By Jim Schutze
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Faint electronic beeps sound off in the background, spaced about 15 seconds apart. Their timing is somewhat familiar, but the tone is a little strange. Nevertheless, you expect the party on the other end to tend to it. "My phone is beeping," says Murder City Devils' guitarist and bassist Nate Manny from his home in Seattle. "But it's not the other line. It's just the batteries are running down. We'll just keep talking and see how much time we have."
Talk about playing an interview by ear. But it's an ironically appropriate setting for the conversation. Though Manny doesn't know how long he has to speak with his questioner on this late September morning, he does know when his band's last show is going to be played and where: Halloween in Seattle.
After five years, three albums and their new EP, the Murder City Devils are calling it quits. But it isn't out of internal strife or bickering. Keyboard player Leslie Hardy is leaving the band, as is bassist Derek Fudesco, who will focus on his side project, Pretty Girls Make Graves. The remaining Devils--Manny, Coady Willis, Dann Gallucci and Spencer Moody--will reconfigure after the Devils' upcoming tour as a new outfit. Until then, the band has one last month of road shows, taking it on a circuitous route around the country before laying the Devils to rest back home in Seattle. (Friend of the band and keyboard player Nick DeWitt is filling in for Hardy on this final tour.)
According to Manny, however, there's no hard feelings involved. It was just time for Hardy and Fudesco to move on. "It's hard to explain to people in a general way," Manny says. "The thing is, being in a band is a complicated relationship. So it's hard to talk about why we're not playing anymore without sounding like you're putting blame on people or pointing fingers. But it isn't like that. So it's kind of difficult to tell people why we're doing it."
Whatever the case, it comes on the heels of the Devils' most recent and, in many respects, most interesting release to date. Over its first three albums, and especially on last year's ebulliently bellicose In Name and Blood, the Devils delivered hard-driving power punk with a twin guitar bang and keyboard kick. It's always a lively explosion of up-tempo energy, even if it offered little diversity. Occasionally the band sounded like an Americanized midcareer Mekons, firing off jugular jams filled to the brim with convivial animation like "I Drank the Wine" and "Rum and Whisky." But it was pretty much the main sound the band peddled. A driving pulse. Neck-grabbing guitar propulsion. A melodic keyboard riff. And Moody's burnt cigarette of a voice.
But the six-song EP Thelema, which came out in early September on Sub Pop Records, features some of the Devils' most accomplished and compelling songs to date. "Bride of the Elephant Man" and "364 Days" are two somewhat folksy, midtempo numbers that incorporate more sophisticated guitar interaction between Manny and Galluci, making for more pliant and persuasive hooks. And this step forward isn't lost on Manny.
"I think I was quite prepared for the timing of the band ending," Manny says. "When you start a band, you know it's got to end sometime, but what's strange for this band was after working as long as we did, it was kind of getting to a point where we were able to do more of what we wanted and not feel pigeonholed as much as a band. So it kind of felt like we were finally getting the best. And so that's more of what I mean timing-wise. It came at a time when I was most excited about the music we were making."
It was the sort of organic progression you'd expect from a band of young people in their first real musical endeavor. All of the Devils were in bands prior to forming in Seattle in 1997, but they started the Devils with the desire to start playing seriously--to get out of garages and play music in which they had more confidence and could take more pride. As a result, it's no surprise that hard work and practice breeds a confident, comfortable familiarity with band mates that translates into more accomplished song craft.
"Dan and I both started using a lot more guitar effects, and so it gave us more texture to work with sonically," Manny says, explaining what's different to him about the Devils on the new EP. "Leslie had got a new keyboard, so we had a couple of different keyboard sounds. It was less physically represented on the record than it was the kind of attitude that we had writing and recording it. I could tell we were at a point where anything would work. It was kind of like, before, we'd be this is too this or too that. Whereas for [Thelema], we were willing to do anything pretty much. I think it was a place where we were kind of able to write songs together better. That was really exciting."
It's that sense of maturity that's making the band approach this final tour with mixed feelings. Since Hardy's departure, the band has been rehearsing for this final stretch with DeWitt, but it has to be a little odd playing your songs when you know you won't be in the near future. "It is a little bit," Manny says. "We played a show [recently], and that was the first time we realized what we were doing. The guy who's filling in for us on keyboards, we've known him for a long time. So it's not so awkward in that regard. It's just more kind of being there--we were playing at this place that was where we played our first show in Seattle, the Old Fire House. And when we first played, we were the first band on a four-band bill. And then this time, we were headlining. And everyone knew our songs. And it was the perfect setting for the realization about the work we've done. And we knew the difference right away, in how we felt."