In their six short years together, the bio of Oakland's the Heavenly States sounds like the premise for a Hollywood movie about a band trying to make the big time.
To begin with, frontman Ted Nesseth, a southpaw who plays his right-handed guitar upside down and backward — just because no left-handed one was available at the time — recently married Genevieve Gagon, the band's violinist and keyboard player, a union they best describe as "embroilment." He met her through drummer Jeremy Gagon, her brother, who years ago responded to Nesseth's Craigslist ad that sought, not a percussionist, but someone with a thick skin to live "with a crappy housemate unwilling to change his habits." Bassist Masanori Christianson, a high school buddy of Nesseth's from the same small Minnesota town, joined up in 2005 when the band rescued him from a bartending gig at a Latin gang establishment in Los Angeles.
Add the fact that in 2005, the States, in a very random twist of fate, became the first American band, ever, to play in the North African dictatorship of Libya. Their one show was a tsunami benefit in a British ambassador's basement somewhere in Tripoli before a crowd of mainly drunken British and American foreign service and contractor types, a strange audience for an outspokenly leftist band that had recently released a song listing the names of reported dead Iraqi civilians. The event, while not quite what they expected, bathed the relatively unknown rockers in international media attention, if just for a brief moment in time. (See Feature, "Lock the Casbah," 3/2/05.)
The experience was a PR goldmine for the States, but resulted in a prolonged musical hiatus. They spent nearly a year self-producing a documentary called Borderline about their experiences abroad, but it failed to take off after their record label lost interest. The project laid to rest, the States finally completed their long-awaited third album and the first post-Libya, Delayer, which they released themselves.
"We kind of forgot that bands make records," says Nesseth, the group's gregarious spokesman, armed with a limitless supply of comedic anecdotes. "This is why it's taken us so long to put out a record."
Just back from a show in Seattle, the foursome, all Oakland residents in their thirties, crammed into their tiny West Oakland practice space on a recent Wednesday evening. It's a far cry from the ephemeral touch of glory they experienced in the desert, but they seem satisfied to be making music again and are eagerly preparing for their upcoming album release show at the Independent, their first hometown appearance since December and a prime opportunity to introduce the new album to a loyal local following.
Self-produced and recorded in Berkeley and just released in late February, Delayer is a solid album showcasing the State's indie rock talents. The band delivers a unique, multilayered sound, due in part to Gagon's occasional violin infusions and the strong vocal harmonies she and Nesseth produce together, a blend of the trained ear of the former and the quintessentially hard-rock, gruff vocal exclamations of the latter. Nesseth says this album, which the band starting working on in 2006 in the midst of the whole film escapade, feels a lot more settled than their first two, a result of more time and control. Consistent with their earlier recordings, the album's twelve tracks feature the newlyweds cryptically engaging lyrical compositions, which address the general topic of relationships in their infinite forms. Violinist Gagon says the collaborative songwriting process comes in spurts, a result of random moments of inspiration with lyrics that are completely open for interpretation.
Take, for instance, this verse in My Little Friend: The tragedy, your majesty, is that we are not strangers and this is not a dream.
"I hope people identify with the lyrics in some way," says Nesseth. "All of these are available for a multitude of uses. You can make out to them, slit your wrists, whatever."
The two strongest songs, "The System" and "Lost in the Light," are lyrically and rhythmically simple and direct, comprised mainly of a few power chords, but also immediately catchy driving anthems that highlight the band at its best. While the handful of softer slower tracks, such as "Sun Chase Moon," do make for a striking transition, they come off a bit flat in comparison to the harder-edge tracks that hold the band's momentum. The songs vary widely, even reaching into the realms of folk and country, and it becomes clear midway through Delayer that the States are not interested in being easily definable.
"We were going for moods and states in each story and not every story calls for anthemic guitar riffs," Gagon explains. "We're happy to provide anthemic guitar riffs and pop harmonies for those who need them, but we're also not perfectly centered folks."
Which explains the mixture of crowds at recent shows, including the occasional pockets of hardcore kids. "They wouldn't be caught dead listening to anybody's weepy songs," says Nesseth. "But they listen to us. It's flattering."
The States have developed a solid, if still modest, following in the Bay Area and the handful of other US cities they frequent. And they've gained a bit of an international audience after doing several tours of England and a visit to Australia. Yet, despite all the hype of the Libya venture and the slight prospect of it causing the band to blow up, they are still very much a blue-collar group with day jobs and continue to all squeeze into a single hotel room during their tours to save cash. The lack of glamour is very much incorporated into the band's songs and musical identity.
"It's been a do-it-yourself operation," says Gagon, noting the lack of both capital and support from the industry in a digital age.
Of course, they're certainly not averse to blowing up, but they also don't plan on building their lives around that prospect and feel comfortable with their feet still firmly on the ground.
"The only thing that's ever mattered is getting out, touring," Nesseth says. "Ultimately, we just really dig making records."
And their hardwork may pay off after all. Nesseth says that an up-and-coming Hollywood producer from Libya, Jawal Nga, read about the band's trip in a Newsweek article and contacted them about making a fictionalized account of their experience. A screenplay has reportedly been drafted.