By Jeremy Hallock
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By Observer Staff
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In a way, The Ponderosa has become the fifth member of the group. Their new album is named Rounds the Rosa because the songs were written and rehearsed there, and the disc's artwork is a series of photographs taken around the house by a friend of the band. On the front cover, a blanket tacked to the wall marking the kitchen doorway; on the back, the toilet and shower; inside, a table dotted with personal effects: keys, a used ashtray, a remote control. The band-under-one-roof thing may fit the Monkees prototype, but Hi-Fi Drowning's two-year transformation has more in common with the Beatles. Imagine "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" and then "Day in the Life" and you'll be close to the disparity between the low-key, pedal-pushing rock of Narci Darvish (released in 1999 by Chicago's Luminous Records) and the just-released Rounds the Rosa, with its multiple time signatures per song and range of instrumentation. And it rocks, too.
In fact, Hi-Fi Drowning has changed so much since original drummer Carlos Jackson left and Young joined that the members nearly changed the name to mark the new sound. "We even had the name and everything," Martin says. "But all of our friends were like, 'What the hell are you doing?' It's a little bittersweet when people come up at shows and are like, 'I saw you three years ago and you're not the same band.'" That's true, even though the only physical difference between Narci Darvish and Rounds the Rosa is Young. But since Hi-Fi Drowning is a band that writes its songs together, changing just one ingredient produces a completely different recipe.
The typical Hi-Fi Drowning song--which isn't typical at all, judging from a set of songs that roams from pop-damaged anthems to the more somber, piano-introduced album closer--begins with an idea from Martin or Jeremy that the pair works on together. Once a structure is built, the skeleton is brought to rehearsal and introduced to the rhythm section. But because of the close quarters of the 'Rosa, Jon usually has something brewing already. "We've got to work it out together," Jon says. "I've always been really happy that we're not a band where there's a singer-songwriter who comes to the musicians with a song and tells everybody what to play."
The band members also like to take their favorite pieces of different songs in progress and combine them into one finished song, which accounts for the multitude of tempo and tone shifts, such as in the album-opening "Atomatic." "We may have one song and we all just love the first half, but we don't love the second half," Jeremy explains. "And then we have a second song and we love one half, but not the other, so we just end up taking the two halves we like from different songs and just smushing them together."
But this meticulous--or, as Martin says, "anal"--way of songwriting isn't the only reason that each song is different from the others, or why it took two years to complete a 10-song record, recorded at Bass Propulsion Laboratories, the steps-away-from-downtown studio owned and operated by Todd and Toby Pipes from Deep Blue Something. The best excuse? The members of Hi-Fi Drowning didn't know they were working on an album until they already were: "We were only going to do a five-song EP, so we wrote five songs and we went in for a week and laid them down," Jeremy says. "It was all sounding pretty cool, so we were like, 'Let's not waste this. Let's go ahead and finish a whole record.' So we wrote three more songs in three months and went back in."
Chris "Frenchy" Smith, formerly of Austin's Sixteen Deluxe, mixed some of the tracks at his studio, The Bubble. Two of those made it onto the fourth Buzz-Oven compilation, but, for Rounds the Rosa, the mixing went to Count, a one-name producer from San Francisco who's friends with the Pipes brothers. The distance complicated and extended the mixing process; the group couldn't afford to go to San Francisco, so they mailed tapes to Count.
"Then much later we'd get them back," Jeremy says. "Then we'd write out two pages' worth of stuff we wanted to fine-tune. We did that, like, four times, and it took a month and a half every time."
Young adds, "At the end, we'd be on the phone singing the parts to each other."
"We could have done it somewhere else in a matter of weeks," Martin says, "but it was worth it. He made it sound awesome."
Beyond the new songs, the new drummer, the two years spent on Rounds the Rosa, there's another, simpler reason why the 2002 version of Hi-Fi Drowning is so different from the band seen on stages in Deep Ellum just 24 months ago: the simple passage of time, plus the experiences that come with it.
"The thing about the three of us--Eric, Jeremy and I--this is our first band," Jon says. "We started this band when I was 19 and Jeremy was 17 and Eric was 19 or 20. And Taylor then was playing in Neon Girl when he was 15 or 16. There are a lot of other bands around who have members from other bands who failed in other areas or were just moderately successful here and there and they all have that cumulative experience that allows them to craft their songs, as well as the way they present themselves. But this has been a learning experience for all of us since day one."
And Rounds the Rosa is a testament to a young band growing up, learning more about music and itself and reflecting it back in the songs it writes. In the six years since the band formed and played its first gig at an open-mike night at Club Dada, Hi-Fi Drowning has had a demo deal with MCA, recorded with semi-legendary producer Keith Cleversley (known for his work with The Flaming Lips) and had enough hype around it to set the group up for defeat. These days, they're just four guys writing songs together, living together and putting out the music they love at their own pace under their own conditions. And that's OK with them.
"The four of us are happy with the album," Young says. "We're happy with how it sounds. We're just happy with the time we're in right now."