Interview: COOL FANG

3/8/2019

COOL FANG is the musical project of Dylan Morris, a drummer and guitarist based in San Rafael, CA, but thinking about moving to LA. His newest album, Sparring, is out today.

Where are you right now?

I’m in San Rafael. It’s kind of a suburb, like north of San Francisco. It’s kinda the privileged, douchey part of the Bay. But it is very beautiful, very isolating. Don’t have to worry about the tech boom and the crazy rent, it’s pretty nice out here to be honest.

Are you from the area, or taking refuge?

Both. I grew up here, went to high school here. Before that - well, I guess there was no before that, I was just always here - after that, I went to Santa Cruz for school. I came back and settled back in, timing it kind of poorly because of the rent and all that.

I was wondering about the extent to which the area could still play host to a DIY scene.

It’s actually pretty dope - Oakland is more unified, so it’s definitely more community-based, but I wouldn’t say that that’s not the case with SF. For me, out here in San Rafael, there’s nothing, no folks really making music that I’m aware of. I kind of like being outside of a particular scene, which is funny because there’s an element of my music that’s very scene kid-y. I grew up with a lot of post-hardcore, that sort of vibe. But there weren’t really local shows or anything.

Do you play shows much?

No, I’ve yet to actually perform as COOL FANG. But I’ve got some good homies, we’re all trying to practice and do some shows.

I’d kind of assumed that you were playing everything on the record, but that’d obviously be difficult while touring.

Yeah, it’s all me on the record, but it’s yet to come to fruition live.

You said “as COOL FANG" - have you played shows previously?

Yeah, I had a project with a friend from Oakland, actually, that was kind of a weird, noisy punk duo. We played shows over the past five years, at the Stork Club in Oakland. Beyond that, I haven’t really performed too much. In high school, I performed way more than anything that I’ve written. I was playing a lot of jazz, and we were doing a ton of circuits around, like, clinics and things. Kind of jazz camp type shit. I was pretty good at it, doing drums, but beyond that I wasn’t really performing any self-written material.

Looking around your Soundcloud, you can find references to pre-COOL FANG material, or maybe older tracks that have been deleted - how important to you is it to segment creative… phases, or identities?

For me personally, I think it’s kind of important. I had a previous project called Dark in Europe, which was very El Guincho-inspired. I wasn’t as good at guitar as I feel like I am now, and I was always tapping - like kind of a math rock thing - because I’d started as a drummer. But I was doing the kind of afrobeat, Animal Collective thing, and for me that was a rougher time. So I think COOL FANG is definitely a step forward into the present, with just how much better I feel. Dark in Europe was a super isolating project in a way, because I was going through depression, kind of using a lot of those chillwave elements with jungle, tropical shit and painting that as a landscape for escapism. It’s good for artists to move on, and to signal that by creating new things. And I kinda got more into no-wave. I didn’t want to make things with reverb all the time [laughs]. I think that was a conscious decision, beyond just how I was feeling as a person. I was getting into bands like Women, Cold Pumas, who were a big influence, and just things where guitars were manipulated into something that wasn’t a guitar.

How would you describe your goals for the project?

I just wanna keep putting music up, you know? I really enjoy recording and creating shit, and in the short term I want to put Sparring out, then beyond that I’ve got another album, like a full full-length thing to put out.

Where do you record currently?

So I record in this little room that’s like beneath the main part of the house I live in. It’s really small, but that’s where I record everything. It’s pretty much bedroom recording, it’s not some studio. It’s got a different sort of sound, but it’s not much different. It’s a basement.

Talking about the act of stretching a guitar into something that it’s not, how do you strike a balance between something that’s rewarding, or necessary to listen to on headphones versus a wall of sound?

I think listening to shoegaze in my past has really informed that, or the whole bedroom thing was definitely influenced by shoegaze. But for me I think it was a playing style, I don’t really think of it as a wall of sound. But I definitely do think that there’s an element of my music that’s cool for headphones - personally, I listen to a lot of music in headphones. The digital era informed my music a lot - I’ve still never messed around with a record player, I’m still very into little one-off songs, the way that music is shared. I think headphones allow for a sort of isolated comfort for the music, even if it’s kind of edgy, noisy shit. Maybe that’s a paradox [laughs].

Growing up, was there a point where you had to come around to noise as a form of musicality?

I think so - maybe seven, six years ago. I was never a hardcore noise fan, I like a lot of that stuff but I’ve always liked to throw it in as more of an element of a different picture. At some point, I was getting into bands like HEALTH, the whole 2008-2009 wave of indie rock bands doing the noisy no-wave stuff. But I’ve never really consciously tried to find more noisy music. I would say the first noisy band that got me from A to B was HEALTH, probably Women, and Glenn Branca. New York no-wave in general guided me out of listening to just pretty shit.

Do you think much about how you’d classify your own music, genre-wise? Do you think that’s a useful approach to your music?

I used to think of it a lot, but I think nowadays I really don’t. It’s one of the most freeing things to say that I kind of like what I like. I never really think about genre any more, whereas previously I would think “oh, this is some dope dancehall project" and be super into compartmentalizing things. As an artist, I think it’s cool to be into what you’re into, and I think that’s what COOL FANG is in a way. It’s kind of the sound of someone reaching [laughs]. I’m into noise and no-wave, but COOL FANG is super pretty music. It’s not about discord, or shouting in a dark room. It doesn’t sound like Swans, but a song like “Guava" was really inspired by Cop Shoot Cop. It doesn’t sound like them, but it has kind of a feeling.

Are you really invested in chasing specific pieces of equipment, or working with what you have?

I don’t really try to find a piece of gear to hone in on a certain sound that’s in my head, I just tend to work within the limits of what I’ve got. On Sparring, I was using the same guitar processor that I’ve had since I was like nineteen. My dad’s a guitar player too, and he wasn’t really messing with this processor, so as I was learning guitar this thing was with me the whole time. I think with COOL FANG, I’ve always been trying to find a certain sound, but I’ve always had this processor so it’s been a process of finding what I can do with that. It took me a while to be comfortable with this weird, metallic, noisy thing. I think it’s actually somehow easier for me to be playing really noisy bullshit, but it took me a while to be comfortable saying that I really love this sound, that I can use this sound with pretty textures.

I saw that some older cover art, as well as your avatar, used images from Burst City. What can you tell me about that?

Burst City was a dystopian punk movie in Japan, which I’ve always really liked. The narrative is really loose - in fact, I don’t know if there is a narrative - but the director paints the whole film with imagery that isn’t sustained on dialogue. That move really resonated with me in college, just because it had Asian people in it. At the time that I saw the movie, it hit home for me because I’d never really seen a full cast of Asian-American people playing punk music. I’d always been into to punk growing up, but it had always been pretty white-centric. It was an image that I’d never seen before. Just the attitudes of those dudes, and those bands, it was very “fuck you," but artful. It was very cool to see a film and think for the first time, like, this is how I feel about who I am.

How’d you find the movie initially?

Probably on Tumblr. Probably seeing a picture in the stream of images, peoples’ appreciation for different pieces of art. There’s something really dope about collage, beyond it being the “in" music genre a couple years ago. Growing up Asian in a very white neighborhood, collecting different things that I appreciated was a very natural thing - I really dig r’n’b, I dig Wu-tang Clan, I like noise. I’m into different things, and that comes from not really wanting to be into Mistah F.A.B., no disrespect to Bay Area stuff. I kind of wanted to evade things that people were into. There were so many scene kid bands that used autotune - a lot of that shit was really ugly, and not fun to listen to all the time, but then there were bands that could do it in this crude way that was still kind of pretty. I feel like that in itself was a sort of hybridization, or collage. Here’s one genre completely within another genre.

There’s so much critical weight given to “oh, I can hear a little of this in there, a little of that" - it can be tight when somebody insists on taking two wildly discordant influences and just jamming them together.

I love that you said that, because I think that’s what I’m trying to tell you - I like noise, and I like other things, and I think it all sounds good when it’s really naturally done. With COOL FANG, it’s always a question of how - how can you sound like this one band when you have another element? I like to strip away from answering that question, because that’s just how it is. I fuck with those elements, and hopefully it sounds natural and not forced.

What’d you study in college?

I tried to study music, and I got wiped. I failed [laughs]. After that, I was like “alright, I’ll do some art," and did visual art for four years. As a kid, I drew a lot, but once I was at UC Santa Cruz I was planning on doing all music. But I didn’t really have the chops to read music - I could perform, and play, and listen, but I’ve never been able to really read music. Actually, the drummer for Haley Heynderickx actually beat me, when we were competing for who got to be the music major, the drummer for the jazz group. Phil [Rogers], he’s touring with her, which is super dope, but he beat me man [laughs]! So I just went into the art thing and really enjoyed that, to be honest. I was doing a lot of collage in college too.

Are those kind of equal avenues for self-expression for you, or do you have specific inclinations towards one or the other?

Yeah, I’m definitely more music-inclined for sure. I think visual art is not something that I’m as strong at; I think I’m pretty good at it, but I feel a lot better playing music. But something about music that I really enjoy is thinking about visuals as I’m performing - re-creating an environment or some perceived thing in my head, which I think a lot of people do. When I can’t put that to paper visually, it ends up showing up in COOL FANG. Part of end of the sixth song on Sparring, where it kinda goes into this ASMR-type thing, was definitely an attempt to kind of allude to a specific environment.

How would you describe that environment?

A lot of the songs are about triumph and trying to overcome things that I had gone through beforehand, coming to grips with new strengths that I was feeling. For me, there’s kind of a sporty element to COOL FANG, where there’s a big, cathartic side of it. I don’t know that that’s indebted to a certain place, more of a vibe.

Headphones are interesting, they kind of split your world into sight and sound. And then you can end up with either this huge synchronicity between the two or a total dissonance.

Yeah, I really agree with that. There’s almost an intimacy with COOL FANG, even though it’s not light, acoustic shit. I think that’s something I actually really recently realized that I’m into about writing music, there’s definitely a heaviness but also maybe vulnerability. I think it’s cool as a voicing, that things don’t have to be super black and white.

I think “intimacy" is a good term for it, I was thinking earlier today how funny it was to be listening to have this very loud, close thing entirely to myself while listening in like an office environment.

Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff that I really like that’s acoustic. Having this inner voice that you can portray through a song is pretty cool as an idea. I really like Joanne Robertson, I grew up with a lot of Kings of Convenience, and a lot of acoustic stuff.

With that stuff, though, the sense of intimacy is because somebody’s voice is front-and-center, speaking right into your ear. Your vocals tend to be way back in the mix.

Definitely. That lack of present, total upfront-ness with the vocals just has to do with confidence in my own voice. I know a lot of shoegaze stuff would employ the same sort of thing, but beyond that I’m not sure. I look forward to going in and having my voice be front-and-center in the future. A lot of those songs were recorded about a year and a half ago, and since then I’ve been exploring more upfront vocals. I’ve always really liked r’n’b, and in that world you can’t have your vocals at, like, -12dB, so I’m trying to fuck with that foreground.

I don’t know if it’s confidence; at the time that Sparring was recorded I think I just felt like I had to adhere to the rules of bedroom pop. But the other shit that I’ll put out in the future will definitely have vocals more front-and-center; that intimacy that we were talking about is something that I’m looking forward to playing into more. It’s cool to have the inner voice be the operator for one’s vocals, almost like it’s something that you’re painting with. It’s cool to put that right alongside this sort of cacophonous, hardcore shit.