This post starts with Will Smith. Yes, as in the Fresh Prince man in black who gets jiggy wit it. Three years ago, Chicago-based band Fort Frances decided to record a cover of the 1991 classic “Summertime”…and it led them to the unlikeliest of places: Lithuania.
For reasons we’ll get to shortly, the cover song totally caught on in the European county, leading Fort Frances to be booked at the country’s largest music festival and play to a sold out crowd the opening night.
It was an experience that would influence the finishing touches on their album, “Alio”, which will be released on Friday, April 22. It also gave the album its title – Alio is Lithuanian for “hello”.
Read on as Fort Frances’ David McMillin shares some behind-the-scenes stories about the band’s latest release (which you should totally pre-order, by the way) and adventures in Europe.
Good Groupie: Since the story of this new album starts with a cover song, let’s start there: whose idea was it to cover “Summertime”? And how the heck did it catch on in Lithuania?
David McMillin: In the summer of 2012, we had been regularly choosing covers to release in a series we called “As Told By…” Most of the material was in our comfort zone — Grateful Dead, Simon and Garfunkel and Beck. But we have always loved old school hip hop, and there is something amazing about us singing “Ridin’ around in your Jeep or your Benzo or in your Nissan sittin’ on Lorenzos.” This song gave us a chance to explore some unfamiliar territory, and we had a blast doing it.
The Lithuanian connection came into a play about a year later. We started to get a lot of new fans and email sign-ups with Eastern European names. At first we thought we might be getting Internet trolled, and then we started receiving notes from some blogs based in Lithuania about how much they loved the song. I think the first big driver was a blog called JDM.lt. It’s dedicated to automotive culture in Lithuania, and the organizers made our version of Summertime the anthem for its summer party called the Chill ’n Grill. (This is especially ironic because two of the members of the band don’t even own cars.) From there, it’s taken off.
GG: Tell me about the moment you first realized how BIG Fort Frances was in Lithuania. What was the thing that made it truly click and what went through your mind?
DM: We were all aware that we had some fans in Lithuania, but it’s so difficult to tell if a few fans translate to actually having a place in the country’s popular culture. So, I don’t think we realized until we arrived in Vilnius and saw our name on billboards in the city center.
GG: You have described Lithuania as a second home and say that the week there was one of your most rewarding weeks of your life – what made it so rewarding?
DM: When you start a band, you don’t exactly know what you’re doing. Maybe you plan to make it out of the garage and play at the club you love down the street. Maybe you want to hear yourself on the radio. Maybe you work hard enough to go on a full tour. And if the band stays together and some things fall into place, you keep adding to the list. I’ve always been adding to that list, but I can safely say that playing in Lithuania wasn’t on it. So on a personal level, it was really rewarding to know that we can set our own limits in the music business.
On a bigger level, it’s difficult to describe how much respect and love we have for the culture and the people of Lithuania. Throughout the week, we met so many amazing people. They told us about Lithuania’s path to independence from the USSR, and they introduced us to Lithuania’s traditions. I’d say one of the most surreal moments of the week was doing an interview in the national TV and radio building. Just 25 years earlier, the building had been occupied by Russian forces as they tried to maintain control over Lithuania, and there we were in the same building, sitting in a studio playing Summertime. At the same time, less than 600 miles away, the situation in Ukraine served as a scary reminder of the past occupation. So, the trip wasn’t just a week of music; it was also a history lesson that gave us an appreciation for how hard the people of Lithuania have worked to preserve the spirit of their own country.
GG: What was it like making the jump from DIY American band to a highly sought-after favorite in another country?
DM: It was really, really gratifying. We’re a very hard-working band, and we’ve been chipping away at the music business for a long time. This showed that the work can pay off.
GG: Any crazy or funny tour stories you can share from your week overseas?
DM: The entire week was insanely fun. Appearing on “Good Morning, Lithuania” with a translator will will be forever etched in my mind.
GG: How did your time in Lithuania influence this new album?
DM: We had tracked most of the record before we went to Lithuania, but we were having a very difficult time actually finishing the record. We were overthinking every decision about mixing, which songs to include, the sequencing order…everything. It had been nearly a full year since we had been in Maine recording, and I was starting to feel frustrated with myself and with the weight of thinking about how to finish and release the record. So, the Lithuania trip came at a perfect time for me. It was a reminder of why we started this band in the first place — to have fun, to explore the world and to connect with people. When we came home, I feel like I brought a refreshed attitude about finally getting the record done. It felt like I was 22 again and I was thinking about music as my passion and love and not as a business.
GG: What is the biggest lesson you learned as a musician and/or you guys learned as a band through the experience of traveling overseas and then recording “Alio”?
DM: To double check every spelling. When they booked my travel to Lithuania, my name was “Davin.” I called the airline 10 times before heading to the airport to get the error sorted out.
GG: What songs on “Alio” excite you the most or are you most proud of?
DM: I’m proud of the way we stretched ourselves across the whole record, but if I had to pick just one song, I would go with “Take the Wheel.” It’s such a departure from what we have released in the past. The drums, the vocals, the guitars — everything is a step outside the lines of the typical alternative/indie/rock/whatever-you-want-to-call-our-genre.
GG: What unexpected place would you like to go next to play your music?
DM: Everywhere. Lithuania was a great preview of the possibilities, and I want to see the whole world.
+ check out some of the other awesome goodies on their PledgeMusic page!
Find Fort Frances online:
Fort Frances is also going on tour this spring. You can check them out in these cities:
Get tickets. (And if you see them, please tell them to stop by and see me in Texas soon!)