Catching Up With…
by Patrick Berkery
This indie-rock hero is happy to revisit past glories. But he’s not exactly waiting around for the opportunity.
The bands Billy Ficca is most commonly associated with are all pretty different from each other. Television had those lean, anxious guitar jams that sound as ahead of their time today as they did back in the mid-to-late ’70s. The Waitresses were an art-y band that flirted with Top 40 success (yes, that’s Ficca you hear on “Christmas Wrapping” each year around the holidays). The Washington Squares were eclectic folk revivalists. And the band Ficca has been playing with the last couple of years, the avant-garde “supergroup” Heroes of Toolik (featuring members of the Modern Lovers and the Lounge Lizards), specializes in experimental pop songs with trombone and violin serving as the primary lead instruments.
Seems like a pretty diverse lot on paper. But as far as Ficca is concerned, there’s a common thread connecting those bands and his job within each. “To me, it’s all kind of like dance music,” he explains. “A drummer’s job really is to get people to dance, or to move—or to at least think about moving. Doesn’t matter if I was playing fast folk with the Washington Squares or the weird, kind of ska things the Waitresses would occasionally do. My job was the same. And really, that’s what a drummer’s body does when you’re playing—you’re dancing. The way the limbs are working, the way your body moves across the kit…it’s a dance.”
It would be a stretch to characterize some of the more meditative pieces on Heroes of Toolik’s latest album, Like Night, as dance music. But Ficca’s dance moves across the cymbals on songs like “8 Miles” and “You Will Not Follow” fill the wide-open spaces tastefully, with washes, pings, and sweet overtones lingering and blending nicely with the rest of the ensemble. It’s a top-down approach to drumming that comes from a love of jazz greats like Tony Williams and Elvin Jones. “Not only did those guys swing, but listen to how they played the cymbals,” Ficca says. “It’s beautiful. That’s why I’ve always been really into cymbals. But not smashing the hell out of them. Just hitting a really nice cymbal the right way and letting it fill some space. I think it’s one of the nicest sounds there is.”
These days Ficca is juggling Heroes of Toolik with his Television commitments. TV did a short European run earlier in the year and played a handful of U.S. dates in late summer. Ficca says the band will likely mark next year’s fortieth anniversary of the influential Marquee Moon with some shows where they’ll play the album in its entirety. As for new Television music, that’s not as likely. “We started working on some new stuff a while back,” Ficca explains, “but there’s still a lot that needs to be completed—lyrics, vocals…. I’d say it’s somewhere between being on the shelf and being shelved completely.”