Cover Story: The Girls Are Back in Town

After a tumultuous and tragic seven-year gap, The Fairmount Girls craft a career album with Forever

Jun 25, 2008 at 2:06 pm
Kurt Strecker

The Fairmount Girls live "Forever": (L-R) Randy Cheek, Beth Cheek, Pat Hennessy, Dana Hamblen and Melissa Fairmount.

Wandering through The Fairmount Girls' rehearsal space — dubbed "Sprout House" because of the alfalfa sprout-growing landlord who occupies the building's first floor — on the eve of the release of Forever, their first new album in seven years, there's a palpable sense that a yard sale of pop culture's last 40 years would look a lot like this warehouse area.

Stacks of old vinyl. A revolving rack of clothing that could have been wardrobe stock from Laugh-In and Soul Train. Velvet paintings interspersed with real art. Textbooks that look as though they might address the exploration of the moon in theoretical terms. Billy Baloney and Chairy dolls. Cans of Psssst, the '60s hairspray shampoo.

Trying to take it all in is dizzying and fascinating.

The impression that The Fairmount Girls don't take much in life very seriously, least of all themselves, is tucked next to a supporting column in the middle of the space. There, atop a cardboard packing barrel, are the band's accumulated Cincinnati Entertainment Awards and Cammy Awards, undusted, unlighted, decidedly unmantled.

In other words, like everything else in the Fairmounts' museum of 20th century pop artifacts, they're treasured with a sense of irreverent perspective.

That perspective is on full display during the band's exterior photo shoot. When a trio of women and their young children pass by as band members are being framed beneath the ancient Barq's sign painted on the building across the street, one of the women admires drummer/vocalist Dana Hamblen's go-go boots and dress with a whoop and the observation, "Party like a Rock star!"

The band cracks up and invites the group to be photographed with them. After some initial reticence, the women and children mingle and pose with one of the city's most battered and beloved bands.

Photographer Kurt Strecker engages the Fairmounts in conversation as he directs them into various positions under the Barq's tagline ("It's good and wholesome!"), asking them the reason for the CityBeat story. Vocalist/keyboardist Melissa Fairmount says the band's CD release party — Friday night at Northside Tavern with The Chauncers and The Sundresses — is imminent.

"Which album is this?" Strecker inquires.

"Three," says the generally ebullient Fairmount. And then, looking somewhat pensively at the ground for a moment, she adds, "It's been a long time coming."

Don't call it a comeback
The long gap between releases could have been the reason for titling the band's new album Forever, their first legitimate full-length CD since the release of Tender Trap in 2001. Or maybe it's a statement of how long the Fairmounts think they can continue.

Considering it's been seven years since their last album — not counting various EPs and their 2005 Christmas release, all of which were handed out at shows — and that the band has never actually stopped working, perhaps their tenacity and talent will power them indefinitely, like a Pop/Punk version of the Eveready bunny.

But it hasn't been easy.

Since the release of Tender Trap, founding members Jane McBrain and Marnie Greenholz departed, as did guitarist Chris Schadler and bassist Eva Destruction (and a veritable parade of early members). With only the original core of Fairmount and Hamblen, The Fairmount Girls assembled a quartet with Erin Proctor and Mark Zero and soldiered on, regularly playing shows in and out of town.

By the following year, Proctor and Zero had also left and Jim Farmer had shuttered Deary Me, the Fairmounts' label of record for Tender Trap and their 2000 debut, Eleven Minutes to Anywhere. Although the band had made some tentative steps toward recording in 2004, they no longer had a label affiliation so there was little urgency to write and record.

"It didn't take us long to write songs, it just kind of took us a while to get focused enough to record them," Fairmount says as the band sits around the velvet-bumpered bar adorning the lounge area in their rehearsal space. "And we're also fairly persnickety. We've dropped a lot of songs. We did this record in four different sessions over the past four years. It did take a while."

It turned out that 2004 was a good year for the Fairmounts. Bassist Randy Cheek (formerly of The Ass Ponys) and his wife Beth (also of Lovely Crash) joined the Fairmount Girls family, with Randy switching to guitar to accommodate Beth's formidable bass abilities.

Almost simultaneously, Tigerlilies guitarist/vocalist Pat Hennessy, who had been talking with Hamblen and Fairmount for some time about playing together, dropped by for a jam and ultimately decided to split his time between his own band and the Fairmounts. Hennessy's introduction to the band came in dramatic fashion.

"I saw them at The Comet and I said, 'I've always wanted to play with you guys,' " Hennessy recalls. "Dana said to come down, but when I got there we couldn't do anything because of the shooting."

The day Hennessy chose to drop by the Fairmounts' rehearsal space was August 24, 2004, the day Paul Thomas Faith entered the Colerain K-Mart and fatally shot an employee and wounded a customer. After a short police chase, the mentally unbalanced Faith wound up in front of the Fairmounts' building.

"The police surrounded the car, and I heard 'pop pop' and I said, 'It's over, he killed himself,' " Fairmount says. "The Enquirer came up and took a photo from our window. That was quite a night."

Randy Cheek injects a bit of characteristically dark humor into the somber story: "And we were like, 'I hope that's not Pat.' "

Turned away that night, Hennessy returned to jam with the Fairmounts later in the week. This time he got a more pleasant surprise.

"I pulled up and saw Randy and Beth," Hennessey says. "I hadn't seen Randy in years and I thought, 'What's he doing here?' "

Unbeknownst to Hennessy, the Cheeks had just joined the Fairmounts.

"Jane always used to ask me to play," Randy Cheek says. "I had to wait until she wasn't in the band.".

That late summer evening marked their first official practice in this quintet configuration, which has sustained for the last four years - the longest period the band has gone without a lineup change since its formation in 1996.

A few weeks later, the refurbished Fairmount Girls played a set at the MidPoint Music Festival, a gig that found them still coalescing as a unit but also tantalizingly hinted at their potential going forward. It was a positive step for a band that had endured so many lineup shifts and restructuring periods that their fan base had eroded significantly.

"Melissa said, 'What do you wanna do now?' " Hennessy says. "And we said, 'Let's keep playing.' "

The Fairmount Girls did exactly that, returning to the local circuit with a renewed sense of purpose while leaving something important behind.

"We ditched our old songs," Hamblen says with a laugh.

"We got rid of all those and started writing anew," Fairmount concurs.

Over the next year, The Fairmount Girls maintained a steady regional presence while juggling all of their outside activities — Hamblen with Culture Queer, Beth Cheek with Lovely Crash, Hennessy with the Tigerlilies, Randy Cheek with various projects (ultimately the reformation of the Libertines) and Fairmount with The Thirteens at that point and with One Trick Pony now — and began rebuilding their audience. They also continued to write and record whenever possible.

If 2004 had been the good year, 2006 was its antithesis. Early in the year, just as Hamblen and Fairmount were preparing to cover South By Southwest for CityBeat by way of a road diary of their adventures, Fairmount's longtime boyfriend, musical cohort in the Thirteens and much loved and respected denizen of the local music scene, Sam Shipman (known to one and all as Sam Nation) was tragically killed in a car accident.

Although Hamblen and Fairmount canceled their SXSW trip, The Fairmount Girls maintained their gig schedule. For Fairmount, it was the most effective way to channel her grief.

"I think I took one day off," she recalls. "It was the only thing I could do, even though sometimes it didn't go so smooth. Why stop singing? It was the only thing left so sing I did.

"I didn't write for a little while, I kept my mouth shut that way, I remember. But you can only keep a loudmouth like me quiet for so long. And these guys were awesome. They were there when I was freaking out, they would push me through and help me through the day: 'Let's get on with it and do some Rock.' It was cool, really great."

Fairmount assesses 2006 with a simple declarative statement: "That year sucked."

Forever your girls
After another year of gigging — and fitting in periods of writing and recording — The Fairmount Girls got serious about releasing a new album with their final sessions last fall.

"The last time we went into the studio with John (Curley), we had decided this was going to be the final set, because we had 15 or 16 songs," Fairmount says. "That's when we decided, 'Ding, maybe we should just do this.' The concept didn't come out for a while though."

Earlier this year, the important final elements of the album came together, from the graphic look and feel of the package (low carbon footprint with an all-cardboard sleeve) to the sequence of the album's songs to actually naming the album (which is lovingly dedicated to Sam Nation).

"We sort of went with a play on a yearbook," says Hamblen, who managed much of the imagery for Forever. "It seemed like we'd had this long history."

"Deciding on the name was tough," Fairmount says. "We had a couple of different names we muddled over and voted, and Forever was the winner. But that only took a minute. The order took a little bit longer."

The most critical part of the process for the Fairmounts is upcoming, as they prepare to distribute their self-released third album.

If songwriting and sonic quality determined an album's outcome in the wider world, Forever would already be acclaimed nationwide. Sanding off the rough edges of their early Breeders/ Pixies affinity for noise has left The Fairmount Girls with a sound that leans toward early Pretenders, particularly on the album's first pair of tracks, "Little Mary Sunshine" and "Let's Baby Be Friends." There's a definite evolution of the Fairmounts' sound on Forever.

"The writing is very different," Fairmount says. "On the first album, we didn't know what the hell we were doing and we'd never played the instruments that we were playing. Musically, it's just the way it's evolved and what these guys have brought into Forever.

"I don't want to speak for everybody, because we've all evolved in different bands from the get-go, I think we've finally just got the balls to play what we want to play and see if it works. Before we might have been worried about this or that or does it fit or all the variables that make you change the way you think and do things. But in this band, we're all fairly confident with what we're doing and we all know each other and we'll support that, so it surges into a different thing. I think that's just musical growth on everyone's part."

" 'Genius' gets bandied about quite a bit," Randy Cheek deadpans.

"And 'masterpiece,' " Hennessy says.

Labels of greatness notwithstanding, there's an even more well-defined melodic sense to Forever. Fairmount is quick to assign credit for the shift within the band.

"Pat writes these incredible Pop riffs," she says admiringly.

"I do love melody, but I think we all like melody," Hennessy says, deferring modestly to the group ethic. "We all love The Beatles but we never, ever sit around and say, 'Let's write a Beatles song.' It's all very spontaneous."

"It just kind of seeps out," Fairmount says.

A case in point may well be "Penny Lane," the longest track on Forever. Not a cover of the Fabs' classic, it does offer a similar layered psychedelic Pop atmosphere in a way that Aimee Mann might approach it, while cribbing a couple of phrases from Lennon/McCartney ("pouring rain, very strange").

For fans looking for a slight return to the noisy Pop range of the first two albums, it comes early in the track list with "On Second Thought," a careening number that sounds like a sonic cocktail of The Turtles and The Doors, shaken not stirred and run through the Fairmounts' unique strainer.

Wonder twin powers
With the most stable lineup in the group's history, Forever would seem to suggest a new direction for The Fairmount Girls, one that swirls around the core sound of Fairmount's and Hamblen's unique vocal acrobatics, the former's Farfisa vibe and the latter's exquisitely simple drum technique.

Add in the twin guitar melodicism of Hennessy and Randy Cheek and Beth Cheek's foundationally supple bass lines, and the retooled Fairmount Girls are shaping up to world-class status.

"There's always that 'Fairmount sound,' whatever that is," Fairmount says. "For me, them playing and supporting so fantastically, it gives me the chance to stretch and do stuff I normally wouldn't, and I hope that what I'm doing does the same for all of them."

"I think I became a better bass player," Beth Cheek says. "In my other band, I play bass and sing lead and here they give me space to play bass more. I still sing, but this was an opportunity to do more of that and concentrate on just playing."

"We do play the old songs sometimes, but they don't even sound like the old band," Hennessy says. "Chris and Jane played so differently."

"It changes the beast," Fairmount says.

One thing about the beast that hasn't changed is the aforementioned synergy between Fairmount and Hamblen. Through all of The Fairmount Girls' sonic and lineup permutations, the chemistry between the two has been as constant as the periodic table.

"I think we have abandonment issues," Hamblen jokes. "We've just dug our heels in and we've been like, 'Well, we can keep going. You're not gonna stop us.' "

"Yeah, for lack of anything else to do, we decided to keep doing it," Fairmount says. "We became great friends, we're the best travel partners, we hang out. I just love writing music and singing with Dana.

"The most fun ever is when we step away from the instruments and sing and weave and have fun. We know it's good when we can't even tell who the other one is. I don't get to do that with anyone else. And we tend to be able to write off of each other quickly and well. Even though we don't talk about what the subject is, somehow, someway it just works."

For the new Fairmount Girls, it works on Forever. And with any luck, it will work on forever as well.

THE FAIRMOUNT GIRLS' free CD release party for Forever is Friday at Northside Tavern with guests The Sundresses and The Chauncers.