Watching Theater Fire onstage is like watching a ghost band. Instruments and voices fade in and out of the rootsy mix like weary apparitions. Donald Feagin and Curtis Heath, the group’s main songwriters and vocalists, appear at the microphone like storytellers relaying some secret, ancient texts, as the band locks into its relaxed but steady groove.
The Theater Fire features as many as eight musicians and their music has been labeled everything from alt-country orchestral pop to ambient honky-tonk. Their varied mix of bluegrass, mariachi, country and gospel resists easy genre classification.
“I’m always listening for that balance of sound, where everything mixes and it still has space and it still has depth,” Feagin says. Although that does little to place the Theater Fire into any category, both Feagin and Heath seem content to stay away from labels and the limits associated with them.
“We’ve been told by people outside of the state that we sound like what they thought Texas would sound like,” adds Heath.
The band originally came into being as Vena Cava, way back in 1995, playing a more standard form of roots music. But with the addition of multi-instrumentalist Sean French and drummer Nick Prendergast (and after discovering a San Diego group already owned the name Vena Cava), they morphed into the Theater Fire in 2001. “That was way before the Arcade Fire came around,” notes Feagin, obviously annoyed by folks who think he copped the name from the Canadian indie-rockers.
The band’s impressive diversity of instrumentation includes accordion, mandolin, xylophone, banjo, trumpet, trombone, harmonica and violin. On both their self-titled 2004 debut and the new Everybody Has A Dark Side, they produce a sound that is sparse and languid but still somehow urgent, both filling and creating space.
“We want to create a nice tonal landscape, like great country records of the ’50s and ’60s,” says Feagin, who manages a used bookstore in Arlington. He comes off as intense and deliberate, while Heath (a school bus driver) brings a lighter presence to the band.
This yin-and-yang helps diversify their new disc. “Kicking up The Darkness” opens the record ominously, with Feagin sounding like Tom Waits fronting Calexico. There are elements of Nick Cave and Lou Reed also floating in the mix. The second cut is Heath’s “Fiddleback Weaver”, a more playful tune with some intriguing influences from south of the border.
“Where I was raised, there was always Tejano music blaring out of cars and windows,” Heath explains. “Those melodies were strong and they stuck in my head.”
Together, Heath and Feagin forge an unlikely pairing akin to, say, Marty Robbins with Brian Eno. Theirs is a beautiful and intricate sound that plays like the soundtrack to a PBS special on prairie dogs.
Both Feagin and Heath are constantly searching for fresh avenues of expression. “I want to write about something different,” says Feagin, “to connect with the audience in a different way.”
For the majority of Everybody Has A Dark Side, he achieves his goal, singing lyrics such as, “Marching through mud for a month/Having worms again for lunch,” on the creaking historical narrative “Civil Warrior”. “I watch a lot of documentaries, and it’s true that worms were a source of protein for people fighting in the Civil War,” Feagin explains.
Historical accuracy and general unpleasantness aside, Feagin’s determination to be unique is almost as strong as his distrust for the corporate side of music. “I’m very wary of major labels — the deals you enter into and the compromises you have to make,” he says. The band’s two indie releases have sold well; as such, thus far they’ve not been swayed that such compromises are necessary for the Theatre Fire.
For now, they’re content with simply having begun to grow beyond just a local and regional identity. “I had no idea this thing would be successful,” Heath says.” It makes me really happy and proud to know that we have fans outside of Texas.”