Since forming Firewater in 1995, bandleader Tod A has steered a revolving lineup of musicians through a dense tapestry of styles including klezmer, ska, circus music, and good old-fashioned punk rock. Each album has found the band fearlessly embracing a different set of cultural references, anchored by the singer’s acerbic lyrical observations and raspy howl.
In 2005, Tod put his money where his mouth was and left U.S. soil for an extended series of travels throughout Southeast Asia and the Middle East. The resultant album The Golden Hour (2007) found the music of Firewater evolving even further away from its post-punk roots, soaking in the sounds of traditional Turkish folk music and Bollywood soundtracks.
The latest Firewater release, International Orange!, continues down the winding path carved out by The Golden Hour. Introspective moments like “Feeling No Pain” brush up against frenetic dance numbers like “Ex-Millionaire Mambo,” resulting in an eclectic musical experience that defies categorization (although it’s tempting to invent a ridiculous genre tag like “world-core”).
We spoke with Tod from his home in Turkey as he prepared to embark upon a U.S. tour to promote International Orange!.
How is life in Istanbul?
Well, for me personally it’s OK, but there are some journalists in jail…
It’s an interesting place to be. For the last three and a half years, I lived between Indonesia and Cambodia. I really got into living in the jungle and away from cities. I didn’t particularly want to move back to a city, but this is actually a pretty cool city to be in. Life brought me here.
Have you been back to the U.S. since you originally left in 2005?
I have, twice – but I decided that I didn’t want to live there anymore, at least for the foreseeable future.
I lived in a city called Denpasar in Indonesia, on the island of Bali. I was also living in Phnom Penh in Cambodia. I was doing volunteer work in the last four years. Rock ’n’ roll can be a bit boring, living in clubs your whole life, so I do other things as well. I was writing text for an NGO called Wildlife Alliance. That brought me out the Cardamom Mountains in Cambodia. That was very cool, going up the river – it was a bit like being in Apocalypse Now, a river in the middle of nowhere.
You have stated that your disgust for U.S. politics was one of the reasons you initially left the country. Have your feelings about the U.S. government changed since you’ve been living abroad?
I think in Congress it’s gotten worse. I still support Obama, no matter how much he may have disappointed some people. He’s still the lesser of two evils by a long stretch. I follow the U.S. political news religiously despite my better judgment. I find it very depressing, but I think I’ll always be an American for better or for worse.
Are you still an American citizen?
Yes. It’s really only for the passport at this point. I’m looking toward an EU passport.
What is your reaction to the conflict in Syria?
Personally speaking, I find it very heartening to see ordinary people overthrowing totalitarian regimes. On the other hand, I think that the people supporting the FSA are doing so for religious reasons. I would have hoped that by now we could have got beyond that. I don’t care whose cousin of Mohammed…it’s all a bit silly and backward to me. I do hope that something positive happens in Syria.
I’ve been following all these revolutions. I haven’t actually got into the middle of them. The original plan for International Orange! was to travel from Turkey through Syria, through all the countries where these revolutions were happening, but I couldn’t finance it. So I recorded here in Istanbul.
Was this primarily a studio album? My understanding was that for The Golden Hour you traveled around and recorded local musicians on your laptop.
Yes, mostly in Pakistan and India. I had a lot of folk musicians playing on that record. This time it was done in Istanbul and Tel Aviv with friends and acquaintances.
The touring band is one-half Israeli, one-sixth Swiss, one-sixth American, and one-sixth Anglo-Indian. It’s basically the same band that’s on the record. The only guy we can’t bring is the Turkish percussionist, because he’s too busy touring with his own band BaBa ZuLa.
There seems to be a stronger dance influence on the last two Firewater albums. Was this intentional?
No, not really. I can’t dance, I’m terrible.
Not even the mambo?
I can do the mambo, that’s about it. It could be more sonic. It could be Tamir Muskat’s (Firewater producer and drummer, member of Balkan Beat Box – Ed.) influence. I don’t know – I didn’t think of it as dancey. I definitely hope the songs motivate people to do something – get them out of the chair in some way.
What is the meaning of the title International Orange?
It’s not so profound, really. I guess there’s the idea of orange being the color of democracy, and “international” coming from the idea of crossing borders. It’s just my favorite color actually.
You mentioned in your blog Postcards from the Other Side of the World that you were working on a book.
It’s 95% done, and I’ll be meeting with publishers when I come to New York to start the tour. I’m under a deadline. It’s very heavily based on my last five or six years traveling around in Southeast Asia, but it’s a novel. It’s called Banging the Monkey.
Do you plan to restart the blog?
I don’t think so. Maybe. I’ve just been putting my energy into finishing this bloody book. If I go somewhere really bizarre and interesting, I may pick it up again. In the last couple of years, I’ve just been holding tight here in Istanbul and trying to finish this book.
What’s next for Firewater after this tour?
Another tour. There’s another record written; we’ll see when that comes out. We have a video coming out for “A Little Revolution,” which should be done any day now. We’re doing the U.S. tour, we’re doing an EU tour this fall, then we’re gonna do the U.S. again and the EU again, then we’re gonna do festivals next summer. At some point in the middle of that we’ll record the next record. It’s been a bit slow getting this record out, but things are picking up again.
Firewater is currently on tour throughout the U.S. Check the Bloodshot Records website for full dates.