Space cowboys

Jan 31, 2001 at 12:00 am

Quietly, a woman and a man climb up onto a stage and situate themselves on two chairs, he behind a guitar, she behind a guitar and a keyboard. After some quick tuning and clearing of throats, they begin, quietly. The majority of the talking-smoking-drinking crowd doesn’t even notice. Rusty-eared, been-there bar patrons continue their conversations, order another round, laugh and make plans for the following night — the last one of 2000. The owner-sound engineer darts frantically between the boards and each corner of the room, his desperate eyes pleading for more volume. Robert McCreedy (Volebeats) and Aliccia Berg (Slumber Party) are oblivious, half smiling, eyes half-closed, immersed in the serene sounds falling from their fingertips and lips — kind of a Nico-meets-Neko sound, only sleepier and gently masculine. The perceptive few in the front row waft to some indescribable location, one they could only arrive at on that night, in that venue, with those scents, those noises.

Thirteen days later, it’s the same bar, similar crowd, different performers, same haunting meditation. As American Mars massages the ears of a post-holiday malaise, the crowd takes a similar, foggy trip to an unknown location, one of memories, longing, remorse, reason. The music sounds just like the band’s name suggests — deeply rooted in an “Americana” sound, but with an outer-space ambience, like a technology that evokes nostalgia, spooky, twangy noises from old recordings or sci-fi Westerns, a fascination with space travel and yet a contentment with staying home.

“A natural ease can’t be planned and constructed or achieved with practice,” Berg says, when describing what it’s like playing with McCreedy, a musician who’s known for his uncanny air of relaxation during performances. ‘When I’m playing with Robert I do dissolve into a dream.”

Possibly the most alternative form of travel takes place within your own state of mind when ushered along by music that blurs boundaries. One might say the music of Robert and Aliccia or American Mars could only occur in the Midwest, a bubbling hybrid cauldron: halfway North, halfway South, halfway West, halfway East. It’s a region with rich history in sonic experimentation, electronic exploration and space-rock transcendence. It’s also a region within hearing range of Chicago’s rediscovery of traditional country music. And we can’t forget our city’s love affair with the rock-post-rock enigma. All of these elements, which might seem so separate in time and space, when joined together with a hint of uncertainty, have shaped these artists and other bands in the area such as Blanche and Ghost World, which are leading an intriguing new venture in Detroit’s sonic landscape.

On the other hand, you could argue that geography means nothing when it comes to music in our modern global existence. Maybe that explains a traditionally Southern sound experiencing rebirth in the Northern Windy City?

But whatever the explanation, no one can deny Michigan’s cabin-fever artistry poking out in between snow mounds, slush, abandoned cars on the side of the freeway, steaming downtown grates or sprawling suburbia.

Getting out on the road sometimes is the only cure for that cabin fever, and to many musicians in the area, it’s also a means of survival, bringing new fans in and guiding music lovers to new frontiers or just simply, an escape. It also means smelly vans, inconsistency, and in Berg’s case, “no action for a month.”

Growing up in the Midwest “probably coats my neurons like sediment settled on the Mississippi bottom,” Berg emphasizes. “For me, the Midwest is a cold brown hayfield in the back 40. But it’s likely that more influential on my nature — more so than climate and topography — are the folks that accompany the geography. And I can’t really explain what they are like. However, although I’m not in any position to know that I wouldn’t have the same creative leanings if I’d been raised by rich, hip adoptive parents in Manhattan, I suspect that would have made some difference.”

Thomas Trimble, vocalist and guitarist for American Mars, is a fan of bands that create a sense of place with music, such as Joy Division with Manchester or Velvet Underground with New York.

“I’ve tried on occasion to create the same kind of geography in my songs, but I think it’s hard for someone who hasn’t seen much of the world to do that well,” he says. “Being on tour was important for me in that I got a chance to see a lot of places across the country that I’d never seen before. And I think some of those places, or impressions of those places, do pop up in some of the songs on the new record. I found the road very inspiring, but in many ways that’s really no place at all, you know that ‘Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere,’ thing. Sometimes I find that sense of placelessness to be even more inspiring than an actual location.

“The American Mars thing was initially about a sense of dislocation I felt whenever I stepped out into the world. In many ways, it is about geography. It’s about taking a drive out on I-94 or I-96 and seeing these huge gigantic subdivisions with these enormous 3,000 square-foot homes carved right out of the earth. It’s too expensive for the developers to work around the trees so they just cut them all down. And then around the subdivisions, they grow these little downtowns with restaurants and cellular phone shacks that get loaded off the back of flatbed trucks. ‘Authentic’ Mexican cantinas and Cajun crab huts. Invasion of the Body Snatchers stuff. That’s where the Mars stuff comes from.

“As far as the music is concerned, there was never any overt attempt to stylize our sound so that it could be connected with a particular genre or scene. I think that’s part of our problem, business-wise. People hear we’re some kind of Americana act, and then I think they’re kind of confused when all the post-rock stuff rears its head. I think the biggest part of the band’s sound right now is Dave Feeny’s pedal steel work. He plays that instrument like no one I’ve ever heard.”

Trimble has three tips for fellow travelers and they all involve food.

“One, you can skimp on breakfast and lunch, but a nice dinner is an absolute must. Two, instant oatmeal in a Styrofoam cup is an excellent way to start the day. Most gas stations and Slurpee stops will let you have the hot water and cup for free if you slip in that you’re in a band. Three, never be afraid to ask locals where to eat. Guessing is a sure recipe for disaster and if you have doubts about the locals, look at their shoes.”

Berg imagines she will play with McCreedy again, but the Volebeats guitarist is planning to move to Nashville, and no shows are scheduled at this point. The two area performances came out of Berg’s pleading to hear some recently recorded material of McCreedy’s live. So he recruited her to play with him. His new record is scheduled for release on Safe House this spring. American Mars is hard at work finishing up its new record No City Fun, which should also be out sometime this spring. Now all we have to do is make it through the winter. In the meantime, we have memories — and those who were thinking, microcassettes.

Melissa Giannini writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected]