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The music of yesteryear isn't just a stack of records for country-rock's Mover -- it's a way of life

Wednesday, Apr 19 2000
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"How many bands do you go see that have a song called 'Supermodel' or 'Porn Star'?" Mover bassist and singer Michael Therieau asks, pondering the state of modern music.

"Or 'Supermodel Porn Star,'" quips drummer Paul Burkhart.

Mover -- filled out by singer/ rhythm guitarist Eric Shea and lead guitarist Paul Tyler -- has been considering such musical questions lately, as the band has retreated from its frequent local shows to write new material for an album and drop a refreshed set list on fans live in the meantime. It's also a time to rethink the band lineup -- guitarist Matt Murdock recently departed to pursue his own projects. "We're looking for a keyboard player," says the soft-spoken Shea with a serene smile that reveals either an inner happiness or a stoner's Zen. But that might not happen right away, he says. After all, what keyboardist isn't playing Devo or Duran Duran covers four nights a week these days?

In its four years of its existence, Mover has been called a number of things: a Rolling Stones knockoff, a lost chapter from California's early days of emerging country rock, and (slightly to the annoyance of its members) the demeaningly succinct label "retro." "That's just such a tired pan," says Tyler. "If you wanna pan us, pan us in some in new and different way. That's retro-panning." His bandmates nod, but such pigeonholes are far less worrisome than what they're reflective of. As major labels churn out manicured acts whose message is little more than the pop personality itself, good songwriting is no longer even a consideration in what makes a successful band.

With traditional songwriting as its backbone, Mover does recall a bygone era, both in sound and in a commitment to the idea that music should come from the soul. Dipping into the record stacks of three decades back, Mover reins in everything from Big Star, the Byrds, and Gram Parsons' offshoot from that group, the Flying Burrito Brothers. The band members simply call their chosen element "old-fashioned rock 'n' roll," but that modesty sells the complexity of their songwriting short. With all four members writing songs, their catalog ranges from hard-knock rock tunes that could come from a lost Stones album to sublimely textured country-rock love songs that would make Parsons weep. It's these slower tunes that show the band at its best. Wrapping layers of canyon-drenched sound in the moody harmonies of Therieau, Shea, and Tyler, the band members are fluent enough in the music of the last 50 years -- particularly their beloved '60s and '70s -- that it seems any one of them could write a history of rock. And with their record-store-clerk haircuts and thrift-store throwback clothes, Mover's members uphold their ideal in word and deed.

The band's evolution has consistently moved toward more complex songwriting -- in fact, it's moved toward a more fully realized idea of songwriting itself. Its 1996 debut, Original Recipe (on Frank Kozik's Man's Ruin label), reveals a heavy debt to early '70s Stones. (The band even performed as the Rolling Clones from a flatbed truck in the parking lot of the Stones' Bridges to Babylon tour.) "When we first started as a band, just playing rock 'n' roll like that, it was an easy thing to do," says Tyler of Mover's early incarnation. "Easy music -- get four guys together and play. It's a reference point that everyone knows. I wouldn't say that our influences have gotten any broader since the day we started. We're just more confident as songwriters now and more comfortable with each other and each other's abilities that we're able to bring a broader range of influences into our music."

Mover's sophomore effort, The Only One, released on Berkeley's Mod Lang label, was a light-year advancement in songwriting and musicianship, showing a progression toward lucid vocal harmonizing and a focus on more acoustic-oriented songs. Therieau also assumed more singing responsibilities. But The Only One was also closer to how the band conceived of itself. Tyler likens it to a leap in artistic intent. "Frank Kozik told our manager that he wanted something sort of bratty-sounding, so we kind of had to manicure it around that. With the Mod Lang release, we kind of had the freedom to be ourselves more." The band also spent six months recording it, compared to the two weeks spent on Original Recipe.

The new album might take a year, and the band's not quite sure who'll release it, but Mover's members relish the prospect of having enough time to create the album they want. Being able to experiment -- Shea confesses an obsession with microphone placement that can consume hours -- is crucial in both coming up with the best material and making sure the band's music comes across fully. The band also has a lot more material to work with; many of its recent songs focus even more on lyrical harmonies, while balancing Tyler's blues-drenched riffing against Shea on acoustic guitar. In fact, one of the band's primary goals in getting off the stage for a while is to hone a body of acoustic work for live shows, because many of its slower, soul-steeped songs haven't translated as well to bars and clubs.

"We do kind of have this duality where there's these songs that we can't play live," says Shea. "Because we tend to write some moody songs, and people don't really want to go to what they think is a roots-rock band and see a bunch of sad songs. They want hands-clapping, get-your-rocks-off-honey songs."

Shifting Bay Area demographics and the perceived culturally deficient wake that the transition has left have also had an effect. "We're going through this thing right now where San Francisco has changed immensely in the past year and a half," says Tyler. "If you're any kind of artist, it's tough. It doesn't seem like there's a place for you."

Burkhart, the youngest and quietest of the foursome, agrees. "You can see the youth culture disappearing in front of your eyes. I don't even want to go out in the city anymore."

Shea doesn't think the changing climate in San Francisco bodes well for a thriving and dynamic music scene for bands or fans. "There's a handful of local bands we're friends with, but for the most part, I feel really not a part of the Bay Area music scene. Not at all. Maybe I'm being dismissive, but I think there are a lot of bands that strive towards celebrity -- just trying to become famous. The whole concept of celebrity is built on this foundation of really shallow images, usually performed by shallow people."

For Mover, the music's importance has always outweighed any of the members' personalities. There's no bandleader, and songwriting is essentially a democratic exercise. Everyone contributes both in songwriting and in honing each other's material, which not only lends itself to extremely diverse sounds but runs entirely counter to the oft-seen phenomenon in which a band is essentially reduced to an accessory for a charismatic frontman. "You have to make a decision as an artist," Tyler says. "Do I want to be a part of that [aiming for fame], or do I want to strive to make music that's really important? And hopefully someone will think it's important too. Commercially, being the way we are is death."

Death aside, Mover may be part of something larger going on in California music, even if the band doesn't want to admit it. As excitement swirls around bands like Southern California's Beach Boys-on-Ecstasy Beachwood Sparks, and the Mother Hips continue to win over the Twisted Sister generation to their heartfelt, country-tinged ballads, Mover's poised for a moment in music that's simultaneously giving homage to pioneers of the California sound and looking forward to leaving a legacy of its own that's just as rich.

"There's sort of a California 'cosmic American music' thing going on," says Shea, referring to Parsons' term for his Bakersfield-country-meets-California-rock sound, which went on to influence everyone from the Rolling Stones to Teenage Fanclub to today's crop of No Depression revivalists. "But if you mention it, it's in danger of becoming something different."

Tyler, however, won't go quite so far. "As much as I'd like something like that to happen -- 'cause let's face it, it does help you commercially -- I don't think there's even enough of what we're talking about going on in California to even call it anything. I wish there was, but unfortunately there really isn't."

And even if there were, Mover wouldn't necessarily want to be part of it. "At the end of the day, it would be very boring to pin ourselves into the corner with one style," says Shea. "All of us are songwriters now, and we're throwing things on the table. It kind of unfolds like a dream and becomes this wide variety to choose from."

About The Author

Todd Dayton

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