Chill out

Jan 25, 2006 at 12:00 am

Ten Words For Snow don't see themselves as hip, and don't really care if they aren't perceived as such. "None of us look like 'rock' people," drummer Dave Melkonian says, relaxing in the basement practice space and recording studio of his polite Madison Heights ranch.

He's implying that the world might not need another suited and pretty combo more concerned with groupie action than they are with making music. And Ten Words are the first to admit that they aren't pretty. (Excluding keyboardist-vocalist Shannan Hibbard, who's away in Grand Rapids.)

Bassist Kraig Sagan and guitarist-vocalist Justin Berger sit near Melkonian. The three of them are the picture of casual, without a white belt or spiked-up do in sight. Dressed down and easily chatty, Ten Words For Snow's Y-chromosomal contingent could be a collection of brothers-in-law, or members of your pub quiz team. They're so unassuming, in fact, that by the time Berger breaks out an impromptu — and impressive — rendition of that .38 Special-ish Rock Financial jingle, you've almost forgotten he's the band's frontman.

Melkonian's basement scans as the typical practice space-band HQ — it's like a rock club exploded inside a rec room. Piles of amplifiers are turned inward in a semicircle, surrounding a Spartan drum kit. A dilapidated couch slumps in one corner, and handbills promoting old Unsane, Melvins and Zappa shows are tacked onto a nearby wall. Microphone stands sprout from a deep pile carpet remnant, and Hibbard's keyboard is at rest in the center of it all. As we speak, Melkonian straps on Sagan's unplugged bass guitar, and absentmindedly peels off a few Metallica riffs. His choice of shred is no surprise.

The core of Ten Words met in the mid-1990s through the local metal and hardcore scenes, crossing paths in a series of loud or otherwise testosterone-juiced outfits with names like 7000 Dying Rats (a "joke-noise" band that famously opened for Dio in 1997) and Bog Blast, a Sabbath-y side project of Sagan's. They began Ten Words in 2001 in the tradition of stuff they loved: anxious and insular bands like Shellac and Fugazi. Berger, the principal songwriter, wrote restless anthems to melancholy, and the trio was content. But they were getting older too, and maybe mellowing a tick.

"In metal, you're always trying to saw the audience's head off," Sagan says. But as Ten Words grew into its sound, "there was an attempt to go candy-ass," for lack of a better phrase, "because we hadn't been there before. We thought, let's write songs that, you know, we'd actually listen to in our spare time." There was nothing wrong with the old sad-angry-sad-chorus mentality. But there are hundreds of bands with ratty T-shirts and chips on shoulders doing that every day, and Berger admits it was getting tedious.

Ten Words had been searching for an additional keyboardist-vocalist for a while, and when Hibbard was introduced through mutual friends in 2003, she was the gel they needed. Berger began writing with her input in mind, both vocally and instrumentally, and Ten Words For Snow's sound evolved into something with definite pop texture. "No longer just fucking with emotions," Berger says, "but concentrating on actual melodies."

On D-Na, which was released last November, harmonies bristle over skeletal guitar chords, and the rhythms punch along under the hiss and whiz of Hibbard's keyboard lines — '90s indie rock angst still finds its way into the often obtuse lyrics. But Hibbard's touch lightens everything, and additional studio effects here and there define the songs' brittle edges.

It was an interesting transition from angry, male and melancholy to coed and less self-involved. Sagan describes how he had to get used to the "cringe-point," the place where the newer songs converged on craft and melody. And yet, Ten Words knew it was that very cringe-point they'd been searching for before Hibbard joined the band. On D-Na you can hear the grind and hardcore background, in a bassline's thrum or a particularly aggressive drum fill. But as a quartet, Ten Words' sound is fuller and more singular, tilting more often toward hooks and driving energy than generic self-loathing. And there's nothing cringeworthy about it.

Ten Words will embark on a mini-tour at the end of January, hitting New York City and Cleveland before returning to play Detroit in early February. (They'll provide some Super Bowl counterprogramming on Super Sunday.)

"We're not lifers," Sagan says matter-of-factly. "But we're going to tour as much as our families will allow. As long as it's fun we're going to keep on doing it." After all, he and Berger are married with children, and everyone has day jobs they actually enjoy. (Sagan builds custom amps at Guytron, Berger's a full-time dad, Melkonian's a Web designer and Hibbard is a music teacher.) They see Ten Words as their outlet, a way to keep the loudness and volatility of their youth alive. No one can be in a hardcore band forever — "angry young man" is a cliché for a reason — but day jobs and life lessons don't have to kill creativity.

Ten Words have an EP planned for this spring, and material is already being written for a full-length follow-up to D-Na. It's a comfortable process. "Nobody's trying to be a member of Rush here, or some kind of showoff," Sagan says, laughing. "Whatever works for the song is what we do."

And the aesthetic does work, as Ten Words' sound is an unpredictable mixture of ragged and sweet. D-Na tracks like "Sexy Grunge Story" or "Brittle Girl" wouldn't be out of place in a set on CBC Radio 3, nestled between the New Pornographers and Constantines. It's accessible and interesting; most of all, it's unpretentious. Besides, "It's too much work to look hip," Melkonian says, referencing again the quartet's get-up-and-play approach. "We pooh-pooh gimmickry." Damn the judgment of hipsterdom.


Sunday, Feb. 5, at the Double Olive, 15128 Mack Ave., Gross Pointe; 313-823-8892.

Johnny Loftus is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]