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At first the sensation of interviewing Everything Absent or Distorted (a love story) — known among themselves as Eaod (pronounced ee-odd) — is akin to wrestling an octopus. All eight members are constantly in motion, making jokes, talking over each other, spinning off into side conversations. Even when five or six of them are moving in the same direction, you wonder what the other two or three are doing. Once the initial confusion wears off, the experience becomes more like sitting down to dinner with a big, friendly, rambunctious family or a particularly intelligent and amiable group of frat brothers.
The group got its start through a series of Craigslist ads, the lineup growing with each additional ad. There was never any grand plan to assemble a big-band collective, just a desire to find like-minded musicians to play with for fun. "The family tree of Eaod [has] sort of twisted, knotted roots," states member Bryce Merrill. "At no time did we say, 'We really need this kind of person or this type of musician who plays this instrument.' We just sort of came together under completely non-musical circumstances."
Joining Merrill are Joe Grobelny, John Kuker, Andy Maher, Jody Pilmer, Robert Rutherford, Ryan Stubbs and Trevor Trumble. They're an accomplished crew, holding day jobs such as lawyer, biologist, acupuncturist and librarian. Inside the band, all eight members are multi-instrumentalists who switch around from song to song as the mood strikes them. The standard rock elements of guitar, bass and drums are joined by banjo, accordion, horns, keyboards and whatever else anyone takes a fancy to on any given day. The sound they conjure up is as big, sprawling and multi-faceted as the group itself.
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Everything Absent's debut album, The Soft Civil War, contained a batch of smart, exuberant tunes that covered bases as diverse as Arcade Fire-like chamber pop and ragged, punky garage. The band's new disc, The Great Collapse, sharpens the focus, trading the willful eclecticism of its predecessor for a more cohesive approach that plays on both the considerable musical strengths of the players and their collective life experiences.
"It's a pretty large progression. I think the themes are a little more visceral in the music and how it makes you feel emotionally," Stubbs muses. "Since we've known each other — it's been four years now — it's become a representation. The record we made is definitely a representation of our relationships in the band, of our relationship as a band."
Indeed, during the two years between the last album and this one, various members got married, changed jobs, changed relationships, had children, lost parents and suffered the kind of slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that are generously regarded as "character-building." All of that is present, one way or another, in the new recordings.
"The record became this sort of organic, almost field recording of our lives," says Kuker. "Some of the lyrics and songs were written beforehand, but they ended up dovetailing with all these real-world events. Our deal has always kind of been writing about — lyrically and musically, too — writing songs and making art that's about the joy and the pain and the hope and the fear and the struggles and all that, the shit of our daily lives."
Getting all of that on record was made possible by a robust songwriting process, one that requires not just the input of the entire band, but something approaching a full consensus. "We really sort of use Eaod as a verb, like, 'This song got Eaoded.' It never becomes an Eaod song until it goes through the wringer of all of us.... We take a lot of pride in our music being representative of all of us," Merrill says.
"When you bring an idea, you have to have thick skin. The other people have to be courageous enough to test those ideas," Pilmer adds. "You have to be prepared for whatever happens in that process. And at the end of the day, we all have to be very proud and comfortable with whatever it's developed into or it's not going to make it."
Design by committee is usually a recipe for disaster — or at least mediocrity — but somehow it works here, a testament to both the tight bonds within the band and the maturity of its members. Still, it doesn't always go smoothly.
"If you don't fight, you're full of shit, because you don't love the people you're with," Maher declares. "What I've found is that if you're with lackluster people, you just walk away, leave them there. You don't put the effort in to rectify the situation.
"We'll get into it over a number of different things, and I think that's a part of being honest," he continues. "That's why I like this group. We can get into it and argue about stuff and get pissed and freak out as long as we're all willing to come back to the table."
It helps that the guys hang out together like a family. "I had a birthday party the other night, and I spent 90 percent of the time pounding beers and talking to Robert and Ryan," Pilmer says. "And my mom was in town, and I had all these other friends I probably should have paid more attention to. We were bandmembers first, then friends second, but at this point we're friends first and bandmembers second."