Yeah, we just mope around all the time," says Mike Hudson, bassist for Aveo.
It takes a half a second to realize that Hudson is fucking around. Upon first hearing Battery, the Seattle-based outfit's new disc, you might not expect the trio to be anything but pensive, excruciatingly sincere, maybe even a little bit of a bummer. Battery is a tar pit of moroseness; after sucking you in with mammoth pop hooks, the album locks onto your ankles with a syrupy gravity until slowly, implacably, rigor mortis deadens your limbs and seeps inward to your heart. But listen again and you'll begin to sense a whole mess of moods and emotions bubbling to the surface: boredom, curiosity, violence, regret. And, yeah, even a laugh or two.
"There is a lot of humor in our stuff. Really, there is," Hudson contends. "I think a lot of people miss it. There definitely is a melancholy tone to the songs, but there's always a little hope in there, a little fun. It's not supposed to be totally depressing."
Indeed, it's hard to imagine a ditty called "The Idiot on the Bike" being the soundtrack to drowning your kids or sticking your head in an oven. Kicking off with a burst of Jeff MacIsaac's breakneck drumming before spluttering into a jerky, desperately jubilant riff, the song is Battery's most toothy and upbeat. Hudson's bass line boils like a stew of meth and hormones as singer/guitarist William Wilson cleaves a hairline fracture between Cursive's sinuous chording and the impish pop of Supergrass. Wilson then rattles off a chirpy critique of suburban alienation and global warming that melts down into a refrain of "La la la/La la la/La la la/Ooh!" Not exactly Ian Curtis material. And yet Aveo has had a hard time escaping a litany of Brit pop comparisons -- particularly to a certain patron saint of wet blankets and wallflowers.
"When our first record came out, everyone kept saying, 'Smiths, Smiths, Smiths,'" Hudson recalls. "There's a little of that Morrissey influence in us, but I think people heard more of the essence of the Smiths than anything else." That disc, 2001's Bridge to the Northern Lights, was a rawer and looser revelation of the soul of Aveo and showcased an almost theatrical sound inspired as much by Shudder to Think as it was by Blur. But the rampant Morrissey analogies were somewhat justified: Wilson's voice quavered, crooned and swiped gawkily at the upper register while channeling its owner's obvious knack for glum sentiment and nimble turns of phrase.
But, like the Moz himself, Aveo's frontman tucks a wealth of wit and sarcasm behind his seemingly sulky facade. Battery is rife with it: In "Haley," when Wilson sings, "You can feel your mouth form around these notes/That might bring something like hope," it's hard to tell if he's lionizing or making fun of himself -- or doing both at the same time. The gorgeous, sprawling "Hypochondria Is Spreading" has him offering the pep talk "It's not that bad/Hyper bipolar manic/Just plain upset/God, I really don't know" before chanting rather unconvincingly, "OH NO!/It's not that bad." Walking a few miles even farther in Morrissey's shoes, Wilson weaves outrageously dramatic scenarios and assumes semi-fictional guises throughout the ten acts of Battery, making it tough to separate gushing catharsis from thespian flourish.
"He does that, very much so," confirms Hudson. "William would tell you the same thing: His songs are not the diary of William Wilson. He writes stories and pours himself into them. But when you do that, it always relates back to you. Even though every writer writes stories about other people, he's taking stuff from his own life and shifting it around and highlighting certain things, interpreting it through his own experiences and emotions. And if you do it right, it really rings true."
What doesn't always ring true, however, is Aveo's portrayal by music journalists. But when asked about the press's occasional mean-spirited jabs at Wilson and his "fake British accent," Hudson answers innocently, "Isn't it all right to be snotty in a review? I've also read reviews of our albums where people actually admit they only listened to it once before writing about it. They don't delve any deeper. But that's fair; that's what everyone does when they buy a record or hear it over at a friend's house. Some things hit you right away, but I'd like to think that there's a depth to our stuff that comes out eventually.
"It probably doesn't help," he adds, "that a lot of people don't know what category to place us in. Are we Brit pop? Are we Northwest indie rock? I don't know. Maybe that's an overly optimistic way of saying 'Hey, we're doing our own thing.'"
The "Northwest indie rock" label, while still a bit too confining for Aveo's cavernous ambience, isn't completely uncalled for. The threesome's formula of quirky songcraft and soaring sullenness falls neatly between the sounds of two of Washington's most celebrated acts: Sunny Day Real Estate and Death Cab for Cutie. Not surprisingly, Hudson and company have ties to both. As the bassist explains, "I grew up down the street from Nate Mendel from Sunny Day Real Estate. He played in this old band Diddly Squat, this really popular local punk band, and he had a big influence on me; he's the guy who made me want to play bass in the first place. Later, I played in a band for a short time with William Goldsmith, but then he quit to join Sunny Day."
Both Mendel and Goldsmith went on to become founding members of the Foo Fighters, but they aren't the only luminaries Hudson has made music with. Jake Plummer of San Diego's lauded Black Heart Procession tried out for the spot vacated by Goldsmith -- although he almost lost out to a novice named Jeff MacIsaac. "When Jeff tried out, he was this little punk kid who had only been playing drums for six months," Hudson remembers with a laugh. "I was really insistent that we not play with him." But within a year, the two were in a group together, a band that eventually morphed into Aveo.
"We started out as this pop-punk band, but that didn't really work. I had met William [Wilson] at the time, but I never knew that he was a musician. One day he picked up a guitar and sang something, and I was like, 'My God, why aren't you in a band?' He said he didn't really want to, but I dragged him out and made him play with us."
After forming in earnest in 2000 and releasing Northern Lights, Aveo -- having named itself after the Latin word for "desire" -- started canvassing the country and igniting a buzz about its stunning, passionate live shows, often augmented by auxiliary member Ken Jarvey on keyboards, second guitar and accordion. Soon after, Death Cab for Cutie offered the group an opening slot on one of its tours, which led to a record deal with Death Cab's label, Barsuk Records. At that point, though, Aveo had hit a wall. "Our songwriting process had really slowed down," says Hudson. "We just could not get it together. Battery was originally supposed to come out in January 2003, but by May we had only finished a demo of half the songs. We really screwed up Barsuk's schedule; at that point, they were like, ŒGosh, we don't know if we're even going to be able to put this out.'"
Fortunately, though, Aveo pulled through, and Battery -- recorded by Phil Ek, noted producer of Built to Spill and Modest Mouse -- came out in early 2004 after an almost two-year lull in the band's activity. "Everything died down for a little while, but things are rolling along now," Hudson says, currently preparing for his second U.S. tour in as many months. "We're concentrating now on getting our name out there and letting people know who we are -- all those dumb things that we never really cared to think about before. When you're a little band like us, people just forget."
Not very likely. Still, even a band as distinct and indelible as Aveo needs to crawl out of its shell and get some sunlight every once in a while. After all, who wants a reputation as a sad, introverted, misanthropic shut-in?
"I wouldn't call ourselves depressed or mopers or anything like that. I don't think that's our deal at all," declares Hudson. "We never sit down and say, 'We're going to write this sad song.' But sometimes it does make us wonder, 'Wow, that's what's coming out of us. Aren't we screwed up.' There's obviously this real melancholy side to us.
"Sometimes," he deadpans, "we like to blame it on the weather out here. That's a really simple way to explain it: It rains all the time in Seattle." In fact, the liner notes of Battery state, with a poetic inflection worthy of Morrissey, himself that the album was recorded "on some of the rainiest days of winter '03." And on the track "Frostbitten," a grim elegy celebrating hypothermia and solitude, Wilson moans like a dejected lover left too long out in the cold: "The rain followed you to bed/And soaked the sheets through/Before the angels know what you did/When showers came down to clean your soul."
Bed-wetters of the world, unite and take over.
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