Great music should be described in terms of the mood in which it puts the listener. In the end, after the echoes have faded and the CDs are stored away in their jewel boxes, we remember the finest worksongs because, individually, they make us do things or feel strongly at a certain moment. Such is the power of pop, and the very thing that makes music the most potent of all art forms: It surrounds us even when we don't notice it, and it compels and affects and moves us because of its ability to take us by surprise.
You must pay attention to a film or a play, stare at a painting, read a book; music, though, is as omnipresent and as inescapable as air. A great pop song will make you send flowers to a lover or throw a brick through a bank window, compel you to drive 100 miles an hour, do the horizontal mambo, hug a friend, tell your boss to shove it, put a stupid tattoo on your skin, make you wish you were somewhere else. The perfect pop song can redefine you for a moment, and it can affect you for a lifetime.
"Doze," the song that opens Dragline's debut, As My Mind Drifts Off, is such a rare pop song--dreamy and evocative, so pristine and fragile it would disappear in ether if it wasn't held together by a sturdy drumbeat. With a voice that brings to mind Donovan at his psychedelic best, singer Chip Graham whispers, "Open your eyes, breathe with me," with such constrained passion these simple words transform into pure poetry. Music like this can only come from the bottom of the soul, the place where demons and angels fight their daily battles.
Chip Graham has a difficult time explaining where the music comes from. He is, after all, a mere 17 years old--at an age when most kids are struggling with exams and acne and virginity and how to buy booze at the 7-Eleven. Dragline bassist Jordy Nelson is also 17, and both he and Graham (students at Plano Senior High) are just a year younger than drummer Scott Brayfield and newly recruited second guitarist David Huey. They're teen-agers making an adult sound, kids whose abilities have matured beyond their incomplete educations.
"People are impressed with how the music has a sort of difficulty to it, how it is so complicated," Nelson says with equal amounts of candor and modesty. "I don't want to sound conceited, but this music shouldn't be happening by people from our age group." As Nelson and his bandmates sit on the floor of producer Matt Castille's room, they are tongue-tied and shy, but not without the words to back up their music.
As My Mind Drifts Off, which was released a few weeks ago under the aegis of Castille's avant-rock Vas Deferens Organization, is a roller coaster of ambience and suggestiveness, ranging from the atmospheric, spacey platitudes of "Space 1" to the experimental thrash-metal of "Escape from the 100 ft. Woman"; the record also features improvisational percussion pieces like "Drum 1" and "Drum 2." The record is a brilliant piece of work where noise and melody clash and then coalesce for 50 minutes like the very best of bedfellows.
Graham and Brayfield actually began playing together in the 10th grade, and shortly thereafter Nelson joined in; the trio started the Pit and the Pendulum, a typical Sabbath-influenced high-school band that played at parties and occasional third-on-the-bill rock gigs. They changed their name to Dragline two years ago, then met J. Scott Sutton, who records his psychedelic-space-country-blues under the moniker J. Bone Cro.
Sutton, who works at a Plano record store, became their musical guru of sorts. He turned them on to experimental music and a myriad avant-garde sounds, exposing the young men to the unfamiliar sonic poetry of Sun Ra and the Ozric Tentacles. They, in turn, soaked the stuff in like a dry sponge dipped in water, and their whole approach to music changed.
"He would play some music, and I would take it home and feed off it," says Brayfield, who also plays drums in J. Bone Cro's live shows. Sutton also introduced the Dragline boys to producer Castille, who pressed the CD under his Womb Tunes Records label.
Castille was instrumental in placing the final sugarcoating on the band's sound. Through studio effects and techniques, he added the proper atmospherics to the band's moody sound; like Adrian Sherwood, he took some songs and changed them into aural mini-movies. Some tracks were even born in the studio as pure experiments: "Drum 2" took shape after Brayfield started messing around on a djembe (African drum) while Castille stepped outside to talk to a friend. When Castille came back into the studio and heard them playing, he insisted on recording the piece for the album.
"I would do the effects on vocals, and Chip would react to them by changing the time signature in his singing, then the rest of the band would follow that," Castille says. "I can't say that I changed the songs, but I added to them. I just gave them extra paint brushes."
Influenced by British bands like Spacemen 3, Spiritualized, and Loop, Graham does most of the composing. He begins writing the music on guitar, then adds the lyrics. He'll then bring an outline to the band members and have each add their own contributions.
"When I write, I lock myself up in complete seclusion for a couple of weeks and eventually I get into the right frame of mind to write these songs," Graham says. "A lot of them are about feelings and situations, but it's up to each person to get their own meaning for themselves." To which Nelson adds:"Our music is like poetry. It is how it strikes you and how you feel toward a song."
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The poetry, though, can't necessarily be found within the lyrics--most of which are indecipherable, anyway--but in the atmosphere built within each track. "I Close my Eyes," for instance, starts as a mellow, ethereal piece and then explodes into a hellacious frenzy of distorted guitars; it finally alternates between a certain indefinable elegance and a tangible savageness. Such is the essential element to Dragline's sound--the contradictions in between the notes, the beautiful yin and the grotesque yang.
"Music has this way of grabbing me and twisting me," Nelson says. "I can cry to a song. I hear a love song, and it makes me think of a person I used to love; or, if it's an aggressive song, it makes me wanna go out and beat on my punching bag."
Talking with the members can be a disconcerting, deceptive thing. They continually remind you they're not teen-agers bashing out a punk-rock sound in a garage after class lets out; rather, they approach music as a collective, and they approach their music with a deadpan seriousness and new-age empathy that would incite laughter if it came from musicians twice their age. Instead, one can only listen in jaw-dropping amazement to the words--and sounds--that come from the mouths of babes.
"If you know Chip, Scott, and Jordy, and you hear their music, you know they're playing their personalities," Huey says. "There's an internal being within yourself that is connected to everybody else. People who are not connected to their spiritual self seem lost. It's like an internal circuit that connects us all. This circuit brings out the universal communication. This kind of music helps me get to that dimension.