Although we live in a nonstop pop world of ant-sized attention spans, for most bands artistic growth still tends to happen gracefully and gradually over the span of several albums. Generally it's a long, slow arc, and rarely does an act go from the simple charms of Surfin' Safari to the grand aspirations of Pet Sounds in the downtime between a mere two releases. Thus, when a still-young band—the members only in, say, their late 20s—manages to successfully reinvent their sound with the arrival of their second record, it's a truly gratifying surprise. And that's precisely what's occurred with New Paltz outfit Breakfast in Fur, as the contrast between their 2011 eponymous debut, a jangly jumble of lo-fi dorm-room folk rock, and Flyaway Garden (Bar None Records), their new, epically scoped full-length, so colorfully plays out. At times, it doesn't even sound like both records were made by the same act.
"Our sound really started to change and we became a real band when we started playing live," explains singer and guitarist Dan Wolfe about what began as a home-recording effort. "We were living in Rosendale and playing at Market Market a lot, which was great. They let us do anything we wanted to there. That was after most of the music on the first record had been recorded, and by then I'd already been writing songs for a while."
A long while. Wolfe, the band's singer, rhythm guitarist and main songwriter was raised in Syracuse and introduced to music via his older brother, a bass player in fusion and jam bands. "The jam band thing was really big there because of the college [Syracuse University]," Wolfe says. "There was also a big hardcore punk scene, but I didn't really get into that music until I was in college, which I guess is really late for someone to get into punk." Hearing Radiohead in high school inspired him to write his first songs, but Wolfe didn't get serious about composing until he'd moved into a friend's laundry room in Ithaca and acquired an old Tascam four-track recorder. There, influenced by the bands associated with the Elephant 6 collective—Neutral Milk Hotel, the Apples in Stereo, the Olivia Tremor Control—he holed up and went to work, developing a similar style of basement psychedelia. In the summer of 2007, after an interim in Albany to study art, Wolfe matriculated to SUNY New Paltz to major in English, and the next chapter of Breakfast in Fur's hirsute history began.
Not long after his arrival, Wolfe heard painting student Kaitlin Van Pelt sing in a performance of Orff's Carmina Burana and later met her at a campus party. "Dan was starting to work on the music that ended up being on the Breakfast in Fur EP then, and he asked me if I'd sing on it," says the Long Island-reared vocalist and keyboardist, who'd been schooled in folk and country by her parents. "So we started hanging out, playing and listening to music. We watched [D. A. Pennebaker's 1967 Bob Dylan documentary] Don't Look Back together, and Dan turned me on to [Harry Smith's seminal 1952 compilation] the Anthology of American Folk Music. Hearing that had a really big effect on me." The connection between the couple was deeper than Wolfe had sensed at the outset. "I originally wanted to call the band the Green Typewriter, after an Olivia Tremor Control song, which I thought was a pretty obscure reference," he says. "And [Van Pelt] knew the song! I thought that was really cool."
Eventually Wolfe drew on his art background, naming the project for Surrealist Meret Oppenheim's 1936 sculpture of a fur-covered cup, saucer, and spoon. Guitar player Michael Hollis was Wolfe's roommate at the time he and Van Pelt were layering tracks in his home studio. Before long, Hollis was contributing to the recordings and urging Wolfe to perform the music live. One of the guitarist's fellow jazz studies majors, drummer Chris Walker, was roped in, along with a constantly morphing cast of other players that turned Breakfast in Fur into more of a collective than the pared-down unit it currently is (the group's ranks have at times swelled to as many as 10 players). "It's sort of the nature of a being a band in a college town," muses Wolfe. "Members come and go." The early, communal edition of Breakfast in Fur did its Rosendale residency and further figured out its sound by performing at other local venues. The group's self-titled EP, comprising six whimsical, intimate tracks featuring toy instruments, clinking percussion, and hushed vocals, initially appeared as a handmade CD-R given away at gigs and via counter displays at New Paltz record stores. One copy was snapped up by the entrepreneur behind Washington, D.C.'s Analog Edition label, who loved the music enough to rerelease it on 10-inch vinyl.
The band began making the trek down to play venues in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side, gaining attention with its ramshackle, psychedelic indie-folk sound, and recorded three cuts for New Paltz label Team Love's 2012 compilation, Die Pfalz. "Nate Krenkel from Team Love has been really supportive since when we first started playing out," Wolfe says. "And, really, the whole scene has. It's not competitive here, like it is in bigger cities. Bands help each other out." Again recorded in Wolfe's home studio (with outside assistance from Kevin McMahon of Marcata Recording and Dean Jones of No Parking Studios), Flyaway Garden sees the group maintaining its strong melodic hooks while lessening its previous, cabin-bound acoustic folk textures in favor of a sprawling, more electrified sound that takes in the edgy postpunk of Joy Division and My Bloody Valentine and the panoramic pop symphonies of Phil Spector.
It's a direction that caught the ear of Accord resident Rob Norris, the bassist of 1980s Hoboken, New Jersey, legends the Bongos, the all-star East of Venus, and Hudson Valley bands Tulula! and Living with Elephants. "I'm friends with Mike [Hollis], and he'd play me the stuff that they'd been recording," says Norris, who recommended his old Hoboken friend Glenn Morrow of Bar None Records check out his younger neighbors. "It had men and women playing together, which I always enjoy, and it was like everything good about the '80s wrapped up into one band. I heard a big Feelies influence, which I knew Glenn would also love because the Feelies are so important to Bar None. He wanted to sign them right away. I felt like a proud father."
If the new disc has a contiguous theme, according to Wolfe it's that of time and the way time is interpreted. "Shape," the album's clattering opener, was mostly written on the clock at his day job as a security guard at Dia:Beacon (both he and Van Pelt are employees at the sprawling art complex). "Some of the artwork there got me thinking about time as a physical entity, something that you can see and feel," he explains. Touching on the concept, the record's cover image, made by Van Pelt, depicts a four-year-old, not-yet-rock-star Wolfe at the height of geekdom in oversized glasses and bowl haircut.
The band's been touring considerably, going as far west as Chicago and south to Washington, D.C. , as well as other points on the East Coast, and plans to hit the road again in earnest now that the new album is out. Most local bands, once they get serious, tend to pull up their home-base stakes and head for the bright lights and big smoke of Brooklyn. Has Breakfast in Fur been tempted to follow suit? "Not really," Wolfe says. "Up here, we're close enough [to Brooklyn] and it's been such an accommodating area for us. I mean, this band just feels like a Hudson Valley band."
Flyaway Garden is out now on Bar None Records. Breakfast in Fur will headline a record release party at Snug's in New Paltz on February 6 and will perform at BSP Kingston on February 27. Breakfastinfur.com.