There's a reason crime and punishment stories work best in an antiquated setting. Bloody jpegs of a crime scene can't match the romance of sepia-toned photos of outlaws staring blankly into an uncertain future. Even the preferred weaponry from the digital age, like an automatic weapon or a stun gun, seems impersonal compared to the smoking pistol or the truncheon.
Sweet Bleeders' Robin Vining must think so. He's set the bulk of the band's new five-song EP, Murder Go Home, in a hard-to-define time frame, recounting transgressions that could've taken place yesterday or a century ago, with only an occasional mention of a guillotine thrown in for historical blurring.
Perhaps he identifies with outlaws and underdogs because his group has stood outside the normal order of things since its inception in 1999. Back then, Sweet Bleeders could've really used the downtown Phoenix axis of clubs like Modified Arts, the Paper Heart and the Emerald Lounge, where people come largely just to hear music, even songs that occasionally demand silence from the audience. Before they had the luxury of such a tailor-made scene, they often aired out their piano-propelled pop in sports bars along the once-mandatory Mill Avenue. There, Vining's plaintive and beautiful tenor often had to compete with TV screens, the brouhaha of someone buying a round of shots, and, incredibly enough, the odd heckler, like the one at Long Wong's who wasn't shouting "Play Radiohead!" to be complimentary.
Favorable comparisons to Thom Yorke or Jeff Buckley are not unfounded, but they don't tell the whole Sweet Bleeders story. Forget that the band has two banks of clunky keyboards facing one another like a scruffier version of Ferrante and Teicher. Here is a group that stirs a fascinating mix of farcical carnival music one minute, country or quiet New Age the next, with lyrical narratives that "make you feel like you're on a strange adventure," as Vining puts it.
Sweet Bleeders' strange adventure of merger and intrigue began in 2000, when Vining was introduced to kindred spirit Mark Erickson, his partner both in the current Sweet Bleeders and in Colorstore. At that time, the original version of Colorstore was fading to black. In a ringing endorsement of his friend's talents, Vining submerged his ego and his rhythm section into a second version of Colorstore, with no mention of the Bleeders for a year. But while the styles of two different writers jelled, it was hard to build momentum in a set when lead vocalists had to tag team every couple of songs.
"There's so much material -- that's one of the factors in having the two bands," explains Erickson. "In Colorstore, I write the songs. In Sweet Bleeders, Robin writes the songs. And one of the ideas in separating the bands was to give each other the freedom to say, 'This is how it's gonna be,' without having a unified band direction or sound."
For a while, the two demonstrated the differences by booking both bands on the same night. "But that gets a little confusing sometimes," says Vining. "Just the mindset."
Judging by the Murder Go Home EP and Colorstore's recent EP Heavy Sleeps, Bleeders songs have more linear narratives, up-front vocals and analog instrumentation, while Colorstore has more stream-of-consciousness lyrics, distorted vocals, loops, and electric and synth instrumentation. The two sides usually meet on beautiful ballads like Colorstore's "Lunatic" or Sweet Bleeders' "Blow Away." Collectively, both Vining and Erickson play an assortment of instruments besides guitars and keyboards, including melodica, cello, theremin, trumpet, accordion, glockenspiel and something called a banjolin.
While the two men are solidly entrenched in both bands, nowadays their comments about drummers and bassists seem to start with, "We used to play with a guy, but then . . . ," before trailing off. When both bands lost their longtime drummer, they borrowed drummer John de la Cruz and bassist Mike Montoya from Fatigo to fill in on a semi-regular basis, to reciprocate for Vining's sitting in with Fatigo on many occasions.
"There's a group of bands that are pretty incestuous," says Vining. "It all comes from a need. 'We need somebody to do this. Can you do it?' 'Sure.' You do a few gigs and then they turn around and say the same thing to you. I'm not a very good accordion player, but just because I play it, I get a lot of calls."
A guy could get wrist cramps mapping out all the lengthy branches of this family tree, but it does warm the heart to know that this coalition of bands supports itself. And on top of it all, Colorstore and Sweet Bleeders still manage to make an efficient partnership.
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Currently, Colorstore is on deck to record next, while Sweet Bleeders regularly play Wednesdays at the Emerald. Back to a bass-less trio again, they make do, like a man who loses his bottom half in an accident and figures out a different way of sitting. "I play more left hand, lower octaves, try to keep it more active in the low register," says Vining. While the noise level at the Emerald's bar often bleeds over the quiet level of Vining's opening solo numbers, it's a testament to his lung power that every table in the room usually fills up before the second song ends.
How long can both bands keep up at the same pace before one commands more time and attention than this arrangement allows? It helps that Vining and Erickson are both well-suited to each other in varying degrees of non-ego. Erickson is quiet in an inward, talk-into-your-chest kind of way, while Vining is contemplative in a stare-up-at-the-ceiling-and-ponder sort of way. Those are all the singer-songwriter bases you need covered.
Perhaps the answer to why they need two bands lies in Vining's explanation of why they need all those keyboards onstage, particularly two cumbersome Fender Rhodes pianos.
"No one keyboard really does everything you want it to do. You need both," says Vining, looking up for the moment, "to do different things."