Sibling relationship fuels FACE debut 'Ball of Flames'

Joel Oliphint

When Dan Gerken moved back to Columbus in 2011 after graduating from law school in Washington D.C., the former co-frontman of Miranda Sound wasn’t looking to start a band. He just wanted to hang out with his sister, Dinah Gerken Babcanec.

“She'd expressed some interest in flexing the more creative side of herself,” said Gerken, who invited his sister over to play cover songs and sing harmonies together in his basement. “Part of the reason I wanted to do something substantive with my sister is because my mom had passed away in 2007, right before I left for law school. She had been dealing with mental illness issues, and it was a suicide, so that obviously impacted our family. My sister and my brother and I have all been very close, I'm happy to say, and we still have a lot of the same friends and socialize regularly. But specifically seeking my sister out for this project was definitely aimed at rebuilding and reinforcing that relationship with her, just to have that family connection a little bit more. It wasn't like, ‘I need to rock!’ or ‘I need to turn things up!’ or ‘I want to hit the road!’ It wasn't any of that stuff. It was like, ‘I want to do this project with my sister.’”

The thing was, the more the two played music together, the more it seemed to be working. Gerken Babcanec had never played in a band before, but her voice blended beautifully with her brother’s. “Eventually she was like, ‘I like how this sounds. I want to keep going with this. I think we need a drummer and a bass player,'” Gerken said. “I was a little bit hesitant at first, because I was excited about the idea of not being restrained by a classic, Columbus rock band format — four people standing in a room and writing music together.”

But the more they talked about it, the more the siblings realized that playing out was the next logical step, and to do that well, they needed a bass player and a drummer. Fortunately, Columbus music vets Brian Freshour (bass) and Brian Moore (drums) were available and willing to join the new venture, which the bandmates dubbed FACE. This weekend, the band is releasing its stellar, hook-laden debut album, Ball of Flames.

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That sibling relationship and sense of shared history heavily influenced the songs Gerken wrote — a background that comes through clearly on “Concrete,” which, for those used to the oft-inscrutable time signatures and frenetic pacing inMiranda Sound’s catalog, may sound surprisingly mellow and country-fried.

“Mama, my front porch is sinkin’/Do you have an ex-husband who can help me pour the concrete in?” Gerken sings in close harmony with Gerken Babcanec.

“When I grew up, my dad listened to a lot of Americana and folk-rock stuff. He saw the Allman Brothers when he was like 16 at a rec center in Sarasota, Florida. … That's always been in the background, but it wasn't really something I tried to prioritize in any of my other projects,” said Gerken, who also pointed to his upbringing as a foundation for the way Gerken Babcanec so easily and naturally found harmonies to sing. “I'm not really religious, but I really like church music. I like the simplicity of it, and I really like the harmonies of church music. My sister and my brother and I, we grew up going to church and hearing that every week, sometimes twice a week. I don't know if that plays a role, but she seems pretty quick to pull out some good harmony lines that work with the melodies I write.”

“Go to Hell,” the prettiest song you’ll hear with a sing-along chorus that instructs someone to descend to Hades, is among Ball of Flames’ more autobiographical tunes. “To everyone who brought you down on your 12th birthday/To everyone who said your dreams would carry you away/To all of those who reminded you how much stood in the way/Go to hell,” Gerken sings.

"It’s about the hypocrisy that you can get from elders who might not believe in what you're doing, but have never really done anything extraordinary themselves,” he said. “It's not about my mom or my dad or anything. It's about someone else who had strong opinions about what I was choosing to spend my time doing, and I thought it was hypocritical for someone who had never really been extraordinary themselves or even attempted to break any kind of mold themselves. … It's also a message to bullies, that if you're going to pester me for believing that I can be better than my surroundings, then you can go to hell.”

The song also hints at an underlying force that has motivated Gerken all along, and the thing that continues to press him forward: “All that works is hope and muscle and putting in the time.”

“I think one of the ugliest things that one can witness on the planet is a sense of entitlement. So I wanted to make it clear that while it's good to have goals, you need to be prepared to work for them, because thinking that you deserve something by virtue of who you are, without having to put in effort, is not something I want to condone," he said. "It's one of the things that really guides my parenting of my own kids, who are just 3 and 5 — far too young to have to worry about that right now. But a sense of entitlement just makes me sick to my stomach."

Ball of Flames is Gerken’s first release as a sole songwriter; in Miranda Sound, he always shared the load with Billy Peake. That’s partly why it took nearly five years to release the album after most of the recording was finished in 2015. Gerken wanted to make sure the songs were the best he could put out.

“A lot of my lyrical content, it ends up being images or memories of moments that I've had with others that are extraordinary in some way — that somehow escape the humdrum and monotony and expectations of modern professional life,” he said. “I like the stability of my current life, and I love my stable marriage and my kids. I wouldn't trade that for anything. I think it's wonderful in itself. But I also think that just because you're pursuing those more domestic or more stable situations doesn't mean that you need to throw in the towel on being unusual or artistic or extraordinary in some way.”