Being in a band can be like reliving high school. It's social hierarchies and gawky self-definition all over again, trying to find one's own group and struggling to fit in with a particular "scene." As in adolescence, there are punks, hippies, metalheads, Edge listeners--the outcasts and the in crowd. And through all the image-conscious posing and identity-forming, nothing--not a so-called life, not a so-called career as a starving musician--seems to develop fast enough.
Such is the way 23-year-old Chris Purdy approximates the experiences of his band Girl, which has only now begun to move out of its awkward developmental stages. Decked in a ratty brown T-shirt, jeans, and a cap turned backwards, the guitarist and singer slacks outside Last Beat Records on Elm Street with Girl's other 23-year-old guitarist, Jared Young. With his well-groomed looks and calm demeanor, Young is straight man to the excitable and boisterous Purdy, who seems scruffy in comparison. As Young sneaks a smoke under Last Beat's awning in the afternoon sun, the two look like they're idling away lunch period before heading back to class.
"There are a lot of good people [on the scene]," Purdy says, his voice thick with a drawl. "But it's like high school, you know? To live in Dallas is a lot like high school. It's like there are cliques. And the thing about cliques, they're all to the extreme. And that's the thing about this band, [but] the only thing we're extreme about is our music. We're not extreme about, like, who we're going to hang with or who we're going to smoke pot with."
Yet the Arlington-based Girl still struggles, like a 15-year-old transferred to a new school halfway through the semester, to find its own niche in the musical community; these four young men, playing their unrefined and unadorned brand of pop, are just trying to be heard above the clamor of louder voices, and they are finding it difficult.
As the few songs on two unreleased demo tapes attest, the fledgling quartet--which also includes bassist Chris Purdue and drummer Quincy Holloway--sports a vaguely familiar but stand-alone sound. It's one propped up by pretty but rudimentary guitar work, delicate hooks and sturdy melodies; Girl's are deceptively downcast pop tunes, so much light streaming through so many dark notes and words. If their life does indeed resemble high school, Girl would be the loner clad in black sitting in the back of the class, too timid to raise his hand but only because he knows all the answers.
Although Purdy and Young had kicked around the concept of Girl for a couple of years, the group has only become a serious pursuit within the past four months. The two men conceived of the band when they worked together at the now-defunct Mad Hatter's in Fort Worth. They were joined by a common appreciation for records their friends scorned; almost begrudgingly, Purdy reveals his and Young's admiration for Pale by Toad the Wet Sprocket, an album "everybody seemed to be making fun of us for having," he shrugs.
"Chris showed me some songs he was working on," Young explains. "He asked me if I could help out, and I did, but I just thought the songs were so good that I wanted to stick with it. I could really tell, really see the progression of the songs. It has turned into something I really like."
The songs Young speaks of are ones Purdy had stockpiled since he was the drummer for Slowpoke, which he quit more than a year ago. After spending seven years behind the drum kit--including two and a half in Slowpoke, during which time he played on the band's 1993 Grass Records debut Mad Chen--Purdy claims he "achieved whatever it is I wanted to achieve drum-wise." He says his stint in Slowpoke gave him the confidence to pursue songwriting and to work on his singing and guitar playing.
"I just wanted to be in a band where it wasn't just one guy running the show or anything," Purdy says. "I wanted to become a songwriter. I just wanted to be in a band where the emphasis wasn't our attitude or the way we looked or how much feedback we used. I just wanted to be in a band where the only thing that was important was the four of us playing songs that were really good."
The band set out to record two sets of demos earlier this year, both of which hint at an amazing band hiding underneath lo-fi and low-budget production. They're sweet, sincere, sad, bare-bones affairs that recall the haunting British sound of Stephen Merritt's 6ths and Alex Chilton's somber take on pop; they're chilling and compelling at once, capable of dragging you down and lifting you up at the same time.
Both tapes begin with the unforgettable "I Think It Just Stopped," the anthem of the outcast: "Maybe I'm like no one," Purdy sings, "This is what it sounds like when others die." Though the lyric comes out a bit stilted, Purdy choking on those last three words, his flat and folksy vocals evoke a clear emotion about an unsatisfied life; they keep the song in check, keep it from descending into melodrama, make it more tangible and evocative.
The quiet "Making a Funnel Out of an Observer," a ballad in which the acoustic lead guitar is underlined by some hauntingly beautiful reverb, is a stark contrast to the catchy "Stopped." Purdy sings he's "getting out of control," stretching out the words until he sounds like he means it. But it's on songs like "Fiesta" where the band, and Purdy's reserved songwriting, shine.
Stripped down and without drums, "Fiesta" (with its great and nonsensical couplet "This isn't a masquerade/This isn't a masturbate") chimes and strums and drifts along almost aimlessly until it reaches a sudden and surprising end. Purdy's voice almost cracks as he sings "Don't want to ask, 'Is that all?'"--vague desperation filling the song's every empty space.
Purdy cites such pre-punk alternatives as Big Star and the Velvet Underground as bands that inform his songwriting, hinting at Girl's dense and broodingly open sound. Purdy figures Girl's untrendy ways have slowed the band's progress towards gaining attention because they are less a product of now and more of a nod toward then, not so accessible for audiences craving catchy upbeat pop songs.
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"With that [second] tape--and this is probably something that hurt us--I tried to put songs on there that were real diverse," Purdy says. "Those last two songs ['Making a Funnel' and 'Fiesta']...without drums on them, are probably the best songs we recorded."
The tapes have received some interest from local indies like Last Beat and Direct Hit, as well as Memphis' Ardent Records, which is owned by Big Star drummer Jody Stephens and is the home for Dallas' Spot. Though Girl is eager to cut a seven-inch with a label or to release a do-it-yourself cassette, for now the quartet is focusing on practicing and honing its live act. It's only recently that Girl has been playing in front of crowds, opening for other bands at places like the Engine Room in Fort Worth and Denton's Kharma Cafe.
And, again, the band is finding it is not easy to be accepted. Purdy recalls opening for the tongue-in-pierced-cheek punk band Ethyl Merman at the Major Theatre recently, describing how the hardcore audience expressed its dislike for Girl's brand of pop by throwing things.
"And I egged them on," Purdy says. "I just yelled at them and gave them the finger. It's like whatever has happened and wherever we go, even whenever we practice, something just happens, you know? We've only played six, seven times. And every time, we can tell some hilarious story of what happened. It kind of feels sometimes like it's us against the world.