Chicago Sun-Times
Tuning in with Thomas Conner

Fighting the good Fite

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Released via his personal Web site and available only as a free download, “Over the Counter Culture” by New York’s hip-hop folkie Tim Fite was one of the strongest releases of 2007 -- a worthy follow-up to his Anti- Records debut “Gone Ain’t Gone” (2005), and a powerful, multi-layered assault on a culture obsessed with consumerism but blissfully ignorant of the cost of war.

Now, as Fite prepares to release his third solo album “Fair Ain’t Fair” on Anti- in May, he’s touring as an opening act for Primus leader Les Claypool and playing to some of the biggest audiences of his career. I caught up with the genre-blurring multi-media artist via phone from his home in Brooklyn before the start of this tour.

Q. How is the new album “Fair Ain’t Fair” different from “Over the Counter Culture,” given that they were both recorded the same way in your home studio? Why is one being released on Anti- while the other was given away for free on the Net?

A. There’s really no difference, except this time people have to pay for it! Basically, I made “Over the Counter Culture” to get my mess out so I could make something a little bit cleaner and not so troubled with “Fair Ain’t Fair.” You know, like if you’re making a bologna sandwich when you really wanna eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and you f-- up and put peanut butter on the bologna, it doesn’t taste very good when you eat it. So I had to make the peanut butter sandwich first, and now I’ve made the bologna sandwich.

Q. It’s ironic, though, that “Over the Counter Culture” garnered more attention than anything you’ve done in your career since your earlier novelty rap group Little-T and One Track Mike had a hit with “Shaniqua” in 2001.

A. Right, which is totally shocking to me, because I just did “Over the Counter Culture” as medicine. It blew my mind that it got that much attention! It makes me wonder whether or not my filters are wrongfully placed.

To me, making music is so varied. People are like, “This is what my band sounds like.” In my mind, that’s so limiting: I don’t know what I sound like! When I hear my voice on a record, sometimes I don’t even recognize it as my own.

How am I supposed to know what I sound like? I want to try everything that I can try, and sometimes, in order to do one thing, I have to do another thing first. I like to do things in threes, so “Gone Ain’t Gone” was the first in my mind of the triplets. “Fair Ain’t Fair” is the follow-up to “Gone Ain’t Gone,” even though there was a record in between. At the same time, I’ve been joking about writing a record called “Under the Table Tennis” as the sequel “Over the Counter Culture.”

Q. Has anybody at Anti- said, “‘Fair Ain’t Fair’ had better get as least as much attention as ‘Over the Counter Culture,’ the album you gave away for free!”

A. No one said anything about that, but they’re really nice. I was surprised by how willing they were for “Over the Counter Culture” to be released the way it was. [Anti- president] Andy [Kaulkin] would gladly have put that out for money: He was like, “If you had handed me that as the follow-up to ‘Gone Ain’t Gone,’ even though it sounded nothing like that, no problem, I’d have sold it!” He was into it. But with certain political stances comes certain political practices: You can’t release an anti-consumer record via consumerist pathways.

Q. That’s very noble of you, Tim. But at the same time, you’re a talented artist, and you should be able to make a living. You shouldn’t have to deliver pizzas!

A. Yeah, I know! But I think right now everybody who makes music or puts out records or does anything creative is a little bit fearful of having to deliver food. Those things will work out in time, but if I have to deliver food for the rest of my life, maybe I will. I already worked at the Wal-Mart.

Music is so personal, I’ve just never come to terms with the idea of selling something that’s so important to me. It just doesn’t compute. I know that it’s something I have to do; I have a manager now who’s supposed to keep me in line. He tells me, “When somebody comes and says they don’t have enough money to buy your CD or a T-shirt or a button, you don’t give it to them for free. They have to come back with some money!” But that doesn’t compute for me. If somebody comes up to me and says, “I would really like to have this thing that you made and I like it so much, I’ll appreciate it as much as you’d want me to, but I don’t have enough money to buy it,” I don’t think that’s enough reason for them not to have it.

Q. On this tour, are you performing as a duo again with your brother Greg working the keyboards and computer videos?

A. Yeah, it’s very similar to the other shows I’ve done. It costs a lot of money to pay a full band, and I dream of the days when I can have a full band and do a lot more with the visuals. It’s hard, because there are only two of us to drive the van, and splitting all those hours between two people driving and then having to play shows is like, “Ugh!”

But I’m doing a lot more with the vocals now. I used to think of everything from a hip-hop point of view: “You run your main line; you do your doubles; you throw on your adlibs and you’ve got your vocal tracks.” Now, on this new record, I’m thinking about arrangements a lot more. I was doing that with the talking a lot on “Over the Counter Culture,” I was getting really excited about things stepping on other things and the way the lyrics intertwine and the things in the background changing the meaning of the things in the front. With this new record, I tried to do that and add the complicated qualities of harmony and melody into the equation.

Q. And how did you link up with Les Claypool?

A. The rumor that I heard from my manager who talked to the booking agent was that Les Claypool called and said, “When is Tim Fite free to open for me?” That’s a cool thing. Usually we’ll be calling people and saying, “Take us on tour, please? Me and Greg need to clock more hours in the van so we can get jobs driving trucks next year!” But he’s an adventurous music lover, and I think his fans as well are open to different kinds of stuff. He’s also toured with the Coup, and basically, if his fans can jump from Les Claypool to the Coup, I think they’ll be into what I’m doing, because I’m sort of like a mix of Les Claypool and the Coup.

FACTS
Les Claypool, Tim Fite
8 p.m. Saturday
Vic Theatre, 3145 N. Sheffield
Tickets $29
(773) 472-0449

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