Few live acts manage to be disorienting. Encapsulate does this by constant light changes in fogged-out closed spaces and Boyd Rice is famous for his confrontational sets where he overwhelms the visual and auditory senses. Toupee takes a different route. Rather than overwhelm sensory understanding, Toupee perplexes the audience on an intellectual level. As Whitney, the vocalist, may alter her guise, demeanor, and voice through a set, or even during a song, the three backing musicians, Scott, Nick, Mark, will trade instruments and positions.
Toupee sounds like there are more than four people in it, and it's because the band's power lies in its progressive, restless outlook. Live performances are subject to changes, sudden, drastic, and radical. Recordings take the soft-loud-soft-loud dynamic and twist it into a double-helix. The vocals alone resemble a chorus more than an individual - someone pleads, someone screams, someone whimpers, someone croons. Because of the constant change, vocally and instrumentally, the band frees itself from any shackles of conventionality. Just as you think you've arrived at a semblance of mutual comprehension, the bait and switch occurs . Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.
Leg Toucher, the band's sophomore album set to come out on Moniker Records this summer is the next step of a band in evolution. It's alarming because it's made of these haunting, intoxicating songs, but it's recorded at Chicago's Electrical Audio, one of the premiere studios in the world, so it's as clear-sounding as it is bewildering, uncompromising in its vision.
I had the honor of doing this interview with Toupee at Whitney, Nick, and Mark's home in Pilsen over tamales and coffee. They're really lovely people in addition to being stellar musicians. Here's how it all went down.
Jordan Reyes: So you guys have a new record coming out. What is a Leg Toucher? Have you guys ever actually touched a leg?
Mark Fargrassi: Personally?
Nick Hagen: Mark is definitely a leg toucher.
MF: I know leg touchers. I don’t want to say anyone’s name.
Scott Frigo: I came up with the title for that song. It was based on a social psychology class that I was taking. The professor was a man who had an experiment where he would go to bars and look at the different behaviors of people. In class, he handed out a list of things that the different genders would do and if they were successful or not in their wooing attempts. So there were these different categories: some are leg touchers, and some are not leg touchers. Some sit very openly. Some sit very closed, like you [my legs are crossed and my hands are resting on my knees at this point] like how you’re crossed and crossed. So it came from that. It’s part of the human condition. You’re a leg toucher or you’re not a leg toucher.
Whitney Allen: You might also be the recipient of leg touching.
NH: I guess if you are a leg toucher, the function of your leg touching is a litmus test for boundary. A leg touch isn’t quite a trespass, but if it’s in the direction of a trespass, you’ll be let know.
SF: A leg touch is like a Geiger meter.
NH: If you’re a leg toucher, that’s your motive to leg touch.
JR: So you’re touching someone else’s leg?
WA: Well. Maybe that’s your experience. The content of the song lyrically is about a phone call I received from a cable company. They were asking me to upgrade the service so I would have more entertainment possibilities and I told the lady that I didn’t have a television. Eventually she said, “but it’s only 50 channels!” It was a funny moment because it pointed out a desperation to sell these things. This ingratiating need to trespass upon my boundaries. A leg touch could be something that’s done in a bar to woo someone and test boundaries or as I see it, it’s more from the other side as the recipient of the leg touch and figuring out how to respond. Not feeling listened to. Feeling overrun.
JR: It boils down to that question of boundary, then.
WA: Yeah, boundaries, whether it be psychic like not having that TV because I prefer to use my time more creatively and still having people encourage me “come on, just come on.” So that’s more of the psycho-social aspect.
JR: Do you think in your live show, there’s an element of touching the audience’s leg?
WA: We try not to touch people. I don’t think any of us tries to touch people.
MF (joking): We touch their souls with our songs.
NH: A lot of times people get close when we play.
SF: It’s sort of the opposite I want to say. It seems like the opposite of a predatory move to be playing.
WA: We certainly don’t force people to be there. And that’s part of the leg touch phenomena is that it’s not a consensual thing. It’s not asked for. So I wouldn’t say our performance would be a leg touch because the people there probably know what they’re in for.
NH: Whoever comes to our show sort of knows they might get touched.
JR: It’s a preemptive contract.
NH: Sort of. No guarantees.
JR: Right, you might actually want to get your leg touched. So in the experiment the guy documents how people react?
SF: Yeah, he tried to quantify the successes and non-successes of these archetypal courting behaviors. It was really interesting.
JR: That is interesting. I want to know more about it.
SF: I’ve got a notebook on that lecture. I took tons of notes. It’s a symbol of a grody part of human nature. And then I noticed one of my friends did it: he was a leg toucher.
WA: I was recently leg touched at a show.
MF: Once a leg toucher, always a leg toucher. (everyone laughs)
NH: People might be like “punchers” too. Someone will tell a joke or something and literally punch you.
MF: Or there’ll be the “shoulder grasp.”
NH: It’s only affection from their end of things. Well, it’s affection and also a motion towards intimacy.
WA: Ingratiating towards closeness without doing the work of creating a relationship.
SF: You’ll notice this now.
JR: I know - I’m really freaked out.
MF: Is that a completely new phrase for you?
JR: Yeah, it is. I’m definitely not one. Human contact is…difficult. (laughter)
WA: Yeah, I think we’re all in that boat. It’s special. And it’s also absurd once you begin to see the patterns. You’re a performer and you want to reflect the human condition with and for your audience. You’re bound to discover the absurdity of social patterns and play with them.
JR: I’m starting to look at everyone’s body language now cause of what you said and I wish I weren’t. It’s really distracting.
WA: Well, you don’t have to worry about any of us. We’re safe.
SF: Yeah, but we’re also lying with our bodies.
MF: I reformed long ago from my leg touching days. I leg touched once. It was an accident. Well, I guess it could have played out well. I went for a leg touch and the recipient moved so it became a butt touch. I guess I just threw my cards on the table.
NH: Maybe they saw what was coming and moved their butt into alignment.
JR: The leg touch parry.
MF: It could have been a one-up actually.
NH: I see your leg touch and raise you…butt. (laughter).
JR: That’s when you have to go for the double touch.
NH: That would be really hot. A very small margin of people go for the double touch.
JR: So was there a goal in making the record Leg Toucher? Was it songs around a theme or did you have a bunch of songs and selected certain ones?
SF: I don’t know how intentional it was, like that, but a lot of it ended up being about the human condition.
WA: Yeah, and whether it’s in first-person or third-person, it’s always going to be about what it feels like to be human, our needs, and oftentimes stripping away the pleasantry of day-to-day interaction. “If twenty people were voicing their needs at once, this is what it might sound like.” As far as the music goes, we didn’t piece these songs together out of a trope. We made a set of songs and made our first album out of it. Then we recorded these and made an album. It’s just chronologically what we’ve done. We don’t have many floaters.
JR: Is there a process for you guys?
WA: Someone will bring a riff and we’ll go from there. Or there’ll be spontaneous jamming and repetition.
SF: We’ll scrap things that aren’t being felt by everyone. Usually it’ll hit really well if we’re going to keep it, and we’ll have something to chase after.
JR: When did you start playing?
NH: In early 2011 I think.
JR: How did you know each other before?
WA: Just from playing music together. These guys lived at a spot on 21st or 22nd. It was an attic. I lived up in Rodger’s park. We would play shows together and we were all at a central place when their band sort of dissolved.
SF: We were just jamming and we decided to put together a crazy-ass show at Ball Hall.
NH: For a while, we’d have about five songs in a set.
WA: And we’d just draw them out.
JR: Is there an element of improvisation in your music?
NH: The songs themselves aren’t improvised.
WA: I’ll still improvise on vocals depending on the song like “Come Back to Camp,” which is on the new album, since it’s so fast and I can slip in different phrasings.
NH: I never improvise on drums, but certainly on guitar, especially on the song she describes.
MF: There’s a structure in the songs, but certain parts can have liberties.
NH: The trick is ending that part deliberately and getting back to one set place.
WA: It’s important to always know the length of time that we have and not necessarily knowing what’s going to fill out. But we’re all on the same track so we can regroup after emitting an explosion.
JR: So what sorts of foods do you find yourselves eating during a tour or just in general?
WA: Fish and Mediterranean food.
MF: Lots of carrots.
WA: The darkest chocolate possible.
SF: Radishes. Bagels.
WA: Lots of raw vegetables.
MF: Dipping carrots in peanut butter.
JR: Robert and I just shared peanut butter sandwiches before I came here. He always brings peanut butter, bread, chips, and berries.
WA: He’s a smart man.
NH: All the food groups.
JR: I started calorie counting and it’s just the worst. I had to stop exercising cause I tore my chest wall and had to go to the emergency room.
WA: Whoa. How’d you tear your chest wall, Jordan?
JR: The doctors said overexertion.
WA: From lifting?
JR: No, I don’t lift at all. I only run and use rowing machines. But I run really long distance. That doesn’t make sense to me though.
SH: What part tore?
JR: It’s a muscle tear but it’s right here (points to sternum).
SF: I feel like that’s active when you’re doing things closing your arms.
JR: Me too, but I don’t really do anything like that.
WA: Except for when you’re reading. (everyone laughs)
JR: “Ugh! I shouldn’t be reading so hard!” (everyone laughs) Well, I’m not that dumb. (points to a foam roller) That’s for soft tissues right?
WA: Yeah, that back roller is the jam. I use it like half an hour a day.
JR: A half hour?
WA: Yup. Work deep into the spots.
JR: That sounds terrible.
NH: We take it on tour with us.
JR: Do you really?
MF: Well, it debuted on the last tour.
NH: Lil Tits had one when we toured with them in August.
JR: I’ve got a trip coming up from here to Miami. I’m going to be very cramped so maybe I should consider it.
WA: Yeah, and go for the one with nodules and not just the flat one.
MF: I’d recommend not getting the foam ones cause those just smush too much.
JR: How was that tour with Lil Tits?
NH: It was awesome.
WA: Pretty fun.
JR: Have you guys known them for a while?
WA: A few years.
MF: You guys played with them before. (pointing to Nick & Whitney)
WA: Columba Fasciata?
NH: Yeah, that’s true.
WA: I think I actually met Lil Tits when we brought them to the LUMC fundraiser - the women’s self-defense league. I met them doing philanthropic work (laughs). I met them doing civic duty. That’s a cool part of this community. We get to play fundraisers. It’s not just the music-making performance aspect. Not just playing with other bands, but being able to pay-it-forward or give it back to the community.
JR: Do you think that’s a Chicago-specific thing?
WA: I couldn’t say. I don’t know enough about other cities. I feel like in Minnesota, our friends in Minneapolis are very community-oriented. Self-supportive people who do outreach with their music.
JR: Do you know when the record is coming out?
WA: And then we’re going to do a two-week tour once it comes out.
JR: Like a full US tour?
WA: Probably up through the Midwest and then the upper East Coast, down through the Southeast and back up. That’s the one place we haven’t been to yet is the Southeast.
NH: Well, we haven’t been to the West Coast. We’ve been to the Pacific Northwest.
SF: We’re doing a short tour in Illinois soon and then going to play Madison too.
JR: Scott, you live up there, right?
SF: I live in Kenosha and work in Racine.
JR: Do you guys get any song material or music elements out of dreams?
WA: Yeah. Dream imagery is key. Scott and I talk a lot about dream imagery because we’re both visual artists as well.
SF: Yeah, a lot of content comes from the “free well of inspiration.”
WA: Dreams and memories.
SF: When I was writing at Columbia College, I was drinking a ton of Mugwort.
JR: What’s that?
SF: It’s an herb that is commonly used for fertility, but one of its side effects is that it gives you extreme dream recall. People say that it influences your ability to lucid dream, which I didn’t experience, but I did remember my dreams clearly. It had a lasting effect too. I still get aftershocks of crazy dream recall from these mugwort times. You drink it, but you can also smoke it. I bathed in it.
JR: Where do you get it?
SF: It grows everywhere. It’s Artemis vulgaris. You can buy it in bulk online, but it also grows near almost every water source. It makes you sweat a hell of a lot.
JR: I hate sweating. I do it, but I don’t like it.
SF: It might not be for you. I love sweating.
JR: You do?
SF: Yeah, I guess.
JR: Don’t play with me, Scott. I need the truth.
SF: I like sweating, but I don’t like smelling.
JR: That’s truth. Are you guys going to hit Florida during that tour?
MF: We’re still planning. Florida’s a bit far.
NH: We were thinking about going as far as Atlanta.
MF: Florida just adds so much.
NH: My thought was that if we hit Florida, it would be good to hit it during the winter. Then we could go to New Orleans and Texas and stuff.
JR: Well, I’m assuming that by winter next year I would have an apartment. So you guys could definitely stay there. I don’t know when my permanent housing situation is going to kick in.
NH: Are you in like downtown Miami?
JR: I’m going to be in North Miami I think. I’ve been spending most of my time in the Little Haiti area there.
NH: I hear that’s a cool spot.
WA: Is there a lot of French spoken?
JR: Yeah, Creole. And I speak Spanish, which is obviously big. It’s almost a first language. People will assume you speak Spanish. I like it.
NH: I would like to play there at some point.
JR: It’s just such a commitment to get down there. It’s almost like the Southernmost tip.
NH: Well, we’ve done the Northwesternmost tip.
JR: Have you guys played Canada?
NH: We haven’t, but we’ve played Bellingham, which is about twenty minutes from Vancouver.
JR: Is morbidity a part of Toupee?
WA: All smiles. (Laughs).
MF: It’s more absurd than morbid or aggressive.
JR: Do you think there is a concept or idea behind Toupee?
WA: (laughs) Toupee. Well. As a group, it would seem we have a tendency to seek to skew, perplex, confuse, and create absurd tales.
JR: There’s a bit of theatricality to a live performance too. How do you bring in the wardrobe changes? Sometimes it seems like it’s different people speaking.
WA: For sure. I have a background in the study of theater. So as far as the choices that I make on stage, usually the day before I’ll go through different objects that I keep. I’ll find objects that I think are intriguing. It could be fabric for a draping effect or mask. A lot of times too, there’s a more spontaneous element. We’ll go to a market before sometimes and I’ll get bananas or something.
JR: What about you three (gesturing to Mark, Nick, Scott)? Talking about change and thematic origins.
NH: Typically in our sets, we’ll change our instrumentation, which can frame the dynamic and theatrical flow. That became that way on its own. We didn’t calculate that. It provides an arc of difference and change throughout the set.
SF: I can only speak for myself. I think we’re all in different mental spaces. I think thematically it deals a lot with experience. This probably isn’t going to make any sense, but when we play, I typically try to play as “female” as I can on my instrument. When I see dudes filling the stage and “rocking out,” it’s just about the worst thing to me. I try to be in balance with femininity because it’s easy to get to a gratuitous rocking out place with a guitar especially.
SF: I remember drawing from art classes someone was talking about Mondrian with his colors and blocks separated by straight lines. That’s really a male thing. And finding parallels like that to different behaviors. Even in art, having things more curved, dynamic, less staccato. Even the name Toupee, to me, seems like a disguise, like someone’s ashamed of your hair loss or whatever. For me, the actual act of playing this stuff is not necessarily in a character, but a way to play things with a feminine balance personally.
WA: We talk about that. The balancing of the male and female energies. On the flip side, I have the embodiment of different voices. I’m trying to explore different constructs and how to break them and how to channel the voices of people I am not. I try to find balance in that. I may have these very deep male-sounding voices or very high-pitched female-sounding voices. It’s done to achieve balance.
MF: We all bring our own elements to it. I think that’s why the music is compelling. We’re not all doing different things at the same time that are competing. We’re doing different things at the same time that are all building on each other. That’s how I see what I’m doing. Nick has expressed this before. It’s almost like there’s a list with a bunch of dynamic things that I’m planning to do in a song, but without everyone else it doesn’t work. It’s not that we’ve practiced them and they need to be this way. Sometimes they hit and sometimes they don’t. People won’t know. I guess that gets back to the improvisation aspect. It never feels like a song is complete or a song is done.
JR: So balance seems to be a key part in the creation. But it could be balance in gender or balance in emotional output. What other kinds of balances are there in a Toupee song or album?
NH: I think we try to do as many things dynamically as we can. Maybe in a really simple, one-dimensional way, that’s our way of avoiding being a “this kind of band” or “that kind of band.” There’s less of a prompt when we’re working on new things.
SF: But dynamic is a very delicate balance. You can overstrain things.
WA: I think the subject matter in some of our songs deal with very depressing, isolating, violent subjects. Some are more redemptive or humorous. We try and use music to explore all the realms of emotions, but focus on catharsis.
JR: Is it painful to perform?
WA: Yeah, sure. I think it’s painful at first just to develop the stamina that this kind of music requires in a performance. It can be painful to write lyrics and it can be painful to play, but I think that if people hear your message and you have a good foundation being vulnerable in public, it sublimates the pain, which turns into pleasure and triumph. The pain of being isolated and unable to express yourself goes away.
SF: Sometimes the satire saves you from the pain and exhaustion. It’s often a mocking satire.
JR: So the element of pain is probably still there when you practice a bit? Is there less of the possibility of catharsis without other people bearing witness?
SF: Especially at our practices, we’re moody and emotional.
NH: It’s certainly not a prerequisite to practice. I have fun at practice too.
MF: Sometimes I hit my hand on the drum at practice and it bleeds and that’s painful.
WA: We have each sustained physical injury.
JR: Do you think there are any artists, and I don’t mean just musicians, but in the entire scheme that influence lyrics, songwriting, or aesthetic.
SF: Not really that I can think of.
WA: Researching any underground community under the duress of the society that they might not be feeling involved or a part of. That might be the French Situationists or the Dada artists. Artists trying to find refuge against the public. The surrealists. The different eras where people banded together to make music, visual art, and writing in their own ways, as a culture within their society, even though laws might be created to keep those artists down. Reading about them has always been important to me individually. It’s important to think about the time we’re living in and finding people with whom we share the freedom of spirit.
JR: Do you think there’s an element of feeling as an outsider in Toupee?
WA: Sure, yeah.
SF: I feel like I’ve got representation right here in this group through what we do. Our experiences as us four. Outside of that, I don’t feel much representation from anyone, so there’s a little bit of an outsider feel to it. There’s love from outside too from other groups and people, but less of the kinship felt here. Some people are really great, of course, and welcoming.
NH: I think the affinity we feel towards other people and groups have to do with them as human beings in addition to their artistic output. I don’t think we bond with other groups because we sound similar. I don’t think there’s a good scene in Chicago where art is based on continuity or similarities of sound.
WA: I don’t know if we ever had a band goal like “we really want to achieve this.”
SF: I think just playing was the goal.
WA: Yeah. Finding punk music at an adolescent time was really informative for me, especially hardcore. It made me feel like less of an outsider.
JR: Scott, you mention love, and finding love. Do you think there’s a lack of love in music or art?
SF: No. I actually feel like there’s great support in Chicago. There’s less competition here than in other places. As an example, in Racine they’ve got a different, cutthroat feel. That’s what I mean with the support of other bands, even multimedia stuff to form a better chemistry.
WA: There’s plenty of room in Chicago. There’s thousands of bands. If you’re able to find a community of bands that are somewhat on the same wavelength or of the same ethos then you’re bound to find some kindred spirits there.