half sting & the vanishing art of local obscurity
After spending some blinding time in the bright, national spotlight of New York's College Music journal Festival, Half String return to their comfortable obscurity, and the dim local scene...
Whirlpool: How did Half String form? Or, in other words, we want some generic background information.
Brandon: Was it 90 or 91?
Kimber: It was three years ago in August... August of 91.
Brandon: The way it came about is, I sold all my home studio stuff (from playing and recording as a one man band, ed.) after having seen Ride and Lush play a show in L.A. I was so inspired, by the show, to just play guitar from there on out, that I sold my sequencer, my keyboard. and my drum machine, and took the money and invested it into some guitar gear. From there I started looking around for players...
Kimber: ...and I had introduced Brandonto various people to play with and he kept inviting me over when he found out my dad was a jazz drummer... but I didn't play at all, but he kept saying I should come over and "slap the skins."
Brandon: I had experiences before that had always driven me to playing by myself, just because I couldn't find musicians that had like interests or the same aspirations to just make music and not gain fame and lots of money. That's why I kept bugging Kimber. I'd known her from running Stinkweeds record store for so long and caught wind that her dad was a drummer and I just figured she had it in her. It didn't bother me starting at square one cause I was pretty much starting at the same square as far as playing with other people.
Whirlpool: So how long was it before you actually started playing shows?
Brandon: From that point?
February 92. about six months. In fact, the first songs we had recorded
came from the first few times we had gotten
together just goofing off, like "Maps For Sleep" from our first single. I just liked to play the toms and that song came from that. Tim came in shortly after that.
Brandon: Tim was basically my roommate and wanted to learn how to play bass, but I didn't think he'd be able to play immediately. Just for fun's sake we dragged his bass and amp in and showed him simple lines and somehow it worked out really well. We had a lot of fun with it and we kept doing it like four times a week for the first six months.
Kimber: We were just all so excited to play and when our second show ended up being with The Wedding Present, we were just like... (frantic motions of pulling hair out)
Whirlpool: What was your first show?
Brandon: It was with Adulterous Woman at the Hollywood Alley, just a small weeknight, real exciting. (all chuckle) I was nervous as hell.
Whirlpool: Geez. Well, then what about the Wedding Present one?
Brandon: I'm still nervous about that one! (laughs) I still haven't gotten over it.
Kimber: That was a really weird show cause they moved it at the last minute to this hideous club (the old Party Gardens, ed.). It was "hot legs" night, just awful. Then David Gedge of the Wedding Present shows up in these teeny little shorts and we were like, "Hey, he's ready for the contest! Let's see, Matt came into the band a year and a half after we started, what? January of 1993. Tim exited in January 94 and then Dave came in, in March of 1994.
Brandon: So there's the brief, skeletal history.
Whirlpool: I wanted to ask you how you've seen Half String's music change, not only over a three year period of time, but also by bringing in various members?
Brandon: Uhhmm, it's been a real natural growth as far as the songwriting and the musicianship. We've never forced things. We've always realized the level we were able to work at cause we definitely had some boundaries in the beginning, just as far as our musicianship goes. I was the only one that was able to play guitar, but still, singing was a whole new ball game for me.
Kimber: When Matt joined, it thickened it out a lot, and then when Dave joined it thickened it out even more... uhh, cause he's a pretty thick guy. (laughs)
Dave: Oh really! (laughs)
Brandon: Since these guys joined, the music has definitely taken leaps and bounds. Before that it came from a real elementary point of writing.
Kimber: We can just accomplish things so much quicker, it's a lot more fun. Everyone is more on the same level now. It used to be really tedious to sit down and discuss exactly what we were going to do and then still have people not keep up...
Brandon: ...and I have no formal training. I don't have a clue what notes and chords I'm playing and the only way I can express what I want is to just play the line and say "Do this!" (guitar motions)
Klmber: When Matt first came in he would ask Brandon "is that a G or a C'? and, instead of answering, Brandon would just play the line louder. Matt has probably forgotten everything he ever learned! That form of musical communication doesn't really work too well with us.
Brandon: But Matt's got a natural ear! The first night Matt and I sat down and played guitar together, we pretty much knew from the start that it was going to work. We just improvised for three hours straight! The way we heard things and the way we approached things were very similar, yet complimented each other at the same time.
Whirlpool: So have things gone from a dictatorship to a democracy?
Brandon: Somewhat. I enjoy it as equal parts. Sometimes I'll come in with ideas, but I like to see everyone carry their own weight.
I think Brandon was kinda forced into that dictatorship position early
on because Tim literally wasn't able to make up bass lines at first. Brandon
was forced to stop and write bass lines as we went. If he didn't, though,
things wouldn't have moved ,rward. He's never forced me to play things
on the drums, he's really given me free reign. He's suggested things when
I've been in a rut, but never said "Don't play that!"
Brandon: The good thing now, is Mast and lave are bringing things in and it feels like veryone has equal input.
Whilrlpool: Do you think that the elevation of musical skill reflects in the more recent ecordings? I mean, on the first two records, it seemed as though you were hiding behind a hazy wall of reverb and effects.
Kimber: That first seven inch was recorded so early on, right in this living room. We got the idea to share it with Bruce Licher (Independent Project Records) to see if he had any criticism, or input, or anything! We went to California and by the time we got back we had a postcard in the mail saying he loved it and wanted to release it as a single. We just kept staring at the card!
Brandon: We were dumbfounded. We weren't even thinking of shopping it around, the reason we recorded it was to just hear a good recording of what the songs sounded like. In retrospect, I really wish we would have recorded a lot of the other things we'd done early on.
Kimber: I credit Bruce entirely, because at the time I thought, "this is an 8 track recording, it's from our living room; surely e means we'll have to go back in and reecord it... ya know do a real version." I th~ought it was so undone and my concept of releasing something wasn't doing it that way. I'm glad we let him listen to it cause I love the single now. We have tried to re-record it, but there's just something about that recording that's really neat.
Brandon: Yeah, and we had written so much material by the time it was released and we were kind of iffy about releasing it. I guess it's just the artist's dilemma of releasing your most current material, but I'm really glad we just let it go and let it happen. Years pass and you're able to separate ourself from it and hear it differently. I wish I could hear our current material like that.
Kimber: Our CD, that came out this month, was recorded exactly a year ago. That's quite a bit of time, especially considering we're still playing and we have Dave now and we're still practicing three-four times a week. A year is a lot of growth, but things take that long.
Whirlpool: Would you like to touch on how your songs come together?
Brandon: Half of it comes from improvising in the practice room and just stumbling across things in jams. The rest comes from ringing chord progressions in and just filling them out.
Kimber: And the melody is always so much nore important than the lyrics themselves.
Whirlpool: So you have to make up words after the fact?
Kimber: All of our choreographed moves are an afterthought too!
Brandon: We have someone else come in to help us with that.
Dave: We have a big mirror in the practice room and we videotape ourselves a lot.
Brandon: The costuming is a whole other world.
Dave: But seriously, the whole incorporation of backups has helped too.
Brandon: As far as the harmonies go that's something new...
Dave: ...and fresh!
Brandon: Yes, new and fresh. It's nice, because I've always heard certain things in the songs and I've attempted some on the recordings, but was always disappointed we couldn't pull them off live, until Dave came in. It's interesting having another vocalist, because Dave comes up with things I never would've. It's nice and uhh, special...
Whirlpool: Brandon and Kimber, do you ever feel that with working in record stores for so long and being around music so much, that some of your musical influences are too obvious or recognizable?
Brandon: That's inevitable with anything in life. You are always soaking up things and it's going to come out one way or another. I don't know if working in a music store has anything to do with it cause we're both music lovers. We'd be listening to music even if we were driving trucks. We'd still be listening and collecting, no matter what.
Klmber: I've had musicians ask me about the way I approach the drums and they ask if I played along with records to learn. That doesn't interest me at all. The only time I ever play the drums is when I'm with these guys. The feel of the song determines what I play: it has to because I don't have any schooling in it.
Brandon: In high school, I was trying to learn every Cure and Bauhaus song by the book, but it got to the point where I was much more interested in playing my own things. Trying to copy a style has never been my intention.
Dave: I've got a question! Do you ever find it's kinda difficult to get inspired by playing your music when you two are surrounded by it all the time?
Brandon: Gosh, NO! When I was working at Tower it actually fired me up. just seeing how much shitty music is out there.
Kimber: Even though I'm around music all day with Stinkweeds, I think Brandon spends more time actually listening to music; I mean really listening to music. At work I have so many things on my mind, I obviously have my pick of the week, but when I'm at home I almost always have silence. Whenever you're at Brandon's, music is always going; that's not the case with me.
Brandon: I even used to do my math homework to music, all my homework really.
Dave: Working at a skate shop, I am inundated with a lot of rap and skate rock...
Whirlpool: Ahhhh, aggression!
Dave: Yeah! Unidirectional aggression. I just mellow out at home.
Whirlpool: I have forty to fifty CDs to review for the next issue and, like Dave, I'm forced to listen to music so much that sometimes you just get totally sick of it.
Klmber: If I had to work at Tower I'd go nuts. I was forced to listen to Marshall Tucker when I worked somewhere else... gosh, that put me in the worst mood!
Dave: Oh yeah! Well, try being forced to listen to Fudge Tunnel, Tool, Sepultura, and Pantera!
Whirlpool: As far as your approach to the music business, I'd like you to comment on how different your approach is compared to the Gin Blossoms and Dead Hot Workshop, who slogged around town for five years before they got a record deal; whereas you guys seem to be real low key locally, putting out indie releases with I.P.R., and garnishing national press in Alternative Press, The Rocket, and Jack Rabid's Big Takeover. Is this a conscious approach you're taking and, if so, why are you taking it that way?
Dave: Well, there's an inherent difference in what we're trying to accomplish versus that bunch. For the Gin Blossoms and Dead Hot, that's their jobs. They had to play at Long Wong's every Tuesday night to make enough money to live or buy beer, or whatever. For me, this is an artistic challenge. I'd much rather do something I enjoy on a part time basis, than force myself to play things every night. It stifles my creativity to play everyday, it's nice to take a relaxed approach and just let things happen.
Kimber: I think there's a lot of different elements to that. I don't have any personal goal to have Half String become a common household word. Around town, I don't want people to say "Oh no! They're playing again! Who wants it!" We all have a grudge against papers like the New Times, and you can print that. The perfect example is the "Best of Phoenix" that just came out. The categories for music were best country and metal band. This is the eighth largest city in the nation and that's their excuse for a music and arts journal? It makes me so sad to see a lot of people around town trying to push this town, musically and culturally, ahead and you still have dinosaurs like that, that are holding us all back. It's really unfortunate. It's not only the New Times, but many of the clubs, in general, that have that same archaic outlook. We don't fit in and have no desire to fit in, we just do our own thing. It seems like people outside of Phoenix pay a lot more attention to Phoenix. Whereas people here are like "Ohhh, you guys are still playing!" They don't take you seriously and I'm not sure why that is. Everyone is so programmed here. If you don't play the bar thing where you are playing once a week and in everybodys face until they hate you, they think you're not doing anything at all. They don't understand what we're about at all.
Brandon: That's the joy of it, I think. Our approach is for personal satisfaction. We want to write the music we want and make the sounds we want and don't tailor it to what's going to be accepted around here. I love being able to do what we do, release it nationally, and still not be recognized around here. I love that because it feels legitimate to me, and it's kind of like our little secret or something.
Kimber: Whenever we do play out, we know everyone there. It's like a get-together of friends. Everyone that's not into metal and country rock knows each other in this town because there's not that many of us.
Brandon: I think things are changing here, though. it's interesting, in the last six months there's been a big impact on the scene with Whirlpool coming out as well as having more promoters in town bringing in bands we'd usually have to travel to L.A. to see. It seems a lot of people are putting effort into bringing people up to date with newer music. I mean even KUKQ seems to be trying a little bit to expand things.
Whirlpool: Getting back to your approach, don't you think that by using and pursuing the established outlets in town, like the regular clubs and the local media, you could have changed some perceptions and attitudes just by playing out your own brand of music? Are you shirking your responsibilities to the local scene?
Kimber: Once in a while, we get inspired to send stuff to the New Times, to let them know what we're doing and we never hear from anyone.
Whirlpool: With the gigging thing, don't you think by playing some of the more popular clubs...
Whirlpool: Gibson's, Edcel's, when it was around, gee:, even Long Wong's. Even though you guys are different and don't fit into the stereotypical Tempe bar band persona, don't you think by playing those joints you could have changed peoples perceptions, broken down some barriers and old stigmas, who knows even gained some new fans?
Brandon: Maybe, but in the beginning it was tough to get shows. Basically, what I'd been told before, by a fella from Dead Hot Workshop, was that most of those clubs and the people there aren't interested in new sounds. They'd fall asleep to us. They want something they can slap their knee to.
Kimber: I don't feel it's my responsibility to suffer through some bad vibe at some lame club to try to educate people. We played at Balboa Cafe and it was such a meat market. I played really well because I was really mad. People were not there for the music, they were there to be seen and find somebody to go home with. Who wants that? Some couple tried to dance though, and I was just laughing because I knew a tempo change was coming in about two bars. It picked up and they were just like (quick dance move motions) I couldn't look, otherwise I'd have lost it.
Whirlpool: Have things like that led to your selective approach to gigging? I mean it seems now you just open up for national acts.
Brandon: We didn't want to compromise. It's weird because we are doing music that would fit in, in other cities that have "real scenes. We won't compromise for what is set in stone in this community.
Kimber: Why should we? We weren't trying to gain acceptance from that crowd anyway.
Dave: You have to consider your audience. When you play shows to people that are so apathetic and don't pay any attention, you can either walk away from it and not let it bother you or you can think about how you can get them to like you, and that's the worst thing you can do. We aren't making music to find listeners, but for listeners to find us.
Kimber: We do our own shows, flyer them, bust our butts and we never make anything, but yeah sure, we could go to Balboa Cafe, never promote anything and they'd guarantee us a certain amount of money every time we played there. I think it's easy for bands to fall into that. It's easier and they're guaranteed money; we're taking the hard road, but we're all happier because of it.
Brandon: I think as far as fulfilling our duty to the community, we did that, in a way, with some of the shows we promoted and put together early on. We knew there were people out there interested. There just wasn't a situation to see music like that, so we tried to create our own little nights at typical rock and roll venues. We made them interesting and enticing to an audience who didn't usually go to bars because they had no interest in going to those bars in the first place...
Whirlpool: . ..mostly because of the mundane music played on the normal nights, I'm sure.
Dave: If we could just attract a lot of college girls, then we'd get a big turnout. (all laugh)
Kimber: I don't know, you guys are pretty cute though!
Whirlpool: Veritable coverboys, and covergirl. I kinda see you guys as sort of the spearhead of the alternative scene, because you are an alternative to the typical Tempe bar band. Do you see yourselves as a spearhead to this underground movement that's starting to swell? The underground was there before, but kind of unorganized, and you guys seem to have brought some of it together. What kind of satisfaction do you gain from all this?
Klmber: I don't really view us as a spearhead, but out of all the bands that started with us, we are the only ones that are still around.
Brandon: Everybody else is on hiatus. It wasn't a ploy at all, either. Basically, we are just doing what we want to do and the satisfaction we are gaining from it is just doing it... personal drive, ya know. There isn't a reward we're chasing after, but if it turns into an alternative to what else is going on and encourages other people to do something along the same lines, that's wonderful. If people view it as positive, then that's good.
Whirlpool: I don't want you to think that I feel the way you are approaching things is contrived, but you must be working towards some kind of reward, aside from the band.., with Brandon doing promotion and with you, Kimber, running the record store.
Kimber: Well, yeah, I mean the store is coming up on eight years. I've been trying desperately to change things and I feel we are succeeding in making cool music available. The greatest reward so far though, has been to work with Bruce and I.P.R., because I can remember early on Brandon saying how great it would be to release a single on I.P.R. and this was before we went out and talked to Bruce...
Dave: ...and Kimber's record store doesn't try to cater to everyone, I moan she doesn't carry jazz or classical and every other format. It's the same with our music, we don't cater to everyone.
Kimber: I've always said, "I'm either going to do it my way or not at all. If I have to work as hard as I do and sell stuff I don't believe in, forget it! I may as well go work for Tower. It's the same with the band, we'll stay in the bedroom if it means having to change.
Dave: I'd much rather practice than play in front of people anyway.
Whirlpool: How did the trip to C.M.J. (College Music Journal Festival), back in New York go? Give us a quick travel log.
Kimber: I would just like to say it was a blast! Of all the shows we played, the C.M.J. one was the least fun and that's because the club was off the beaten path, it was the first night of the seminar, and it wasn't promoted well. There was a light turnout. I think it was a great experience for all of us, but it was very pressured. They were inconvenienced that I wanted to use my own kit, even though I stood there and went: "I'm 5'1". I weigh 95 pounds. I cannot play the pedals on this already set up kit." The guy acted like I ruined his life because I came all the way from Arizona with my own drums and wanted to play them. They were like, "Just get up there and play! You nave thirty minutes! It was like we were some kind of problem and it shouldn't have been that way, but we dealt with it and had fun anyway.
Brandon: It was a great showcase we played on, there were some really excellent bands: The Bardots, The Catchers, and For Against, it was neat being a part of that.
Dave: The showcase had great potential, it was just at the wrong place, the wrong time, and promoted by the wrong person but other than that... (laughs)
Kimber: Once again, i'd like to say that I played well because I was very irritated! All I had to do was look over at the guy that promoted the show and I'd get so upset that I played great.
Brandon: Lawyers should never get involved in music.
Whirlpool: Besides having a good time, what do you think playing a festival accomplishes?
Brandon: It's just a good notch in our belts. It should help in future things, like if we ever got involved with a booking agent.
Whirlpool: Sounds like taking an established route can help, heh, heh! (long silence) Sorry, I'm just being sarcastic!
Kimber: I look at it differently than Brandon. I don't consider it a notch in our belts as far as "making it." For me, it took me to a whole other level: playing to people I don't know, in a place I'd never been, dealing with punches as they came, and being able to play a decent set. To me, that was the notch. Also, I noticed how different the audiences were back there. At the show at Penn State University, the kids were, like, right up against the stage and totally into it. Here, in Phoenix, it's like four people in the back, yawning. The whole Phoenix thing is like, "Oh Half String, they're still around?" And it's not just us, even touring bands get the same treatment here. The benefit of doing C.M.J. was that we all grew. I don't think the fact that it was a festival is why we went, as much as it was a great opportunity for us to go play someplace else and bum around.
Brandon: C.M.J. was a great excuse to play a bunch more shows outside of New York, too!
Dave: My hang-up with C.MJ. is: if it is truly a college music festival, why do they have all these established bands play on stacked showcases? If the point is to bring young unknown bands into the light, why do they have competing showcases with someone like Stereolab? Why have bands like that play when you could go catch them on their own tour?
Kimber: People aren't there to find new bands, they're there to hang out and have drinks upstairs where they don't even watch the bands.
Dave: We went to the Chick Factor showcase and it was nothing but other bands supporting other bands, not any labels looking to support new bands.
Whirlpool: Some people expect immediate results from playing someplace like that, but it may be months before you start noticing the nice aftershocks of it.
Dave: This trip has stirred a little interest, because when people find out that we've left and gone someplace else to play out of state they are like, "OH! YOU GUYS WENT TO NEW YORK?!! I'LL HAVE TO COME CHECK YOU OUT NOW!!" Seriously, what an attitude there is here!
Kimber: There is also a subtle attitude in the state that Arizona bands suck.
Dave: Why do people have to feel something has to come from the outside for it to be fresh and new?
Brandon: But it is a lot of fun when we do shows and people come up afterwards and ask where we're from! People from here!
Kimber: When we played with the Swirlies, a girl and her mom asked us for autographs and how long we'd been on the road. We thought, "Is this for real?
Brandon: Most people are happy as hell to find out we are from here.
Dave: We even catch some people who say, "Well, I haven't seen you guys play at Gibson's!"
Whirlpool: Well, not too many people go out hunting for cool bands. They think the house bands at Gibson's or Long Wong's are what Arizona has to offer as far as "cutting edge bands..." what a joke! Anyway, I'd like you to touch a bit more on the relationship you have with I.P.R. and Bruce Licher.
Kimber: It's funny, the first thing out of people's mouths when they found out we went to C.M.J. is, "Hey, any label interest?" My response is, "We already have a label that's very interested in us, that we're very interested in working with. What are you talking about?" I don't think of l.P.R. as a stepping stone, Bruce is the guy I like working with and that's it! What do you mean label interest? Going out of the state, we ran into so many people that were like, "Oh wow! You guys are on I.P.R. How cool!" Whereas in-state it's like, "Wow, you did this yourself?"
Brandon: Or it's like, "Oh, the label is in Sedona... mmm, a local label."
Dave: People act like it's not legitimate.
Kimber: It's bizarre, because long before we were on this label, we were collecting stuff from it. Brandon and I both have large early I.P.R. collections and I've always carried it in my store. It's amazing how many people are oblivious.., it's like (real slow) have.., you... heard... of... S.A.V..A..G..E....R..E..P..U..B..L..I..C?
Brandon: The reason things have worked so well is because our approach is so down to earth and low key and I feel Bruce runs the label in the same manner. Our relationship is on a very personal level.
Whirlpool: I'll say, he's sitting in the room right now!
Dave: He's a very trustworthy guy.
Kimber: He's been very encouraging and honest with us. He's not afraid to say when he thinks we should rework things, if he isn't overly confident in it. He doesn't hesitate to say when he really loves something. He's been to rehearsals and made suggestions as to what we should keep or discard.
Brandon: There's no facade there either. He's let us on to how the label works; it's very small scale and not a real money making thing.
Kimber: He doesn't compromise. If he doesn't like something, he doesn't release it.
Dave: I feel confident being the newcumber, the newcomer, the cucumber? (all laugh) After having had experience being in another band on another label (the band was Ecotour, the label was Chameleon, ed.), I feel I can trust Bruce. There aren't going to be any outlandish promises made, or...
Kimber: . ..he's not going to do a secret dance re-mix version behind our backs!
Dave: No unrealistic goals spoon-fed to you, or that we are guaranteed to be in the top ten on the college radio charts. There's no bullshit, it's straightforward. I feel good investing myself into a label that has this much integrity.
Whirlpool: Well, when you keep that approach, like Bruce does, you probably stay closer to the music. There's really not that much between him and the music on his label.
Dave: With my old label, I had to second guess everything they did and everything was, essentially, a fight. Things like that are disruptive to the music and it pulls on people like nothing I've ever seen before.
Brandon: Working at this level is really comfortable. The releases are special with a lot of T.L.C. involved. Every band that I really love, that have had careers with any longevity, have started out at a very small level, released things in limited quantities, and worked through independent sources. I feel that we are on that kind of route. It's worked before and in a manner that is still respectable.
Whirlpool: Most bands around here aren't aware of other alternative routes to get their music out there. Everyone, looks to the Gin Blossoms and Dead Hot for the path to follow, you know that route of playing five nights a week till maybe something happens.
Dave: Everyone is waiting for a big major label to come in, sign them, and solve all their problems.
Kimber: We shouldn't overlook bands like SoulWhirlingSomewhere, Lycia, and lovesliescrushing who haven't taken those established routes, but are from around here and still made advances.
Dave: From my experience with Chameleon Records, and having spent other people's money to make records, I must say that I've made better records on four track than going into some big studio. There's no reason to go that route, but people find it appealing when you get a nice bonus and get to buy brand new equipment and set-ups. It's attractive, but most bands get signed and end up being just a good tax write-off. They make a first record and get dumped.
Kimber: You say to yourself, "Well, after that they could continue and get back on an indie," but they've had their hopes up so much that they usually end up breaking up. They lose their perspective on why they started in the first place. They think if they're not on a major label, they have no reason to play. It distorts things.
Dave: Look at the D.C. scenes like Teen Beat and the Simple Machines crowd, they are being raped by the majors. The scenes are based on support, bands supporting each other, struggling. Once those bands get picked up, the whole heart's going to drop out of it and it won't stick together.
Brandon: It's the cycle of life though!
Kimber: I want to know what Matt thinks!
Whirlpool: Yeah, the quiet one!
Matt: I haven't had any questions directed at me.
Dave: (whispers) He's been eating ginger snaps.
Whirlpool: OK... Say Matt, how do you like those ginger snaps?
all gone! I'm sorry.