Wearing all black, the Faint's members played multiple synthesizers and triggered their own light show using floor pedals. It was an arena-sized new-wave show condensed into the corner of a sparsely populated warehouse venue, at a time when keyboard-driven dance-punk hybrids were not at all fashionable. The group's contrarian choice of genre indicated that sales-related concerns were secondary at best. Its tight performance and professional-caliber spectacle bespoke different goals: establishing healthy word-of-mouth buzz and making the floor-fixated indie masses dance.
"We've always been driven, but the level of ambition has definitely evolved over the years," bassist Joel Petersen says. "Our goal back then was to take control of our environment during the show. We figured by doing our own lighting from the stage, it would create an atmosphere that would help people forget, 'Hey, I come to a show in this room every week.' It could transcend that and become its own space."
During its sets this tour, the Faint which now sells out midsized concert halls enhances that effect with spectacular light displays (now controlled offstage) and band-created film projections.
"Certain parts of the set are immovable, because we play to a click track in order to keep all that stuff in sync," Petersen says. "We can't just decide, 'I'm going to take an extra-long solo.'"
Besides, excessive virtuosity is the domain of look-at-me musicians, and the Faint finds itself at the opposite end of the ostentation spectrum. Perhaps more than any other rock-based touring band, the Faint plays the role of DJ, with fans too busy dancing to surging electro-funk grooves to concentrate on the men producing the music, or even to acknowledge the glitzy visual accoutrements. Petersen doesn't mind being ignored.
"If someone can lose themselves in the music we're playing, so much that they forget about all the bullshit and how cool they look, that makes me so happy," he says.
The Faint developed such sensibilities in Omaha, during a period (1995-'99) when, thanks to a paucity of all-ages venues, the city's available gigs for nascent bands were mostly house parties.
"Everything came out of a scene as opposed to anybody trying to get record deals," Petersen says. "It was just, 'Hey, there's this show happening in a couple weeks, they need a band, let's be that band.' A stage is very much a barrier between the band and the audience. When you're at a party, everybody's one foot away from each other."
Other than the first concert he ever saw (Night Ranger, with Weird Al Yankovic opening), Petersen's earliest live-music memories involved local acts. He discovered the city's do-it-yourself scene after stumbling across a hardcore bill at a polka ballroom.
"It was like, 'Holy shit, this whole world exists,'" he says. "It sparked my interest in seeing music in a different way, as opposed to 'music is what I hear on the radio.' Well, there's a whole lot of other kinds of music too, and a whole lot of people just like me playing it. That's probably more profound than any big concert I've ever been to."
In 2002, after years of gigs at "crummy all-ages venues," the Faint became a "big concert" band, opening for No Doubt in what Petersen calls a calculated experiment "to see how the other half toured."
"It was positive in that we learned a lot from it," he says. "Unfortunately I think we learned everything we needed to know after three shows, and we'd signed on for two-and-a-half months. It's really hard to play to people who just don't give a shit. It beats you down. Thankfully we were doing our own shows on their days off, and those kept us going. It was like, 'This is why we do this, suck it up.'"
While underwhelmed by the apathetic audiences that greeted them as No Doubt's warm-up group, the members of the Faint aren't necessarily opposed to playing arenas as the main attraction, or to the major-label dalliances that might make that scenario more likely. The group's in-progress record, tentatively scheduled for release in the fall, won't necessarily arrive on the Omaha indie label Saddle Creek, which issued its first four full-lengths. Rumors persist about a jump to American Recordings, where the group would collaborate with prolific production guru Rick Rubin.
"We don't know yet," Petersen says. "With every record, we've always tried to figure out who would be best for it. We're still working through things and figuring it out for ourselves."
Petersen is equally elusive when describing the forthcoming album's sound.
"I suppose if I had a clear answer, then I could also say exactly when our album will come out," he says. "It's safe to say it will [be] something different, because we never want to repeat ourselves." (The St. Louis set list will include four or five new songs, giving fans a more tangible answer about the Faint's current direction.)
Like many hotly pursued musical free agents, the Faint will appear at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, on Friday, March 16. The band can afford to be selective about its suitors, because new-wave informed dance rock, appropriated by everyone from the Killers to Ladytron, has become commercially viable. Petersen confesses neither flattery nor frustration that this once-barren musical genre is now thriving.
"It was inevitable," he says. "Music will eventually involve the crushing together of every element, and something as small as having a synthesizer was really obvious. I'm just excited to see what else people come up with, and what we come up with."
Feeling no obligation to be possessive of its musical turf, the Faint has avoided the sort of intra-genre rivalries that ensnared the Killers and the Bravery. "We're too isolated to be affected by anything like that," Petersen says. But even at home, they've avoided harvesting resentment.
"There's always been a little animosity between bands, because there are the bands that are maybe, more rock, and they have the rock attitude which doesn't go with the more folk attitude over here [at Saddle Creek]," Petersen says. "But it's never hateful. As a community people are proud of what bands from here have done. People are going on tour around the world and talking about Omaha and the scene. I would like to think other musicians appreciate that, because it might put an eye toward what they're doing."
The tools young musicians use to promote their work have changed drastically since the Faint booked their early tours using phone calls and rudimentary e-mail systems. But Petersen's advice to fledgling Midwesterners stands independent of technological advances: "Play shows. Play every single show you can possibly play."
And a snazzy light show wouldn't hurt.