The Bright Stuff
I just find that I learn more and more from the reality of stuff and how you should, like, take it," says Bright Channel's Jeff Suthers, philosophically, his forehead furrowed in puzzlement. "You can get too wrapped up in stuff and take it way too seriously."
Upon listening to Bright Channel's new self-titled and self-released disc, you might get the crazy idea that the group does indeed take itself way too seriously. Recorded by infamous angst junkie Steve Albini at his Electrical Audio Studios in Chicago, the songs are seriously bleak, seriously epic, seriously eerie...seriously serious. Imagine a sawed-off Mogwai crammed into a supercollider with Closer-era Joy Division. Picture long shadows, cold steel, exit wounds, anesthesia. Think grim.
And the trio's live act doesn't dispel that aura of smothering murk. On stage, Shannon Stein stands stoic, shoulders hunched as if under the weight of some unimaginable guilt or gravity. Her bass lines aren't strings of notes so much as gulps and pulses of matter, the meat of a star fed through intestines of circuitry. Meanwhile, Suthers, his guitar drooping nearly to his ankles, coos like a narcotized Ian McCulloch and enshrouds the surrounding air in a fog of dry-ice noise. In the center, drummer Brian Banks pummels out a rhythm as tidal as it is tribal, a lunging, syncopated thrum that pulverizes all sense of solidity or civilization.
Heavy, for sure. But serious? You wouldn't know it by sitting around slurping beers with the three of them in the basement of the hi-dive on a Thursday night. Off-stage, they're more spastic than spacey, more goofy than aloof. Stein is curled up on a couch, grinning shyly, while Banks sits next to her, eyes bulging and intense. Suthers perches his lanky, gangling frame on a bar stool as precariously as an acrobat on a high wire. With a series of quick jabbing gestures and sloshes of Pabst, he resumes his spiel on the nature of perception and reality.
"It wasn't true," he exclaims. "There was just this rumor floating around that some rep from Matador Records was flying out to see one of our shows. It was probably just somebody out there saying, 'Let's fuck with Bright Channel.' But that's okay. At this point, I would feel disappointed if we didn't put our album out ourselves, because we've had that goal for so many years."
Founded in 2002, Bright Channel might be a relatively new band, but its past stretches back to Pueblo at the end of the '80s. There, Suthers and Banks met and bonded against a backdrop of punk rock and small-town boredom. "We actually went to rival high schools," Suthers recounts. "I was one of the rebel mutants who realized there was some cool shit at Brian's school, like new-wave girls and wild bonfire parties out by the railroad tracks. So we started hanging out together."
In 1990, Suthers began playing in an outfit called Plunger. When asked what kind of music it made, he laughs and launches into a description that sounds almost too good to be true: "We had this weird, satanic, classic-rock, circus-y, punk-funk kind of sound. We did a mean cover of the Sesame Street theme song." Plunger sputtered out a couple of years after Suthers moved from Pueblo to attend CU. Banks, his roommate in Boulder at the time, wasn't playing music at all. As it turns out, the two future purveyors of atmospheric gloom rock were way too busy one-upping Steve-O to worry about getting serious with their music.
"When it comes to the Jackass-type stuff we used to do, the list goes on and on," Banks recalls fondly. "We used to play Nintendo, and whoever lost would have to get shot by a BB gun, point blank, in the cheek."
"We also used to have a sport called hosing," Suthers adds. "We had a hose tied into the tree of our front yard, and we would jump off the roof and swing on it. We invented all these skateboarding-type moves, like the Midget Drop. Me and the drummer of my old band were at this crazy nine-keg party once, and we were going back into the house, when all of a sudden this midget walks up to the edge of the roof and just airs off of it into a bush. We were just dumbfounded. As we walked by, we saw the bush shaking and making this noise. The midget was completely submerged in the depths of the bush. We went inside and didn't even talk to each other for twenty minutes. We were like, 'What the fuck just happened?'"
"That's the type of shit we used to do for fun," Banks affirms. "Those were the salad days."
But even after a long day of condom-snorting, backyard boxing and hammering nails into his nostrils, Suthers still had energy left over for rock. Volplane came together in 1996, an ethereal, ear-bursting ensemble that brought Stein into the fold. A heavy-metal refugee from Casper, Wyoming, the bassist met Suthers when she got a job at Rob's Music in Boulder, where the pair is still on the payroll. After Warner Bros. fruitlessly flirted with Volplane, the outfit morphed into Pteranodon, a much more free-form and ambient affair featuring just Stein on organ and Suthers on guitar.
"I was listening to Labradford, stuff that didn't have any beats. We were like, 'Fuck the beats altogether,'" Suthers explains. "We would just go into this soundscape thing. We took it to the end of universe, basically. It was one loud, huge, long drone, just a bunch of waves. You lose all recollection of time and space listening to stuff like that. You become a microorganism somewhere in, like, the sea."
Talk about a crowd-pleaser. Sure enough, Suthers readily admits that Pteranodon -- although still officially active, with a new CD due out by the end of the year -- just wasn't able to connect with a live audience. "We only ever played a couple of shows," he confesses. "People totally didn't get it at all."
But anyone with a nervous system should have no problem getting Bright Channel. After Pteranodon was put into suspended animation, Suthers and Banks began jamming on a more accessible, groove-tethered sound. Stein quickly joined in, and the result encompassed every sonic frontier the players have explored over the past few years. But beyond its sinuous, bowel-wrenching rhythms, Bright Channel's music swims in iridescent melodies and Suthers's billowing, frostbitten vocals -- partly the result of his sporadic foray into solo acoustic performance, an outlet inspired by long nights listening to Nick Drake.
"I think we wanted Bright Channel, initially, to be a bit more tangible for people," Suthers points out. "More obvious melodies and hooks and structures. It's a more direct approach. It really helps a lot to work that out on an acoustic guitar first. It's not easy to get weird on an acoustic; you have to start getting creative with hooks and notes. But some of that early stuff we wrote was a little too poppy, so we're trying to make things a little darker and meaner."
Dark? Mean? Enter Steve Albini. When it came time to finally drag Bright Channel out of the basement, Albini's Electrical Audio Studios sat at the top of the band's wish list. Besides being the frontman for the famously abrasive post-punk and math-rock acts Big Black, Rapeman and Shellac, Albini is known for his extensive resumé of A-list clients, including Nirvana, PJ Harvey, the Pixies and Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. So how does an unknown band from Louisville, Colorado, snag a world-class recording engineer like that? The old cold call, of course.
"Shannon just e-mailed him," says Suthers. "And he e-mailed us back at three-thirty in the morning. He was loaded as shit. He must have been, because he was like, 'I'd love to talk to you about working on your record. Give me a call.' We were like, "Oh, my God.' I pissed myself. I printed out the e-mail and carried it around in my pocket for weeks."
So in May this year, the threesome trekked to Chicago for a whirlwind five-day session. "It was absolutely amazing," Suthers remembers. "We hung out at his place and played with his cats. There are thank-you notes from Fugazi hanging up on his fridge. He's so down-to-earth, just this geeked-out, intense, amped-up-on-coffee dude climbing around the studio in a mechanic's jumpsuit all day."
But even if the notoriously cranky Albini had given them any static, all Bright Channel would have had to do was unleash its secret weapon, a holdover from the band's drunken, pseudo-Jackass days. "A piece of advice: Don't ever fight Shannon with boxing gloves on," Banks warns. "She takes it way too seriously and hits way too hard. Bone-crushing blows."
"Yeah, Shannon will level you," Suthers confirms. "Brian refused to box her after he saw her knock me over a fucking couch once. I was just standing in the living room kind of jabbing lightly at her, and she hauls off and nails me. I went over the couch and right into a coffee table."
As funny as that scenario is in light of Stein's quiet, serene demeanor, neither Suthers nor Banks are laughing.
In fact, they look dead serious.
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