How to Get to Fort Lean

By
Photography Kyle Dean Reinford

Published December 16, 2011

ABOVE: FORT LEAN

Fort Lean wants to be your vacation destination of choice. Keenan Mitchell, Zach Fried, Jake Aron, Will Runge and Sam Ubl met at Wesleyan and had been trying to form a band together for years. This year marked their first performance at CMJ in New York City and their debut, self-released EP. Although the band hasn’t played many shows outside of New York, they’re hoping that their mix of music and magic will allow them to step away from their day jobs and into full-time musicianship. Until then, Fort Lean has been getting around the city having a good time playing with musician friends including Bear Hands.

The band’s song, “Beach Holiday” is a great representation of the getaway that Fort Lean tries to evoke with their music. The track was featured on their self-titled, debut EP as an upbeat, escapist tune that reflects the band’s catchiness influenced by classic rock and ’90s pop jams. With another EP on the way in 2012 (courtesy of Neon Gold), Fort Lean will yet again be promoting taking a vacation through their next single, “Sunsick.” We were able to catch up with lead vocalist Keenan Mitchell on having musical friends and not quitting their day jobs . . . yet.

ILANA KAPLAN: How did you guys all meet and form Fort Lean?

KEENAN MITCHELL: Well, we all went to Wesleyan together. We’ve all been in a number of different projects, from the time we got to school, which was seven or eight years ago, up until last spring when we put out our EP. So, a little before that, last January was when we were all finally free to pursue our own project and we knew all along we wanted to work together, but we didn’t have the opportunity. We all had different bands . . . our bassist Jake was on tour, and Zach, the guitarist, was also in a band, and I had my own band. We finally just had the opportunity to make a record.

KAPLAN: How did you get involved with doing Slam Donahue? You’re the drummer in that project, right?

MITCHELL: I’m the drummer. Yes. It got set up through my friend Dylan Rau, who is in Bear Hands, who had convinced me to drum with him. They needed a drummer. For some reason, he thought I would be the best choice, so he made us meet up a couple times. I listened to a few songs, and I said I’d try it out. I hadn’t played drums in a long time, but he thought I’d be the right fit. Thom and Dave were like, “Oh come on.”  My second show with them was at SXSW last year.

KAPLAN: Who are some of your influences for Fort Lean?

MITCHELL: For the tones and the audio quality, we grew up with different stuff.  Zach was talking about this in another interview. I was into old blues, classic rock. Zach was more into typical ’90s jams. Sam was all over the place. He was a music critic as well, so he’s super informed. Will is into old blues and doo-wop. We try, without sounding like we’re recycling, we’re trying to keep in touch with some of those influences.

KAPLAN: How’d you come up with your band name?

MITCHELL: We’ve been casting for a title for a while. We tried to think of a band name that wasn’t reserved.  That was one of the few he gave me. Fort Lean is hard to describe. It’s good because it’s not as direct as “Crunk Army,” but it has the same kind of feel. We thought it was kind of… I like the sound of it. I like it as a place. We always use it on our website. We kind of want to associate the name Fort Lean with a place that you can go, like a destination. We also just like the ring of it. It’s also a neutral palette for people to create meaning around.

KAPLAN: Is the title supposed to be a holiday theme? Like taking a holiday?

MITCHELL: Yeah. I would say more than a holiday. A beach trip. A one-day trip out of the city.

KAPLAN: What type of themes does your music have?

MITCHELL: A lot of it is just pretty straight-ahead. Part of it is, not autobiographical, but kind of about what it is like to be our age living in New York, and we wanted to blend it in with the idea of occult. It’s something that we like to write about; it [provides for] interesting lyrics. That’s something of blending the normal day-to-day tasks and blending certain magical stuff. Something you can hear in “Beach Holiday,” maybe.

KAPLAN: What bands have you gotten to play with that have resonated with you? Who have you performed with that made for a memorable show?

MITCHELL: We played with Unknown Mortal Orchestra, which was awesome. They were one of the first bands I was really excited to play with. They were really incredible. We’re really lucky to be able to play with a lot of our friends in the city. We’re playing with Bear Hands on Friday. Who else have we played with? To be honest, we haven’t played a lot of shows out of the city yet, but we’re excited to make that happen really soon.

KAPLAN: You guys all had day jobs before being musicians. How did you go from doing what you do to being a musician?

MITCHELL: We still have day jobs. Sam is an elementary-school teacher. He teaches third grade. Zach is a real estate agent. Will works for an ice cream sandwich truck and a hospital. Jake is a recording engineer. I do some freelance set-design stuff and I also work for a company that makes fancy axes for cutting down trees.

KAPLAN: What do you hope will happen in the next five years for Fort Lean?

MITCHELL: Oh man! I think all of us would really just like to make music our only job instead of trying to split our time between all of these different day jobs. What I want for all of us, if our band can support our desire to keep making music every single day that would be ideal. That would make me happy.

KAPLAN: Will you be having an upcoming full-length release or another EP?

MITCHELL: Fort Lean has a four-song EP, and we’re releasing a single in February, it’s called “Sunsick” and it’s on Neon Gold.

FORT LEAN’S SELF-TITLED EP IS OUT NOW. YOU CAN CHECK OUT THEIR VIDEO FOR “BEACH HOLIDAY” HERE. THE BAND PLAYS AT MUSIC HALL OF WILLIAMSBURG TONIGHT.PHOTO BY KYLE DEAN REINFORD