Joe Fahey digs deep in intimate, quietly stunning ‘Somnambulist Chaser’

Photo by David Tanner
Joe Fahey: "So I guess what keeps me going is that it just feels right."

Early last Friday night, as Donald Trump’s flying monkeys did their loudmouth lord’s bidding in Chicago, Joe Fahey unassumingly entertained a South Minneapolis coffee shop crowd with an exceedingly-and-typically-for-Fahey wry version of Neil Young’s 1976 tune “Campaigner,” whose chorus claims, “Even Richard Nixon has got soul.” 

Fahey deftly substituted “Richard Nixon” with the names of most of the current crop of GOP presidential candidates. But when he got to “Even Donald Trump …” the 56-year-old graphic artist, husband, father, rocker, and songwriter backed off the mic, laughed, shook his head, and told the 60 or so gathered music lovers, “I can’t do it” and concluded with, “Donald Trump is an …” followed by an on-point rhyme with “a soul.”

Two days later, more than a few people in this town woke up with Fahey’s should-be Daylight Saving Time anthem “Spring Forward (Fall Back)” bouncing around in their heads, and if there’s any justice in this music world, that and many more of Fahey’s songs will soon be stuck in the craws of song-loving musicheads everywhere.

At the moment, there are no gold or platinum records hanging on the walls of the modest Fridley home Fahey shares with his wife, Kathy, but at every turn lies evidence of a prolific musician and family man’s well-lived life. Guitars and a banjo hang on the living room wall across from a sheet music-strewn piano and, like every room in the house, bookshelves are stuffed with CDs, records, music biographies, and family portraits of and with the empty nesters’ sons, Ryan and Sean.

In the basement, Fahey’s cramped office is cluttered with the busywork of a creative mind and the tools of his freelance graphic artist trade, including a framed poster he created for the Replacements’ 2014 Midway stadium homecoming concert.

Next to the laundry room sits a chilly bunker outfitted with soundproofing egg cartons on the wall and ceiling, a p.a. and soundboard, two drum kits and a few guitar amps, all sitting in repose but at the ready for rehearsal with Fahey’s bands The Bottom Forty, the Local Hermits, and Carp 18.

“I grew up – I keep saying ‘I grew up,’ even though I haven’t – with this sort of sense of shame,” said Fahey last week, sitting in his home’s cabin-like reading and listening room off the backyard: “`Don’t make a fool of yourself, Joe. Don’t talk too loud. Don’t embarrass us as a dysfunctional Irish-Catholic family. Don’t do anything too weird. Don’t let people know you’re cuckoo.’

“So I always feel like, with all that worry, if I still want to do it, it must be good, you know what I mean? There must be something there. I don’t want to make a fool of myself, and you do that with music, in general. I mean, I’m sending out these one-sheets to these bloggers now, and I’m just thinking, ‘Oh my god, I’m 56 years old …’

“But I’ve kind of come to terms with that because it’s not like it’s a pop-rock band, I’ve fallen into this songwriter thing, and so I don’t think about the age as much. I just know that it’s something I really enjoy doing. I’ve thought about going back to my [visual artist roots] and be a painter, but with painting, you’re all alone. Music, you’re with people, and when you’re a musician or a songwriter, you don’t just stop being that and say, ‘Oh I guess I’ll just shut that off.’ So I guess what keeps me going is that it just feels right. [Fahey’s friend, producer and collaborator] Tom [Herbers] has always been encouraging to me: ‘You do it because you have to.’ It’s just part of who you are.”

Look, I don’t pretend to be an objective critical correspondent here: I’ve been a fan and friend of Fahey’s since the early days of Carp 18, and since he was sending me his wise and hilarious “Catch O’ The Day” newsletters in the ’90s. So the other day I was happy to visit with him for the first time at the Fahey compound, which sits just around the corner from Totino Grace High School. The first thing he wanted to show off was the backyard treehouse he built for his sons, but which now serves as an adult getaway and a recording studio for one track of Fahey’s quietly stunning new folk-rock record, “Somnambulist Chaser,” his third solo recording which he and his band (guitarist Ben Baldridge, bassist Mike Mahin, and drummer Kraig Olmstead) will celebrate with a release party Saturday night at Harriet Brewing in Minneapolis.

“With this record, it’s almost like I’ve learned more about people from social media,” said Fahey, who credits the international online songwriting community around February Album Writing Month for inspiring much of his new material. “If you put these songs out there that are personal it’s like, ‘Oh I can’t do that.’ But then you realize every day that you’re surrounded by people who are going through pain or good times. Everybody wants to be loved. Everybody. And everybody is way funnier than I ever knew, and weirder. That always surprises me.”

That glimpse into a certain universal oneness via Facebook and Twitter emboldened Fahey to write about his life more intimately than ever before, and to dig deep personally and artistically, the result of which is a wiser and more mature songwriter responsible for such gut-rippers as “Once You Were Gone,” penned about the singer’s late father, Jerry.

“Even though my dad passed away years ago … I wrote a song on his birthday, many years later,” said Joe, choking up and taking off his glasses to wipe away tears. “Sometimes when I listen to those lyrics … Once someone in your life is gone, they’re gone, and you can never go back to them and ask them about something. But what stays with you forever is them, and their past, and their ideas, and their advice. It’s a harsh reality: This person is gone.

“My dad played the baritone horn, speaking of making fools out of yourself. People were always like, ‘Do you have to do that?’ He sang off key in church, loud and proud, and didn’t play the horn well, but he loved it. And we were embarrassed by him as kids, but as you get older you respect someone for just being himself.

“I have his horn, and I tried playing it myself, but we had these guys from the Brass Messengers come into the studio, and I asked this guy, Steve Sandberg, if he could play my dad’s horn, and it was really heavy. It was really emotional, and he said how much of an honor it was to play my dad’s horn, and now there’s a legacy. More than that, we made it musical.”

Decades earlier, Jerry Fahey played a big part in whetting his budding audiophile son’s seemingly never-ending romance with recording and recordings.

“My dad was a manufacturing engineer who worked for Ampex, the cassette tape thing. His specialty was magnetic tape, and so we were really into tape, and cassettes. I kind of grew up with tape, so it’s kind of a part of my life. As a kid, my sister had a reel-to-reel and I’d take it in the bathroom and make monkey sounds and stuff. We had all kinds of cassette decks and players all over the place.”

During his time with Ampex in the ‘60s, Jerry Fahey moved Joe and his mother, Phyllis, four sisters, and brother from Minneapolis to upstate New York, Colorado and Alabama, where the Fahey kids were first bitten by the performance bug.

“For some reason our family had this marionette troupe in Alabama called the Mini Players,” laughed Joe, sipping on an afternoon coffee. “My dad had a reel-to-reel tape recorder and we had these scripts that we’d record around the kitchen table. We’d play at art festivals and we were on public TV a couple times. They asked, ‘Why the Mini Players?’ And I said, ‘We’re small and we’re from Minneapolis.’

“I was 12, and it was like being in a band. We built the puppets and my dad built the stage, and my mom booked the gigs. Then we moved to Illinois, and my mom was trying to get us to do the puppet thing and I just remember my sister going, ‘uh-uh.’ We were a little bit older and it was a source of embarrassment. It was corny.”

Maybe so, but the creativity bug stuck, and, after attending three different high schools in Illinois, Fahey graduated from Minneapolis Patrick Henry High School, where he participated in an after-school work program in the print shop. He attended the University of Minnesota, where he met Kathy, studied fine art in France, and ultimately got his degree from North Hennepin Community College. Around the same time, he and some neighborhood guys started his first band.

“Not to be too dramatic, but it was something I’d wanted to do all my life. I was kind of a late bloomer,” he said. “I was in college and living in my parents’ basement and I just remember doing [The Beatles’] ‘Get Back’ with two guitars and it was just like, ‘We’re doing this! It’s real!’ And I’ll just never forget that feeling. Then the next day the drummer didn’t show up. He was older and cynical and just said, ‘[Screw] this, I quit.’ ”

Not long after, Fahey formed Carp 18, which recorded two albums and to this day shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. He also stays busy playing with his longtime band The Bottom Forty and the punk-rock cover band the Local Hermits, who rip it up with classics from the likes of the Velvet Underground, the Rolling Stones, Ramones and New York Dolls. And the Fahey music empire now extends to both Joe and Kathy’s sons, Ryan and Sean, who plays bass in the Brooklyn-based indie rock band Acid Dad.  

“Music is what makes our family tick,” said Kathy, who works in the medical device industry. “Joe has and always will be my number one rock star; he inspired both of our boys to find a passion for music in their own way, and we’ve met so many wonderful people because of his music and the stories they tell. I think the community is what pushes him to persevere.”

“Sean has been playing in bands since he was 14, and you can’t help but worry a little bit because there’s pain involved, sometimes: rejection, and just where you put your head and soul when you’re writing,” said Joe. “So there’s this protective feeling of, ‘Oh, don’t do it, kid,’ but you’ve got to support them.

“He’s always good to say that I’m an influence, and that he grew up around Carp 18. It’s a big deal for him to have grown up with that, and a lot of his friends actually do have acid dads or musician dads, so there’s this interesting thing where the other guys in his bands have connected with me on Facebook and Twitter and stuff, and that feels good. They’re doing it for real, they’re doing what a lot of people want to do: In a band and in a van …”

True to Fahey’s quick wit and wacky worldview, “Somnambulist Chaser” kicks off with the quirky “Spring Forward (And Fall Back),” then hits its emotional high point with “Stable Wounds,” a confessional tune worthy of one of Joe’s longtime songwriting heroes, Jackson Browne. In the end, though, it’s all Joe Fahey, and, in a mad mad music world that revolves around quick-hit singles, “Somnambulist Chaser” is one man’s long-playing deep dive into the human condition.

“I had some pretty tough times in my youth with my mental health and drugs and stuff, but [talking and singing about] it wasn’t as acceptable as it is now,” said Joe about “Stable Wounds.” “I didn’t even know what depression was, or that this is the culprit for these problems I have. But in a vague way I think for that song I was just channeling when I was 18 and ready to just call it quits. I was in such a bad place, and one day I found out my cousin who was around my same age blew his brains out on Father’s Day.

“There was a time when I thought the bleeding would never stop. I really thought I wouldn’t make it past the age of 18, and then you realize you did, and that things might be bad but you’re not dwelling on it on a day-to-day basis. You just gotta keep trying.”

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