There’s something very Portland about sticking two things together that, at first blush, make zero sense. Bacon...on a doughnut? An arcade...that’s a bar? Film composers...who play rock clubs?
That’s Federale, which creates soundtracks for imaginary spaghetti-western films.
“We just really liked spaghetti-western soundtrack music, and we liked those sorts of movies,” says Collin Hegna, the band’s guitarist and “lead whistler.” That’s all there was to Federale’s inception, according to Hegna—no manic brainstorming session or drug-trip realization. “We just didn’t know why people wouldn’t play that music anymore.”
Hegna’s sitting on a bench in Revolver Studios, the Southeast Portland recording space he co-owns. He’s sharing post-session beers with Dasa Kalstrom (melodica, percussion), Carl Werner (guitar) and Sebastian Bibb-Barrett (trumpet, percussion). The band’s core roster is rounded out by Chris Greene on drums and Colin Sheridan on keyboard, trumpet and percussion—but many “hired guns” make their way through any Federale show or record. Of the assembled Federalistas, Hegna and Kalstrom do most of the talking.
“We had a band previously that myself and Dasa and Carl were in called Cocaine Unicorn, which had broken up,” Hegna says. “So we were kind of looking for something different to do. We tried a couple different things, [but] hadn’t really come up with the formula.” A new project didn’t gel until 2004, when they decided to indulge their shared love of westerns. Now Federale is releasing its second album.
The group’s music, both live and recorded, features a blend of classic genre instrumentation: whistling, noisemakers and samples. It’s a lush, fully realized sound that flawlessly conjures the spirit of Italian western maestro-composer Ennio Morricone, circa 1966. And Federale’s songs tell a story, which required a bit of a learning curve for the band’s members, because—in true western-score form—Federale’s songs don’t have lyrics. The challenge quickly turned into part of the enjoyment. “That’s one of the funnest things about it, as far as I’m concerned,” says Kalstrom. “Telling a story, but figuring out how to do it with music.”
Hegna doesn’t think instrumental music limits what you can express. On the contrary: “You don’t have to sing like Metallica or Creed to convey, ‘Man, I’m really fucking feeling this!’” he says. “You can convey those emotions without words, and I think it makes it more interesting because you aren’t so literal.”
Federale’s first album, 2008’s Music From: La Rayar, told the story of a man named Santiago and his revenge against the Indian tribe who killed his family. The band’s new disc, Devil in a Boot, tells the tale of a man named Jack, soundtracking his vengeance against the railroad baron who killed his family. The simple, linear nature of western story lines and characters is one of the things that draws the musicians to the genre. “There’s not a lot of conversation about what needs to happen,” says Kalstrom. “‘That guy fucked my shit up, and so I have to kill him.’ It’s just A and B.” He slaps the back of one hand into the palm of the other like a pair of whip cracks or gunshots—bam, bam.
The members of Federale don’t want to write soundtracks just for imaginary films—they’d like to work on real films, too. The band scored 2008’s cop-revenge story/urban western Pray for Hell by local filmmaker Todd Freeman, and the group’s members would eventually like to see La Rayar and Devil in a Boot realized as actual movies. “I think you can express yourself more articulately in the context of a film,” Hegna says, than through music alone. “Being able to illustrate [a] scene with music is, I think, a really powerful way to convey emotions.”
“I think we’d rather be scoring films,” Kalstrom says—but he sees less of a division between the two realms of music, between being a band and being soundtrack musicians, than most people would. “We’re capable of doing both. There’s nothing wrong with doing both.”
Thus far, Portland seems to agree with him. Now how about another beer with your haircut?
SEE IT: Federale releases Devil in a Boot on Friday, Sept. 25, at Mississippi Studios, with Little Pieces and Ryan Sollee. 9 pm. $8.