Talkhouse Playlist: How Fake Limbs Stays Sane on Tour

Hear the songs that influenced the Chicago band's new record.

Chicago four-piece rock band Fake Limbs have a new album out this year called Matronly on Don Giovanni Records. Through years of touring and spreading their brand of “social justice street rock,” singer Stephen Sowley has frequently turned to music to stay sane on the road. Give this playlist a listen and read the stories behind how these songs helped shaped their new LP, and make sure to catch them on tour throughout the month!
–Dave Lucas, Talkhouse Marketing Manager

I hate silence in a live setting. Somewhere between the unavoidable jam bands that swarmed my geographical landscape as a young’n and my love for the blinding speed of hardcore bands that never came up for air, I learned pretty early that any moment between songs should be paper thin. I have very little lifting to do on stage, though. Sometimes a drummer needs to breathe, sometimes someone needs to tune. I draw myself out as the conduit between the silence and the noise. Sometimes, someone gets it… sometimes it’s met with confusion.

If that weren’t already severely self-involved, on the road I’m usually hiding away in the car, in the back with headphones on, often ignoring my bandmates (still don’t really know their names). So between the live setting and being stuck in a small car with your three boyfriends, this is what’s kept me from rolling out the side door.

Carole King – “It’s Too Late”

This was the first song that I had introduced into Fake Limbs sets. For one really rough summer, I was listening to this song as a statement on a relationship gone off the rails. I found solace in Carole King being so matter of fact on just how bad the relationship the narrator was in had become — that you could be so diplomatic but so destroyed by a soured affair.

For a second some of us were trying to conceive of a way to cover this, but to no avail — but I did get a moment of triumph on a hometown stop on one of our tours with our friends in Bully. We had a second between songs, and I started singing the chorus while Nick took a breather. The entire room of approximately four hundred heads starting singing along. It felt beautiful. Feeling like Caesar, I took the opportunity to yell, “Everyone say, ‘Fuck the police.’” A hell of a lot less people joined.

Erykah Badu – “Caint Use My Phone (Suite)”

Again, this is one from during one of the Bully tours. I have someone close in my life. We talk almost every day. The phone is our most efficient means since we live in opposite directions. The phone: pictures, words, voices, stories, sounds. Each transmission is a code: smoke signals, maybe telepathy. Badu’s assertive reading of messaging, the longing and tension inherent to communicating via a limited medium — it hits me right in the most tender spot.

Somewhere between Minnesota and Milwaukee, I lay in the back of the van quietly repeating the track to myself and curling into myself in negative-degree weather. It was also at the time that the Heathcliff Berru allegations were starting to come up, so I had particularly had it with men and music (even beyond whatever negative reaction I have to masculinity on any given day).

With each breath, with each slight build, up to the synth bomb, I could cull heat from the headphones. I now can’t listen to this song without being near tears and feeling the chill of the flat Midwestern terrain.

Harry Nilsson – “Vine St.”

I think this is one of the most charming and bewildering opening tracks to an album. I guess Randy Newman hated this record, is that really true? Also, are the first forty seconds of the track the only time a guitar appears on the entire album?

What kills me most, though, is the cutaway — a guy at the piano, lamenting about the days when he was third guitar. Always a dream of mine, to just walk up to a vacant piano and belt something meaningful out like it’s no big thing. What a luxury to sing like a fucking bird. I always want to sing this after I’ve taken a fall on the floor. I think it’d be a cute look.

Cat Power – “Say”

This one has been the most fun and most baffling to pull on audiences. First off, let’s just acknowledge that this album is a stone masterpiece: not a single misstep, and every word is a like a palm opening up to reveal the veins of damage, loss and heartbreak.

I’ve always considered Chan Marshall to be a strong influence in terms of live performance. Not so much in terms of contempt for the audience (which I do love) but more so the idea that, “I’m just gonna work this out in public — it might not be what you want, but this is where I am.” Making your internal mess evident. Let it bleed.

Geraldine Fibbers – “Dragon Lady”

Another huge influence on me in terms of the emotional vulnerability of performance. Carla Bozulich was one of the first artists I encountered that lived naked through the speakers. We relate: sudden (but perhaps expected) death, the lies that can be thorns on the rose of love, self-harm, confused sexuality, escapism, trying to find the true path of survival and probably not doing it right.

When people try to pull some bullshit comparison of Fake Limbs to the Jesus Lizard (and it is bullshit — stop it, we’ve heard it, we understand you know four things about Chicago, and we aren’t any of them) I try to cut to the quick with, “I’m just trying to be Carla Bozulich.”

Chic – “My Forbidden Lover”

I have no idea how we’d pull it off, but it’s my dream to have F’Limbs cover this song. I’m 99% certain I yelled that at Bryan one night during a show back when we both drank, and the club’s DJ dropped it.

There’s not a single piece in this song that shouldn’t be in there; if you were to take one component out, the whole cut would fall apart. That’s one of my favorite things about Chic — they knew how to create something so rich and textured without overdoing it. The urgency of the vocals, knowing that they’re in a damaged relationship but still taking it, the strings, the “phew!” — and some of the finest bass playing to grace a recording.

Laurel Halo – “MK Ultra”

I feel like this entire album is an anomaly in comparison to the rest of Laurel Halo’s catalog, but what a beautiful freak scene she created here. My friend Stichy gave this to me when I was out on a West Coast vision quest a couple of years ago. Driving around the barren streets of the East Bay after a crusher of a show (Ratka/No Statik/Flesh World) in San Jose en route to an incredible bad vibes warehouse zoner (Wolf Eyes), “MK Ultra” (and “Carcass” for that matter) wormed its way into my noggin, leaving patchworks of haunting tones at each highway light and service route. Just warmly elevated electronics, blipping, cooing and thumping. It still hasn’t left me.

I have no idea what she’s singing about even though I’ve read the lyrics dozens of times; but goddamn man, that chorus kills me every time. I really want to know what Robert Wyatt thinks of this record. I feel like there’s a direct line between what Halo is doing and the textural heartbreak of Wyatt’s work. They should have a tea and smoke together.

NDF – “Since We Last Met (Ricardo Villalobos Remix)”

I just can’t listen to loud music on tour, even though I love it; we are a very loud band and the thought of getting into a car and putting on some Slayer or G.L.O.S.S. or Uniform or whatever after thirty minutes of public humiliation is just not feasible. It makes sense, right?

So here’s your girl curled up in the back again, sinking into some bizarre minimal techno. I love that Villalobos is in no rush to get anywhere. There’s just a small driver of a beat, a morse code keyboard phrase, and then sudden, erratic trap doors of keyboard farts, drum machines being dropped, alien wolf whistles and NDF’s constant repetition of seeing a former love on the street. Let it all unfold until you’re suddenly smothered by layers of bass, and atop it one lone voice and a barrage of motorik footsteps. This is the sound I want to be living in at all times.

Teddy Pendergrass – “Love T.K.O.”

If a sound person ever asks us what kind of music we want before our set, Teddy Pendergrass is typically the answer. This is one of those perfect cuts, much like the aforementioned Chic song; there’s no element here out of place. The bass just wraps you in its arms, the rhythm is in no rush, and Teddy is being Teddy — always coming at you from the heart. His huge, human voice that can equally express pain and pleasure in the same breath: true magic, total freak, and a real inspiration on Matronly.

James Brown & the Famous Flames – “Prisoner of Love”

There are two versions I could’ve gone with this, but we’ll go with the one from Live at the Apollo, Vol. II. This might be the white elk (or whatever the fuck rich people say they’re chasing when they do cleanses or rent a Sedona ranch) in terms of what I aspire our live performances to be: all tension and release and tension and release and so on. To pull away from the fucking microphone and still have the power. To have the tightest band in the world turning on a dime between tender reflection and cacophonous desire. To me, this is on the same level of that version of “Shut the Door” in the Fugazi documentary. Burn all the prisons down, but we all run the risks of landing our asses in love jail.