David Roback, the guitarist and conceptualist behind the mood band Mazzy Star, doesn't reveal much about himself--and you get the feeling that he'd like to retract the little he accidentally divulges. When penning songs, he leaves the lyrics to his co-writer, vocalist Hope Sandoval, and when responding to questions he tends toward variations on the answer, "I don't know." As in, "I don't know if music is overanalyzed or underanalyzed." Or, "I don't know if what we do takes more or less intensity than something else." Or, perhaps more to the point, "I don't remember a best or a worst interview."
Then again, it's hard to blame Roback for his reticence. The spacey, indefinable music found on So Tonight That I Might See, Mazzy Star's latest album on Capitol Records, is as wispy as a puff of smoke. Weight it with too much baggage, intellectual or otherwise, and it may float away on the gentlest breeze. Accept it as it is and it likely will seduce you with its subtleties, tempt you with its textures and leave you hungry for more even before the last note fades.
Roback probably realizes this, but that doesn't mean he'll elaborate on it. He delivers a solid "no" when asked if he's being evasive simply because he fears he'll besmirch the enigmatic qualities of the sounds he's made by describing them. "When you start out to be a musician," he notes, his voice a halting monotone, "you do what you do musically, and there's really no obligation to explain. People sometimes expect an explanation, and sometimes you have something to say about what you did. And sometimes you don't."
Amend that last statement to read, "And almost always you don't," since throughout his career Roback has responded to most requests for exegesis with impenetrable silence. For that reason, his fans have few clues about Roback's musical journey beyond the albums that bear his name.
It was the early Eighties when Roback first came to the public's attention, thanks to his presence in the Los Angeles-based band Rain Parade. On recordings such as the 1983 disc Emergency Third Rail Power Trip and an EP from the following year, Explosions in the Glass Palace, Roback and company constructed layer upon layer of psychedelic guitar washes that seemed to flow effortlessly into one another. Since the most obvious touchstones for this approach were the Velvet Underground, the Doors, Love and other progressive late-Sixties acts, enterprising scenesters pegged the band as a standard-bearer for a new L.A. movement dubbed the paisley underground. While Roback didn't exactly promote this label--"I thought it was more of a journalistic angle than anything else; the kind of thing that goes on all the time in the media," he says--he helped create the impression that a close-knit cadre of performers was pushing the trend on Rainy Day, the single most memorable document from this period. Together with former Dream Syndicate bassist Kendra Smith, Three O'Clock lead vocalist Michael Quercio and Bangles singer Susanna Hoffs (still a year away from becoming a temporary MTV star), Roback oversaw the production of a handful of graceful, idiosyncratic cover songs. Hoffs's versions of Lou Reed's "I'll Be Your Mirror" and Bob Dylan's "I'll Keep It With Mine" were particularly beautiful, and Roback's blistering take on Pete Townshend's "A Quick One" put the lie to critics who suggested he couldn't rock out.
With the dissolution of Rain Parade, Roback briefly joined forces with Smith, drummer Keith Mitchell and guitarist Juan Gomez in a group called Clay Allison; the fruits of this collaboration can be found on Fell From the Sun, a 1984 EP issued under the first three members' names. The core of that band later took on the moniker Opal and put out a disc called Happy Nightmare Baby. Smith split during a tour to support the platter, and as a replacement Roback recruited Hope Sandoval, whom he had met while working in the studio with Going Home, an act Sandoval had formed while still attending high school. By 1990 the membership had solidified to the degree that Roback tagged the group with yet another new handle: Mazzy Star.
The 1990 release She Hangs Brightly, initially issued by Rough Trade and now available on Capitol, shows Roback exploring familiar musical territory, but his work shows signs of experimentation and growth. For example, "I'm Sailin'" displays the kind of country influences that the Cowboy Junkies brought to a wider audience, while "Ghost Highway" is built upon a more conventional (and even catchier) pop-guitar riff. Roback modestly stays in the background of most tracks, allowing Sandoval's naturalistic singing to set the tone. But it's Roback's musical settings--which simultaneously seem intricately planned and wholly organic--that make Brightly stick in one's mind.
The cult following that sprang up in the wake of the album was large and rabid enough to attract industry-wide attention; as a result, Mazzy Star is the first of Roback's groups to appear on a major label. Rather than responding to the possibility of reaching a larger audience by smoothing out his sound, though, Roback delivered to Capitol executives a follow-up that is, if anything, even more challenging than its predecessor. So Tonight That I Might See drips with psychedelic influences, but Roback's echo-laden studio work is so idiosyncratic that it manages not to sound like a simple reproduction of a previous era's styles. More important, songs such as "Fade Into You," "Wasted" and a cover of Arthur Lee's "Five String Serenade" are moving, mysterious and as fragile as glass figurines.
In Roback's view, Tonight is so delicate because "we had stopped playing live concerts for a while. That's why the album has some more acoustic songs on it. In that sense, maybe there is a little bit of a different feel to it." He adds that he felt under no pressure to shorten the lengths of his compositions so that they would be more radio friendly: "It's not true that everybody who listens to music just wants to be entertained for two minutes and that's it. People have a lot of different interests in music, and I think that a lot of times that's forgotten, because maybe that's not where the money is happening."
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Beyond these observations, Roback avoids discussing specific elements of the recording. Hell, he avoids discussing the specifics of just about everything; he claims that the majority of questions he hears are too general, but he has no opinion on those that aren't. In fact, the topic that gets the most reaction from him is not music, but drugs. Upon being asked if he advocates the use of narcotics, this leader of a band that makes what many listeners feel is the perfect music to trip to replies, "I don't want to suggest to people that they should start smoking crack. That would be a totally insane, totally destructive thing. But on the other hand, I think there are different types of drugs, and some are worthwhile. And I think that those drugs sometimes add a dimension to people's lives that may or may not be there without them."
Have drugs added a dimension to your life, David?
After a long pause, Roback answers, "Yes."
Thank goodness he didn't say, "I don't know."
Mazzy Star, with Acetone. 8 p.m. Friday, April 1, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th Street, $11, 290-