Tim Fite: A Musical Misfit Settles Down

Music Features Tim Fite
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Ever since he first stumbled upon the polarizing counter-culture fringes of pop music—arriving in a singularly off-putting, genre-mashing, artistically drunken stupor, Brooklyn chameleon Tim Fite has never exactly…“fit in.” His musical introduction (both to the world and the neon-bright confines of MTV) came in 2001, with the jokey novelty hip-hop curio “Shaniqua,” released under the moniker Little-T and One Track Mike, a duo he formed with friend Michael Flannery while attending New Jersey’s Rutgers University. The song was—and still is—the equivalent of a musical hangover, one of hip-hop’s most regrettable moments: With its dead-end beatboxing, ill-fated DJ scratching, and tossed-off rhymes about a wrong number in a college dorm room, it’s also one of the 2000s’ most unlikely one-off hits (no matter how minor), landing halfway between Biz Markie and The Bloodhound Gang, released in an era when overt rap silliness had long ceased being cool. But even still, there was a free-spirited zeal bubbling beneath the stupidity, most evident in the track’s surreal, highly likable video—what with its random karate lessons, zombies, buxom babes, enraged truck-drivers and Fite himself, mugging desperately for the camera amid the random visual clutter. He seemed too bizarre, too adventurous, too downright interesting for such simple-minded fare. Even in his own music, Fite was a misfit.

On his first solo record, 2005’s Gone Ain’t Gone, Fite was a thrift-store mutation of Beck, sampling withered folk and jaded rock grooves from dollar-bin purgatory, alternating between slack-jawed raps and back-porch country harmonies. 2008’s criminally overlooked Fair Ain’t Fair showed signs of honest maturity, incorporating more live instrumentation and higher lyrical sophistication (best evidenced on the quietly strummed folk-pop gem “Big Mistake”). But on Ain’t Ain’t Ain’t, the third installment in his triumphant “Ain’t” trilogy, Fite has gracefully evolved into an even more fascinating songsmith, bulldozing any lingering shreds of irony—leaving in its wake a sonically rich and thematically mature core. Simply put, it’s the sound of that musical misfit settling down, harnessing a more emotional, more universal side of his creativity.

“I think if you make something,” Fite reflects, “it takes a really long time. What you did before, what you were making before, all of the steps that you take early on while making something—the inspection of those steps, the inspection of what you made there in order to continue making in order to finish the project, it all becomes part of the project. So you have to look back at everything else that you made before in order to finish the project.”

“And I think this record [Ain’t Ain’t Ain’t] in a lot of ways is me looking back at every song that I’ve every made,” Fite continues, “looking back at every note that I’ve ever played, every note that I’ve ever stolen. Every moment in those three records—and also the records that aren’t part of the trilogy [like 2007’s politically-focused hip-hop outing Over the Counter Culture] but also a part of the system—thinking about how those pieces fit into the whole project, how those pieces fit into my understanding of what I’m doing for my life. If you’re an insurance salesman, you look back on your life as an insurance salesman and say, ‘What the fuck?’ If you’re a musician, you look back on your life as a musician and say, ‘What the fuck?’“

He laughs and continues: “It’s a little bit of that. I guess over time, the older you get, you start to look deeper into your soul. My grandfather is 98, and he gets really introspective. We’ll see what the records I’m making when I’m 98 sound like.”

It’s fitting that Fite’s been doing a lot of soul-searching since Ain’t Ain’t Ain’t is an album about exactly that. It’s an album about accepting your past, your mistakes, your place in the world, about relating to the common experiences of one’s fellow human beings, even when it may seem impossible. It’s also an album about being a teenager—the extreme sadness, excitement, and vulnerability that penetrates those formative years—and how that period of our lives shapes everything that follows it.

“That feeling of inclusiveness and of a broader scope—it was intentionally chosen to be on this record. Whereas the other two records are strangely just of the world, not of the heart. There’s a lot of heart in them, but it’s heart about the world. This one is about a much more universal heart, and that was important for me to make because it’s the final record of the trilogy. That was the note I wanted to end on—I wanted to end on that note. It really embodied that feeling of…a universal understanding. We all kinda get what it feels like to be torn up as a teenager or be bullied or just to want to go out and be silly or whatever. We all understand those pressures—it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from. It you’re a teenager or you were a teenager or your brother or sister is a teenager. You know what the deal is.”

Fite explores teenage life from just about every possible angle on Ain’t Ain’t Ain’t. The low-key sing-along “Joyriding” explores the seemingly mundane experience of aimlessly cruising a small town (“Donuts, we done ’em / Red lights, we run ’em,” Fite sings enthusiastically), but the song’s slightly melancholy refrain (“No de-ny-ing / We’re joy-ri-ding”) transforms these “wasted” hours into something magical fading away in the fog of a rear-view mirror.

“I was…sort of a quiet kid,” Fite says. “But it was such a small town that your friends are who’s close enough. So my brother and my neighbors—they were more adventurous and had more fun. So I was always in the backseat when they were doing side-wheelies in the truck, looking out the back window. We’d tie Mark onto the back of the truck, put him on a sled and drag him behind the truck down the street. I was always the kid, saying, ‘We shouldn’t light the roman candle in the car. It’s not smart!’ But there it was, lit, squealing with delight as it launched higher into the sky.”

Conversely, the perky, horn-fueled “Bully” tackles its title topic quite directly (“I’m a bully—a big hard-ass bully / Do what I say, or get punched the fuck in the face”). But its chorus (“Bully, bully, if you could see the world fully / You would know that there will always be a bigger bully”) is focused not only on high school cafeterias—but on the world at large.

“Most of the time,” Fite reflects, “I was the one getting bullied. But I think everybody has their moments on either side of that coin. But most of the time, I was the one getting picked on [laughs]. I’d already figured out that the album was leaning toward the adolescent vibe, that it was going to be an introspective album about what it means to be a teenager. And it was sort of right about the time that Osama Bin Laden got killed, and there was all that stuff about cyber-bullying, and I was thinking about the hierarchal structure—that there’s always going to be a bigger bully. ‘What the fuck?’ How do I connect that to this happy-ass bassline? Where do those pieces fit?’ It’s almost absurd how there will always be someone to pick on somebody smaller.”

But Ain’t Ain’t Ain’t isn’t just Fite’s most lyrically universal album—it’s also his most musically expansive. Where Gone Ain’t Gone was built almost entirely from its junkyard samples and Fair Ain’t Fair padded its sampling with homespun overdubs, Ain’t Ain’t Ain’t features only the sweat and strain of Fite and his friends, crafted (over the course of one year) from a massive digital library of recordings close to 500 gigabytes in size. Recording in barns, woods, and school auditoriums (utilizing the skills of drummer Justin Riddle, guitarists Osei Essed and Daniel Saks, and engineer Rob Badenoch, among others), Fite fiddled and fucked around with just about any instrument he could get his hands on, layering together firework explosions and rusty chain noises, recording every note on multiple pianos, instructing his players to improvise for hours and boiling the results (mistakes included) into a surprisingly compact art-pop stew.

“It’s the micro-sounds that make us the macro-sounds on this one,” Fite says, in what might be the understatement of the century. “The purpose of recording in all those different places is that they have their own sounds. The barn was old wood, so it has a very dead reverb to it, so there’s a little bit of a slap-back because it’s a giant space, but it’s not like a big reverberatory concrete place. My friend Rob, who helped do a lot of the on-site recording, he has a portable recording rig, and it’s just amazing at how to mic a room, how to mic up whatever to get a natural feel out of it. He has all these ridiculous microphones, and one of them is shaped like a human head, and when you listen to what that microphone records, it sounds like what you’re listening to with your human head. Doing that stuff is a lot of fun. Messing with stereo recordings, putting microphones all over the place, and having people move around while we were recording. That was a lot of fun. Throwing all the percussion shit on the stage, just jamming out, going ridiculous, being silly. It made for a lot of really great stuff.”

Emotionally, musically, lyrically—Ain’t Ain’t Ain’t represents an undeniable creative peak. But the conclusion of the trilogy has stirred up a lot of questions for Fite, one of which being, “Where the hell do I go from here?”

“There are three things that I know,” Fite says, reflecting on his artistic future. “I got a fellowship with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, and they’re teaching me how to write music for an orchestra. I want to explore that a little bit. And I want to make one more record to go along with Over the Counter Culture and Under the Table Tennis [the second installment of his hip-hop trilogy], because I like things in threes. And the last thing is that I really am going to focus a lot more on visual art and just make some pictures because of all the things that I like to do, all the things that make me happy and engage my mind, making pictures is the king.”

In fact, creating visual art has always been Fite’s deepest passion. Inspired by his mom and dad (a teacher and writer, respectively, who both moonlight as painters), he double-majored in printmaking and black studies in college. When he’s not busy with music, he pays the bills (literally) through his work in a print shop, making art in exchange for studio time, even setting up a series called “12 Months’ Rent,” which accomplished exactly that. The whole music thing? Well, that was more of a goofy side hobby (“Shaniqua” immediately comes to mind) that accidentally became a career.

“I’ve been drawing and singing since I was a little, little child,” Fite says. “My parents are both painters—they paint pictures. So the awareness of visual art has been back before I can even remember. So that’s been a part of my brain and my understanding of what life is as long as I can remember. Music didn’t start legitimately until middle school, listening to too much rap music and wishing I was tough and cool. But drawing was always there and always will be.”

“I really want to give it its time,” Fite says about his art career, “and that’s something I know I can grow old doing. Growing old making music works well for some, not so well for others! [laughs] But growing old making pictures is totally within the realm of possibility. I think the music has been a really, really beautiful detour for me, but it’s exactly that—it’s a detour. It’s like a fun thing to do. It just worked out that when I was out of college, that was the first thing that got noticed, but as far as what my body feels confident doing, it feels confident drawing pictures. I feel like I’m all thumbs when I’m making a song. But throw a couple pencils in my hand and give me a big ol’ blank piece of paper, and I’m dextrous as a motherfucker! [Laughs.]”

In the touching and appropriately mischievous music video for “We Are All Teenagers,” his new single, Tim Fite depicts a sweet, innocent old man—coated in wrinkles, spending his twilight years reclining around the house. But when his character looks into his bathroom mirror, Fite sees his teenage self—his true self. With a rebellious twinkle in his eye, he steals his daughter’s car keys and heads to the streets, breaking bottles and shooting off fireworks with the local misfit teens. It’s the simple thematic core of Ain’t Ain’t Ain’t brought to stunning visual life: Yes, we are all teenagers, and always will be. We may grow, we may change, may get jaded, may gain or lose perspective—but those insecure, pimply, hormonal, wide-eyed versions of ourselves never totally dissipate unless we let them. For Fite, the biggest purpose in life is hanging on to that spirit, clinging desperately to the feeling that no beauty is out of reach, as long as your imagination is open.

“The biggest, most important thing to me about growing up and getting older—is that if I can continue to get better at something until I’m old, old, old, just continue to get better at something, I would be perfectly happy. The reason I’m aware of that possibility is because of my mom and my dad. They love to paint so much. They love to see and to depict, and they get better at it every year. That’s the insane dream—just to keep improving.”