Strung out on rock

Oct 26, 2005 at 12:00 am

Maybe it should be on the controlled substances list. Certainly as many lives have been frittered away in its pursuit as hard drugs. How many of our country’s best minds have been lost to the quixotic allure of style, racket and performance?

“It’s such a critical age when you’re 15 or 16, and so much is opening up for you. I was just a young kid until I heard the Cure and Jesus & Mary Chain, and it totally changed me and what I wanted to do,” Calla guitarist Aurelio Valle says. “I really identified with it, and I really latched onto it, like, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”

Rock ’n’ roll catches them at their most vulnerable point — green, rebellious and impressionable. Already daunted by their first experience with square jobs, they run in the opposite direction toward the codified irresponsibility of the road, instead of getting a degree in something useful like history or Latin.

Unfortunately, what begins as a fun adventure with time becomes, well, a job, an often joyless endeavor. No longer satisfied with simply finishing songs and performing for your pals, the stresses and pressures of mounting expectations wash away the initial thrills. This is what very nearly broke up Calla.

“It was very disillusioning to start realizing how it works,” Valle says. “It was a lot easier getting started. Eventually you get to a point where there’s a bunch of people feeding you a bunch of bullshit and latching onto you like leeches. You don’t know who to trust, and you don’t know who’s lying to you. It makes you think twice about why you’re doing it. You realize — this is more trouble than it’s actually worth.” He pauses. Then he says, “Sometimes.”

Calla’s seed was planted in the late ’80s when Valle and bassist Peter Gannon were in high school. After the pair moved to Denton, Texas, for college, they met Wayne Horowitz and formed the Factory Press. Inspired by British darkwave and noise rock, their atmospheric din wasn’t particularly well-received.

“There was nothing going on,” drummer Wayne Magruder says.

Valle: “It was the heart of the grunge era, like ’92-’94. We were playing pretty much the same stuff as the bands that inspired us, really dark stuff and we stuck out like a sore thumb. It was like, where do we go? It was quite obvious that we were going to go to New York. So we showed up and realized there weren’t that many people in New York doing what we were doing either.”

They lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. “The shit hit the fan with that eventually. But we managed to stay together,” Valle says.

But not for too long.

They recorded an album with producers Kid Congo Powers and Matt Verta-Ray in 1995, but by the time it came out in 1998, Factory Press had already broken up, and Gannon had moved back to Texas to finish school. Magruder and Valle invited their friend Sean Donovan to come to New York, and together they formed Calla.

Their self-titled debut is full of so much slow-burn ambience and sound track fodder it sounds like a heavily sedated Giant Sand covering the Velvets’ “European Son.” It caught the ear of former Swans frontman Michael Gira, who signed them to his label, Young God, for whom they recorded Scavengers. Perhaps their best, the record builds on hypnotic atmospherics and bristly, simmering guitar lines whose understated aggression contrasts the music’s lazy insistence.

The band then moved on to arena rock for the third album, Televise, which continued to build on the band’s burgeoning songcraft. Unfortunately, it often feels like a transitional album; caught between slow-mo buzz and softly hued melodics, it’s like Yo La Tengo in a lava lamp. And despite a growing audience, management troubles gave the band massive headaches.

Magruder sums the situation up flatly: “If they had a different vision for us, they should have told us what that vision was.”

“It got a little frustrating and started to affect us personally,” Valle says. “That’s a big reason why Sean [Donovan] left. We knew we would continue in some form or another — but as far as Calla existing as a band, or maybe a completely different project, was up in the air.”

Without a label, and with “new” bassist Gannon — who’d rejoined his former Factory Press buds on tour as a second guitarist after Televise’s release — the band headed back into the studio on their own dime, still unsure.

“Because of all the support we were getting from our friends and people in the industry, we realized that we should continue as Calla and at least make this record,” Valle says. Whether it would be the last or a new beginning we didn’t know.”

The resulting disc, Collisions, completes the transformation Televise only hinted at, bringing a renewed zeal for songwriting, and dispatching (with Donovan’s absence) the spiky hum than inhabited the corners of their songs. Extraordinarily concise by Calla standards, the songs are just that, songs, with a beginning and end, not just an interesting if too-often borderless middle.

Was it that the band wanted to write “proper” songs?

“It was more of a challenge for us,” Magruder says. “Making these spacious songs was so easy, we could do that forever. I’m sure it would be OK, some people would love it, but for us it got kind of old. It’s a lot harder to make real concise songs, and it really makes you think about why you’re putting a part in or why you’re using a sample and what function does it serve within a song, and if it’s not serving a function then get it out.”

Still tense, but no longer hiding behind ambient glow, Valle’s expanding songwriting chops drew a lot of interest when the band shopped the album to labels in January. Many of the bigger indies weighed in, but it was — appropriately — Beggars Banquet that showed the most interest, and eventually signed them.

“We grew up listening to a lot of those bands on labels like Rough Trade, Beggars Banquet and 4AD, so we were listening to bands that were basically spawned and nurtured by those labels,” Valle says. “It’s nice to actually find a home there and be given a chance. What’s funny was when we were the Factory Press we had gotten some songs into Beggar’s hands and they turned us down; they said we were too dark.”

That’s not the only thing that’s come full circle — the band is basically Factory Press, including Valle’s high school bandmate, Gannon, whose presence during the recording of the new album proved inspirational.

“We had originally started the Factory Press, the three of us, and the chemistry was there,” Valle says. “It was like we were reminded why we were doing this in the first place.”


Tuesday, Nov. 1, at the Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700; with Celebration.

Chris Parker is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]