f a band plays a concert and there’s no audience, do they make a sound? If a group plays in a sealed club with no patrons, are they simultaneously live and not live? What if a band threw a live album and nobody came?
These are the hypothetical questions that plague frontman Michael Hensley of Greater Cincinnati’s Frontier Folk Nebraska as the group prepares for a two-night stand at Newport’s Southgate House Revival this Friday and Saturday night. The quartet is recording the shows for a proposed live album somewhere down the line.
“I’m one of those that’s like, ‘No one’s going to fucking come,’ ” Hensley says during an interview in bassist Matt McCormick’s Covington sitting room.
“We’ve had good crowds the last dozen times we played in town, but I know one thing for sure,” guitarist Travis Talbert says, making eye contact as he plugs in to rehearse new material in McCormick’s living room. “If this thing sucks, I’m blaming CityBeat and you.”
There’s little chance of being painted with the suck brush, at least as far as FFN’s upcoming live recording antics are concerned. The foursome — Hensley, Talbert, McCormick and drummer Mark Becknell — has amassed a solid local following over their 10-year existence.
The band’s shift from acoustic troubadours to rafter-rattling Indie/Roots Rock ninjas — members refer to their chosen style as “Bootgaze” — has resulted in an exponential increase in the size of its fan base, as evidenced by a recent capacity crowd at Over-the-Rhine live-music hotspot MOTR Pub.
FFN has been particularly active over the past year, releasing its third full-length album, Frontier F**k Nebraska, in 2014. Can mainstream success be far behind once you’ve teased an F-bomb in an album title?
“It (the starred-out word) could have been ‘fork,’ ” Talbert notes. “I looked it up. There are 11 words that it could possibly be.”
“I saw (just) one,” McCormick says dryly.
The powerhouse album, which will be prominently featured in the live recording, was recorded with the band’s last rhythm section, bassist Steven Oder and drummer Nate Wagner. Oder informed the band of his exit plan in the midst of recording F**k and departed soon after the album was completed to resume his graduate studies, while Wagner, already dividing attention between FFN and Electric Citizen, joined another band.
“We decided to part ways with Nate,” Hensley says. “He was spreading his time kind of thin. He’s doing well, and that’s awesome.”
Former Shoot Out the Lights bassist McCormick, who arrived in mid-2013, had been hanging with the band before joining; Hensley was in the process of painting a guitar for him. McCormick hadn’t really been a fan of FFN, but his conversion was swift and potent.
“I’d seen them before but never paid a whole bunch of attention, but I saw them at (downtown club) Mainstay and I was like, ‘This is fucking awesome,’ ” McCormick says. “Two months later, maybe not even that long, Michael called me.”
“He was like, ‘Let me think about it, I don’t know if I can do this, I’ve got Shoot Out the Lights,’ ” Hensley says. “The next day, it was, ‘Yeah, I’m ready.’ ”
McCormick proved to be a valuable band asset from the outset.
“He came over and he had charted out all of the songs, like he does, and we were like, ‘He’s thorough,’ ” Talbert says. “Which is more thorough than we’ve ever been.”
Like McCormick, Becknell had prior experience with FFN, from at least a fan’s perspective (“I remember him buying a T-shirt,” recalls Hensley).
Becknell wound up in the drum chair shortly after McCormick joined, just in time for FFN’s triumphant 2013 MidPoint Music Festival set at The Drinkery. For Becknell, who is also a singer/songwriter (he recently released the solo album Like the Vine), it was something of a trial by fire.
“We needed somebody in a pinch, because that was right before MidPoint,” Talbert says. “Mark learned as much as Matt knew in a couple of weeks. We did one practice and then the show. He had little notes that he could flip to, but it was so seamless.”
The most unsettling thing for Becknell was the band’s disregard for using set lists, but the kamikaze live approach forged an even tighter bond between the newly minted bandmates.
“It would be like spooking a horse, trying to make a set list,” Talbert says. “It would fuck up the whole thing.”
“It was uncomfortable at first, but then I realized it’s a lot more fun to do it that way,” says Becknell. “It just makes it tough when you’re like, ‘Well, what songs should I learn?’ ”
“All of them,” Hensley answers back.
Since then, FFN has been gigging steadily and touring occasionally. The group recorded a session for the popular online Daytrotter live music series back in February, and it just wrapped up a successful Midwest run. It was after the members’ satisfying live-in-the-studio Daytrotter experience that the band conceived the idea of doing a live album.
“We had a few local shows after the album release and they all went really well, but we were talking about what we could do to do another thing in town,” Talbert says. “We have like half a new record’s worth of stuff, but we wanted to encapsulate what (McCormick and Becknell) have done, which is come in and learn three records’ worth of stuff and really, in a lot of ways, make everything tighter.”
“Even before these guys came in, I felt like we’ve always been a live band,” Hensley says. “It’s cool to have records, but a live band is different — it’s fun to play and the songs just come alive.”
The game plan for Frontier Folk Nebraska’s Southgate recordings — or as much of a plan as the musicians will implement — is to learn a few older songs in addition to the material they’ve been playing, and include a few of the new songs (although those will not be included on the eventual live album). An added element is that alumni Oder will be returning to film the proceedings each night.
“I think between the two nights, we’ve got it planned to do somewhere between 30 and 40 songs,” Hensley says. “Some of them will be both nights but a few will be one night or the other. We might do some covers … that’s always up in the air.”
Now that’s the Frontier Folk Nebraska we know and love.
FRONTIER FOLK NEBRASKA records its forthcoming live album Friday and Saturday at Southgate House Revival. Tickets/more info: southgatehouse.com.