Mix enough coffee to kill a small rodent, a social anxiety disorder, and an 8-track–and you get the brilliant micro-psych of Warsaw, Poland band, Foibles.
In 1999 Phil Dumesnil was 24 and living in San Francisco with a musical aptitude and a desire to clear away mental rubble. For 14 years, he recorded an extensive collection of work that resulted in minute long songs that teeter between intelligent rambling and delicately colored fables. His instruments? "Mom's acoustic guitar, Wendy's clarinet, Vince's Grandma's accordion, Asa's Toys-R-Us drum set, and a coffee can cow bell."
Foibles is a fitting name for the project, it brings light to the eccentricities and minor weaknesses we all have. Dumesnil's music is a celebration of these shortcomings and impurities that we all share. He honestly and fervently documents his surroundings with a vulnerable rawness that plays like a diary. It's like he made a theme song for every moment of every day.
His project is painstakingly thorough, some albums have an upwards of 20 songs while others have a collection of five 30-second blasts. For their minuscule length, they're incredibly thoughtful, introspective, and often silly. He sings, "She's a lovable walrus" on 1998's Solid Rock Baptist Church Rummage Sale. Then he admits on 2013's, The Waffle Tape Autopsy: A Superfluous Compilation of Confused Attempts & Alternate Recordings, that it's, "a junk drawer of neglected demos, experiments, and alternate versions. This album is selfish, frivolous and arrogant. Do not trust this album. This album lies." It's a collection of second thoughts–a good listen if you're second-guessing yourself.
The last chapter in Foibles, released January 2015, is a four song journey beginning with an instrumental folk song about how "Coffee Works" and ends with a road tip, "that ends in permanent psychological damage and prison."
Dumesnil's project ended just as spontaneously as it began. He gave his 8-track away, left his belongings on a sidewalk and left California for Poland, where he resides now.
He spoke to me about his project, why he recorded on cassette, and why he created a puppet show called Brain Fist, and a puppet book for adults.
UPDATE: Phil is now relocating to Ireland, slowly making a bubblegum pop record under You Lousy Bicylce, and is learning to patch asphalt. He's made a few more eccentric videos about cows and puppets.
To listen to the entire Foibles collection, head over to Bandcamp.
Shameless self-promotion: Foibles provided the soundtrack for a short-film I created about a river princess conquering her inner demons.
What started this idea of a 14-year-long project? Was there a goal in mind?
Honestly, it was less like a planned project and more like a 24 year old locked in his room with notebooks, noisemakers, and a suitcase of crippling social anxiety. The Foibles debacle started and ended with a Tascam cassette 8-track. I found a used one at a shop in 1998 and brought it home wrapped in a blanket like a traumatized newborn. No box. No instruction book. No idea what I was doing. The only goal I had was to give myself a safe place to write, record, and experiment. The end came about naturally years later when I gave away the 8-track, left the rest of my belongings on a sidewalk, and skipped the country.
Started in San Francisco? What made you move to Poland?
I moved to San Francisco in the mid '90s. Our neighbors had a monthly talent show in their backyard. Every house on the block was invited to contribute a skit or a song or a performance. That kind of open-armed weirdness made San Francisco feel like home to me. But over time the tech boom lobotomized the city. Rents doubled, low income families got evicted, communal freak shows dwindled. The whole city felt bleached out and frat drunk. Then the ghost of Eldridge R. Johnson pushed me off my bicycle and screamed, "Living anywhere that doesn't want you is like eating a picture of food!" My girlfriend moved to Poland to teach. I followed shortly thereafter.
Why did you decide to record on cassette? What was the process like?
I've always had a crush on multi-track cassette recorders. They are relatively affordable, simple devices with built-in roadblocks that force you to pave your own sonic...detours. Christ, who let Brian Eno drive my mouth? Lemme start over. Cassettes are frail, clumsy, and undependable and so am I. We're a good fit. Um, the recording process was just caffeinated monkey chaos. I'd sit down to record with written lyrics and guitar chords but everything else was haphazardly thrown together while the tape was rolling. After tracking the guitar, I'd layer instruments and noises, one by one, until the mess sounded vaguely like a band playing a song. Finally, I'd mix the whole jalopy onto a stereo cassette deck and force my roommates to listen to it.
What's the importance of your mom's guitar?
Jeez...you and my therapist. What is it with that question? (Yay, jokes!) I grew up with that guitar. When I was a kid that guitar was at the center of family sing-alongs. I learned my first chords on that guitar, learned to write songs on that guitar. In high school my friends and I started a band with that guitar. That guitar has bruises and defects and history. It's a living thing and it tells me I'm pretty and I know it's lying but I don't care.
What other "junk" did you use to record?
Anything I could borrow. I had my friend Vince's grandma's accordion, my friend Wendy's clarinet. I had coffee cans, broken chairs, my sister's old violin, a tambourine I bought at the Church Of St. John Coltrane sidewalk fundraiser. My roommate Asa had a toy drum set that I abused mercilessly. He also let me borrow his tiny condenser mic--the kind you clip on your jacket for TV interviews. You can attach them directly to the strings of a guitar and get the sound of a music box being assaulted by a slinky in a washing machine. They're great. They're tiny. You can swallow them. You shouldn't swallow them. But you can. Don't swallow them.
What's your writing process like? Why short songs?
Writing songs feels like cleaning up after a natural disaster in my brain. The rubble is all chords, words, and melody and it's just a matter of getting them into coherent, presentable piles. I guess that's the best way to describe it...sort of a musical FEMA. As far as the length, my favorite songs have always been the ones that punch you in the chest and run away before you realize you can't breathe. Tom Waits "Johnsburg, Illinois" clocks in at 1:34. It's a love song, and I hate love songs, but this one just walks up and screams, "Here's your heart, asshole!" and then a trapdoor opens under your feet and it's over. Something about the shock of it...it just appeals to me.
The puppet show…fascinating. Did you do the music? Who is Desmond Shaggs?
I did, yeah. The music is all unused Foibles instrumentals. Desmond Shaggs is a puppet and a poet and the host of a variety travelogue called "Brain Fist" which is based on a radio segment he used to produce for SFCR. Currently there is only one episode available but he's working on a crowd-funding campaign to boost production. Shaggs is also an actor. He played a character named Phil (which he based on me) in a short film called Record Store In Space (A True Story. We started hanging out in the late '90s. I used to take him to read his poems at the Free Radical Collective music/poetry open mics at Mission Records in San Francisco...which is also where I started to play Foibles songs in front of people...and it's also where I met my girlfriend...and it's also where, I'm told, they shot the interior for the "hick bar" scene in the film 48 Hours...but that might be a lie. The guy who told me that used to lie.
Fwew. Okay. I wrote this in a caffeinated haze.