Dropout Rock

College towns tend to spawn millions of bands, most of them worth slightly less than shit. Take Tempe, for instance, where I live. A hundred cover bands vying for frat-boy dollars at strip-mall bars, and another hundred grabbing at the coattails of a sound that was curiously successful half a decade ago. The upside is that many musicians get their prerequisite experiences living in and playing college towns and go on to more meritorious musical careers.

Urbana/Champaign, Illinois, the twin-city home of the University of Illinois, is such a town (although I'm pretty sure they don't have a "desert rock" scene). But one band spawned by Urbana is proving itself an exception to the college-rock rule (then again, most of the members dropped out of college to pursue the band's interests, so it's more like college-dropout rock). Not that eyebrows will raise just because a good band came out of a college town (reference Athens, Georgia; Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Olympia, Washington), but it is unusual that for three out of four members, this is their first experience in a band.

Braid formed nearly four years ago, practicing in a University of Illinois dorm room. Personnel changes were implemented nearly a year later, with the band replacing a guitarist and the drummer. Since that point in early 1995, the foursome, Bob Nanna (guitar/vox), Chris Broach (guitar/vox), Todd Bell (bass) and Damon Atkinson (drums), have gone on 12 tours and played close to 400 shows, appearing on no fewer than 23 releases. Ambitious kids.

Braid's members' extensive experience playing with one another and impassioned enthusiasm for the band have facilitated the honing of their tortuous songwriting and math-rock dynamics to the current level of near-genius seen on the band's new LP Frame and Canvas. Released on Polyvinyl Records, a fledgling label out of Danville, Illinois, Frame and Canvas places Braid among the giants of the much-cliched post-emo melodicore genre.

Comparisons to fellow sensitive boy-rock bands (of which the Midwest has no shortage) would be easy but not accurate. Braid plays math-rock without getting anal about the equations; the band members are too spasmodic and grinningly eager to have to stare at their instruments while they play. The songs on Frame and Canvas are pop songs layered in big rock guitars and frantic rhythms. Yeah, this is "emo," but these kids aren't crying.

The majority of Frame and Canvas ponders the frustrations and ambitions of a young band constantly on tour. Songs like "The New Nathan Detroits" and "Never Will Come for Us" examine the youth/art/career paradox faced by musicians who drop everything else--the band screams at itself, "You're painting floors while your pals are renaming the stars/Get up get up and go do what you started/If you want to be a martyr, try harder." Of course, it wouldn't be an "emo" recording without songs about girls; again the perspective is from the tour bus. "A Dozen Roses," the sprawling lovesick epic on the album, contrasts the sadness of pay-phone relationships against the reality of playing shows to dozens of girls they'll never see again.

Altogether, Frame and Canvas is a brilliantly complex and endearing recording by a band in love with its collective self. Since Braid will be gracing Tempe with its presence, along with two of the best young bands playing today--the Get Up Kids and Modest Mouse--Revolver hunted down (with some difficulty) the band on the first leg of its tour. Eventually, Bell called from Washington, D.C., and suffered the Revolver interrogation.

Revolver: I've heard a lot of bands bitch about touring the West Coast. What's your take on coming out this way?

Todd Bell: This is the most promising West Coast tour so far. The west is difficult. The drives are long, the shows usually aren't as good compared to the East Coast, there's fewer kids at the shows. This one is promising, though, and it's with our friends the Get Up Kids, so it should be a blast. There's nothing like playing with a great band every night. Normally you have to sit through some mediocre bands or bands you're not familiar with. It's much cooler to play not only with your friends, but to your friends. We've done many things with the Get Up Kids, we went to Europe with them and toured on and off with them last summer, so we're excited about it.

R: Your label's pretty small, but this record is being promoted and distributed really well. Tell me about working with Polyvinyl.

TB: Matt [Polyvinyl's owner] was at our very first show ever. His label formed out of a zine [Polyvinyl Press] that he used to do, he used to just do seven-inches with the zines. So we didn't even consider him at that time; he was mainly focusing on his zine. We hooked up with him for this record because he's a friend of ours. It's always been on a pretty personal basis; we've never gone out of our way to look for a label. We just hooked up with friends, which is cool 'cause it's on a personal level rather than dealing with a label you don't know or is a thousand miles away or whatever.

R: You're not shopping "just in case" this record does really well?
TB: We have no reason to even contemplate that. We're totally happy where we are. Matt's doing a great job, we have Southern [Distribution] backing us, anything we need we call one of them and they send it right out. It's cool to be in that situation. With our last few records, people were there to help, but they didn't go out of their way to help a band that tours as much as we do. We're a pretty efficient and hard-working band ourselves, so it's good to settle down with people that are willing to work as hard for us as we work for ourselves, y'know. We're out there playing 60 percent of the year, and they're stoked on that. The promoters and labels are stoked 'cause we're doing half of their job for them anyway. We care about ourselves as a band, we care about what we're doing, so it's easy for us to go out and play for people that really wanna hear us.

R: Some of your peers in the "post-emo melodicore" scene are getting a lot of mainstream attention right now. Is that something you guys consider?

TB: Ohhh, man, whatever. We don't like to compare ourselves to a lot of those bands. There's a lot of similar-sounding bands out there. I don't think we sound like anyone in particular even though we're in the same genre. I think we're a different kind of band. As far as successful, as far as I'm concerned we are a success because we didn't ever see it coming this far.

R: A lot of your new record seems very contemplative of the rock 'n' roll paradoxes of success. Is that the case?

TB: A lot of the album is about touring and not getting appreciated for what we do. There's nothing worse than dumping your heart and soul and all your energy into something and it being overlooked. You write about what you most experience, and that was our experience during the span of time when we wrote those songs. The only thing we were doing then was driving around and playing shows.

R: What's your biggest criticism of the album now that it's behind you a little?

TB: I wish we had spent more time on it. We've never really had much time in the studio because we've always had to finance the recording by ourselves, and, us being a poor band in general, we only had enough money to do it for this many days. We went in and did the whole thing in five days. Our producer, J. Robbins, pretty much said, "I think you guys are a bit too ambitious." I think he thought we were being overzealous, trying to squeeze too much into a time slot, but the crazy thing is, we pulled it off. I think that if we had an extra three or four days, we would have been more relaxed. Mixing on the fifth day, he's like, how does this sound, and I'm like, I just don't know, I'm so burnt out. If we'd had a couple more days to relax and take it easy, I think the record would sound the same but we wouldn't have aged so much in the process.

Braid is scheduled to perform on Wednesday, May 20, at Boston's in Tempe, with Modest Mouse, the Get Up Kids, and Califone.

Kill Rock Stars meets Tiger Beat: Kill Rock Stars specializes in offbeat records, whether it's spoken-word albums backed by DJs or the minimalist folk-dub-art of the Hangovers. With Olympia trio Bangs' new record Tiger Beat, one could say the label is getting back to its roots. Bangs is a straightforward girl-punk trio with a boy drummer that rocks with a rootsy punk purity reminiscent of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts.

The songs are girl-centric and generally angry but personal rather than political. Most songs are tortured relationship dirges, but Bangs' scope is broader than that. The title track is a sweetly lovesick rocker; "Lend Me Crumpets" is a humorously bitter diss ("And do you really think/I'm impressed by your moves/At the roller rink"); the final track, "Death by Guitar," is a sentimental ode to the impact bands and songs can have on impressionable fans. Short songs, long leads, quavering vocals, cool band. (Kill Rock Stars, 120 NE State Avenue #418, Olympia, WA 98501)

Bangs is scheduled to perform Saturday, May 9, at Stinkweeds Record Exchange in Tempe. Showtime is 10 p.m.

Basement Narcotics: K Records godfather Calvin Johnson has been twiddling knobs for bands in his basement studio, Dub Narcotic, since 1993. Now K has released a CD entitled Selector Dub Narcotic that compiles 23 never-before-heard tracks from the basement, including combinations of artists heard nowhere else. By law of averages, there are quite a few throwaways on the recording that would only be valuable to fans of the artists, but the recording has its share of great moments.

The most surprising and fully flyest track is the Black Anger Movement's freestyle jam "Ra-N-Untut." K isn't known for its hip-hop releases, but with tracks like this, that won't be the case much longer. Selector also has the debut track from Tommy, Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney and Lois Maffeo's side project, that Sleater-Lois fans will drool over. Calvin's song with Amelia and Pete of Heavenly and Built to Spill drummer Scott Plouf is a luscious twee-meets-Halo-Benders pop ditty. Also present are the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, the Make-Up, Beck, and (of course) Dub Narcotic Sound System; Oly-philes, Calvinists and indie purists will all get their fill on Selector, but because of its general oddness, this record will win few new converts. (K Records, P.O. Box 7154, Olympia, WA 98507)

Contact Brendan Kelley at his online address: revlvr@goodnet.com


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