Alexi Glickman always looked down on nonstandard ways of tuning the guitar, seeing them as a kind of cheating. But sometime around 2010, Glickman needed all the help he could get. His band the Botticellis, composed of many longtime friends, had splintered after one acclaimed album. He'd lost a romantic relationship. He was adrift, living in the Sunset, working with friends' projects as a half-hearted way to stay in music, unsure of his own efforts, even questioning his sanity.
Then Glickman started messing around with his guitar's six tuning pegs. And what he arrived at — basically a D-major open-tuning "with a couple of extra dealie-bobs" — let the ideas inside of him flow out. "It opened up this whole sound that was not possible in standard tuning, which I'm going to call dreamy and lush and sad," Glickman explains. "I was able to write these songs that I'd been wanting to write for a while, I just didn't know how to access [them]."
Those songs have become Fourth Dementia, the debut album by Glickman's new band, Sandy's. Fourth Dementia is indeed dreamy, and lush, and sad: Like the best pop music, it wraps the shards of Glickman's emotional crisis inside deceptively pretty songs. Layers of glassy guitars and 1,000-thread-count vocal harmonies run together into seamless ribbons, the aural equivalent of swimming on a balmy afternoon when you can't tell where the air stops and the water begins. The sound is part Beach House — humid doldrums of clean guitars — and part breezy Beach Boys pop. Which is how Glickman, a lifelong surfer, envisioned it. "When Brian Wilson writes [his] songs, it feels like the ocean," Glickman says. "I've always found peace and rejuvenation in surfing and being in the water."
Though it may have been inspired by the ocean, Fourth Dementia is not an easygoing ode to sun and surf. Even its most upbeat-seeming songs reveal the loss, malaise, and hopelessness that dogged Glickman in the period after the Botticellis broke up. The shimmering chords and breezy tempo of "Great Highway" hide a lament: "Great Highway, promise to roll these blues away/ But they stay, but they stay, but they stay." It's a dead-simple song when judged by its components, but the mingling of sonics and sentiment begs for repeat listening. "Sisters," perhaps the album's darkest track, envelopes its narrator's paralysis in acoustic guitars, mandolin, and marimba: "If I don't get up today, if I don't make it out today, if I can't leave today, is today still today?"
It wasn't entirely the breakup of the Botticellis that drove Glickman to this state, but that was a major contribution. "The wavelength that we were all on creatively was amazing, but the opposite of that was the relationships were really strained," Glickman says of the band, which he founded with friends from his days studying music at UC Santa Cruz. "We were living together and working together, and it just couldn't hold the weight, which was really sad."
After the Botticellis disbanded, two of its members joined Sonny and the Sunsets. Glickman put his creative energies into helping his friend Kyle Field produce the Little Wings album Black Grass, while touring with that band and working on a few of his own songs. He had been writing for the Botticellis' second album before the breakup, and some of those ideas made it to Fourth Dementia, songs like "Lonely Hunter," "The Prodigal," and "Lucy Lucia" — albeit in a different form, and years later. (Glickman's occasional collaborator, Blythe Foster, also co-wrote seven songs on the album.)
Though Glickman, now 32, has been putting out tapes since he was 9, he seriously doubted for a period whether he should continue making music. In 2012, he was "halfway faking lunges at wanting to do music again," playing a low-key Sandy's show at the Park Life gallery in the Richmond District, when the noted surf artist Thomas Campbell approached him afterward, enthusiastic about the music. His encouragement and feedback gave Glickman the confidence he needed to finish the Sandy's album, which Campbell released through his new Um Yeah Arts label.
Campbell also helped Glickman obtain artwork for the album. The otherworldly figure on the cover is a calabi yau, one possible two-dimensional representation of what six-dimensional space-time might look like. For Glickman, the figure had a special resonance: "Physicists probing string theory and very small volumes of space and finding that it's this very violent situation made sense to me, especially when I was making the record. When you're working on a song, it's this very small thing, but it's also this whole universe. It really feels like you are focusing this laser beam from your mind on this tiny volume of space and probing it."
This process was slow and painful for Glickman, but ultimately rewarding. Fourth Dementia is a strong debut, with deeply felt songs built of unusually rich textures. Though he's reluctant to go into much detail over the phone — Glickman is in happier times now, living on Mount Tam, surfing, and teaching guitar at a music studio attached to a surf shop in Marin — it's clear that the struggle of making Fourth Dementia went far beyond finding a new way to tune his guitar. "I would never want to make that record again, because it took so much out of me," Glickman says. "But I'm glad I did make it and I'm still kicking around."