The Short and the Long

Sometimes arty, sometimes poppy, the boys of New California are ready to go the distance

New California singer-songwriter Andrew Block loves Moon Valley.

The sentiment won't be found in any of his lyrics, or even in anything he says. Rather, it's emblazoned on the garish -- and frankly silly-looking -- baseball cap perched on his head.

"I'm not trying to make a statement," he jokes, peeling off the I Love Moon Valley hat. "I don't really love Moon Valley. I don't have anything against it, either. I've only been there once to play a soccer game. I . . . uh . . . I don't know, man."

The bearded, bulky Block is rarely this demure on any subject. A frequently hilarious raconteur with an acid tongue, he hasn't gathered with his New California bandmates to offer opinions on the north Phoenix suburb, but rather to discuss the group, one of the more promising and distinctive outfits currently making noise around town.

New California's membership includes several stalwarts of the local scene. Joining Block -- himself a vet of several bands, most recently AM Radio Allstar -- are drummer Darren Henley (late of Sleepwalker and Deckard) and bassist Aaron Wendt, an alumnus of Niner, Seven Storey Mountain and Go Big Casino. Also in attendance is the newest addition to the group and a recent Colorado transplant, guitarist Ron Marschall.

The band first came together a year and several name changes ago, when Block, Henley and Wendt formed the Young Mothers with veteran Valley tunesmith Jason Castleman ("the best songwriter in town, in the state, for that matter," enthuses Block).

After a few months Castleman begged out of the burgeoning project to focus on raising his young family. After changing its name to A Starlit Pond, the group enlisted the newly relocated Marschall to fill the vacated guitar slot.

Marschall's name will be familiar to many since the bespectacled musician manned the drum kit for Denver-based emo outfit Christie Front Drive. The group achieved quasi-legend status in underground circles in the mid-'90s despite having yielded only a handful of releases (including a split with locals Jimmy Eat World) during its lifetime. Marschall later went on to form the Blue Ontario with CFD guitarist Jason Begin.

With Marschall on board, A Starlit Pond hit the local indie circuit and began work on an eight-song mini-LP -- essentially a glorified demo -- at Wendt's home studio. The concept behind the disc was fairly unconventional, as the group decided to assume the persona of two different bands -- The Scarlatti Tilt and Ego-A-Go-Go -- and record a split CD with itself. This rather novel approach translated well enough to tape, although the group elected not to release the results commercially (a CD-R version of the album is available at the band's shows). By the spring of 2001, the group had changed its name for a third time, settling on the currently in-vogue New California and beginning work on its "official" debut.

Aside from a clutch of recent band compositions, the bulk of New California's catalogue is Block's material, tunes he's written over the past decade but rarely performed. Others, meanwhile, cobble sections, melodies and ideas from long-shelved numbers into new compositions. "A lot of them are just parts and pieces that have been kicking around for a while," says Block of the sources for his varied songscapes.

"With Andrew in the band, we've got a catalogue of songs, hundreds of songs," says Wendt. "He's definitely prolific. But the problem with all those old songs is that there's always new ones coming up that you want to try also. Part of it's my fault 'cause I'm always prompting him to pull out this old song or that old song."

"We're moving at a glacier pace, basically," admits Block.

"But I think that's why the spectrum of the songs has been pretty diverse so far," notes Henley. "There's the real direct sort of pop songs and the kind of atmospheric stuff as well."

Atmosphere and songcraft are clearly the two dominant elements in the New California sound; the band's output alternates between expansive multi-dimensional fare like "The Scarlatti Tilt" and quick to-the-point bursts like "Una Ventura Loca." Similarly schizophrenic is the group's stylistic slant, which ranges from experimental noise jams to downright conventional balladry -- often on the same song.

In fact, the group is given to mutating the shape and form of material on a regular basis. A track like "Ticker Tape Parade," for instance, has undergone several changes, from moody, meandering esoterica to sharp pop construction and back again.

Vocally, Block's languid, deadpan delivery rides a wave of bittersweet melody, as he balances against the fluid counterpoint of Wendt's bass and high harmonies. Henley -- already a master at percussive nuance from his turn with dream-pop trio Sleepwalker -- fills the spaces with sympathetic restraint, while the new-to-the-guitar Marschall brings a refreshingly amateurish perspective to his instrument, coloring the songs with deceptively simple lines and fills. The band's sound, while at times rambling and shambolic, can settle into positively gorgeous passages, like the swirling thrall found on "The Short and the Long."

In establishing its signature ethereal grooves, the band frequently goes beyond its traditional setup of two guitars, bass and drums, and peppers its sound with myriad instruments and sonic doodads. The weapons range from a Fender Rhodes to a cheap Casio -- whatever, they say, fits the moment and mood best.

"You know, it's not like we're gonna get rich off of this band," offers Wendt. "So we might as well play whatever we want to play. Even if it's a little weird."

"Yeah," pipes up Block in mock anger, as the others collapse in gales of laughter, "we're gonna do whatever we want to do -- quote me on that."

New California is currently in the final stages of mixing a five-song EP titled Ego-A-Go-Go. The band has spent several stretches over the past three months recording at Glendale's Gray Room studio (home to west-side twangers Juarez). Marschall -- who works at the Gray Room part-time -- has been handling engineering and mixing chores. Before arriving in town, Marschall earned a music degree from the University of Colorado at Denver ("Bachelor of Science and Music, with an emphasis in audio engineering. I just love saying that," he chides). His major credits include work on The Discovery of a World Inside the Moone for Elephant 6 combo The Apples in Stereo.

"You did that?" asks Block of the spectacularly ornate pop platter. "Damn, why don't our records sound that good?"

As to New California's own effort, Block says the group's current recording, which has proved a fairly consuming project for an indie band on a shoestring budget, is an exercise in discipline.

"The idea behind this recording is that we've consciously been taking our time. We decided that we were going to make sure any sound we heard, we captured. And not -- as I've been doing my whole life -- half-assing through it. We're really proud of what we've got and we're not even done yet."

Three of the five tracks ("Ego-A-Go-Go," "Una Ventura Loca," "Dark Vulture Skies") were also recorded during the A Starlit Pond sessions, while the other two ("Made of Lies," "Silver Jews") are being tackled for the first time.

The band is hoping to have the disc in stores by late fall. Austin, Texas-based indie imprint Six Gun Lover (home to Rhythm of Black Lines and Cassius Clay, among others) has already expressed interest in releasing it along with a follow-up single, a two-fer of fresh cuts "In Blue" and "New Shiny Things."

Despite a very low-key career that's included stints in little (but fondly) remembered combos like Zipperback Monster and Champion, the normally nonplussed Block seems content, even happy with chemistry and direction of his current ensemble.

"This is the best band I've been in. I've been kicking around in bands for a decade and this is it for me. I'm just very proud to be able to play with them," he offers earnestly, even movingly, before turning to Henley and asking, "Can I kiss your cheek?"

The band's upcoming plans include a trip to California next month where it's set to open up a sold-out theater show for Jimmy Eat World. In the meantime, the group is slated to play Modified this weekend, where Block promises the band will unveil a cover of Echo and the Bunnymen's "Bring On the Dancing Horses" from the John Hughes flick Pretty in Pink.

"We're not doing it because of the movie, though," he insists. "We're doing it 'cause it's a great song."

"Well," hesitates Henley, "I might be doing it for the movie."

"In that case, we're doing it for Duckie," jokes Block, referencing Jon Cryer's hapless character from the film. "Really, though, it's a good song. It's sexy music. And we're trying to be more sexy."

New California is scheduled to perform on Saturday, July 28, at Modified, with Scott Tennant, Jason Watt, and Plus One. Showtime is 9 p.m.

Into the Sunset: This week Mesa's Sunset Alliance label, which has previously dropped EPs from Fivespeed and full-lengths from Stereotyperider and Redfield, debuts a triple split featuring Fivespeed, Before Braille and Andherson.

Fivespeed -- fresh off a slot opening at Jimmy Eat World's Web Theatre show -- kicks things off with a trifecta of pop-punk-fueled blasts, produced by the sonic brain trust of Bob Hoag and Kevin Scanlon, of the now-defunct Pollen. The highlight of its torrid turn comes with the rousing opener "Blood Over Wine." The group is currently recording a full-length with Mind's Eye Digital studio chief and Bionic Jive guitarist Larry Elyea. Word is that Interscope Records (not-so-coincidentally home to Bionic Jive) is looking closely at Fivespeed, having sent A&R reps out to the July 23 Web Theatre gig.

Equally energetic -- though a touch more bouncy -- are the efforts from Sunset Alliance honcho Dave Jensen's own combo, Before Braille. Leading off with the twisting guitar/falsetto workout "Select Start" and closing with the rousing jangle anthem "Low End of Luxury," the band is already hard at work on a follow-up. This week the group began efforts on a full-length, laying down tracks at Hoag's Flying Blanket studios in Mesa. Jensen adds that the group will be hitting California for a series of dates in September.

Locals might remember Andherson from the band's mid-'90s run in the Valley. The group left town for Berkeley, California, where it perfected the impossibly bleak sound found on the trio of somber cuts here, including the slow, lurching standout "Perennial."

Sunset Alliance is also in the process of readying another triple split in conjunction with Florida's Fueled By Ramen records, this time bringing together Before Braille with Lance Lammers' Seven Storey and Bob Hoag's post-Pollen outfit The Go Reflex, in October.

In the meantime, the Fivespeed/Before Braille/Andherson crew will be celebrating the release of their disc with a par-tay this Saturday, July 28, at Tempe's Lucky Dragon Restaurant. Showtime is 9 p.m.

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