By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
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Though both Magruder and Donovan had worked with electronics before, using them in this context presented a number of obstacles. "Working with samplers and sequencers as a band was the biggest obstacle to overcome, for me at least," Magruder says. "It was a little bit awkward at first, because we had to get used to each other musically again and learn as a unit."
"We thought we'd just get together and start writing songs by trying out all of the ideas we had, though it was really difficult in the beginning to figure out exactly what we wanted to do," Donovan explains. "So there was a long transition period of playing for about a year before we figured out where we wanted to go, and we recorded a four-song demo in 1998."
The Belgium-based Sub Rosa label heard the demo and wanted to put out an EP, but the band lobbied for a full album--even though those four songs were the only ones the band had completed at the time. Luckily, while negotiating the deal Calla completed enough material for a full-length release in 1999. The self-titled debut was a swirling palette of ambient grooves crafted in the studio, but Calla had yet to perform live, which presented a whole new set of challenges. They recorded at home piecemeal, so they'd never actually played together simultaneously. Its first shows prompted a shift in their approach, resulting in more nuances and moods.
Ex-Swans and current Angels of Light honcho Gira heard Calla's first album, witnessed the way it came off live, and wanted to document that change. "This album was really our effort to capture what the band had become through performing live," Donovan says. "The first album was made with a lot of overdubs, because the way we recorded we all couldn't be playing at the same time. The songs on Scavengers were shaped through the three of us interacting live."
Scavengers is more song-oriented than the debut, and as a result is a more confident statement. It's not as obviously processed as its predecessor, but there's a subtle lushness to it that lends songs like "Fear of Fireflies," "Hover to Nowhere," and "Slum Creeper" a subdued, eerie brilliance. "We were a lot more focused for this album," Magruder says. "It was a result of playing live and learning to have more control over what we were doing.
Calla's upcoming Texas shows--a handful of concerts and in-store and radio appearances in Dallas, Denton, and Austin for the Young God Records showcase at South By Southwest--will be the first time Valle and Donovan have played here since that last Factory Press show. (Magruder came through while serving time behind the kit for Bowery Electric.)
Also on the Young God's SXSW bill is Mercova--Gannon (bass, programming), Daphne Gere (vocals), and Lift to Experience drummer Andy Young--the one band that has neither an album nor a label. But the band doesn't assume that because they're playing the showcase, Young God is taking a serious interest. "I'm approaching South By Southwest with very low expectations," Gannon says. "I'm going to have more fun spending a week with Calla and having those guys hang out with Daphne and I. And I'm looking forward to showing them what I've been doing with my life here."
What he's been up to is helping to shape one of the more interesting outfits to come out of Denton in a while, one of the few local bands that has abandoned guitar-propulsion in favor of rhythmic atmospherics. It's a sound that's a nice fit for Gere's haunting vocal presence. She sounds merely pretty at first, but she has an edge that seethes a vibrant chill, and it hints at darker layers lurking beneath the band's dream-like melodies.
Gere is no newcomer to the scene. She grew up singing gospel music in church, and for two years she attended Dallas' Booker T. Washington School for the Performing and Visual Arts, which also introduced her to North Texas' local music community. She started frequenting Denton in 1993, where she met Gannon and then-Denton mainstay Mwanza Dover. In fact, for a brief moment, Gere was the first vocalist for Mazinga Phaser. She was also involved in a short-lived group called Man Ray, whose lineup--Dover, Gannon, Gere, Magruder, and Baboon guitarist Mike Rudnicki--in retrospect looks like a local super group .
Mercova actually spun off of an electronic project Dover wanted to start during the summer of 1999 with Gere and Matt Piersall, a young Denton programmer with a vibe for serious beats. Piersall and Gere soon began doing it themselves, but when Gannon returned to Denton in 1999, he and Gere gravitated toward one another, first for personal reasons--they're dating--and then for musical ones.
"Matt and I wanted to bounce ideas off of Peter, because we were very secretive of what we were doing but we trusted his opinion," Gere says. "After a while I really wanted Peter's influence to take a bigger role in what Mercova was doing. I appreciated the work he had done with Factory Press and I knew that he could bring something to the table that I felt we were really lacking. I had to do some convincing for a while--I think that was because of our relationship. But we really needed something to push us forward."