By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
Looking back, May 27, 1995, was the beginning of the end. Shortly after Denton's Factory Press performed in North Texas for the last time that evening, at the Engine Room in Fort Worth, the band packed up and moved to New York to take on the world. The Factory Press--vocalist Isaac Hampton, guitarist Aurelio Valle, bassist Peter Gannon, and drummer Wayne B. Magruder, all then in their early 20s--cranked out an angular, lethargic clamor that was unique in the North Texas music scene at the time, mixing the down-tempo sounds and themes of their shared influences: the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Velvet Underground, Joy Division. In the process, they'd inevitably become close friends. Gannon and Valle had formed their first band together, April House, in South Texas, where the seeds of their camaraderie were sown: A 14-year-old Gannon took a 30-45 minute bus ride from his home in Corpus Christi to a 15-year-old Valle's house in Kingsville to practice. Valle moved to Denton in 1992; Gannon followed the next year and enrolled at the University of North Texas, where he lived in the same dormitory as Magruder.
What made the band interesting was that it seemed out of step with the guitar/twang ruckus that was popular in this area at the time, though not everybody found it appealing. (Naysayers dubbed it the "Fashion Press.") It had established a healthy indie cred on the strength of its "Foundation" seven-inch and Interstate EP, and had a record in the works for Daniel Plunkett, publisher of the Austin-based art 'zine ND, which also released records of the hippest variety in the mid 1990s: "experimental." For a while, FP's departure left a hole in that department locally, especially since another avant-leaning young mind, Sean Donovan--who, along with Magruder, operated an experimental music label, ernst Recordings, and performed as the sound-collage noise outfit the Fallen Vlods--followed about a year later.
The entire band crammed into a one-bedroom apartment on East 13th Street between Second and Third Avenue in the East Village. "It was quite an experience," Gannon recalls. "It was basically like boot camp. It was the four of us in a bunker in New York. But it was great because we were there for a common purpose."
But as many young artists encounter in New York, life ain't easy. Two years after the four had moved to New York, the full-length album still had yet to come out (Smoky Ends of a Burnt Out Day finally saw the light of day in 1998), and as expectation plunged into disappointment, the Factory Press was laid to rest. "We were really young, we were on our own for the first time, and we were playing music," Gannon says. "During it all, I was 21 and playing and trying to live out a rock dream, and it was a lot of fun--don't get me wrong. It was a lot of fun, but you pay a heavy price."
Instead of imploding in bitterness and resentment, however, Factory Press' members emerged from the band's ashes and have landed on their feet in two new outfits, the New York-based Calla and Denton's Mercova. They've taken what they learned from the Factory Press--both musically and professionally--and now are more concerned with their craft than chasing the spotlight.
Critical success, however, has already started to arrive for Calla. The band--Donovan (bass, keyboards, programming), Magruder (programming, percussion, drums) and Valle (guitars, vocals)--is proving it has the potential to be a formidable force, using the tools and ideas of modern composition to make more traditional songs. Calla was the first band listed in Alternative Press' "100 Bands You Need to Know in 2001" in its March issue, and this past December, it opened for the internationally feted Godspeed You Black Emperor! in that band's home town of Montreal. And its sophomore release, the Michael Gira-produced Scavengers (Young God Records) has been earning the band fans overseas in France, Italy, and--of all places--Israel.
"The response to Scavengers has been great," Donovan says. "It's really easy to get isolated in New York, and it's nice to hear what other parts of the country and the world have to say about your album. The weird thing about New York is people really don't go out to see shows that often, because there's so many to choose from. So you have to pick what show you want to see. We've been lucky because recently we've landed on some really good bills, so the people that might be into Calla were going to be going to those shows anyway."
It's a pretty good start for a band that began out of a simple desire to try new ideas. "After the Factory Press split, we weren't going to stop playing," Valle says. "Pete moved to Austin in '97. We were waiting for the ND record to come out. We put everything we had into it and we really had high hopes for it. We were all living in a one-bedroom apartment so it was really, really hard. It got to the point where we just said, forget it. So we decided to come up with something really different. Sean had worked with the Factory Press in the studio when we were recording, so it only made sense that the three of us do something together. Wayne and Sean started exploring more with samples and electronics, creating different textures, and it forced us to come up with new ways to write songs than we'd been used to doing."
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."
For Gannon, who was playing bass in the Falcon Project at the time and again attending UNT as a music composition student, Mercova provided another outlet for his muse. "I was writing songs that weren't appropriate for school use, but I didn't feel like I could put together the effort to start something on my own," Gannon says. "Playing with Falcon was good because it put me back into playing in a live environment, but I found that I had a hunger to play these songs I was writing. When Mercova asked me to join, it wasn't just me playing a role in a band, it was for me to come in with all my ideas, and this seemed like the perfect project for that."
Mercova sounds like a tweaked Portishead, or a creepier take on To Rocco Rot. A melody is fused from the ripples of fractured beats and programmed textures, which are anchored by structures and sound formations that are directly informed by Gannon's academic studies. "What's carried over from school for me and what I've been trying to explore is not just replacing acoustic instruments with the functionality of electronic instruments," Gannon explains. "If you have a drum machine, the beauty of electronic music is not just replacing a drum kit with electronic-generated sounds, but looking at hitting the drum, the physicality of it, and asking yourself, 'OK, how does that sound if it's metal trash can lids instead of a drum?' It's taking paper being crumbled in a microphone and making it sound like exploding, sparking fire, and how can that be used as a bass drum. That's the freedom that electronics allow you. So I'm trying to push those experiments in a very conventional song format."
After spending a year exclusively as a home-recording project, Mercova first performed live last October. Like Calla, its evolutions have come rather quickly since then. Piersall no longer plays in the band, and Young entered the fold. "Once we played live we just busted open," Gere says. "We just encountered more ideas. We have two different things. The live show is totally different than how we compose. We write a song, and then we start thinking about how we're going to interpret it live after it's been shaped and formed at home."
The live package has been greatly improved by Young's presence, which lends Mercova's eccentric beat package a more organic timbre. Gannon and Gere had toyed with the idea of incorporating a live drummer into Mercova when Young literally walked into the equation. "It had iced over for a couple of days," Gere recalls, "And we had been holed up in Pete's house working on a new song. We finished it and we were sitting there thinking, 'Live drums on this would be cool,' though we had no idea who we could ask to sit in with us. But it was really late, and I wanted to go home. So I grabbed my things and open the door, and Andy was walking down the street. I have never seen Andy walk down Pete's street before. I had never seen him walking. He's always in his car. And I dropped my bags and got Peter, and he asked Andy in. So Andy comes in and we started talking, and we hadn't said anything to him yet, and he says, 'You know I really like what you're doing, and I don't know what you have in mind for Mercova, but I really think live drums would be really cool. I've really been wanting to branch out into electronic music.' He said all the right things, so we gave it a try, and it fit together well."
That's one of those stories that seems too contrived to be true. Sheer luck or not, Mercova isn't about to start relying on serendipity to achieve its goals. "Lately, I keep opening my door looking for a record deal to be walking down the street," Gannon jokes. "But I don't think lightning strikes twice."