Tyler Fassnacht is one of the recognizable features of the Madison Wisconsin punk underground. He’s been in a ton of bands, and the one he fronts, Fire Retarded, is a staple of the local punk scene, having opened for the likes of Cloud Nothings and Jeff the Brotherhood. He’s also a member of recent start-up Proud Parents, and is beginning work on a solo bedroom folk-infused side project called T.S. Foss.
Fire Retarded was the first band I saw in Madison when I arrived two years ago. Since then I’ve caught Fire Retarded four times and my hearing must be permanently damaged. Their live show is a wall of sound that turns your body into a rag doll. They are loud, angry, and sweaty, with hair and bodies flying all around the stage while Tyler confesses his and the world’s crimes through screams in the mic. He sounds confessional and pained. It’s hard to tell what the hell is going on through all the noise, but that’s how life is sometimes. Tyler seems to need to release anger in a way he can’t do in his daily life. This provides a release for the audience as well, who frequently turn to moshing.
Tyler’s newest band Proud Parents is a collaboration with roommate, and Disembodied Monks member, Claire Nelson-Lifson. The garage outfit takes a step towards pop that still retains the visceral release of straight up power-chord punk. It’s quieter and more personal, yet still raw and full of youthful energy. They’ve opened for indie-stars Speedy Ortiz, and have quickly risen on the community based strengths of Claire and Tyler, who’ve also collaborated in the past with power-pop outfit Giant People.
I caught up with Tyler at an undisclosed coffee shop to chat about his work. Tyler, like most musicians, shows up late, and he sips an iced coffee while we sit and chat. His faint mustache and kind face reminds one of Ned Flanders, but this feels appropriate; he seems particularly interested in the lives of the people around him. He spoke politely and eloquently about his submergence in the punk scene of Madison, his start in music, his various projects, the state of D.I.Y. in the Midwest, and what it means to be a working musician
How did you get started in music?
\I think I started buying C.D.s in 4th grade. Then around 6th grade my friends and I started a band because we thought it’d be a cool thing to do. That summer I got a guitar and started taking lessons, and I got really into being in like a dumb dirty rock band. After my friends began learning instruments I started getting into the technical side of music and joined some jazz and chorus groups, so that allowed me to explore the actual creation aspect of music. My first real band was Giant People in high school, and eventually we got out of the basements and started playing bars and clubs, and realized that we could promote ourselves and that people actually liked us. Then [Giant People] recorded an EP and someone reviewed it, which was inspiring because we didn’t know the guy and here he was writing about us.
So do you see yourself mixing the irreverent side of rock with a technical knowledge?
As much as I try to be a simple power chord guy, or anything easier like that, small things come out of the woodwork just because I’ve been studying music for so long, whether that’s like rhythms or solos out of the key that are kind of funky. I think I do it unintentionally.
Is this based on how you were trained in guitar?
Definitely. My roots are punk music, but I still love jazz. Recently I’ve moved towards more minimalist music like singer songwriters. I’ve always loved Bob Dylan and those guys.
How would you differentiate Fire Retarded and Proud Parents in terms of direction?
Well Fire Retarded’s been around longer and we’re kind of in business mode. We have the 7” and I’ve written the second record, and we play a lot of it live now. The plan is to record as soon as possible, and then we’ll shop out to labels. We just have to put in the work, and I haven’t thought creatively about it in a while. Proud Parents is still writing a lot of music and heading towards some demos this summer. We want to start touring after we record, so that band’s still getting off the ground. We have a good local following but we want to get out of Madison a little bit more.
What about stylistically?
Fire Retarded is just me, and Proud Parents is between me and Claire so that makes a big difference. Claire and I have our own ideas and we write our own songs and then bring them to each other. We goof off a lot and the songs are more light-hearted with a sense of humor about them. Fire Retarded is more of a way to get out my more intense feelings. It’s more about what is frustrating me, and my anger and sadness comes out, because I want it to be loud and aggressive. I’m not a super aggressive guy so it’s a way to get that release out without being a dick. But being able to write different kinds of music is much harder, so with Proud Parents I want to work on like pop songs with jangly guitars, and vocal harmonies, and it’s a lot of trial and error for me. I’m having a great time keeping it simple and memorable and catchy. I just started working on a T.S. Foss which focuses more on lyrics. T.S. Foss is another new way for me to explore writing songs in different ways.
Do you see the D.I.Y. aspect of playing music promotion as a distraction or a fulfillment?
It’s very fulfilling for me. You get full control over who you are and what you’re about. All the failures are yours of course, but the accomplishments are extremely fulfilling. The best part is obviously writing and performing, but being able to book your own tour is great. Not a lot of musicians can boast that. Also being the point person for bands that need openers in town is a good feeling. It feels very community based, or like a secret club. There’s groups on Facebook of people who message back and forth about setting up awesome shows, and this connects me to people who will feed, and shelter my band while we’re on the road. A lot of professional promoters don’t care about you because they don’t know you, or bookers will book shows and not care about promotion, and this makes it so bands that are really famous on the internet have almost no one show up. But then the D.I.Y. bands who maybe aren’t as famous, but are part of community, almost always have tons of people at their shows and sell a bunch of home-made t-shirts.
That sounds like promotion almost becomes a part time job?
Oh, totally. I definitely have a part-time job I don’t get paid for. I think a lot of D.I.Y. bands want to do music not so much as a living, but as more of a lifestyle. People basically want to not have day jobs, and make their money from their community entertainment.
Do you think being a musician with a part-time job can be a good influence?
It’s definitely a grounding thing. It keeps me without pretension and a little more relatable. I write a lot of personal lyrics, and being a creative writing major, my lyrics tend to use relatable problems and metaphors. I suffer no more hardships than normal people, but having that service industry position that gets no respect is humbling. You can play for 150 and feel gigantic, but then wake up in the morning and make someone’s coffee. I also think it’s a Midwest thing. There aren’t a ton of huge cities, and I think on the coasts it’s easier to get found and hire a manager and stuff like that. Even bands like Phox are huge and had to work really hard to get there, and still have jobs. I think a big part of that is their geography.
So what part time jobs have you had?
I used to work at a diner and that sucked, but I actually recently got a pretty cool job at Madison’s Children’s Museum. I basically make programs for the kids and I get to teach them what I think would be cool to learn. So I do music and writing programs that I think kids are into. It’s really fun. My boss is awesome about giving me like 3 weeks off to tour, and that flexibility is important. A lot of my friends have like real people jobs, 9-5 with health insurance at weird firms, and those are jobs where you have to be there. You can’t just get up and leave, and that aspect prevents me from being more financially stable because I need that flexibility. Those flexible jobs are the shittier jobs where you’re replaceable. but as long as I have the music it’s my art that fulfills me and not my job.
You can catch Fire Retarded and Proud Parents at Crystal Corner Bar in Madison on July 17th and listen to Tyler’s music here: