Waxing Philosophic

Rocky Votolato caught in an unguarded moment.
Robin Laananen

Moving is hard on any kid. You've got to leave your friends behind and start over in a strange place, where you don't know anyone, and everyone has their own stories and memories that don't include you. But take a twelve-year-old who grew up somewhat provincially -- on a fifty-acre ranch outside a Texas town of 900 -- and plunk him down in a city like Seattle, and something's got to give. In Rocky Votolato's case, that something was the most apparent evidence of his outsider roots.

"I lost my accent," Votolato says during load-in at a club in Austin on his first-ever tour through his original home state. "I sounded pretty much like a hillbilly when I left, but it just kind of slowly went away. You get made fun of enough at school, and you just slowly assimilate. When you move to the city, it just goes away. Nobody else talks like that, and you just start to stick out for it. I think now it comes back for me every now and then, like when I say 'y'all,' or 'fixin' to.'"

Votolato, a singer-songwriter with a sweet, slightly raspy voice and a penchant for emotive songs of love and loss, is a walking dichotomy. The sensitive punk rocker also fronts Waxwing, a band with a sound that's decidedly antithetical to the low-key, personal musings that he has so expertly translated into song on his solo outings. He's a simple country boy who's embraced the big-city nightlife but still has a trace of a twang, even if he doesn't think so. As a Texan who now resides in Seattle, Votolato finds himself in an odd interstate melting pot.

"It's like two different countries, the culture's so different," Votolato says. "There's good things and bad things about Texas, just like there are about Seattle. But there's definitely things here in Texas I wouldn't have gotten living in Washington that I'm glad are a part of who I am."

Votolato formed Waxwing in 1996 with his brother Cody, and the band has released four records since then. Though Waxwing has enough bombast and volatility to please any fan of post-grunge Seattle music, there are enough spaces in between the musical blades to allow glimpses of the sensitive side of Votolato's lyrics. Those lyrics and the thoughtful music the brothers Votolato produced indicated the potential for a more nuanced brand of music, as if another sound hovered nearby, just waiting to be discovered.

By 2000, Votolato had found that other sound and had accumulated enough songs that didn't fit the aesthetic of his band that he was able to record a solo album. Dan Askew, head of Waxwing's label, Second Nature Recordings, heard a demo of Votolato's work and liked it, and in 2001, Burning My Travels Clean wasborn. The disc was a lo-fi discourse on the singer's past, a scrapbook of acoustic-guitar snapshots -- some whimsical and soaring, most with a significant helping of sadness -- that made listeners feel as if they'd known him for years. But there was also a dreamy quality to it that belied his past and present as a punk rocker.

Votolato's latest effort, Suicide Medicine, scheduled for release later this month, has a very different feel from both Travels and any of the Waxwing records, though it takes cues from each. Without sacrificing his warmth and personal way of speaking through his lyrics, Votolato seems to have opened up, releasing some of the power that was suppressed on Travels. The difference between this record and the previous one, according to Votolato, is that he finally had a chance to focus completely on one project.

"There had been two parts to my writing: I'd write a Waxwing record and I'd write a Rocky record sort of simultaneously, and I think the sort of songs I would make were more varied," he says. "I'd have a rock song in mind for Waxwing, and because that was so loud and fast and aggressive, I think in reaction to that, I made a record like Burning, with all these songs that were sort of more introspective, more laid-back and more peaceful and quiet, super-soft. With this record, my full focus was on [it], and it sort of mixed the two styles more. Some of those songs might have worked as Waxwing songs, but I used them as Rocky songs. I feel like it's my first album that got my full attention."

Aside from his focus, there was another important difference between Suicide Medicine and every other album Votolato has appeared on: Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie signed on as producer. A sense of studio adventurism is apparent just upon reading the liner notes -- Walla is credited with playing, among other things, the glockenspiel, melodica, electric guitar, bass and bass organ. The collaboration was Votolato's best encounter with a recording studio yet.  

"It was a really awesome experience -- more so than with any of my other records, where I felt like I was kind of struggling more in the studio," Votolato says. "This one just came out really easy; we had a lot of fun making it. I think it sounds better than anything I've ever worked on. It was definitely one of the smoothest recording projects. I mean, I usually dread recording."

The result of that concentration is a varied and powerful album that places Votolato's musical feet on more solid ground than the last time around, even as he refuses to pin his star to any one style. He's more at home here than ever before, with songs in which he gets to belt it out more often than singing in a soft falsetto, as he did from time to time on Travels. There's an updated Dylanesque feel to several of Suicide's songs, as if the bard of Minnesota had been reborn with a renewed anger directed at a world that is arguably even more fucked up now than it was in the early '60s. On "Prison Is Private Property (A Life of Your Own)," when Votolato sings "The have-nots have had enough and now they're out to kill the king/Of what looks to be an evil empire where short-term earnings mean everything," you get the sense that irony may really be dead after all -- or at least that sincerity is making a comeback of sorts. Votolato's anger is palpable as he first mutters, then howls, over a spare minor-key guitar, spewing back tenets of the poisonous corporate landscape of early-21st-century America into the faces of its smug architects. His words are like a lash made of razors, yet they are never overwrought or embarrassing.

"It's definitely challenging to do those kinds of songs and have them come off without being too contrived or weird," he says.

In fact, Votolato ventures outside the realm of self for subject matter several times on Suicide -- something he rarely did on his previous solo effort. In general, he pulls off the more political songs with the same aplomb with which he writes about ex-girlfriends and lost innocence. One of the most striking songs on the album is "Automatic Rifle." A lone acoustic guitar and Votolato's vocals anchor the first two and a half minutes of the song until a reverb-drenched electric rolls in on top. The tune has an undulating beat and climb-up bass line reminiscent of old Johnny Cash, but the lyrics are pure protest and pain -- again, very much like Dylan. On the chorus, with a rasping wail all his own, Votolato unflinchingly looks at a slice of life -- and death -- in the occupied Palestinian territories.

"That song, I wrote it after seeing in the news about a Palestinian girl who had strapped a bomb to her chest," Votolato recalls. "She was a teenage girl, and she killed another teenage girl. She was seventeen, and the Israeli girl was like sixteen -- right in that age group. It was just a horrifying and touching story to see that. It's just basically the reaction I had after hearing the story, not really a judgment on either side. She had seen her neighbor get shot through his window while he was on the floor playing with his daughter. He was a close friend of the family, and her brothers and father tried to get him to the hospital, but he died. She saw that, and she went and joined a militant group and trained silently to become a suicide bomber and then eventually carried it out. The night the guy was shot was my 25th birthday, so that's how it kind of ties into the song."

Votolato's excursions into more daring subject matter notwithstanding, it's one of Suicide Medicine's more personal songs that has sparked a small controversy, several weeks before the disc is to be released. The album's first track, "The Light and the Sound" -- a self-directed kick in the ass to help Votolato wean himself from the corporate teat -- contains lyrics that gave one reviewer the impression that he was literally singing about crushing the skull of a woman and letting out the "light and sound." The lyrics in question read: "If I have to crack open your skull with my fist/I'll let the light and sound escape." What the reviewer missed was the important part, the significantly more uplifting lyrics that come before: "Are you going to die with that music inside/Did you catch the twilight on your way into work/You can live anything you want..."  

"It's just an image," Votolato says. "It's not literal. It's basically trying to wake somebody up to living their life for the right reasons, for the things they want to do. It was written kind of as I was leaving my job, trying to find a way to make my living doing what I loved doing. It's more about figuring out what it is they really are here to do, and what they want to do, what will make them happy, and then pursuing it and being brave enough to go out and give it a shot.

"Even if you did take it literally, I don't see how you could think that song was about a girl," Votolato continues. "There's nothing in that song about a relationship with a girl. I want to set the record straight on that right now: That's not what that song is about. You'd have to be a complete freakin' idiot to think that. It's an absolute misrepresentation of who I am and what my music is about. Not everyone who plays music just writes emo songs about girls."

Misunderstandings aside, however, Votolato is pleased with the result.

"I definitely feel like I've branched out more from a storytelling perspective, by covering different types of issues that don't necessarily have to do with me personally," he says. "I'm glad. I'm happy about the record, being able to try new things and get away with them on a certain level."

That's as good a definition as any of a place called home: a place where you're allowed to redefine yourself and still be forgiven.

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