Press photo. Credit: © Sam Holden

Rock ‘n’ Roll Needs Secrets: Talking Music’s Essence as Art with Dean Fertita

Dean Fertita, the incendiary strike force alongside rock titans Joshua Homme and Jack White (among others) and solo artist, discusses creativity, music, and art.
The Dead Weather
Dodge and Burn
Third Man

“Who isn’t drawn to fire?”, quips Dean Fertita, when asked about the significance of the word.

Multi-instrumentalist and driven professional musician, dubbed “sort-of the youth pastor of our flock, who keeps the peace” by Queens of the Stone Age frontman Joshua Homme, Fertita has taken an uncommon approach to music and to success. For most of his career, he has enjoyed integral, interwoven support roles: touring sideman for Brendan Benson and The Raconteurs, keyboardist/guitarist for Queens of the Stone Age, guitarist/keyboardist for The Dead Weather, and most recently, live touring keyboardist for Jack White. His angular, supple playing style fits well into multiple band scenarios, from the aggressive, apt synth underpinnings with Queens of the Stone Age, to the agile, sparse, unrestrained guitar character lent to The Dead Weather.

From a humble start, the dark haired, sharp eyed Fertita toiled his way through the grind and attrition of the Detroit bar-band scene to eventually find roles within a string of successes: The Waxwings, Queens of the Stone Age, The Dead Weather, and even his own solo project, Hello=Fire. At the age of six, kindling was lit when he began studying piano, learning basic music theory and practicing through ragtime and rock songbooks. At 13, friends finally cajoled him into getting his first guitar. A friend taught him AC/DC’s “Back In Black”, and from that point, the fire — the passion for music — roared to life. Fourteen years of practice and work in local scenes honed a glowing edge to the loud rock riffs. In 1997, Fertita hit stride fronting his first touring band, the Waxwings, and events were set in motion.

The Waxwings represented an experiment, a leap into the ‘solo band’ realm without the project being monolithic. With Fertita at its helm, the quartet morphed, over the space of three albums, from a retro ’60s psychedelic, folk-tinged pop darling into a more reactive, slightly harder-edged rock beast. The band’s anno 2000 debut, Low to the Ground, garnered widespread critical acclaim, and equally importantly, a tour opening slot for breakout Detroit garage-blues duo The White Stripes.

Let’s Make Our Descent (2004), the band’s swan song, was produced by fellow Detroit rocker Brendan Benson. At the time, Benson was signed to V2 and was working on a solo record, The Alternative to Love. After Let’s Make Our Descent was released, Benson joined the Waxwings on tour to lend his voice and hands, after a group member left to pursue other interests. As the catalyst Let’s Make Our Descent tour began, fertile soil was tilled, and that foundation would eventually yield a far-reaching and unplanned world of opportunities.

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To have started ‘professionally’ in music a bit ago, and to be still in-demand, relevant, and inspired, is a huge accomplishment. That’s a heck of a career. Congratulations.

I was really lucky to get into music when I did. I can’t imagine being a new band now. It’s just so difficult to survive. I was also fortunate to be playing the clubs around Detroit in the mid-’90s. There was so much great music, and a very supportive scene. It was pre-Internet and social media too, so it felt like everything that was happening there was Detroit’s secret. I think rock ‘n’ roll needs secrets.

The Waxwings found you taking the reins. Was that role shift a creative spark?

The Waxwings years were a very creative time for me. I was testing myself constantly, and trying things that didn’t always come easy. Being in a leadership role was one of them, but I think it was all preparation for everything that came after. It also helped me understand the importance of supporting the vision of whoever is leading the charge.

The lyrics seem to paint really vivid, fleeting pictures. You carried that forward into Hello=Fire, too.

I thought it would be interesting to make lyrics personal, but vague enough that it could mean something different to everyone.

In this cinema things will crystallize

What do you think you’ll find when I make the room mine?

And you have got to let it happen

— The Waxwings, “Crystallized” (Shadows Of…, 2002)

Where does the Waxwings sit with you, evolutionarily? Was it an effort to combine your influences up to that point, or did you try to strike a brand new path?

I played guitar in bands with high school friends, but the Waxwings was my first real attempt to do something on my own. I didn’t know exactly where I was going creatively.

Is music always being with you ever a burden?

Music is always with me, and I’ve found the perfect scenario to have a few different outlets for expression. It’s easy to stay interested when you aren’t really sure what’s coming next. Also, it takes pressure off the individual situations, in a way. If something isn’t right for one band, it might work in another. There are a lot of mundane things that go along with releasing records, but I think it’s on us to find new ways to be creative with it. The one good thing about the disarray in the music industry, is there aren’t always rules for how you promote a record now.

You fought hard for those birds. It seems like you were suddenly popular enough that bad traits of people around you, like greed, came out. Did that take a toll, or did it stoke the coals?

The problems we had as a band definitely made me determined, but it was impossible for it not to take a toll. Unfortunately that band was over before it started, but new doors open.

You mentioned resistance being a barrier to art. What kind of resistance have you felt or encountered for trying to pursue music?

In any profession, there are going to be things that get in your way. One difficult thing about art and music is that it’s subjective, so even though you put the time in, it doesn’t always get you somewhere. The importance for me is to keep working, and just let things happen, so I try not to get hung up on the success or failure of any one thing.

I’m curious to see the effect that the social media age has on art long term. There is obviously excessive negativity and bullying that goes on, and it could manufacture a culture where people are afraid to express themselves honestly. I hope it has the opposite effect over time, where people become more self assured and driven to prove others wrong. I hate the thought that younger artists could be discouraged by the anonymous lions that they’ll get thrown to.

The flock came undone, but you did pick Brendan Benson from the rubble. How was it, initially working with him as a producer, and then touring with him, writing-wise? It seems like you two really motivated each other. Did it broaden a sonic horizon?

I’ve known Brendan since I was 16. It’s incredible how things work out. In 2004, one of the members of the Waxwings quit, and it started a chain reaction for me that has led to where I am now. Brendan did the remaining shows we had, and I toured in his band in 2005 for the Alternative to Love record. I’ve been a huge fan of Brendan’s since high school, and heard some four-track recordings he had done. It had a huge impact on me. I started thinking more about songwriting than guitar playing.

Some of the first songs I had written, that ended up as Waxwings songs, I had hoped I could record with him. It was really inspiring to not only work with him as a producer, but to tour with him, as well. As a producer, he’s always looking at songs from different angles, so if something isn’t working one way, he has another suggestion. It’s great.

The same thing carries over to live shows. It’s impossible to get bored, because everything changes night to night.

Following The Alternative to Love‘s successful tour, Fertita found himself again working with Benson on a new project, The Raconteurs. With Benson and Jack White featured as dual frontmen, and a restless, smoldering debut record, Broken Boy Soldier, in hand, the band attracted intense initial interest. The Raconteurs almost immediately found themselves on the live circuit, playing concerts and festivals. Fertita was the “utility man” on the 2006 tour, playing keyboards, tambourine, and other instruments. The stars began to align.

After Queens of the Stone Age’s Lullabies to Paralyze tour ended, the Queens’ longtime live sound engineer, Patrick “Hutch” Hutchinson, found himself working for the Raconteurs on the Broken Boy Soldier tour. Queens of the Stone Age were, at that time, looking for a bassist and another guitarist/keyboardist. Tasked with recruiting the new blood, “Hutch” asked Fertita to join.

How do you balance working in at least two active-recording bands with personal time? There are only so many hours in a day.

I just try to make the most of my time wherever I am. Being busy is a blessing!

Queens of the Stone Age seemed initially like a jump off the tracks, a diversion from the Detroit rock streak you had going. You may have ended up there through Hutch, but you got to that point because of you. What was the magic “joining Queens” time like?

When Hutch asked if I would be interested, I never even gave it a thought. I was a fan first off, and I knew it would challenge me. It was a total whirlwind though. I had about 50 songs to learn in roughly three weeks, and I wasn’t even sure what instruments I would be playing. I remember making notes on the plane going out to L.A for my first rehearsal. Once I met everybody, I felt very comfortable, and we were out in Joshua Tree recording the B sides for Era Vulgaris before I knew it.

Was your first public gig with Queens of the Stone Age at the 100 Club, too? (along with bassist Michael Shuman)

The 100 Club was the first show we did. Even though we had done a TV appearance, walking to that stage was the first time it really hit me that I was in Queens.

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For Fertita, an equally serendipitous opportunity to joining Queens of the Stone Age at Hutch’s invitation, was teaming up with the Dead Weather. Queens of the Stone Age wrapped up their Era Vulgaris tour in 2008. Freed from work obligations, on a whim, Fertita decided to attend the final show of the Raconteurs’ Consolers of the Lonely tour in Atlanta, Georgia, a show that the Kills opened.

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Boarding the Raconteurs tour bus after the show, Kills frontwoman Alison Mosshart decided to work out some music to test White’s new Third Man Records recording studio in Nashville with Raconteurs members White and Jack Lawrence. Fertita was a house-guest of White’s at the time, and was invited to participate. The band recorded a cover of Gary Numan’s “Are Friends Electric?”, the studio overwhelmingly passed the test, and the bluesy hard rock behemoth that is the Dead Weather burst to life. Fertita just saw the release of the band’s third album, Dodge and Burn, and can finally draw a breath and reflect on the band.

Every time The Dead Weather comes up, the ‘net goes wild, for all the right reasons. Besides getting to play guitar more, what creative outlet or distinct musical avenue does the band offer you?

The Dead Weather offers a different recording and touring experience than anything I’ve done. It’s so explosive. Part of that has to do with the limitations we work with. Each of the three records have been recorded to tape, and were written and recorded over the course of about three- to four-weeks. What I love about it is the idea that nothing is precious or permanent, so we loosen our grip a little. We build things and take them apart every time we play them live, and the records are a means to do that.

What’s up with all the distortion? Do you do a lot of sound sculpting, or pre-planning?

Our sound as a band is just the result of us reacting to each other musically. We didn’t talk about what we were going to do. It wasn’t even supposed to be anything other than us testing out Jack’s new studio, but before we knew it, we had a record’s worth of songs.

The songs seem to be variations on a theme. Is there a theme? By the titles, it seems to have a CSI or cop show type vibe, but Alison’s lyrics paint differing pictures.

We joke that we’ve written theme songs for a detective show. I think it’s all because of Alison’s love of MacGyver.

You’d mentioned that rock should be played with a hint of danger. Is the “not perfect” playing an attempt to channel that “element of danger”?

I don’t think any of us want rock ‘n’ roll to be the most civilized thing in the world.

When you’re writing ‘outside of a studio with other people’, how do you compose music?

I haven’t done much writing outside of a studio lately, and there’s no method. With the Dead Weather, we have self imposed limitations. We record to tape, so we don’t have infinite tracks.

The outfit seems to do a lot of ‘hidden’ things, like having extra track segments carved into LP labels, or adding Morse coded messages to liner notes. People talk. It gets out right away nowadays. Is there as much value in the “secrets” now as there once was?

I love subliminal messages. I look at it as having new things to discover. The more you look at the artwork, or listen to the record, the more you pick up on. One thing that I think gets neglected a bit with modern music is album artwork, so I like paying extra attention to it. I used to love holding a record cover while I was listening to the album. It’s another connection. Using three senses is more interesting than (using) just one, which is what seems to happen sometimes when you stream a record… touch, look, and listen.

The hidden track on Dodge and Burn‘s label seems to say you’re not done yet! Now that the album’s out, what’s next?

We never know what’s next with the Dead Weather. We definitely have more ideas that we haven’t finished, and I would love to get the chance to play these songs live, but we have no expectations.

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Fertita collaborated again with Benson for Benson’s 2009 offering, My Old, Familiar Friend. While working on that album, Fertita began to embrace another career path: a full, dedicated solo project with a shifting support staff of crew members. Titled Hello=Fire, the project was set to capture sonic ideas that, at least initially, had not been incorporated into other bands’ material. Recording a song or two at a time, in at least five separate studios in the USA and UK, at some point the tunes became more then an expensive hobby; the collection developed a cohesion, and the collection turned into an album. Hello=Fire’s eponymous debut was released in 2009 on Schnitzel Records, an independent UK label that had supported Fertita’s efforts since digitally licensing Low to the Ground seven years prior.

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It’s nice that your lyrics don’t force people to one side or corner. Do you like writing lyrics?

I love writing lyrics. It does occupy a different space in my brain though, that isn’t always easy to get into.

Your lyrical phrasing reminded me originally of Joni Mitchell, and then Bob Dylan, in that both will phrase regardless of rhythmic division. It’s rare, and really cool. What inspired you to try that phrasing method?

I think phrasing just comes as a response to the lyrics. It’s interesting to twist words in ways that are uncommon.

Ritual of confusion

Is all that we’ve ever known

And it is a wall

That continues on above us and below

— Hello=Fire, “Nature of Our Minds” (Hello=Fire, 2009)

What does art mean, and bring, to you? How does it enrich you?

To me art is learning, unraveling emotions, and finding new perspectives. It doesn’t have to be deep, but I want to feel something. Sometimes, the more primitive, the better.

You mentioned being inspired by the creative process itself: making something come to life today that didn’t exist yesterday. Do you have a roughly equal degree of creative freedom for each band, or is Hello=Fire your largest blank canvas?

I feel complete freedom in every band, but the methods of expression are different in each. There’s no pressure for anything to be something other than what it is.

It seems like the debut Hello=Fire was recorded almost with a pick-up band, harnessing that same vein of spontaneity. You knew the other players well, but there still seemed to be that underlying spark, or uncertainty. How much of that methodology would you employ for another go ’round?

Whatever I do next, I’m sure will follow that pattern. I work when there’s opportunity, and because of my schedule, there’s always going to be a bit of uncertainty.

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As a dynamic participant in several overlapping scenes, Fertita has seen genres rise and fall, trends come and go, and players shift in and out of focus. What remains a constant is music. Freed from the mundane to the abrasive parts of life, music continues to allow him to express himself, explore new directions and ideas, grow his talent, and support the tangents he and his bandmates take.

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Discogs helpfully highlighted a fact that lot of people might not know: you’ve been actively releasing material every year, since around 1998. You’re really keeping your name out there.

I had no idea that I have released something every year since 1998. It’s actually motivating to know that. Thanks!

Did you consider giving up music as a career at any point?

I’ve never thought about giving up music, but I’m really thankful that I’ve been able to keep it a main focus in my life for so long.

Is music still your escape?

I feel free when I’m playing or creating, so I guess you could say it’s always an escape.

Being part of a “scene” is so special, but scenes don’t seem as cohesive these days. What do you remember about your Detroit scene, and what do you miss?

Scenes definitely aren’t as cohesive, and that is what I miss most. In 2001, the Waxwings toured with the White Stripes and Von Bondies. I watched every one of those shows as a fan. It was incredible to see the White Stripes destroying their audiences and getting bigger with every show. It was something I had never experienced. As a band in Detroit, I don’t think you ever thought there was a real way out. You knew everyone was playing because they loved it, and there really wasn’t a hustle to it. When the White Stripes broke, suddenly there was a belief that success could happen.

Is there anything left on your rock star checklist?! To close, what’s next?

I feel there is so much left that I haven’t done, which is why I still find inspiration in music. I’m not afraid of change, so I’ll go wherever it takes me. I don’t have a definite schedule yet for the next few months, but I do know that I’ll be busy. Queens of the Stone Age just played Rock In Rio, so we are getting back to work. I’m working on some new material too, but who knows what will happen next!

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Fertita is an essential writer and performer on two #1 USA Billboard chart topping records, has been a part of two albums which took Grammy awards home, has played to sold-out Wembley Arena and Madison Square Garden audiences, has played both in front of hundred-thousand strong festival crowds and intimate ‘super fan’ secret gatherings, and has appeared on national TV, yet remains encouraged by his chosen career. The difficulties of the music business — the endless waiting, inevitable ennui, separation from family, and legion, “anonymous lions” — have taken some toll, but not enough to deter him from pursuing passion. It’s no surprise that he’s unafraid of change, because creating his art is simultaneously therapeutic and three-sense immersive. Who isn’t drawn to fire?