Hold the front page. After twenty-five years Fred Abong has reappeared brandishing two new solo EPs. The former Throwing Muses and Belly bassist tells us why.
When we booked tickets to see Kristin Hersh promoting her fantastic Possible Dust Clouds album last year, one major surprise was noting that she was touring not only with 50Ft Wave drummer Rob Ahlers, but also with Fred Abong on bass. Now this was a name we had not heard for many a year. Fred first came to our attention in 1990 when he joined Throwing Muses when Leslie Langston decided to quit, and played bass on 1991’s astonishing album The Real Ramona. After a tour promoting the record around Europe and the States, that version of the band ground to a halt and Abong became a founder member of Belly along with bandmate Tanya Donelly, featuring on the 1993 debut album, Star. The future looked bright for the band when the record made it number two in the UK albums chart, but instead of enjoying the ride to success, the release of the album signalled Abong’s departure from the fold and he quit the music industry altogether. And that was the last we thought we would hear of him.

It was only after twenty-five years had lapsed that Fred decided to emerge from his self-imposed exile to release Homeless, a six-track solo EP of reflective acoustic songs, all of which ran in at around two minutes. He followed this up in March 2019 with another six-tracker, Pulsing, where the songs were slightly better fed and just a touch weightier. Knowing the man only as a bassist, these stripped-down recordings came as a surprise, featuring very little else than acoustic guitar, but his thoughtful compositions had an appealing purity to them and though at first listen they may have appeared unassuming, they were gentle growers that wrapped themselves around you with prolonged exposure.

So, Fred, how did you while away the ‘lost’ years?

After I left Belly I got married and started a family. I also began to explore my own music, but very slowly and sporadically, primarily because of the demands of full-time work and parenthood. Up until I returned to school in 2009, I (barely ... not quite) paid the bills as a carpenter and eventually as a cabinetmaker, with intermittent stints in various low-paying, character-building jobs, such as hotel maid, US Postal Service warehouse drone, frozen food stocker, and landscaper, among other things. Amid all that juggling, my ‘scholarly’ interests in things like spirituality, philosophy, astrology, personality theory, and science were entirely self-motivated. In many ways, they filled the void left by music during these ‘lean’ years; but they were not a replacement ... nothing replaces music.

A brief period in 2003-05 did bring music back into my life, a spurt during which I wrote what I consider to be my first ‘real’ songs. But that was relatively short-lived, as the birth of my third child in 2004 put me squarely back in ‘responsibility mode’. In 2009, I began my official path towards a PhD, finishing it in 2015. Shortly after, I reconnected with Kristin and found the ‘space’ for music being opened once again (she’s like that). On her urging, and with her encouragement, I began listening for songs again and trying my hand at self-recording and self-releasing whatever wasn’t too embarrassing. That’s where I’m at now ... listening and waiting for the music to tell me what to do (with Kristin, thankfully, mercifully, and beautifully at my side).

How are you finding the touring after so long away?

It’s great. Even 'normal' in a way. Although I’ve been out of the game for the last twenty-five or so years, I always had a sense that I would return at some point, but not solely as a bass player. I had the feeling that I'd also be exploring things as a solo artist. So, this all feels quite natural and on schedule. The touring life is quite wonderful at the moment.

Did you play many dates with the Muses or Belly back in the 1990s?

Yes, but more with the Muses than with Belly. I did a full UK/European tour as well as a long US tour with the Muses in support of The Real Ramona. With Belly, on the other hand, I only did three or four shows before I split.

Did you grow up in Rhode Island? There seems to be a pretty tight-knit community of musicians there?

Yes, I was born and raised in Newport, Rhode Island. If by tight-knit community you mean that many RI musicians know or know of one another, then that’s probably true. But as I'm kind of a lone wolf by nature, my involvement or contribution to anything like a musical community is pathetically low. That is not to say that I don't value such a thing. It’s just to recognise that my path has been more influenced by personal taste and experience than by any kind of scene.

I read that your early forays were in the hardcore field. Were you angry?

Hahaha. Yes, I would say that I was a pretty angry youth. But I was also a happy kid. I don’t think I was special in this regard. I suppose the fact that the hardcore movement happened to coincide with my adolescence was a happy accident, though. Like adolescence, hardcore was pretty testosterone-driven, so in some ways my attraction to it was overdetermined by hormones. But although I was attracted to the intensity of hardcore, I wasn’t always a fan of the lack of invention in the genre. There was much repetition and, like any 'style' of music, lots of uninteresting derivative stuff being produced. I was generally most interested and compelled by the innovators, bands like Bad Brains, Black Flag and Minor Threat. Before getting into hardcore, I was listening to things like The Ramones, The Clash, and The Dead Kennedys. All these bands were, to my mind, more song-oriented, less concerned to stay within the confines of a genre. I found this appealing.

How did you become involved with Throwing Muses? I assume you knew Kristin and Dave already?

Yeah, we all went to the same high school. They were in the grade ahead of me, and though we actually never hung out in high school, we were aware of one another as musicians and kindred spirits. I was brought into the fold after Leslie decided to leave the band. My understanding is that the band had made a very short list of replacements for Leslie, and I was among them. But they didn’t call or reach out to me to make this known. Rather, I ran into Dave in a local video store one day and we got to talking. He said that the band was losing Leslie, and I shyly offered to try out as her replacement if they were interested. Dave told me that my name had actually been tossed around, and so we exchanged phone numbers. The funny thing is that I never actually 'tried out' for the band, meaning I didn't show up at a rehearsal with a bass guitar in hand. Instead, I remember (vaguely) meeting with Kristin and Tanya at Kristin’s apartment and just chatting for a bit. Next thing I knew, I was in the band.

The Real Ramona very much marks a change in style for the band: less manic, more controlled. How much do you think you influenced the band's sound on the record?

Hmmm. I’m not sure I influenced it in any way. It just seemed to me that the songs were what they were.

Do you think you approached your bass playing more melodically than Leslie?

I don’t even really see myself as a bassist. Leslie is a bassist. Bernard is a bassist. I am someone who plays bass occasionally. Historically, I began my musical journey on the classical guitar. Growing up, I had (still have) two older brothers who played classical guitar. One of these brothers, Frank, actually taught the instrument. Though I never took lessons from him or learned to read music, he and my other brother, John, showed me a few of the basics: names of strings, a scale or two, and the fingerpicking style particular to the classical guitar. I am forever indebted to them for this. Around the same time (age 12 or 13) I also developed a strong interest in playing drums. Once again, my brother John helped me to find my way behind a drum kit. So, though I didn’t realise it at the time, I was simultaneously developing a feel for both melody and rhythm, which is obviously the space where the bass sits. Or at least that's the way I see it. So, I play bass like a drummer-guitarist.

What was the mood of the band at the time? Did it feel like a band that was going to fall apart? Were there obvious tensions there?

I don’t really recall there being an identifiable 'mood'. Of course, I was walking into an already existing situation whose atmosphere I took for granted. Honestly, I was so petrified and self-conscious at the time that the least of my concerns was identifying and understanding the tensions (if there were any) between the other band members. I guess you could take the break-up of the band as 'evidence' of tensions, but it may also have been a natural progression.

Why did you decide to join Belly with Tanya?

The fact of the matter is that Kristin had decided to break up Throwing Muses during the recording of The Real Ramona because she wanted out of Warner Bros. So for all intents and purposes, Throwing Muses were no longer a band long before the album was even released and the tour supporting the record was done with this reality lurking in the background. What I'm getting at here is that I didn’t 'leave' Throwing Muses to start Belly. There was no Throwing Muses to leave; rather, there were four young people trying to figure out their next steps. I can’t speak for anyone else here regarding that confusing period, but I personally was interested only in my development as a musician/songwriter. Like many, I was not very sure about who I was or what my goals were and advanced age has not solved this issue! Instead, I had (and still have) more of a 'negative theology' working. That is to say that I had a keener sense of what I didn’t want than what I did want. Perhaps the first thing I realised at that time was that if I was to grow as a person/musician, I needed to be in a setting where others around me were also somewhat unsure of themselves, still developing. I knew that I needed a different setting in order to 'find myself'. At that moment, it seemed like the best opportunity for this was to join Tanya in her own bid for self-discovery/self-revelation. But obviously that, too, turned out not to be best for me, at least as a long-term proposition. But I couldn't have known this ahead of time; I needed to have the direct experience for that to become clear to me.

The first Belly album was very successful, yet you quit the band soon afterwards. Was it distaste for everything the music industry represented that prompted that decision?

Actually, I decided to leave Belly/the music business much earlier in the timeline, shortly after we completed the demos for the first album. I realised that on two accounts I was the 'black sheep'. First, I did not share the same aspirations as my bandmates and, secondly, I had an extreme 'allergic reaction' to the music industry. So rather than stick around and be a constant pain in the ass about this mismatch, I decided it was best for all involved if I bowed out. Besides, I was the only one who wasn’t a blonde. After I made the announcement that I'd be leaving, though, I stayed on to record the final version of the album because I had committed to do so and didn’t want to leave the band stranded. Was there a measure of disappointment in all of this? Sure. I was in my early twenties then and had high (and still extant) ideas about what a life in music could and should be. But I am just as certain now as I was back then that leaving was the right thing to do. And whatever disappointment I felt in 1992 was forgotten the minute I made my decision. I moved on, in other words. The distaste for the 'sins' of the music industry lingers, though … I mean, I recognise that our culture is almost entirely made of marketing campaigns and fashion shoots, but god damn, can we just leave music out of that equation? Please!!

Could you clarify just what the aspirations of your bandmates were at that time?

Sure. As I read it (and I may have been wrong about this), my bandmates were just more interested in commercial success than was I. This meant, among other things, a willingness to play along with certain record company demands regarding, say, things like the recording process. You have to remember, of course, that my formative years were spent in the DIY hardcore punk world, which means that I was both innately and experientially predisposed against the corporatisation of music. So, I was in many ways a fish out of water, while my bandmates, on the other hand, seemed to be moving along swimmingly. Realising that I would continue to flounder in that setting, I decided my survival was a priority and jumped ship.

Fred Abong’s new recordings are a world away from the music he was creating all those years ago. There is an almost painful intimacy to his words which is obvious despite the oblique phrasing and imagery he conjures up. One thing appears certain, there are no straight paths walked or unclouded emotions elicited. Sometimes this is expressed with lovely clarity, "There’s mud on the shoes that bring me to you", and sometimes things are more complicated, "I was just drunk on fear and soft cheese: the dilettante’s keys to staying afloat." His voice has a slight roughness round the edges while his playing can be attractively simple or appear deceptively uncomplicated. Occasionally his songs alter course in a manner redolent of the Muses.

The compositions on Pulsing build slightly on the lonely acoustic brevity of Homeless, with the measured electric grind below the excellent ‘Firefly’ adding a world of dimension. ‘Sum’, ‘Meet Me’ and ‘The Wire’ even use electric guitars. Whereas the first EP seems almost insular, Fred appears to look outwards more on Pulsing, though even his external view of the world appears to depend on the state of his internal emotions. The ambiguities outside merely reflect those inside and he needs to claim responsibility for them, "You and yours will mistake us. We start the fire and all you want’s to contain us ... Winter’s coming and there’s blood on the floor. Every footprint leads up to my door." He sings of a world where truth is disguised and where he must search to make any sense of anything. "On the back of every note there was a note that told the truth."

The first time I listened to your songs I felt that your worldview was somehow more influenced internally than by an objective consideration of external events?

Yes, I think you’re right about this. But I would say my subjective worldview is not entirely subjective – not solipsistic. In other words. I'm a participant in the world and am concerned about the world 'out there'. But I generally don't see songs as necessarily or primarily acting as vehicles for social commentary. They may inadvertently have that effect or connotation but, for me at least, what they are 'about' is always suggestive rather than definite.

I work metaphorically rather than literally. But I'm also not 'in control' when it comes to songwriting. Instead, I'm just actively 'listening' for the words and music that are coming through, not presenting 'ideas' of my own. Images usually accompany the lyrics, so it's really a kind of 'picture-writing' rather than 'thought-writing'. Not sure if that makes sense, but that's how I experience the process.

Do you believe that a person's view of the world is shaped largely by their internal emotional well-being?

The short answer is, "Yes". But as someone who is always looking for 'the Why? of the Why?' I’m interested in just what it is that shapes a person’s emotional well-being (which then shapes his or her worldview). In fact, this is something that my dissertation speaks to in a very direct manner … but I would never subject you to reading THAT nonsense...

Dr Abong’s two EPs are available on download only and you can find them on his Bandcamp page here. His music website can be found here. Fred is currently recording a full length album with the working title Non-. He hopes it will be finished by early July and released soon afterwards.
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