Check Your Zed
Despite rock music's errant attempts to broaden itself with the branching -- and stemming, and twigging -- of different variations of sound, its evolution is pretty regressive. Particularly with the hybrid music of today, whereupon hip-hop meets metal, metal greets classical, and classical introduces melancholia to improvisational jazz and roots blues -- everything is somehow labeled "rock." And everything is spun off of art forms already debuted, yet we call it fresh. "Rock and roll" may be generic and heading into the abyss, but it's still an attainable pasture for those not trying to attain it. Mastering it means surrendering to this same abyss, it would seem.
Perhaps that is why Los Angeles, California's Remy Zero is focused on, well, not a damn thing, other than stripping down common egoism and individualism through its five-man committee. In an age where bands are groomed for one-hit stardom -- deservedly or unjustly so -- Remy Zero digs deeper into music-making, avoiding the promotional hoopla and business dealings as best it can. This band prefers poetry to politics, wine to beer, silver to gold, chaos to order and obscurity to meaning. Instead of riding the wave of radio-popular bands of the day, Remy Zero reflects some of the voices of old.
"It's like we are making a documentary," explains vocalist/guitarist Cinjun Tate, whose soft-as-rain vocal range is a silken delicacy, comparable to that of Roger Waters or a smoother-sounding Thom Yorke of Radiohead, yet with a more spectral penetration. "Bringing all influences of life into musical being -- that is the process. It is definitely a stream of consciousness, much like the mind of James Joyce, only the voice is uniform and broken in five." Call them the Ulysses of rock, then, but don't put the book down. Each chapter is more or less duck-duck-goose randomness, a carousel of music imitating life's imitation of art. Understand?
"We are a psychological band, psychedelic even," says bassist Cedric LeMoyne. "Convention does not interest us, nor regulations."
The formula is having no formula, seeking out a more sophisticated structure through disorder: in lyrics, in instrumentation, in actions. The refined outcome is numbing and melodically gentle, a knapsack soundscape projected by an eclectic variation of instruments. Shelby Tate, older brother of Cinjun, is the most manifold player in the rhythm section and writes many of the songs. He plays keyboards, guitar, flute, violin, spoons or any instrument that fits the direction of the song. Cinjun canalizes his voice among the dreary sounds of his acoustic guitar, the drifting triangle of Gregory Slay's ingraining drumbeats, Jeffrey Cain's pushing guitar memos and LeMoyne's mood-steering bass lines. No two songs sound alike, and only the ghostly reverences of Cinjun's voice give away the authoring group.
Empirically, Remy Zero identifies with passing moments, inner feelings, triumph and despair. The band holds a magnifying glass to the spontaneity of the day, as well as that of today, yesterday and tomorrow.
"There is this chapter in Beloved, by Toni Morrison," explains Cinjun Tate, "which is majestic and beautiful. It is the ore under the surface. The rest is coating, or insulation, for this one chapter. It's like watching moments through aquarium glass."
The band's inception can be traced back to Birmingham, where the quintet met and lived together on a large southern estate back in their impressionable teens. It was there that inner workings began to seek outlet and harmony became a division of five, where all members contributed equally, and all assisted in shaping the songs. Each learned to play an instrument, and they began putting together tapes (every member of Remy Zero can play the others' instruments). In time, they started shopping their music to labels, traveling around the United States and Canada trying to gauge their own progress and gain exposure. After living briefly in Montreal, Atlanta, New Orleans and San Francisco, Remy Zero moved to Los Angeles following a deal with Capitol Records in 1996. The agreement with Capitol eventually fell apart, and within a year, the band signed with Geffen/Interscope. Late 1996 saw the release of Twister, which received sporadic praise countrywide. The group toured with Radiohead that year, but for the most part, Remy Zero remained a subterranean alternative rock band, not yet immured in the public psyche. At the same time, however, the players were becoming artists' artists to many noteworthy names such as Adam Duritz of the Counting Crows, Thom Yorke, Billy Corgan and Courtney Love, who all gave them immediate recognition. "It was like black drapes hung in a green room, out of place and beautiful," said Love, referring to the melancholic feel of Twister.
It wasn't until 1998 that the band began to make real headway in the music industry -- a year of deliverance for a group that had done everything short of living on the streets to get its music out. Residing in a hotel-turned-apartment-compound on Vine Boulevard in Hollywood, the band put together one of the more brilliant collections of songs of the year, named after the run-down dwelling in which they were living, Villa Elaine. The ideological theme behind the record was, in contrast to their surroundings, largely nature-based, with references to the seasons -- the cool encumbrance of autumn, the fading feelings brought by the summer sun. Evocative songs such as the tranquil ballad "Life in Rain" and homesick anthem "Wither Vulcan," inspired by a park in Alabama, highlighted a truly memorable sophomore release, while "Hermes Bird" ("So hold to your permanent bliss/In the time that it takes to exist") encapsulated the Remy Zero viewpoint. All eleven songs are enchanting -- effective distortion creates ambient haze, and keyboards trickle off the verse like water. In "Fair," a love song that can't help but elevate strength in a failing relationship, the yearning of Cinjun's voice is lamented by mournful instrumentation, most notably Cain's lachrymose guitar. "Goodbye Little World" is a Wilco-sounding song that is one of Remy Zero's first. In the verse is perhaps the greatest summation of the philosophy behind the band: "In our little house, there's always room for all the friends that help us through these struggling days/And we never want for anything that can't be had from one of them/It's better than money/ We're alive/We get by/This little world is all I need."
"We are into everything -- the passing of moments, art, music, dance...and everything Gnostic. Gnosticism really interests us," asserts Cinjun, who, along with the other members of the band, always takes a given topic into several directions. "Utopia can exist in society."
Does this define success for Remy Zero, in their abstract sense...gunning for utopia?
"We don't feel successful yet," says Slay, when approached on the topic of the future. "It is about growing in here [in the heart] that matters, inside this circle [of the group]. How the outside world sees us is not emphasized within here." This is evidenced in their live show when Cinjun humbly accepts his ovations and reddens with a boyish smile, or when the band goes into the crowd to watch whoever else is on the slate for the night, interacting with fans as fans themselves.
The album did fairly well in the general public, especially when the radio hit "Prophecy" started shooting up the charts. Yet Remy Zero's persona became entrenched in mystique when Cinjun married actress Alyssa Milano on New Year's Day, 1999, and a misguided media soon began to take notice of the band's new "connection," as many wanted to call it. The association neither hurt nor helped the band in the long run, but may have hollowed out the profundity of its verse at the time. Either way, Cinjun was dignified, dedicating himself to silence during and after the marriage (which ended earlier this year).
Before a followup to Villa Elaine could be fathered, Interscope dropped Remy Zero in accordance with the infamous Seagram's record-company buyout. The bandmembers, trying to make the most of the dour situation, used this time to write a new fund of songs and reflect on the topsy-turvy ride they had been on. Also in this period, they released three songs on a Substance Records compilation, titled California, which featured the sentient track "Apology for You," an acoustic ballad that Cinjun made on a four-track for the release, which may or may not have been inspired by his then-recent breakup ("To heal this pain/I'm dying to/Your words are flames/That feels like fire out for me/To see you smile/Was all I ever wanted to see"). They also had a song, "Gramareye," appear on the soundtrack of 1999 horror film Stigmata.
Remy Zero is marching forward with its desultory, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other mentality. The band had just ended a nine-month label-free period when it signed on with Elektra Records in August, and a new album is scheduled to come out early next year. If it is up to the players, there will be no typifying the band's direction of sound, and the "rock" label will be further grayed on the next release. If the previous two albums are any indication, we can anticipate the soul being echoed once more, spliced together with strange instrumental channels, persuading the writing. A current tour with the UK's Travis, who met the members of Remy Zero when Villa Elaine was being mastered in London, is a continuation of the spontaneous unfolding to see where life takes them next.
Maybe the words to "Hollow," from Villa Elaine, represent the subtext to the album still in the works, where inspiration lurks in the shadows: "Define all the ways/That we are hollow/That I am the ghost/And you are song."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.