The Fabulous Downey Brothers on aliens, band rules and those crazy costumes

Crosscut archive image.

(From left) Alex Link, Liam Downey, Chandra Farnsworth, Sean Downey, Frederick Dobler and Louis Messina in full Downey Bros. regalia.

I’m convinced that The Fabulous Downey Brothers are secretly the cast for an upcoming sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It’s title: Dr. Frankenfurter in Space.

Inspired by the deranged showmanship of high-energy New Wave bands like The Talking Heads, The B-52s and Devo, this seven-person Seattle-based group takes on-stage theatrics to another galaxy. Ornate, handcrafted headpieces, full-body eyeball suits and gratuitous applications of black lipstick are just a few key elements in the Downey Brothers's expansive wardrobe.

Musically, the group — named for brothers Sean and Liam, who write and sing most of the songs — is as manic as it gets. The keyboards, guitar work and Sean’s singing all carry the whimsy and breakneck pacing of The B-52s, with hints of the garage-punk underpinnings so popular among young Northwest musicians today.

Beneath the antics, costumes and whimsy of their music, there is something substantial, something meticulous and philosophical about the Downey Bros. The group is utterly unlike so many of its musical peers who slap out messy guitar riffs wearing stained denim and slack-jawed expressions. This band possesses a feverish drive to entertain (and yes, confuse) audiences by any means hilarious. Strip away the makeup and the aping, and there is a deep-seated sincerity.

During a conversation with Sean and Liam Downey, singer (and Sean's wife) Chandra Farnsworth and guitarist Alex Link, a hint of that sincerity peeked out through all the quips and jibs.

JSH: Sean, When did you and your brother Liam start playing music?

Sean: Interview is over!

Well, we got that out of the way quick.

Sean: Our parents would play records during dinner. The B-52s, Devo, The Talking Heads. That’s it. I got a guitar, Liam got drums.

How old were you?

Sean: I was 13. So Liam was 10.

When did the band start?

Sean: Four years ago. In Olympia. Christmas happens every year… (trails off)

Chandra: We decided to play a bunch of Christmas songs. The band played its very first show on New Years Day.

Alex: I missed that show!

Chandra: You did; you missed our first show. That was okay though, because the first show was the only show we ever did without costumes.

So it became apparent after the first show that costumes were a necessity? Why was that?

Sean: We really like Zolo music.

Chandra: There’s a certain freedom that comes with wearing a costume. It gives you more license to get away with stuff, to push it a little more.

Sean: We need it to be a mystery. Do you know what Zolo music is?

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The bandmates costumed up for their new album photo shoot. Credit: Josh Chin

Why don’t you explain it to me?

Sean: It’s a musical genre but also a fashion thing. It’s like New Wave music with cartoony shapes and colors. Like Devo. We tend to revert to that because it’s the easiest way to explain what we do.

Alex: The reason I wanted to do costumes was because of something David Byrne said: “Everything on stage needs to be larger than life.”

Chandra: It’s about reaching the back row too.

Alex: That’s why I like the [costume] head pieces.

Chandra: We try to be a band we would want to see. Great music is one thing, and it’s definitely a great reason to go see a live show. But when you can capitalize on that visual element you’re giving people more bang for their buck.

Sean: I don’t think this has been published. It was Halloween, and Liam made his own costume out of cardboard [for a school contest]. He cut it out into this lobster. It looked really DIY. Everyone else was doing a gimmick or doing some store-bought costume. I thought about the things Liam was doing while we were making this band.

Alex: Sean and I did the rock and roll thing in high school, and it was pretty boring.

What was the first set of costumes you made?

Sean: We went to the thrift stores and bought blue.

Alex: Little tiny blue hats.

Chandra: Blue glasses.

Sean: Blue everything. And black lipstick. I think that was my idea.

Chandra: At the time, because it was sudden, we all just sort of bought stuff. Since then, it’s become much more handmade.

How often would you say you change your costumes?

Chandra: The general theme is that we run with one or two costumes for a year.

Sean: We put in a costume change [during the live show] at some point too. There didn’t used to be a costume change.

Chandra: We’re trying to work in three one day!

You started in Olympia, and then you came out to Seattle. Could you compare the two musical scenes?

Sean: Seattle’s way more saturated.

Chandra: More bands per square inch.

Sean: In Olympia you know most of the bands who are playing. A lot of bands have come through Olympia or originated in Olympia, so it has its own thing. But so does Tacoma. Tacoma is so often overlooked.

Chandra: Olympia doesn’t have the same permanence as Seattle because it’s a college town. A lot of bands form temporarily and then disband. A lot of people make their homes in Seattle and sink their roots down here.

Alex: And they have a GREAT psychedelic rock history.

Are there any venues in Tacoma we should know about?

Chandra: The Valley was a good time.

You’ve been around for a few years now. Do you feel like you can draw a decent crowd when you play?

Sean: We tend to get lucky. We open for other really good bands. We’ve opened for huge audiences, but they’ve never been OUR audiences. We’re still a very young band, and it’s hard to gauge what our fan base is. We see a lot of happy faces and we can’t talk to everybody.

Is it ever bizarre opening for those large audiences that came to see other groups?

Chandra: We recently opened for Randy and Mr. Lahey from Trailer Park Boys.

Sean: It was sold out!

Chandra: We look at it as a great opportunity. We have a great opportunity to do whatever the hell we want. ... It’s like an assault. That’s what we like to call it. We go in, change costumes and leave the audience with so much to process they can’t help but get into it.

That’s partially why I wanted to interview you. On stage, you rarely present as human. You’re these insane caricatures. I had to find out what was beneath the exterior.

Sean: [Referring to himself, Chandra, Alex, and Liam] We live together, and our house is quiet after 10 p.m. We never have parties.

Chandra: It’s a really delicate thing. We live in an era where you can track any band you want. Follow their Instagram and know about all their shit all the time, getting updates constantly. We’re a really visual band, so we’re torn between giving [the fans] everything and maintaining that sense of distance and mystery that is so compelling. It’s hard, with this internet (laughs).

Sean: It’s hard, because I work with bands, so everyone knows I don’t wear makeup all the time.

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The Downey Brothers in performance

I’m sure you heard that local DIY venue The Josephine shut down recently. It’s an almost cyclical thing with these places: They become popular and the fire marshall or whoever busts them because they’re not up to code, or they get torn down as an area gets developed. Is there anything that we as citizens or lawmakers can do to make music more accessible in Seattle?

Alex: The old Funhouse [another DIY venue since shut down] was kind of what launched us in the Seattle scene. Honestly, no, I don’t think there’s anything we can do unless money is taken out of the equation. The reason the Funhouse shut down is because it was prime real estate and they wanted to build condos. If you look around Seattle, everywhere is condos now.

The “Razing the Bar” documentary about the Funhouse said it perfectly: Seattle prides itself on its music and whatnot, but they’re shutting down every place that breeds bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden. The problem is all those places are owned privately, and if the landlord wants to make more money, they’re gone … [Liam Downey arrives] … Hey Liam!

There’s a recorder on, just so you know.

Liam: Oh helllllo!

Sean: (to Liam) We were talking about your lobster costume. Tell us how you made it.

Liam: (to Sean) The same way we make all the head pieces … I didn’t think you were the one asking the questions here.

Do you remember why you made it?

Liam: I wanted to win the costume contest! I didn’t win.

Who did?

Liam: Someone bought an inflatable thing. It was a private high school, so that was sort of acceptable. Whoever spends the most money wins.

We were also talking about DIY venues. Do you have any thoughts on their importance?

Liam: The reason they’re getting shut down is because the majority of the world hates art. So until that changes they’ll keep going away. They are important though, because they’re the only places anyone can play. You don’t need a demo to play them.

Can you tell me about some other local bands that you’ve enjoyed listening to or playing with?

Sean: We’re all in different scenes. We all like very different bands. I’m going to go with Wimps. Rachel Ratner and the boys are great songwriters.

Liam: Witches Titties are great too. They’re really liberating, they break down barriers and they use magic (chuckles).

What do you mean, barriers?

Liam: They have no genre … and the lead singer, she was a high school student in the ’80s. So it's really interesting to see her perspective on music. Witches Titties feels like her accumulation of what she thinks about music, and she’s seen it all. Especially when it comes to punk music. She’s seen punk go through New Wave, Industrial and Grunge.

Chandra: Punishment is awesome, and so is Nightspace. They tear that shit up by themselves. And there’s more good bands in Tacoma, too: Mirrorgloss is amazing. So sassy!

Let’s switch gears: I’ve always loved the mid-set transition in your shows where Liam comes out from behind the drum kit and sings. How did you come up with that? Is it just a way to give Liam a turn to perform the songs he wrote?

Liam: Basically, yeah. I can’t play drums and sing at the same time. Well, I can, but I don’t like to … It’s not like we planned [the transition], but every time I’ve tried to be the front man [full time] it always backfires. If you’re doing something that’s a little bit aggressive people can get pissed off … It’s the patriarchy winning. People will be like, "you fucked with that guy, you deserved it." That’s not true. Especially when [a dispute] is about a material thing. When I’ve been attacked for knocking over someone’s drink, I’ve screamed, I’ll buy you a new one!

Has this been a problem for you?

Liam: I guess so. There was one time when I threw my headpiece  — which was soft! — into the audience and it hit the wrong guy, but he actually turned out to be nice. The other time, I knocked over a guy's drink and he got really cerebral about it. He waited for a weak moment when we were done playing and sucker punched me.

Chandra: And that was after he threw beers at us on stage.

Liam: it was just something so un-personal that he took so personally.

I’d like to hear about how you prepare for shows, because there’s so much choreography compared to many other bands.

Sean: We argue. We’re trying to sit down and talk about things though. It’s all normal band stuff; we rehearse.

Chandra: Things get refined the more you try them out on stage. It becomes apparent what needs to be changed. … We’re trying to move into a more focused and conceptual phase, mostly just to keep ourselves sane.

Sean: We have to start imposing more rules.

Chandra: We have so much creative energy. David Byrne was talking about how Talking Heads had certain unspoken rules. They wouldn’t sing songs about "ooh baby baby." We have a lot of rules that aren’t strict and spoken, but understood.

Alex: One rule is that we’ll never make a girl look sexy, like a sex symbol — unless it’s a satire.

Chandra: Another thing we try not to do is write songs about really intense personal experiences. They’re all very general; they could apply to anyone.

Sean: We’re an anti-political band, but that’s political (laughs).

Choosing not to make certain statements is a statement in and of itself.

Liam: For me, it’s always been about the postmodern strive for something that’s not human. Not another love song, not another party song. For me, it’s mostly science fiction [that inspires me].

Chandra: We don’t want to idolize ourselves or make ourselves characters within the band. We’re very unified. We want to give the sense that we’re all replaceable.

Liam: We’re an organism! … We’re kind of weird about the band name right now, because it just centers on me and Sean.

Given your costume choices and songwriting I must ask: Have you ever been contacted by aliens?

Liam: They contact me every night when I close my eyes. In fact, they’re here right now!

I didn’t ask if you’d seen too many episodes of The X-Files.

Sean: People who have smoked Salvia or taken psychedelics can access these beings very easily. Sometimes the dosage is not enough; it doesn’t work for everybody. But the Salvia will take you away whether you’re ready or not. That’s how the band is: We’re going to do our thing whether you’re ready for us or not, and the aliens are among us all the time. They’re talking to us, making things happen and syncing things up. The ebb and flow is there. Some people have to meditate a little harder to see them. … Or you can just smoke some Salvia.

Liam: Our thoughts are aliens.

Alex: Me being a pilot, they communicate with me through the RF channels. They give me ideas to make the band better while I’m flying around Friday Harbor. It sounds like a digital mishmash, but I understand it.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Joseph Sutton-Holcomb

Joseph is a full-time landscaper, part-time journalist and full time culture junkie discovering the hidden joys of life as a UW graduate in Seattle. When not taking care of plants or writing, he spends his time in the company of good friends enjoying film, music and the great outdoors.