Benjamin Franklin warned that small leaks can sink great ships, meaning you should sweat the small stuff. But for the progressive math-rock quintet that borrowed Franklin's aphorism, it's mostly been one big leak after another. Two nearly fatal car accidents -- one involving a motorcycle, the other a Vespa -- plus a long battle with testicular cancer have kept Judd Hancock, Jim Mandel Jr., London Van Rooy, Rafael Macias, and Ryan Garner occupied for most of Small Leaks Sink Ships' career.
But the rubber cement that holds the band together is their knack for making the most of miserable situations.
The Tempe band says it's 75 percent finished with its second full-length, a follow-up to 2011's Oak Street Basement EP, after more than a year in the making, and is pushing for a spring release. What's taking the guys so damn long, besides the numerous hospital visits? Well, as Hancock says, they've chosen the DIY approach rather than dumping a bunch of money into a recording studio. Moreover, they're looking to really capture the evocative nuance of their baroque live show, which the band laments wasn't exactly represented on Oak Street.
In fact, when I saw Small Leaks at Crescent Ballroom this past summer, I wasn't sure I was even seeing the same band I had heard on Bandcamp. This was far less mewithoutYou and far more Appleseed Cast meets At the Drive-In. Not to say Oak Street is bad -- quite the opposite -- but the intricate buildups, the flailing crescendos, the volatile surges were far from what I was expecting. So why didn't that translate to tape?
"It angers us. We went to . . . how many different engineers?" Mandel Jr. says. "And everybody was awesome, but at the same time . . . You can't possibly pay for the time to sit there and make it all."
"That energy in a record is captured forever, so you don't get to change it again," Hancock adds. "So that's where we are with this. We took three or four months on the drums alone. Literally spent a day on every drum, taking our time, making sure everything was in tune."
Understandably hoping to preserve artistic merit with its new record, Small Leaks isn't yet looking for a label, although it may seek some backing or outside help. Until the World Is Happy; Wake Up You Sleepyhead Sun was released in 2006 through No Sleep Records, but the band claims that initial experience left a bad taste in its mouth.
"It's a giant catch-22, because pretty much all the labels have it in their hand when it comes to distribution and booking," says Van Rooy. "So you kind of need something to that effect in order to get yourself out. But when it comes to being creative, it's a nightmare."
And Small Leaks has seen plenty of nightmares. Toward the end of 2009, Garner was sitting at a red light near a U.S. 60 on-ramp when his flat-black 620 Ducati was struck by a car going 55 miles an hour. He was thrown onto the windshield; when the driver braked, Garner was tossed out into traffic, causing a truck to swerve at the last second and miss him. Garner himself doesn't remember much of any of this. Docs said he would die, but he woke from a days-long coma to find he had a broken leg, a collapsed lung, a lacerated spleen, 14 broken ribs, and several crushed vertebrae that required his back to be rebuilt.
Garner made a slow recovery; for a while he had to wear a "halo" like the one worn by the bartender in Fight Club ("I saw you just last week, Mr. Durden.") Two days after having it put on, and still hopped up on painkillers, Garner played in a Small Leaks show for Van Rooy's birthday.
"It was a bunch of degenerates all dressed up, and then Ryan had a corduroy jacket over the halo," Van Rooy says. "There's a picture of me playing piano and Ryan's behind me, moving the D-Beam, and you can tell he's barely hanging in there."
Hancock adds, "It was the most baller thing I've ever seen in my life."
Then Hancock was diagnosed with stage two testicular cancer. After the afflicted testicle was removed, the band thought it was another crisis averted, but the tumor spread to the lymph nodes near Hancock's kidneys. Small Leaks canceled its upcoming Midwest tour to support its bandmate during nine weeks of chemotherapy treatment. This was a bad time to learn Hancock has Stevens-Johnson syndrome, a rare but life-threatening hypersensitive skin condition characterized by body sores and ulcers in which the epidermis splits from the dermis due to cell death. (Don't Google it.)
Turns out, Hancock was allergic to the chemo he was receiving, making him resemble, as Van Rooy puts it, "a swollen baby with lesions all over him."
But the doctors couldn't figure out what was causing this. With his throat closing up, near death, he was saved when Hancock's girlfriend at the time did some research and presented it the doctor, who, in Hancock's telling, basically went, "Oh, yeah!"
"You pretty much have to doctor yourself in today's world. They kind of look at you and go, what drug are they going to give you and whatnot. They don't really ask you much of anything," he says. "Pretty much, I was allergic to my own blood. If something got too hot or I scratched or anything, then it brought blood to the surface, and my skin was allergic to my own blood, so that would happen."
But Small Leaks' trouble didn't end there -- after all, bad news comes in threes, doesn't it? In April 2012, guitarist Rafael Macias laid down his Vespa, causing him to snap his collarbone in four places. Small Leaks canceled its reunion show at Mesa Community College's LegendFest, but luckily for Macias, he recovered his strumming arm.
Two-fifths of the band now have metal plates somewhere in their bodies, and collectively they're down to nine testicles, but 2013 finds them closer than ever to normality. Mandel's disclaimer is that they "don't go out like banshees on the weekend, because we'll fall and die."
Being holed up from so many near-death setbacks -- "banging their heads," as they put it -- led the band to begin Monday Minestrone, a weekly song post on its website. Thought to concern soup recipes by some fans, the blog was really a way for the band to share some unfinished bits and pieces of songs; it's made literally thousands of unheard recordings. Van Rooy describes Small Leaks' writing process as an unending obsession.
That obsession and the band's unwavering resolve is what has pushed it through so many trying times. Fans can only hope that nothing else -- such as a meteorite or a flash flood or Hillary Clinton getting elected president -- creates any more unforeseen complications, at least until new album sees the light.
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Small Leaks Sink Ships is scheduled to perform Thursday, November 21, at Last Exit Live.