The two musicians at the core of Falling Fences have plenty in common — a love of rootsy American music and an easy melding of their voices, for starters — but Sean Canan and Joe Stickley look like an unlikely pair. Canan's long hair, bushy beard and benevolent intensity make him seem a little like St. Louis' own Doctor Teeth. His graying hair in an artful swoop, Stickley is a bit more buttoned-down, as befitting his day job as a math teacher.
Every Sunday night Falling Fences plays at McGurk's in Soulard; normally Canan and Stickley are joined by bassist John Hussung, who has become a regular part of a band that has sprung out of the initial duo.
For Canan and Stickley, the weekly gig at McGurk's is a relatively low-pressure gig that gives them time to workshop new songs in front of a receptive audience while still slinging out Irish drinking songs and assorted covers. If the camaraderie displayed on the narrow stage looks easy, that's because it has developed over time.
"Joe and I have been friends for twenty years and have been playing music together that long," says Canan shortly before the band's set. "There's something about playing music with your brothers that makes it more spiritual or something — it's more powerful."
Their friendship dates back to their undergraduate days at Mizzou and has led them through various musical incarnations over the years — Canan played as part of Stickley's folk-oriented outfit Blue Print and Stickley occasionally joins Canan's Wednesday-night covers set with his Voodoo Players at Broadway Oyster Bar. This fall marks the tenth anniversary of their weekly McGurk's residency, and Falling Fences is celebrating the occasion in fine style: Along with a recent opening gig for Little Feat at the Pageant, the band is releasing its second full-length, II, this month.
"The way I see it is, we started doing this gig just the two of us, and then it was a weekly venue to play our original songs," says Stickley. "But then it just became so tempting to have another rock band. We were away from it — I couldn't imagine myself not playing acoustic guitar. But now, we talked when we were making this record and I said something like, 'Fuck this acoustic shit. We're gonna play some rock & roll for a while.' And that's what I think this is."
Indeed, on II, Falling Fences steps away from its acoustic origins and wraps Stickley's voice and lyrics with twin-guitar energy and, on several tracks, electric piano and a full horn section. Canan notes that his weekly Voodoo Players tribute nights, in which he and a rotating cast of musicians tackle a single act's songbook, helped plant the seeds for a more electric-guitar-focused album.
"We had been doing Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers together over the last few years, and that's an electric thing, and they were sort of our compass for the record," Canan says. "Learning those songs intricately — why does it sound so good? That was a question we had and we went way in, trying to dissect the songs. If you want your stuff to sound like them, you have learn how they did it and apply it."
Canan's fluency with some of the best American rock and pop music from the past 60 years is a boon to this record — most tracks hew close to an Americana/indie hybrid reminiscent of early Wilco, but the players will drop in the occasional reggae uptick of Beach Boys-inspired vocal arrangement. Stickley says that his songs are almost always dreamt up with an acoustic guitar, and Canan serves as midwife to make sure the song both conveys the spirit of Stickley's lyrics and the energy of a live band.
"I'll be toying around with tunes, three or four or five at a time, and playing them on an acoustic guitar on the couch, trying to figure out where they're going," Stickley says. "I'll go over there and even if I don't feel like I have something ready to record, we record it. And before I know it, we have a basic structure. Basically, he gets the song off the floor in the hour we're together."
As the hour approaches the Falling Fences' showtime at McGurk's, Canan reflects on the creative energy that comes out of the weekly gig, and how the setting has crept into the DNA of their songs.
"This gig is so unique in the fact that the pub-song vibes are meant for a group of drunk people to sing along, and so we've sort of honed that skill in getting the crowd to sing with us," says Canan. "So that is integrated into our original music. We always joke that we trick people into thinking they've heard the song before."