Music News

Going the Distance

Long-distance relationships suck. Without a constant stream of casual intimacy, the lines strung between lovers start to short-circuit and fray. Phone calls sound forced. E-mails read like laundry lists of halfhearted flirtations. All those Xs and Os begin to cancel each other out. Other people -- those who you can actually touch and smell and get wasted with -- start to look a whole lot hotter. Absence makes the heart grow fainter, not fonder.

Drummer Cullen Hendrix can attest to that. He's been in a long-distance relationship for over a year now, one that has stretched from halfway across the country to halfway around the world. But this isn't some cheap fling with a girl he met at Niagara Falls; it's with a tightly wound post-punk band called the North Atlantic. And his paramours? Jason Richards, a would-be marine archeologist who plays bass and stands taller than a street lamp, and a mustachioed, mulleted singer/guitarist named Jason Hendrix -- Cullen's little brother. And while the strains of space and separation have definitely weighed on the threesome, it's made the North Atlantic's music -- not to mention its ties of fraternity and friendship -- even stronger.

"The interview is going to have to be with just me," Cullen explains. "But that should be okay. I can talk enough shit for the three of us." Getting all the members of the North Atlantic in one room together is a nearly impossible feat these days; Cullen and Richards currently call San Diego home, while the younger Hendrix lives in Illinois, where he's a student at the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago. And as if that wasn't scattershot enough, Cullen studied in Norway all last summer, effectively spreading the band across two continents and more than five thousand miles -- split, coincidentally enough, by its geographical namesake.

"I got this fellowship to go out to Norway and work on my dissertation," says Cullen, who's wrapping up his Ph.D. in political science. "I wrote papers on the effects of terrain and geography on civil conflict. When you inhabit a country that has really rough terrain, like mountains or rain forests or deserts, you're less likely to be economically developed or to have strong political institutions. All of these factors make you much more likely to experience civil war."

It's no wonder Cullen wound up being so immersed in the idea of internecine tension. When he was eight and his brother six, their parents divorced. As traumatic an experience as that is for little kids, it drew the brothers even closer -- that is, until high school. That was when their father moved from California to Michigan, and the Hendrix siblings made the toughest decision of their young lives.

"My brother and I decided to go to high school in different places," he explains. "I went with my dad to Michigan, and Jason stayed in Fresno. We're very similar in a lot of ways, and I think both of us were interested in figuring out what kind of people we would be minus the other. Like a lot of kids who deal with their parents splitting up, we felt a lot of misplaced hostility. So we had scrapes with each other, and we weren't as close as I would have liked. If we had grown up together during that really formative high school period, it's likely that we would have developed our personalities in opposition to each other, rather than in a complementary fashion."

"Even back then, though, Jason was turning me on to new music," he confesses. "I'll admit it. My little brother's cooler than me."

The two didn't wind up rocking together until 1998, when an old outfit of Jason's called I, Astronaut was suddenly left with a vacancy behind the drum kit. Offers from several record labels were floating around, so Jason called up the first drummer who popped into his head -- his brother. But even then, distance was a factor: At the time, Cullen was attending college in Mexico.

"I dropped out the University of Mexico City and broke up with my girlfriend, and within two weeks I was back in California," Cullen recalls with a laugh. "When I got out there, we played one show, and the band broke up. I went into a pretty hard bender after that. I felt like I had lost my own identity, given up everything that really defined me as a person at that point."

Still, the bonds of family were enough to pull him through. A year later, Cullen and Jason moved to Michigan to enroll in Kalamazoo College together. They met Richards soon after, and the North Atlantic began taking shape. After a couple of destabilizing lineup changes and a move back to San Diego, the band released its debut, Buried Under Tundra, in 2002. It's a frigid reflection of estrangement and isolation, ventilated here and there with bits of zigzag rhythm and piercing melody. But 2003's followup, Wires in the Walls, remains the North Atlantic's definitive statement. Shedding introspection in favor of a chaotic yet cerebral rage, the group slashes away at images of urban alienation, the hidden agenda of technocracy and, of course, torpedoed romance. The sound is stark yet arrestingly lush, a staggering hybrid of Archers of Loaf, Hot Snakes and Dismemberment Plan, its jagged edges eroded by echoing ambience and the occasional anthem-sized couplet.

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Jason Heller
Contact: Jason Heller

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