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Freak Folk: A Genre By Any Other Name

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Wednesday, Jul 19, 2006

It’s been a month now since a New York Times article (Summer of Love Redux) helped to popularize a new type of music—freak folk. No doubt that for the performers and groups who fall under this banner, it’s a blessing and a curse.
  
Let me start with a disclosure—the author of the Times article is my roomie and a good friend of mine, not to mention a former editor of mine. Even if none of that was true, I’d still tell you that he’s a damn fine writer.


So… I found it curious that within merely a week or so of the article, the term ‘freak folk’ was being bounced around like it had been a certifiable genre. An AM New York interview with Ben Chasny (aka Six Organs of Admittance) mentioned the term at least four or five times—you could hear the poor guy’s teeth gnashed as you read the short article (i.e. “Do you think you’re more ‘freak’ or ‘folk’?”). The hipster metro mailing list Flavorpill was also announcing an upcoming show under the music heading of ‘ff’ too. Soon enough, you’ll see the ‘ff’ with its own section in your favorite indie music store. Amazing what power a Times article can wield when it’s a front of the Leisure section, above-the-fold piece.


Truth be known though, the term might have first sprung up in the Times in late ‘04 (in a Devendra Banhart article) and I’ve heard it used again at least once in an SF Gate article but now it seems to be really catching on and sticking.


Granted, that ‘freak folk’ is a catchy name (you gotta love alliteration) but how do you think its practitioners feel about it. ‘Folk’ they are but ‘freaks’? That term has been latched on to everything from Frank Zappa (his debut, Freak Out!) to Chic (the disco classic “Le Freak”) but most likely, when people hear that term, they think of something like comix heros the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers- a bunch of crazed, smelly stoners. Of course, Chasny and others involved can laugh this off hopefully but it’s also the kind of thing that will stick with them. Of course, rarely does any performer get to chose a name for the type of music they’re supposed to be playing. And granted that labels can get easily worn out—decades after the fact, what exactly does or doesn’t qualify as ‘rock’ or ‘jazz’ or ‘country’ or ‘punk’?


Nevertheless, despite any kind of trauma that the ‘freak folk’ posse must endure for getting labeled (Banhart has said that he hates the term), they also get the obvious benefit of recognition. As the AM New York article shows, this is obviously a mixed bag for the artists: they get the coverage but they’ll also get a lot of stupid, juvenile questions about being “freaks.” Of course, that’s part and parcel for anyone who enters the music biz when you get pegged with a term like that, you’re forced into a uphill battle for some dignity.


As a “freak folk” fan myself, I’m glad at least that this publicity means that more people are going to know about and hopefully listen to these bands. But as anyone who’s actually met folks like Chasny and Banhart could tell you, they’re perfectly nice guys and not freaks per se. But then again, a label like ‘nice guys’ ain’t gonna move any record or sell copy, is it?

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