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It hasn't been the easiest of weeks for the band Chula.
For their first real road excursion, the emo-punk quartet had lined up a couple of Southern California gigs along with two other bands, to be capped by a return gig in Tempe. Three hours out of Phoenix, their van broke down near Blythe, eventually forcing them to cancel all three gigs.
Now, they're playing a Saturday night show in the parking lot behind Living Head recording studio. The occasion is the studio's more-or-less annual "Resurrection" party, an excuse for the studio brass to get beaucoup kegs, invite a bunch of friends over and showcase some of the bands who've recorded at the studio.
Chula is one of those bands. Their dynamic new six-song CD (on the local King of the Monsters label, for all you Unruh fans out there) was cut at Living Head in one feverishly productive day. But at the Resurrection party, things feel a bit askew. The band is playing with its usual fiery passion and tight sense of economy, but the sound system isn't up to the occasion. Roger Brogan's drums are nearly absent in the mix, and the vocal mikes spit out feedback every few minutes. Adding to the sense of discomfort is the sense that much of the audience is here to see the next band, Mighty Sphincter.
The members of Chula grin and bear it (as they have with all of this week's disappointments), but they're clearly not having a great time. Singer Yolanda Bejarano wears a black tee shirt that reads "Sod Off," and though she's too nice to say so, that's probably a pretty accurate reflection of her state of mind at the moment.
After only about 20 minutes, the band wraps up its set. Bejarano tells the crowd about the group's June 5 CD-release show at the Green Room, adding, in typical self-deprecating fashion: "And we'll be better then."
If the members of Chula tend to be a bit tough on themselves, it's only because they expect a lot. These four music aficionados have uniformly good taste, and you sense that they refuse to be part of something that doesn't aim for the same high standards as their favorite bands.
Less than a year after playing their first gig, Chula is reaching those standards more and more frequently. In recent months, they've played powerhouse opening sets for the likes of Built to Spill and Jimmy Eat World, and their self-titled CD--which was recorded with practically no overdubs--attests to how intrinsically cohesive they are as a unit.
"We were limited in money, so live was the only thing we could do at this point," guitarist Joel Hatcher says of the CD.
"Well, we wanted the CD to sound like what we sound like too," adds Kristi Wimmer, bassist for the group.
Wimmer had never played bass before joining Chula, but she's made great strides in a short time, and, along with Brogan, has formed an airtight rhythm section. Hatcher could be viewed as the Eric Erlandson of the band, a self-effacing guy who speaks softly and wields a big guitar. His inventive range of guitar textures defines the group's ferocious sound.
The heart of the group, though, belongs to Bejarano. Her reckless wail is so powerful and untamed that, even after Chula's songs start to become familiar, she always makes you feel like you're hearing an impulsive, involuntary emotional release, rather than a crafted performance. It's audible in songs like "Tonight," in the way she leaps from the prettiness of the verses to a gloriously unhinged howl on the chorus. It's a skill that many of the most technically gifted singers in the world either forget or never learn.
Chula's lyrics tend to be as plain, direct and unbridled as that voice: "I don't wanna hear about you/I wanna hear about her/I don't wanna hear about the house and the car/I don't wanna hear about the honeymoon." This unvarnished sense of personal revelation can be painful to hear at times, but Bejarano says that listening to her own songs doesn't make her uncomfortable.
"No, it used to, but not anymore," she says. "The songs are about something that happened a long time ago. It doesn't matter anymore."
Bejarano formed Chula in the wake of a painful breakup with her previous band, Slugger. She says that experience informed how she approached Chula's creative method.
"I just wanted everybody to input more than the other band did," she says. "And then it just naturally happened, I think.
"Some of the songs I bring in, and everybody adds to make it the song that it becomes, because by myself, it doesn't sound like that. And other times, we just jam and something good comes out." Brogan chimes in, "It's rare for anybody to come in with a complete song, with everything worked out."
The haunting beauty of material like the dreamy mood piece "Mary" (one of the highlights of the new CD) suggests the broad possibilities of a sophomore Chula CD, if--as they hope--they're able to afford more recording time and really experiment with ideas in the studio. For now, though, they're mulling over the prospect of first encountering their debut disc in the used-CD bins, a modern-day rite of passage for all ascendant bands.