by Ben Shine
Local Mix Masters is a series where occasionally I introduce people who are mixing it up, making stuff happen and holding down the decks in music around Indy. This time I talked with Fred Erskine, the driving force behind Freddie T and The People.
I don't remember if my hair was bleached white, dyed eggplant or tinted black when I first heard Hoover in 1994, but I immediately loved the band's sound. It had a mix of intensity, which was a hallmark of the hardcore music that I was into at the time, and rhythmic musicality, rising from an older influence and articulated by the group's drums and bass. Fred Erskine was a teenager when he joined the band on bass in Washington, D.C., and when Hoover released a record on Dischord and toured the country.
Everything took off quickly from there. He joined June of 44, commuted a lot from a home base in D.C., to band practice in New York City, and ultimately to a new life, a wife and a family in Chicago. And then, he changed it all up. With a 2-year-old son in tow, he and his wife moved to Indianapolis and kicked off a period of "hibernation" that was, in many ways, about being a good father and an impressive carpenter.
I caught up with him after both of our kids' bedtimes, to chat about the project that grew out of his accumulated musical inspirations and the sonic explorations during that time of rest. Freddie T and The People will play this Friday at Radio Radio.
Sky Blue Window: How did you end up being in some of the biggest indie-punk-rock bands of the '90s?
Fred Erskine: I ended up moving to DC when I got out of high school. I'd been playing in rock bands since I was 13, in middle school. When I moved to DC at 17, the first thing I sought out was some guys to play with, and I started jamming right away. Hoover was the first band that made any sort of impact. I was about 18 or 19, and I was sort of fresh-faced in DC. I was out at a show and saw this band Victor Deluxe, and hanging out with the guys after the show and they were looking for a bass player. We started playing together with some other guys, and it wasn't even a month before we started playing shows. It just took off, next thing you know, we'd bought ourselves a $250 van and just started driving, going everywhere and anywhere that would have us. We just were able to get shows without any trouble.
SBW: That's what the early '90s what was like, right? It was book your own life.
FE: Yeah, it was like that. We made singles and got a record out on Dischord and just made a splash in the water. I met a fellow named Jeff Mueller who, not too long after that asked me to be in a band he was starting up, which turned out to be June of 44. Anything that happened with Hoover happened with June of 44, 10 times as fast. I couldn't figure out what made anything about the music connect to people on the outside. It was just young dudes playing together and rocking out. I had no expectations, but sure enough it escalated quickly. We did a U.S. tour, and it became our full-time thing. We could reach a lot of people and go a lot of places.
SBW: So, then how'd you get to be a nearly middle-aged dad living in Broad Ripple, leading a band heavily influenced by soul music?
FE: I was playing in bands that were centered out of D.C where I lived, and playing in bands based out of Chicago where I was not living. I got tired of the commute and moved to Chicago. During that time I met the woman that is now my wife, and we ended up getting married and starting a family. Being on tour was not an option, or at least for the way I wanted to be a father. So I spent time playing while the baby was napping. I stopped all the touring and nightlife stuff and was just playing music on the couch. I recorded stuff to the computer, based on the records I was collecting. Outside of the indie rock and punk bands, I experimented a lot with blues and soul and jazz. It's always been a part of my collection, and it all started coming to the forefront when I was playing on my own.
We wanted to change our quality of life, and my wife has a lot of family here. It seemed like a logical move. By the time we moved here my son was almost 2 and easier to manage, so I was ready to get back into the practice room. I started searching around for people to play with and showing them what I was doing while in hibernation or wood-shedding. I found a lot of people here who were really cool.
SBW: What is the Freddie T and the People sound?
FE: In my mind, maybe we don't sound like this, but ultimately the influences are everything from The Clash to Otis Redding, to James Brown, and Charles Mingus, Fela Kuti, King Sunny Ade -- and it's all kind of mashed up in the best parts of the things that I love. I had to find people here that were either on the same page as me or who were super open-minded about not trying to do what they'd done before.
For 20 years I wanted to have a band like The JBs, with all the parts working like a clock. I love the sound of a big band, but not just blaring; I like a lot of little parts working together. It's like a small orchestra. I love the idea of two or three horn players harmonizing, lots of people singing, a syncopated rhythm section.
SBW: How do you balance being a carpenter with fatherhood and this new direction in music-making? How do you make it happen?
FE: Uh, barely (he laughs). This spring music has taken a real hit since I've been coaching my kid's baseball team. We're still working. We should have new songs out soon. We're just getting ready for the show. You just carve out the nights and say, "This is something I do" and make it important as anything else. It's got be there. It's always a reminder of how much it saves my soul. Without it there is nothing. All the things that make me good to my son and my wife come from my musical history. I put so much of my heart and soul in it over the years.
SBW: So, I always ask people something when I do this, and I'm excited to hear your answers. What are your top three life-changing albums?
FE: Oh, man, there's just so many, so many that have touched me at different times. Well, the first Specials' record. [Ed. It's an eponymous album.] Then, Pharoah Sanders -- Thembi. And, just for the fun of it, I always go back, and it's totally off the wall, Beefeater's House Burning Down.
You can catch Fred -- and all his people -- at Radio Radio this Friday night. He's on a bill with some old friends, Chris Brokaw and Bob Weston of The Martha's Vineyard Ferries. These are some of the greatest of the recent indie rock history, who played in bands such as Shellac and Rachel's -- people who Erskine describes as "tried and true veterans who will put on an incredible show." It's a claim that I certainly wouldn't dispute.