Forget Zen--you don't have to engage in obtuse intellectual gymnastics or wrestle with metaphysical riddles to be perfectly at ease with being in the now. Just ask Daniel Black, lead singer and guitarist for San Diego-based quartet The And/Ors. On the morning of the band's kickoff show of its first-ever tour, Black sounds as if he's just had a facial, not like he's about to embark on a 27-show spree opening for Death Cab for Cutie that starts in the Pacific Northwest, reaches as far east as Boston, and ends in Denver--all in just over a month.
Hell, the band has already traveled a little more than 900 miles and hasn't played a show yet. "We've driven up two days from San Diego for the first show tonight at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland," Black says from the home of Ezra Ace, the recently moved-to-Portland scenester and band photographer behind Happy Happy Kill Kill 'zine and Slowdance Records. "We're really excited about the shows and looking forward to the next couple of weeks." Though Black was just about to sit down to a morning cup of coffee, he already sounded chipper and loquacious.
He is, however, somewhat reticent about the history of the band, even though its members possess a modest indie pedigree. Black himself used to play with Interstate Ten, while drummer Chris Wassell has kept time for the performance art-cum-rock explosion that is Crash Worship, and bassist and vocalist Arabella Harrison comes from emo-pop purveyors Jejune. Guitarist Lane Miller has made noise with post-punk purists Swivelneck and Thee Psychic Hearts and still plays with Corrugated.
Gypsy Tea Room
with The Jealous Sound and Death Cab for Cutie
The And/Ors' past doesn't seem to interest Black one bit, however. "That's a long and pretty boring story that's got too many characters, would take too much time to tell, and wouldn't be all that pertinent," Black sighs, followed by the unmistakable sound of coffee being sipped. "It goes back a few years as a side project, and then there was a seven-inch, and then there was a split seven-inch, but this lineup has been together for about a year. That's where we're at and where we're happy."
It's a feeling that shines through on the band's debut album, despite a title that suggests inner turmoil. Will Self-Destruct, recently released on Los Angeles' Better Looking Records, sways from the up-tempo, twin-guitar power pop of "As We Play the Tape Tricks Us" to the hazy, straight-ahead roots rock of the fuzztone-fueled "Terror Eyes." It's a surprisingly confident album from a lineup that Black admits has been together for about a year, but has only worked as a unit for about nine months. You'd never know it. Will Self-Destruct has more swings in mood and textures than straight-ahead rock. Occasionally, the band rips into fiery walls of guitar abandon that recall the tight explosions of Chicago's Eleventh Dream Day, especially with up-tempo, country-tinged scorchers such as "The Black Diamond Prince" and the guitar-sunbursts that percolate through "Regarding Mr. Right." Even better are the more sublime moments that pepper "Timespacechanger," "At the Saturn Bar," and "Masterblaster," instances of controlled, contemplative rumblings that bring to mind the screaming beauty that was Los Angeles' Dream Syndicate.
Granted, neither Miller nor Black is as ferociously gifted as the Syndicate's young guitar wizard Karl Precoda--and Will Self-Destruct is no The Days of Wine and Roses--but you can detect a vibrant spark bristling beneath the surface of The And/Ors' sprawl. It's a nascent, primordial chemistry that's reminiscent of the young Syndicate when it was swimming in a Velvet Underground daze, before it transformed into the more mature wail of Medicine Show. It's a sound and energy that has little to do with any of The And/Ors members' previous work, but wasn't the result of a conscious effort. Will Self-Destruct came about through more subtle means that involved a shift in the band's attitude and approach that liberated its music.
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"I feel the band really started when the four of us started to realize we could do what we wanted to do without having to know what we wanted," Black explains, somewhat elliptically. "We learned to let go in terms of how we were playing. Instead of trying to sound a certain way, we just let it happen, just to do what felt right. If a chord sounds like it should go somewhere, we did that. It sounds like a really simple thing to do, but I'd never really explored [making music] that way before. And it really opened my eyes and ears. You know, you can't escape yourself, your own ideas and your own limitations."
As a result, the songs on Will Self-Destruct possess the sort of well-defined structure that emerge when melodies, rhythms, and lyrics coalesce through an organic, group effort. Tempo changes don't feel abrupt. Drum fills are patiently timed. And the guitar hooks are streamlined to economic but effective progressions. "We wrote on our feet, and it was one of the most refreshing experiences to go through," Black says. "We played and rehearsed a lot before we recorded, so we had all the kinks and all the questions worked out before we put the songs to tape. It was the result of all of us having been in bands that had tried to decide what to play before ever playing anything together, and we completely discarded that sort of thinking. We didn't want to have any preconceived notions of what we were going to do. So everything you hear [on the album] was arrived upon rather naturally."
The approach also helped The And/Ors prepare for the tour. They're very comfortable and familiar with their material, and Black feels confident they're able to perform live without succumbing to the usual hesitations and mistakes that afflict a band with their short history. "What you hear on the record is what we sound like right now," Black says. "You know how sometimes you hear a record by a band, and when you go see them it sounds about three times less competent [than the record]? Well, we only sound about two times less than the record. The album's a good representation of what we do."
It's what the band hopes to continue to deliver over the course of the tour, though Black does have a few thoughts for the future. He's just in no hurry to get there. "We want to play and just work more together," Black says. "We want to try to work out some smaller thematic ideas, like choose three songs that involve a certain motif or idea and then put those on a seven-inch. We want to stretch a little bit before we start thinking about doing another full-fledged album. We have the material, we have a list of about 30 other songs we could probably go through and tighten up, but we don't want to rush things. Everything takes time to fully form, and we're OK with letting that happen."