The Secret Origins of Deral Fenderson

by Pris Sears, photos by Christina O'Connor
March 13, 2008

Deral Fenderson has been playing music for more than 15 years, and has written hundreds of songs. Recently, he took the time to talk with Pris Sears.

Pris Sears: Most stories about super heroes start with secret origins...

Deral Fenderson: Secret origins? Well, I became adopted by the Fendersons back in the summer after I dropped out of college the first time. The summer of '92. I was involved in moving mail-art through the US mail, kind of sending envelopes of things to this address and envelopes of things came from other addresses. I was introduced to a handful of really odd people in the underground culture. And I got a form letter from a Graham Trievel Fenderson up in Pennsylvania, you could find his address on the Internet - or the interweb, that series of tubes that the information comes through - this was all pre-Internet crap, you know. The Fendersons were a family you could join just by declaring you were a Fenderson and you were automatically a member of the clan. The Fenderson family is mentioned in the Book of Discordia. The founder of the family, S. J. Glew, from what I have gathered is up in Michigan somewhere running a PEZ store. You can find that one online as well. It's a pretty interesting group. I've never met any of these people. So, I declared myself a Fenderson, picked my name, Deral. It came from when I was working at a grocery store. The first day of work, the boss was like "We need to get you a name tag" so he went rummaging through the desk and found an old name tag, "Let's take this up front and get your name on it." It had "Deral" on it and I looked at it, "I'll just be Deral" and that is where that came from. I asked "Did you ever have anyone named Deral working here?" and they said "No." There was a guy name Gerald working there, I think what happened was the "G" got scraped off and the "D" got moved to the front for whatever reason, I don't know. Some sort of divine intervention. I took that as my Fenderson Family name and the rest, as they say, is history.

PS: That was the mid-90's

DF: Yeah

PS: I'm sure by then you had been playing music for a while.

DF: Oh, yeah, I had always been playing music through high school, self taught on guitar, I played along to all the heavy metal records that I liked. I was in a cover band or two as a singer. When I went to college the first time I wrote a handful of songs, then when I went to Harrisonburg was when I started really writing a lot. The first time I got hooked up with a four-track recorder, I borrowed that in July of '93. I went in and did a flu study at the University of Virginia. I'd seen an ad in the college paper at JMU that said "Do a flu study." They put me in a hotel, gave me three meals a day for nine days, I didn't get sick, they maybe took blood out of me six or seven times total and paid me $725. It was a wonderful vacation. They left me alone in this hotel room; I took along this recorder that I had borrowed, a couple of guitars and some effects pedals, and recorded what was to become "I'm Not Doing Anything" which was the first official album that came out.

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PS: So you think this mysterious "flu study" you did might be part of the source of your super-powers?

DF: It's possible, I've only got hit by the flu once since then, for a day and a half, at the same time people were getting sick for five or six days, so yeah, it's possible I did get something from secret government research that I wasn't privy to. They figured they'd sucker in some down-on-his-luck artist who needs a quick buck.

PS: You write lyrics, do your own arrangements and your own recording, you play guitar and use lots of pedals and effects...

DF: I like to battle the machines, twiddle knobs and hook things up and see if I can get something out of it I like. Sometimes the machines win, but usually that's pretty entertaining in its own way.

PS: What other instruments do you like playing?

DF: I'm not bad at the drums; I've been known to dabble with keyboards, the zanzithophone is lovely, the bubble sax. It looks like a toy; but it's got a midi output. I learned the trombone when I was a kid, played that in the band, so I can still pull that out from time to time. Any instrument that I haven't played with, I can fiddle with for 15 minutes and play a tune of some sort. I have an intuitive skill with instruments.

PS: On most of your recordings, they're multi-tracked, is it you playing all the tracks?

DF: Typically, yeah. It's one of those obsessive-compulsive things where you pile things on and keep messing with things. I like playing with people but the recording aspect, I haven't worked so much with other people. There've been a few projects here and there that have come from long spells of sitting for too long in the same room with a few people. Generally the stuff I have done is just me obsessively fiddling with boxes.

PS: You did an entire choir on "Drinking Beer for Jesus." How many of you are on that recording?

DF: That recording has seven instances of myself. I did that on a digital 8-track and I did one track with the organ sound in the background with a little drum machine and I layered 7 voices on. I grew up singing in the children's choir in church. My earliest records to listen to were the Beatles and the Beach Boys. I've always heard lots of voices in my head, sometimes you just go with it [laughs].

PS: Is that a theme in your songs, the religious element?

DF: A little here and there, I was brought up Southern Baptist. At this point, it's hard to latch on to what I really, truly believe. I've tried to keep an open mind about what is actually going on in the world, whether it be religious, technological, social, cultural or otherwise. I'm 34 years old and I still haven't totally figured it out.

PS: Speaking of themes, in your music, lyrically you have lots of heartbreak songs.

DF: Some of my best songs have come out of heartbreak.

PS: I really admire your songwriting and some of your heartbreak songs will make me cry listening to them.

DF: Well, some of them a lot of crying went into them. Love is one of those tricky things. I've always had a strong heart, and when I love somebody I really love them. When you try to step away from that, "this is over, it's time to move on, go to the next thing," it's really tough to deal with. Particularly when you feel so strongly, you don't want to give up this feeling, it's a great feeling! Why do I have to stop feeling it? That kind of thing will make you crazy. The so-called love songs, they come in different forms...

PS: You have some true-love songs, too, that are very happy...

DF: Yeah, and there have been the infamous girlfriend songs, "Ha, ha, I'm going to set you on fire, you broke my heart." It's trying to deal with it with humor. I wasn't going to set her on fire. If she accidentally caught on fire, I'd briefly say "Ha!" [pause] "OK, let's put her out." When you are dealing with it, you have to do the healthiest thing possible and for me it has been to create things. Honor the love you felt and wrap it up with a pretty bow.

PS: You also have hard-luck songs that aren't so much relationship oriented, maybe family-relationship oriented like "Junky Mom," "Demolition Derby."

DF: Those are more coming from the true roots of country music, a story. You take a great story like "Daddy Died in the Demolition Derby." Me and a handful of friends including Dave Sickman, he's one of the main guys in the Hackensaw Boys, a big bluegrass sensation now, he was in a band called Pieboy in Harrisonburg, a hot, hot punk rock band. What I would do for a proper recording of that band in their prime, they kicked ass. Well, we went to a demolition derby at the Rockingham County Fair Grounds, and a bunch of cars were wrecking each other and Dave said "My daddy died in the demolition derby, the tears from my eyes watered down my Slurpee." I said, "That's a song," and he said "You should write it," and I did! You put yourself in the shoes, in that case this kid that was proud of his dad racing cars and wrecking them, come on! That's exciting! If you've never been to a demolition derby then you haven't experienced life [laughs]. Those kinds of songs go to the roots of country music, tell a good story. I have a hard time toeing the line between jerking that tear out of you and laughing.

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PS: You have some science fiction songs, about robots and machines taking over.

DF: You gotta watch out. The machines are starting to make me feel uncomfortable. I like to stay on top of technology, know what the kids are using, but I feel that if we don't watch it, the machines could have us subservient, going to our jobs—OH—kind of like it is now!

PS: Here are some of the influences I hear on your recordings, and you may or may not agree. I hear some Ween...

DF: Oh, yes, Ween is a lovely band. They've taken the torch from Zappa, "does humor belong in music?" and it most certainly does.

PS: I hear a little Primus, heaviness...

DF: Well, yeah, it's like I've taken everything I've ever enjoyed and tossed it all in a big blender.

PS: You have a unique sound, smashed up and overdriven, with lots of layers and effects. I know you like Tom Waits a lot and I think I see a little of that there, especially the surreal story-telling.

DF: Yeah, he's a master. I particularly like the way he's not afraid to ask, ""What kinds of sounds can we get out of this box or instrument?" He's not always going for something that's purely musical; he might be trying to get something more percussive out of an instrument, keeping all the bases open.

PS: I know you have lots of different styles, I'm not very good at defining them.

DF: I'm not good at defining styles. There are a couple songs that I can say definitely, "That's a country-western song." At a live gig, I like to open with a country-western song. You can pull everyone in the room in to you and then all of a sudden pull out a hammer and hit them in the hand. "You thought it was going to be this! Wrong!" [laughter]
As far as genres, I've never felt comfortable doing one genre. As a lover of music, I'll listen to just about everything.

PS: I've listened to you doing songs just with an acoustic guitar, to electronica, to really fuzzed-out electric guitar. You cover a lot of territory.

DF: I try to figure things out from all over the spectrum of genres. I don't think I do any of them incredibly well but I usually at least do them justice. I certainly don't call myself an expert.

PS: Let's talk about some of your exploits. Tell me about some of your favorite gigs, or some of the biggest super-villains in your history.

DF: One of the biggest, well, I don't know if you would call him a super villain, there was this guy, we'll call him Mr. Harvey. He was an arch-rival of an arch-rival of mine, Dr. Ace Fever - he slings drinks and causes radio waves to happen. There was a Mr. Harvey, years ago, and me and Ace produced a "New Age" album for him. It was a great time. It was ultimately the birth of my band, "300lb ghost." We've been called "The Neil Harvey Project, with a really good drummer." Now that's an exploit. We actually have a gig coming up, March 20th, Thursday night with PPR.

PS: PPR and 300lb ghost at Champs.

DF: At Champs.

PS: I know you have lots of other projects.

DF: Yeah, I've been learning to make movies properly. One of the earlier times I was in school, I was wanting to learn about film, and at that time I went to the film production class and was fully expecting and desiring them to hand me a Super-8 camera and "Hey, we're going to be cutting up film and splicing it together" which is a very difficult and time-consuming process that, to be honest with you, when I think about it, I don't know if I would have the patience to do that. At the time I was a little more youthful, but, Hell, I still got five more years of youthful indiscretions, I'll be good enough to get the keys! Oh boy! What were we talking about?

PS: Some of your other projects, 300lb ghost...

DF: 300lb ghost. That's a lovely band. We have never actually "practiced" our art. We generally get together late at night and play our instruments at the same time.

PS: I've seen you play at Top of the Stairs

DF: Oh, yes, the Battle of the Bands. We should have won that one but unfortunately I didn't put enough extra tickets in the jar. We did a song called "300lb ghost or Kerry/Edwards." We figured if you didn't vote for us, you wanted the same thing to keep happening for another four years (this was back in 2004). We lost by two votes.

PS: I've seen you play at Germinate

DF: Yes, we've played out on the lawn. Actually now they are getting ready to dig up Fenderson Lawn. They didn't consult with me. It's a mess and I'm not happy about it. Sometimes I like to pull in to the lot next to Henderson Hall, it's a nice quiet shady spot, if I have half an hour or so before class I like to pull in there and sit. Now it's a construction lot and you can't pull in there at all and they have a big fence around Henderson Hall and half of Fenderson Lawn. I did claim Fenderson Lawn for the Fendersons.

PS: As you should.

DF: Yeah, as we should. They're getting ready to dig that up.

PS: I know you've worked with WUVT for a long time.

DF: Yeah, I do a show Wednesday nights from 9 to midnight with Dan Grubb, the All New Improved Colossally Ginormous Big Waste of Time. We've been in legal issues with this guy, Don "the Don" Rastberger. We could count him in with the arch-villains, a general jackass of a guy.

PS: Isn't he involved in that wrestling thing?

DF: Yeah, the wrestling thing, Radical Recorded 'Rasslin or "RRR is rrrrrr" as they say. It looks like this semester they have pulled a trump card, me and Dan have been given the night off for Radio-thon. We've been told we don't have to come up with a program because they're doing what they're calling a "Pay-Per-Hear" for raising money. They haven't worked out the bugs. I suppose what they are saying is that they have to raise a certain amount of money or they aren't going to play the program. How else would they do it? If you didn't put money in, you have to turn the radio off? [snickers]
Yeah, RRR, it's a socio-political commentary under the guise of a fake wrestling program on the radio. What a load of crap!

PS: You seem to have a knack for turning what could be drawbacks into a lot of energy and getting a lot of things done. You got hurt really badly at work...

DF: Yeah, for the longest time something would happen to me and I'd not know how to deal. I had points of just going into downward spirals. Some of the art came out of that but there are times I look back and think "Jeez, pathetic." I should have done so much better then. But when I broke my back, July of 2006, once we got out of the whole initial haze of all the random substances they were pumping in to me to keep me together, I took a step back and said "I can let this do me in—I've dealt with crap, and managed to pull through but didn't always make the right decisions. This time I have to keep moving forward." I've made the best of it, we're looking at living a stable existence. I've gotten myself back in school.

PS: Since the accident, I've seen you play out in Roanoke at the Green Dolphin

DF: Yeah, I've played a bunch of gigs since the accident. The first gig I played once I got out of the hospital, I was in the hospital from the beginning of July through the end of August, and played my first gig - did I play with all three bands?

PS: Yes you did.

DF: I played in three bands, 300lb ghost, AssTrakter, and Hideki Tojo, around the end of October.

[Full Disclosure: Pris plays bass with AssTrakter and Hideki Tojo]

PS: You re-arranged things some, your pedals.

DF: Yeah, the wah-wah pedal is the bane of my existence at the moment. I don't have proper foot control, but we'll work our ways around that. I had to adapt my performance style a little bit, I used to be a pedal stomper, kick something on at the right moment, now I have to reach out and smack it with my fist, often mid-strum. [laughter]

PS: It works.

DF: It works. Adds to the chaos.

PS: And you're back in school, making videos...

DF: Back in school full time, making short films. I'm entering a couple in a film festival coming up. I'm not looking to win anything, but if people are forced to sit through my short films that might be pretty funny.

PS: What film festival?

DF: The one Virginia Tech is putting on, the Progeny festival.

PS: I've really been enjoying your Christmas Present collection CD.

DF: Yeah, I made it as a Christmas present one year with hand-painted covers and handed it out to people I knew.

PS: I'm really glad you re-released it.

PS: You've got some videos online?

DF: Videos at noonynoonynoo.blip.tv

PS: And some songs on myspace.com/fendersonia

PS: Anything we can buy?

DF: Now that I'm running across some old digital instances, I'm working on getting back into the land of digital commerce. Being a "master of self-promotion," you can be sure that I'll be posting bulletins online when I have crap to peddle. And if I got stuff to sell, I'll certainly be selling it at any show I do in the future. Consider yourself warned.