French TV

French TV is a great band from Louisville, Kentucky, USA, who have been dispensing their twisted brand of avant-jazz-prog since as far back as 1983, and I e-flurried (©Robert Fripp) with founder and leader Mike Sary to come up with this doggerel….

Roger: Hi Mike, and thanks for giving us your time for this chat. For those unfamiliar with French TV tell us a bit about the history of the band.

Mike: We came, we saw, we forgot to conquer. Sorry to be so flippant, but we’re talking 20+ years here!

Roger: OK folks, just go buy the CDs here - – if you only buy one, get the 2CD version of FTV 10 – it really is good!

Roger In those 20+ years French TV has released ten albums of massively complicated and at the same time hugely enjoyable music. Would I be right to assume a Zappa influence with a large helping of the more convoluted end of Canterbury prog, and possibly a soupcon of Gentle Giant with some European RIO thrown into the blender?

Mike: Yeah, that about covers it, but I have to say I’m equally influenced by the more “traditional” prog bands like Yes, ELP, Crimson, etc, to say nothing of a lot of the 70s fusion bands, particularly Weather Report and Brand X, even if it’s not so obvious in the writing.

Roger: You’ve just reissued last year’s album I Forgive You All My Unhappiness with the great bonus disc Live At ProgDay 2009. Was this down to fans requesting more live recordings?

Mike: Nah, I can’t say we get much in the way of fan requests to begin with. It was more a matter of Mike Potter, the mastermind behind Baltimore’s ORION STUDIOS, offering to record us [as well as the other bands playing ProgDay that year] using his mobile recording truck. I’d working with Mike before, and knew this would be recorded well, so I expected it would be good enough to put it out eventually. MALS RECORDS wanted to re-issue FTV10 and suggested bonus tracks to make it different, and I countered with including a live cd.

Roger: Judging by the accompanying pictures, ProgDay 2009 looks like an idyllic setting. Where did this happening take place and was there a good party?

Mike: In Chapel Hill, North Carolina. As for the party, it was okay, except for the part where I was trapped between two 70s rock trivia experts who spent the evening correcting each other. My head was about to explode, much to FTV drummer Jeff Gard’s delight.

Roger: Your music, to the non-musician at least, sounds like it is rather complicated. How do you manage to reproduce it live, as I would imagine trying to remember all the twists and turns is no easy task. Is any of it scored or is it all in the head? And, I wonder if the band could play a 12 bar blues “straight” without veering off into another far more interesting universe?!

Mike: Drummer Jeff Gard and I devise the basic structures for the tunes, and I generally allow the other contributors a lot of leeway in coming up with parts that compliment whatever’s going on in the tunes, although my preference is to be sitting with them coming up with parts. But for the last few years, I’ve had to work with long-distance collaborators, so I have to allow them some autonomy. I rarely, if ever, need notes or scores when I record my parts or perform live, but the others guys generally have to have some sort of notation.

Roger: Do you hope to play outside of the USA any time soon? The UK beckons so yours truly (and my mate!) can finally get to see French TV.

Mike: Nothing concrete yet, but it feels pretty inevitable. It helps to be invited to a larger-scale festival somewhere, then we can organize 5-10 dates surrounding that. I’m DYING to return to Europe!

Roger: I’ve got this far without mentioning song titles, so what is your favourite make of bass guitar  (heheh)?

Mike: Generally models I can’t afford! My two main “problem-solvers” are a 5-string fretless Steinberger “Spirit”, and a 5 string fretted Ernie Ball Music Man. Would dearly love to find a nice inexpensive Warwick P-Nut or Streamer, or a 4001 Rickenbacker [had one back in the day, but foolishly traded it away]! Or a Lakland…or a vintage Wal…or Alembic…or…

Roger: OK then, let’s get it out of the way – You have mentioned to me before that the bane of reviews of French TV’s CDs are those that are so nonplussed by the music they spend most of the time musing on the origin of song titles like With Grim Determination, Terrell Dons The Bow Tie. Your song titles seem to this Brit to have a strong Zappa/Anglo influence. My favourite is 801’s “Mummy Was An Asteroid, Daddy Was A Small Non-Stick Kitchen Utensil”. Any that make you smile?

Mike: Captain Beefheart titles: “Ashtray Heart”, “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains”. Lots of Zappa: “The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing” [if only for the sentiment], “Bamboozled By Love”, “I’m a Beautiful Guy”. But the undisputed king of song titles has to be the fellow from FOREVER EINSTEIN, with classics such as “It’s A Good Thing I Don’t Have Super Brain Powers Or You’d Be In A Thousand Little Pieces Right Now”, “I Wish I Had Me Some Of Them Miracle Smart Pills”, “With a Car Like That You Must Be Knee-Deep in Whores”, “The Iron Boot of Stupidity Will March Across Your Face”, and my all-time fav, “Hercules Pushes Giant Goats Over The Cliff And Watches As They Fall Into The Canyon Below”.

Roger: Haha! That guy should write a book! A sense of humour is an important part of life and obviously important to you, but why do you think most prog bands come over as po-faced and oh-so-serious, particularly it seems to me in the prog-metal fraternity?

Mike: I wish I knew! But I blame Roger Waters and Pink Floyd.

Roger: So do I! Is there anyone in the current prog scene that you are into? Another great and underrated American band that I love is NYC’s Frogg Café whose music has a similar feel to yours in places. Have you ever crossed paths?

Mike: Guitarist Frank Camiola and I DO have a mutual admiration society. I remember in the “National Health Complete” booklet notes, Dave Stewart mentions that he, Mont Campbell, Alan Gowan, and Phil Miller were constantly trying to “out-complex” each other on the compositions, and if I were in a band with Frank, I suspect it would be a similar situation. Also met violinist Bill Ayasse at a festival once. Oh, and FTV10 keyboardist Steve Katsikas guests on the next Frogg Café cd!

As for other bands, there are TONS of them I love and many of whom I’m friends with (in fact, I have a section of our website devoted to recommendations): PANZERPAPPA, ACCORDO DEI CONTRARI, CAMEMBERT, FINNEGAN’S WAKE, NEOM, OCTOBER EQUUS, FLAT122, PHLOX, TEE, GARGANTUA, ARGOS, RITUAL, SANHEDRIN, AMOEBA SPLIT, LOST WORLD, OUTRE MEASURE, SENOGUL, EVIL GIRAFFES ON MARS, TIME TRAVELLER, AGENT MOOSEHEAD, LILLIPUT ORCHESTRA, anythingMICHEL DELVILLE does, DJAMRA, FORGAS BAND, GUAPO, KLOTET, PLANETA IMAGINARIO, UNDERGROUND RAILROAD…plus “old-timers” like UNIVERS ZERO/PRESENT, MAGMA, HAMMILL/VDGG….it’s amazing that as shitty and unprofitable as the music biz is these days, there’s an INCREDIBLE amount of quality music/bands plugging away.

Roger: In my review of IFAMU/Live At ProgDay 2009 I made the observation that French TV seem so obscure that even a Chilean mountain rescue team may have difficulty locating them. Maybe an exaggeration I know, and a tad cheeky to boot, but as you have been going nearly 30 years, presumably this is a situation you’ve come to accept?

Mike: I’m not sure whether it’s acceptance or not, but I guess I regard it as living with some sort of disability-some combination of resignation and bitterness, and it’s probably never going away. All you can do is hold onto the expectation for that moment when something magical pops out of your fingers in combination with other musicians having similar moments.

Roger: What’s coming up for French TV gig-wise or recording-wise?

Mike: Well, we’ve got a new keyboardist from Greece, and we’re having quite a bit of fun improvising together as a trio. We have skeletons & frameworks of tunes for the next album, but trying to get the 3 of us together at the same time has been a pain. We DID play our first gig together about a month ago, with promising results-we’ll see what happens!

Roger: Finally a bit of levity – I hope you are a Monty Python fan (if you’re not then this question is pointless, and I pity you!), so which Python sketch would you have liked to appear in?

Mike: UPPER-CLASS TWIT OF THE YEAR!!! Also once dressed for an FTV Halloween gig as one of the Gumbys. Of course, the other members wimped out of dressing up for this particular gig, despite being thrilled at the prospect during rehearsal.

Roger: Finally, finally a bit more levity – Do you know what Cricket is?

Mike: YES. Do I understand it? NO. Do I WANT to understand it? NO.

Roger: I have a similar view of American “Football” and Baseball! We can’t go without mentioning food, so, a curry or a pasta dish? Washed down with a good beer or wine, or possibly a cup of tea?

Mike:  CURRY (Thai)! A nice Gang Keow Wan (eggplant + beef), with a bottle or two of WOODCHUCK DRAFT AMBER CIDER!

Roger: Good choice of grub there. Thanks again for your time Mike, and if you ever plan on coming to Europe, be sure to let me know.

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