A casual observer could be forgiven for mistaking Berkeley's Fojimoto for a catchy pop band. Not that the group's music, a harmony-heavy blend of the Byrds and Teenage Fanclub, isn't a mainlineable pop thrill. Fojimoto -- Marwan Kanafani (guitar and vocals), Jon Fojtik (drums and vocals), and Ryan Waggoner (bass and vocals) -- write the kind of sunny melodies that would make Brian Wilson squeal if he were still up to doing that kind of thing.
So what's the problem with catchy? It's just that, with debut album Just Now Finding Out under its belt, the band has set its sights on something more than ear-candy. Fojimoto is a band on a mission: The quest combines social justice with supportive scene-boosting. If it succeeds, Fojimoto will have infused an irony-heavy indie community with an engaged sense of political activism and neighborly support, using the sounds of pop to bring about the sweeter sounds of change.
"Someone will sleep up here," explains Jon, patting a homemade wooden platform. We're riding around Berkeley in Mobility, the van the band just bought to take on its first tour of the Midwest. The area Jon has indicated -- an elevated shelf about the width of a sleeping bag -- looks both uncomfortable and designed to launch its contents through the windshield at the first hint of highway braking.
The band, though, isn't worried about the bed. There's still two weeks before the tour begins -- enough time to cover the platform in foam and safety harnesses. As we motor up Shattuck Avenue, the band recites a checklist of pre-tour errands and purchases. Ryan has mapped the route to each club on the itinerary. They have confirmed accommodations for each night, and already decided on the per diem they'll be paying themselves from the money they've saved over the past year.
Pre-routing? Per diems? It doesn't sound like your typical rock band heading out on its first American tour. But Fojimoto has an orderly aura that would do Fugazi's Ian MacKaye proud. It's the same professional-yet-DIY approach that the group brought to the recording of its CD.
After research into recording studios brought back the dismal news that tape time started at $40 an hour, Fojimoto agreed that it would make more sense to buy the equipment outright and record the album themselves. That decision launched FreeWheeler Studios (aka Marwan's living room) on Wheeler Street in Berkeley. In time, FreeWheeler would become home to a half-dozen or so songwriters and bands, who flock to the comfortably worn pad to lay down tracks under Marwan's watchful eye.
When they first installed the ADAT (analog digital audio tape) recorders, microphones, and mixing board, though, the band was just going on faith that this wasn't a huge mistake. Marwan had been recording his own music and friends' projects since he was fourteen, but this was a jump up to a much higher level.
The stakes were also raised by the band's decision to pre-sell its CD. With a few hundred friends and fans sending in money in advance, Fojimoto was able to buy tape and, ultimately, have the CD pressed and mastered. But in the short term, it put even more pressure on an untested band.
"I'd never worked on ADAT," Marwan recalls, "so I had no idea what to expect. We had built it up, too. We had done all this promotion on it, did all these pre-sale things. So we thought, 'Shit, if it doesn't sound that good we're going to be kind of screwed.'"
In the end, the gamble paid off. From the first warm Indigo Girls-esque strum of "Lovely Daughter" to the dying electric power-pop strains of "Upside Down," the songs on the debut sound suspiciously lush and hi-fi. The quality of the recording, though, is just icing on an already tasty cake. Just Now Finding Out swells with the energy of classic '90s indie rock, combined with a wistful back-porch country. Think Gram Parsons covering late-model Superchunk, and you've got a pretty good idea of the Fojimoto sound.
In keeping with the down-home, comfy vibe of the CD, the band members intentionally left bits of their lives strewn around the album. If you listen to Just Now Finding Out closely, you can hear the tiny clatter of dishes in the kitchen sink, or the clink of beer bottles being collected. Working the sounds of their everyday lives into the music was an accidental, but much appreciated, aspect of the record. And since its debut came out in May, Fojimoto has begun trying to incorporate the same transparency into the band's performances on a political level.
"We're political people," says Marwan, who was born in Beirut. "There's a risk to adding that to your music. But we've decided we're going to be who we are and be political. It's pretty hard to keep it in."
As part of Fojimoto's recent turn toward activism, the group has sponsored forums on the Middle East and Palestine, and set up shows that blend musical performance with readings and topical documentaries. The challenge of mixing entertainment with education is a daunting one, especially for a band whose fan base has come to expect upbeat concerts. With that in mind, the group has kept the soapboxing subtle at its own shows, saving most of the consciousness-raising for band-sponsored events where other artists are invited to perform.
"We understand that when people come out to see Fojimoto, they come out to let go and see music," says Ryan. "They're not coming out to a political thing necessarily. We're not going to make that the focus on the evening, but we get it in there in some way or another."
Mixing pop with politics hasn't always made for the easiest ascent up the music industry ladder. When Starbucks-owned record store Hear Music wanted to start carrying Just Now Finding Out, the band was ecstatic. But as the agreement was being finalized, Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz made some comments about Israel the band found morally questionable. After a discussion, the band members decided to pull out of the deal.
"It felt good," says Marwan, "and it gave us the confidence to keep doing it."
In keeping with the emphasis on organizing, Fojimoto has spent the last two years trying to bring together Bay Area musicmakers, forming a loose-knit collective of local players. The group -- which so far includes singer-songwriters like John O'Brien and Priscilla Ederle, and groups such as Splintered Tree and Luster -- share their equipment and resources, with many of them coming by FreeWheeler to record.
When they head out on tour this month, they'll be bringing a homemade sampler of artists to give away to bookers and fans at stops along the way, to help spread the gospel about the Bay Area scene. It may sound like the preciously do-goody work of hipster missionaries, but for the group, sharing the spotlight just keeps things interesting over the long haul.
"You get older and realize that if it's all about me, then I should move to LA and try to get in a commercial," says Marwan. "If it's not going to be about a bunch of other people, too, then it's going to get really boring really fast."
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