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John Schmersal is one week out of the studio, on the road again with his newish project, Enon; this time, the mostly Brooklyn-based foursome is touring with friends, the Toadies, Texan arbiters of amplified goodness who are on a well-funded mission to reclaim some of the commercial success they nabbed with the million-selling album Rubberneck in 1997. It's a pretty big tour, definitely a big deal. The crowds will be larger, no doubt, than those that normally show up to see just what Schmersal -- the former Brainiac guitarist/sampler savant/noise chemist -- is up to these days.
Tonight, Enon is opening the first show of the tour, in Tempe, Arizona -- in a venue with a neon theme, a mandala-embossed dance floor and plenty of TVs for sports watching; the space reflects a decor that's equal parts frat-boy bedroom and Guido chic. It's not the kind of place one expects to find a fellow of Schmersal's sensibilities. Arty interiors like the Knitting Factory in his adopted New York City home seem more like it, as do the warehouse-type places he frequented with his band during the mid-'90s, when Brainiac and its peers in bands such as Girls Against Boys, Hum, Versus and Polvo reigned supreme in the indie-rock underworld.
If the kids who come ready to soak up the Toadies' decidedly macho stage show don't initially know what to do with this angular act, no one can really blame them. Enon, which came together last year after Schmersal expanded a solo project to include Skeleton Key drummer Steve Calhoon and percussionist Rick Lee, isn't an easy one to get a handle on. Believo!, the band's first record released on SeeThru Broadcasting, the inspired new label manned by producer Dave Sardy, abounds in subtle samples, warped, warbly guitars and understated, cryptic lyrics; its very essence lies in its unwillingness to commit to any one sound. In a live setting, Schmersal has been known to kill the downtime between songs by performing small bits of spontaneous theater, or dancing like a robot, or creating impromptu sound collage with one of his keyboard contraptions -- devices he creates by soldering together parts of two or three different machines. This kind of thing can seem a little odd compared to the conventional instrumentation -- drums here, guitar there, check, check -- that is one of rock and roll's great comforts.
Schmersal doesn't see what all of the confusion is about.
"I'm crazy, and I'm a terrible critic of myself and other people," he says. "But I refuse to believe that I don't have some sort of grasp of what pop is -- what 'popular' or accessible music is. But you read the reviews or talk to the people, and they're like, 'Oh, that is so weird.' So I guess it is.
"I remember growing up in the '70s and the '80s and being drawn to all the music that was crazy and arty and still really popular -- like the Talking Heads. I mean, 'Psycho Killer?' That song is really crazy, it's fucked up, but it was a radio hit. I guess my frame of reference is wrong, because I think even oddball stuff can be widely enjoyed."
Enon's music will probably never be enjoyed in the broad, Britney/Backstreet kind of way -- thank goodness -- but it may soon be reaching a wider audience, thanks in part to tours like the current one and the band's just-completed studio album, tentatively slated for release on SeeThru in the fall. With High Society, Schmersal has made a straightforward rock-and-roll record -- and he's not the least bit afraid to admit it. After a year that saw lots of touring and some serious lineup changes (Calhoon exited, a move that was countered by the entrance of former Blonde Redhead/Lapse bassist Toko Yasuda and Matt Schultz, drummer for Ohio's Let's Crash), Enon has settled into life as a semi-traditional combo. For the moment, anyway.
"There were a lot of rock songs on Believo! that just got left off for one reason or another," Schmersal says. "The new record is way more straightforward than the craziness of our first one. It's a lot more of a streamlined sound. We're actually really functioning as a band, as a unit. And after we all went into the studio together and played and toured together, we wound up writing a bunch of rock songs."
When Enon entered the studio this time around, Schmersal says, it was armed with a model of what not to do: Believo!, as fascinating a listen as it is, has the consistency of cornbread batter: It's a patchwork collection that can be frustrating for its lack of general cohesion. This time, Schmersal shared more of his songwriting/frontman duties with his bandmates -- Yasuda wrote and sings a couple of tunes, for example -- and assumed a more studious mindset.
"When we recorded Believo!, the band was really new," he says. "We'd done one ten-date tour, and then we went into the studio. A lot of the songs weren't really thought out; we were really kind of precious about the way we approached everything -- the sounds came from a gazillion different places. This time we talked things out in advance. We wanted something that at least sounded like it had been recorded in the same room."