Q&A: Freshkills Frontman Zachary Lipez On Lounge Singers, LBJ, And The Landfill That Inspired His Band’s Name


Gentrified Brooklyn can be a rough place for the struggling artiste, what with ever-ballooning rent prices, subway breakdowns, and feeling of being in a constant state of catching up. But all three of those basic roadblocks can be an inspiring launching pad too—you’ve got to work hard to make the bills, forcing you to be even more laser-focused when you’ve got the time to create; and if the subway’s down, you can walk off the cheap beer from the night before.

Freshkills have operated in this milieu since forming about six years ago, and the result is a fevered, anxious, and refreshingly crisp, chiseled production, to refine/refract their frenetic live show. Hence, they’ve been able to avoid another frequent gentrified Brooklyn malady—indie rock weeniness. Their music is neither a synth-layered fey-wave nor tossed-off beer-punk; instead, they combine horn-rimmed wisdom with post-punk muscle.

Their latest, Raise Up the Sheets (Bat Rabies Alert/The End Records) is out next week—snag an MP3 from it below, and read on for lead singer Zachary Lipez’s thoughts on landfills, lounge singers, and making the trek to South By Southwest.

So, are any of you actually from Staten Island? And/or have you hung out at the Fresh Kills landfill?

None of us are from Staten Island, but I have made a lot of drinks for people from Staten Island. I believe all of us have received summons from Staten Islanders at some point also. After we’d been around for a couple of years, we received an email from the Fresh Kills Park’s people. We were like “fuuuuck… really?!” We’re going to have to change our name!” But it turned out they just wanted to invite us on a tour.

How did you hook up with Jim Sclavunos, and how was it working with him? Is he still in the Bad Seeds and/or Grinderman?

We knew Jim mainly from the drummer of Bellmer Dolls being my old roommate. His wife also did publicity for our UK tour, so I was pretty comfortable reaching out/pleading with him to produce our record. His mom lives in NYC, so whenever he was in town to do some grouting around her house and whatnot, we’d record songs.

When I try to tell folks about how I think you sound, I start dropping names like Volcano Suns or Vertigo, and I get the usual bent lip/ scrunched forehead looks. So then I say, “Well, Pissed Jeans maybe,” and then I instantly realize my mistake. (Nothing against Pissed Jeans.)

Yeah. You’re old. I have the same problem. No one wants to hear about how Vic Godard influenced my lyrics. We’ve actually gotten the Volcano Suns comparison before. The reviewer said something along the lines of “like Volcano Suns, I imagine Freshkills will also be unjustly forgotten…”

Though from what I’ve heard of the latest album, Raise Up the Sheets, and from your 2008 self-titled second album, your sound has grown more melodic, kind of even diamond-cut on the guitar edges, and there’s more clarity in the vocals (not as much guttural wailing). I guess that’s what happens when you play more, get tighter, maybe get tired of wailing all the time…

I didn’t even have the Jawbreaker throat surgery excuse! I think one thing that happened is that we just wanted to concentrate on other music we loved, besides Drive Like Jehu and other post hardcore hoo-haw. It’s not like we were going for Nillson (though that would be wonderful) as much as we stopped excising parts that were “too poppy.” The Clash and straight-up goth loomed large in our thinking. At least mine. I maybe didn’t ask what the other guys were up to.

There’s a ghost of a lounge singer haunting the body of the band somewhere. Am I right? Like there’s a sleazy sway in some of the rhythms, the quiet openings, and the near-croon you do that adds a little queasiness underneath…

Oh for sure! If I could sing like Scott Walker or Jacque Brel, I would. Not to say they’re lounge singers, but I think we’re talking about the same thing. We do late night music.

Got any favorite places to go see true blue lounge singers in the region? And/or, are there local bands you guys feel an a kinship too—either sound or just hangin’ out-wise?

I work too many nights to go out much. You can always catch some lounge spirit and suits, if not the specific sound, at the Weird party on Wednesdays at Home Sweet Home. We have a lot of band friends, just living in NYC, but not too many specific “peers.” In terms of “liking a whole lot and occasionally playing with,” we go from the Brought Low to Religious To Damn to Hunters to Ninjasonik to the Giraffes to Hussle Club. And obviously, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have helped us out a lot by having us open [up for them] a couple times. Personally, I’m really into all the bands Toxic State is putting out, but I only know those people in passing.

In the first single from the new album, “The Bigger Man,” you say, “At some point, I stopped being amusing.”—is that true? And if so, what happened?

Time, bitter time. And Kissinger winning the Nobel Peace Prize again and again, week after week; in music blogs and in the world. Jokes aren’t that funny anymore.

Any band member changes since the last record?

We go through bass players like Spinal Tap goes through drummers. But Mishka [Shubaly] is here for good/death.

You’re playing a record release party at Pianos, then it’s off to SXSW. Have you guys played SXSW before? I haven’t been there in awhile, but I keep hearing it’s a bigger shit storm of bodies than ever. What are your plans—not just for shows, but how to plow through the maddening crowds?

We have [played it before]. I imagine Austinites look at SXSW the way we look at CMJ. But I’m sympathetic. I’m going to watch Future Of The Left, Fear, and whatever is on the Chaos in Tejas line up…then I’m going to the LBJ museum and staying there, entwined in the animatronic arms of our greatest (putting Vietnam aside for a moment) President. I’ll also eat a lot of stuff.

It seems they’re trying to sort of clean up the Fresh Kills area—cleaning up a landfill seems like an oxymoron. Do you think NYC loses something if we can’t claim the largest, most intimidating landfill in the world anymore? And on an artistic level, does your band lose sight of its moniker’s inspiration if it continues to move in a increasingly polished direction?

Oh fuck no. The new park is awesome. All the garbage is still there. They just covered it in thick plastic and installed pipes so it doesn’t explode. A more apt analogy for us couldn’t be invented.

Freshkills play the showroom at Pianos on Friday.

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