Stranger than Friction: Beloved Lou music champion Fred Friction discusses his debut solo album and new venue

Feb 4, 2009 at 4:00 am

Every musical community has its share of characters, bon vivants and hangers-on. Some show up just to see and be seen, while others actually contribute something to the conversation. In our town, however, few people have earned the respect of their peers while cultivating a cult of personality quite like Fred Friction. For more than a decade, Friction played drums (and musical spoons), wrote songs and sang with the Highway Matrons. As the proprietor and figurehead of the late, great Frederick's Music Lounge, he assumed the role of ringmaster, talent-booker and raconteur of the homey south-city club.

Since Frederick's closed three years ago, Friction has kept a lower profile. He continues to host Fishin' with Dynamite on KDHX (88.1 FM) and makes regular visits to area open-mic nights. These visits prompted him to try out a cache of new songs, which ended up filling out the newly released Jesus Drank Wine, Friction's debut as a solo musician. It's a record filled with ragged blues and brokedown country, with the lyrics swinging from elation to desperation over the course of a dozen tracks.

It's also a record filled with some of the city's best musicians. Resophonic guitar hero Tom Hall, guitarist-about-town John Horton and noise-manipulator Eric Hall contribute, as do members of bands such as Miles of Wire, the Red-Headed Strangers and the Dock Ellis Band. Such a lineup stands as a testament to Friction's stature in town, and the goodwill he's created through nurturing and championing emerging talent.

In addition to his new record, Friction recently began booking shows in the basement space at the restaurant Iron Barley. Dubbed Fred's Six Feet Under, the space currently hosts live music on Friday and Saturday and promises an intimate venue for fans of local talent.

Over Stag beer and cigarettes at the Tower Grove South bar Stella Blues, Friction discussed the dual resurgence of both his musical career and his role as talent-booker. If his persona as a bar-owner, radio host and man-about-town seems a bit larger than life, Friction's gentle demeanor and thoughtful, measured manner suggest that a sweet soul rests in his gruff exterior.

Christian Schaeffer: What got you back in the songwriting and playing mode?

Fred Friction: I've been writing off and on all the time and going to open-mic nights. I came here to Stella [Blues], and Jon Bonham and Tommy Halloran do an open mic on Monday nights. Tommy got to talking to me and introduced me to Patrick Crecelius, a graduate from Berklee College of Music who just moved back recently to St. Louis. Patrick has a small studio and was looking for a project. Tommy advised him to get together with me and said that I was coming out with a couple of different new songs every couple of weeks and probably had some material together. I was very fortunate to make the acquaintance of Patrick.

Part of what I like about the record is that it sounds like what you think a Fred Friction record should sound like. It doesn't sound like a studio record, in the sense that it's not too polished.

We went out of our way to keep it raw around the edges. Patrick would want to show off his production skills, and working with me, that was a problem in and of itself right there. There were a couple spots that were rough, and he suggested editing here and there and I told him not to. And there were other places where we need to nip and tuck.

Was there an overall aesthetic you were shooting for, where you wanted it rough around the edges?

I told him to keep Exile on Main St. in mind. This was going to be a record with various styles on it. I definitely didn't want to put out a novelty record of any sort, but I wanted some levity in there. As far as a loose concept, it's about one person going through life and what they're experiencing. Humor belongs in there, and a lot of it is rather bleak, but I think optimistic in the long run.

To be honest, I wasn't sure what to expect when I played the record. I knew you from the Highway Matrons, but I think a lot of people my age — I'm 27 — know you from the Music Lounge and know you from seeing you around, but don't know you as a musician.

Undoubtedly, there's gonna be some people thinking it's a record of all spoons songs. I played spoons on one track because I put myself in the listener's seat. There's no way I could go through 40 minutes of somebody playing spoons and playing their lungs out. But I wanted that element in there on something. And I was happy to get a broad cross-section of talent from all across and around St. Louis. There's at least seventeen or eighteen other people on the record.

Looking at the liner notes and seeing everybody who's on it, the album seems like a good representation of St. Louis talent.

I knew who I wanted to add particular items to the songs — who was good at what. And I decided I was gonna put a record out and call in all the favors and see if these people can help me out. And everyone I got in touch with was able to make a showing and contribute to the record. There were even people that couldn't make it, so I had plenty to choose from — all associations I had working at the club and booking the entertainment.

What do you miss the most about running Frederick's?

There's a lot of things I miss, and there's a lot of things I don't miss. Basically, if I have a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other, I'm happy. The live music, the intimate space — we had a good five-year run. We quit when we were behind, and the timing was right. It took up a major portion of my life — I had very little privacy. I was dedicated to making that work, and it was time for me to take a break.

People forget that you really did live there.

Sometimes, it meant me waiting in line to get into my own bathroom. People stepping over people sleeping on the floor, devoting my life to catering to that atmosphere to make sure that was successful. It wears you out after a while.

How is Fred's Six Feet Under [at Iron Barley] different?

It's a re-creation of sorts, but it's not going to be a duplication — that would be unsuccessful. Frederick's Music Lounge was then and there, this is something new, but I do miss having the intimate atmosphere to listen to live music in a small space, and a place that has cheap beer. Looking out for the artist and the customer — something where it doesn't cost an arm and a leg to get in, and the focus is on the music.

Do you see the solo record as the new start of your musical career?

Not necessarily. It was a piece of work I wanted and needed to create at that point in time. Whether it leads to something else is beside the point. It's what I did over my summer vacation, and that is that — the record is done. There will be live presentations, but very loosely, because this was not a particular band, this was me rounding up the people I needed to get this project going. If it does continue, it would involve a revolving tour of talent.

So you don't get the itch to get a band back together?

Sometimes, but then I slap myself.