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It happens once every couple of years. You wake up in the middle of the night and can't get back to sleep. Your memory's stuck in shuffle mode, so you roll out of bed and start digging around in the closet for some musty knickknack or photo album. Then suddenly, amid a torrent of Christmas cards and canceled stamps, you come across your box of old love letters. The handwriting on them looks kind of alien at first, like the fossilized tracks of some long-extinct life form, but soon it all starts flooding back: the whirl of cursive, the fingers that pushed the pen, the arms and shoulders and faces behind them. You wince; it stings. But it's more than just the recidivist guilt of heartbreak or the phantom-limb twinge of someone who's no longer there, more than just Hello Kitty stationery and heart-dotted i's. It's the fact that someone -- whose voice and kiss you can now barely recall -- once committed such words to you on paper, in naked black and white. They told you they loved you, and they meant it.
The Love Letter Band meant it, too. Beginning in 1998, this group of Grand Junction natives wrote and played songs that weren't diary entries so much as they were desperate confessions -- of hope, of shame, of joy, of pain, and yes, of love. Revolving around the loose nucleus of singer/guitarist Chris Adolf, multi-instrumentalist Marisa Wood and drummer Trevor Adams, the ramshackle collective ranged in size from a full seven members to just Adolf playing solo. Keyboards, cellos, tape loops, banjos and marimbas were layered over battered acoustic guitars with a delicate haphazardness. At the core stood Adolf's voice, thin and piercing as a sliver. Now, after years of cobwebbing the country playing warehouses and living rooms and hooking into a network of like-minded pop fans, Adolf and Wood have moved to Denver and rechristened the band Bad Weather California. But even as they try to reroute their past into a new lineup with new ideas and approaches to their music, history hovers ever overhead.
"Growing up in Grand Junction was fun," says Adolf, mumbling around a mouthful of grapes. Although it's more customary to bring a six-pack to an interview, it's Sunday, and Denver's liquor laws have never been friendly to musicians. Compared to 3.2 beer, a ripe bunch of green grapes seems downright bacchanalian. "Sorry," he continues in mid-chew. "I'm going to eat all your grapes. I'll buy you more."
As for the virtues of Grand Junction, Wood concurs with Adolf. "Yeah, you can do whatever you want there," she says from across a pile of neglected Russian homework. "That is, if whatever you want happens to include meth and four-wheeling."
Grand Junction's notoriety as a methamphetamine hotbed certainly hasn't rubbed off on the members of Bad Weather California. Adolf and Wood are as laid-back as a Western Slope summer, and their homey apartment simmers in warm earth tones and late-August perspiration. Books, LPs and old recording equipment are stacked immaculately, like LEGOs, all around. "As a little kid," remembers Adolf, "it was all about building forts and riding bikes and raising hell."
Like most kids, the two were sucked into the world of radio rock at an early age, taping songs and listening to their parents' Beatles and Bob Dylan records. Wood's initiation into modern music occurred when her older brother got into hip-hop in the late '80s. "I think my first CD purchase was Public Enemy," she says. "That was my introduction to dangerous music, anything that I felt would embarrass my mom.
"I really liked Flavor Flav. He was so silly," she adds with a laugh. "I recently received one of those things in the mail that you fill out when you're in sixth grade -- what your favorite color is, who your hero is -- you know, like a time capsule kind of thing that they send back to you after you've grown up. Flavor Flav was my answer for everything."
Adolf, on the other hand, was conscripted straight into the unholy legions of heavy metal. "My older cousins were into metal," he explains. "I thought it was so cool. I didn't really know the difference between punk and metal then, but later on I started to like the punk bands more. They were the bands that you could actually go see.
"But when I got to high school, I started hanging out with this group of girls that were like stereotypes of characters out of '80s movies," he continues. "They had dark hair and Cure T-shirts and veils over their eyes and stuff like that. They took me under their wing. That's how I got turned on to the Cure and Pavement and the Pixies."
At this point, Wood makes a face. "Those girls used to torment me," she says sourly.
Wood and Adolf met in middle school and began attending the sporadic punk shows that would spring up in Grand Junction. Besides occasional concerts at Mesa State College, bands would sometimes play ad hoc, generator-powered parties in the middle of the desert. And although he was surrounded by local bands and musicians, it took Adolf a while to discover his own musical calling.
"I had been playing guitar since I was twelve, but I didn't think I could just be in a band," he says. "But when I was fifteen, my friend's brother started a band; that's when I realized I could do it, too. I thought, 'He's not like a rock star or anything. He's just Robbie's brother.'"
After a string of failed experiments -- including "a shitty, Southern California-style punk band" and "a lot of bands that wanted to sound like Sonic Youth" -- Adolf moved to San Diego to attend college. Upon dropping out and returning to Colorado a couple of years later, he reunited with Wood and enlisted Trevor Adams on drums to form the first incarnation of the Love Letter Band. But rather than thrashing or assaulting, the group tried a new approach: tenderness. With all the puddle-eyed innocence of Jonathan Richman, Adolf's voice splashed and rippled around bashed acoustic chords. But, like Beat Happening's Calvin Johnson, he cast a long shadow across all the sunshine; chock-full of lust and anguish, his songs were more open-hearted than a triple bypass. And although the band often swelled into a sonically formidable septet, the skeleton crew of Wood, Adolf and Adams wound up being the spine.
"It's so hard in a small town to find people to play with," says Adolf. "It's a big deal just to find one other person with the same musical taste as you. It took me a while to talk Trevor into playing with me; I think he finally came to practice just to get me to quit bugging him."
"The Love Letter Band was my first experience playing with other people," chips in Wood, whose quirky array of instruments -- including air organ, toy piano, melodica and glockenspiel, which she sometimes plays by drawing a violin bow across the edge of the bars -- added texture, depth and an aura of surreal beauty to the group's music. "I took piano lessons when I was a kid and played in high school band, but that was it."
The trio began recording and touring almost immediately, including a stint with Boyracer, the legendary Philadelphia-by-way-of-England indie-rock outfit led by Stewart Anderson. Anderson also began releasing the Love Letter Band's music on his own 555 Records imprint. It's on these albums -- Ugly Town Pretty Girl and last year's Even the Pretty Girls Take Medicine -- that the combo's pop majesty fully blossomed. With all the grit and warmth of a shoe full of sand at the beach, Medicinebears a spiritual kinship to the static-speckled brilliance of Neutral Milk Hotel and the Microphones. On the record's opening track, "I Threw My Trembling Fists in the Air," drums and guitar flail about headlessly, as Adolf's tonsils almost burst with the words: "I sent a message to your house/No one was home, the lights were out/I threw the radio away/I thrust these trembling fists into the sky." Later, on "Ghost Song," he whispers, "I thought, what a beautiful ghost you would make/I got scared, scared, scared to the bone/You move like a ghost, and I shudder" while xylophones ping and robots hiccup in the background.
Regardless of the teeming arrangements of their recorded work, Adolf and Wood continue to perform as a pared-down duo. And now, since they've changed the name to Bad Weather California ("It doesn't sound as twee," says Adolf) and relocated to Denver to finish college, it looks like their two-piece setup is permanent -- a situation that neither of them bemoans.
"It's a lot easier," says Adolf. "You don't have to deal with other people's schedules and all that. See that green box over there?" He motions toward a corner of the hardwood-floored living room. "Everything we need for a tour fits right in there."
"It's also kind of a departure from the things you get disgusted with in the music scene," elaborates Wood. "It just seems more real and soulful, without that guise of feedback guitars and all that self-consciousness that sometimes takes away from the actual sentiment."
"Especially in indie rock, there's so much pretentiousness," Adolf adds. "But if you're just a couple of regular people up there playing songs, everyone can see you mess up. They can see that you missed a chord or fucked up a chorus."
Live, Bad Weather California is dauntingly vulnerable. With Adolf perched unsteadily at the edge of his chair and Wood kneeling in front of her arsenal of instrumental exotica, the atmosphere climbs from hush to shrill as the tunes build up, peak and then collapse in wheezing heaps of spent emotion. This isn't to say they're not fun, too; besides brimming with aching melancholia, their songs gush a vicious joy. Sometimes Adolf even puts down his guitar and plays the saw, coaxing from it a creepy backwoods mewl. Even more harrowing, however, are the sing-alongs; crowd participation can be pretty awkward in the cooler-than-thou climate of an indie-rock show, but Adolf's infectious enthusiasm induces even the most bashful kids to get in on the hootenanny.
"That's a selfish thing," Wood rationalizes. "We feel so self-conscious up there. Two people have to fill up so much space. Chris and I had this metal band for like two weeks, and when we played a show I didn't feel scared at all. There was this wall of noise separating me from people's responses. There's not a lot to hide behind when you just have a toy piano and a twangy guitar."
Adolf agrees: "When we're on tour, it's tough, 'cause we're such shy people. It's better to get the crowd singing along; that way, they're basically playing with you."
"Or maybe they're just singing along out of pity," adds Wood with a laugh.
Adolf, though, sees an even deeper idea behind the lifting of a collective voice. "We really like the whole tradition of folk music, the idea that music is for the people," he says. "The people meaning everybody, not just music lovers."
"It's like getting back to the roots of folk music, when people just sat around and sang songs instead of playing in a sold-out auditorium," says Wood.
"A lot of times you go to an indie-rock show, and it's packed, but no one's really there to see a show. They're there to be seen, instead. I'd rather play in a closet with four people who are into it," expounds Adolf. "I like the idea of playing music everyone can get -- not just indie rockers, but office workers and schoolteachers and football players. That's the whole idea of pop music. I mean, I love noisy and harsh and experimental music -- stuff that's really pushing the envelope -- but maybe another envelope to push is playing shows that your aunt and uncle would go to."
Envelopes. They're like the skins of letters: Peel them back and you'll find raw flesh, bare nerves and beating hearts. For the couple formerly known as the Love Letter Band, there is no higher purpose than sending yourself halfway across the country to open up and spill your guts out to the crowd.
"We don't want to pay rent. We want to be bums," declares Wood.
"Yeah, Jack Kerouac style," says Adolf. "We just love driving around and playing songs for people."