Is it possible for a group to be a supergroup if very few people have heard of either the alleged supergroup or any of the other groups whose reputations make the new group so super? Jeff Mueller, singer and guitarist for the bruising, riveting combo called June of 44, doesn't know, but he's certain of one thing: The suggestion that he's part of a supergroup is definitely good for a laugh.
"Maybe they say things like that because of our image," he teases from a pay phone at a Bismarck, North Dakota, truck stop that's midway between gigs on the act's current tour. "Doug [Scharin, June's drummer] wears a cape when he plays these days--it's really, really fancy--and a low-cut V-neck shirt. And I play in just a thong. They call me Nipple Man: I have both my nipples pierced and I sleep around, and I don't even use a regular microphone. I use one of those Janet Jackson-style headset microphones and we just kind of let it rip. So I guess that must be what the journalists are referring to when they talk about this supergroup stuff. Not our history--our stage presence."
In a more serious mode, Mueller says, "A person who's like, 'Wow, I like your music, and I don't care what you've done before'--that's much more inviting than someone who thinks we're a supergroup. Even if it's supposed to be satirical or somewhat tongue-in-cheek, it still kind of defeats the purpose of what we're trying to do. It makes you feel corny when you read something about yourself that's so far away from what you perceive yourself to be." He adds, "The kind of person who would say that doesn't really have any idea about what we're trying to do."
In that case, most of those who've been raving about June of 44's two recordings--1995's Engine Takes to the Water and this year's Tropics and Meridians, both issued on the Quarterstick/Touch and Go imprint--are utterly clueless. Nary a positive review goes by without the scribe in question gushing over the pedigrees of Mueller, who once led the late, lamented unit known as Rodan; Scharin, a veteran of a similarly compelling collective, Codeine; bassist/ trumpeter Fred Erskine, who once operated in the critically lauded band Hoover; and guitarist/vocalist Sean Meadows, who splits his time between June of 44 and the Sonora Pine. Never mind that the names of none of these bands has ever passed Casey Kasem's lips; to outside-the-mainstream rockers, they're sacred. Hence the supergroup tag, which Mueller says was placed on the quartet shortly after its 1994 founding.
"Before we even had a record out, we'd go to clubs and there'd be a sign up that would say 'Quarterstick Supergroup June of 44,'" he recounts. "And I'd be like, 'What is that? What does that mean?' To me, it's a pretty ridiculous way to describe us--an easy conclusion."
It's understandable why commentators have opted for the simpler hook: You'd dig up Jimmy Hoffa before you could unearth June of 44's roots. Mueller first came to a small percentage of the public's attention as part of the music scene in Louisville, Kentucky, a town that, against all odds, has spawned a number of combos (like Rodan and the also-defunct Slint) interested in pushing against the constraints of bass-drums-guitars music. These acts, which switched members and monikers like swingers swap spouses, were linked by their interest in juxtaposing gentle, textural sequences with slamming, thunderous chunks of noise that moved at a Sabbathy tempo yet otherwise resisted categorization. Rusty, Rodan's sole full-length (released in 1994), exemplifies this approach. "The Everlasting World of Bodies," which clocks in at just under twelve minutes, moves from mood to mood with a stately grace that belies its oddly structured feel. The energy and intensity exhibited throughout the track knit together its disparate sections, keeping a listener passionately involved until the last note is struck.
Rusty was such a promising debut that indie-rock boosters anticipated even greater accomplishments in the future; however, Mueller and co-leader Jason Noble decided to go their separate ways shortly after the recording hit stores. Noble went on to found a new band, Rachel's, while Mueller put together June of 44, whose Engine Takes to the Water picked up where Rodan left off. The first cut, "Have a Safe Trip, Dear," takes over eight minutes to move from hushed contemplation to feverish ecstasy (it's a journey well worth taking); "I Get My Kicks for You" maintains a delicate balance between murmured vocals and gradually building feedback; and "June Miller" and "Take It With a Grain of Salt" are cathartic without being cliched. Predictably, some listeners insisted upon shoving these extremely varied songs into a single pigeonhole--in this case, punk rock. Mueller is frankly puzzled by this state of affairs. "I don't think we sound like punk at all in terms of mainstream music," he says. "We don't qualify--we're not there, and we don't want to be there. Our main intent is not to fall into staleness. We want to try to keep things as awake as we can. We're constantly trying to adjust our old ideas in accordance to new ones, as opposed to sounding a certain way because we feel like we have to stick to a certain sound or a certain rhythm."
These words are borne out by Tropics and Meridians. The sounds on the disc are not radically different from those heard on Engine, but they feel fresh and vital. Tracks like "Anisette," "Lusitania" and "June Leaf" exude spontaneity; throughout them, the four accomplished players continually challenge one another to go beyond the boundaries of their creativity. It's a surprise to learn, then, that the concluding cut, "The Trees That They Once Lived In," was the only one recorded completely off the cuff.
"Our first record--we rehearsed and recorded it in two and a half weeks," Mueller says. "We went from not knowing what each of us was going to play to having it all down in that period of time. It was a very abbreviated work period, and I think that shows; it's much more eclectic than Tropics and Meridians. But on the Tropics record, we had a month just to practice. That was our goal--to have as much time as we could to really think about things and put them where we wanted them to go.
"We're terribly frugal people--both our records were recorded for around $2,000. But even though we were thinking about the money all the time, we tried not to stress too much and to just enjoy ourselves. That's where the 'Trees' song came from. We just said, 'Let's forget about how much everything costs and just jam for twenty minutes and see what comes out.' And we found something we'd been looking for all along."
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Jamming, of course, can result in flaccid noodling as often as it does the excitement of discovery. The reasons that June of 44 has remained on the more interesting side of this fence thus far, Mueller feels, have everything to do with the way in which the musicians have grown together. "Over the course of the two years since we put the band together, we've actually been together for about five months," he points out. "So we haven't spent enough time to thoroughly diagnose how we play. But every time we are playing, things make a lot more sense and we have a stronger recognition of the way we sound. And when we do rehearse, we're beginning to realize what our sound is. Or maybe I should say that our sound is starting to be realized. Whichever."
It's doubtful that this achievement will catapult June of 44 to financial nirvana: Genealogy aside, the group's idiosyncratic nature likely will prevent it from becoming the Traveling Wilburys of the Nineties. Then again, Mueller occasionally exhibits a populist streak. Seconds after delivering an art-for-art's-sake address, he says about his music, "More than anything else, I think it's just about kids trying to entertain other kids." He laughs. "And that's why we're a supergroup."
June of 44, with Rex. 8 p.m. Monday, November 18, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $5.25, 443-3399 or 830-