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Filling the Cup

Number One Cup's Seth Cohen has plenty to be grateful for this new year. Last September, the singer/guitarist/keyboardist was splayed out in the middle of an ice rink in Danbury, Connecticut, wondering if he would ever perform--or, for that matter, walk--again. "Frankly, I'm lucky to be alive," he says. "I was playing hockey with my brother and some friends back home when I tripped over another player's stick and flew headfirst into the boards and broke my third and fourth vertebrae. The doctors told me that most people who break those vertebrae die instantly."

Fortunately, Cohen was the exception to this rule, and not only is he up and moving today, but he's touring the country with his bandmates (guitarist Patrick O'Connell, drummer/singer Michael Lenzi and bassist Kurt Volk, who recently replaced former Cup John Przyborowski). The experience definitely left its mark on him, though.

"After it happened, I was completely paralyzed for around fifteen minutes," he notes. "And while I was lying there on the ice waiting for the paramedics, a whole ton of thoughts were going through my head. And one of them definitely was, if I can't produce anything else in the rest of my life, am I happy with everything that I've accomplished so far? If my epitaph is more or less being written right now, will it be a good one or a bad one? Well, I felt pretty happy about things, but I didn't feel like I was finished. There's still stuff to do, so I'm very thankful that I get a chance to do it."

Such solemn reflections sound a bit strange coming from Cohen, who just a few short years ago successfully rhymed "Lincoln, Nebraska" with "Juneau, Alaska" in the slyly absurdist college-pop staple "Divebomb." Until recently, in fact, "serious" was the last word anyone would have used to describe the musician's hyperactive, hyper-creative Chicago-based quartet. The band's first two long-players, Possum Trot Plan and Wrecked by Lions, feature "Malcolm's X-Ray Picnic," "Autumn Lover," the ever-so-humble "Three Miles From Talent" and other lo-fi plums that fall somewhere between the cut-and-paste indie genius of Pavement and the goofy Midwestern psychedelia of the Flaming Lips. But People People Why Are We Fighting?, the Cup's new LP on Flydaddy Records, finds Cohen and his fellow players using a much more introspective sonic palette. Although still rife with habit-forming hooks and near-perfect melodies, the record's twelve cuts owe more to formal art-school classics like Wire's Chairs Missing, the Cure's Boys Don't Cry and even Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon than, say, the Lips' Hit to Death in the Future Head. Likewise, Cup's subject matter has grown significantly more profound. The foursome's previous odes to apple cider, patch kits and pool parties have given way to weightier testaments about life, work and relationships.

The new approach can't be traced to Cohen's injury: People had already been completed prior to the time he stepped onto the Connecticut ice. So what inspired the switch? "Conflict," Cohen says. "Lately, everyone in the band has been dealing with some sort of conflict in their lives. Conflict with the music industry. The conflict we deal with in our daily lives. Like the choice to be in this band instead of living the kind of life a lot of our friends are living. Getting married, having kids and making money--that sort of thing. All of that stuff seemed to be buzzing around in all our heads, and all the songs we were writing just seemed to be in that mode. Plus, we felt like we really wanted to bear down and not be so cavalier about things with this record. When we first started out, we loved Guided by Voices and bands like that who just tossed stuff out left and right--and we wanted to toss stuff out, too. But with this record, we really wanted to take our time and craft something great. We wanted to put a little more effort into it and make a more well-put-together piece of work."

Consider the experiment a success. Whereas Cohen and crew once approached their songwriting duties with all the subtle grace of a pack of Benihana chefs, trimming out a meaty chorus here and flipping a jangly guitar lead there, they now give their tunes a far more disciplined tone. Cohen attributes the band's newfound solidity in part to the four's decision to produce People themselves rather than calling in outsiders such as the Pulsars' Dave Trumfio and Liz Phair associate Brad Wood, who handled Possum and Lions, respectively. "We were actually going to do this record with Brad Wood again," Cohen says. "But he was working on the Smashing Pumpkins record, and he couldn't get out of the commitment. But that actually worked out for the best for us. When you work with someone like Brad, who has a big reputation and who we really admire and respect, you tend to give their suggestions more weight, even though they seem counter-intuitive. You end up compromising your own opinions, which isn't always the best thing. I mean, that person hasn't lived with the song for six months like you have, and they don't have an overall picture of the band. They just aren't as invested in the whole thing as you are. I think we made those compromises on Lions, and in the long run, I don't think we should have, because they didn't come from inside the band. We did this one on our own, and personally, I think it's our best-sounding record."

It's more musically adventurous as well. Not only are the compositions more cohesive, but they're complex and distinctive in a way that sometimes suggests a kinship with intellectual post-rock acts like Tortoise, Trans Am and Heroic Doses, all of which are also based in Chicago. But Cohen quickly blows off comparisons to these primarily instrumental acts.

"If anything, we think of ourselves as an anti-Tortoise band," he says. "We don't have anything personal against them. We've known Doug [McCombs] and Casey [Rice] for a long time, and Jim [McEntire] produced our first single. They're great guys and good friend of ours. But I don't understand all the hoopla surrounding that kind of music. Personally, I think that sort of music is a copout. It's kind of like those people back in high school who were too cool to talk to you, you know? They don't want to be verbal, because being verbal is like going out on a limb. Trying to say something puts you at risk, because it may end up sounding stupid. So in that way, I think that instrumental rock music--and I think you have to call Tortoise instrumental rock music, for lack of anything else--is just kind of dead. I like some jazz and some classical music, but for me, rock music just isn't the same without vocals. So we're trying to be a real emotive band--something really verbal. We're trying to put ourselves out on that limb and maybe make a mistake and fall off. But we'd much rather take that chance instead of being that cool guy in the corner trying to come off as the strong, silent type.

"We've discovered that we have a little more to say than we thought we did in the beginning," Cohen adds. "And my accident has really reinforced my feeling that in life, you want to do something that means something to somebody. A pop song can be meaningful just in the feeling you get from it, but you can go deeper than that. And the things that have happened in the last year or two make me all the more determined that what I do in the future is going to be great. Because what happened in September could happen again anytime. You never know when your bus is going to come."

Number One Cup, with Acrobat Down. 9 p.m. Thursday, January 14, 15th Street Tavern, 623 15th Street, $5, 303-572-0822.