Multi-Instrumentalist Stephen Favazza Balances Technology with Musicianship
Writing about music can be surprisingly difficult. Beyond my day job, music has been my vocation and primary field of study for my entire adult life and a not-unsubstantial part of my childhood and teens. One would think that the years of training, exposure, reading, listening, talking and singing would yield the exact correct vocabulary and understanding to communicate verbally almost any facet of the musical experience. This is decidedly not so.
In fact, in my experience, musicians are very poor at discussing complex musical ideas with a staggering frequency. This may be why the unfortunately accurate cliché of feuding band members is a thing—inability to communicate. Apparently, onomatopoeia can only get you so far.
Obviously, with formally trained musicians, this is not as much of an issue. But when working with self-taught players or, say, writing for the public, one must make a sustained effort to buoy the conversation above the familiar foundations of jargon and technicality. This effort proved to be of special concern during a recent conversation for ALIVE with multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Stephen Favazza.
Perhaps best know for his (largely) solo project, Hands and Feet, Favazza has ensconced himself in a veritable wall of technology and honed a very unique one-man-band technique. The nitty-gritty specifics of the various technologies and musicality are no doubt intellectually exhilarating to some. To put it simply, he has a lot of really cool stuff and uses it all to tremendously original effect. While all the interesting technology—the synthesizer, samplers, drum machines, guitars, melodica—are crucial to the Hands and Feet project, it would be unfair to couch a conversation about Favazza’s music entirely in the technology. There are other, more influential, drivers at play here.
“Definitely a lot of emotion. It’s just what I want to hear,” Favazza explains.
This principle, straightforward and unencumbered by high-minded pretention, speaks to the heart of Favazza’s approach to his comparatively prolific output. It helps to answer a question that surfaced at the outset of the conversation: Does the technology make the music or does the music select for the best tools to execute it?
To illustrate, here is a comparison with vehicles: Some people are really into cars or motorcycles or bicycles, and this concern is first and foremost in their selection of a mode of daily transport. Others just want to get to work without too much hassle or cost. The tools used to create music can be approached in a similar fashion. Some people love the experience of using sophisticated technology to make very particular sounds, and they will write music based on this approach. Others may require little more than a single rudimentary instrument and consider the rest fluff.
There is a wide spectrum upon which musicians exist with these tools. But while most musicians are fairly static in their positions, Favazza has the unique ability to choose, at will, where he will fall depending on the needs of the piece or project. As he says, “Tone is the most important part of it.” This is a fairly utilitarian answer, but there is a sense of passion and an almost parental pride on display as he describes the pedals and devices used.
As Hands and Feet or a member of the FarFetched collective, Favazza creates sounds with intense depth that draw in the listener. Sometimes these can be minimal, feeling very much like what some might call electro-acoustic or avant-garde. Sometimes they can feel very much like Four Tet but with a little bit of the structure of a Battles tune, glitchy and dense with myriad electronic textures while still very grounded in (relatively) simple melodies.
As the guitar player for Golden Curls, a band that warrants more discussion than I can provide here, Favazza takes a much more basic approach. Singer and synthesizer player Sarah Downen does the lion’s share of the songwriting, while Favazza and drummer Philip Zahnd fill out the band to make a tight little dream-pop trio. Not only are the expansive and sophisticated electronic devices absent from Favazza’s Golden Curls setup, but his approach to the guitar is much more streamlined as well.
“From the first time we shared a stage, it was like we spoke the same language,” says Downen of her bandmate. This is truly a comment on Favazza’s exceptional ability to blend aesthetically. “Stephen is the perfect combination of good taste, open-mindedness, optimism and humility.”
Humility is not a word most people would associate with a performer who claims a stage as his own—and yet it does feel fitting. Consider Favazza’s take on his playing in Golden Curls: “There’s even stuff in the band where I only play, like, a couple of notes!” Favazza says with delight rather than the boredom one might expect from this sort of minimalism. But it gets straight to the heart of Favazza’s views on his role as a musician: Sometimes all a piece needs is two notes; sometimes it needs an orchestra. Either way, Favazza’s judicious application of technology speaks to a unique level of musical maturity.
Favazza expresses this maturity in his ability to self-edit and select material for the occasion. The music he has contributed to the FarFetched projects blends gracefully into the broader aesthetic of the collective, exemplifying an ability to extend himself beyond the beep-boop shoegaze of his Hands and Feet or the shimmering dreaminess of Golden Curls into a more Hip-Hop setting. Likewise, Favazza has released a surprisingly small percentage of his own music. The most recent album, “Kiki,” for example, has eight songs on it, yet 20 were recorded. The selective nature of this much cutting requires patience and a critical ear, but also the confidence not to be stalled by perfectionism gone off the rails.
For the moment, Favazza is fully occupied by the completion of the next Golden Curls album and a suite of videos to go with it. Look for that album, “Goblin Market,” to be released Sept. 7. He’s also in the nascent stages of beginning a new project but has little to share in terms of details. In the meantime, visit the Bandcamp sites for Hands and Feet, Golden Curls and FarFetched. Merchandise available online includes the most recent Hands and Feet record, “Kiki,” on super-slick white vinyl.
Images courtesy of Stephen Favazza.