One hundred years ago, a girl named Bella was born in rural England. There was nothing extraordinary about her life. She lived as thousands did in those days — struggling from day to day, living through wars, both internal and external.
It sounds like the beginning of a cliché storybook. Cinderella, maybe. Idealistic minds would hope things got better for her. Maybe she was a Disney princess in the making or would take the Kate Middleton route to royalty. But Bella's life lacked fairytale charm. She worked as a nurse, bus ticket taker, and at an "armed forces club." She was married twice, and both husbands died before she hit 37.
So how did this woman's life come to influence a rock band from Phoenix called iamwe?
New Times music feature
Visit www.phxmusic.com to listen to "So They Say" by iamwe and to read an exclusive interview about the song.
Josh Carlson, the band's drummer, met Bella while volunteering at a hospice in Phoenix. Over long conversations with the English patient, he becomes obsessed with her story. Bella lived a life in stark contrast to his: Carlsons' standard creature comforts were luxuries to her. He grew up in suburban Phoenix, and she was hiding in bomb shelters during World War II.
"We're all fighting our own personal wars," Carlson says. Realizing that was crucial to finding something in common with someone seven decades his senior.
Carlson told his band about Bella — and about her spunk and resilience. Say what you want about the youth of today just not caring about the strife of generations past, but his band, iamwe, took Bella's life — as mundane as it was during her era — and turned it into art. When they began to write for their first full-length studio album, the baroque indie quintet couldn't get Bella out of their minds. Singer, pianist, and lyricist Tim Maiden began writing poetry about Bella's life. He took some artistic license, but there wasn't much to take when you have a story like hers to tell.
"We started writing for the album . . . five months ago, and at that point, we were kind of still looking for our sound or identity," Maiden says. "We did that before, but that was more intentionally looking for something. We found a few songs that we thought were a good foundation to build on, and took it from there."
The album, appropriately named She's a Soldier is due in December. Whether it was Bella's inspiration or finally connecting as a band, the record finds iamwe feeling that they've finally found their true sound, which has little to do with the group's first release, an EP they don't like talking about much.
The music on the record is a combination of Bella-era English pop and Beirut-esque Balkan folk, topped by Maiden's cryptic lyrics. "Oh, flower of mine / Oh, don't you change / Don't you wither and don't you gray," he sings on "So They Say," through thick reverb and over a thundering bed of drums.
Bella isn't just a building block — she's someone the band has an actual relationship with. Smiles pop behind excited eyes when they speak about her life, and how she's changed theirs.
"We played her 100th birthday party," Carlson says smiling. "She really loved that."
The right kind of people have begun to take notice of iamwe's sound. In June, the band became one of four bands to win a battle of the bands competition to perform at the Hard Rock Café's yearly London festival, Hard Rock Calling, exposing them to a larger audience. Gadger at X103.9 caught wind of the band and featured the group on his Sunday-night Local Frequency program, inviting the band into the studio.
The band hasn't inked any big-figure contracts yet, but you wouldn't know it from looking at them. It's shocking just how much iamwe already looks like a band. Here are five handsome young men whose looks are tied together by a common theme of perfectly groomed not-give-a-fuckness, with frontman Maiden's look leaning a little toward '80s punk.
"[He] hasn't washed his jeans in three months," Carlson says of Maiden. "Don't worry, he'll probably wash them before the show." Visually, Carlson takes on a more Red Hot Chili Peppers vibe, while the rest of the band makes use of their pretty-boy looks with scarves, slick jackets, and sunglasses, roughing it up a bit with destroyed denim. It's difficult to tell whether it's contrived or whether they just found the right look as organically as, they say, their sound developed.
Despite their having been offered a supporting slot opening for the VH1-anointed Neon Trees, iamwe has a sound that is more reserved and more mysterious than the ultra-poppy hooks and soaring melodies that dominate the radio. It seems iamwe is on the winning side of its "personal war."
Opening for Neon Trees is a balancing act. You have to be able to entertain an odd mix of ASU students, radio contest winners, middle-aged Top 40 listeners, and kids. But iamwe pulled it off on September 3 with tracks from their new record. It might have been their first-ever appearance in Tempe, but that didn't stop someone from the back of the crowd from shouting, "We love you!"
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The show, in a way, was the first listening party for She's a Soldier. Charming, spooky, and pleasantly awkward melodies mix with animalistic beats on "So They Say," the band's first single, available for free on their website. The show found 80 percent of the band on percussion, while guitarist Shane Tschida maintained order.
Maiden said it was the best crowd they have ever played for. Keep in mind that a sweeping statement like that comes from a band that played a festival in London that hosts thousands each year.
"I've never said anything at a show like that, so it's not one of those 'every show sayings' to make the crowd feel cute," Maiden says. "What made them wonderful was how interactive they were. It's hit or miss with so many shows and sometimes you feel the crowd is counting down the seconds 'til the headliner, but not those lovely Tempe folks. They just want good music and don't care about whether the band is on the radio, or if they just had their second practice five minutes before the show. At least that's what I felt."
Whether it's luck, talent, or a cocktail of the two, the band's using its new-found platform to tell someone the story of someone else. Empathy and poetry suit the band well — almost as well as those cosmetically unwashed jeans.