Ian Fellerman’s one cool tool
October 21, 2011
ASPEN – Among the first things Ian Fellerman says in our conversation is, “I’m not cool.” Which I kind of get. Fellerman is slightly oversized, his face on the pudgy side. His attire includes a button-up gray coat that is old for his 21 years. He doesn’t ski or snowboard. His voice is high-pitched and is quick to express giddy excitement.
And then Fellerman, a musician who lives in Aspen, unintentionally but thoroughly upends his assessment of his lack of coolness. “I’m totally normal and am who I am and can’t buy into what other people want me to be,” he continues. “If I’m going to live this life, I have to live this way. I don’t want to be a copycat of somebody else, either personally or musically. There’s so much identity crisis, people who think they’re something else.”
Now I think I see it: At 21, Fellerman hasn’t grasped the reality that the coolest way to be in the world is to be yourself, to be OK with your quirks and gifts, not to be consumed with being cool. Fellerman is cool – but his brand of cool might not seem like coolness, because it is not the kind of cool that other 21-year-olds want to project. My prediction is that Fellerman, in 15 years, will have a whole different concept of what it is to be cool, will be cool himself, and will have a good awareness of it.
Of course, I could be wrong. I’ve had just two contacts with Fellerman. (As it happens, the first of these caught me at the height of uncool. I was in Clark’s Market when someone called my name. As I turned to look, a bee stung me in the neck – so here I was, befuddled, trying to figure out who this guy was who seemed to be familiar with me, and staggering in pain. Not cool.) I haven’t had much time to assess Fellerman’s uncool quotient. Fellerman, on the other hand, has given ample attention to the subject.
The new album by Fellerman’s band, Abyssal Creatures, is titled “Social Awkwardness,” and if there is a more naked, album-length self-evaluation, I haven’t seen it. Each of the 16 songs is an examination of not fitting in, and some of these can be disarmingly direct: “Self-deprecating humor these days/ By the end of the night I’ll make this whole room feel strange,” Fellerman sings on the title track.
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Fellerman was raised in western Massachusetts by artist parents, glass-blowers who traveled the country from art fair to art fair. Fellerman went with them until four years ago, when they stopped in Aspen. “I loved Aspen and said ‘No more.’ I decided to get off,” said Fellerman, who has lived here since.
At the age of 12, Fellerman picked up an acoustic guitar to teach himself “Nevermind.” Nirvana, with their classic, intense statements of feeling personally defective, seemed to teach Fellerman everything he needed to know about expressing himself in song.
“‘Nevermind’ taught me power chords. And then I never learned any other people’s songs,” he said, adding that he thought his parents, who favored Lou Reed, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan, had great taste in music. “When you first hear ‘In Utero’ – Nirvana’s follow-up to “Nevermind” – at 12 years old, it blows your mind. The honesty of the product was amazing. And to look at how Kurt Cobain saw the guitar as a tool, a simple tool that you could express yourself with, that was amazing. Then I looked at a ‘Nevermind’ chord book and saw I could do it. That’s the beauty of punk rock – it’s accessible.”
In 2008, Fellerman formed Abyssal Creatures, playing on the name of the residents of the abyssal plain, deep beneath the sea. “I have a real interest in those weird fish that live way down there in the ocean,” he said. The band made an album of punk rock, “and it only dealt with politics, and it was a crystal clear view of what my politics were. It dealt with how youth sees America.”
By last year, Fellerman had gotten politics off his chest. But the first album had put him in the habit of singing right from the heart. “I decided to look at myself with the same sort of lenses,” he said. “On ‘Social Awkwardness,’ I’m basically naked. It is therapy; it starts as getting something off your chest, investigative reporting on yourself. The best records were by people who were completely honest.”
Part of being honest was recognizing that the punk style was no longer an appropriate vehicle. “Social Awkwardness” – which includes bassist Paul Jung, and Jodi Larson helping on drum programming – is touched by synthesizers, guitar lines rather than power chords, electro-sounding drums. Fellerman, who played guitar, keyboards and synth bass, sings in a style that lacks the rawness of punk. The vocals reminded me of the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne, whom Fellerman mentions as a favorite.
“Making the record finished a chapter in my life,” Fellerman, who spent three months writing and six months recording “Social Awkwardness,” in a studio he assembled in a room at Marolt Ranch, said. “It’s going from punk, the music of my adolescence, to this sound that I’ve never heard before – my sound. Punk rock is about being angry, and I used to be angry. This marks the end of that and the rebirth of someone whose problems are different.”
Fellerman – who says he is obsessive and socially inept, who doesn’t drink or do drugs and is so averse to bar scenes that he hesitates to book Abyssal Creatures in places where alcohol is served – doesn’t seem to have had any difficulty finding that new set of problems. Even though he seems pleased with “Social Awkwardness,” and the album has received a good amount of positive attention in the press (from the Babysue website: “lyrics that absolutely hit our target dead center”), Fellerman is uncomfortable with the position he has assumed for the album.
“It’s been weird having people quote these words back to me,” he said. “I’m giving myself up to a lot of people – that can feel like prostitution. There are times onstage when I feel like a stripper, like I’m exposing myself to dirty drunks.”
At the same time, “Social Awkwardness,” by putting its creator’s social discomfort in the spotlight, might help that awkwardness melt away. As Fellerman puts it in the album’s press note, “It is about being comfortable with feeling socially uncomfortable.”
“It’s about being comfortable with who you are,” he told me. “I thought, if I make a record that exposes exactly who I am, maybe other people would expose themselves to me, and I could create relationships. Because all I do is work. I’d like to know some people.”
Fellerman seems to have taken the first step. He seems to know himself, at least as a musician.
“Punk isn’t my tool anymore,” he said. “‘Social Awkwardness’ – that’s my tool.
“How many times have you heard overdistorted blues by four white kids? That doesn’t sound like honesty to me.”