Ask anyone alive during our country's 200th birthday in 1976, and they'll tell you it was still the Me Decade, but filtered through Eisenhower eyes, since America had less past to reprocess. On TV, there was plenty of unapologetic jiggle alongside the Happy Days marathon. In music, the '70s excesses of corporate rock, the heightened sensitivity of singer-songwriters, and the boogie escapism of disco competed with more pre-Vietnam nostalgia. In the years leading up to 1976, both The Beach Boys and the Beatles had top 10 double albums with packaging that recalled Marilyn Monroe and American Graffiti, as if the '60s never happened.
Chad Sundin of local band the Via Maris, admittedly a tyke "born on the eve of the Bicentennial," imagines 1976 differently from the Bacchanalian ritual of sex and drugs and '50s retreads.
"Where I was born [the Chicago suburb of Wheaton], it's prim and proper, rich, middle-class Christian folks," Sundin says. "It's the opposite of free love. It's repress everything but watch Freaky Friday and dress like Jodie Foster. It's a totally different scene from what I've uncovered, the things that have endured like maybe a red, white, and blue fire hydrant that hasn't been repainted."
The Via Maris' second album, The Bicentennial, is a collection of personal essays of Sundin's birth year, and the title track is his only subversive political song. "To me, the best kind of protest song plays the game long enough and you realize how true what it's saying is," he says.
Playing off our national anthem, Sundin asks "what do you see" in the rockets' red glare, while ruminating over our first failed war. And he notes that in 1976, "a Houston boy out drunk and driving could always find the Lord in church on Sunday afternoon."
Sundin quietly name-checks the Reverends Jim Jones and Sun Myung Moon, two of the most controversial self-appointed messiahs, alongside our current self-appointed messiah George W. Bush, in one sly stroke of transcendence. But The Bicentennial is also about Sundin's trying to unravel where he comes from, just as The Via Maris' first album, The Wilderness Underneath, was about his trying to escape it to some extent. "I'm from here. But I'm . . . more of an East Coast-phile. I've always romanticized the East Coast and being out of strip-mall heaven," he says.
Sundin's trajectory saw him attend college in Virginia; get married; move to Rochester, New York, for a year; then to Grand Rapids, Michigan, for three years; and return to Phoenix in 2003. On The Bicentennial, he makes several trips back in time to Chicago to learn more of his family's background. On several tracks, he revisits his genealogy, starting with "Proud Chicago," which outlines his birth, his parents' migration to a place where they didn't have to shovel snow, and his grandfather.
"My grandfather had a crazy crewcut and a rare frontal-lobe disorder known as Pick's disease," Sundin says. "It's a form of dementia. I never knew him in his right mind. It was comical, family-type crazy, but not really, because it was embarrassing. And that's the notion behind 'Proud Chicago' living in a world and culture that didn't acknowledge things for what they are. That's the notion of that pride and how it holds people captive."
Although Sundin is confronting ghosts throughout The Bicentennial (the brief closer "Wedding Photo '32" creaks along like an old 78 RPM record), he seems more comforted than haunted by them. There's even a subconscious allusion to Peter Frampton's "Do You Feel Like We Do" in "Turn Out." Sundin's momentarily spooked by the comparison, but ultimately delighted with it when it's pointed out to him. That year, 1976, was possibly the only year you could say you liked Peter Frampton and get a fraternal slap on the back.
Some ghosts that Sundin might sooner forget include his earliest songs, which reflect a desire to overreach his strip-mall surroundings and incorporate his studies in philosophy. "I'd try to tackle these large-scale topics, like free will versus determinism and deconstructionism, in the context of a four- to six-minute song," he says. "I had a song called 'Fall Over My Mind,' about the angst I felt from being inextricably caught up in the paradigm of Western modernity and some of what it entails: science, empire, rationalism, etc."
Sound more like dissertation than desert rock to you? You ain't alone.
Sundin claims it wasn't until age 28 that he found his songwriting voice, partly due to marriage and kids, but also "making peace with where I grew up. Previously, areas of my life were plagued with feelings of dissatisfaction and angst and longing for something or someplace else. My perspective has shifted to a place where I seek to be present in and at peace with my here and now."
In 2005, Sundin reconnected with the Tempe musicians who played his college version of prog rock, and saw pedal steel player Matt Riser playing in Rum Tenor. Concurrently, he began playing solo, duo, and trio shows at Carly's Bistro at the invitation of Lisa Marmur of Runaway Diamonds, who had a regular gig there. "That was when I made the switch to playing the acoustic guitar all the time. I discovered what I liked about some of the songs again when they were stripped of the band," he says.
In May 2007, the current lineup of The Via Maris solidified with Shane Kennedy joining on drums, Dario Miranda on upright bass, Riser on pedal steel, Zachary Dodds on electric guitar, and Jen Goma on vocals and tambourine.
"There's an energy that comes from playing with the same people for months at a time, and I think that's the key difference between this new record and the last one," Sundin says.
Another difference is that the April 11 CD release will be a digital download only. ("Boo!" cry the clackety jewel case fans. All six of them.)
"I'm on the verge of either going completely digital with my music collection, or completely vinyl," Sundin says. "It's funny, because did you see how Elvis Costello is releasing his new record? MP3 and vinyl only.
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"I think the digital music revolution has a good and a bad side," Sundin says. "The audio quality is worse there's no arguing but think about all the touch-points a fan has to a song: things like MySpace and YouTube, which is way better for fans than MTV ever was. I think there's always going to be a place for the tactile experience of hard copies of great records, but I'm not sure CDs in shrink-wrapped jewel cases provide anything better in that regard than a digital-only release. Especially since most people take one look at the insert and dump the audio into iTunes."
"But we'll fulfill some of what's missing on the tactile end by making available some custom, handmade CD-R packages to sell at shows, along with all sorts of 1976 Bicentennial-inspired kitsch."
A Peter Frampton talkbox, perhaps?
Tue., Oct. 21, 8 p.m., 2008