By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
When Lewis was named Best New Act in the 1999 Dallas Observer Music Awards, the band was so new that the joke around the office was, "Lewis who?" The quartet had recently moved to Dallas from College Station where three members earned degrees from Texas A&M University. But then things started coming together quickly: An introduction to Russell Hobbs got the band a slot on opening night at his club, The Door, as well as the first release (1999's Progress and Regress) on AltarScience, the label Hobbs started with Patrick Keel of Dragon Street Records. Hobbs had wanted to call his label Deep Ellum Records, but Lewis suggested he talk to John Szuch, owner of North Carolina's similarly named Deep Elm Records. During the conversation, Lewis was discussed. Later, after hearing the band, Szuch invited Lewis to contribute a song to Deep Elm's Emo Diaries series. More shows, more recording and tours followed.
Despite all that, some may again be asking, "Lewis who?" Minus a handful of shows, the band has basically been on hiatus since October, when it finished mastering Even So (its first full-length for Deep Elm). Between recording Even So with Matt Pence at The Echo Lab in August and mastering the album there in October, drummer John Owen Parish left the band, and guitarist-singer Matt Beaton moved to Chicago where his wife is attending art school. That left singer-guitarist Brett Tohlen and bassist Jeff Truly drummerless--again--and separated from one half of their songwriting team by a thousand miles. But all four regrouped temporarily last month for shows at Good Records and Club Clearview.
"When we played those gigs, we hadn't played in so long that it felt uncomfortable," Truly says. "And it felt uncomfortable because, when we had played last year, we knew all the songs and we were doing really well. We just played; we just got up there. We don't really feel like we're performers when we play a show. We're not that kind of band. We're kind of dorks. And the best shows we have are when we just get up there and play and just let the emotions come out."
Letting the emotions out is also the basis of Even So, which Deep Elm will release June 25. The album is a 10-song catharsis revolving around mortality, faith and finding one's place in the world, inspired by events in the band members' lives, including the death of Truly's cousin from cystic fibrosis. "If you listen to the album, there are a lot of songs asking the question, 'What do I do now?' 'Even So,' the last song on the album, really drives that home," Truly says. "It's about those questions of, 'When all things are lost what do I do now?' The album addresses those questions. We challenge the listeners to really get into that and see what we're trying to say. But we don't really want to give it all away."
Songwriter Tohlen also found inspiration for Even So in T.S. Eliot's post-World War I poem The Waste Land. The album opens with "The Cruelest Month," a song title taken straight from one of Eliot's lines. "What he is writing about is how nothing is permanent in this fractured world that we live in," Tohlen says. "That was written 80-something years ago, and it still has relevancy today, so I started thinking down those roads. It was like I was Dante and he was Virgil, sort of guiding me through what I wanted to do...I don't know if there is any sort of coherence in the world. I decided that we just continue to search for permanence. It's something that often in our youth we don't think about. Then you wake up one day and think, 'What have I done?' It's kind of like David Byrne said, 'This is not my beautiful wife.'"
Even So covers not just loss of youth and innocence through aging, but also through new experiences, facing others' mortality and questioning what life is all about. And somewhere in all that is the destructive nature of youth, which Tohlen says he witnesses while teaching biology to high school students in Irving. "I like to play characters, and I started just thinking about youth in general," he says. "In youth, you're constantly wanting something. When you're young, you don't realize how violent youth is. When you try to sew things up, you end up with a bunch of fractured images you try to sew together. But when you get closer to your 30s, you begin to think, 'What is this that I made for myself?' You're looking for purpose, something that lasts. In your youth, you think everything will last forever. As you get older you realize that nothing lasts. You have to question, 'If nothing lasts, then is there something in the world that is permanent? That doesn't change?'"
Not only is the subject matter on Even So more focused and more mature than on Progress and Regress, but so is the music. "It's completely different from anything we've ever done, but the music is still us," Tohlen says. "I look at it like you'd look at any band from U2 to Radiohead. As they do different albums, the sound's a little bit different. And different ideas, too. And it's the same for us. Not that I'm equating myself with them, but each album reflects the times, sort of like a document of the time we have just come out of."
For Lewis, each album may be a scrapbook of where the band has been, but it's also like a road map of where the band is going, using the wrong turns and pitfalls as well as the successes to decide its future. "We start over every time," Tohlen says. "When we write an album, we then look back and say, 'OK, what did we like about it? What didn't we like about it?' And then we re-evaluate what we want to do."
Progress and Regress taught Lewis about recording and developing its sound. "With that album we learned a lot," Truly says. "We weren't really happy with how that sounded. We didn't think it sounded like us. And when we recorded Even So with Matt Pence, we got done and we thought that was what we sounded like live. Our first album didn't really capture that, and I think that that's the biggest change from that album to this album."
Tohlen agrees, "We were totally able to relax in the studio and just have fun. I won't say things didn't go wrong, but we were able to have that opportunity. Matt is a really laid-back guy anyway, and we were able to toy around and mess with things and try some things that didn't work."
Lewis hopes to be back in the studio by the end of the year to record the songs that Tohlen and Beaton have been writing by sending MP3s back and forth from Chicago to Dallas, adding new lines and writing new parts without a permanent drummer. Before they can complete these songs in person and get in the studio, however, Lewis must tour to support Even So.
And Tohlen's theory of the impermanence of life comes into effect there. Truly, who's getting married in November, won't be able to go on tour this time, so Tohlen and Beaton will be playing with a substitute drummer and bass player. "This is not what we originally wanted to do," Tohlen says. "It sucks because it's not these four guys who had this dream of going out and playing together, but I'm really looking forward to playing in support of this album. I think we've done a really good job with it, and we like what Matt Pence has done. I think with the work that we've put into it, I'd hate to see us sit back and just not do anything with this album."