When Janet Beveridge Bean and Catherine Irwin founded Freakwater in 1989, the term alt-country didn't exist. And yet that genre would later encompass the kind of twangy post-punk music that the duo played. But for whatever reason, Freakwater never broke big like many of its contemporaries. Still, Bean and Irwin have kept the group intact; the band is currently on tour to support the 20th anniversary reissue of 1994's Feels Like the Third Time. We recently spoke to the very funny duo via phone from Bean's Chicago home.
I like the mass email you sent about this tour in which you explained it's the first time you've had to do your own press since the late '80s. Talk about what that has been like.
Bean: It was kind of fun. When we came up with the idea to do the tour, we didn't have anything to tour on. I don't really understand the industry. I understand the words that there's no story and we couldn't get any press. We were forewarned that no one would come to our shows. I had to take matters into my own hands. My friend Sally [Timms] who plays with the Mekons, who are very savvy about doing things on their own, said, "Just email people and it will be fine." I like the personalized approach. We used to like to write our own bios and make them funny and we have been told that you can't do that. You can't have a funny bio because people might not get it. I have decided, "Fuck that. I don't care if they get it or not." This is just how I'd rather approach things.
Irwin: I think that's a protocol that a lot of people try to circumvent.
I know you don't have a new album out but you are touring behind the reissue of Feels Like the Third Time. Talk about what it's been like to revisit that album.
Irwin: The album is better than I thought it was. I hadn't listened to it in a long time. I think in some ways we haven't gotten any better but in many ways we have.
Bean: We've been super lucky in that the Hideout, which is a super great club here in town, has let us use their club to rehearse during the day, so we've been rehearsing in a more professional way than normal, which is usually just in a living room with all of us sitting around. It's been really good and the songs sound good. We're touring on that, but we have no albums to sell because the reissue is sold out. That's a stroke of brilliance on our part. But we've put together a couple of CDs that you can purchase as a double CD set or single. One is all studio stuff and one is all live stuff, from the dawn of time to not that long ago.
Irwin: Yes, and we're picking them up at Kinko's this afternoon so the plan is coming together like a zipper. We have about five hours left before we leave and we'll pick them up right before we leave.
Is Feels like the Third Time really an album that parents have passed down to their kids?
Bean: It's really true.
Irwin: Children of today like their parents a lot more than I did. I fear for the young people because they appear to be so fond of their parents. There really are people who like the same music as their parents. I do like the Clancy Brothers, but I don't know.
Bean: A lot of my friends had small kids when that album came out and they played it all time and grew up with it. Whenever I would go their houses, they would ask me to sing one of the songs for them. Now, there's alternative children's music and people make music for kids. But I don't like that. I like the fact that kids are listening to music that will prepare them for the real world.
It seems so somber. What was going on with you at the time to make it so melancholy?
Irwin: I think certain songs are peppy and cheerful and I'll say, "Let's do this song" because I think will liven up the set and everyone looks at me like I'm out of my mind. To me, there's a rainbow of emotions in the songs.
Bean: We once did a song that we thought was uptempo and fun ,and we got this accordion player who was this hotshot guy and we explained it and played it and he looked so puzzled.
Irwin: He said it was the slowest song he ever heard. He asked for a tape and said he'd come back tomorrow but he never did. It wasn't even the slowest song on the record.
Bean: Listening to all that live stuff to put together the CD, I think we are the only band in the history of the world that plays songs slower live than they are on the record.
Irwin: I feel like the songs were recorded faster than they should have been in the studio because the clock was ticking and we were putting money in the meter, so things that seemed slow should have been twice as slow as they are.
Bean: With our banter and how slow the songs are, we can get like 6 songs on a CD.
Talk about the ways in which the alt-country scene has evolved.
Bean: I can't say I've paid attention to it that much. When we started out, that word didn't exist and it didn't have a scene. Then there were bands with silly ass names. They faded away and then some have come back. It seems like there's been a cycle of that. Now, some bands that have a nod to that, like Mumford and Sons, the kids just seem to love that. Now maybe it's here to stay in some form or other.
Irwin: Are we not freaky folk?
Bean: No. We are freaky folk, personally, but our music isn't.
Irwin: Every few years, someone will interview us and tell us that we must be so excited because it's a golden time for us and there's a huge interest in what we're doing.
Bean: Then, we retreat.
Irwin: O Brother Where Art Thou was supposed to be a golden time for us and then we didn't make a record for another ten years. There's another interest right now and we're managing to do nothing to capitalize on it. We're not for sale. But that's also a reflection of the fact that no one is making an offer. I think we would be for sale. I personally would definitely be for sale. I'd like to get that out there.