouragement and courage I need to keep working. While I totally realize just how small and relatively insignificant my little record is in the big scheme of the music industry, etc., I still fervently believe in what my music has to say. So my expectations are modest: that for some folks unknown to me, my music and poetry might open a window–maybe just a little bit–and allow them to get a glimpse of the secrets of their own heart as it tries to make sense of this world.

In regards to Watch It Sparkle, how would you describe the EP to someone who hasn’t had the opportunity to hear it yet?

I think it’s odd that several reviewers have called this music “experimental” or “avant-garde.” I don’t think of it that way at all, and think those sorts of labels tend to be more off-putting than inviting. I still like the over-worn cliché, “ancient-future,” as a descriptor. It’s like medieval folk music for the 21st century. And if you listen to some of the compositional structure of many Ars Nova pieces, for example, my music won’t sound very avant-garde at all.

The short answer is that I’m trying to take the listener on a poetic journey within the sometimes confounding psychic swirl going on in our collective souls. And I’d say that if I succeeded at all, you’ll really get your money’s worth with this one! It’s difficult but rewarding listening that’ll give something new to chew on with each repeated play. As thematically dark as some of the songs are, there’s still a joyful complexity holding it all together. If someone takes the time to listen into the music (rather than just listening to it), I think they’ll discover the gift I’ve tried to present to my audience.

Lyrically, are there any themes or messages you hope listeners will pick up on?

I was really pleased that one reviewer picked up that the second cut, “Civilization,” was a satire! For me that short lyric most concisely gets at the deep irony of the history of human progress. And, in a sense, it’s the anchor of the entire record. The subtext to all the songs is the ironic, double-edged nature of the controlling myth and metaphor of our age: the unquestionable myth of progress, and its organizing metaphor, “life is a contest.”

The title track is kind of an outline of that progression, starting with a “myth of origins” timeless state imagined by a character having a genetic memory in a bar. He then traces the decline of innocence and the constriction of hope through to the final recourse of maybe finding some “sparkle” in a flashing neon sign or the headlights of a car. It’s kind of a conceptual mash-up of the first three chapters of Genesis with Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel.”

But overall, I’d hope that listeners would find in this song-cycle a poetic exploration that speaks, however abstractly, to the condition of our cultural environment. And I hope that folks make it through to the last cut, “Just Another Good Day,” which lifts us out of the jaws of our conflict-driven dilemma into graceful connection.

I’m from the Bay Area myself, and as I see you’re currently located in Oakland, I’m curious as to what some of your favorite venues are in the area, both to perform at or to see other acts play.

To tell you the truth, I don’t go out much. I’ll only go see an act that I either know and love, or that I suspect is going to surprise me. One of my favorites has been the New Music Bay Area summer solstice event at Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland. It’s a Julia Morgan designed mausoleum and columbarium with many discreet nooks and crannies throughout several levels. NMBA presents close to a hundred performers who set up in these little spaces while the audience of nearly a thousand folks walks through the building encountering every sort of amazing performance, all going on at the same time. There are also two larger spaces for featured acts that never fail to be stunning. I’m sure to never miss Amy X Neuburg, who performs there every year, and for whom I have boundless admiration.

I know you recently “gave in” and started a Twitter account. What do you see the advantages of that being for you?

So far, not much. I see a lot of independent musicians on Twitter who become obnoxious with their constant self-promotion, so I try to avoid that temptation. Then there’s the constant stream of time-sucking twaddle to plow through. I guess I need a tutorial on how to use it more smartly.

As Watch It Sparkle has been out for a bit now, what have you been working on in the meantime or hope to do for the remainder of the year?

Probably like a lot of writers, there are times I have to force myself to write, and other times I have to force myself not to write, just to take care of the mundane chores of existence. I’ve been going through the latter for the past couple years, so have a pretty large backlog of material waiting in the wings. I’m looking forward to a new single release this fall–a song that’s topical and on point with something everybody’s thinking about. It’s also bound to be controversial with the fundamentalists of various stripes–as if they’ll ever listen to it!

I also have an “ambient” instrumental album in the works, called eubiance. With false modesty aside, I think this record is going to be quite lovely. Then there are all the songs that didn’t make it onto Watch It Sparkle for various reasons, as well as the ones I’ve written since. The next album of songs will have a broader focus, with love songs and lyrical meditations as well as the more social commentary ones.

My family on both sides all live active lives into their nineties, and I don’t feel substantially different than I did when I was forty. So I don’t have plans to stop creating any time soon.

Brian Leak

Editor-In-Chief. King of forgetting drinks in the freezer. Pop culture pack rat. X-Phile. LOST apologist.
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