In my time I've seen Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop, David Bowie and various members of the Rat Pack, but by far the most charismatic performer I've ever laid eyes on, has got to be a man who goes by the stage-name of Little Fyodor (pronounced Fee-A-Door, like Dostoevsky). On the surface, he would appear to be the antithesis of what you'd expect of a Pop Star; and he is - deliberately so. He has consciously inverted the rock n' roll paradigm, and in so doing created a kind of bizarro-world version of the rock idiom.
That said, Fyodor's music is perhaps truer to the spirit of rock n' roll than anything produced by the sort of ersatz bad boys who feign defiance in Mtv music videos. Little Fyodor is a genuine outsider, a pop anti-hero who both laments and celebrates his alienation. His songs are well-crafted pop psychodramas that usher the listener into a funzone in which giddy glee and paranoia blur effortlessly into one another.
By way of introduction, we here reprint an interview I conducted with Fyodor roughly a decade ago. Welcome to the world of Little Fyodor...
Boyd: So how long have you been doing the Little Fyodor stuff?
Fyodor: Solo since about 1985. Before that I was in sort of a band called Walls Of Genus, though Little Fyodor was born in late '81. That's when I first started writing all these songs out of the desperate depression I was in.
Boyd: But you didn't have the name Little Fyodor at that point?
Fyodor: Not quite; that came later. That was originally a friend's idea as a joke. But I thought it was cool, because he knew I was reading [Fyodor] Dostoevsky at the time.
Boyd: So having this Little Fyodor character helped you exorcise all these things?
Fyodor: Yeah, it gave me a purpose in life, to express all the shit that was going on inside me. All I wanted to talk to people about was how depressed I was, but I thought, "I don't want to bum everyone out by talking about that." So I wrote these funny songs about it instead. Now I can entertain people with how depressed I am, instead of bumming them out.
Boyd: Yeah, it seems a real kind of psychodrama. It seems like a channel for focusing and expressing these feelings that probably go through most people's minds, but they don't really have any outlet for it. It just bubbles back there and festers.
Fyodor: Then they become mass murders and things like that. I think 'most everyone's got this stuff going on in them to one degree or another… I just wanted to examine all this shit rather than kind of try to brush it aside or repress it, or… I 'm not sure how people deal with it. It kind of slowly goes away as you become middle-aged, but I didn't want to wait that long, at the time, I guess. You know, you're young and impatient… Before I started doing songs, I was trying to be a writer, but being a writer's so much more difficult. I'd walk around in my room trying to think of something to write - that didn't help much. I'd come up with all these great ideas for novels and stuff, but I'd never get around to writing them. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of Nathaniel West - whose real name was Nathan Weinstein - and write short novels of nasty satire, on how fucked up everything really was. His style of writing is what I'd call minimalism. It's almost like his style of writing and The Ramones' style of writing songs - those are combined influences. All these short snappy satires that are just so black in their nature, so negative - at looking at the underside of human life that most people want to brush aside - and yet they're so hilarious in the way they deal with it. So in that sense West's work was very therapeutic for me when I was depressed, because I could just laugh at all this stuff. So I feel I'm kind of on a mission to give that back to all the other insects out there.
Boyd: There aren't many people who succeed at doing stuff that is really funny - it entertains you and you can laugh at it - and yet it has that weird, dark undertone, or sometimes sort of mean-spiritedness.
Fyodor: Hardly anyone wants to be both funny and sincere nowadays. You're either sincere and deep - and you take a serous tone - or you're comical, but not sincere… most people who try to do both are really just making fun of poor schleps who're anti-social and stuff. What I'm doing is satire, but I'm not really making fun of poor schleps - I'm empathizing with poor schleps because I'm kind of a poor schlep myself. But on the other hand, I wanted to raise it above the dreariness of schlep-existence and bring it to another level. So if I'm making fun of anything, it's just human existence; we're a race full of schleps. It's kind of funny when you think about it, but when your experience is schlepness, it's more painful. What I do is kind of the opposite of the ancient Greeks. I heard that Nietzsche admired the Greeks for expressing life as tragic, but the plight of the individual as comic. I'm sort of the other way around. I guess it's mainly because I can't take seriously crooners expressing how sad they are. To me it's just kind of hilarious - but on the other hand, pain is real, too. I'm just trying to express both at the same time. I think there's no contradiction there, and I've always found myself disgusted with the notion that you have to take a serious tone to express serious feelings. I disagree with that totally.
Boyd: People seem to pick-up on either the funny side of what you do, or the sad side. A lot of people don't see both sides of your expression.
Fyodor: I think that's just because they're not used to it. They're trained to think it's one or the other. I think the people who see more of the serious side, are people who have heard the recordings, but haven't seen me live. Sometimes I get reactions like; someone once saw me live and thought I was so silly I'd make Joe 'King' Carrasco look like a depressive intellectual - but then, in Options, this reviewer wrote, "This guy bums me out. This guy just hates the world. He thinks everything sucks, and his band obviously agrees."
Boyd: It all seems stuff that's your real feelings, but an exaggeration of them at times.
Fyodor: I like to use the word 'caricature.'
Boyd: I was going to say 'caricature,' but I didn't know if that would be good…
Fyodor: In a way it's like stick figures. People say to me, "Boy, are you really like this?" And it's kind of like, you only have to feel something for five seconds and you can write a song out of it.
Boyd: It's like an exaggeration, and at the same time, it's all very real. I'm sure that stuff has gone through a lot of peoples' minds, but they might prefer to turn on the TV and make it go away.
Fyodor: By exaggerating it and by making it humorous, you can deal with things a lot more intensely than you can when you're being realistic or somber, because you can get more at the root of it all. The humor kind of sugar-coats it in a way, and the exaggeration kind of blows it up, so you see it like a big picture. Like, "Nobody Wants to Play With Me" - I wrote that actually as a result of working the graveyard shift at the Hotel Boulderado, and seeing all these people… I was new to town so I didn't know anyone, and here I was the front desk clerk with a goddamn tie and stuff, and feeling very neurotic, and all these people were like drinking and partying all around me. So I wrote a song about someone whose whole life was like that, from point A to point Z.
Boyd: I think most people think your stuff is either funny, or stimulating... I focus on stuff like that because I hear it and think, "God, that's exactly right!"
Fyodor: People are so into falling into molds; they like to mold themselves just so they know what they are. I was never able to do that for myself, and that's why I had these mixed feelings and paradoxes and dilemmas going on within myself. I've never been able to mold myself as easily as some people do. I don't know; that might sound smug or something… and actually, here's why it's not smug: because a lot of the time I would have wanted to. I've had a lot of people - when I told them I wanted to be a hippie or things like that - go, "I thought you were an individualist." And I'd say, "Yeah, but that was by accident!" Doing Little Fyodor is what really helped me become comfortable with being an individualist. Until then, I was always trying to fit in somehow, but always failing.
Boyd: And it's even worse - you're even more of an outcast - when you try to fit in someplace where you're obviously not meant to fit in.
Fyodor: It seems like that was everywhere. Especially after progressive rock started becoming commercial - that was the last time I fit into anything; when I was in high school, and an ELP freak. And then all those bands like The Strawbs and ELP started singing all these really sappy love songs, and I thought it sucked, but all my friends were like, "Oh, this is great! This is great!", and I was like, "What's wrong with you?" That's when I really started going into the ozone, because I lost the one thing that had anchored me: my progressive rock, and all my friends that were into progressive rock. I started seeing through it. Then I started getting into '60s rock, but then I started seeing through that, when I was tripping at a Grateful Dead concert and everyone else was getting into the cosmic experience of the Grateful Dead, and I got into the cosmic experience of realizing that everyone's excited just because they want to be excited. That's what I'm seeing: here's a crowd, here's a band. It's just a coincidence that they're both here.
Boyd: A lot of the stuff you do has an abstract edge to it, but in a lot of ways it's classic rock, the way the guitar and keyboards interact; so it's hard to pin-down your influences.
Fyodor: That confuses people, because they don't know whether to call it avant-garde or rock, because it's sort of neither. My main influences were really late '70s punk, The Ramones, The Buzzcocks, The Sex Pistols, and all the stuff where you just strum the hell out of the guitar and bleed out all your feelings. On the other hand it's not just normal - when I tell people I was influenced by The Ramones, a lot of times they don't see any relation at all. Plus I have a more open-minded attitude as to what music could or should be. It doesn't have to be all one thing - a lot of times it takes on other influences - it can be more abstract. It's not like I think if you don't have a bass and drums, you're not allowed on a stage. I just do whatever works. I picked up a guitar as a kid and put it down when I was listening to progressive rock, because I thought I could never play all those leads and stuff like that. Then after The Ramones, I thought, "Well, maybe all I need to do is play chords? I love to play like that." There is a little bit of that pure musician in me that loves strumming a guitar; it's kind of like throwing a Frisbee or something. But it's not the point of what I'm doing; I wouldn't be doing this except that I've got these ideas I want to express, and strumming on the guitar is one way to do it. When I heard The Ramones, that put a big smile on my face; but I'd given up on being a hippie, so I wasn't really going to try being a punk, because they were all taking fashion real seriously and all I wanted was to put on was a t-shirt and jeans, and not comb my hair. So I didn't really fit in with the punks either, even though I liked a lot of their music. That's when I realized I was on my own. But that's when I started writing some songs, kind of influenced by The Ramones. The first one was "Useless Shit." It was right after college; I was a flop with girls, I had a shitty job, and I was hanging out with these friends, who I kind of liked, but I couldn't really communicate with. Then I got into avant-garde music, and then into Walls of Genius. We were kind of an experimental band, but we bucked a lot of rules for experimental bands, because we did cheesy '60s songs, too. We did anything and everything, and that was a lot of fun; I was the Assistant Head Moron. At our live shows, Ed Fowler, one of the guitarists, decked us out in these outlandish clothes he found in thrift stores. They told me to go out first because they thought I was really funny, the way I sang and stuff. And suddenly, once again, I realized I'd found my place in life: onstage. I just got into wearing those clothes. It was the first style in my life that I ever enjoyed. Eventually that broke up. Little Fyodor is a much more focused thing. Occasionally my depravity showed through in Walls of Genius; the other guys were a little scared of that. I think they wanted to be a little more of a light-hearted, cheesy kind of thing. One of them only got serious when it came to left-wing politics. He did songs like, "Fuck You Ronald Regan," which I always felt a little uncomfortable with. Not that I liked Ronald Regan, but it just seemed so cliché to say, "Fuck You Ronald Regan."
Boyd: So many of my friends in San Francisco were into that, and I'd always think, "These people are kind of smart, and so talented, and it seems like a waste of their talent to do something that you could have on a bumper-sticker. Why bother to tell someone something they already know?" It's like, "What, everybody loves Ronald Regan? You're like wising-them-up to the fact that he may be a goof or something?"
Fyodor: Well it was basically sloganeering. I went along with it, but it wasn't how I'd really have expressed myself. I want everything to be connected to what's going on inside me, so if I sing, "The world's doomed," it's because I'm doomed. I try to make the connection. I think one of the biggest problems in politics is everybody thinking, "I'm right and you're fucked up." I try to show that in some of my songs, but I never want to preach to people, because people will listen to whatever they're going to listen to. They're going to hear what they want to hear and they'll tune out every thing don't, so there's really no point. I'm not interested in it anyway. Though if I could encourage people to think for themselves…
Boyd: That's something people will either do, or they won't do.
Fyodor: That's probably true - it's kind of an impossible dream for me, anyway. I like to write songs that invite people in by giving them something to relate to, and then put it in a context in which what they're relating to is something they would have seen in other people; like this is them, not me. So I try to create that cognitive dissonance, so that people have to see in themselves what they don't want to see; or see in other people things that they don't like, that are in them. So on the other hand, if people just think it's all a big goof, well aesthetically I prefer that to being taken overly seriously. Although I know on the other hand… I know that only when people start writing about what a genius I am, that's the only time I'll ever get popular - like The Talking Heads and all that kind of crap. That always pissed me off, when people would come up in my face and go, "Don't you realize what a genius David Byrne is?" That always used to piss me off so much, just because his lyrics never made any sense.
Boyd: Maybe if you started writing lyrics people didn't quite understand, they'd think, "This guy must be really smart, because he knows what this means, and I can't quite catch on."
Fyodor: I just can't bring myself to do that. Not for moral reasons - I just don't know how. This is the only thing I know how to do, really, is writing these songs that are results of dilemmas that I'm going through, and yet at the same time, seeing the absurdity of it all. I'm just now finishing songs that I wrote years ago, when I was really depressed. It's like, "I'm going into the studio next week, I guess I'd better finish up that song." I started "The Blackness" ten years ago; I started finishing it a couple years ago, when I was driving into the mountains and thinking about how I was polluting the mountains in order to appreciate them. That's when I started writing the lines of, "I know the arguments are good and long, about how all that I do is wrong." On the other hand, I know that you just have to not give a shit, or the best thing you can do environmentally is to kill yourself. When I pointed that out to someone, they said that if that's true, then what you want to do is take as many people with you first…
Boyd: That's really deep ecology - six feet under!
Fyodor: The richer, the better, of course. The rich use more resources… So you could go to some disco and try and kill as many rich people as you can at one time…
Boyd: Yeah, that's what David Berkowitz wanted to do. He was going to do it the very night they caught him. Darn the luck, huh?
Fyodor: Well, the world is filled with would-have-beens…