Steve Taylor & the Perfect Foil
Alternative, Rock

Steve Taylor & the Perfect Foil

Foiled again… or for the first time? That may be the question with Steve Taylor & The Perfect Foil, a freshly founded band that brings together four renowned Nashville-based rock figures. In the eyes of fans of their previous bands, this quartet may even count as a quasi-supergroup; to the rest of the world, they’ll seem like not-so-dewy-eyed newcomers whose seasoned muscularity must have miraculously developed overnight. Either way, it’s a giant (yet lean!) sound being unveiled on Goliath, their premiere release for Splint Entertainment.

How much importance you attach to the ampersand in the band’s moniker may impact whether you choose to see this as a new group’s debut album or a long-awaited return to the music sphere by their celebrated frontman. Taylor is a Grammy-nominated solo artist in his own right who took a quick couple of decades off from his role as a rock & roll frontman to concentrate on being a hit producer, indie label chief, and ultimately feature filmmaker. He’ll humbly point out that there were contractual reasons why he had to be specially billed, and that this really is a true group effort. Taylor no longer seems to be protesting too much once you get a gander of the power trio with which he’s aligned himself — bassist/multi-instrumentalist John Mark Painter, half of the duo Fleming & John; guitarist Jimmy Abegg, formerly of the California-based Vector; and drummer Peter Furler, who earned multiple gold records as the founder and lead singer of Australia’s Newsboys.

Each member can claim a high level of accomplishment. But in case you’re wondering which part of the boy-versus-behemoth equation they were thinking of when they titled their album Goliath, let there be no doubt that they suffer from any delusions of grandeur. “It’s whatever the opposite of that is,” laughs Taylor. “For all of us in the band, the thought of taking something on where the odds aren’t in our favor doesn’t necessarily deter us. We found that the odds are never in our favor,” he says, quoting The Hunger Games.

One goal with Goliath was to create an album where the aggression belied the members’ collective experience. “I don’t think I ever spoke this out loud,” says Taylor, “but I didn’t want it to sound like dad-rock, and I didn’t want it to sound like four guys who’d had a heyday who were doing this without any sense of what was going on musically today. To my ears, at least, it sounds pretty current. We also wanted to make a sonically layered album that could be performed live, so that limited the palette a little bit.”

Unless you’re neurotically doing a personnel count, you’re likely to close your eyes and assume there are more players working alongside Taylor than there are, especially since they create the audio illusion of having more than one guitarist. “Bands try to work from their strengths, and John is such an incredibly talented bass player, there was a sense of bass as a lead instrument,” Taylor says. (When they perform some of Taylor’s older solo material in concert, Painter even tends to recreate some of the guitar lines as well as the bass parts.) “So when we recorded this album, we’d get the rhythm section down first, and then add guitar to taste. Since Jimmy, our guitarist, has an improvisational background, we’d just always keep it in ‘record’ since he never tends to play the same thing twice.”

That leaves Peter Furler, who is literally taking a back seat here, on the drum stool, after having fronted the Newsboys. He’s hardly recessive when it comes to the songwriting, as Taylor points out. “Peter tends to write the melodies, and I think he’s as good as anybody alive at writing catchy ones. A great melody is virtually indestructible — you can deconstruct it, you can put it through all kinds of harmonic dissonance, and the hook still comes out the other end. So that was a key foundation for the band: if we start with a good melody, we can do whatever we want with it.”

And he does mean anything. “Jimmy Abegg is really into Robert Fripp and can play these things that come right up to the edge of dissonant jazz,” Taylor points out. “And John Painter can play anything,” says Taylor of the group’s bassist, who has worked as a studio musician on sessions for everyone from Kings of Leon and Yo La Tengo to Kelly Clarkson, on top of composing the score for the animated film Hoodwinked. “If you suddenly think that a weird horn section would sound good here, John grabs the bari sax and plays that, then grabs a tenor sax and plays that, then an alto and a trombone,” Taylor adds.

 “Together, we’ve got a fairly encyclopedic knowledge of music, and John has a massive album collection right in the control room of his studio. So we’ll flip through it and be referencing a Sham 69 album from the early ‘80s British punk scene, or something from Coltrane or Miles Davis, or Gang of Four or Television.”

Astride all this barnburning eclecticism you will of course find the singer’s seriously sardonic lyricism. That was the focus when Rolling Stone gave a rave review to a former band of Taylor’s, Chagall Guevara, with noted critic Parke Puterbaugh writing, “Not since the Clash has a group so effectively turned militant discontent into passionate rock & roll and still maintained a sense of perspective and humor, however black.” In his solo career, Taylor was known for satirically broaching newsworthy themes — something he does more obliquely, if at all, in this current musical incarnation. “Topicality seemed like a good idea at the time,” he laughs. “But topical songs tend to not age very well, and there are certain songs in my back catalogue I wouldn’t write again. This is probably true of a lot of songwriters: things get more impressionistic over time. Certainly with Chagall Guevara, we went more in that direction, and a lot of that experience stuck.”

Yet you can still suss out Taylor’s undying knack for the relevant in the first single and opening track, “Only a Ride,” which makes some hay out of how we’ve been coddled into the illusion of absolute safety at all times, even when pursuing the most extreme forms of self-amusement. “It’s the American way to assume safety precautions are in place, that bad things aren’t supposed to happen, and then it’s ‘Wait, why am I bleeding?’ Remember James Brolin in Westworld? It’s an amusement park full of gun-slinging robots shooting blanks, and he suddenly grabs his chest and says to his partner, ‘I’m shot!”

Befitting a lyric that deals in waiver-free danger zones as a metaphor for the psychic perils of 21st century existence, the car-crash-filled video for “Only a Ride” looks to the untrained eye like a series of outtakes from Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. In fact, it’s footage from a somewhat obscure Australian B-movie called Stunt Rock, whose director, Brian Trenchard-Smith, was highly influential on Tarantino. (QT’s famous quote: “If you don’t like Brian Trenchard-Smith… get the f--- out of here.”) The fellows in The Perfect Foil tracked the cult filmmaker down in Australia and got his permission to repurpose his footage for their video after noticing a seemingly divine alignment. As Taylor explains, “Similar to the Dark Side Of The Moon/Wizard of Oz phenomenon, we discovered that ‘Only A Ride’ perfectly synced to the trailer for Brian Trenchard-Smith’s Stunt Rock trailer in a marriage that can only be described as God-ordained.”

The last few years have been an interesting ride in particular for Taylor, who’d quit music to direct a couple of feature films, then — in not-quite-Godfather-III style — dragged himself back in. By the time he ended his solo career, Taylor had graduated to headlining venues like the Universal Amphitheatre. But more telling about his future was the pair of Billboard Music Video Awards he picked up for a couple of his self-directed videos. He founded a label, Squint, that had its greatest success with “Kiss Me,” a smash hit he produced for Sixpence None the Richer.

“When Sixpence blew up, I saw for a couple of years the absolute worst that the music business can be,” Taylor reminisces. “We assembled a sterling staff at Squint, but I assumed we’d all be dealing with peers who were likewise honest and educated. Then Sixpence hits the big time, and suddenly we’re dealing with weasels, bullies and thugs—although there were some shining exceptions. I went to L.A. to meet with a movie agent who’d previously been a VP of Arista’s business affairs, so I asked, ‘What’s the difference?’ He said, ‘In the movie business, at least you’re getting screwed by smart people.’ So I thought, ‘Hey, that’s good enough for me—I’m ready to deal with a higher breed of disreputable people!’”

It really wasn’t that cynical theory of relativity as much as creative passion that led him to direct two nationally released features, starting with the Sony-distributed The Second Chance. He was having trouble getting his second film, a fictionalized adaptation of Donald Miller’s bestselling memoir Blue Like Jazz, off the ground, and it was then that the music bug kicked back in. “I was four years into the project and still hadn’t been able to find funding for it, “Taylor remembers. “My idea had been to make a clean break from music, mostly because there were so many dilettantes moving back and forth. I was serious about filmmaking and afraid that if people looked at me the way I looked at actors who thought it would be fun to be in a band for a few months, then I would never have a chance. So I put the word out I’m not doing music any more and went really deep into trying to shore up stuff I didn’t know enough about and trying to get better as a filmmaker. And I really did not even think about music for most of that time. But about four years into the Blue Like Jazz project, I remember thinking, ‘Hey, I used to make music, and it was way more fun than sitting around talking to people trying to raise money.’ And, of course, way more instant gratification.”

He started talking with Furler, for whom he’d produced several Newsboys albums, about forming a band. They soon called Painter, the now-celebrated session guy whose home studio in Nashville became the setting for weekly Monday night jams. He suggested enlisting Abegg, who’d been concentrating less on music and more on his side career as a visual artist in Nashville. Realizing that they now constituted a band, the group eventually known as the Perfect Foil had completed about half an album’s worth of material when Blue Like Jazz suddenly rose from the grave. Specifically, a group of Taylor’s most diehard fans got together to form a crowd-funding campaign to fund the languishing film project — and set a record for the most money ever raised in the then-nascent history of Kickstarter. For Taylor, that was great news… but for the band, a bump in the road. “We were all in the studio while the Kickstarter campaign was going on, with everyone refreshing their cell phones as we’d call out the new number. It was like the best auction you’d ever been to. And then it became obvious: If this Kickstarter campaign succeeds, I’m gonna have to go make the movie.” The band got put on hold.

At least the newly minted track “A Life Preserved” made it to the end credits of Blue Like Jazz, providing a taste of what was to come. And when the movie promotion was over and it was time to finish what the band had started, Taylor again took to Kickstarter, this time of his own volition, to fund the completion of the album. “Running a Kickstarter campaign is like a full-time job,” the singer says. “It’s tough to do anything else while you’re doing it, because you’re kind of like a ringmaster and cheerleader, trying to drum up support for something that people don’t realize they need.” And yet, realize it the people did, and with their philanthropic assistance, thus arrived Goliath.

The title track, Taylor explains, “kept wanting to be like a song a marching band would play — or a song that a bunch of losers would start singing to get themselves amped up, for the possible sliver of hope that they could actually win one.” As the band prepare to send their brand of rock flying into the commercial sphere, taking on untold behemoths, perhaps it’s time to coin a new genre: hurled-beat. Even if no giants actually fall as a result of this 11-song set, there’s a mountain of satisfaction in the slinging.