To the Rescue

Though still somber, Windsor for the Derby moves toward pop and away from convention.

Our everyday experiences have more influence on our music than anything else does," says Dan Matz, singer and guitarist of Windsor for the Derby, a group whose members split their time between upstate New York and Austin, Texas. "All sorts of everyday things inspire me. I could write a song about the tollbooth clerk I dealt with today or the way the lines are painted on the highway."

Sounds like someone's been cooped up in a tour van a little too long. Windsor for the Derby is trekking across the continent in support of a new record, a new label and a new approach to its music. After three full-length albums, the band -- currently composed of Matz, guitarist/vocalist Jason McNeely, guitarist Charles Eyo-Ita and drummer Karl Bauer -- has switched its focus from soft, hazy ambience to a sharper, more vibrant kind of songcraft.

"We've always been called an instrumental band, but about half of our songs are vocal. You just have to listen more closely on those older albums," explains Matz. He does not exaggerate. On earlier Windsor recordings, one must strain to hear the human voice gasping in a sea of celestial emptiness. "On the new record, we were trying to be more up front in every way. Having the vocals turned up and the songs more direct is kind of a conceptual experiment for us.

Keeping calm Hades: Windsor for the Derby's Jason McNeely and Dan Matz.
Keeping calm Hades: Windsor for the Derby's Jason McNeely and Dan Matz.

"Vocals for us are rarely about the words," he continues. "It's like another instrument, another melody in the song. Nico's solo albums are a big influence on us in that regard, though to be honest, I hardly even listen to music anymore. I used to have a pretty big record collection, but I got rid of it. I've just found I'd rather play music than listen to it."

Still, like any band, Windsor for the Derby can never fully disown the lineage of its influences. While the title of the band's new album, The Emotional Rescue LP, might be taken as some odd tribute to the Rolling Stones, its sound could not be further from the preening, prancing exhibitionism of rock's elder(ly) statesmen. Cold, reserved, measured and precise, the songs on Emotional Rescuenonetheless tremble with a raw vulnerability. Windsor for the Derby has clearly absorbed inspiration from the more atmospheric side of late-'70s British post-punk: Wire's 154, Crispy Ambulance's Plateau Phase and Joy Division's Closer.

"Certainly, we grew up on those records. There's been a big resurgence of that music over the last couple years, but we've always been into that stuff," Matz says. "Another huge influence on us has been early U2. Most people will dismiss those records for the obvious reasons, but they had a major impact on what we do." With a close listen to the skeletal ethereality of U2's Boy or October, the albums' influence on Emotional Rescue becomes more than apparent.

"The Gallo record is also a favorite in the van right now," Matz says, referring to When, an album of creepy, spacey folk pop released last year by filmmaker/notorious crank Vincent Gallo. "I'm trying to ignore his asinine Ashcroft-esque politics and just enjoy his music. We can be record geeks at times, so our influences are coming from lots of different directions."

Windsor for the Derby's fence-straddling between the fields of pure pop and total abstraction confounds most critics. It's sometimes labeled "slowcore," other times "post-rock," but neither is a classification that Matz seems particularly keen on adopting. "Those are just categories that mean nothing to the bands that are subjected to them," he says. "There's no great alliance between these bands. I mean, Bedhead are pals of ours and Low is my favorite band in America right now, but it's not like we get together and talk about post-rock music or whatever. It is odd, though, how we can get lumped in with Low and Tortoise at the same time. I think we're definitely leaning toward the pop side of the line these days. We'll probably never pull out a straight-up pop song, but the elements are there."

Emotional Rescue's "Awkwardness," though, is pretty much the epitome of a "straight-up pop song." Almost like a long-lost outtake from New Order's Power, Corruption & Lies, the song breezes along with clumsy disco beats and chiming, densely entwined guitars. Synthesizers soar behind wobbly spoken/sung vocals. Above this cheery clatter, the voice strains to hit the right notes, to be heard, to make its sadness drown out the happy rhythm as Matz sings such lines as: "Life is reduced/To illusions and failure/I wish that you could be/So much closer to me." Exhausted and defeated, it mumbles mantras like "We can't overcome this loss" before being sucked into a maelstrom of swirling melody.

Pop hooks are also firmly embedded in Emotional Rescue's first track, "The Same." Upholding Windsor's penchant for the poetry in the everyday, Matz adorns a few shy chords with this breathlessly weary observation: "A cedar like a church/And wind ripping through the pines/A long and winding drive/Down the skyline drive/It's the same, it's the same/As when I hear you call my name." Later, when he sings of "quiet times with your friends," the hiss of his final "s" melts into the sizzle of a far-off tambourine. Fingers slide across acoustic strings, whispery as the trees.

So what kind of musical environment would foster such pensive sensitivity?

"I grew up in Tampa, which is the death-metal capital of the world," Matz says, referencing the city that spawned such satanic heavy-hitters as Deicide, Death and Morbid Angel. "I played in various death-metal bands when I was a kid. That scene got a little weird, though, and I quit hanging out with the Deicide/Death crew. People just started going a bit too far with their ideas."

Apparently stopping just short of ritualistic human sacrifice, Matz instead fell in with the only slightly tamer indie-rock crowd. After moving to Austin, he hooked up with Windsor's other core member, McNeely. "Jason was playing music with a friend of mine from Tampa in Austin. I went and listened to them one night and just started playing along. It immediately worked. We stayed up for three nights straight and just wrote songs," Matz says.

The newly christened Windsor for the Derby began playing live in 1994. "Our first few shows are some of the most memorable, at least to me," Matz says. "We initially refused to play in club venues, and we'd play in the strangest places. I don't think anyone in Austin had been doing what we were doing. It was a real rock-and-roll time in Austin. I think the other musicians in town thought we were pretentious twits, but they eventually came around."

One such Austin musician who came around was King Coffey of psyche-punk legends the Butthole Surfers. He released Windsor's first two albums, Calm Hades Float and Minnie Greutzfeldt, as well as a recent singles collection called Earnest Powers, on his Trance Syndicate imprint. The high-profile patronage continued when the Swans' Michael Gira not only put out Windsor's third album, Difference and Repetition, on his Young God label, but took them on the road as the opening act for the Swans' final tour in 1998.

Besides being close friends and contemporaries of Sonic Youth, the Swans are known for their dour, almost ghoulish demeanor. "We did end up playing to a lot of goth folks during that Swans tour, but we definitely made a connection," says Matz. "We ourselves have some roots in that kind of music, so I think it worked."

(Does that mean Matz was one of those goth kids back in high school? "Goth? I'm not sure," he replies. "There was definitely some eyeliner involved.")

After the Swans tour, Matz relocated first to Brooklyn, then to a small town called Boston in upstate New York. With McNeely still in Austin, Windsor for the Derby became a long-distance collaboration. "I think it works for us. Jason and I have known one another for a long time, so when we get together, we're pretty prolific. We know how to play with each other and can adjust to one another pretty easily," Matz says. "It's kind of redefined what Windsor does, but I like what the distance does to the music."

With such a remote-control arrangement, the band has resorted to a kind of revolving-door lineup. "There have been too many players in Windsor to list," Matz says. (Perhaps he recalls employing such indie-rock luminaries as Adam Wiltzie of Stars of the Lid, Wayne Magruder of Bowery Electric and John Weiss of Rodan?) "We're constantly changing, because we want to treat the project as a collective. We like to get our friends involved."

Now signed to the up-and-coming label Aesthetics, home to equally somber outfits such as L'Altra and Hood, Windsor for the Derby is once again on the road and, once again, playing some decidedly out-of-the-way places. Avoiding the new major-in-miniature workings of the independent music scene, the band is booking its own tour without the leverage of agents or contracts.

"We just feel like we're at a level where we can do this on our own without paying someone to book our shows, Matz says. "We have a hard time dealing with the business side of being in a band. It's amazing how so many small indies now are operating on a major-label level. It's bad for the bands in most cases. All of the money is spent within the industry, on agents and promoters, with nothing going to the bands.

"In this country," he adds, "the only people who can afford to make music, or any art, are the wealthy."

Surrounded on all sides by indie-rock royalty, death-metal cannibals and wannabe industry high-rollers, Windsor for the Derby prefers to keep the rock prosaic.

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