By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
Independent labels aren't the cozy, accessible harbors of artistic freedom they used to be. Call most of these onetime upstarts and you'll find yourself playing tag with a chain of receptionists, press agents and tour managers every bit as convoluted as those found at Atlantic or Columbia.
But Simple Machines, the company co-founded in 1989 by Kristin Thomson, guitarist for the pop/punk band Tsunami, remains an exception. The person most likely to answer the phone at Simple Machines' Arlington, Virginia, headquarters is Thomson herself.
Thomson claims to be pleased that she and her partner, Tsunami guitarist/vocalist Jenny Toomey, are so intimately involved in the operation. "We still have a lot of control over everything we do," she says. "There's only Jenny and myself and four other people. They're mostly our friends and volunteers who come in and help out once in a while."
Tsunami drummer John Pamer likes the manageable size and scope of Simple Machines. "That's pretty much where we came from, you know? Doing it for yourself. Although the bigger we get, the harder it is to keep complete control over everything we do and the way we're represented. Any more, it's more about controlling our image than anything else,"
That may not be as easy as it seems. Tsunami's vibrant, back-to-basics sound and grassroots approach to making and marketing music have been spotlighted in more than a few major music publications in recent months, including the College Music Journal, Alternative Press and Rolling Stone. The group's profile also rose thanks to several dates on last year's Lollapalooza tour, during which they shared the second stage with acts such as Rocket From the Crypt, Free Kitten and Sebadoh. For Pamer, who is accustomed to booking tours around his college schedule, playing for the throngs at Lollapalooza was a little unnerving at first. "It was quite a learning experience," he recalls, laughing. "It definitely gave us the opportunity to see the dark underbelly of the beast that is the record industry."
For the members of Tsunami, however, being embraced by the Lollapalooza crowd isn't their primary goal. In fact, the band is known among residents of the Washington, D.C., area almost as much for its sociopolitical ideals as for its music. An example: Fortune Cookie Prize, a tribute to Beat Happening released on Simple Machines, was a benefit for a local project called Sasha Bruce Youthwork. The combo's proactive reputation earned it an invitation to perform at Colorado College's Winter Symposium, scheduled to take place January 18-21. Only later was it discovered that Thomson was a former Denverite and Colorado College alum. "It was really funny," Thomson remembers. "When the committee asked us to participate, they chose us because of the particular arrangement of our band [the theme of the symposium is `Sexuality and Gender']. They didn't even know that I went to Colorado College and that I was part of the band. The music director at the radio station was the one who finally made the connection. He called me up one day and said, `Hey! You're in Tsunami, aren't you?'"
Thomson's association with the band began shortly after she received her sociology degree. Upon relocating to Washington, D.C., she met Toomey and Pamer, who, like her, were committed to affecting social change. "At the time, John and Jenny lived in this house called `Positive Force,' which was sort of like this center for political activity," she notes. "I moved into the house when John moved out.
"Then we met [bassist] Andrew [Webster] on a tour the following summer," she continues. "He was sort of in between bands and in between states, so we convinced him to come to D.C. and play bass with us."
Its lineup in place, Tsunami released a five-song seven-inch called Headringer on Simple Machines in 1991. That was followed by a handful of singles on the Homestead, C/Z and Sub Pop imprints and 1993's Deep End, the band's first full-length release. A mixture of new songs and the band's early material, End featured gritty, punk-rock energy and airy, intelligent guitar pop that won praise from underground-music enthusiasts. It was also a hit with misguided journalists, who mistakenly referred to the act's efforts as "shimmery," "fresh-scrubbed" and "cute." For the most part, Thomson believes, these erroneous descriptions stemmed from the company Tsunami was keeping at the time: Unrest and Velocity Girl were among the outfits with which they shared bills. "There was a long period of time when we toured and made records with this group of bands that were at about the same level as we were," she says. "And they still are. But I don't think the songs were poppy in the empty, superficial sense. On the contrary, I think Jenny's lyrics can be very biting when you listen to them closely."
Appropriately, last year's The Heart's Tremelo spotlights a more serious side of the group. Filled with scattershot lyrics, gutsy guitar changes and melancholy, off-kilter harmonies, Tremelo is anything but bubbly. Numbers like "Quietnova," "Kidding on the Square" and "Fits and Starts" careen along at a deliberate pace that has more in common with Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation than it does with anything by the Bangles. All in all, the ten cuts on the disc represent some of Tsunami's moodiest music to date.