When Aaron Stauffer moved to Mendocino County in Northern California two years ago, he wasn't so much giving up on music as much as he was giving in to his love for the ocean. Hollywood Records had recently dropped his band, Seaweed, after just one album, 1995's Spanaway, and Stauffer used the band's forced hiatus to move to a place where he could be near the ocean without any distractions while he was still young and strong enough to enjoy it.
Stauffer had grown up in the water; he learned to swim around the same time he learned to walk. His father was a high school swim coach in Tacoma, Washington, and his family lived near the Pacific Ocean, so it was easy for him to spend as much time in the water as he wanted, swimming, surfing, and fishing. But Stauffer had been landlocked for much of his adult life, touring with Seaweed since the band formed in 1989. When he saw his chance to get off the road for a while, he took it and moved to Mendocino County, about three hours north of San Francisco.
His longtime girlfriend had grown up in Mendocino County, and Stauffer fell in love with the area the first time he visited. He took a job as a kayak guide, taking tourists on white-knuckle excursions into the wild surf in a two-man kayak. Starting a new band wasn't part of the plan when he decided to move to California, and if it was, he was in the wrong place to do it. As Stauffer jokes, "There's more in-the-middle-of-nowhere places in America, but not too many."
But Gardener--which released its debut album, New Dawning Time, last week--probably wouldn't have formed if Stauffer hadn't moved to Mendocino County. Out in a cabin in the woods--a shack, really--with nothing to do other than fish and tend to his garden, Stauffer began writing songs just to pass the time, never thinking about what would happen to them...and not caring much anyway. Somewhere along the way, he formed a new band without really meaning to, recruiting Screaming Trees guitarist-bassist Van Conner, Conner's younger brother Pat, and four-fifths of Seaweed to help him finish what he accidentally started.
"I moved down here, and I was used to just having a band to play music with whenever I wanted, and I didn't have it," Stauffer says, taking a break from chopping wood. Our interview happened at the end of February, and Stauffer was running out of dry wood to heat his house. "I was just writing songs because that's what you do when you live in the fucking woods and you're a musician. I was never planning on Gardener to become a band or put a record out or anything like that. My original plan was just to record it myself on my eight-track, and then everything just evolved and evolved and evolved, and the Gardener record came out of nowhere. And now it's a band, and we're going on tour. It's kind of weird."
And so is New Dawning Time, especially when compared with Seaweed's latest record, Actions and Indications, released in January. Though Stauffer claims that Gardener sounds more like Seaweed live, the music on the disc bears little resemblance to Seaweed's emotionally charged punk rock. Gardener comes across more like a Northwest version of Neutral Milk Hotel, all sitars and flutes and trombones, fuzzy folk songs that sound more comfortable on a back porch than on a skateboard. Gardener could be the Elephant 6 collective's representative in the Northwest, employing the same casual, everyone-grab-an-instrument approach as bands like Olivia Tremor Control and Apples in Stereo, the ratio of experiments to full-on pop songs wavering with each repeated listen.
It's the kind of album Stauffer has wanted to make for years, the kind of album that is more representative of his personal tastes, which include flutist Herbie Mann and Brazilian folk songs. But that doesn't mean he's ready to give up Seaweed just yet. According to him, he couldn't even if he wanted to, because the band is bigger than him now. It's out of his hands.
"If you've been a band for 10 years, your band has a life of its own, and I love that about Seaweed," Stauffer says. "And I like to dance, so when Seaweed plays, I don't have a guitar, so I can dance, and I love that. I love the fact that people really love Seaweed. They come to see us, and I can see that it makes them happy, and that is great. So all those factors make me really love Seaweed. But I hate the loudness. My ears are fucked after all these years. Gardener is very quiet when we practice, and I like that. And I think Gardener is more like the kind of music I listen to these days, you know? Not even just these days; for the last several years I haven't listened to very many bands that sound like Seaweed at all."
Stauffer's two bands aren't all that different, though. After all, Stauffer writes a majority of the songs for both Seaweed and Gardener, and there definitely is some crossover. New Dawning Time's "End Up That Way" was originally slated to be included on Actions and Indications, and "Steadfast Shrine" ended up being recorded by Seaweed, though Stauffer had initially intended it for Gardener . Most of the songs Seaweed recorded started out sounding more like the songs on New Dawning Time. Gardener is just the first opportunity Stauffer has had to record his songs the way he wants to.
Of course, without a little bit of luck, Stauffer wouldn't have been around to see New Dawning Time's release. In late January, just a few weeks before this interview, Stauffer took a kayak out into the Pacific Ocean and almost didn't bring it back. He had just wanted to go fishing, and it was a perfect day for it, the ocean unseasonably calm for January. So he paddled about a mile out into the ocean and cast his line. Stauffer had just reeled in his first catch of the day when he was suddenly engulfed by thick fog, limiting his visibility to about 10 feet in every direction. And that's when the trouble really started.
Stauffer began paddling, heading east back toward the shore. Or, at least, that's where he thought he was going. He actually was paddling south, farther into the fog. After about an hour, he finally straightened himself out, but when he came out of the fog, he realized he was headed for a cluster of jagged rocks.
After more than an hour of trying to get onshore, he was already tired, so he decided to attempt to land anyway. Unfortunately, the water suddenly turned choppy, and a wave knocked him off the kayak.
"At that point, I was starting to get a little freaked," Stauffer admits. "I was like, 'It's foggy, I've been thrown, the swell's increasing--if I don't land soon, it might get too big to land.'"
He finally found a place to land, but then he was faced with another problem: The only way out was up; he had to scale an 80-foot cliff made of shale. Although he had made such a climb before, he was in a mild state of shock and--because he didn't know where he was--loaded down with the fish he had caught and some water. Stauffer made it up the cliff--only to arrive in a field full of angry bulls.
"My first thought--after I kissed the grass--was, 'I hope there's not a fucking bull,'" he remembers. "Wouldn't it be pathetic to save yourself all this way and just get bludgeoned by a bull?" He laughs.
Stauffer sees the humor in the story now, the what-could-possibly-happen-next quality that he still marvels at, even though he's probably told the story hundreds of times in the few weeks since it happened. At the time, Stauffer was frightened for his life. Now, it's just another story to tell his grandkids.
"It was an adventure, and I was pretty wigged, but I've had other times when I really thought I was gonna die," he says. "This time, I thought that it would be a possibility, but I was never hopeless by any means. I actually had just listened to Lonesome Dove on tape, and I used that as inspiration. They're always in these hopeless situations, and Gus McRae would just get tough and deal with it. So I channeled Gus McRae. I was just thinking, 'What would the boys do right about now?'"
It's a question Stauffer has been asking himself for the past several years, as the music Seaweed plays has been co-opted by the mainstream and turned into something he doesn't really understand anymore. He's not sure of the right answer, and he doesn't really care. That's why he left Tacoma for Mendocino County, and it's a bigger part of the reason he formed a new band. He's not a punk anymore, and he doesn't want to be. He's a Gardener.
"To me, punk is kind of over," Stauffer says. "Not that it's over, but punk is fucking that jackass from the Offspring on the cover of Spin. That's not what I'm about at all. I have to come up with a new fucking thing. Punk's been taken away from me. Living in a shack is the new reality, and I think it's very timely. I think the future is a good time to be in a shack."
Gardener performs on April 17 at the Wreck Room.
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