How can a self-respecting weirdo rock 'n' roll songwriter stand apart from the crowd? How does one manage to craft songs about typical tropes (love, freedom, and self-discovery) without sounding, well, typical?
For Adam Bruce, the frontman of Tempe-based indie-blues quartet Mergence, the answer is simple and unexpected: Wrap those themes up in the most fantastic imagery you can imagine.
"Society's got strong robot hands / And it's a well-oiled machine / A metal soul / And sharp bloody metal robot teeth," Bruce sings in "Me and My Family vs. The Robots," from The Vibrant Young People are Dead, released by the band earlier this year. "My current status is 'Fuck you, robot!'/ You'll never take us alive."
The song is huge, a rock epic that lies somewhere among the sounds of The Black Keys, Led Zeppelin, and Cold War Kids, but the band often gives in to space-rock tendencies, with vamps and riffs that sound like they may have escaped from the grooves of some unreleased Pink Floyd LP.
The song isn't the only example of Mergence's off-kilter leanings and experiences. Lead guitarist Yod Paul goes by "The Yod," and was born into the famous Source Family commune in California.
"I was born at the end of The Source Family," Yod says, slightly uncomfortable about the topic. "You can Google a lot of crazy shit about it, including their band. Some of it is true, some is not."
He was only 6 months old when his biological father, YaHoWha, or "Father Yod," died in a hang-gliding accident in 1975, but the mystical elements of his upbringing, and the psychedelic records issued by his father's musical group, YaHoWha 13, still echo through and inspire his guitar work.
"A lot of bands get judged on their lead guitarist," Bruce says. "But Yod's sound is so unique; [there's] no ceiling on the noises he can make with his guitar."
Drummer Jason Roedl comes from a diverse musical background, and his hyper-productivity has found him playing in up to six bands at once, most jazz and experimental outfits, before settling into his role behind the kit in Mergence.
When not on stage, bassist Brandon Schupe devotes himself to the band's arcane and psychedelic artwork, and boasts a musical background of dabbling in hip-hop, punk, heavy metal, and reggae.
What could bring such a motley crew together?
"Mergence is the only band [I've played in] that hasn't tried to sound like anything else," Schupe says thoughtfully, tugging at his auburn curls.
Since forming in 2008, the group relentlessly has promoted its music, evidenced by the band's cult following, who eagerly push the band via local radio, Facebook, and blogs.
Mergence's debut album, Those Vibrant Young People Are Dead, was recorded on analog tape and features the band playing live in the studio, imbuing the recording with a vintage rock personality. "We wanted to sound real [with who we really are] on the record, because whatever comes in return will be real," Bruce says. "We try to keep our 'human' hands off things."
Songs like "If You Know Then You Know" find the band tapping into White Album grandeur, while the album's briefest cut "Girl. Fear. God" sounds like roadhouse rock, with Yod's spectral slide playing (he uses a custom slide passed down from his commune family) linking the song to the album's spaciest moment, the drifting, hazy "Eulogy 29."
The album is a mix of blues gilded with waves of pop, sensual bridges and twanging melodies, with more than half of the tracks on the album stretching past four minutes.
It may seem like too much for casual listeners to take, but the local community has embraced the band; they've shared with popular acts like What Laura Says, KONGOS, and Dry River Yacht Club.
Most fans argue the band's live show surpasses the sound of their album. The band draws a diverse crowd: You'll see a mix of punks, metal heads, and pop enthusiasts at gigs. The musicians aim for an otherworldly feel on stage, closing their eyes and surrounding themselves with instruments and antique knickknacks.
Bruce takes pleasure in screwing with the songs' lyrics but mostly stands motionless at the foot of the stage.
"He's really good with his free-form. He doesn't get tied up in stage antics or acting. He's always flying solely on passion, which is different from most lead singers," says Schupe.
The band is hard at work at its sophomore release.
"Our first record needed to be strong enough to get Arizonans to notice us," Bruce says. "We feel it was. Our next record needs to be strong enough to support a tour. It can't be an Arizona record; it has to be an American record.
"So this new music frees up my vocals, tapping into who I am. I got rid of my influences for the new songs we are working on," he says.
"Jason always pushes the band to be better. Usually, drummers are the first to quit once a song's done or when we're jamming, but he's constantly playing. I'm talking, like, 20 straight minutes of playing drums, so the rest of the band just keeps playing on."
The record is tentatively slated for a spring 2012 release, but it's clear that not even the band knows what will be in the cards. Bruce has plans to move "deep into the Superstition Mountains in December," to live in a trailer armed with "some sort of instrument, a bottle of Johnny Walker Black, and my lover."
But before Bruce goes full-on recluse, the band will have to get though a few high-profile shows at two new downtown venues. The band will play the Foundry on First this weekend and is scheduled to play the "11.11.11" show at the soon-to-open Crescent Ballroom, where the band plans to debut songs from the new record.
"The uprising of the downtown Phoenix music scene is upon us," Roedl says.
"It's always lacked age; it's so young compared to Chicago, Seattle, L.A — not only in music, but in the arts, as well. But you know what?" he says, shaking his head and laughing. "If our home base was in L.A. or New York, we sure as shit wouldn't have this success."