Band To Watch: fantasy of a broken heart

Band To Watch: fantasy of a broken heart

When we meet on a Manhattan Saturday, the East Coast is experiencing its first torrential spring downpour, drenching the concrete jungle in a quantity of water that should bring the city to a standstill. New Yorkers, however, don’t stand still. The sidewalks are just as packed with tourists and locals alike, sporting umbrellas in every hue. Owing to the crummy weather, we meet at Eataly, enticed by a coffee slushie that promises more than it ends up delivering. Al Nardo is all smiles and Bailey Wollowitz appears more stoic, but the duo’s shared enthusiasm is abundantly clear as we wander the store’s colorful departments, marveling at culinary finery that exceeds the luxury of our usual diets while discussing their emerging band, fantasy of a broken heart, and its first proper release, a full-length entitled Feats Of Engineering, announced today via Dots Per Inch.

The two are merely 48 hours removed from their latest adventure: Over seven weeks, Nardo and Wollowitz played in Water From Your Eyes — helmed by two of their closest friends, Nate Amos and Rachel Brown — and in This Is Lorelei, Amos’ longtime bedroom project that’s coming into its own as he prepares to release Box For Buddy, Box For Star this June. Sandwiched between those tours, Nardo and Wollowitz played several fantasy of a broken heart sets on SXSW’s unofficial showcase scene. They’re still getting used to being home.

“I went to the grocery store and realized I forgot how to buy food normally. I bought a bunch of random supplies and brought them home only to realize nothing went together and I could barely get a meal out of it,” Nardo explains. “When you’re on the road for so long, you’ve got to eat what’s in front of you.” However, in Eataly, you can barely tell how tired they are: talking about fantasy, New York, and all things prog simply gets the two to light up like no other.

Every city worth its salt has a legendary DIY venue. I write from Philadelphia, where people still chatter about times they saw Alex G or Japanese Breakfast at Golden Tea House, mere steps away from the Drexel University campus. Brooklyn, with its breakneck real estate market, cycles through them regularly. Depending on whether you’re in your early 30s, late 20s, or middle 20s, you either called 285 Kent, Silent Barn, or Shea Stadium your home-away-from-home (or, quite possibly, your literal home). For Nardo and Wollowitz, the Glove is that legendary space. Between 2016 and 2019, a peculiar gaggle of musicians and artists made this spot in the interstices of Bushwick and Bed-Stuy their home, helping to shape New York into a fountain of mathy, progressive indie that plays with hooks and textures both disorienting and satisfying. And now, in the years following the Glove’s closure, fantasy of a broken heart revel in that exhilarating complexity.

While Nardo and Wollowitz locate the Glove as a vital social hub for connecting them with the greater New York scene, they met each other at the Glove’s grimier sister house, Heck, where Nardo once lived and helped run shows. While Nardo never planned on being a musician — growing up, they always dreamed of being a reporter — they were attracted to the conviviality of the New York music scene, eventually learning bass and harnessing their ear for melody to contribute to area bands. Wollowitz grew up in an artful family outside New York City; their mother has a dance background and occasionally teaches at SUNY Purchase. They first picked up piano as a child and grew into a multi-instrumentalist from there.

Nardo and Wollowitz started playing in the Brooklyn punk band Animal Show in 2017 and in Sloppy Jane shortly thereafter. At the time, the operatic, freakish punk outfit helmed by Haley Dahl was a frequent performer at the Glove. Both Nardo and Wollowitz ended up as vital contributors to Sloppy Jane, assisting with the spelunked recording of Madison, which would reach a massive audience with a boost from the Phoebe Bridgers-led Saddest Factory Records. Dahl and Bridgers’ connection dates back to high school, and Bridgers contributed bass to early Sloppy Jane output.

After getting to know the lay of the land through DIY touring, Nardo and Wollowitz got a taste of professional-level touring on runs with Sloppy Jane opening for Better Oblivion Community Center and Phoebe Bridgers, with Nardo on guitar and Wollowitz on the drums. As fantasy of a broken heart, the duo are New York live favorites, often playing record release shows for friends in bands like Psymon Spine, Godcaster, and Dirt Buyer. Wollowitz has lent their talents to bands like Sedona, Goo, and Starla Online, Nardo plays in thanks for coming, and both play in Water From Your Eyes and This Is Lorelei. The chance to make and share art with friends is something the two take seriously, even if it means being away from home for weeks on end.

“fantasy really began as a way for the two of us to noodle and bounce ideas off of each other,” Wollowitz explains.

After their chance encounter at Heck in 2017, Nardo and Wollowitz remained exceptionally close, living together at different points in their young lives. Their mutual fascination with legends like Yes and contemporaries like Palm and Palberta inspired them to pursue progressive pop in earnest. During our conversation, Wollowitz is wearing a Meshuggah T-shirt, which feels like a full-circle moment: Wollowitz identifies strongly with the polymetric/rhythmic Swedes not only for their complexity but for the frequency and intensity of hooks they deploy.

“To me, Meshuggah is pop, and I don’t mean pop metal like Metallica. I mean it’s extremely hooky,” Wollowitz says. “Pop has meant all kinds of things, like popularity, but I think now, we lean into pop because the hooks are so satisfying.”

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The two differentiate between prog and jam, cousin styles that have different approaches with distinct results. For fantasy of a broken heart, prog is about layering disparate instruments, time signatures, rhythms, and moods to generate a fantastical Rube Goldberg of a song. While jam can do that, and improv can be approached through a prog lens, jam feels, to fantasy, more like a gradual unfurling of rhythm and brilliance over a groove. It’s clear from our conversation that Nardo and Wollowitz are fastidious thinkers; their explanations are as meticulous as the songs they write. Prog is perfect for people as thorough as them; infusing pop-inspired hooks leads to a constant push-pull between disorientation and focus that makes each song a little roller coaster. What fantasy of a broken heart do is, above all, thrilling.

“We habitually record and re-record something three or four times,” Nardo adds, recounting previous iterations of the few songs they’ve released thus far and ones that appear on the album. It would be fair to call them perfectionists; as much as they remain open to the possibilities a song puts in front of them, they’re often thinking about one-upping themselves, even on the same song.

In the band’s early days, the lineup changed constantly because the project simultaneously did and did not exist. Nardo and Wollowitz had this collection of songs they’d play under the names “fantasy” or “fantasy al & bailey” at friends’ houses or at the Glove. Whenever they’d decide to play, they’d have to reassemble a band based on the arrangements they wanted to try. That led to the songs naturally evolving. The band’s name, too, transformed with time.

“Someone in Bailey’s extended family has a cabin where we went with their family for a couple days, and I remember the two of us sitting in a canoe on the lake for, like, four hours trying to come up with a proper band name,” Nardo recalls.

“We were coming up in the time when everyone’s band name was something with Angel Daddy or Baseball Sister or whatever, and we really wanted something different,” Wollowitz explains. “Plus there are already so many inactive bands online named fantasy. I’ve always been fascinated by long band names and band names that are phrases, so fantasy of a broken heart felt natural.”

Nardo and Wollowitz identify the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic as a turning point that allowed fantasy of a broken heart to emerge as a full-fledged project. In back seats and green rooms, Nardo and Wollowitz found themselves ever-fascinated by all the things that made their musical lives possible, right down to the interstate highway system. Between all the projects and tours that took the two away from their own songwriting, their shared fascinations mostly stayed in thought bubbles until all that touring stopped at once, when the two decamped for Nardo’s hometown, Los Angeles, and focused on fantasy more than ever before. fantasy of a broken heart as we know it today was born there, and so were the outlines of what would become Feats Of Engineering.

Getting connected with their label, Dots Per Inch, was just a matter of time. Tom Moore, a longtime face at popular venue Baby’s All Right, founded DPI in 2016 to get ears on the progressive, experimental pop scene he saw brewing in New York, with the hope and expectation that bigger labels will scoop his artists up after he helps introduce them to the greater world. That’s exactly what’s happened with oddballs like Grace Ives and Model/Actriz.

“Working with Tom has been the best. There’s no pressure and we have all the creative license we need,” Nardo explains. The duo’s creative decisions even strike themselves as odd sometimes, but they love a risk.

While the band belly laughs as they refer to the album’s title track as “the most b-side on the album,” it’s an incredible thesis statement for the project at large. It’s hard to take it seriously at first, with lyrics that swerve between silly and ghastly in mere seconds. At its core, “Feats Of Engineering” is an ode to the incredible and terrifying sites the duo have encountered on the road, with a special eye for the infrastructure that makes everyday life possible: roads, strip malls, pillars, what-have-you. The whole album makes reference to transportation; the bold and beautiful lead single “AFV” depicts a meet-cute gone awry on the late-night subway, and the bombastic closer “Catharsis” represents the possibilities that a train going anywhere but here might afford.

They timed Feats Of Engineering’s announcement with the release of “Ur Heart Stops.” A glittering, groovy track on forced perseverance where Nardo and Wollowitz split lead vocal duty, it arrives with a video by Water From Your Eyes’ Brown. They wrote this one in LA, thinking about how they fled from NYC to the West Coast and back again under pandemic stress and looming depression. As context-specific as the song’s genesis is, the cycle of depression and fear is all too familiar for any weary heart.

The band is ecstatic about how their first album rollout is going, even if they’ve been distracted. The day that “AFV” dropped, the two and Amos had to negotiate mud and car trouble in rural Vermont on their way to a This Is Lorelei gig in Montréal. A couple of fellows with a big truck hauled them out of the dirt and over to a private garage, where a man claimed he could fix their troubles in exactly two hours and 53 minutes.

“In the garage, he’s got this huge TV and he’s streaming The Mandalorian, which he must’ve seen on a loop like six times because he was completing the dialogue while working,” Wollowitz says. “An hour in, he takes a break, goes to the backyard, and takes the fattest rip from the biggest, dirtiest bong, then gets right back to it. We got there at like, 4:00, and he was done at 6:53, exactly two hours and 53 minutes later. He said he could’ve done it faster, but he didn’t want to.”

“Those are the experiences I wouldn’t trade for anything.”

Feats Of Engineering is out 9/27 via Dots Per Inch. Pre-order it here.

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