Depending on who’s counting, there are anywhere from 100 to n-frigging-thousand subgenres of rock music a band can slide into for easy categorization. And depending on where you drop the laser on Fair to Midland’s Serjical Strike debut, The Drawn and Quartered E.P., at least half of those subgenres are being reinvented at once. But to call this Dallas quintet (who, ironically, get their name from an old Texan play on the term “fair to middling”) merely “eclectic” is to sell them way short. No, Fair to Midland are masters of fusing those subgenres into something that’s cohesive, intensely focused, and in a bold new category all its own.
The Drawn and Quartered E.P. finds Fair to Midland proving why Serjical Strike owner and System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian personally chose them for his already boundary-challenging label’s roster. The EP’s studio tracks—“Orphan Anthem ’86” and “Kyla Cries Cologne”—showcase FTM’s flair for combining progged-out virtuosity with lead-heavy riffs, impassioned vocals, and dynamic tidal waves. And the live songs that accompany these—the soaring, atmospheric “Seafarer’s Knot” and “Abigail”—confirm FTM’s onstage virtuosity while showcasing their ability to capture a crowd’s attention. "It's not often that one comes across bands that are truly original, poetic, progressive, artsy and memorable, compounded by a killer live performance,” Tankian says. “FTM is such a band."
Founded in 1998 in the quiet farm town of Sulphur Springs, Texas—“Where people still say ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’” as its chamber of commerce notes—Fair to Midland have become one of the most idiosyncratic musical forces in the Lone Star State. But as singer Darroh Sudderth—who rounds out FTM’s current lineup with guitarist Cliff Campbell, drummer Brett Stowers, bassist Jon Dicken, and keyboardist/electronics manipulator Matt Langley—explains, idiosyncrasy also helps give the band its internal power. “For the most part, our musical tastes are completely different,” Sudderth begins, laughing. “We’ve just gotten better at listening to each other over the years. All of our songs are just us trying to find a happy medium between what everyone in the band listens to—and I think that actually being able to do that is what makes us so different from a lot of other ‘prog rock’ bands today.”
Although it’s the band’s first official recording for any label, The Drawn and Quartered E.P. follows two independent releases—2001’s The Carbon Copy Silver Lining EP and the 2004 album inter.funda.stifle—both of which earned major critical acclaim despite being completely under-the-radar. Music Connection named FTM one of the planet’s 100 best unsigned bands in 2005; Filter scribe Christopher Fudurich put them on his personal top 10 that same year; and The Indie Scoop chimed in with similar kudos, writing, "It was though I was listening to the mutant offspring of Rush, Pink Floyd, Dream Theater, The Mars Volta, Gary Numan and Pantera; grown up and having run off to start their own volcano-worshipping doomsday cult in the desert."
And so, with a growing buzz and a trail of blown minds behind them, FTM naturally found themselves looking for a label that could respect their DIY roots while giving them the means to take their sound to the grand new level it demands. Ironically, it was only after going the typical DIY route that the band found a proper home. “We must’ve shopped demos to every indie label imaginable, because we figured we were too weird for a major,” Sudderth explains. “Oddly enough, the majors were the ones that showed the most interest in us.” And so, after being blown away by two of the band’s performances in Los Angeles, Serj Tankian signed Fair to Midland to his label in April of 2006.
“It’s definitely been a strange ride, going from being this completely DIY, underground thing to having someone at Serj’s level, someone you respect, who’s had this huge impact on music, sort of step up and validate what you’re doing by actually showing you he ‘gets’ it,” Sudderth explains. “Even more than that, though, it’s freed us up so much creatively to be part of a bigger label. It’s like we can finally step back and evaluate where we’re going with this music without having to worry about, ‘How are we gonna get people to hear it?’ or ‘Can we even afford to tour once this stuff gets released?’”
Creatively speaking, the salad days are indeed behind them: With mega-producer David Bottrill (Tool, King Crimson) behind the boards for their forthcoming Serjical Strike debut album, Fair to Midland are poised to turn rock music on its ear in 2007. And when you take a look across the major-label landscape—from the postmodern prog rock of the Mars Volta and Tool to the chart-topping success of Serj Tankian’s own boundary-smashing art-metal powerhouse—it’s not hard to imagine Fair to Midland carving out their own plot of land amid these giants.