“Don’t call it a comeback,” LL Cool J once tersely asserted, and I don’t want to, because See Me River’s last full-length, The One That Got Awake, was actually pretty good. But though its story songs were nuanced and compelling, it just wasn’t as delectably dense and urgent as their previous Time Machine (leader Kerry Zettel’s first post-Das Llamas SMR release). In full disclosure, I admit doing the bio for that album, which I grew to enjoy even more deeply than when I hyped it for press. Like The Black Angels’ Passover, its morbid humor and troubled rhythms sank into my veins through neighbor-slaying repeated playing.
Zettel is releasing Where Did We Go Wrong, their third album on his Aviation label, a fact which is both awesome and disappointing. Disappointing because it is so addictive that I was actually really hoping some sharp, buzz-hungry label would have picked it up before he had to issue it on his own imprint. Awesome because it’s velvety delicious with fur-lined melodies, bourbon-resonant in belly warming musicianship, and far freaking left afield in song topics. One heart-stopping track about living in a cage of booze placed penultimately before a soaring, shuddering ode to an author turned terrorist is just an example of how this beauty and terror all… ends. Imagine it from the beginning.
Below is a Q&A I’ve done with Zettel about Where Did We Go Wrong, which is available now from many fine platter palaces of purchase all over the Pacific NW.
Who’s in See Me River now, Kerry? How has the band changed for the album, and is it reflective of how you’re playing shows now?
The current line up is myself, Joe Arnone (guitar), Ken Javery (keyboards, vocals, wind instruments), Andy King, Evan Lesure and Cory Alfano. Evan is the primary bass player but is only available for about half the shows so that ‘s where Cory steps in.
We haven’t had time to work on new stuff as a whole band at the moment. We’ve been too busy trying to get our footing with a new drummer and bass player. But I will say that after repeatedly playing the new songs, in order to teach the new guys, has made us “back of the hand” tight.
There’s a lot of different instrumental energy going on, compared to the two previous LPs. You seem to be building different rhythms and flourishes into your previous, somewhat minimalist folk-based sound. How did this come about?
As text-book as this may sound, I write music as I feel it. There’s not a specific sound or genre I set out to mimic. If I’m having a bad week I tend to write darker music. If I’ve been listening to movie soundtracks all week I may unintentionally (wink) rip off a hook. Both physically and mentally we’re a different group of people then we we’re when I started this band and naturally that’s gonna affect the music.
I noticed that Seattle studio veteran and These Arms Are Snakes drummer Chris Common plays on it too, as well as mixed and mastered the recording! How did this creative situation come about — why were you interested in working with him? (Any favorite previous bands/albums recorded of his in particular?)
Beyond Chris being a good friend with everyone in the band, we’d worked with him on the two albums prior to Where Did We Go Wrong. He’s also played with us a couple of times live so it seemed like a no-brainer that he’d record this record. Anytime you hear a triangle, shaker or crazy tape loop on the record there’s an 90% chance it’s Chris. Not to mention that he has a lot of input on the actual sounds of the instruments and vocals so it’s only fair to include him as a band member on the liner notes. Chris has since moved to Portugal and most likely won’t be recording the next record. I’m sure we’ll hear a sway in production and egg shakers.
How do you feel about the sound of Where Did We Go Wrong in comparison to what you’ve done before? (Note: I feel this awesome wave of Scott Walker-meets-Nick Cave-but-more-American breath and width to it, very cinematic and “Western” sounding, with rolling and exploding Latino moods and tango touches.)
Unless your referring to Wisconsin’s current governor I think you hit the nail on the head.
I feel WDWGW is our best album to date. I think we we’re really able to thumb through an index of cultural influences on the tracks of this record while still creating a cohesive album.
Can you give me a bit of a discography? And how was your previous release, “One That Got Awake,” received? Do you think people who see you regularly will be flexible with the brave new territory you’re heading out on the third album? Has there been responses to this material live yet?
This is actually our fifth release (four full lengths and en EP) and all of them we’re different in their own accord. I think that the folks that have come to love SMR have grown to accept and expect that from us. I feel with every release we’ve gotten consistently better as a live band as I already see us doing with this release. I will say we have definitely alienated ourselves from the early days of a seated two piece and ventured deep into the world of rock and roll.
What were the differences in writing between these LPs? Anything that influenced you topically in general?
Subject matter is always a big part of the songwriting for me. The big one for me lyrically on this album was obviously girl trouble. I was also really intrigued by the life story of Yukio Mishima, having only known him as an author up until last year. After being introduced to the movie Mishima, a Life in Four Chapters I was floored and inspired to write a song about the guy.
Where Did We Go Wrong contains two swelling “side closers” that SMR goes balls-out bolero and blues-epic in the studio on. The six minute “You’re Not Too Young” sounds like a grizzled love going-and-growing up wrong narrative; and as you mentioned, “Mishima No More,” about the death of author-bodybuilder-mad and gay patriot Yukio Mishima. Also, I’m uncomfortable to mention it, but “You’re Not Too Young” hits pretty hard to just be fiction. How much of your personal life is in this song (for example)?
“You’re Not Too Young” is hands down the most honest song I’ve ever written about any one single person. Most often when I’m writing about personal matters the song will seem to be about something else all together. This song was my equivalent of holding my girlfriend, looking deep and longingly into her slate blue eyes and shaking the [expletive] out of her. Clearly, we’ve since gone our separate ways.
There are two brittle love songs here that lead the sequence — the ambivalent but dependent “Won’t You Stay,” and the bold lamentation of the title track. Would you describe yourself as a romantic, in terms of your world view? There always seems to be a diminished idealism with many of your song’s characters, as if they cared and lived too deeply and are Stoically accepting a sort of non-grace.
It’s akin to the ideology that people are quick to point out when you’ve done something wrong but will rarely notice when you’re doing something right. I’m certain Mishima has been applauded for his astonishing works and I’ve spent more than most of my life doing just fine or better, but nobody wants to hear about that. People love a good tragedy.
There are two excellent covers on Where Did We Go Wrong — an old blues song, right? How did you discover that? And why tackle it? (Anyone’s version in particular inspire it?) I love the riff and swagger.
People have been borrowing from early blues and country since before recordings began. That’s how oral history works. You tell or sing a story and then someone else picks it up and passes it down the road. Johnny Cash adopted old country songs, Eric Burdon reinterpreted old blues songs and there’s an African-American narrative that Nick Cave just came shy of plagiarizing (from Stackolee “Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me” ). Don’t get me wrong, I think all three of these men are brilliant song writers. I’m just saying if the people I admire did it, why can’t I? I didn’t see the harm in putting my version on record. I know I’m not the first to cover the song but my inspiration to do so came from Alan Lomax’s “Negro Prion & Blues.” That version has more soul and sorrow than any other version I’ve heard.
As for the Violent Femmes’ “Out The Window”? Why that one? (At first I found that you covered the Violent Femmes to be an odd choice for you and SMR — then I thought about how to describe both your band and Gordon Gano’s: Minimalist groove, but a lot of energy and even aggression on choruses, much space for bass, and viscerally political and mystical subject matter. Yet you don’t sound anything alike! Do you think you fall into a style that’s sort of close to theirs, though?)
I’ve been a long-time fan of the Violent Femmes. Not just for their music, but the idea that a honky-tonk band could pop it’s shiny head out the butt-hole of grunge rock angst and thrive in it. Not to mention that I’m a sucker for a good storyteller and Gordon Gano’s sure got that hole pegged.
What are the touring/playing out plans for Where Did We Go Wrong?
We have a handful of local shows coming up in the next few months but we won’t be doing any touring until later this year.