Unlikely Hero

Seattle indie trio makes glorious guitar rock, but it can't escape comparisons to another stellar northwestern band

During its seven-year tenure as one of indiedom's leading lights, Seattle's 764-Hero has reaped a massive harvest of glowing reviews -- fascinatingly, all written by the same person. Or at least they're the result of hapless cub reporters cribbing wholesale from the group's press kit, recycling the same info and descriptions over and over. New Times fed the 764-Hero file into a computer and generated the following blurb, a composite of phrases from actual reviews:

"Formed in 1995, 764-Hero used to be John Atkins and Polly Johnson in a vocals/guitar and drums duo, which released the full-length debut Salt Sinks & Sugar Floats. In 1998, their friend James Bertram (Lync/Beck/Red Stars Theory) joined on bass. Two albums (Get Here and Stay, 1998; Weekends of Sound, 2000), several singles and a collaborative EP with Modest Mouse followed. Soundwise, Atkins' colorless, flailing yowl and emo-core restlessness retain a depression-bound sadness; the words are sometimes ambiguous, often playful and always focusing on heartache. And the music tends to mirror the melancholy of the lyrics: nakedly emotional, discordant guitar rock.

"The guitars don't so much follow the vocals as overpower them, chord progressions routinely head into minor keys, bass lines pick independent melodies amid the constant crash of cymbals and drums, which contribute to the songs' intricate melodic structure almost as much as the guitar and bass do. The trio's approach has stayed pretty much the same, and observers have rightly noted that casting a long shadow over the group's knotted sonic face is another similar-sounding, much-loved northwestern band."

764-Hero: You can call them baseball junkies, but please don't call them emo.
764-Hero: You can call them baseball junkies, but please don't call them emo.

So we rang up guitarist Atkins in order to get to the bottom of this journalistic conundrum. Atkins, a genial chap so low-key that when he walks into a room the mean blood pressure drops 10 points, is both happy and relieved to have a new 764-Hero album, Nobody Knows This Is Everywhere, in the bins. (The title, of course, is an homage to Neil Young's Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.) He'll readily admit it's no 180-degree stylistic detour for the band. As the group's main songwriter, he long ago found his comfort zone.

For the third record in a row, 764-Hero worked with Seattle producer Phil Ek, who by now is an expert at helping the trio mine its soft-loud equation with a lusty vigor. The bass and drums plow thick sonic furrows as the guitar unleashes a balletic spray of notes and choppy power chords while Atkins' vocals soar luminously above the din. But the record also marks some noteworthy progressions for 764-Hero and should also help dispel a number of the clichés that over the years have been written about the group, although, as Atkins allows, "All you can do is make the best record you can, because that will be around forever. Our part's done now, and you can't predict what people will have to say about it."

In the two years between Weekends of Soundand Nobody Knows, the band had to weather some stormy periods. First came the departure of bassist Bertram, who, Atkins observes, "stopped wanting to be touring. When someone doesn't want to be doing something and you can tell, it's a total drag." Into the gap stepped Robin P, touring bassist for Modest Mouse, whom Atkins and Johnson knew from years earlier when he lived in the same house in which the duo was practicing (764-Hero has also opened frequently for Modest Mouse). "With Robin, it was really refreshing because he'd watched our band in the past, so he'd go, 'Why don't you ever play this song?,' as a person listeningto our music. He learned a lot of the old songs, did our last tour, then we started writing new songs. It's actually been a pretty smooth transition."

There was also the turmoil surrounding 764-Hero's long-standing label, Seattle's Up Records, whose owner died unexpectedly. Not wanting to put undue pressure on the remaining staffers while they were still grief-stricken, Atkins, having already written the material for the new album, still offered it to Up out of loyalty. Unsure at that point whether to proceed as a label, Up graciously told Atkins they had no problem with him shopping the record. Tiger Style (American Analog Set, Her Space Holiday, Tristeza) was among several indies that expressed interest, and the band went with the noted New York label. Says Atkins, "They were into it right away. Their enthusiasm, and the fact that it's a really fair deal, too, won us over."

Perhaps these changes in 764-Hero's logistics subtly influenced the music as well. For example, there's the question of Atkins' vocals, typically described along lines of "yowling," "moping," "rasping," "whining" and/or "hollering" -- but never "singing." On Nobody Knows, Atkins is clearly in control, warbly and resonant, enunciating with enough precision to lend a tune such as the lush, lilting "Oceanbound" a conversational tone, or the waltzing, electric piano arrangement of "Satellites" a sizable injection of white soul.

"I think, maybe, this group of songs just needed less yelling or something," muses Atkins. "And Robin's playing is more laid-back rather than propulsive like James' was, and it sometimes puts a song in a different direction. I think the overall tone of the record just lent itself to more singing."

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