Fan Modine’s 1997 debut full length Slow Road to Tiny Empire occupies a distinctive blindspot in the history of American independent music. It’s a valley of missed masterpieces that were a little too ahead of their time when they first arrived to cut through the waves of lesser art, but only grew more essential as time passed. The same unshowy excellence that marked albums by Rocketship, The Lilys and The Swirlies comes through in Fan Modine’s first set of perpetually shifting songs, with gliding melodies melting into walls of fuzz and otherworldly ambiance.

Songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Gordon Zacharias was living in Boston in the early ‘90s, quietly building the insular sound world that would incubate his songs as Fan Modine. Recording in an industrial loft space downtown, he meticulously crafted songs on a hybrid set up that included both analog cassette four track and digital multi-tracking technology. Playing all of the instruments, Zacharias first conceived this music as the soundtrack to a film he was working towards about the adventures of traveling American pop star Fandemian Kirk Modine. The film never came to be, but the would-be soundtrack was the beginning of a band that would crystalize in the form of eleven homespun but meticulously crafted songs of understated pop magic.

By the mid-’90s, Zacharias had landed in New York City, where he completed the album and pressed up a limited vinyl edition in 1997 with the help of a New Zealander named Murray Nash, who was a frequent shopper at the record store where Zacharias worked by day. A live configuration of Fan Modine was up and running by then as well, frequently opening for downtown luminaries like the Magnetic Fields or Jeff Buckley, and playing indie pop shows hosted by Chickfactor fanzine. Rykodisc picked up the album for worldwide release in 1998 and a tour of the East Coast with Sleater Kinney and Helium followed.

While peers like the Magnetic Fields and the Pastels were exploring the more maudlin side of pop songwriting, Fan Modine traversed a more organic and psychedelically fractured take on melodic introspection. “Tinseltown” filters the lonely perspectives of a travelling narrator through loops of backwards ambience, subtle countermelodic synth lines and blasts of overdriven drums. The friendly fuzz and unexpected production curve balls on “Cardamom Chai” quickly fade into simmering, lazy grooves and spaced harmonies on songs like “Rhubarb Pie,” making for an album-length environment that switches gears quickly but stays rooted in a consistent vision.

Found sound recordings, a collage aesthetic, songs within songs and out-of-nowhere dives into reverb, distortion or complete stylistic rerouting make Fan Modine a long lost cousin to the experimentation of the Elephant 6 collective that was happening in tandem with the recording of Slow Road to Tiny Empire. Spun from more solitary origins and a complex conceptual bent, the album is shades less twee than output from like-minded contemporaries of the same era. There’s a nervous charm that touches all of its restless miniatures, and a hint of darkness hides in even the more blissed out moments.

More than 20 years after its original release, Fan Modine’s debut still sounds fresh and strange by today’s standards. The band would continue on after Zacharias relocated to Carrboro, North Carolina, releasing their second album Homeland in 2004. Slow Road to Tiny Empire still inhabits its own obtuse yet open-hearted space, even within what became a bright discography.

Slow Road to Tiny Empire will be issued for the first time at digital services by Rhino/Warner on Feb 28, 2020.


IMAGES: To download, click above. Photos courtesy of the artist.