At some point as a young teen in Royal Oak, Michigan, Dean Fertita wrote the phrase “Hello=Fire” on a scrap of paper during a computer class because it “sounded cool,” he surmises. Not because he actually knew what it meant back then as a middle schooler, although these days, Fertita can now certainly apply the fascinatingly ambiguous formula to a host of situations in life. Which makes the man’s breathlessly taut solo venture all the more compelling in context, and a cause for celebration for the in-demand multi-instrumentalist who has served as a background go-to guy for much of his career. The songs have as rambling a history and tapestry as the man penning them.

Long a respected player on the Detroit music scene, legendary classic rock bands such Led Zeppelin inspired a twenty-something Fertita to form highly regarded ’60s psych-poppers the Waxwings in 1997, landing him square on the radar of tastemakers and record label impresarios of the burgeoning indie scene. Three well-received albums later, the band went into hibernation in 2005, allowing the ever resilient and well-connected Fertita to jump into the studio and tour van with high-school friend Brendan Benson, and later Benson’s band with Jack White, the Raconteurs, as touring keyboardist and organ player. It was during this period of time that the original nuggets for what would become the debut Hello=Fire effort began to take shape. The open road called again in 2007 when Fertita was asked by Josh Homme of rock titans Queens of the Stone Age to man the keys on tour before joining the group as a full-time member with 2008’s Era Vulgaris. Despite all the non-stop worldwide adventures, Fertita still found time to hit the studio wherever he could with Benson and his friends in QOTSA. All told, six studios between London and Los Angeles were home to the Hello=Fire sessions, but it would be nearly two more years before the project would see the light of day and a built-in audience. Enter the stormy bitches brew of the Dead Weather, the Nashville-based quartet that Fertita formed with the Kills’ Alison Mosshart and old Raconteurs buddies Jack White and Jack Lawrence in 2009.

As the lead guitarist and one of the main songwriters for the Dead Weather, the sincerely humble Fertita has now risen to worldwide prominence as the purveyor of some of the most indelible blues-rock carnage of the last decade. Quite simply, he likes it sweaty, and nowhere is this more evident than the no-holds barred riffs of Dead Weather hits such as Horehound’s “Treat Me Like Your Mother,” and Sea of Cowards’ phenomenal “Blue Blood Blues” and “Die By the Drop.” What was once a secret is now common knowledge: Fertita has arrived. Those dog days of playing the straight man to more famous friends are now over.

An agile, free-wheeling slice of psychedelic garage pop brimming fevered rushes of unhinged organ, cowbell and tambourine, Hello=Fire is as big-hearted as it is refreshingly rough around the edges. From album standouts such as the buoyant swagger of opener “Certain Circles” and “She Gets Remote” to more intimate, quieter tracks such as lead single “Nature of Our Minds” and the heartbreaking closer  “Parallel,” Hello=Fire is a satisfyingly versatile statement from an artist finally getting his due…  with a little help from his friends.

Do you remember the first time you wrote down the phrase Hello=Fire and where you were?

[Laughs] It’s funny. I don’t remember it at all! A few years ago, I was going through a lot of old stuff of mine and I came across a piece of paper… from seventh or eighth grade. The more I looked at it, it seemed like it was from a computer class or something. I thought it was cool that it had this ambiguity about it. You can make up whatever you want to about what it means.

The name reminded me of this class I took back in college. The TA hit us with this theory that we only communicate out of guilt. So when I really thought more about the name Hello=Fire, it got me thinking about communication.

Cool! I’m glad that’s what happened when you saw it, because that was my reason for keeping it. It could just go any way, and completely open to anyone’s interpretation.

I recently interviewed Jack Lawrence and the Greenhornes about how the group’s musical education in Ohio might have influenced their sound. Classic rock influences and Creedence came up at one point. How does your upbringing in Detroit rear its head with Hello=Fire?

I think a lot of the stuff is really burned in your subconscious when you’re growing up, especially since it was the early 70s with all the classic rock stuff. All of our friends were listening to Zeppelin and Sabbath and so forth. Or even the Stooges. I was thinking about this the other day, and I was 10 or 11 when I first heard the Dead Kennedys and it was such a musical upbringing for me, personally. I don’t know if it’s specific to the area or what, but it seemed like a lot of people were really educated and knew about a lot of music early on. So it made a huge impression on me growing up.

The album seems to have some spacey, experimental elements, too. Was David Bowie an influence at all?

Absolutely, but I was also influenced by Eno and things like that too. Yeah, it’s all in there!

I feel that the Midwest tendency towards straightforward, honest work ethic and emotions thoroughly comes out on the album. You’re not hiding behind anything here, technology or otherwise.

I think that probably has something to do with the way it was recorded. It was never intended to be a record. I was writing, and Brendan Benson and I were going back and forth working on each other’s songs, and before I knew it I had a bunch of songs started. When I was touring over the past couple of years, on days off I would find a studio and go in and finish something else. So those guys were around, and played on the record and everything with me. It kind of happened by accident. I felt like I had enough songs that sounded like a record to me, and I didn’t know what I would do with the songs otherwise. It seemed like the right thing to do.

One the most fascinating things about this project was how long you’d been working on it, and what the material lived through with you. From your tours with Queens, the Raconteurs and Dead Weather, these songs have seen your life completely change. Did that inspire a lot of tinkering when you’d find time in the studio?

[Laughs] You know, it might now, but when it was being done, I didn’t think very far ahead about it. It was something I felt I just had to do, and I didn’t have a lot of time. So I got as many things out as I could in a couple hours.

Brendan Benson appears to have been a tremendous partner for you with the record. I imagine you two must have a formidable creative shorthand with each other at this point, working so much together over the years, and knowing each other since high school.

[Laughs] I feel like I’ve been away from him so much these past couple of years with each other touring and doing different things, but I feel very connected to him. When I was just out of high school there were two friends of mine that influenced me probably more than anything, what I was listening to, that I grew up to and everything like that. And one of them was Brendan. I still have this cassette that he gave me – early 4-track versions of songs. A few of them ended up on One Mississippi, and a couple I don’t think he ever did anything with. It was that and another friend of mine – Cranford Nix (of The Malakas) – he isn’t around anymore, but those guys made me think about music in a different way. I quit thinking about just being a guitar player and thought more about songwriting. That I still have a relationship with Brendan after all these years means a lot to me, for sure.

It’s amazing that so many of you guys from the Detroit area who have known each other for so long are still this close-knit group even as your lives have changed and you’ve all become such well-known artists.

I think we’re all still looking forward a lot. Not that we don’t appreciate the things that have happened or anything like that. There’s still so much to do, and we haven’t been… at least I haven’t been super-reflective yet.

I saw the Dead Weather show this summer at Prospect Park in Brooklyn without knowing it was the last major show for a long time, and when the four of you bowed before the audience at the end, it seemed like an emotional moment for the band.

You know, we try not to talk about it too much. We all expect to see each other and play again at some point. But everything that happened with that band was special because it wasn’t planned. Everything was just a gift. We didn’t really get to… it was upsetting to know that we weren’t going to see each other and play for awhile, but I don’t think everyone felt like that was the last of it.

Just to dig in to your history with Brendan, when you were younger and in school, did you discuss music a lot with each other? What were you both excited about?

[Laughs] I don’t even remember that! I remember having him in a sociology class. I think when we started talking about music more it wasn’t until we were out of high school. We liked a lot of the same stuff – a lot of ‘60s… like the Kinks, stuff like that.

One of the greatest facets of this record is how live it feels. As if there was no rehearsal or micro-managing-type preparation in the sessions. It doesn’t feel like you and Brendan fussed with the arrangements too much, even though the instrumentation feels complicated and very layered, and it was recorded in so many different studios, it’s still a very cohesive record.

That was the thing about it that made me feel like it was a record. I didn’t really expect it to, given the fact that it was recorded in so many places! Stretching over a time period of a year and a half, or whatever it was… friends of mine and people I trusted told me that it feels like it should be a record. I trust ‘em!

Did surrounding yourself with close friends such as Brendan and QOTSA’s Michael Shuman during the album’s sessions help you feel comfortable enough to finally get these ideas and songs recorded?

Definitely. I don’t know if I would have gotten to it if it wasn’t for their help.

How do you think the record would’ve turned out if left to your own devices?

[Laughs] I don’t know! I would probably have spent too much time thinking about it and not just doing it. But who knows? I’m already working on new stuff. I don’t know where it’ll end up yet. I find that I can’t really sit still for very long. I have to work. I was just so lucky to have people around that were really inspiring and got me moving, because sometimes you can really go in circles if left along for too long.

So much of the record feels like it’s about love, the dynamics of a relationship, or the confusion that stems from it. Even the song titles seem to document a narrative such as “She Gets Remote,” “She’s Mine in Sorrow” and “Looking Daggers,” and “Parallel” closing the album saying, “We don’t have to separate to keep ourselves in place.” Is this all coincidence?

I don’t know that I would say it’s a coincidence. I didn’t think of it in terms of the concept of a record. So it was really one by one. And it goes back to that in the end, it really does feel cohesive, and had a thread going through it that was tying it all together. I think you’re always going to write about experiences and emotions and relationships, and the things that affect everybody on a day-to-day basis more than anything.

I hear you’re back working with Queens of the Stone Age right now?

After that Prospect Park show, we actually did one small club show the next night. And then 12 hours later, I was in rehearsals in L.A. with Queens. So it was really a whirlwind. It had been two years since we had played together but it felt pretty on track. We’d already done a few tours, and we’re working on a new record right now. Things are good. I’m hoping that we’ll see a lot of new music from Queens, and hopefully I can get more stuff out of my own, too.

http://www.helloequalsfire.com/

 
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