Dropout Rock

Illinois foursome Braid proves itself the happy exception to the college-town rule

College towns tend to spawn millions of bands, most of them worth slightly less than shit. Take Tempe, for instance, where I live. A hundred cover bands vying for frat-boy dollars at strip-mall bars, and another hundred grabbing at the coattails of a sound that was curiously successful half a decade ago. The upside is that many musicians get their prerequisite experiences living in and playing college towns and go on to more meritorious musical careers.

Urbana/Champaign, Illinois, the twin-city home of the University of Illinois, is such a town (although I'm pretty sure they don't have a "desert rock" scene). But one band spawned by Urbana is proving itself an exception to the college-rock rule (then again, most of the members dropped out of college to pursue the band's interests, so it's more like college-dropout rock). Not that eyebrows will raise just because a good band came out of a college town (reference Athens, Georgia; Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Olympia, Washington), but it is unusual that for three out of four members, this is their first experience in a band.

Braid formed nearly four years ago, practicing in a University of Illinois dorm room. Personnel changes were implemented nearly a year later, with the band replacing a guitarist and the drummer. Since that point in early 1995, the foursome, Bob Nanna (guitar/vox), Chris Broach (guitar/vox), Todd Bell (bass) and Damon Atkinson (drums), have gone on 12 tours and played close to 400 shows, appearing on no fewer than 23 releases. Ambitious kids.

Braid's members' extensive experience playing with one another and impassioned enthusiasm for the band have facilitated the honing of their tortuous songwriting and math-rock dynamics to the current level of near-genius seen on the band's new LP Frame and Canvas. Released on Polyvinyl Records, a fledgling label out of Danville, Illinois, Frame and Canvas places Braid among the giants of the much-cliched post-emo melodicore genre.

Comparisons to fellow sensitive boy-rock bands (of which the Midwest has no shortage) would be easy but not accurate. Braid plays math-rock without getting anal about the equations; the band members are too spasmodic and grinningly eager to have to stare at their instruments while they play. The songs on Frame and Canvas are pop songs layered in big rock guitars and frantic rhythms. Yeah, this is "emo," but these kids aren't crying.

The majority of Frame and Canvas ponders the frustrations and ambitions of a young band constantly on tour. Songs like "The New Nathan Detroits" and "Never Will Come for Us" examine the youth/art/career paradox faced by musicians who drop everything else--the band screams at itself, "You're painting floors while your pals are renaming the stars/Get up get up and go do what you started/If you want to be a martyr, try harder." Of course, it wouldn't be an "emo" recording without songs about girls; again the perspective is from the tour bus. "A Dozen Roses," the sprawling lovesick epic on the album, contrasts the sadness of pay-phone relationships against the reality of playing shows to dozens of girls they'll never see again.

Altogether, Frame and Canvas is a brilliantly complex and endearing recording by a band in love with its collective self. Since Braid will be gracing Tempe with its presence, along with two of the best young bands playing today--the Get Up Kids and Modest Mouse--Revolver hunted down (with some difficulty) the band on the first leg of its tour. Eventually, Bell called from Washington, D.C., and suffered the Revolver interrogation.

Revolver: I've heard a lot of bands bitch about touring the West Coast. What's your take on coming out this way?

Todd Bell: This is the most promising West Coast tour so far. The west is difficult. The drives are long, the shows usually aren't as good compared to the East Coast, there's fewer kids at the shows. This one is promising, though, and it's with our friends the Get Up Kids, so it should be a blast. There's nothing like playing with a great band every night. Normally you have to sit through some mediocre bands or bands you're not familiar with. It's much cooler to play not only with your friends, but to your friends. We've done many things with the Get Up Kids, we went to Europe with them and toured on and off with them last summer, so we're excited about it.

R: Your label's pretty small, but this record is being promoted and distributed really well. Tell me about working with Polyvinyl.

TB: Matt [Polyvinyl's owner] was at our very first show ever. His label formed out of a zine [Polyvinyl Press] that he used to do, he used to just do seven-inches with the zines. So we didn't even consider him at that time; he was mainly focusing on his zine. We hooked up with him for this record because he's a friend of ours. It's always been on a pretty personal basis; we've never gone out of our way to look for a label. We just hooked up with friends, which is cool 'cause it's on a personal level rather than dealing with a label you don't know or is a thousand miles away or whatever.

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