Wandering through The Fairmount Girls’ rehearsal space — dubbed “Sprout House” because of the alfalfa sprout growing landlord who occupies the building’s first floor — on the eve of the release of Forever, their first new album in seven years, there’s a palpable sense that a yard sale of pop cul ture’s last 40 years would look a lot like this warehouse area. Stacks of old vinyl. A revolving rack of clothing that could have been wardrobe stock from Laugh-In and Soul Train.
Velvet paintings interspersed with real art. Textbooks that look as though they might address the exploration of the moon in theoretical terms. Billy Baloney and Chairy dolls. Cans of Psssst, the ’60s hairspray shampoo.
Trying to take it all in is dizzying and fascinating. The impression that The Fairmount Girls don’t take much in life very seriously, least of all themselves, is tucked next to a supporting column in the middle of the space. There, atop a cardboard packing barrel, are the band’s accumulated Cincinnati Entertainment Awards and Cammy Awards, undust ed, unlighted, decidedly unmantled.
In other words, like everything else in the Fairmounts’ muse um of 20th century pop artifacts, they’re treasured with a sense of irreverent perspective.
That perspective is on full display during the band’s exterior photo shoot. When a trio of women and their young children pass by as band members are being framed beneath the ancient Barq’s sign painted on the building across the street, one of the women admires drummer/vocalist Dana Hamblen’s go-go boots and dress with a whoop and the observation, “Party like a Rock star!” The band cracks up and invites the group to be pho tographed with them. After some initial reticence, the women and children mingle and pose with one of the city’s most bat tered and beloved bands.
Photographer Kurt Strecker engages the Fairmounts in con versation as he directs them into various positions under the Barq’s tagline (“It’s good and wholesome!”), asking them the reason for the CityBeat story. Vocalist/keyboardist Melissa Fairmount says the band’s CD release party — Friday night at Northside Tavern with The Chauncers and The Sundresses — is imminent.
“Which album is this?” Strecker inquires. “Three,” says the generally ebullient Fairmount. And then, looking somewhat pensively at the ground for a moment, she adds, “It’s been a long time coming.”
Don’t call it a comeback
The long gap between releases could have been the reason for titling the band’s new album Forever, their first legitimate full-length CD since the release of Tender Trap in 2001. Or maybe it’s a statement of how long the Fairmounts think they can continue.
Considering it’s been seven years since their last album — not counting various EPs and their 2005 Christmas release, all of which were handed out at shows — and that the band has never actually stopped working, perhaps their tenacity and tal ent will power them indefinitely, like a Pop/Punk version of the Eveready bunny.
But it hasn’t been easy.
Since the release of Tender Trap, founding members Jane McBrain and Marnie Greenholz departed, as did guitarist Chris Schadler and bassist Eva Destruction (and a veritable parade of early members). With only the original core of Fairmount and Hamblen, The Fairmount Girls assembled a quartet with Erin Proctor and Mark Zero and soldiered on, regularly playing shows in and out of town. By the following year, Proctor and Zero had also left and Jim Farmer had shuttered Deary Me, the Fairmounts’ label of record for Tender Trap and their 2000 debut, Eleven Minutes to Anywhere. Although the band had made some tentative steps
toward recording in 2004, they no longer had a label affiliation so there was little urgency to write and record.
“It didn’t take us long to write songs, it just kind of took us a while to get focused enough to record them,” Fairmount says as the band sits around the velvet-bumpered bar adorning the lounge area in their rehearsal space.
“And we’re also fairly persnickety. We’ve dropped a lot of songs. We did this record in four different sessions over the past four years. It did take a while.”
It turned out that 2004 was a good year for the Fairmounts. Bassist Randy Cheek (formerly of The Ass Ponys) and his wife Beth (also of Lovely Crash) joined the Fairmount Girls family, with Randy switching to guitar to accommo date Beth’s formidable bass abilities.
Almost simultaneously, Tigerlilies gui tarist/vocalist Pat Hennessy, who had been talking with Hamblen and Fairmount for some time about playing together, dropped by for a jam and ulti mately decided to split his time between his own band and the Fairmounts.
Hennessy’s introduction to the band came in dramatic fashion. “I saw them at The Comet and I said, ‘I’ve always wanted to play with you guys,’ ” Hennessy recalls. “Dana said to come down, but when I got there we couldn’t do anything because of the shooting.”
The day Hennessy chose to drop by the Fairmounts’ rehearsal space was August 24, 2004, the day Paul Thomas Faith entered the Colerain K-Mart and fatally shot an employee and wounded a customer. After a short police chase, the mentally unbalanced Faith wound up in front of the Fairmounts’ building.
“The police surrounded the car, and I heard ‘pop pop’ and I said, ‘It’s over, he killed himself,’ ” Fairmount says. “The Enquirer came up and took a photo from our window. That was quite a night.”
Randy Cheek injects a bit of charac teristically dark humor into the somber story: “And we were like, ‘I hope that’s not Pat.’ ” Turned away that night, Hennessy returned to jam with the Fairmounts later in the week. This time he got a more pleasant surprise.
“I pulled up and saw Randy and Beth,” Hennessey says. “I hadn’t seen Randy in years and I thought, ‘What’s he doing here?’ ” Unbeknownst to Hennessy, the Cheeks had just joined the Fairmounts.
“Jane always used to ask me to play,” Randy Cheek says. “I had to wait until
she wasn’t in the band.”. That late summer evening marked their first official practice in this quintet configuration, which has sustained for the last four years – the longest period the band has gone without a lineup change since its formation in 1996. A few weeks later, the refurbished Fairmount Girls played a set at the MidPoint Music Festival, a gig that found them still coalescing as a unit but also tantalizingly hinted at their potential going forward. It was a positive step for a band that had endured so many lineup shifts and restructuring periods that their fan base had eroded significantly.
“Melissa said, ‘What do you wanna do now?’ ” Hennessy says. “And we said, ‘Let’s keep playing.’ ” The Fairmount Girls did exactly that, returning to the local circuit with a renewed sense of purpose while leaving something important behind.
“We ditched our old songs,” Hamblen says with a laugh. “We got rid of all those and started writing anew,” Fairmount concurs.
Over the next year, The Fairmount Girls maintained a steady regional pres ence while juggling all of their outside activities — Hamblen with Culture Queer, Beth Cheek with Lovely Crash, Hennessy with the Tigerlilies, Randy
The Fairmount Yearbook: With vari ous lineups through the years, Dana Hamblen, Melissa Fairmount and their band have been a con stant bright spot in the Cincinnati music scene.
Cheek with various projects (ultimately the reformation of the Libertines) and Fairmount with The Thirteens at that point and with One Trick Pony now — and began rebuilding their audience.
They also continued to write and record whenever possible. If 2004 had been the good year, 2006 was its antithesis. Early in the year, just as Hamblen and Fairmount were prepar ing to cover South By Southwest for CityBeat by way of a road diary of their adventures, Fairmount’s longtime boyfriend, musical cohort in the Thirteens and much loved and respected denizen of the local music scene, Sam Shipman (known to one and all as Sam Nation) was tragically killed in a car acci dent. Although Hamblen and Fairmount canceled their SXSW trip, The Fairmount Girls maintained their gig schedule. For Fairmount, it was the most effective way to channel her grief.
“I think I took one day off,” she recalls. “It was the only thing I could do, even though sometimes it didn’t go so smooth. Why stop singing? It was the only thing left so sing I did. “I didn’t write for a little while, I kept my mouth shut that way, I remember. But you can only keep a loudmouth like me quiet for so long. And these guys were awesome. They were there when I was freaking out, they would push me through and help me through the day: ‘Let’s get on with it and do some Rock.’ It was cool, really great.”
Fairmount assesses 2006 with a sim ple declarative statement: “That year sucked.”
Forever your girls
After another year of gigging — and fitting in periods of writing and recording — The Fairmount Girls got serious about releasing a new album with their final sessions last fall. “The last time we went into the studio with John (Curley), we had decided this was going to be the final set, because we had 15 or 16 songs,” Fairmount says. “That’s when we decided, ‘Ding, maybe we should just do this.’ The concept did n’t come out for a while though.”
Earlier this year, the important final elements of the album came together, from the graphic look and feel of the package (low carbon footprint with an all-cardboard sleeve) to the sequence of the album’s songs to actually naming the album (which is lovingly dedicated to Sam Nation).