Rob Withem collects song titles.
Withem, singer-guitarist for the '80s-flavored pop group Fine China, spends much of his time conjuring up captivating turns of phrase, storing each new idea in a Word computer file, with the intention of eventually building a song around it. Although it's a method that John Fogerty used to come up with many of his most memorable tunes, most songwriters would probably view it as a form of composing in reverse.
But Withem's approach has provided some attention-getting material. The band's 2000 college-radio staple "We Rock Harder Than You Ever Knew" blasted nu-metal obnoxiousness with a title that left no room for uncertainty. And the group's sophomore album for the Seattle-based indie Tooth & Nail, You Make Me Hate Music (due in stores March 26), not only boasts a conversation piece for an album title, but also such striking title phrases as "Rock Can't Last Forever," "Hug Every Friend" and "The World Wants Me Dead."
On the eve of the record's release, Withem and Fine China bassist Greg Markov sit in the Recovery Room -- a west-side billiards dive where Charlie Daniels and the Scorpions are the jukebox heroes -- and discuss what they were trying to convey with these songs. Like the rest of the band, Withem and Markov are dedicated Christians. It's a fact that inevitably colors their music, but not in the way that most hedonistic rockers might expect.
While spirituality can infuse some people with an insufferable self-righteousness, ideally it should have the opposite effect: creating a sense of humility by making people see how small they are in the overall, historical scheme of things. You get the feeling that religion has had the latter effect on Withem and Markov. Their strongest musical statements tend not to be "repent, you sinners," but more often "don't take yourself so seriously." It's a notion they're communicating to themselves as much as anyone else.
For instance, it's easy to assume that the very title of You Make Me Hate Music is a slam at the desultory state of modern rock. But it's at least partly an examination of the absurdity that Withem and his bandmates find in their own career choice.
"I get discouraged about there not being any good pop songs in the vein of the bands that I loved," says Withem, a self-described child of mid-'80s pop radio. "But it's more than that. It's about us feeling that it's kind of a joke, but we take it so seriously. I write this song that no one's ever gonna care about, but I spent 10 hours on it at home, taking it so seriously. It's about that confusion, like, 'What are we doing?'"
One of the album's standout tracks, "Rock Can't Last Forever," makes the point that rock music -- for all its surface appeal -- is a flash in the pan that won't stand the test of time. This willingness to question the legitimacy of its own form of music lends Fine China an emotional ambivalence that suits its moody but melodic Smiths-meet-the-Cure sound.
The group's full-length debut, When the World Sings, was rife with synthesizers and programmed drum beats, causing many critics to peg them as New Order/Depeche Mode revivalists, but Withem and Markov tend to see that album as a conceptual aberration: a conscious decision to make a dance record.
Along those lines, You Make Me Hate Music (bashed out in seven days with Starflyer 59's Jason Martin producing) is a return to the band's true roots as a guitar-based band, albeit a dreamy guitar band with Withem's high, ethereal voice alternately recalling Morrissey and Jeff Buckley.
"With this one, we were all listening to the Replacements, that album Tim," Withem says. "We kind of all thought, 'This is the freshest record in the world.' So we wanted to evolve a little bit into straight-up rock. Even our earlier stuff, before the last record, was more guitar-oriented, pop-rock, so we wanted to get back in that groove."
Shortly after forming in 1997, the group became a fixture at local churches and Christian coffee houses like the Fire Escape, but they quickly wanted the credibility that comes from playing secular venues, where you're judged for your musical appeal, not the orthodoxy of your message.
Although rock has a proud history of interfacing with Christianity (the early Southern rockers, Van Morrison, U2, T-Bone Burnett), and R&B has always been secularized church music, the notion that four young guys can play rock and follow the tenets of the New Testament at the same time is sometimes regarded as a kind of freakish circus trick.
"You'll see an article that'll use some cliché like 'Fine China: Christian rock served on your mom's favorite plates,'" Withem says. "It's kinda insulting, that people take our faith lightly -- for one thing -- and our music so lightly.
"They make that connection that we suck because we're Christians. And rightly so, 'cause a lot of stuff that calls itself Christian does suck. But as a band we have the highest standards, and we're not evangelical in the sense that we're trying to tell people to submit to God. We don't have to be like Billy Grahams up there to be effective. We're just a rock band."
A rock band they are, though one with uncommon preoccupations. They all work full-time jobs, so they can only squeeze in short tours during vacation weeks. They even passed up a gig at SXSW last week because it clashed with keyboardist Joshua Block's wedding. And when they do hit the road, they may be one of the few bands that makes sure to pack gardening books with them. But one of the most refreshing things about this band is the sense that they don't equate rock with irresponsibility. They clearly love what they do, but can see through its trappings.
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"I think the whole rock 'n' roll lifestyle is a joke," says Markov, a Moscow native who moved with his family to the United States in 1991, at the age of 14. "I look at all these people, and they're trying so hard to be what they call rock 'n' roll, and things just don't measure up. Here's this big, bad rock guy in leather pants, smoking up the guitar on Saturday night, and on Monday he's at Best Buy selling VCRs."
"I love the three-minute pop song, and we'll always be writing those," Withem adds. "There's some beauty to that; I'll never get over the fact that you can do that. But it's not it. There's a lot more to life than three-minute songs."
Fine China is scheduled to perform on Saturday, April 6, at Modified Arts, with Starflyer 59. Showtime is 9 p.m.
Scofield of Dreams: Drew Verbis of the Rhythm Room was initially mystified last week when people started calling up to inquire about jazz guitarist John Scofield's March 11 show at the club. The only problem was that Scofield wasn't actually scheduled to play at the Rhythm Room that night. Curious about how this apparent urban legend had spread throughout the Valley, Verbis found that Scofield's reps had mistakenly put the Rhythm Room date on his Web site, and also submitted it to the music industry magazine Poll Star. Scofield doesn't have any local dates set up, although Verbis says the Rhythm Room would love to have him back soon.