Band To Watch: Font

Rosie Clements

Band To Watch: Font

Rosie Clements

In Cormac McCarthy’s 2017 essay “The Kekulé Problem,” the late novelist defines the subconscious as “a machine for operating an animal.” He goes into detail about the German organic chemist August Kekulé, who was puzzled over the molecular structure for benzene until Kekulé’s dreams solved it for him. In his sleep, a visual representation materialized: an ouroboros, a snake perpetually feeding on its own tail. According to McCarthy, the scientist awoke with a start, saying to himself: “It’s a ring. The molecule is in the form of a ring.” It leads the author to wonder, “Why is the unconscious so loath to speak to us?” Broken down to its core components, the subconscious is pure impulse with no potential hindrances. It’s instinct. A pure gut feeling.

That impulse is what Thom Waddill, frontman of the Austin dance-punk quintet Font, is after. When Waddill first read the essay, there was something striking to him about how McCarthy underlines the obsolescence of language to communicate ideas. For Kekulé, the answer he sought was based on his subconscious understanding, something he tapped into without realizing it. It’s the same instinct that Waddill taps into when he performs in Font. He uses lyrics and vocalizations as another sonic component, like a guitar or a drum, rather than a vehicle for coherent, linear poetry.

In “Hey Kekulé,” one of the pre-released singles of Font’s debut album, Strange Burden, Waddill pilfers and reframes phrases from McCarthy’s essay. “Hey Kekulé, I see the snake/ Hey Keklué, I ate it whole,” he sings, his voice trembling from dread, excitement, or maybe both. It’s spontaneity for spontaneity’s sake, and that sums up Font’s ethos. McCarthy explores these notions of the subconscious, something that Waddill was already interested in, but there was something even better in that essay. “I liked the name Kekulé,” Waddill says from his home in Austin. “It’s a percussive, interesting name.”

Font — composed of Waddill, drummers Jack Owens and Logan Wagner, multi-instrumentalist and audio savant Anthony Laurence, and bassist Roman Parnell — are all about embracing that extemporaneous line of creation. Waddill has been writing songs since he was a teenager, but he started growing tired of the “confessional” mode of songwriting that has now become the lingua franca of pop music writ large. “I wanted to keep writing, but it just felt like there was this self-mythologizing quality to confessional writing,” he remembers. “I thought about the way forward to continue making something that felt emotionally true.” So he altered his approach to lyrics and vocal delivery, taking some advice that Ben Gibbard once famously proffered. Waddill had an impulse, and he was gonna let it out.

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After meeting Owens in college, Waddill met the remaining soon-to-be-band members after moving to Austin. From there, they all integrated themselves into Austin’s well-known music scene in 2022. They played shows endlessly, fine-tuning their live show to the point where they became a buzzy name with only two songs on digital streaming platforms. Those shows got them enough renown to land them opening slots for Water From Your Eyes, Yard Act, and bar italia, plus a spot on the main stage at 2023’s Austin City Limits Festival. It’s not like they deliberately kept songs locked away in the proverbial vault. They just really enjoy how songs evolve over the course of time, and there’s a finality to putting them to tape.

“The act of recording can make ironclad ideas that you want to continue exploring,” Laurence explains. “As a band that operates mainly in a live setting, and from an improvisational perspective, being able to perform them live and refine them over periods of time allowed us to find new pockets and interesting new angles in what we were doing. Also, it made it so that we didn’t have to make final decisions on things that reside in the song.” Even though we’ll soon have the official versions of the songs on Strange Burden, these recordings still possess a free-flowing quality that emphasize their improvisational origins. Font always record their practices in case a potential song idea comes out of it, and they adopt Talking Heads’ approach on Remain in Light by laying down the rhythm section first and building everything else on top of it. That rhythmic prioritization comes through loud and clear, and it’s one of the defining characteristics of Font’s work.

Like LCD Soundsystem, one of their key influences, there’s plenty of auxiliary percussion, especially wood blocks and cowbells. There’s also a song like the centerpiece “It,” which builds from burbling synth-bass and square-wave synths to Waddill’s terse, heavily syncopated manifesto to “Get it up, put it down, get it off.” The drummer in me also finds the constant transition from a sixteenth-note pulse into eighth-note triplets to be immensely satisfying. The end result resembles a mix of Model/Actriz, Nine Inch Nails, and, of course, LCD Soundsystem, akin to a grittier version of “Get Innocuous!” Even their more straightforward post-punk songs, like “Sentence I,” convey a rhythm-first mindset; the guitars and vocals are used like rhythmic instruments as much as the drums are.

It helps that Font have two drummers. But their music never sounds cluttered or overly busy, which is always a risk of having multiple drummers in a band. It’s something that Owens, who was in Font before his fellow percussionist Wagner, had to adjust to. “It took a lot of dialing back,” Owens says with a laugh. He’d have to resist the habitual urges, as a formerly solitary drummer, to do a fill that would consume precious auditory space. “I was really trying to balance the amount of noise. It can quickly become a lot of sound, and a lot of nonsensical, polyrhythmic sound at that.” Owens and Wagner balance this duality with a gymnast’s dexterity. This balancing act comes through strongest on “Hey Kekulé,” in which the two drummers enter the mix simultaneously after a handful of introductory minor-key piano stabs. The penultimate track “Cattle Prod” is another standout, as Owens and Wagner craft a groove worthy of Remain In Light itself, with Parnell locking in to support them like a sturdy bass balance beam.

Waddill’s emotive vocals might remind you of another Thom, but Font’s music is, understandably, far more danceable than Radiohead’s, and that’s thanks to the Austin five-piece’s keen cadences and Owens and Wagner holding things down with an incessant beat. Sure, you may feel so inclined, as the other Thom is, to shake your hips to “Myxomatosis” (or “Gasolina“), but Strange Burden answers the following hypothetical question: What if every song on The Bends or Hail To The Thief was capable of inducing a stank face?

More than anything, though, Strange Burden is the result of many moving parts, all five of its central players, morphing into a composite whole. It’s the sound of dissonance becoming harmony and discord becoming unity. These are dense songs with countless layers to them; remove a cowbell on “Natalie’s Song” or the atonal guitar noise on “Looking At Engines,” and you lose a sense of what makes Font work on so many levels. “Individual threads were followed independently of one another,” Waddill says. “They all led to whatever this holistic thing is. I’m proud of it as a process that was undertaken over and over again, iteratively.” By following those threads, they gave in to the subconscious, and it didn’t lead them astray. Instead, they followed those paths to their logical endpoints, relying on nothing but that ever-sacred instinct. Cormac McCarthy presented the Kekulé Problem. Font present the Kekulé Solution.

Strange Burden is out 7/12 via Acrophase.

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