By Melissa Fossum
By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Troy Farah
By New Times
"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."
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 Sound and 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 listening to 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."
Then there's the dreaded "E" word. Certainly, an emotional heaviness and sonic whoomp are the by-products of the dynamics deployed by the band, but the same description could also apply to, say, The Who. For that matter, the lengthy "Confetti Confessional" initially has a dark, bluesy vibe that gives way to a careening, anarchic rumble -- Pete Townshend-esque, to say the least. Still, "emo" has been, to date, the hellhound on 764-Hero's trail.
"Yeah, definitely. It's kind of funny, the whole emo stuff. It's weird because it's now the fifth wave, like ska. It shows how dimwitted the music industry is -- the stuff that's starting to be on MTV2, just breaking through, is like the all-ages scene from 10 years ago! I mean, people need to call stuff things like emo or whatever.
"This time around, whatever the new emo sound is, I don't think we sound like that. If I'm reading a well-written review and the person has thought about it and they diss a couple of things, I go, 'Yeah, that's cool, I can go with that.' But if it's like, 'This emo, lo-fi band . . .' Okay, you're just reviewing what people have told you. You can tell when people have just read the press kit and listened to the first two songs."
There's another term that looms large in the 764-Hero iconography. We'll call it the "B" word since New Times has a bet with Atkins that an article can be written without actually mentioning the name of a certain northern combo that 764-Hero always gets compared to, one specializing in hookish guitar rock and whose three-word name begins with the letter "B."
"I totally love the band!" pleads Atkins, with a knowing chuckle, of The Group That Cannot Be Named. "We have the same producer and the same geographic, the Pacific Northwest. My girlfriend was saying we should try to keep track and see if there are any reviews that don't mention them! But comparisons are a helpful way to say this band is like this and that and that. I don't mind. It's a necessary device. [long pause, then a laugh] Maybe."
Satisfied that we'd cleared the air a bit, we gladly allowed Atkins to enthuse over the real motivation behind forming a band: "We've been known to catch a baseball game whenever we can on tour. We've been to Wrigley Field, Yankee Stadium."
Could that mean a stop at Bank One Ballpark this trip? Maybe watch Randy Johnson smoke a few batters?
"Or blow up a pigeon!" Atkins says. "Did you see that? I think it was two years ago on tour and we were eating in a sports bar or something. The sound was off on a TV showing a highlight, and Randy Johnson was pitching. A sea gull or a pigeon or something flew right in front of his 100-mile-an-hour pitch and it just exploded! [laughing] I called it a ball, too, because it didn't go over the plate! That was pretty crazy."