For the past three years, 20 Minute Loop's members -- singer/keyboardist Atkins, bassist Erickson, singer/guitarist Giles, guitarist Joe Ostrowski, and drummer Ethan Turner -- have artfully disguised Giles' desolate themes, wrapping them in happy hooks. With the release of its sophomore album, Decline of Day, however, the band plunges into grimmer territory, pushing its dark side to the surface. While the new songs reveal bleaker thoughts and thornier music, the band insists the process is therapeutic, like installing a doggie door for the soul and sending the demons out to play.
"Life's pretty difficult," says main songwriter Giles during an interview at Ostrowski's San Rafael home. "Sometimes it's just downright dismal. But I have a really strong love of life, and I [like] the idea of being jubilant in the face of panic, depression, or any kind of darkness. In spite of all that. Or because of it."
Giles and Atkins started performing Giles' downbeat songs in Marin County in 1997. The band version of 20 Minute Loop -- including Ostrowski -- came together in 1998; the quintet self-released its eponymous debut in August of the following year. Turner, who also plays drums for longtime folk rocker Jesse Colin Young, joined the band as the record was being completed, and Erickson entered the picture this year, picking up bass after playing guitar in the Mad Cattle Ensemble and the New Morty Show. All the members have some connection to Marin County, either living or working there. But given the poor reception their music has received in that jam band-friendly community, the bandmates consider San Francisco their home. "Our music doesn't really fit into Marin County at all," says Giles.
"We've made it a point not to," says Erickson.
Where 20 Minute Loop's music does find a home is at small San Francisco and East Bay venues, where its raw vocal exchanges, emotional lyrics, and off-kilter guitar and organ riffs strike a deep chord. Onstage, there's an unmistakable chemistry between Giles and Atkins -- most likely stemming from an on-again, off-again romance that ended a year and a half ago. This bit of history injects the band's music with an intense emotional sensibility. It's hard not to see a song like Atkins' new "Force of Habit" as a heart felt confession, as the pair sings, "And in the morning, we won't remember/ Why we're finessing a way of keeping each other down/ We'll stay up all night/ It's a force of habit/ And that's not how it ought to be." Throughout 20ML's tunes, the duo shares an intimacy that's as deliciously painful as the scrape of 5 o'clock shadow on a lover's cheek.
"We've actually been through a lot together, and luckily we've come out on the other side," says Atkins. "I feel really blessed, knowing somebody in every possible way."
"That's a very hard situation that most people don't survive," Ostrowski says. "The fact that we've all devoted ourselves -- and especially [the two of] them -- to seeing that what we're doing is worth going through is really a good sign."
"As long as they never sleep together again," quips Turner, who's witnessed his share of rehearsal-breaking spats.
While the group's first album featured a frenetic, hook-a-minute thrust, Decline of Day is far more diverse, with emotionally taut ballads interspersed between the band's winding epics. The album, recorded in Turner's studio in Inverness, sticks to slower rhythms, letting minor keys carry the weight of the tunes. Atkins' voice has matured since the earlier record. Now, she counters Giles' sorrow with tenderness and battles his vocal frenzies with tough-chick brawn. Meanwhile, Giles moves between punk rage and a weathered, ragged edge that eclipses his previous singer/songwriter sensibility.
The group's playing is more complex as well. While Atkins coaxes buzz-soaked melodies from her vintage Korg 770 keyboard (a "wannabe mini-Moog contraption," she calls it), Giles strums an acoustic guitar and Ostrowski yanks jangly riffs from his electric. Frequent time changes and a handful of musical extras -- megaphone vocals, xylophone, flute licks -- build a sound that's both challenging and hooky enough for pop junkies.
The aim for Decline of Day was to craft a more textured album than the debut's simple feel. "We wanted to go in and just fuck around, take advantage of the fact that you're in a studio," says Atkins. While there are some vocal overdubs and a lot more instruments in the mix, Decline succeeds on the strength of its complex arrangements. The band credits producer Chris Manning, bassist for early '90s local phenom Jellyfish and engineer for Metallica, Guster, and Santana, with the change.
"He's sort of a sixth member, really," says Atkins. "He's got a great vision for this band."
Manning says that producing 20 Minute Loop's album bolstered his respect for the group. "They're some of the finest song craftsmen I've worked with," he says. "It really comes across as naked and raw and in your face."
Decline is at its rawest on the song "Mompha Termina," in which Atkins delivers a stream of wordless vocals, her voice rising to a feverish wail amidst Ostrowski's squalling guitar and Turner's breakneck drumming. (Atkins calls the song her ode to Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction, with whom she's obsessed.) The album's best track, "Hell in a Handbasket," melds 20ML's two great strengths: abstract, image-laden lyrics ("Clothing stretched across a stone, cold cigarettes and chicken bones are all he left/ Stinking tide reminds a rat of better times and all the bread he left behind") and a hyperactive sense of rhythm built from a syncopated bass and vocal section, a chiming guitar, and a flute-backed chorus.
Headier instrumental arrangements aren't the only ambitious new moves, though. Atkins and Giles exhibit more elaborate lyrical roles as well. On "Pilot Light," the singers trade lyrics in a dissection of a relationship between a performer and a female concertgoer. After the pair take turns describing the girl, Giles rips into her faults: "She could fit a cue ball inside her mouth and whistle/ Thereby demonstrating everything: Her backward logic, hatred, and painful headtrip." Then, Atkins becomes the poor girl, building sympathy as she sings, "I checked the pilot light, it's out, we're in for one cold night/ I must admit, I'm terrified of spiders, shadows, bloodshot eyes."
In the past, such finely detailed lyrics and emotional turmoil has brought the group a dedicated following both locally and farther afield. Atkins fondly recalls a kid from New Jersey who downloaded a 20 Minute Loop song off Napster and showed up at the band's Starry Plough show -- with a gaggle of his field-tripping high school classmates in tow. "It's really different to play for kids because they're not jaded, [they're not] standing there with their arms crossed," says Atkins. "They're just generally into music. This kid said he lived near Hoboken, and Yo La Tengo was his favorite band. I was like, "Jesus, this kid's 16 years old, and Yo La Tengo's his favorite band!' That is cool. He's not listening to [rap-metal act] Linkin Park."
"They were just so inspirational to me," she adds. "It made me really sort of hopeful."
It remains to be seen whether or not 20 Minute Loop's darker approach will connect as well with its fans. While the band is happy with the new record, Giles isn't sure what will happen next. "We're still morphing into something," he says. "I don't know what it is; I don't know what it's going to sound like eventually. But you can sense the disparity on the new album."