Almost a decade ago now, Matson Jones was a humble band from Fort Collins with no real illusions about commercial success. But just like that, it seems, the band went from playing small shows to drawing hundreds of people. "It was insane," recalls Martina Grbac, who fronted the act.
"It was so fast," adds drummer Ross Harada. "The thing is that with that project, we didn't go into it thinking we were going into a band and doing anything like that. We were just writing, and it kind of took on a life of its own, and we just kind of held on until it ended."
Brought together initially by mutual friends in the art-punk band Monofog — whose charismatic singer Hailey Helmericks and imaginative guitarist Doug Spencer are now in Snake Rattle Rattle Snake — Matson Jones featured Grbac and Anna Mascorella, both playing cellos, with bassist Matt Ragan and Harada on drums.
Land Lines at Gathering of the Clouds, with Gliss, Morning Clouds, Hindershot, Hollow Talk and DJ Heavy Dose, 7 p.m. Friday, March 8, Walnut Room, 3131 Walnut Street, $17-$50, 303-292-0529, 21+.
The group played with all the intensity of a straight-up rock-and-roll band, which is what attracted the attention of Sympathy for the Record Industry, the imprint run by "Long Gone John" Mermis, which put out the act's debut full-length. Matson made the connection with the help of longtime Denver promoter Jason Cotter. "He brought it up to us and said they were interested," recalls Harada of the deal. "Long Gone John came out for a show we played at the Aggie. He agreed to release an album, and that was pretty much it."
"It was a complete handshake agreement," says Grbac of the 2004 deal. "He gave us a bunch of free records and merch. He paid for that second recording, I want to say, and mastering, and all the production stuff."
The relationship with Sympathy was relatively short-lived, however, and the band ended up amicably parting ways in 2008, after a year-long hiatus in which Mascorella moved out of state to further her education and Harada attended nursing school. Ragan, meanwhile, briefly played bass in the Overcasters and Joy Subtraction. And while Harada played with Ragan at an early Munly & the Lupercalians show, the former members of Matson Jones didn't play much live music for a couple of years.
In 2010, Mascorella, Grbac and Harada decided to try to write some more music together, but they wanted it to be very different from that of Matson Jones. They initially called themselves Crystal Mouse Collection, but ditched that name in favor of Land Lines after the first handful of shows, deciding that the new name reflected the lines each had traveled in his or her life to come together. Of the current members, Harada was born in Hawaii, Grbac was born in Croatia and keyboardist James Han was born in Korea but grew up in Oklahoma.
The material that became some of the music on the group's recently released debut album came out of a kind of solo project for Grbac called Crows, Vultures, Bulls. And despite the fact that Land Lines' instrumentation is very similar to what the trio used for Matson Jones, the music feels markedly different.
"There was definitely a shift in how we wrote and how we thought about songwriting," Harada explains. "We originally thought we wanted to have different instruments, but it took us a long time to find our new identity for writing and how to play together again with Anna and Martina and myself as Land Lines, so we just wrote as the two cellos and drums. We had plans to play with all of these different instruments, but it just evolved into something where all of our songs focused on space and not overplaying. Matson Jones was very dense, and we wanted something that was very spacious."
"Some of it stemmed from the way that the new songs were written," Grbac adds. "A lot of them ended up being a lot quieter, with the pizzicato cello instead of bowing, and higher-register vocals. Part of that came out of apartment life and trying to be quiet. Then it translated differently when we started amplifying it."
The rhythms, tones and emotional colorings of Land Lines, outside of the spaciousness, also render the band a very different animal. And it was immediately clear when the trio started playing as a live unit again, even in the percussion.
"Whenever I take a break from music for a long time, I always kind of come back at it with a new philosophy about how I see, write and help arrange rhythm and how it works with songs," Harada explains. "With Matson Jones, it was like, if I'm not bleeding at the end of every set, then I'm not doing it right. So obviously that doesn't work this time around. I thought about why I like all my favorite songs so much. Usually it's simplicity, and I like really subtle changes that maybe you don't pick up the first couple of times. This time around it's space, and what the songs need, and no bleeding. Now if I'm bleeding, then I'm doing something wrong."
"The simplicity, at least from a melodic standpoint and from cellos, I think, comes from trying to get ideas across more so than the musicianship and trying to be fancy about it," Grbac elaborates. "Somewhere, I lost the taste for bowed cello parts. I like the ambiguity of the plucking. A lot of people don't even know what it is when they first hear it. It stemmed from getting grooves going rather than worrying about how they were made. It's kind of more utilitarian and not so much thinking about the sounds the cello is making. The overall construction of the song and arrangement took a way bigger role."
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In August 2012, Mascorella departed again to continue her pursuits in higher education, and Grbac and Harada brought in keyboardist James Han, who's most known for his work in Fairchildren and with Nathaniel Rateliff and the Wheel. Both had long admired Han's considerable talents, and he was a natural fit. "He adds more melody to it, a lot of layering," notes Grbac. "Now Land Lines is more in the experimental vein that we had initially hoped to move toward. We were like a bunch of screaming teenagers in Matson Jones. Even if we'd have had guitars, it would have been a straightforward rock band."
"Somewhere in between maintaining the integrity of what Anna was doing and coming up with new ideas and maintaining the space involved with all of the songwriting is what I'm trying to do," says Han.
"I think Matson Jones was so out of control we had no idea what to do," says Harada. "Every month it was something new and something bigger and better was being offered to us. But this time, I think, for me, it was being forced not to play for like two and a half years. I think we missed not necessarily the success part of it, but the practicing and spending time writing and spending time with Martina, Anna and now James. That's the part that's the most fulfilling to me. Now we have this great record we're really proud of."
"Now I've really settled into it, but at first, when we started playing as Land Lines, I had so much Matson Jones baggage left over," Grbac concludes. "I was really freaked out to play. We hadn't played in so long, I was really worried people were going to compare us to Matson Jones. Now that I think about it, when I listen to Matson Jones, I'm like, 'Oh, God!' This is so much better — I don't know what I was afraid of."