Creative differences. It’s the crusty catchall for nearly every band breakup that doesn’t involve someone schtoopin’ someone they shouldn’t be (see Fleetwood Mac). Of course, creative conflicts can be the single most important element in a band’s makeup, which could be the case with Seattle-based Pretty Girls Make Graves.
Prior to a gig at Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill, N.C., there’s an immediate sense of the band members’ disparate personalities. Minutes after the sound check, striking, charcoal-haired singer Andrea Zollo and bassist Derek Fudesco disappear in search of food. Jay Clark (guitar/keyboards) prefers to stay behind. Only guitarist Nathan Thelen and drummer Nick Dewitt slip behind the club for a bit of conversation and some weed.
Thelen and Dewitt welcome the herb like an oasis in the Sahara. On a rainy day, the two could be your stereotypical skinny white-boy indie-rockers touring Anytown, USA. But from this vantage, they’re too nice and their music is too big for them to be dismissed as such. The two are candid about the band’s heady brew of personalities, pointing to it as a major factor in the more polished and better-arranged sound of their latest album, The New Romance, vs. the chaotic, raw muscle-flex of their 2002 debut, Good Health.
“The first album we were still getting to know each other a lot,” explains Dewitt. “There was a lot of infighting, so the outcome of that was it sounds a little argumentative — because we were playing on top of each other, sort of ignoring what everyone else was doing,”
This creative push-me-pull-you makes songwriting a rather arduous process. “We’ll come up with a part and we’ll think it’s great, and the next day it’s not so great. Or one person will like it and no one else will,” says Thelen. “After touring so long, everyone has all these ideas that are festering and you never get a chance to work on it. So when we get back to practice everyone wants to play what they’ve been thinking of writing, and no one wants to listen to what anyone else has done because they’re too excited about what they’ve done.”
Dewitt says recent rehearsals have been trying. “Just to establish a basic idea that’s exciting for everyone to move on,” he says. “What we’ve been trying to do lately is give everyone a chance to bring something in, and we’ll all collectively work with the one person.”
So you could say the band is founded on “healthy” bits of conflict, considering that Thelen nearly picked a fight with Clark at a bar when they met a couple weeks before Clark joined the band. “I was drunk,” explains Thelen, simply. After rounds of pool and an all-night album-listening/bullshit session at Dewitt’s house, the two became pals. A subtle imprint of this collective willfulness can be heard — and felt — in the different directions and tone of the band’s music.
Ostensibly a post-punk hard-rock band, there are slabs of Siouxsie and the Banshees/Fugazi-inspired linear riffage on display, whipping like cars racing in opposite direction around an oval track. Elements of ’80s goth are heard in the occasional synth overtones; the sexy dark strut of Zollo’s vocals brings to mind Pauline Murray of unheralded UK punk band Penetration. The drums recall the tortured-disco shimmy of Gang of Four. Beneath it all, Fudesco’s bass is the redheaded stepchild, throbbing with the intensity of early hardcore. Together the disparate sounds seem at once familiar and yet intriguingly different, above and beyond your typical art-house punk.
Fudesco rounds the corner and says heartily, “hell, yeah!,” when offered a toke. He exhales and addresses his central role of dealing with the more tedious aspects of being in a band. “I’m crazy and I think about that kind of shit no one else does, and I don’t know why I do. … I didn’t do it in the [Murder City] Devils. I could have been a wheel [in that band].”
Well, bands will be bands and clichés will always become hard-won truths. Pleasantly stoned on this cool Carolina evening, we sit and shoot the shit. Aside from Thelen complaining about the mosquitoes, the night is shaping up. It’s going to be one that is unruffled and calm.
See Pretty Girls Make Graves Wednesday, Oct. 29, with Cobra High, Cinema Eye and Mahjongg at the Shelter (431 E. Congress, Detroit). For info, call 313-961-MELT.Chris Parker is a freelance writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org