The Frail Ophelias(photo: Bradley Cox)

Isn’t it obvious why Karl Digerness chose to start the Frail Ophelias with Macbeth?

“With like, murderous despots,” he says, a half-stifled scoff interrupting him, “it feels very different.” He’s sitting at a near-empty bar on Polk Street just after its 3pm opening, talking about reading Macbeth this most recent time, as he prepared to record an album of the same name with the Frail Ophelias. “It’s like, ‘Oh, what does untamed and unchecked ambition and power look like?’ We’ve seen this,” he says.

The Frail Ophelias are mostly defined by what they are not. They call themselves a “Shakespeare cover band,” for lack of existing terminology, but they’re not as much of a novelty as that title may suggest. “If I’m honest, if I heard there was a Shakespeare cover band, I’d probably give it a huge eye roll,” he says over his scotch and soda. But with a backing band of nimble Bay Area talent like Wil Blades and Minna Choi, the Frail Ophelias ditch frilly-collared caricatures of Elizabethan England for subtle nods to the source material.

Digerness isn’t some Shakespeare savant set on evangelizing the Bard to San Francisco music fans. “I still probably have, like, a 10th grade-level knowledge of Shakespeare,” he admits. Nor did he set out to draw any sweeping parallels between a plot about power-hungry rulers and the state of American politics. He just liked Macbeth, and also, one night, a 2010 version of it was on TV. “A BBC thing, I think,” Digerness says. He found himself captivated. “You get this sort of get this Soviet-era, Stalinesque vibe [from] it, but it’s all the original language...it’s just so well-done.”

When it comes to writing music, Digerness prefers to start with source material. "It’s very difficult for me to write a song out of thin air," he says. Watching the Patrick Stewart version planted the idea of doing something surrounding Macbeth in his head. Then his friends Ken and Melinda Masur, who run the Chelsea Music Festival, commissioned him to write a project for the 2013 season. The theme was British and Italian music. “I spent the next few months writing it, and then Minna happened to be in New York that summer...so I flew out, and we performed it there for the festival.”

The Frail Ophelias do not mark the first time a band has based themselves entirely on works of literature. Back in the ‘60s a band called H.P. Lovecraft took their cues from the namesake horror author, and in more modern times, entire musical genres have sprung up around Harry Potter. Leonard Nimoy recorded more than one song based on the Lord of the Rings saga. But the Frail Ophelias stands out in that they stand alone. Whereas other pop-culture-inspired projects can feel like a self-aggrandizing exercise in nerd-community gatekeeping, Macbeth is simply a gorgeous, accessible album. Most songs only borrow brief snatches of dialogue from the original text, and otherwise have nothing to anchor them to the the 400-year-old script. “I mean, outside of maybe the ‘double double toil and trouble’ song, if you didn’t know it was Shakespeare...it hopefully [hits] you in a way, aesthetically, that’s pleasing.”

Though Frail Ophelias’ take on this well-worn story feels fresh in 2018, reinterpretations of Shakespeare tend to age quickly. Digerness, for example, cites Baz Luhrmann's 1996 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet as a turning point for his appreciation of Shakespeare. It was, to be sure, a stylistic achievement in the ‘90s, but to most modern moviegoers, the cast, the time capsule of a soundtrack, and the saturated colors date it dramatically. There are, it seems, no truly timeless tellings of Shakespeare, and no matter how stylish the version your teacher shows you in class, it becomes ho-hum once it’s associated with homework. Is he worried about his Macbeth deteriorating into a tool English teachers, or adding to an already-crowded catalog of adaptations that, so to speak, fret their hour upon the stage and then are heard no more?

He laughs. Digerness doesn't expect to break that mold. “I guess there’s worse things, I don’t know. If they buy it, sure. Everybody’s trying to figure out how to make money these days in music, [maybe] that’s the way to do it,” he says, with only a little bit of sarcasm. Music made with a theme in mind does make money. “Harry Connick [Jr.] made some great records, but his Christmas one sold more than like any one he ever did.”

At the album’s official debut, next month at Swedish American Hall, he’ll be performing the record with Minna Choi’s Magik*Magik Quartet. He’s also promised some Shakespeare trivia. “And certainly lots of dad jokes, I’m sure,” he notes. He has to bring at least a little bit of levity to it — Macbeth is, after all, a musical. “There’s more...music cues in Macbeth...than any other [Shakespeare] play,” he says. “I love that idea — there’s a music cue for something that’s completely...we don’t know what those were.”

The Frail Ophelias don’t strictly do Shakespeare — their upcoming album, Xerxes Blue, is inspired by a butterfly once native to the outside lands of San Francisco, the first to become extinct by human destruction in North America. “It’s under the Frail Ophelias banner, just not Shakespearean.” He's already captured the attention literature nerds with Macbeth. Onto science nerds next.

The Frail Ophelias, Magik*Magik, SloMo
Swedish American Hall
November 15, 2018
7pm, $15

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