When I reviewed The Fire Tonight’s Arlington gig, I ended the review urging people to go to see this excellent band and kick the drummer Stephen Russ’ ass. After the review was published, I cyber stalked the band, and to my gleeful satisfaction discovered that several of the band’s fans were indeed promising to kick Russ’ ass. When approached about interviewing the band in conjunction with the video premiere for The Legend of Zelda theme song, I knew immediately that I wanted the gig. For one, I really dig the band, and, for another, I wanted to sit down face-to-face with the man whom I urged physically violence against. I wasn’t surprised that Russ agreed to sit down with me; after all, most great drummers are some sort of sadomasochist and/or sexual deviant. Regardless of whether or not Stephen Russ is a sexual deviant, he’s an excellent drummer, and, as it turned out, a fun and engaging interviewee.
Russ agreed to meet me at an Irish pub in the Clarendon district of Arlington. This meant that the loud political wonking of the orange-line douchbags occupying the pub threatened to overwhelm the recorder on my phone. (Much of that previous sentence will only make sense if you live in the DC area.) I was a little worried that I’d get home, listen to the recording, and then have to let Russ know that I failed. My worry was for naught, though. Huddled in the corner with my phone stuck up in the air, much to the amusement of our server, we managed to spend the last hour and a half of our time at the pub actually doing what we had gotten together to do – talk about The Fire Tonight and the video for the band’s cover of “The Legend of Zelda Title Theme.” And, I was able to hear the playback later.
After a brief game of “who’s on first?” over whether The Fire Tonight would be playing Asheville or Nashville (he was talking about Nashville, although the band will be playing Asheville, too), Stephen was, of course, eager to talk up the band’s upcoming tour. A tour, by the way, that I recommend you catch – I’ll post the tour dates below. After watching his eyes light up while he was relating to me about how he booked their upcoming (N)ashville gig, I asked if he was considering dropping his nine-to-five job and pursuing music full-time with the band. His answer surprised me. “No. … I’ve seen enough in my fifteen years [in the industry] that to know that were that to ever happen, it’s so far beyond my own control that I’ve learned very well that’s not the reason that we do what we do.” He did add the caveat that “Everyone in our band is going to give you a different answer because we’re all at three different places.” At the band’s Arlington gig, I had talked with Jesse James, the band’s keyboardist, about how creative tension aids collaboration. That was a conversation that had arisen from my curiosity about how the three members living miles apart affects the band’s creative process. And, observing how Russ, James, and Colin Derrick interact with each other, both onstage and off, I left with the sense that The Fire Tonight has a singleness of purpose involving music, and that ancillary personal objectives are going to have a hard time derailing the band. James and Derrick weren’t at O’Sullivan’s for the interview, so I have no idea what their personal goals and objectives concerning the band are. What I do know is that The Fire Tonight individually and collectively believe that making interesting and excellent music is the band’s main priority, and that whatever creation tension ensues in the process will be used as fuel to help make great music. As Stephen Russ added, “We believe that what we’re doing is interesting and has value.” And that’s where the video for The Fire Tonight’s “The Legend of Zelda Title Theme” cover enters the picture.
But, first, a word to you inspiring artists …
There are two platitudes that are often used by people when having a conversation with their parents about being an actor, or musician, or an artist of any kind. Usually there will come a point in the conversation when the parents will have overcome the initial shock of realizing that they’ve probably wasted tens of thousands of dollars on their kid’s college education and will begin to think pragmatically – an attempt to salvage their investment, if you will. “Well, that’s fine, son. But, go ahead and take that CPA exam anyway. You’ll be thankful to have something to fall back on.” This is when the aforementioned platitudes raises their over preening and tired heads. “But, dad, (enter platitude #1) my art professor said that ‘if you can imagine yourself doing anything else, do that,’ and (enter platitude #2) ‘if you have something to fall back on, you will.’” The anger that then ensues from the parents is not really about their brainwashed kid, but stems from the fact that they are now just realizing that any hope of a clean “Old Folks Home” where their adult diapers will be changed on a regular basis is quickly flying out the aesthetically pleasing window. Honestly, I no longer blame the parents. I’ve long suspected that those two platitudes are mostly bullshit; talking with Russ has only helped confirm that in my mind.
Russ has a nine-to-five job. I’m not entirely sure what that job is, but my inability to pay attention to details isn’t important; besides, as will be evident by the closing sentence of this paragraph, my interaction with The Fire Tonight and specifically Russ involves substances that inhibit my ability to recall specifics that weren’t recorded. Anyway, Russ lives inside the DC beltway with its absurdly high cost of living and does not appear to be destitute. Ergo, Russ has a good job. Russ is doing something else and making music/art. And, I state this with full confidence, Stephen Russ is not a compromised or less committed musician/artist. In fact, Stephen Russ’ “something else” is a net positive for his creativity. If you or your art professor doubts that, sit down with the dude and talk to him about music. His passion and commitment are undeniable. In fact, his passion for his life in totality (music and day job) is commendable. As he related to me, “Not worrying about being destitute has given us [The Fire Tonight] the freedom to explore our own music.” On a personal note, he added, “You know, I also feel like that the other stuff I do is important, and so, I feel really lucky. I get to contribute two ways in my life – in my day job and in my music life. That’s like more than I could ever have asked for. I want to get the gigs. I want to have a great job where I’m doing stuff that I feel like is actually positive. I want to be getting our music out there. I’m going to be doing all that stuff until I go crazy. And I do it by drinking lots of beer.”
Refutation of Art School platitudes over, back to “The Legend of Zelda Title Theme” video.
Being completely upfront, I’m not a gamer, not even a little bit. So, while I dig the music video, I was curious about the band’s decision to cover a song from a video game. Growing up, my friends loved The Legend of Zelda, and so I was somewhat familiar with the game going into the interview. I don’t remember ever playing it, however. After saving up a whole year to buy a Nintendo when I was in junior high, our house got broken into and the Nintendo was one of the things stolen. At that point, I think we owned two games, and not The Legend of Zelda. My ignorance aside, I knew that a cultural mythology comes attached with the game and that the music probably plays into that. Russ confirmed that when talking about The Fire Tonight and the band’s fans. “Playing a game like Zelda is a shared experience that we all have.” Russ related that he and the other members can see on the faces of the audience an immediate recognition of “‘Wait, is this Zelda?’And then midway through the first verse they’re like ‘holy shit, this is Zelda!’ and then there are high-fives everywhere. Our generation has this shared video game experience.”
Russ shared with me that the decision to play covers of video game songs comes not just from the “shared experience,” but also because, “The music of video games just kicks ass. The theme from Zelda is just beautiful. It’s just a beautiful piece of music divorced from any game. The fact that we have that nostalgia tapped into it is amazing.” The song on the video is the band’s own arrangement, but Russ assured me that, “It’s actually pretty close to the original notes as far as it’s concerned on the piano. There are a few jazz things. … Jesse plucked out the arrangement and we all got in a room. We ended up with like a half-time rock section, a jazz section, a metal section. A lot of that’s just to make it exciting for the live show. We could sit out there and just play it straight and be perfectly happy because we think it’s a beautiful piece of music. We want people to get something interesting out of it, and to leave thinking about what you did with it.”
This “shared experience” also meant that producing a video of “The Legend of Zelda Title Theme” made sense for the band. According to Russ, the impetus to produce the video came from James and that “Jesse believes that it helps people connect to what we’re doing. They don’t just hear the song. They actually see us performing the song.” He concluded with, “It would be great if we put out this Zelda cover and it gets millions of YouTube views. That’s great, but that’s not anymore affirming than like you or my wife or some friend I had in high school being like, ‘Hey I checked out your album and it’s great; I bought it; I listen to it a lot and here’s some stuff I’ve gotten out of it.’ That’s what I want to have happen. I don’t care if it’s five people or five million people; it’s just all about getting something interesting out there.”
Watch and share the video. I believe that you will agree with Stephen Russ that The Fire Tonight has produced something interesting, and, I would add, excellent.
Tour Dates (also found on the band’s Facebook page and Bandcamp): May 9 – Asheville, NC @Emerald Lounge; May 10 – Winston-Salem, NC @Krankie’s; May 17 – Columbia, SC @Art Bar; June 27 – Arlington, VA @Iota Café; June 28 – Raleigh, NC @Deep South; July 16 – Atlanta, GA @Star Bar; July 17 – Nashville, TN @Sweetwater; July 18 – Greenville, SC @Radio Room.
More from John Ellis here.
John is a theatre artist and writer based out of Arlington, VA. Nowadays, though, most of his artistic output is spent on keeping his two young children amused, occupied, and off of the top of the bookshelves.