Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Ant Farmers

Formed by Carl Petersen and Jon Little in 1988, the Ant Farmers  went against the grain in order to pursue their unique style.  Petersen's knack for writing energetically quirky pop songs and his keen ear for melodies, gave the Farmers their signature sound.  By adding a little jangle in the guitars and some nice harmonies they developed a style that resembled no other band on the local scene.  Jon Little in an interview with Laura Marrich in the Weekly Alibi, talked about the public perception of the band "We were considered a little on the wimpy side."  Invariably when the media would mention the Ant Farmers, they were described as lo-fi, a music genre, born in response to the overly produced  music of the 1980's. Whether by design (Springsteen's Nebraska) organic (R.Stevie Moore & Daniel Johnston) or by economic necessity (most local bands) the lo-fi aesthetic became part of the American musical landscape.  However in 1988, in Albuquerque, with arena rock still popular and grunge just around the corner, this step back from technology  was not greeted with enthusiasm. Jon Little would touch on this in the interview with Laura Marrich "There were people that said we sounded like REM or Yo La Tengo, sort of the softer indie type vibe, which wasn't popular then as it is now."

 The original line-up for the band consisted of  Jon Little (vocals) Carl Petersen (guitarist
 & vocalist) Bill Mudd (drums) and Darrell Sparks (bass).  The Ant Farmers played an unrushed mix of rootsy folk-rock. Carl's songs offered wry commentary on the ordinary things that happen to ordinary people.  Jon Little sang with a dry, unadorned voice that underlined Carl's straightforward observations. The band's comfortable enthusiasm combined with an easy, direct appeal, quickly converted casual listeners into loyal fans. The Ant Farmers made their recording debut in 1990 with the release of "Trailer Park Music."  Recorded at Ubik Sound in Albuquerque, it was co-produced by The Farmers and Manny Rettinger.  The homespun catchy narratives on "Trailer Park Music" revealed the formula they would continue to follow;  jangly guitar pop, vocal harmonies and slightly twisted lyrics.  The album rang true, it was great to hear something as unforced and down to earth as "Trailer Park Music" come out of the local music scene. The following year Ubik sound released   "Carport Thunder  Vol. 1"  a compilation that featured four iconic local bands (The Ant Farmers, The Saddlesores, A Murder of Crows & The Gutterleaves)   The Farmer's contributions (The Ford, Stick I Stand, Elvis Bird & Fraidy Cat) were  recorded at Ubik Sound studio with Manny Rettinger at the controls. These studio tracks, showed the group progressing without veering from  their established sound. Soon after  "Carport Thunder Vol. 1" came out, Bill Mudd left the group and was replaced by Robert Hobbs.

Released in 1993,  "Yarn" finds the band picking the pace up a notch without straying from their signature sound.  Three years removed from their first album, the growth and maturity was evident.  "Yarn" contains some of Carl's best compositions, there's more depth and complexity present both in the music and content.  Released on compact disc,  the digital mix brings more clarity to the instruments and vocals, allowing the subtlety of both to stand out.  "Yarn" came out on the band's own independent label "Nipsey Records" recorded at Winfield Sound in Albuquerque with Don Whittemore co-producing with the band.  It would prove to be the band's only real attempt at commercial success. Two years would pass before the Ant Farmers released another album. "Beautician" came out in 1995, also on Nipsey Records and self described as: "recorded by us at home." The album was a radical departure from "Yarn" the informal live takes, a far cry from the more finished tracks on the previous album.  Once more Carl Petersen's songwriting skills took center stage, the songs on "Beautician" reached a level of maturity and progression beyond those on "Yarn."  With the musicians  playing in a natural and relaxed setting, the heart and soul of the band shines through. Somehow, the band seemed stuck in a holding pattern, buying time or perhaps just tired of the grind.  Bass player, Darrell Sparks was gone, having left to start his own group.  Paula Blanchard a veteran of the Albuquerque music scene was brought in to replace him.

After "Beautician" the band went through a period of instability. First Paula Blanchard left the band, she was replaced by Steve Siegrist, who was then replaced by Michael Henningsen (ex-Strawberry Zots).  However the biggest blow came in 1997 when Jon Little either left or was asked to leave.  In a 2008  press release for the Timbre Obscura podcast (that featured Jon's (Church Camp) and Carl's (Clampett Report) solo projects)  Jon explained that "he was booted out due to his increasingly erratic and unpredictable behavior." From the start Jon's antics drew attention, as Jon explained it to Laura Marrich  "Real palatable sound with just a psycho weirdo front man.....And it worked, because people would go; "Let's see what that Jon Little's gonna do next"  but now his deteriorating mental state was affecting the band's performances.  Jon's  subsequent departure would result in the Ant Farmers breaking up.  Carl Petersen and Robert Hobbs regrouped as  The Webelos,  although Jon remembered it differently "The Webelos were Carl Petersen (vocals,guitar), Eric Kennedy (bass, ex-Elephant) and Jon Little (drums, vocals)" he commented. The group reformed (minus Jon Little) when Michael Henningsen rejoined the band, they also went back to calling themselves The Ant Farmers. With Carl as lead singer, they continued to play around town until their break-up in 1999.  The band never released another album after "Beautician." 

Carl Petersen is now the general manager of the The Weekly Alibi an alternative newspaper in Albuquerque. He continues to compose and record music, much like the Duke City version of  R. Stevie Moore, just with better social skills. He posts his recordings on My Space Music as The Clampett Report or Reportero Clampini.  Jon Little is also still involved in music, he regained his mental health, survived a prison stint and now lives in El Paso,Tx.  He is an activist and an author, having published two poetry collections, "Dixie Deer" and "The Plural of Deer" He has posted a prodigious amount of music under a variety of names including Jon Forrest Little, Church Camp, Space Pants, Serenata Radio, The Before Photos and The Suicide Kit all on My Space Music.  Darrell Sparks, is now a member of the old timey acoustic band, The Rivet Gang, which also includes Eric Johnson (ex-Gutterleaves & Mumble, an old associate of The Ant Farmers). Darrell has also been involved with Selsun Blue and his brother Brett's gothic country duo, The Handsome Family.  Michael Henningsen, besides his work with The Farmers and The Strawberry Zots, is well known as a music writer for The Weekly Alibi.  He now plays with the David Kurtz Band. Paula Blanchard played with A Murder of Crows before she joined the Ant Farmers and upon leaving the band she hooked up with Eric McFadden in Liar and then went on to join Hazeldine.  In October of 2010, the Ant Farmers  reunited for a few concert appearances.  No word yet if any recordings will result from this reunion.

Carl Petersen (top picture)  Jon Forrest Little (on ATV)