by Keavin Wiggins
Before you begin reading, go right now and download a song from mellowdrone.com (or click here to launch the jukebox)…. mellowdrone is one of those artists that proves frustrating to critics because trying to adequately describe the music in words is an exercise in futility. The music indeed must speak for itself. Don't cheat, go download a song and start playing one before you continue. "worst song ever" is a good first choice.
Ok, are you singing along yet? Here is some help.. "go to sleep / go to sleep, i'll watch you sweat / spider bite, panic attack, i'm lost for words.." Ok now back to the article.
If you ask Jonathan Bates the deep meaning behind his songs, he is likely to either answer with sarcasm or shrug it off. He probably feels the songs provide the answers and no amount of pontificating will substitute for the act of just sitting back and really listening to the melodies and taking in the lyrics. Each mellowdrone release gives us not only a glimpse at the evolution of the band but of Jonathan. Instead of baring his heart out to self-important rock critics, he appears to place everything within his songs—his frustrations, his questions, and his view of a world that is slightly mad--but also his triumphs, hopes and dreams.
Lyrically Jonathan may just be the E. E. Cummings of modern rock. The truth is illuminated through the scattered thoughts outlined in the songs. But are they really scattered? Or are they part of a cohesive whole that tells the story of mellowdrone? That is up to the listener to decide.
Musically, mellowdrone is an island until itself. While some will easily identify the melodic phrasing with bands such as Radiohead, you really have to travel further back in rock history to find a another band that employed similar melodic sensibilities with a multi-textured sound and intriguing lyrics—yes, the latter day music of those four lads from Liverpool. Listen to "worst song ever" again, and then listen to "Across the Universe" or "Strawberry Fields." Hear, the subtle similarities?
Jonathan Bates would stand out in any musical crowd--From his compelling music to his unusual story and of course his sense of humor and outlook on life. Some of you may be asking right about now--why all the focus on Jonathan Bates? What about the rest of the band? The answer is simple; until recently, mellowdrone was Jonathan Bates.
The reader will forgive me as I take a little detour at this point and become a little less informal and a bit more self-indulgent, because I feel I need to go over my own first impression of mellowdrone in order to tell the story.
My first exposure to mellowdrone was when I was sent a review copy of his first ARTISTdirect EP, a demonstration of intellectual property. What usually happens when I get a CD in to review is I give it a few spins and then do a little research on the artist's background and then get cracking on the review. When I put this CD in, I was immediately taken in by it. There was an understated brilliance to it that you just don't hear on most of the over produced music these days. Normally I don't bother with the "official" bios that usually accompany CDs, because they are typically nothing more than a marketing tool with platitudes about how great the artist is. But in this case I was intrigued and reading the official bio only increased my interest. At that time, mellowdrone was simply a one-man band—Jonathan Bates. But not only that, Jonathan had produced the EP all on his own, recording the songs "lovingly in his bedroom". I was amazed at not only his musical talent, which stands out from the crowd, but by what he was able to accomplish as a producer. This low-tech EP sounded better than most CDs recorded in expensive recording studios with big gun producers. Armed only with an old Mac computer, a piece of shareware recording software, his guitar and a cheap keyboard from Radioshack, Jonathan was able to bring his musical creations to life and masterfully produce an EP worthy of attention.
All music falls into the "you either get it or you don't" category but there is getting it and then there is connecting with it. With mellowdrone, unless you connect with the brilliance at work, then you really never will "get it". While the music has its commercial appeal, it does fall into the art apposed to the product category. Turn on the radio and you will hear plenty of musical product that is nicely packaged to sell, but you will find very little art.
I had the good fortune of being able to drop in on the band in the studio while they were putting the finishing touches on their forthcoming full-length debut album. While I was there, I was able to talk to all of the members of the group, including Jonathan. While we didn't delve deep into his life story, he did give me an overview of the history of mellowdrone—how it evolved from him recording songs on an old Mac in his bedroom to the full blown band they are now and how the music has taken a similar metamorphosis. And what propelled him into music in the first place.
It started simple enough, Jonathan found refuge in music, and that started him down the path. "As clichéd as it is to say, I got beat up a lot and was not good at sports so I stayed home a lot and did drugs and played guitar, that's all I did," says Jonathan.
Having found his calling, Jonathan set out to pursue his muse. "I had been living in Miami until I was 17 and I moved to Boston, went to school there for a bit [Jonathan won a scholarship to the famed Berklee School of Music]. Nothing against the city itself, weather-wise it was f***ing miserable and I couldn't deal with it. So a friend of mine had called me out here [LA] to do some shows, he wanted to work me and stuff… I came out here, its f***ing paradise. So I got out here, I quit school immediately and sold all my Boston s*** and couched it for a couple of months. 8, 9 months later, by accident I get a record deal and can afford to live in my own place."
There is a bit more to it than that. The cold Boston winter kept Jonathan inside, where he started honing his skills as a producer. As soon as Jonathan hit LA, he started playing shows around town and heads turned immediately. A mellowdrone performance is hard to describe. It's not just the one man band aspect that turned heads, but Jonathan's humor from the stage and spontaneous nature. It wasn't unusual for Jonathan to capture a laugh from an audience member, sample it and incorporate it into the music on the spot.
The temperament of the music is what gave birth to the name mellowdrone. The early music had a mellow multi-textured quality to it but also had the distinctive drone. In live performances with Jonathan producing the music all on his own, that mellowdrone took on an amazing hypnotic build up. A song would start off with a simple guitar but as it went along Jonathan would add other elements from samples, drum loops and before you knew it, the music coming from one man on the stage sounded more complex than what you might hear from a full band. Once Jonathan hit LA, a buzz began to quickly build, even among the city's most gifted musicians. mellowdrone was something that you HAD to experience.
Meanwhile, Jonathan wasn't going to wait around for things to happen. While he was winning people over with his live shows, demos and early EPs, he also began to send out demos to record companies in hopes of landing the big record deal. It really happened quickly; Ryan Ayanian heard his music and offered his services as a manager. Then the A&R man that discovered Beck and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Tony Berg, heard the music and was equally impressed. Jonathan and Berg had an instant mutual respect. Berg knew where Jonathan was coming from musically, and Jonathan respected Berg's opinion, not only because of his experience in the business, but because he is also a musician.
It was a no brainer for Berg--he signed mellowdrone to ARTISTdirect Records, which was a new label headed by Interscope founder Ted Fields. Other labels were very interested in signing mellowdrone, including some of the majors, but Jonathan and his co-manager Ayanian felt that the forward-looking ARTISTdirect was the best label to go with since they seemed to understand where Jonathan was coming from and were also not shy about breaking industry rules to help promote their artists. This was evident with the label agreeing to release the first EP as a free digital download from the mellowdrone website. At a time when the major labels were fighting the Internet and piracy, this crazy artist and their crazy label were giving away the music for free! But it was a smart move that helped build mellowdrone's audience. The EP was released a few months later to retail as a real CD, but the download idea was just as unconventional as Jonathan's music and it made perfect sense.
That EP, a demonstration of intellectual property, earned Jonathan critical praise and also the main support spot on Johnny Marr's 2003 tour. Once the tour was completed, Jonathan went into the studio to begin work on his full-length debut. Then a funny thing happened, mellowdrone went from a solo project to a full-blown band. There were a few incarnations before the lineup solidified with Jonathan on guitar and lead vocals, Greg Griffith on bass, Tony De Matteo on guitar, and Scott Ellis on drums.
"I was friends with all of these guys," explains Jonathan. "Each of these guys are amazing songwriters themselves and are really good at their instruments and we're all just one upping each other, which is great…. We only hang out with each other as well; it just seems like the perfect thing."
The new EP, go get em tiger, was produced in transition, and as such it gives us a glimpse at the continued evolution of mellowdrone. Jonathan explains, "Half was recorded with all of us and half was me by myself in a real studio." The results are just as impressive as the intellectual property EP, if not a bit more refined.
Jonathan once again paints a captivating musical tapestry of sound, with interwoven elements that mesh beautifully. Most musicians or producers couldn't pull this off, the results would sound muddy, but with mellowdrone there is a crispness and coherency to the multi-textured music. And while some of the lyrics may convey what may be perceived as a dark message, Jonathan is enthusiastic and seems genuinely grateful to be able to make his music. "I did a lot, I did construction, I did day jobs, and you know being a musician is really, really hard and it's just as hard as any other day job," says Jonathan. "The only difference is it's a lot more f***ing fun. It's grueling when you're touring and no one knows who you are or gives a f***. It's hard work but its so much fun."
Most EPs fall into the category of "so what?" but with mellowdrone, the music is compelling enough to measure the importance of a full-length album. And while most people would hold off and wait for the full-length, that isn't advisable here because with mellowdrone it is all about evolution. The forthcoming debut album will show us a different side to mellowdrone, so you definitely would be cheating yourself if you forgo go get em tiger in anticipation of the full-length album.
Jonathan says that the music produced for the album will still carry some of the characteristics of the music that is now available, but with a full band involved, things have evolved into something different. And unlike his solo recordings, which were meticulous multi-track recordings, for the full-length Jonathan decided to go the opposite direction. "We did it all live," says Jonathan motioning to his bandmates. "[we] went in there and played together and most of it was done like that and then we just fixed whatever needed to be fixed. So we'll be able to recreate this live."
When asked if the new music would still be multi-layered like the songs on intellectual property and tiger, Jonathan says, "vocally, yes. I still love harmonies and stuff like that. The only difference is we're smarter about things so we're doing essentially the same thing but with less work, and everybody is really aware of what they are doing so everything just fits nicely."
But what about the drony sound that has become his trademark? Will we still hear that? "There are a lot of songs that do that. The best way I can put it is ‘it's so simple, it's complicated.'"
However, later on in our conversation Jonathan explains that the new music has a rawer quality to it. The irony of going from his bedroom recording set-up to a state of the art studio and getting the opposite effect in each isn't lost on Jonathan, but when you think about it, it really is keeping in character. "Now I have access to anything I want to do recording wise and we're making it the rawest recording sound as possible. When I had the s***tiest equipment, I made it sound just like professionals and I'm doing the opposite."
Some may be alarmed by this evolution, but keep in mind that some of the greatest bands in history made massive changes between recordings. Think about it, in just three years The Beatles went from "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" to "Strawberry Fields". Part of the problem with music today is that far too many artists play it safe and do not evolve or experiment. Fortunately, mellowdrone is not one of those artists.
The bad news is you will have to wait a
little while longer to hear this next chapter in the mellowdrone story.
The great news is you can get your hands on go get em tiger right now
(and a demonstration of intellectual property). Like I said
before, mellowdrone is one of those groups that you will either make a
connection with or not get at all. In an age bogged down with insipid product
masquerading as art, mellowdrone does stand out from the crowd and go get
em tiger is an important recording for not only this reason, but because
the music should be heard and appreciated. It may make it harder to listen
to fluff on the radio once you have a taste of mellowdrone, but unlike
the majority of that music, most people will walk away from buying this
EP and know they made a wise purchase.
Photos courtesy of ARTISTdirect