Ester Drang defies the innate human need to categorize and define everything. Each new direction the enigmatic four-piece has taken breeds a new comparison. To slap a label on the group is to invite an almost rebellious metamorphosis. The challenge is to stay one step ahead of the pundits and overcome the urge to give everything a name. The experience, while wholly compelling for the listener, is a bit more complicated for a young band trying to establish an identity.
"That's the hard thing to figure out, what we really want to do," explains keyboardist/percussionist James McAlister. "It makes it even more convoluted whenever we start reading the press and what the critics think about it."
Ester Drang loosely formed in 1995 in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, a tiny town just east of Tulsa, and released its first record, Goldenwest, on Burnt Toast Vinyl in 2001. Its introspective, expansive tracks caused a quiet sensation among the shoe-gazer set, thanks to the spaced-out instrumentation and mysterious samples peppered throughout the album. Goldenwest is the perfect makeout record: sexy, yearning and deeply intelligent. Then, somewhat inexplicably, Ester Drang (nonsensically named after singer/songwriter Bryce Chambers heard the term sturm und drang in a music class) discarded that blueprint and started from scratch, again, when approaching its second release, Infinite Keys, on the Jade Tree imprint.
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"On Goldenwest, there wasn't really that much thought up front about that record," says McAlister, who also functions as the band's business manager and financial planner. "It's just basically a documentation of the band that we were at that time. Whereas, with the new one, we had enough time on our hands beforehand to go, 'Oh, we don't like this about Goldenwest; we don't like this about our band, so let's do something a little different.'" Articulating the elements of the first record that they were dissatisfied with led to a bit of self-directed creative therapy for the music. "It just kind of started a process of honing in on the kinds of things that we wanted to do and made things a little more intentional. We wanted to make the songs a little shorter, have more organic instruments; those are some of the things that we predetermined to do with Infinite Keys."
Nevertheless, something more insidious manifested during the shaping of Infinite Keys: the dreaded Designer Impostors ("If you like X, you'll love Y" ) fragrance approach to music appreciation. "We kept getting compared to bands we didn't want to be compared to," McAlister explains. "Nothing against them, but bands like Godspeed You Black Emperor! or Sigur Rós, those are bands we don't listen to that much, and we didn't really like the idea of being just one of those type bands. I don't think there's that much similarity there, except for the long songs."
The result of such unforgiving self-criticism and the deconstruction of the outfit's sound is a tightly controlled, more precise, more adult collection; the precision and maturity exhibited here does not make for a better record, necessarily, just different. Where Goldenwest is a surprising, wild, unpredictable teenage boy, Infinite Keys is his older, wiser college-aged cousin.
"It's even worse now that we've started on our next record," McAlister says. "We've figured out even more things we don't like and are trying to change." What, exactly, is the source of this hunger to constantly improve, to fix things that aren't necessarily broken? "Ultimately, it all goes back to trying to write better songs -- whatever that means," McAlister explains. We're still trying to figure that out. We're going to probably make the vocals more of a focal point. We want to make a record that's a little more well-rounded, where we can do things like we did on Goldenwest, big long jams, but also do shorter, regular pop songs."
This constant shifting in search of a solid creative identity also seems to apply to the spiritual identities of the members -- who, in addition to McAlister and Chambers, include Kyle Winner on bass and Jeff Shoop on guitar. Each member is a professed Christian. Yet one thing the members of Ester Drang are quite emphatic about is that they are not a Christian band. However, one glance at a lyric sheet indicates that there is indeed a message in there. "The Christian-music world seems to be all about making really obvious points, sometimes uncreatively attaching faith to things that don't really have anything to do with faith," says McAlister. "Like, a rock song that says the word 'Jesus' ten times during the song -- usually that's not going to be that cool of a song."
"How many normal music lovers really want to hear a song like that?" asks McAlister. "And when you take away the marketing angle, what does it really mean to be a Christian band? It's a nebulous idea."
Shying away from the Christian-music label affords the group some behavioral wiggle room: A recent photo shows a bandmember sitting at a keyboard with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. A casual, unguarded moment such as this, caught on film and not intended for public consumption, could elicit a scarlet letter of swift and unforgiving retribution from the Christian industry -- a fact not lost on McAlister.
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"When you take away a package around it, the whole thing starts to get a little more complex as to what it's really about," he muses. "We don't really like how the Christian-music world is just about marketing. It doesn't feel real to us, and we don't want to have anything to do with that sort of stuff. We'd rather talk about God when it comes up in conversation than in our music. It just seems a lot more natural to sing songs about whatever you want to sing about and hope that people ask about it."
There's plenty to ask about: Many of Chambers's lyrics -- which he purposely keeps under wraps, refusing to print them in liner notes and posting mere sketches of what he might be saying on the band's Web site -- have an indirectly evangelical bent to them. Songs like "The Greatest Thing," in which Chambers sings, "You came down as a man/With your purpose as your plan/To save the hearts of men," or "If They Only Knew," whose refrain is "If they chose to know you/They'd be free," come off as a conversation between Chambers and God that is meant to be overheard.
"We're trying our best to do what feels right about it and do the right thing," says McAlister. "We've been lucky in that we've been able to speak our minds and no one's gotten super-pissed about it."
So, then, is Ester Drang's fluid musical and spiritual identity the mark of visionaries, or just growing pains on the way to true creative maturity? Only time will tell, as long as these four men don't second-guess themselves into oblivion.