The human brain sends messages by firing impulses through neurons. Electricity and chemicals are shot across synaptic gaps in a domino effect. The impulse passes through a neuron in roughly seven milliseconds—faster than a lightning strike. In the brain of Fences' erudite singer-songwriter Christopher Mansfield, these synaptic spaces are inhabited by Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. Each signal Mansfield's brain sends is coated by the story of a man in small boat at sea. That's how he's able to sing so austerely.
Alive in each Mansfield synapse is Hemingway's Santiago, the aging Cuban fisherman who's gone 84 days without a catch. Mansfield is with him, waiting, hoping... and when the great marlin strikes, they're both there in the skiff as the fish drags it out to sea. For two days and nights, Mansfield helps Santiago bear the tension of the line, and though wounded by struggle and pain, despite blistered hands and oppressive heat, they're able to express a compassionate appreciation for the adversary.
Thus, Mansfield's presence is calm, dark, sullen, and dignified. His Berkeley-honed guitar playing is agile and aerial, yet firmly planted. Fences are folk-tinged, tormented, and acoustically rich. Mansfield sports a handsome voice that rings more perplexed than sad. There's an aware simplicity to the tone.
"Neither one of us will make it down this hill alive," Mansfield sings in "My Girl the Horse," a duet with producer Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara. The song is open and vulnerable, but hard enough to let a marlin drag it out to sea for days on end.
Mansfield spoke about Fences' upcoming summer activities. They do not include fishing.
What does your summer look like? In June, you're playing Bonnaroo in Tennessee.
Yes, Bonnaroo in June. In July and August we tour with Hellogoodbye and Fake Problems, and [we'll have] a Fences/Mansions split 7-inch release and tour in support of that. We're going out to Lollapalooza, and then there's talk of touring out of there with some other folks. It's all still being worked on. July is also [Capitol Hill] Block Party main stage, totally weird. Bonnaroo, I don't know, I made tie-dyed upside-down church shirts for it. I know TV on the Radio are playing Block Party—that is so, so, so, so awesome. Bonnaroo is muddy. I was warned. Short shorts and rain boots.
Have you spent any time in Tennessee? What are your pre-Tennessee thoughts?
When I was young, I went to a music camp out there. We played scales in the woods blindfolded. I am not making this up.
Did it make you a better guitar player? Were you afraid, blindfolded in the woods?
I think it made me a better guitar player, yes. I know I can tell you what note I'm playing on the guitar at any time without looking. Not that I would ever use that garbage. It's fun, though, to take things to a ridiculous level. If you aren't willing to do that, then what's the point?
Pick a scene from any movie and rewrite it for me. A scene that, for whatever reason, moved you.
I want to be Ethan Hawke's character in Reality Bites and kiss Winona Ryder a thousand times. "You and me and five bucks." I wish I'd said that.
Ooh, you're a Winona Ryder person. I love her. Do you remember when she shoplifted? Could your rewrite scene involve shoplifting? Were you attracted to her when you found out she shoplifted?
"I was bored before I even began."
Ah, the Smiths. I've never understood why stars shoplift. Like Lindsay Lohan. I know they say it's empowering, but really? I mean, they're millionaires. Go buy a cliffside villa or something. Or buy a bullfighting ring and bullfight if you need a rush. Wouldn't buying a bullfighting ring be more empowering than stealing jewelry from a department store?
Most celebrities are into animal rights, though. I suck at stealing. I look awkward and guilty all the time. It's as if I have a metaphorical bag full of stolen merchandise.
The term "hipster" is overused. Are you a hipster? What is your definition of the term "hipster"?
Do you use a process to write songs?
Not really. I do only write in the early morning, though. Just keep your eyes open. Songs are everywhere. Probably one sitting next to you.
Talk about one of your newer songs. You've been playing with drum sounds?
There's a song called "Market Place" on the 7-inch we are releasing in July. That tune went to a full-peak-mountaintop-pop tune—and then at the last minute, we ripped it apart like overcaffeinated dogs. We ran the drums through a Moog and let our drummer use his homemade drum gadgets, then stripped away all the guitar and chose to play the lead hooks with a feedback-based Nord patch. The song seems to move me more. It moved all of us more. As far as when I wrote it, I don't remember. It belongs to a few of my friends, though. They have earned it. I don't want the fucking thing.
In what capacity did you work with Sara Quin? I'm confused about what y'all did together. Did she really discover you on MySpace?
She produced my album. She is one of my best friends. No, a man named Futcher saw Fences on MySpace and passed it on to her. As it was at the time, [MySpace was] the only social media site with music. It isn't a MySpace success story—that grosses me out. The shit is this: People will hear you. The world isn't that big.
What do you think about MySpace? Seems like it's clunky. It used to be good, but now it's bad. Where do you think online music is heading? Like, where is the best place to send people online to hear your music?
I don't know, I usually think having a website is cool and all those sign-the-mailing-list and get-free-download things have some clean design. MySpace is pretty embarrassing.
Fences play the Capitol Hill Block Party on Fri July 22.