"[It's] an incredibly bad name that we have," he exclaims during an interview at the Latin American Club, a cozy, dimly lit bar in the Mission, seated next to bandmates Odessa Chen, Jason Gonzales, and Brian Fraser. (Chen sings backup vocals; the latter two mix it up on drums, synths, samplers, and guitars.)
So why did he choose such an appalling appellation?
"We liked the name 'The Shallows' because, well, we liked the multiple meanings," Kesler says. "And then we put the two E's on there because we thought that was good."
An odd thought, that. Made even odder by the fact that someone else already had it: Shortly after playing his first few shows as Thee Shallows, Kesler received a cease-and-desist order informing him that the name was already spoken for.
"So then we had to put the 'more' on there because of some battle of two bands no one's ever heard about," he continues. "And we ended up with this awful piece of real estate that we continue to occupy."
But hey, at least it's a memorable name. Besides, as Kesler points out, "It's a bad name, but, whatever. Names are good if the music is good."
Indeed. And in early 2002, when Thee More Shallows released their debut album, A History of Sport Fishing, there were a lot of people who agreed that the music therein was, in fact, good -- possibly great -- especially people in England, where the album received glowing reviews in a number of high-profile pubs such as the London Times, which gave it four out of four stars, and Mojo. In addition to dates up and down the West Coast, the band played a European tour in support of Sport Fishing. Thanks to increasing critical support, a fan base grew and grew. Thee More Shallows, in spite of their lame handle, were well on their way to something bigger. What they needed most was a solid follow-up to Sport Fishing that could cement them as something more than a flash-in-the-pan act. And so Kesler went to work, hunkering down in his newly constructed recording studio in West Oakland. And the work went on. And on. And on.
"I disappeared," says Kesler. "I would spend 12 to 15 hours a day there by myself, going crazy, trying to manipulate the minutiae of sound, tweaking on a toy piano part for an entire day, totally unnecessary things. And in the process I dropped off the map."
It's now almost three years later, and that follow-up has finally arrived, and it is spectacular. Bigger in scope and vision, full of disparate sounds like French horns, strings, guitars, and musical saw, and sonically sparkling like the Turtle Waxed grill of a '65 Corvette, More Deep Cuts was worth the wait. There's just one problem: You can't buy it, at least not in the States. Kesler and company can't find a label to put it out.
As the songwriter puts it, "I think the process of making the album, which was pretty epic and saw me becoming completely cloistered and consumed with writing and recording, made people forget we existed."
Thee More Shallows began as the musical project of two friends, Kesler and Tadas Kisielius, who knew each from their college days at the University of Michigan. When the pair moved to the Bay Area, they started a band called Shackelton, which had a one-year run playing local clubs in 1999 before it imploded. After that, Kesler and Kisielius decided to become a duo. They contacted a poet friend of theirs and asked for a list of potential band names. The Shallows topped that list, and, well, you know the rest. In 2001, they recorded Sport Fishing on an eight-track in three months, and put it out with S.F. label Megalon. They weren't expecting much attention, let alone the kind of critical praise they ended up receiving.
The material on Sport Fishing projects both confidence and vulnerability. Much of it consists of melancholy, atmospheric, atypically arranged pop songs, like "Where Are You Now," which is simply a four-minute buildup in which an elliptical guitar line and gently throbbing drums grow heavier and heavier as Kesler delivers his breathy sing-speak; the effect is of a voice that sounds as if it's whispering confessions to you in a low-lit bedroom at 3 in the morning, as increasingly busy music rumbles beneath. Elsewhere we see just how many tricks the duo has up its sleeve: "Pulchritude" is a 2-1/2-minute instrumental piece in which violins (Kesler and Kisielius are classically trained) dance anxiously around plucked guitars; the title track is a seven-minute epic that winds its way through languid, organ-drenched verses, ultimately ramping up to a tension-releasing, distorted-guitar-and-toy-piano-laden climax. It's no wonder that when people tried to compare this band to others, everyone from Scottish noise-assault artists Mogwai to whimsical indie-popsters Death Cab for Cutie came to mind.
Sport Fishing is wide-ranging and addicting. Unfortunately, however, halfway into recording its sequel, Kisielius decided it was time to move on. He had put a career as a lawyer on hold to focus on music, but when he got an offer to move up to Seattle for a job, he took it, leaving Kesler to fend for himself, which proved difficult.
"The thing that Tadas provided me," Kesler says, "was somebody who could walk in and say, 'That's good, you should continue with that angle,' or, 'That's not so good, just stop that,' or, 'That's done.' If I don't know that something's done, I will work it to the bone."
Which is what happened with this new recording. When Kesler's bandmates are asked about their frontman's tendency to obsess over a particular musical idea, they laugh.
"I won't mention the four-measure drum fill that he had me do for about three or four hours, over and over again," says Gonzales.
"He's such a tinkerer," adds Chen. "If I'm working on my music, and I'm sitting for five hours and not getting anywhere, but still tweaking and tweaking, it's like, 'I'm pulling a David.'"
To judge from the results on More Deep Cuts, pulling a David may not be such a bad thing. The album opens with the skittering electro drumbeats of "Post-Present" and the lyrics, "Let's not go out/ Let's not stay up late/ Let's not go out/ Let's not celebrate," apt lines that get at Kesler's reclusive, self-effacing nature. The tune itself, however, is slightly mischievous: Its effervescent clip belies the heady, meticulously crafted songs that are to follow. Take "Cloisterphobia," for instance, an eerie piece of music whose clean guitar melody rides a marching, escalating drumbeat through a fog of moaning, atmospheric sounds as it builds to a noisy climax. Or the first of two instrumental songs simply titled "Int," in which we find a musical saw (compliments of guest musician Enzo Garcia) singing a duet with a placid acoustic guitar.
Throughout the record, Kesler proves that he's mastered the art of the slow-building indie rock song. But he's also improved his ear for hooks, too, as evidenced by tracks like "Ave Grave," which embeds Kesler's snappy melodic singing and a chipper bass line within ghostly female backing vocals, or the album-closing "House Break," a grand waltz of a track that explodes out of the gate with bellowing organs and shimmering guitars before receding to almost nothing so that Kesler can whisper his trademark sing-speak.
At the moment, Kesler and company are holding out to see if the album's September release in England, and the accolades it is beginning to receive in British rags like Uncut (Kesler says the magazine is giving the album a rare, four-out-of-four stars in an upcoming issue), will prompt any U.S. label interest. In the meantime, the band has a show this Sunday at the Bottom of the Hill, a monthlong Wednesday night residency at the Hotel Utah in September, and a Northwest tour planned for the fall. Aside from a gig the group played in March, these are the first Thee More Shallows shows in close to a year.
"There's no other way it could have happened," Kesler says when I ask him if he regrets going MIA to compose Cuts, and probably losing a lot of fans in the process. "I wish that I could have been faster making it, and I think I could have definitely been going out and talking to other bands, and being inspired by music, instead of being so cloistered. That I do regret.
"But I can't regret how long the album took, because it took as long as it was meant to."