Forget about all the other summer tours making their way across the country in convoys of plush buses and overloaded trailers. The real show of the summer is hitting the road in vans a few thousand miles past serviceable, stopping at clubs instead of amphitheaters. In an attempt to use a blanket statement, The Faint, Vue, and The Camera Obscura--the three acts on this tour, Holiday Matinee Summer Tour 2000--play, in the purest and best way possible, Rock and Roll. Exciting, almost stylish, beat-happening rock, more reliant on keys than on guitars, stressing rhythm rather than melody. Put simply, it's music to dance to. And despite what MTV and Rolling Stone and Spin say, the music these three bands play is the New Rock, songs that can reach into the future because they have a firm foothold in the past.
Of course, that's not to imply that each band is indistinguishable from the other two. That would defeat the purpose. San Francisco-based Vue's take on the idea is wrought from the classic arty-punk sound of The Birthday Party and The Stooges, raw meat marinated in sweat and glitter. Hailing from Omaha, The Faint, on the other hand, bases its music in what singer-synth player Todd Baechle describes as "prommy '80s mainstream rock, past new wave, on the radio." For its part, San Diego's The Camera Obscura has put its grooves on a sound of classic hardcore--none of that youth-crew business, just crazy music played loud. Sure, everything since 1965 has been colored by punk rock in some form, but they are influenced in a way that means something now.
What it means isn't always clear at first. But the bands certainly have a handle on it. In an interview with Soma magazine, Vue's bassist Jeremy Bringetto described his band most effectively. "There is a tangible sexuality to our sound," he explained. "But the British press describes us as being part of this new American vanguard that's the diametric opposite of the big-shorts horror of Blink 182. That is so cool." What's even cooler is that Bringetto could have been referring to any of the acts on this bill.
In an ideal rock-and-roll world, this package would, once and for all, cleanse underground rock of washed-out and ineffective macho brooding and shoegazing false introspection. It would bring into view a newer, smarter, sexier look at making records and playing shows, make the '90s look like the '50s. It's hardly that drastic, though. After all, it's just a tour.
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The tour--sponsored by indie publicists Holiday Matinee; record labels Sub Pop, Troubleman Unlimited, and Saddle Creek; and online retailer Insound--stops at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios on July 19. Sponsorship? It sounds a bit posh for this lot. Or maybe not: It's not as if the tour is being sponsored by Budweiser or Microsoft or any other big corporation. For instance, look at the outfit that gives the tour its name, the business with the simple motto, "Independent promotions for you, by me." Holiday Matinee is a publicity company run by Muddle fanzine editor Dave Brown, who ekes out a living pimping the bands, record labels, and fanzines he digs. (One of his clients happens to be Denton's own Centro-matic.)
As for the rest, Sub Pop is, well, Sub Pop, as venerable an independent record label as there ever was, which has finally started putting out decent records again, including Vue's last self-titled effort. The Camera Obscura released its first full-length record, To Change the Shape of an Envelope, on Troubleman Unlimited in June, The Faint released Blank-Wave Arcade on Saddle Creek, and both of them are impressive young labels. Insound is better known as Insound-dot-com, the über-record store in cyberspace, Amazon.com for those who actually care where they buy their music.
On top of sponsorship, this road trip was even put together by a real booking agent--Michael MacDonald of Chicago's Recreational Booking--rather than by one of the bands. Imagine, getting help to go out on tour.
"We're playing some pretty good spaces, and we have no days off that we didn't need because we couldn't get a show," Baechle says in awe. There's no way that anyone could really question the working cred of this lot, booking agents and publicists or not. This certainly isn't a Rolling Stones tour. Does this sound professional? An interview with Vue didn't happen. The press kit for The Camera Obscura, which consists of a CD and a computer print-out bio, arrives in a reused envelope, hastily folded and shipping-taped with a return address of label owner Mike Simonetti's house in Bayonne, New Jersey. The press kit for The Faint never shows up at all.
"We haven't really gotten press," Baechle sheepishly confesses. "Hopefully, this is a new thing." You can't blame him for hoping. He talks about their last tour three months ago--how the van messed up, and how "the last time we played in Denton, we played in what I think was a slaughterhouse. [He's referring to Green Means Go's now-defunct venue located at, well, an old slaughterhouse.] The time before, nobody came--really, no one. We ended up staying with this girl who didn't want us in her house." It wasn't much better for The Camera Obscura; the band tried to set up a show in Denton earlier this summer, and, singer-bassist Russell White reports, "it kinda fell through."
They admit, however, that it could be getting better, that the light at the end of the tunnel isn't necessarily a freight train bearing down on them. "I think that the label we're on is doing really well, really taking off," Baechle says. "Saddle Creek started off doing tapes, and it's worked basically as one guy [Robb Nashel] running it, and the bands on it doing things to promote it. It was pretty much everyone's..." He trails off. "How long have we been doing this? Connor, how long have we been doing things on Saddle Creek? Eight or nine years."
Baechle is in Kansas City, borrowing the mobile phone of longtime friend Connor Oberst, who fronts Bright Eyes, another Omaha band on Saddle Creek that's undeniably gained momentum this past year; Bright Eyes' dreamy last record has been the backbone of college playlists this year. In March, both bands played the packed Saddle Creek Records showcase at the annual South By Southwest Festival in Austin. (As it happens, both bands will be in town this week as well, since Bright Eyes is opening for Grandaddy at the Gypsy Tea Room on July 15.)
Another thread that ties the trio of bands on the Holiday Matinee tour together is that all three practically live on the road, and they surround themselves with other musicians that work just as hard. Vue's toured twice since the start of 1999, when they changed their name from The Audience after putting out two records. The Faint has been on tour so often, Baechle can't remember, exactly, how much touring they've done. "We probably started touring five years ago, and we've probably gone out eight or nine times. We've booked it all ourselves, and just now we've decided which contacts were good, and who was sketchy." He adds the punch line: "It's all really sketchy."
White also knows the hell that ensues when you take your rock band across the country. "Our guitarist quit yesterday," White begins. "The tour starts in 12 days. We don't know what we're going to do. We might find someone, or I might be able to improvise." Like what, one of those circa-'70s dual guitar/bass arrangements? "Yeah, I'm trying to track down this dude who has one."
At the moment, White is at home in San Diego, a rare moment between stints in the van. "We just got back from a tour. This [will be] our sixth in a year and a half. We're aware of the reputation--it's true. Everyone we know [who plays music] works really hard." And, in most cases, they have the talent to match. Some of the most exciting indie bands of recent memory have come out of San Diego: The Black Heart Procession, Gogogo Airheart, Tristeza, and The Locust come to mind.
"All of our friends from San Diego, we consider our peers," White continues. "There are certain bands we always play with." What about The Locust, the bouffant-wearing, keyboards-and-grind act that everyone seems to have an opinion about? "We're not really comparable to them, but they're our good friends. Michelle [Maskovich, keyboardist in The Camera Obscura] was in Swing Kids with those guys. The label [Three One G] put out one of our records. They're really amazing, I think."
Like White and his hometown, Baechle's extremely enthusiastic about the music scene in Omaha. "If I had to name the actual point where I [decided I] wanted to be in a band and play music, it was seeing Slow Down Virginia, the band that became [Omaha-based] Cursive. Joel [no last name, thanks, The Faint's bass player] and I were there, and we were just blown away."
Now, naturally, Baechle wants to be the band blowing impressionable youths away. Hence the band's sound and stage setup. "We play dancey music because we want to have more fun live," Baechle says. "The lights are part of that. We wanted a good live show, but we don't, uh, choreograph moves. It's not a coincidence that we're all wearing black though, but that's about the only thing we do plan out. We just want people to dance. When we book our tours, we try not to play bars, because people just aren't as interested when there's alcohol to be had."
Reading from almost the same cue cards, White offers that "we talk about our appearance, but we don't really do anything. We try to be more dancey; we like to see people dance with more interesting dance steps."
To that end, The Faint is going in new directions, trying its best to push toward a new sound. Baechle's excited to talk about the new records that they're supposed to get their hands on today. "We have a new picture disc, a 12-inch of remixes from our last record. It made sense to do it, we just posted on the Web site, 'Who wants to remix us?' and chose from the ones we got back. We were really impressed with who offered." Like who? "Oh, I can't tell you who did all of them. There were some impressive names that didn't make it. They sent us disappointing remixes."
Remixes, synths--why not just get into quote-unquote electronic music? Baechle doesn't quite know, or care for that matter. "So many more people show up to raves," he says. "I know a guy in Omaha who does them, and thousands and thousands of people show up. They put a lot more money and planning into their fun." White goes a step further, giving that kind of music more credit than his own. "I would love to say, yes, that we're part of a movement, like hardcore bands in the '90s having causes and all that stuff. We play benefits sometimes. The rave culture--that is a movement. It's like our own version of the '70s. I so dig the fact that it's all electronic."
Still, White won't be delving into electronic music too deeply just yet. He's got other things more pressing, like the business he and Maskovich ran for the past year. "We had a beauty boutique here," he says. "We were traveling a lot, and we had to close it. We're moving after this tour. We're shooting for Minneapolis. We want to live in the coldest area possible."
Which would seem to cut off White and The Camera Obscura from its peers, perhaps fostering an electronic revolution whether he likes it or not. But that would have probably happened anyway. While rock and roll could never be completely programmed, technology has furthered a long-needed immediacy, one that is important to all three bands' blast from the past into the future. As Bobby Harlow of The Go says, writing in Vue's liner notes, "Last year's show is over, we want our future now. It's been a long time comin'. Rock and Roll is now, buy it, hear it, do it, 'til it's raw and swollen. Freak out!" Preach on.
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