An Elephant, Fishboy’s new album and book about the ghost of a pachyderm, is a study in the 12 stages of revenge — where Stage 1 is the bloodthirsty desire to avenge your death; Stage 10 is forgiveness, paving the way for the final stage, redemption; and Stage 5 is revulsion and disgust over discovering that your body’s been repurposed as an electrical vessel to keep Thomas Alva Edison alive.
Singer-songwriter and comics artist Eric Michener, whose band’s name comes from a middle school stunt, has been making music as Fishboy since his teens. He’s paired music and comics before: Fishboy’s 2011 album Classic Creepscame with brief comics about each song’s characters, and the band’s cross-country tour for that album inspired a tour diary in comic form. Last year broughtIMAVOLCANO, a four-song EP and a mini-comic about a man who, through a bit of foolhardiness, becomes a volcano.
An Elephant is something of a different beast, though — a self-released project of 12 songs and a 160-page, mostly wordless graphic novel inspired by the true story of Topsy, an ornery elephant electrocuted before a crowd at Coney Island in 1903. Topsy had killed at least one man, a drunken circus-goer who reportedly burned her with a cigar, and her execution for her crimes was exploited as Edison’s spectacular demonstration of the supposed dangers of alternating current.
Michener’s indie rock band now includes the versatile Samuel Escalante on guitar, keyboard and trumpet, in addition to the steady, heavy rhythm section of bassist Scarlett Wright (who also plays in New Science Projects) and drummer Grahm Robinson (also in Criminal Birds). Over the years, Michener has also played solo, but this rock band version of Fishboy has a hefty, Who-sized sound, with a dose of the endearing quirk of Daniel Johnston, the Texas outsider who’s been able to distill decades of rock into deceptively simple lo-fi pop songs.
Fishboy has been waiting months for a proper vinyl pressing of An Elephant, though the CD and book are available and the release show is Saturday night at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios. The album and the graphic novel, with some simple animation, can be seen and heard for free at www.an-elephant.com.
Def Rain and Criminal Birds will open for Fishboy on Saturday night. Michener promises an “all-out” show. The Rubber Gloves stage just might see the resurrection of the dancing gravestone of John B. Denton, as seen in Fishboy’s latest music video, “Bury My Body.”
We had a chat with Michener about his creative process last week at Shift Coffee, and here are some excerpts:
Denton Time: I want to start off by saying the first time I saw you at Rubber Gloves … in 2002, I saw [then-Denton artist] Cavedweller’s little brother, with a guy playing on trumpet [longtime Fishboy member Adam Avramescu], with a bunch of stuffed animals all lined up. I thought, “This is pretty cool but goofy,” and I told my friend, “This guy is not going to be doing this five years from now.” And you weren’t.
Michener: Whoever they had playing that night canceled, and I was dying to play Rubber Gloves because it was really competitive at the time to get a slot, and someone told me, “Hey, there’s no one playing this night. You should ask to see if you could play.” … I remember the stuffed animals — it was like, well, we’re playing by ourselves, let’s make it feel like there’s more people here. And for some reason I had garbage bags of stuffed animals. That’s usually the reason behind ideas — some sort of prop that I already have.
What about the concepts for your albums?
That usually starts off with a song that I already have, and then I expand it. So on this new one, I have this song [“Electrical Elephant”] which was a revenge song against the electrocution of Topsy the elephant, and I wrote it as a self-contained song. And then later I started thinking, “Well, how can I expand this into a full album?” By the end of the album it’s less about revenge and more about forgiveness. Because revenge is fun, but … I don’t know if it’s really satisfying to get revenge. …
You can do certain thing in comics that you can’t do in any other form. And I realized, well, I have this medium of musical stories, and also I’m pairing it with comics. And I realized you couldn’t really make an animated movie this dark. …
And so from the get-go I was thinking, let’s make this something unique that couldn’t be made in any other form. Because with comics and music, it’s essentially a no-budget medium — which is also something that appeals to me.
Going back to the comic thing — you were basically doing three projects at once, the music, with the comics and the [online looping] animated version. How hard was it to sync all that together, as far as planning and conceiving it?
Well, my process was I wrote the songs in order, and once a song was written I would take it to the band and we would flesh it out as a band. … There wasn’t a lot of multitasking. We went to the studio last February and recorded, and after getting out of the studio, then I wrote a script and I storyboarded what was going to be on each page, and how I was going to flesh out the story. …
There’s specific details that are not in the lyrics, and vice versa, there’s specific details that are not in the book. … I wanted each to stand on their own, and I think they do stand on their own, but when combined it’s even more powerful.
To me it seems like there’s a lot to latch on to for people who weren’t into Fishboy’s music previously, like Thomas Edison versus Tesla, cruelty to elephants, just comics. Like I could see the book being sold in an indie comic shop.
Well, I really want to get into writing comics — not so much drawing comics. But no one else would draw this [laughs], so I had to draw it myself. I’m happy with the way it turned out; I’m happy with the way it looks.
But it’s something I’d really like to further get into, and the only way to do that is to make comics. Attaching it to an existing fan base with the music gives me a way to make a comic and not completely lose money on it. And it’s nice to have an interconnected project like that. I think it’s something unique that not a lot of people are doing.
Yeah, I couldn’t really think of any comparisons. [Vermont artist] James Kochalka makes music and comics …
They’re mostly separate but he does have stuff that’s combined. Or it’s usually comic artists who makes the music soundtrack to their thing afterwards. … But James Kochalka is a big inspiration.
I could kind of see it in the line work, as far as it’s really simple lines but you can still express a lot — the body language, the characters.
Having really simple line work really isn’t a choice [laughs].
I was kind of wondering about that. …
I guess it is a choice. Because I’m not necessarily attempting to become a classically trained illustrator or whatever. And it’s really hard to do simple illustration like that and still give off expression. [Peanuts artist] Charles Schultz is a master at it, and I’ve read from really skilled artists that stuff is harder because you have to distill things down to less lines. So I don’t know, I’m just kind of teaching myself at this point.
So this version of the band I really like — it seems kind of heavier to me, or is it just my perception? Part of it’s like Scarlett’s bass playing, the music itself.
Definitely the Albatross lineup had a lot of drums, but … I know what you’re talking about — we have more rock-out songs on this one. No, we have two rock-out songs.
You play them all like rock-out songs.
Well, recently I’ve gotten into this habit of doing, like, rock moves onstage when I feel the audience isn’t on board — or even when the audience is on board. It’s a form of stress relief. And now that we have a second guitar player, which we’ve never had, it kind of frees me up to be a little bit more loose.
There’s a couple points in the album that are a little bit more loose, where I maybe have like two bars to do something weird and then jump back in front of the mike. … So, I have been doing dumber things onstage. Like I hit my head really hard at that [last] show by jumping off my amp … and just slammed my forehead into a beam. It really hurt. And I play a really light guitar so I’m afraid I’m going to break it, and I should probably stop doing that. … But it is really cathartic. So, I don’t know, I really should stop.
Kind of like the theme of going for it and just doing it.
Right. And when we play that song off Volcano, “Babyfood Jar,” where the lyric is “If you’re sitting on the fence about something just do it … even if it seems like something really stupid,” we leave like a big gap in the middle of the song for me to do something really stupid.
I don’t know if anyone has ever connected the lyrics to the fact that I’m doing something really stupid. … One time at J&J’s I announced that the song had 15 guitar solos and I was like counting down until like the seventh guitar solo — people started walking out.
But yeah, just do it. It’s a good phrase. Some sporting goods company should use that somewhere. If there’s any advertising agencies out there, you can hire me. “Just do it” is this idea I’ve been working on.