From Nashville to Tokyo the Hard Way

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By David Medsker

Fluid Ounces should be huge. The brainchild of Murfreesboro, Tennessee native Seth Timbs, Fluid Ounces are a wildly clever, catchy, and super-fun piano-based pop band. Sound at all familiar? Yeah, they hear that, too. The only difference is that Ben Folds Five never wrote sea shanties, bluegrass jams, or songs about comic book superheroines. In fact, it appears that the one thing Ben Folds Five did that Fluid Ounces could never do, is sell records.

Timbs hopes to change that. The band’s first two albums, 1997’s Big Notebook for Easy Piano and 1999’s In the New Old Fashioned Way were mired in record company impropriety. Their third album, Foreign Legion, was so hard to find that their fans started to wonder if its existence was merely urban legend. Their fourth album, The Whole Shebang, released last summer, appeared to be headed for a similar fate. Then, for the first time in years, the Ounces’ luck changed for the better. Their label, Vacant Cage Records, struck a distribution deal with Red Eye, which will re-release The Whole Shebang nationally on May 3. PopMatters caught with Timbs, on the way home from his day job, to talk about his sudden change of fortune, stealing from the gods, and the impeccable taste of the Japanese.

PopMatters: You’re on your way home from work. May I ask where you’re working?

Seth Timbs: I do landscaping.

PM: Thank God. I was worried you were going to say you work at Wal-Mart.

ST: No, but I’ve done that sort of thing before. Not Wal-Mart, but I’ve definitely worked retail before. But no, the last few years, except when I was in California ... well actually, out in California I did a little bit of carpentry and landscaping, but mostly I worked for a mortgage company out there.

PM: Do your coworkers know you’re a rock star who’s adored by millions?

ST: (laughs) Uh, millions? Dozens, perhaps, I don’t know ... Sometimes my boss, when I get to work, he’ll throw the paper at me and say, “Did you see that? You’re in the paper.” But he’s a musician too, so, you know, it’s all good.

PM: A group of traveling musician landscapers.

ST: Yeah, three of us are musicians. One of us is ... not.

PM: So you’re back in the big leagues again! How does it feel?

ST: In the big leagues? I’m back in the big leagues?

PM: I would say so.

ST: I didn’t know I was ever in the big leagues to begin with.

PM: Well, you have national distribution again.

ST: Yeah, that’s true. You’re right about that. Yeah, that’s something!

PM: It has to make you feel pretty good, given how the last few years have gone.

ST: Yeah, I’m glad [the new album is] out everywhere. We need to get the band out there playing live, so that people actually know who we are and go buy our records. Otherwise, I think there’s a good chance (the album will) just sit there. But if we get some magazine interviews, such as this one, then that doesn’t hurt either. We might sell a few.

PM: So you do have plans to tour, then.

ST: So long as we can do it without going broke.

PM: So unlike a major label deal, where there’s usually a budget set aside to host a tour, this [deal] is simply distributing the album, then.

ST: Yeah, as far as I know. If there’s tour support, that’d be great, but Red Eye is just putting [the album] out there for us, which is awesome, but we don’t have any tour support of any kind. [Touring] can be done. We did it before, but the difference now is that a few of us are married, and a couple of us have kids, so can’t we afford to do it for as little money as we did it before.

PM: Are there any former members of the band that are currently playing with you?

ST: Brian Rogers, he was the guitar player on the first two records we did with Spongebath. And then there’s someone from the third record [Foreign Legion], which is almost totally unavailable.

PM: I’m actually holding a copy of it in my hands right now.

ST: What, Foreign Legion?

PM: Yep.

ST: (surprised) Wow.

PM: It took me two years to find it for less than thirty bucks.

ST: Yeah, I think I’m just going to have to put [the album] up on the web site so anyone can get it, because everyone complains about that. ‘I’d like to get this Japanese copy, but it’s $30.’ And I say, ‘I can’t blame you. I wouldn’t buy it for that, either!’ (Update: Timbs, true to his word, has since put an mp3 version of Foreign Legion up on the band’s web site, www.fluidounces.org.)

PM: What did you learn from your time with Spongebath [Records, the label that released the first two albums], both good and bad?

ST: Oohhhhhhh, mmmmmmm. That’s a big question. I learned that, uh, (laughs) Gosh. A lot of things come to mind. I was sort of in on that from the get-go, and was one of the founders of it, at least from the creative side. I didn’t have anything to do with the business side. Which is good, because I’m not skilled in that capacity whatsoever. But as it turned out, neither was the guy that was on the business side.

I’m not really sure what I learned! (laughs) I tell you what, I learned that you can have the best roster of bands in the world, and still fuck up royally. The main problem with that label, without naming names, is that it was horrendously micromanaged by one guy that really wasn’t even around.

PM: That’s ironic.

ST: Yeah! (laughs) I don’t even like to talk about it anymore, because when it comes to myself and Matt Mahaffey from Self, when we start talking about Spongebath, it devolves into us badmouthing this guy that used to run the label, and that’s not too cool. No matter how well-founded it is, it’s not too cool.

PM: Well, let’s talk about the new record.

ST: (relieved) Yeah, okay.

PM: Piano boy really just wants to rock. What inspired the change in direction? Boredom? Drugs? VH-1 Classic?

ST: (laughs) Uh, a combination of the three. It’s not really that big of a shift, but it is in the sense that there are a lot of songs that don’t have piano on them at all. But that’s not such a big deal for me, I’ve always sort of written about half and half as far as guitar songs and piano songs. It’s just that a lot of times in the past, I’ve turned guitar songs into piano songs, or tried to.

PM: Can you give me an example of that?

ST: Of when I turned a guitar song into a piano song?

PM: Yeah.

ST: There were some on Foreign Legion that were definitely like that. “Show on the Road” was written on guitar, “Encyclopedia Brown” I wrote on guitar, and then some of the older ones from In the New Old Fashioned Way and Big Notebook. Obviously “Record Stacks” was a guitar song.

PM: I pulled [Big Notebook] out for the first time in a while today, and it doesn’t even sound like the same band to me.

ST: A lot of people say that. They say that about all four of our records. I hear a thread running through them, but they don’t really sound alike. But that’s good, I’m glad of that. Plus, there was quite a bit of time between these albums. We recorded Big Notebook in ‘95, it didn’t really come out until ‘96, so you’ve got a couple years in between every record at least. And in this case [Whole Shebang], a lot more.

PM: Are there plans for a single?

ST: Well, around here they’ve been playing “Paperweight Machine” on the radio. I don’t know if the label is planning on pressing a single. I hope so. I’d love to.

PM: I’ve been putting “Fool Around” on my mix CDs of late.

ST: That’s a great choice. That would probably be my choice. That’s the big crowd pleaser these days. That’s the one everyone is calling out for.

PM: That drum track just kills.

ST: Yeah. Kyle Walsh, ladies and gentlemen.

PM: I call the song your “Sledgehammer”.

ST: (laughs) That’s true, it is kinda “Sledgehammer”-esque, lyrically speaking. It’s in the same key, as well.

PM: With “Paperweight Machine”, I sense a Madness fan lurking underneath.

ST: You mean the band, Madness? Oh, yeah, well, I can’t deny that. I listened to a lot of ... (call drops off. 30 seconds later, he calls back.)

PM: There you are!

ST: Yeah, I hit a dead spot, I guess.

PM: Right after you said you listened to Madness a lot, you were gone.

ST: That was about all I had to say.

PM: “Nobody Loves You (Like You Do)”. If “Fool Around” is your “Sledgehammer”, this is your “You’re So Vain”.

ST: (laughs) Yeah, that’s good, that’s good. When that song started out, it was meant to be a joke. I came up with it at work one day, and thought, ‘Well, that would be a funny title.’ But then I started writing it, and it started getting really serious and personal, but I kept going with it. And I’m well aware of the fact that the melody sounds like “Don’t Let Me Down” by the Beatles, I know that, but I let it go anyway.

PM: You know I never noticed that, and now that I’m thinking about it, I still can’t hear it.

ST: It’s the (sings) “Nobody loves you like you do” compared to (sings) “And from the first time that she really done me…”

PM: Okay, I’m with you now. You’re talking about the vocals. I was thinking about the chords.

ST: No, the chorus is much more like “The Weight” by the Band, or “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” It is “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, almost! But hey, I can steal what’s already been stolen, right?

PM: Elton John, Paul McCartney, they got plenty of money. I don’t think they’re going to sue you.

ST: No.

PM: “Selma Lou”. This might be the most Southern-fried thing I’ve heard you do. What’s the backstory for that?

ST: It’s just a made up story. I had this bluegrass riff going on, so I made up this story that sounded like it was from a bluegrass song (laughs). Like Earl Scruggs would have written, or Bill Monroe would have written. Although I must say that the story puts me in the mind of that scene from Cool Hand Luke where they’re all working and there’s the chick washing her car and ... do you know what I’m talking about?

PM: I am ashamed to say I still have not seen that movie.

ST: There’s a scene where the chain gang is all hot and sweaty and they’re digging a ditch or whatever they’re doing, and there’s this hot, young, Daisy Duke kind of chick in a sundress that’s over in her driveway. It’s probably the earliest known wet t-shirt shot in a movie ever. She’s bending over, and ... it’s been used a million times in commercials and whatnot. She leans over the car and whoops! She gets suds all over her bosoms. All these convicted criminals are just dying.

PM: Okay, “Tokyo Expressway”. I know you mostly make up the stories you sing about, but this one seems autobiographical.

ST: It’s definitely autobiographical. Yeah, all that stuff pretty much happened. Them dragging me off a plane, I was late, and I had to play a gig right as I got off the plane ... This was the first time I was over there, and it was a myriad of thoughts going through my brain, because I had spent four sleepless days in Tokyo.

PM: Four days, huh?

ST: Yeah, I’ve been over there four or five times, but [that song] was based on the first trip, which was really crazy, “Lost In Translation” type of trip. And like the characters in that movie, I didn’t sleep the whole time; my schedule was completely turned around. Japan is great, but it’s crazy how it fucks with your rhythm.

PM: You’ve been there four or five times. So obviously you’ve got a decent fanbase there.

ST: Uh, yeah! And I’m hoping that someone new will pick us up there, because we’ve pretty much been neglected by (our) Japanese label over there. Their international division went kerplunk. And they keep saying they’re gonna get it back up, and they’re still interested in us, but it’s been almost two years now since we’ve been over there and done anything.

PM: How much different is it to deal with the Japanese music business versus the American one?

ST: In what way?

PM: Are they more open minded about signing bands? Let me tell you where I’m going with this: a lot of bands I like seem to survive droughts in America by being big in Japan. The Trashcan Sinatras, for example. Rialto did the same thing. They’re huge in Korea, of all places. So I don’t know if their talent scouts are just that open minded, or…

ST: I would say that is definitely true, what you just said, their talent scouts seem to be more open-minded.

PM: I didn’t know if it was that or if they were just exploiting American culture, for the money.

ST: If they’re exploiting American culture, I say exploit away! I mean, Britney Spears is popular over there, just like she is here. But when I last looked at the charts in Japan, the number one act was Britney Spears, because she had just come out with whatever record she had at the time. And the number two band was Death Cab For Cutie! What a fabulous world we live in where Death Cab For Cutie can only be second to Britney Spears. Who’s at number nine? Steve Malkmus. They Might Be Giants is on there. And the really good R&B artists like D’Angelo are up there, instead of languishing down in the low 60s.

PM: So the Japanese have better taste in American music than we do?

ST: I would say so, and I would definitely say that by and large, they’re more knowledgeable. For example, there are tons of fanzines and magazines, just an endless supply. And every time I’ve been over there, we’ll have a day where all day I do interviews. The locals will always prep be before the next guy or girl comes in to interview me, like ‘Well, this girl is from a real teeny bopper magazine, so be ready for some pretty inane questions. So I’m thinking I might as well be interviewing for Tiger Beat, and they’re gonna ask, ‘What’s your sign’, or ‘What kind of car do you drive?’ or ‘How often do you shop at the Gap?’ I’m waiting for those kinds of questions, and instead they’re like, (in Japanese accent) ‘Do you listen to Death Cab For Cutie?’ or ‘How much influence is Garth Hudson from the Band?’ You’re asking me about Garth Hudson? How fucking cool is that! And this is a teeny bopper magazine? I can’t imagine what the Mojo of Japan is gonna ask me. Are they gonna start quoting Negativland at me or something?

PM: They’ll ask you about Earl Scruggs, that’s what they’ll do.

ST: (laughs) Yeah! To my mind, it seems like they have a better knowledge of American music. Sorry, I spent a long time answering that question.

PM: No, that was a very good detour. I read that you contributed a cover of “Pretty (Ugly Before)” to the Elliott Smith tribute album, and then I heard (Shebang closer) “Destined To Be Forgotten”, which sounds just like Elliott Smith. Were they recorded close together?

ST: No, “Destined to be Forgotten” was recorded, like, four years ago. But the song itself is about seven or eight years old. I wrote it before I ever heard of Elliott Smith.

PM: There’s something in the drumming, it has a really heavy, weighty feel to it.

ST: The guy that drummed on that is a heavy drummer, this guy Kelly Scott, who played with Failure and Tool and some other really heavy bands.

PM: Bands that rock harder than Fluid Ounces generally does.

ST: Well, they rock louder. But Kelly did a fantastic job.

PM: You’ve been sitting on that song for seven years?

ST: Yeah, well, I could never get the band to play it. They all thought it was too dismal. And one of the times I went out to visit California before I moved there, I saw Matt Mahaffey, and we had a whole day off, and he said, ‘We’re gonna record “Destined To Be Forgotten” today. It pisses me off that you’ve never done that song.’ I’m like, ‘Okay! I love that song.’

PM: I’m surprised by that. The band did “Bigger Than the Both of Us” (from In the New Old Fashioned Way). How is this any different than that?

ST: I don’t know. (laughs) It would be an interesting thing to know.

PM: You played the solo on that song, right?

ST: Yes, I did, I played all the solos on all the songs.

PM: Very George Harrison.

ST: Yeah, well, I love George Harrison.

PM: Who doesn’t?

ST: Whooooo doesn’t? Only fools and ... hornswogglers, I don’t know.

PM: Let’s get the obligatory Ben Folds talk out of the way. Personally, I don’t think you have anything in common, but he still seems to be the only person you’re compared to. Is it a source of annoyance, flattery, or just something you deal with?

ST: It’s a little bit annoying, but I guess I’ve gotten used to it. I mean, I like Ben Folds. It doesn’t annoy me to be compared to him. What annoys me a little bit, and I’m not sure why, maybe it’s some unwarranted pride on my part, but I hate it when I get interviewed and people say, “Yeah, Ben Folds. He must be a big influence on you.” And I’m like, “Well, not really.” I mean, he’s great, I think he’s fantastic, but I’ve never had any of his records or anything. We’ve clearly been influenced by similar folks, so there’s that.

PM: My friend Rob still calls Ben Folds Five the Joe Jackson Five.

ST: I love Joe Jackson. We used to get compared to him all the time, and I was always like, “Really, well, I don’t have any Joe Jackson records, I’m going to have to go out and get some!” So I did, and now I like Joe Jackson.

PM: I think it’s just a guys-with-pianos thing. You’re invariably going to be compared to Joe, or Billy, or Elton, or Jerry Lee Lewis.

ST: I don’t mind the Elton thing. It’s definitely more apropos to compare Ben Folds, at least his first couple records, to Billy Joel more than anything else because, good Lord. Again, I’m not trying to slam Ben, but there are some riffs on his album that are almost verbatim Billy Joel. I mean, listen to “Philosophy” and then listen to “Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway”, and it’s, like, the same. It’s so close, it’s ridiculous. But they’re both killer songs.

PM: Have you ever met Ben?

ST: Yeah, sure. Well, he lives in Nashville now, so I may be seeing him more and more. I saw him a few weeks ago, but I didn’t talk to him.

PM: I thought he lived in Australia.

ST: He did for a while. He was married. The last time I met him, he was with his wife. But now I get the feeling that he’s not married anymore.

PM: Uh oh. Is Songs for Silverman [Folds’s new album] gonna be a big breakup record?

ST: I haven’t heard anything since that first solo record. I’d love to do something with him at some point. I get asked that a lot, though I don’t think he gets asked that a lot. (laughs)

PM: Well, not yet, anyway.

ST: I’ve heard that he really likes Fluid Ounces, but I haven’t really talked to him about that.

PM: Well, how do you? That would be awkward.

ST: Yeah. “Do you like my band?”

PM: What is your mindset for this second tour of duty in the bigs? Is it once bitten, twice shy, or is it damn the torpedoes?

ST: (laughs) Well, I don’t know, those are both great songs. Actually, I’m more of an “Unskinny Bop” guy, or “Don’t Need Nothin’ But a Good Time”. You can’t throw out a cliché these days without it being a song title. But if you find one, let me know, I can sell it to some of these clowns in Nashville.

Seriously, I’m ready to go. I felt like I went out to LA to play a lot of music, and I wound up playing almost not at all, simply because I had other things going on. I’ve had all this time off, and I’m ready to get something going.

PM: Did you ever get a chance to see Jon Brion at Largo?

ST: Oh yeah, many times. We went as often as we could afford to go. He’s awesome, he’s just great. What can I say? I’d love to be able to work with that clown one of these days, too.

PM: If you met someone and they asked you about Fluid Ounces without knowing you were the main man in the band, which songs would you steer them to? This is my clever way of asking, “Which Fluid Ounces songs do you like the most?”

ST: Okay. I think I’ve been asked that kind of thing before, but ... I would have to say, of the songs that are out there ... I really like “Destined To Be Forgotten”, I think that’s one of my better ones of all time. I really like “Big Deal (Out of Nothing)” a whole lot. I like, um ... some of the older stuff, like “Go Lucky”, I really like. “Downscope The Boat Captain”, and “Vegetable Kingdom”, because it’s the only song of ours that got any kind of national airplay. “Paperweight Machine” I like because, I have to admit, I think it’s a pretty bitchin’ piano part.

PM: Are there any songs you would like to have stricken from the record?

ST: Not really, no. I mean, obviously there are songs that I don’t like as much as others. But there are none that I just cringe at anymore. There’s old stuff of mine that I cringe at for sure, but I don’t think there’s anything that actually came out that people listen to, that didn’t go through a long and arduous process of editing and beratement. So I don’t care, it’s all okay.

PM: Is there anything that hasn’t happened for you yet that you were sure would have happened by now?

ST: (laughs hard) Well, I kinda thought by now at least I would have some kind of publishing deal. Any class of publishing deal of any kind, with any company, anywhere in the world.

PM: I’m surprised by that.

ST: I have a sub-publisher in Japan, but ... let me put it like this: I’ve never gotten a check from a record label or a music publisher of any kind. I kinda thought that maybe I would have made a little bit of money.

PM: Wow. In the case of the Spongebath records, that doesn’t surprise me, since they didn’t know how to count beans.

ST: Not only did they not know how to count beans, they never pressed enough copies to sell enough and make a sizable amount of money. I think we, what, maybe sold 5,000 copies of both records combined. I don’t think we did a second pressing of either one of them, and there were 3,000 copies made of each. And you gotta think that a lot of those are given away.

PM: So what happens from here?

ST: I hope that we’re able to get out on the road, play some dates, anywhere but Nashville. That’s all we’re doing right now, is playing around here. So that would be a good place to start. We’re also working on demos for a new record right now. Wait—Brian Rogers is beeping in on me. I gotta go.

PM: Thanks, Seth. Good luck with the album.

ST: Thank you, man. Later. (click)

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/fluid-ounces-050601/