The pathos of ethos

Jun 12, 2002 at 12:00 am

With his engaging gap-toothed grin, curly red hair and ruddy cheeks, ethos front man Christian Burke does not look like a rock star. Just as well, as he’s never claimed to be one.

The founder and central driving force of ethos is much like his band: subtle, hyperintelligent and sensitive almost to a fault at times. Ethos is a band that ain’t afraid to wear its heart on its sleeve; the same goes for Burke.

Over rounds of Newcastle at the Garden Bowl at 3 in the afternoon, Burke speaks softly and eloquently about the band he’s fronted for the past decade. Although the group’s dreamy, blissed-out pop sound often draws comparisons to Britpop and the like, Burke insists the band defies labeling.

“We’re not mopey,” he emphasizes with a smile. “The whole Britpop thing comes up a lot. I don’t think it’s an honest reaction, but I understand it.”

Burke wrinkles his nose slightly when asked about comparisons to the Smiths. “Yeah, we get painted with that brush a lot,” he says. “But I think a lot of people don’t really get the Smiths. There’s a lot of very subtle humor to them, which I think a lot of people miss — but I’d say we share that same subtle humor.”

The musician doth protest too much. As much as the comparison makes Burke squirm, ethos does truly tip its hat to Morrissey’s school of the melodic and morose.

Much along the lines of the bitterly funny “Girlfriend in a Coma,” that subtle sense of humor comes into play in ethos’ “Gonna Die.” A sleepy, swirling ode to unrequited love, the song is punctuated by Burke’s falsetto voice, which laments, “I am writing songs for somebody new … someone who’s not you” — followed by an almost comical singsong chorus of “la la la la la la.”

With a cursory listen, it would be easy to brush the song off as a slice of sugary emo schmaltz — but it’s not. Burke’s not afraid to express yearning and heartache considered so characteristically unmasculine — and the end result is haunting.

“‘Gonna Die’ is a lovely song that I never thought people would like,” says Burke. “It’s a false drama. Sometimes just craving the attention of someone unattainable is what living is all about. It’s like the notion that the crush is superior to the actual conquest.”

Ethos is also equally adept at kicking the pace up a notch and churning out hook-riddled pop fare, like “Me & You” — a song where emotional gristle is stirred up with a slide guitar and keyboard-laden riffs, and could easily make Morrissey and Johnny Marr stand up and salute.

The band (Brian Comstock, guitar; Kevin Stripling, bass; Eric Mikich, drums; Tony Dushaj, percussion) has seen a parade of players pass through its ranks in the past decade; Burke is the only original member and the primary songwriter. He remains notably humble about his own musical prowess.

“I’m not really a musician, or at least I don’t see myself as one. The people I play with are pretty fine ones, though.”

In fact, Burke originally wanted to be a writer, but was put off by the cutthroat competitive nature of many writing circles.

“I could only take so many gatherings of ‘like-minds’ poring over each other’s written words, and making loud proclamations about why you’ll never be as good as so-and-so,” he says. “Music seemed like a way to commingle freely without rules.”

Burke ticks off his early musical influences, citing T. Rex, David Bowie, the Buzzcocks and Motown girl groups. When prompted as to what he listens to these days, he answers, “Pretty much the same thing. I don’t buy much of anything new these days. But I did like the Strokes when they first came out, and the Doves.”

The band members share some common interests, but “it’s in there as a big stew,” says Burke. “There’s a love of soul, ’50s pop, ’60s psychedelia, ’70s glam, ’80’s garage punk, and ’90s college radio — do people say that anymore?”

Between swigs of Newcastle, Burke explains that he’d like to see “a return to traditional songwriting.” He says one of the most prominent characteristics of ethos is the ever-present theme of melody.

“People call us a melodic band, and say it sometimes as if this is a slur. Stupid,” he says. “I never understand groups that go far out of their way to make their music unlistenable. I really wasn’t made for these times. I believe if you write a good song, melody is the most important ingredient. You should be able to distort it and shred it to tatters, but at the heart there should still be this tune you can whistle.”

Sensitivity is another recurrent theme in ethos, which Burke plainly states in “Your Touch,” as he sweetly croons “I reveal what I feel, and therefore there is nothing to say.” It’s enough honest, raw and heartfelt emotion to make any knuckle-dragging man’s man sneer in disgust and spew forth derogatory comments about “pussy rock.”

It’s no wonder the band doesn’t hold much interest in the testosterone-injected, alpha-male sound of today’s popular music. Burke holds nothing but disdain for the aggressive clamor and underlying current of hatred that courses through the veins of acts like Eminem and Limp Bizkit.

“I just don’t understand the message,” he says. “Angry young men shouting has never been important to me; I have a great appreciation for intellect and wit. You can get loud, but some of the shit that’s passed out as a ‘message’ now is laughable. I’m sure Lennon’s ashes are whipping themselves into a whirling dervish in his urn at the extreme pointlessness of some of this crap. Not to say I don’t appreciate lyrics being sung with power and conviction,” Burke adds quickly. “Nothing takes the Clash and Sex Pistols away from me … but viva Nick Drake.

“I think there’s a sad need to be controversial on the part of too many well-publicized artists. Too many headlines, not enough content to really warrant the tale being told.”

Ethos tells a tale — one that doesn’t simply wallow in dank indie mire, and it is one that takes a least a few listens to grasp.

If you threw them in a barroom brawl with Nickelback, the shitty nü-metal rock band would most likely kick the shit out of ethos. But there’s no question as to who would walk away with the girl at the end of the night.

Ethos plays the Shelter on Friday, June 14, with the Flashing Lights, and the Magic Stick on June 28 with the Icicles.

Sarah Klein is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at [email protected]