Tuesday, October 12, 2010
We’ve Been Living Too Long:
Dead Meadow ◊◊◊ Of Ornament and Tar
Between the St Kilda Road open plan office space where I’m presently located, and the car snaking under the Hollywood sign downtown of L.A. in which Steve Kille of Dead Meadow inhabits at this same time, a line of fractured communication reaching wide around the world briefly opens. Although it can be mathematically traced through a particular equation of triangulated cell phone networks, geostationary satellites in low earth orbit, and cell-tower monuments of the information age anchored to the tops of buildings, our conversation may as well be taking place across generations, ageless steppes and, potentially, chimera. The fact is, due to either the ambient level of this call centre’s harshing plastic polyphony taking place around me, or, the speaker phone mic transmitting the motor sounds of the City of Angels from Mr. Kille’s auto, or, some cosmic intercontinental static, the conversation that ensues is only marginally above the level of communicability required for two vastly different realities to be able to exchange a few words. Henceforth our present interview becomes more like a middling attempt at snatching Kille’s words through the fuzz.
While Kille espouses the kind of cool liberal hedonism that is required of the sub-culture pop star, the reality of the Washington D.C. band’s relatively low flight under the mainstream radar has meant that Dead Meadow have remained a constant band of heads that has now seen out two decades. Forming in 1998, Jason Simon (gtrs/vox), Kille (bass), and Mark Laughlin (drums), the band tapped into the type of retro rock’n’roll that was to become all the this-is-it rage in the new millennium through the expansive passage of prog / jam riffage and analogue delays. Eventually, they found themselves standing in a field featuring a particular combination of stoner / sludge and post-spiritualised grooves that easily transcended the local blues-rock jam band scene present in most all Western facing cities the world over. Post hence their influence on these all-pervasive scenes can now be felt no doubt in many of these cities, not least Melbourne. From the still green Buried Feather and the more northern Laurels to the kind of groundswell Australian bands such as Wolfmother and now Tame Impala seem to be riding / have crashed in on owes no small part to the dedication of Dead Meadow and their chosen sound, one that now expects the release of their seventh studio album, not counting the live, Anton Newcombe produced Got Live If You Want It! (Committee To Keep Music Evil) from back in 2002.
The impressive back catalogue of albums: from the self-titled debut (originally released in 2000 on Tolotta) through to this years Three Kings (Xemu) – a concept album that sees the band adopt the blueprint laid down by Led Zeppelin in The Song Remains the Same, cutting live footage from the final show of 2008’s Old Growth (Matador) album tour with new studio recordings and over the top phantasy sequences – charts a kind of particular history of the history of winding rock’n’roll that few would dare to follow. All the time the band have spent wandering this swampy landscape can weigh pretty heavy and this is something they balance with an emphasis on the lighter side of their predicament. The kind of tongue in cheek approach represented in the outrageous sequences that complete Three Kings as an audio visual package akin to Spindrift’s 2008 spaghetti-western homage The Legend of Gods Gun helps to give a conscious awareness to the trappings of heavy-psych jams and is something that Kille seems keen to highlight: the band’s ability to drift easily between sincere driving riff-chunk dirges and ethereal ballads over into Spinal Tap inducing harmonic solo’s and somehow pull through without emerging in sequined spandex jumpsuits (they seem to have drawn the line at hooded cloaks). This particular direction is the fine balance that the band has been honing in on since it’s beginnings in Tolkein inspired imagery and Lovecraftian paranoia. As Kille explains ‘we take what we do seriously, but also we want to laugh sometimes too.’
When it comes back to the music, the general workout the band dedicates to the ride cymbal/s ensures a wash heavy form of psych-blues that can be enclosed within the antiquated heavy trinity of Blue Cheer, Black Sabbath and Red Zeppelin. The Grateful Dead are another name that I can check over the line as Kille states the intention of the band’s onstage noodling and amorphous and moving song clusters. However the contemporary intent to persist in past forms, left abandoned and out-moded by cutting edge advances and flash-like trend gives Dead Meadow the kind of Stoic romanticism that instantly identifies with the alternative wanderer experiencing the kind of vapid distaste for the current state of the world that often manifests itself in the brandless, op-shopping dilettantes looking for the un-adulterated potential of an escapist reality, even if it means leaving earth completely for a few minutes, or hours. However the focus on recording techniques aiming at the classic sounds of Abbey Road era Beatles is something that Kille sees as connecting Dead Meadow more with contemporary outfits like Belle and Sebastian rather than simple throwbacks to the ‘classic’ era, in that a careful approach to the sound ensures an engaging and often timeless impression of popular music’s trajectory. The use of vintage and analogue equipment in the studio (repeatedly an old farm in the American backcountry which makes me think of the picture of Neil Young and the Gators on the back of the Harvest LP) coupled with Kille’s production skills – he has helmed the production of three of Dead Meadow’s albums, including the ageless classic Feathers (Matador, 2005) – favour the warmth and space of fuzz and reverb that creates the kind of aural high that often leads to uninspired critics writing the band down as simply being lysergic and pyschedelic. While these may not be entirely unflattering terms, there is definitely more to Dead Meadow than just a hypercolour veneer, with subtle and hypnotic repetition and use of oscillating frequencies underneath carefully constructed melodies and complex rhythmic patterns, the bands records often find you listening deeper and closer with each repeat turn.
The fact that the band retains many of its earlier songs, often reinterpreting and reinserting them in various guises into later albums – somehow even the track ‘Everything’s Going On’ from 2001’s Howls from the Hills (Tolotta) found its way in Wolfmother’s path, becoming the song Pilgrim on their second album – gives the impression of a lazy confidence that can only come with the experience and reality of having to constantly tour songs that have still not become tired to the guys in the band themselves. When I bring this up with Kille the enthusiasm for the live set is easily measurable through the crackly connection, playing the songs live is something the band clearly lives for.
Dead Meadow’s impending Australian tour – the band’s second in as many years and the reason for this somewhat unfocussed interrogation – sees the return of original drummer Mark Laughlin, after the drummer who replaced him in 2002, Stephen McCarty departs under mysterious circumstances. While the band swelled to include a second guitarist in Corey Shane for Feathers, the return to its original line-up is something that Kille seems to remain positive about. For a band that often features heavily extended instrumental interludes / segues / wig-outs the change in line-up could have foreseeably thrown the band off-kilter. Not so, according to Kille, who believes the return of Laughlin was seamless in its revival of character building past experiences, “Mark and Jason and I got so used to some of the songs that when it came to playing them again with Mark it came back together in no time.” While band leader Jason Simon (apparently the nephew of The Wire creator David Simon) launches a solo LP this month on Tee Pee and has booked some smaller side shows to showcase this side of the music while in Australia, the prospect of seeing Dead Meadow, in all their middle earth glory at the Forum during the Melbourne Arts Festival is indeed a exasperating predicament to find oneself in in October 2010, the year of the golden tiger.
Giles Simon 14sept2010