‘Do Owe Harm’ – An Incursion Into Feeding Fingers’ Microtonal, Avantgarde Music

Feeding Fingers is the missing piece of today’s dark punk puzzle we were looking for. Founded in 2006 by composer Justin Curfman, the illustrious trio that musical critics have a really hard time to classify is currently on a tour of promoting a new album – Do Owe Harm. The band will come to Romania this very month, and will perform in three cities/locations: Bucharest (16th, Underworld), Timisoara (17th, DAOS) and Cluj-Napoca (21, Atelier Cafe). FF’s last visit in our country was back in 2010, when Feeding Fingers performed in Control Club (Bucharest).

I’ve been taken a deep look at the band’s new project, and I wasn’t disappointed. Released last January, Do Owe Harm is as dark as it can get. Raw and suicidal. Retro and symphonic. Psychedelic and Kafkaesque. So many terms from so many areas, because it’s just so damn difficult to put it in a box.

Withdrawing influences from several musical genres, Feeding Fingers latest album is humanly impossible to categorize. According to the band itself, FF’s sound covers everything from dark-wave, indie rock, avant-garde, electro, jazz, punk and many others, as I assume. There are genres I hadn’t had a clue they even existed. The whole amalgam of influences is harmoniously, magisterially remixed into a homogenous, unmistakable style. After a first listen of Justin Curfman’s recent project, my brain felt gangbanged by a symphonic version of Depeche Mode and a melancholic cousin of HIM, an improbable combination that is, in fact, possible, and Feeding Fingers recent release is here to prove it.

Do Owe Harm, the homonym track on the album, is probably the star of the group. The three minutes rhythmic hymn, stands out without any doubt, being equaled in intensity only by the 5th track – A Happy Lust for Alphabets, a crashing song that marks the albums first half and gives Curfman the chance to put his vocal chords to good use. Damn, this guy can sing! The dark innuendos seem to spread once Motion Cues comes in the playlist. The existential dread is replaced by acceptance, but only for a short time, because the cloudy journey of the whole album ends leaving a whole emptiness in your spirit.

As a bottom line, Feeding Fingers’ Do Owe Harm is a mouthful; a melodic milestone for experimental music out there same as a rich, complex album, that can totally mess you up if you’re in the wrong state of mind, but can also do a lot of healing when in crisis.

Curious to find out more about where the album extracted its juice, I’ve sat with Feeding Fingers’ frontman and musical prodigy – Justin Curfman, and asked him a few questions. We’ve talked about how music is perceived today as a commodity, about the new albums inspiration sources and much more.

Justin Curfman (Feeding Fingers): Hi Daniel. First of all, before we get started, I would like to thank you for having me. I got turned on to your magazine by a friend in Bucharest recently. You all are producing some stellar work there. I really enjoy it.

Cultartes: Hi Justin, and thank you! Now, do tell me – what kind of people listen Feeding Fingers? Who are they, what are they thinking, how do you think they perceive life?

Justin Curfman: When this group started back in 2006 or so, our audience seemed to be fairly limited to the post-punk / darkwave scene in Europe and the United States. But, having been at this for twelve years now and having had released six albums, with each one touching on everything from experimental avant-garde jazz to world music to microtonal / xenharmonic music, our audience seems to have expanded quite a bit. If one is patient enough to listen to our discography in full, I think that there is something in there somewhere for just about everyone.

If you had asked me these questions a decade or so ago, I could have given you some pretty precise answers, but I don’t think that I can do that anymore.

Cultartes: What is your personal perception of life and how does it reflect on your work?

That is a big question. Thankfully, my perception of life changes day to day. It has changed quite a lot since starting this project – certainly since having learned a couple more languages, moved across the Atlantic and after having traveled so much in these years. As time moves on and I learn more about life, history and the basic sociological theatre of the day to day the more I think that we all do our best work in life simply by expressing kindness, empathy and a bit of charity toward one another as directly and as often as we can. If we show basic goodness to the world, it tends to reflect back. Maybe not immediately and maybe not obviously, but it does if you are patient and receptive enough to it. That’s not to say that I expect the political / corporate war machine of (insert name of whatever country you like here) to adapt to this idea – I’m not that naive.

But, from my experience this seems to be the best basic way to live. Collective consciousness is a fluid. We reap whatever ripples we sow. I am not sure how or if that reflects in my work, but for this tour thus far, we have been greeted with nothing but good fortune. In addition to avoiding equipment theft in Houston and countless other things, we just dodged a series of tornadoes and flooding in the mid-west USA – missing it all by just a couple of days. I have probably cursed myself now as I am looking at all of this snowfall in the Mediterranean, where we will be landing during the first week of March.

Cultartes: How is your latest project any different than any of the previous albums? What is it new that it brings to the table?

Justin Curfman: Do Owe Harm is different than the previous Feeding Fingers’ albums in that it was written as something of a pop study of this blooming world of microtonal / xenharmonic / polytonal music that has been coming to fruition very slowly since the turn of the 20th century – being spearheaded by composers like Charles Ives, Julian Carrillo, Alois Haba, Ivan Wyschnegradsky and a handful of others. Of course, there are others before them, but I feel comfortable in saying that they are sort of the big four.

Collective consciousness is a fluid. We reap whatever ripples we sow. – Justin Curfman

Without getting too tedious about it… it is composing music using the “notes between the notes”. Western music, since Bach basically, has been and is primarily written using twelve tones – as we all know; C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B. These tones repeat from one octave to the next – either ascending or descending. But, we can in fact hear much more subtle variations in tone. Imagine sitting in front of a piano which has, say for example, twenty four keys per octave instead of only twelve, or a guitar with twenty four frets per octave instead of only twelve. You would produce quarter tones in addition to half and whole tones while en route to and from one octave to another. Then, imagine putting even more keys or frets between the notes – then more and more still, making the tonal increments from tone to tone, note to note more and more minute. Thus the term, “microtone”. This is microtonal music in nutshell.

What I hope to bring new to the table, working within this sort of musical palette outside of the usual Occidental, 12-tone chromatic system is, I suppose, an album written within this realm of tonality that is hopefully accessible to a general music audience that isn’t necessarily pre-occupied with music theory and technology.

Cultartes: What was it that inspired you in putting together the latest album?

Justin Curfman: For the previous album, ‘Attend, I wrote a song titled, “Where All of These Towns and Choices End”. That song was written using a microtonal / xenharmonic scale known as the “Alpha” scale – invented by composer, Wendy Carlos. I won’t get into the details about it, but it is essentially 78.0 cents/step = 15.385 steps/octave. I had such a wonderful time composing the music for that song, feeling as a painter with a whole new set of colors to work with, that I decided right away that the next Feeding Fingers album would be written using various microtunings as a foundational basis for each song. I can’t imagine returning entirely to the usual 12-tone chromatic scale any longer after having written outside of it.

Cultartes: I believe that all authentic music is based on the musician’s personal experience. Is this the case for Do Owe Harm?

Justin Curfman: I agree with you. This is why most, if not all of us, can feel the difference between music written and released as a commodity / product, as in the case of the bulk of popular top 40 radio music – being music written with a clear monetary or socio-propagandist motivation and music as an authentic piece of expressive, aural art. Some songs are candy bars and some are nutritious meals. It is like this with any discipline of art. But, I do think that there is a place for both. As for the case of ‘Do Owe Harm’, I can confidently tell you that I have never written and released a song that is not built from personal experience in some way – be it from waking life, dreams or somewhere in between. Authenticity is paramount to me. I never write with an agenda.

Artwork: Steven Lapcevic

Cultartes: The title itself is quite illustrative. Literally taken, and considering the album’s vibe, it’s fair to assume it’s a suicidal reference. Is that the case?

Justin Curfman: I have never considered that. But, considering the somewhat non-representational approach that I use for lyric writing, I assume that it is fair for you or for any listener to interpret the text in whatever way they see fit. I’m intrigued by just about anyone’s interpretation. I think that I learn more about myself from other people’s interpretations of the textual content of the albums than I do from self-analysis.

Cultartes: What do you want people to feel primary when listening to Do Owe Harm? How would the album be best served?

Justin Curfman: I don’t know that I necessarily want for anyone to feel anything specifically. I create the work, release it and see what happens. It either touches people in some way and causes a certain reaction, or it doesn’t. However, this album seems to conjure feelings from one extreme to another, based on what people have been telling me in person at concerts and online. I have had people telling me that it is one of the poppiest albums that Feeding Fingers has released and I have had people tell me that they can’t listen to it in one sitting because it is too oppressive and dark for them. That this album seems to touch people in one extreme or another makes me feel that the time that I invested into writing it was worth it.

I think that the album is best served if the listener sets aside a forty minute block of time to listen to it in one sitting in a calm room with a decent stereo system, no distractions and no consideration for the theoretical effort that was involved during the composition of the songs.

Cultartes: If you were to sum up the whole album to a single word, which would that word be?

Justin Curfman: Viscous.

Cultartes: What does Feeding Fingers’ future plans look like?

Justin Curfman: I have been discussing with my mates, Bradley and Christopher, about composing an album more closely with them as direct musical collaborators. That is something that I have been excited about getting to as soon as this tour comes to a close – working back and forth with them between Italy and the United States. We are also at a point in our lives where we are able tour more regularly. Booking for the next round of shows will likely start in May or June. We owe visits to quite a lot of people in the world. It’s time for us to make good on that.

Cultartes: Thanks for your time, Justin! Good luck on your tour, guys, and see you in Bucharest!

Justin Curfman: Thank you for having me. We are looking forward to seeing all of you there in Bucharest again. It has been too long. Hopefully, we will be seeing everyone that we have missed over the years – old faces and new.

Check Do Owe Harm on Bandcamp

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Photo Credits: Feeding Fingers

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Romanian self-taught writer, based in Cyprus, interested in contemporary art, unconventional culture and gonzo journalism. Writing for almost a decade, he is agnostic, supports a censorship-free society and reads way less than he wants.

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