An Interview with Fire Trail

text by digital-media

19 March, 2024

KCSB-FM’s Assistant Music Director Maya Widom sits down with Berkeley band Fire Trail to discuss their album “One of the Two” and their upcoming projects.

Fire Trail is a four piece band made up of current and former students of UC Berkeley with a rock backbone.“One of the Two” was concocted in a Julia Morgan mansion, previously built for a confederate, reformed into a student co-op house on UC Berkeley’s campus. Sticking true to the college-band ethos, the creation of “One of the Two” saw noise complaints, a Honda crammed full of instruments, and the spirit of collegiate musical innovation materialize. Fire Trail walks us through their inspirations, creative process, who they are as a band, and what’s coming next. As they’ll tell you, they’re sedimentary rock and roll!

Bennett: I’m Bennett. I play the drums.

Ana: I’m Ana. I play flute, keys, guitar, and I sing sometimes.

Shane: I’m Shane. I mostly play bass and occasionally do some singing too.

Tohar: I’m Tohar. I do vocals, guitars, and studio production, studio keys, and weird electronic stuff.

Maya: Can you share some of your guilty pleasure songs, bands, or artists that you guys are into?

S: I love “Blank Space.” It’s a perfect pop song. It’s not even a guilty pleasure.

B: In high school, I thought that I had really good music taste when it’s probably better described as just a generic high school kid alternative. I was also really interested in music theory at the time because I also play classical piano. And somehow I had a friend who introduced me to Kpop, then I got really interested in the industrial process of having a huge team of songwriters, mixers, audio engineers and so on that all put their heads together to try to create the catchiest pop song. That’s definitely a huge guilty pleasure of mine.

T: I love Weird Al. I listen to Weird Al every day. I don’t, but I would because Weird Al was huge for me in elementary school and he was good enough at parodying stuff. He’s a pretty creative songwriter because he has this ability to recognize what makes a band distinctive and distill it. I think that for any musician, that’s valuable to have that skill because it makes you very aware of what your songwriting brings to the table, and what your own identity as a musician is.

A: I used to be a middle schooler who was so angsty and I thought I was the coolest if I was at the piano playing and singing Christina Perry’s “Jar of Hearts.” Then in high school when I thought I had the best music taste, I discovered Pink Floyd’s first album and was just like, oh, yeah, they’re singing about bikes. This is the best thing ever. And objectively, it’s terrible music, but I still love it a lot.

M:  Those are great answers. On my show at KCSB, I talk about books and movies in connection to songs I play. So do you guys have any books, movies, TV shows that you feel like grounds you in the creative process when you are trying to make music or write a song?

T: A big one for me was “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” When I read that for the first time as a kid. Mostly as an example of how distinct tone can change the way a narrative is interpreted because if you read “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” it’s actually pretty messed up but the “everything will be alright” tone of it, kind of like Monty Python, it does a lot for the power of narrative and of storytelling. Bringing that back to music, thinking about other bands that have done similar things, like The Mothers of Invention, for example. They’re my favorite example of that. Where a little bit of tongue in cheek humor can really create your own take on a song.

S: I think for me, “Hundred Years of Solitude” just really affected the way that I think about imagery in lyric writing and in prose writing too. So, really diving in on the specificity of metaphor and of applying a certain degree of reality to that came to me and I found that was pretty influential for me, at least.

A: For me, it would be a poem rather than a book or TV show. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by TS Eliot. I read it in middle school for the first time and a lot of those verses still stick in my head today. Something about reading poetry always sticks with you in just how evocative words can be. Also some books by Haruki Murakami, books by Kurt Vonnegut, both of them being such evocative writers while still embodying their really descriptive scenes with also the messages they’re trying to convey about humanity and all of that. I feel like that really made me want to try to say something a little more meaningful with the things I create while still being artful about it.

B: For myself, I’m a theory nut, and also a drummer. So, me playing is usually an escape from that. Though I’d say when I most often feel inspired after I read something, I’m a big fan of short story collections, so most recently I read Ling Ma’s “Bliss Montage,” and then I’d always read a story and then want to go outside and run around and play the drums or something.

M: I like what you guys said about atmospheric books or just media in general, especially Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In a lot of your songs, especially “Does Not Matter,” you have a lot of bigger words, I would say. You rhyme hibernation with sophistication and defenestration, is that an intentional choice to use bigger words, or are you guys flexing on us with your big vocabulary?

T: Our songs have words in them!? It’s mostly a symptom of how I write and how I talk. I think the fun thing about big words is that they have rhythms inside of them. So defenestration has a rhythm to it, whereas sometimes with one or two syllable words you have a lot of flexibility, but there’s something very satisfying about using long words with expected rhythms to where you want the accents to hit.

S: I’ve actually had kind of the opposite experience in my writing where I used to use a lot more percussive, long words, more academic ones. Trevor Noah said something about the accessibility and quickness of short words being really effective when you want to establish a rhythm. You know, he was talking about this in terms of stand up, but I found that really resonant, and I found myself after hearing that starting to shift toward a little bit more plain spoken lyric writing.

A: But it’s so satisfying when your long words fit into the meter!

M: I know you guys all went to Berkeley or current or former students. I wanted to ask what you guys studied and if you feel that your studies overlap into your music and in what ways you see that coming to fruition?

B: I double major in political economy and rhetoric. Rhetoric being a degree in continental philosophy or critical theory. So I like to think that playing music fits my humanity’s coded image, even better than it already does by reading books all day and wearing sweaters.

A: I was an engineer, primarily computer science. I would say that my music overlaps, not at all, except for writing code is sometimes like writing the worst music ever that no one would listen to.

S: I am also an engineer. I studied mechanical engineering and for the most part, I really haven’t found overlap. Although, I did take some computer generated music classes that were pretty interesting. Although they tended to lean more towards experimental classical. The part of engineering that I liked was the design part, so it was really just a creative process, too.

T: I’m a geographer and I do a lot of GIS work and surprisingly, yes. I feel like what I’ve been studying in geography does definitely influence my music taste. Part of it is thinking very critically about the way we affect the environments we live in and the way the environments we live in affect us. So relating that to music gave me a new appreciation for ambient music. Then reevaluating music as part of a broader context of where it’s from and thinking about, you know, the music that I really like as being a symptom of a few people who come from a shared musical heritage. I think it actually owes a lot to geographic thinking. And it owes a lot to reappraising the scene that we play in here in Berkeley, kind of knitting together all these bands that might seem kind of different, but we all are writing from the same perspectives as students. A lot of us are writing from the same perspectives of the cycles we live through with the weather.

M: You mentioned the Berkeley scene having an impact on your music. Do you feel that the DIY ethos of the college scene influences your music? Or do you think that your own environment and how you center yourself in the creative process has more of an influence?

T: The best example I can give is between the two songs we’ve been writing for our second album and songs that we wrote for our first album. So I came to the band already with “Does Not Matter,” “Mango,” and “Deep Space Telescope.” They all have live functions. We had a song on the first album called “Reruns” that kind of built out of something that Shane and I jammed out while we were recording the album. It’s atrocious for live performances, but it’s great on an album simply because a DIY scene is not the place to pull out, like, 1960s doo-wop-esque music. You want something that’ll open the pit up, not put grandma to bed. And when we’re looking at the second album, a lot of the things that we’ve recorded for the album have taken their form on the record after being played a lot live. The DIY scene, there’s a limitation on what you can feasibly do live. There’s a time limit between songs before people start to get restless so you can’t do too many instrument switches and it’s just heavy to carry too many different instruments to a gig.

M: I know you guys use a lot of unique instruments in your music, like the sitar and the duduk. What’s the process behind choosing to include those instruments? Is it something that you start with the idea that you want to include, or is it something that you layer on afterward that completes a song or a certain sound?

T: For better or for worse, I brought a lot of different timbral instruments to the last album, and each one was a case-by-case on whether they were envisioned in the original song or not. So, thinking of “Does Not Matter,” there’s a fuzzed-out music-learning machine keyboard that doubles with a grand piano that is also playing with a sitar. Those were all kind of added in the overdub. They weren’t in the original song. But they were about building the sonic space to get a subliminal rhythm.

Sometimes picking weird tones, I have a lot of overdubs on “Deep Space Telescope” that are reversed and delay modified organs and things like those, they’re mostly about getting unique sound that you feel serves the color of the song. I don’t think “Deep Space Telescope” would be nearly as interesting if it was the way that we have to play it live. Straightforward instrumentation. I think that the studio as an instrument is a big gift that we’ve been given, and I have a lot of influence from Brian Eno and Frank Zappa, specifically, in thinking about using weird sounds to your advantage.

M: I know you guys mentioned there are a lot of limitations with live shows, especially in the DIY scene. I know recently you guys won Gag Magazine’s Battle of the Bands, so congrats on that. Is there a certain memory that sticks out to you guys from a particular live show, for better or worse?

S: Musicians are really good at remembering the bad moments, but we’re not going to focus on that. For positives, every day with you folks. 

Collective “aww”s and blushing ensues.

S: We recently played a show called Sprout Sidelands that was put together by two different clubs on campus. That was a very fun show to play. It’s at a local, art house gallery and it’s a pretty tight-knit venue. When you get a lot of people in there it’s a super nice venue to play.

A: The crowd was just really receptive and welcoming and we’d felt rehearsed, we had had a lot of shows these past few months and at that point, we knew the songs really well, and even though we were debuting two new songs, it went really well. It felt good to get to see people responding to the music like that.

S: The things that get me excited are thinking about the people who we’ve gotten to play with. We’ve gotten to play multiple times on the same bill as several bands, local acts like Meat Cube and Swell Foop.

It’s always been a delight to work with them. But also bands who come from out of town or other acts who come from out of town, like The Universe, they came from Santa Cruz at our second gig.

T: You feel a lot of kinship with these people. Berkeley doesn’t have a very tight-knit scene; it doesn’t have a very close connection between a lot of these bands, but there are three or four that were beginning to be battle-hardened with. I’ve been manning our merch booth for our last couple gigs and people have been coming up to us and asking us to sign show posters that we sell, I can’t believe it either, that it’s worth anything. We threw our set list into the crowd when we’re done playing and the last gig we played in Davis on Saturday, after our set, a few sets later, a girl came up to the merch table holding our set list and asked us to sign it. And that was, it was a waste of ink. Our music might be good? It means a lot that people listen.

M: Yeah, that must be really rewarding. Do you guys have any pre-concert rituals that you do together or separately to get yourselves primed or psyched up for performing? 

T: Bennett and I like to take a warm bubble bath together.

S: I’ve been doing a jump at the beginning of the first song of our set for the past few gigs. And that helps me get into the energy of the show.

T: If I have one real pre-show ritual, I try not to listen to any of our songs on the day of because I like to keep it fresh. There is a good memory I can think of before we played the Gag Battle of the Bands. We went across the street to the local supermarket Berkeley Bowl. That has a burrito counter, and we all got these massive burritos.

I’m not kidding, the burritos are the size of Shane’s Yeti bottle. I got 70 percent of the way through the burrito and then almost immediately had to get on stage and be the front man for a high-energy performance for when we’re trying to outdo other bands. It was like being a six-year-old on the teacups at Disneyland. It was terrible.

M: The power of the Yeti-sized burrito.

T: It taught me a very valuable lesson in not throwing up on stage.

M: In “Does Not Matter,” there’s one verse that I feel captures the essence of being a college student and being into music. The lyrics are, “there’s no point in getting my degree, nothing good’s gonna come out of me, I’m one bad apple falling from the tree.”

I feel like these lyrics portray the experience of being a college student and wanting to pursue music. But at the same time, I feel like it’s a very personal experience that you’re talking about. Do you find that relatability in your lyrics is something that you factor into the songwriting process? Or do you find yourself pulling more from personal experiences? 

T: Songwriting is tough and lyric writing is no easier. Sometimes they come in bursts of inspiration and sometimes they’re labored over. And those lyrics were very quick to come, thankfully. I think it was because they came from somewhere very real, which is this experience of doing something that you enjoy, like making music, that essentially has no chance of floating you in the rest of your life.

When it comes to larger lyrics, when I write, I have a hard time believing that people will read the lyrics that I’m writing, so I end up writing them for an audience of one. I get very self-critical because I don’t like my stuff to seem trite, overdone, or cliche. It ends up skewing my lyrics in kind of odd directions, maybe a little self-consciously.

M: I wanted to ask you guys about “Mango.” It’s one of my favorite songs off the album. It’s really well written and very atmospheric, like how we were talking about earlier. The instrumentation and lyrics are very intentional. Can you walk me through the creative process of creating a song like “Mango”? 

T: I originally wrote “Mango” for my band back in high school in LA, French Market Women. We gigged it a couple of times and then we all went to college. It was the perfect opportunity to bring it for Fire Trail when we recorded it live.

When we recorded it, it was the most stripped-down it could get. After getting a very basic bass, drums, and guitar version of it, we had like a few months to finish off the album with overdubs and it became a question of showcasing people’s talents musically that we didn’t do in the main structure.

Anna sings a very nice backing vocal in the connection section, kind of towards the end that really brings that atmosphere out. Shane does a very catchy bass line that shows a lot of influence from Arctic Monkeys. Then I had some time back home in LA with my home studio. I was inspired by Brian Eno’s second album, “Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy.” So, I started programming the Nord keyboard I have at home to make the sounds wrong, and then played them through a bunch of effects, delays, and tremolos to get this really sharp plonking noise. It’s this weird Mario 64-style keyboard that’s all over that part of the album. When you put it all together, there’s kind of a coherent vision coming out of a bunch of very disparate instrumentation. The lyrics almost have a folksy wandering quality to them that I picked up on for writing “Mango.” You can’t tell where it’s taking you. Those lyrics were definitely inspired by when I started listening to Pavement.

M: That’s a perfect segue to my next question, which is also about “Mango.” I know the lyrics refer to a Rite of Spring concert and in “Reruns,” you mentioned the Pavement song “Passat Dreams.” I think both Rite of Spring and Pavement were really pioneers of their respective genres. I find that a lot of people in our generation sort of look to those types of bands or musical work as touchstones of musical innovation. Within your creative process, what about their music do you find most inspiring and how do you feel that manifests in your work?

T: The Rite of Spring reference comes from me messing with the rest of the band by playing the theme to Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” during band rehearsals. A lot of our music has inside jokes in it. But I think that it also has a big value when you’re talking about something in the shadow of a paradigm-shifting piece of music. “Rite of Spring” has a whole semiotic undertone to it. It brings forth images of chaos, of a new order, of innovation. “Passat Dreams” is a little bit the opposite. It’s a song that’s a little bit sweet and it’s very modern. Maybe part of it is just being the lazy songwriter and wanting to showcase to listeners that you’re like them and you like good music by just throwing out things that you might not be able to include in your own writing.

M: You guys mentioned roots in classical jazz, a lot of musical traditions. While I was listening to your album, I noticed a Bossa Nova type of style, especially in songs like “Without Fire,” which is really cool. I know you mentioned earlier that you had a doo-wop sound/inspiration. Do you guys find yourself pulling from specific genres more often than other ones for your music?

A: It feels pretty all over the place. Minus the fact that we are trying to keep that rock kind of backbone. Beyond that, whatever fits the song is what we end up playing. We each try to cater the parts we come up with to the feel and genre that inspires in us.

S: I think I do try to get beyond just what fits the song. If I can throw a slight influence in that wouldn’t otherwise be heard in that song – I like to have that as an easter egg for someone to catch. Often that creates a slightly more varied foundation, like we’re building a composite material of all these things that get layered on top of each other.

T: That’s true. We’re sedimentary.

S: We are rock.

T: Sedimentary rock and roll.

M: In some of your songs like “Does Not Matter” and “Radio Silence,” there’s this overlapping experience that’s portrayed in the lyrics of using music to numb the senses, or as an escape. Especially for our generation, it’s kind of common to have that experience and use music as a coping mechanism. For you guys personally, are there any other pastimes or creative hobbies that you guys use as coping mechanisms or just that you enjoy in general? 

S: Well, Ben and I both love to bake. As does Anna, really. Bennett, Tohar, and I actually met all writing comedy, writing news satire at Berkeley.

A: Do you feel like that numbs the pain?

S: It kind of does. It’s its own kind of soothing by forcing you to focus on the pain.

A: Yeah, I like to take care of plants. It doesn’t numb the pain but it makes it go away, which is better.

T: I run a decently successful hyper-local niche meme account in LA that takes some of my time. It’s fun, just more feeding the ego when it’s not music.

S: Yeah. I think there’s also a lot of visual art across the bands. I’ve been quite enjoying Fire Trail as an opportunity to do graphic design as well, beyond just doing music.

T: I’ve been picking up doing lino printing for our show posters, which has been great. My mom’s a graphic designer, and I’ve been using Photoshop since 6th or 7th grade, so it’s nice to finally do it in a way that pays off.

B: One other thing that I do besides bake, I go on stress runs, which I highly recommend. When I’m stressed or if I get the zoomies, it’s just allowing yourself to run. It’s highly rewarding.

M: Do you guys have a favorite thing to bake or just try new things?

S: I like making tarts. So chocolate tarts, lemon tarts, Thai tea tarts, all of the above.

S: Anna and I will do that together sometimes. For her birthday last year, we made a cake inspired by the London Fog beverage. So that was a delicious cake and a beautiful one. It turned out so well.

M: At KCSB, we have pillars of alternative, educational, and non-commercial sounds, which is why we really gravitated to your album at our music review committee. Do you guys find yourselves navigating a balance between artistic expression and commercial appeal when you’re creating a certain song or album? 

T: Bennett and I were talking about it on the walk here, about kind of the death of the big label system. If we made our sound commercial, who would we be appealing to? The only way to stand out is to be unique, and the only way to be unique is to write what we’re interested in.

S: If I wanted to write something commercial sounding, frankly, this wouldn’t be the project for it. We have a lot of fun with the experimentation here. Early on when we were developing songs for the next album, I remember saying to Tohar, what in the setlist will people want to shake their butt to? And Tohar said, people want to shake their butt? What are you talking about?

M: Is there any advice that you’d give to people who either want to pursue music in college or are just starting out on the college band scene? 

T: Yeah, I would say, get a focus right, get logic, record music, do it with people that you like, make mistakes. Just put it out there. Try to play whatever opportunities you can. Be open to failing. You’ll find people who like you and all that matters is that you find fulfillment.

A: I feel like there was such a long time in college where I – even though I really wanted to put music out and make music, I truly believed I wasn’t good enough. Even though I had over 10 years of classical piano and flute training. For some reason deep inside me, I was like, no, I can’t do that. It’s only amazingly talented people that do that. But that’s just incredibly wrong. I feel like if I were to go back in time and talk to myself about it, I’d just say, get your head out of your butt and just make music.

S: Yeah, just do it. My two biggest musical regrets from college were not playing more in a variety of bands and keeping my focus too narrow on jazz. I wish that I had just had a broader focus and played more because that would have gotten me further earlier, not just on the scene playing, but on the scene knowing people and meeting all these great musicians and seeing more cool shows. Go to DIY shows, my god, it’s so good.

B: I played in bands all through high school and then I got here and I didn’t know if I was going to keep doing that. I’m from out of state and my drum sets’ in Arizona. So there’s already some difficulties there, but also the musicians and groups that I had heard play, I wasn’t super eager to join them. It wasn’t until Tohar approached me, I very much enjoyed him as a guitarist. I really appreciate being able to play with musicians who are confident in their instruments. Because as a drummer, otherwise, you’re just kind of sitting there for hours. I’m super grateful for that. It was just finding the right group of people to play with.

T: Through high school and college, I probably played with eight-ish bands of different genres, mostly jazz and alternative. I had a lot of fun with each of them, but everybody’s experiences ring true here where the more trial and error you get, the better the final product is. Then over winter break, Bennett came and stayed with me in LA. and we recorded the basic drum and guitar tracks for album two. I think that was a great learning experience. When you get to this point where you’re ready to move forward with music more seriously, you have to adjust and learn how to play with other people. Really good bands know how to read one another musically. It’s a language.

M: While we were discussing your album we found out that, Tohar, you run the West LA meme page. I’m from LA and so everyone who was from LA was fangirling. I feel like I’m kind of talking to a local celebrity, I can’t lie. Do you find any crossover between songwriting and creating a meme? 

T: Well, we do have a lyric in “Mango” that’s, “my music is a waste of time” and that’s kind of how I feel about the meme stuff too. But the reason why it connects to the memes thing is there’s that idea of appeal that you brought up. One is more tailored to mass appeal, but I think that being forced to interact with the public makes for a very good frontmanship, in a sense. People like jokes, people like to be on the inside of stuff, both feed that same urge. To add something to people’s lives.

M: I think there’s a lot to be said about the overlap between comedy and music in terms of the creative process in general in terms of both. My last question for you guys is what’s coming next for you guys?

T: We’re especially looking forward to the fact that we’re working on our second album. I’d say we’ve probably reached a majority of its recorded, with a few songs left. We’re going to be doing more uploading videos of live stuff on our Youtube too. You can find us if you search Fire Trail on Youtube. We’re also reaching out to venues for gigs on Instagram, which is @FireTrail_Band.

If you want to hear more about Fire Trail, visit their Instagram page @FireTrail_Band. If you want to catch a live performance, check them out at the Ivy Room in Albany on April 4th, 2024!

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