Zachary Fairbrother :: Feedback treatise

Words: Jesse Locke // Photoshop: Peter Locke

Zachary Fairbrother

*This article also appears in the May 2013 issue of Offerings.

Zachary Fairbrother might be best known as the fretboard-shredding frontman of Lantern, but he’s got a whole other set of cards up his jean jacket sleeve. Prior to his time with the scorched proto-punk trio, Fairbrother cut his chops studying composition at Halifax’s Dalhousie University and as artist in residence artist at the Atlantic Center for the Arts. His multi-amp, multi-instrument pieces such as the “Buddha Box” series stretch the limits of feedback, drone and ambient loops to create a body-rattling behemoth of sound. Before he wakes the spirits with a series of performances at Wyrd IV, we caught up for a tête-à-tête.

JL: There’s another article where you said, and I quote, “When I was a teenager, in between wanks I would pull out my guitar and wank a little more.” How old were you when you first started playing?

ZF: I was 14, and in grade eight. I bought a guitar from my friend but didn’t really know how to play it, so I would pick it up and scrape a penny along the strings because I thought it sounded cool. I also had some issues of Guitar World magazines with tabs, and the one I picked to try out was Fear Factory’s cover of Gary Numan’s “Cars” because it looked the easiest. I think they may have used a seven-string, but I didn’t even know what that was at the time. The next Christmas my parents got me some lessons.

When did you decide to get serious and move into composition?

My guitar teacher was probably in his early 20s and studying at Dalhousie, where I ended up going. I came from a small town and didn’t really have any peers who were into the same music, so I thought he was the coolest. I don’t think I was even aware what a composer was, and probably just imagined it was something romantic. When I was done high school I wanted to play music all day, so I decided to study it at a higher level.

How was your experience at Dalhousie?

I didn’t like music school for the first three years. We started off with a foundation year and had to learn classical guitar, which I didn’t really connect with. It’s a steep learning curve and I had to perform with violinists who’d been playing since they were five, so I never felt comfortable. I later took courses in composition and orchestration where I learned to write for various instruments, but at the end of the day, I always came back to electric guitar.

I’ve also heard you talk about Cornelius Cardew’s graphic scores. What do you like about those?

Cardew’s Treatise is an interesting one. I’ve never performed it, but as I understand it there’s very little explanation of what the piece is. You’re literally just supposed to look at these objects that evoke an interpretation. When I’m composing, I’m not really interested in writing something in depth where you start at bar one and go to bar 200. A lot of my pieces come from improvisation so there’s no real need for a score, but I like the idea of adding a visual component after the fact to fit the sounds. It’s another way for the performer to think about it in more abstract concepts.

You first performed your “Buddha Box 2.0” piece at the OBEY Convention in 2010. Is that the same thing you’ll be playing here, or has it evolved?

It’s going to be slightly different. I’m trying to find a happy balance where I can scale it down a bit, and I’m going to change the arrangement plus add a new intro. It’s something I’ve jammed on at home but have never brought out live. I call them remixes, though they’re probably going to be indecipherable. It’s basically taking some of Beethoven’s later string quartets and slowing them down on my four-track with cassettes. They’re beautiful at their normal speed, but a lot more dramatic this way and almost an expressionistic take. Violinists always have crazy vibrato, so when you slow them down it creates these really huge warbles. It’s super dark and ambient, and from there we’ll bring in the drone. The most important thing is that it needs to be loud, because it’s as much of a physical body experience as listening.

Can you explain the Buddha Box concept?

“Buddha Box 1.0” is a solo piano piece that incorporates a Buddha Machine. The piano has speakers inside it, and when you put the pedal down, the ambient loops start to resonate. For the second piece I have Buddha Machines playing into guitar pick-ups. The different performers amplify these loops and then take them away, so they’re able to improvise on top of snippets of voice that cascade and drop out. Both pieces are meditative but also fairly monolithic. The piano piece works itself into a wash, and “Buddha Box 2.0” is supposed to be a bit scary. Buddha is a god, so that evokes awe but also fear.

Zachary Fairbrother performs at Wyrd IV in Montreal on Friday, May 10 (Casa del Popolo) and in Toronto on Saturday, May 11 (the Music Gallery). For more information, visit