What Fun Life Is
The difference was slight; it was supposed to be. Well, it wasn't supposed to be anything--it just was. Matt and Bubba Kadane weren't fooling themselves, and they certainly weren't trying to fool anyone else.
This was pretty much the same band.
These were pretty much the same songs.
This was pretty much where they were two years ago.
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Yes, there was a new name, and yes, there were new band members, and no, neither one of those facts changed anything other than the album cover and the liner notes. When it came down to it, all the Kadanes had done, really, was replace one word (Bedhead) with three (The New Year). At least, that's how it seemed before the Kadanes took the stage at the Gypsy Tea Room on August 25 for their first Dallas show since 1998. Even to them: "The Texas shows felt like there was never a break," Bubba Kadane says. "You know, it was like everything picked up where it left off."
That night, however, and on The New Year's debut--Newness Ends, set for release February 20 on Chicago's Touch and Go Records--the singing/songwriting/guitar-playing Kadanes sounded more like a couple of guys who grew up worshiping The Who (they did) rather than the Velvet Underground acolytes Bedhead was always accused of being. Which isn't a new idea, either, not if you've paid attention: Listen to Bedhead's three albums (WhatFunLifeWas, Beheaded, and Transaction de Novo--all scheduled for rerelease by Touch and Go on the same day Newness Ends hits stores), and you can hear the exact same thing. The Kadanes have always played in a rock-and-roll band, only one with the volume turned down. Sometimes way down. Whether you call it The New Year or Bedhead doesn't matter.
"It didn't change anything," Bubba Kadane says. "I think that's what people do a lot of the time. Most of the time, when people change, they change everything. We had no intention of doing that, and probably in the end, I would think that'd be a dishonest thing for us to do--to decide to do something different just to do it. I think it probably would've come out to be not as good. It's only probably viewed differently because you're changing the band name. This might've been viewed slightly different being a Bedhead record. It's going to be viewed more dramatically different not being one."
Like any long-distance relationship, bands usually can't survive when one of the members moves to a different city, even one in the same county. With its five members--including third guitarist Peter Schmidt, drummer Chris Brokaw, and bassist Mike Donofrio--spread out over two time zones and three cities (Dallas, New York, and Boston), you'd assume The New Year would already be at the breaking point. You wouldn't even be close.
"There are plenty of times when it would be much better to be in the same place, but you never know how much strain that would put on things," Matt Kadane says. "I think it's just the excitement of getting together probably keeps...I don't know. It's like any relationship: There's something to be said about the excitement of seeing each other when you don't see each other a lot."
The Kadanes have been living apart for six years, since Matt--currently finishing up his dissertation at Brown University--left Texas to further his academic career. While Bedhead was still together, Bubba would practice with drummer Trini Martinez and bassist Chris Wheat in Dallas, while Matt would get together in Boston with guitarist Tench Coxe, another Texas transplant. Now with The New Year, the situation is reversed: Bubba learns the songs at home with Schmidt, and Matt gets to play with the band's rhythm section, Brokaw and Donofrio.
The new members are already used to the arrangement, comfortable with it. "It's been great," Brokaw says. "I really like the music and get along well with the others, and it's been pretty pleasant, unhurried. This is one of three bands I'm in right now [along with Pullman and the Steve Wynn Quartet] where the members all live in different cities, so I'm accustomed to working on things in a sort of nontraditional way, that involves a lot of communicating and coordinating schedules. But the main thing is, I think the music's great, and I'm honored to be involved. Making the record with Steve Albini was a lot of fun, and the shows we've done so far have been pretty exciting, and I'm looking forward to more."
It helps to have such a talented cast. Besides splitting his time between Pullman, the Steve Wynn Quartet, and The New Year, Brokaw has also been performing lately with his erstwhile band mate, Come's Thalia Zedek. "We're just working on a bunch of new songs and taking our time figuring out what route to go with it," Brokaw says. "So far, it's been pretty quiet music, a lot of ballads, not much loud rock music." As for the rest of The New Year, Donofrio also plays bass with Saturnine, and Schmidt fronts Legendary Crystal Chandelier, set to release its second album, Beyond Indifference, on Quality Park Records on February 27.
"It's worked out amazingly well--I mean, at least from our point of view--because it doesn't take any time to learn the songs," Matt Kadane says. "Those guys are all such great musicians, and leaders of their own bands, that they really understand song structure right off the bat. Chris, who plays drums, is a guitarist. We can be practicing, and he can say, 'I think you played an F-natural with a D-major or something on the second measure of the bridge'--he really is perceptive, and it's just remarkable to have that kind of input from someone who's banging away on the drums."
Initially, The New Year was intended to be somewhat of a solo act, with the Kadanes manning all of the instruments. It wouldn't have been that difficult to pull off; Matt used to play drums with Cowboys & Indians, and both Kadanes can play bass. "I think we could have done it just fine, because we've done that sort of thing before--it's not a big deal--but it was just better to not have the overall pressure," Bubba Kadane says. After recruiting Brokaw (a longtime friend who had played shows with Matt when he moved to Boston) and Schmidt, the occasional sixth member of Bedhead, as well as Donofrio, something of an indie-rock supergroup was born, and the all-Kadane-all-the-time idea was scrapped. "Everybody was playing the stuff so well; Matt didn't want to play drums anymore after Chris was playing it so well," Bubba Kadane says.
"You know, there was such a long period of time when we didn't even think about it," Bubba Kadane says. "Matt and I were just making recordings of songs. We were talking about it every now and then, and it gradually just kind of took shape--just kind of thinking about 'em one by one, and then Matt got together with Chris to play, and it worked out really well. It was just step by step. And then, I think it was July of '99, Peter and I flew up to Boston and just practiced for a couple of days to see how it would go. It was just cool, because it all fell into place, it was effortless, and everybody liked each other. We had a good time. Even though everybody might not think that's all that important--that you just sort of go in, play, do your job--it's so important, you spend so much time together, just to have a good time while you're doing it. It makes performances better."
Following a pair of low-key warm-up shows in Boston and New York, the band--minus Schmidt--recorded Newness Ends at Steve Albini's Electrical Audio studio in Chicago; Albini also recorded Bedhead's last album, 1998's Transaction de Novo. While the 10-song disc contains many of the Kadanes' trademarks, such as the music-box guitars and hush-little-baby vocals that graced all three Bedhead records, it's not just a new name for an old group. Newness Ends goes down the same path as Bedhead records, but it jogs instead of walks; imagine Transaction de Novo on a new diet-and-exercise regimen. You can hear it best on a left-right combination that comes just before Newness Ends ends: The band gives the drummer some on "The Block That Doesn't Exist," leaning on Brokaw's snare like a greedy loan shark, which is followed by "Carne Lavare," the most foot-on-the-monitor rawk song the brothers Kadane have ever attempted.
The real question: Does The New Year sound like Bedhead? "I suppose so, and I think that's OK," Brokaw says. "I don't think the Kadanes want to divorce themselves at all from the Bedhead legacy, and I imagine we'll probably play a couple of Bedhead songs when we play live. But to me, The New Year record sounds pretty different from the Bedhead records; the songs just seem more concise; the mood is different."
Still, the Kadanes insist that even though the players are different, they're still, for the most part, playing the same game. "I'm sure we'll have to keep repeating that, just to let people know that, don't let the fact that it's a different name and different people change the fact that, if you don't like it, you wouldn't have liked the fourth Bedhead record," Bubba Kadane says. "You know how people are. You can't win."
"This would be the fourth Bedhead record," Matt Kadane says, flatly. "You know, we're not just overflowing with songs, and it's not like we deliberately chose songs that are different, or a little faster or shorter or whatever. Some of these were gonna be on the next record; this is where we were going anyway. So, if someone thinks it sounds different in a negative way, they wouldn't have liked the fourth Bedhead record. I played this for a friend of mine a couple of weeks ago, and he was kind of disappointed. He was saying, 'Well, I think that this sounds kind of weird, and it's not really what I expected.' And then he listened to it again a couple more times, and he said he liked it better than a lot of things that Bedhead had done. I think as someone who knew us, his initial response was so formed or influenced by having listened to those other records that he just couldn't hear it any kind of neutral way. I hope people just listen to it for what it is and not in comparison.
"It's not like we were in a huge band," he says, laughing. "That works to our advantage. It's not like we're The Who, and this is our new direction."