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Rum to the Hills 

Why does the Rum Diary hide its noise-suffused indie rock in the wilds of Cotati?

Wednesday, Jun 5 2002
The members of the Rum Diary are hiding -- and, frankly, it's a little annoying. After nearly three years of hard work, the four musicians are sitting on a pot of indie rock gold, and yet they continue to conceal their spoils in tiny Cotati, a town an hour north of San Francisco that boasts 6,700 residents, one music venue, and California's largest accordion festival. The burg is far from an altrock breeding ground: Local shows tend to bring out more lawn chairs than chain wallets.

But coasting through life in a lawn chair fits the Rum Diary's sensibility just right. After all, solitude has its advantages, not the least of which is the freedom to take one's time. And so, in the smallest room of its practice space -- a weathered red house that sits a few miles off Highway 101 -- the quartet slowly sculpts its music out of an eclectic arrangement of two drum kits and two bass guitars, with some keyboards, guitars, and vocals sprinkled in. The resulting sound takes bits of the genre's present -- the distorted wallop of Mogwai, the melodic complexity of Three Mile Pilot, the pop-friendly edge of Death Cab for Cutie -- and synthesizes them into a style that's both cohesive and original.

This March, the Rum Diary released its debut full-length, Noise Prints, which led a reviewer from the Web zine Geek America to write, "I order anyone who's into sad and experimental music to check out this CD right now." But it's the band's latest EP, The Key to Slow Time (due for release July 15 on Springman Records), that presents a distinctive new vision for indie rock -- one that's sincere without being sentimental, raging while still keeping its cool. The EP's damn good, but it brings up one question: Why is the Rum Diary still hiding in the hills?

It takes just a few moments for the members of the Rum Diary to get noticed when they enter a loud, brightly lit bar in downtown Cotati. As they head to a table, the musicians overhear a blue-collar drunk slur gibberish about their apparent cuteness. It's not exactly name recognition, but as these guys have learned, in a small town like Cotati sometimes you have to take what you can get.

Sitting together, the bandmates -- Daniel McKenzie, Joe Ryckebosch, Schuyler Feekes, and John Fee -- look like college freshman, though their average age is 27. McKenzie (bass/guitar/vocals), Ryckebosch (drums), and Feekes (drums/keyboards) offer more bashful grins than words, while Fee (bass/vocals) is pensive but vocal. Each exudes a quiet charm as well as a hefty amount of modesty, which can be exasperating, like listening to a supermodel talk about getting fat.

As the unofficial leader of the Rum Diary, Fee acts as the primary spokesperson and de facto manager. In addition to holding a degree in business from Sonoma State University, he's also the band member with the most music experience, having played in groups since he was in high school in Southern California. His family moved there in the early '90s; he grew up in Ferndale, where he met McKenzie. When the pair reunited in college, McKenzie offered his services as a vocalist. Since he couldn't play an instrument yet, he and Fee decided on that easiest of styles for nonmusicians: punk.

Before forming the Rum Diary, Fee and McKenzie played in three groups together -- Car Trouble, Mount Decline, and Piper Down -- developing their chops and sound along the way. "We started to get more into Drive Like Jehu and Unwound and Three Mile Pilot," says Fee, naming several arty indie bands that inspired their evolution. "The last song we were putting together [in Piper Down] became the first song of the Rum Diary."

Meanwhile, Feekes and Ryckebosch were playing in another local band called Eucalyptus, a group that focused on droning instrumentals and a distorted wall of sound. With McKenzie and Fee coming from the world of angsty punk and Feekes and Ryckebosch embracing the esoteric white noise of bands like Ride and My Bloody Valentine, the collaboration could have yielded some pretty ugly stuff. As it turns out, the resulting music sounds damn pretty.

"Sunken Fields" is one of the first songs the Rum Diary wrote when the band came together at the end of 1999. Although it was written long ago, the Noise Prints track remains one of the group's most popular tunes -- a sterling illustration of how the band distills a confluence of sounds into something pure and beautiful. (Magnet magazine recently included "Sunken Fields" on its monthly CD-sampler.)

In explanation of the number's duality, Fee says, "Daniel and I wrote the first part, and then, to satisfy these guys, we had to blow our amps out."

In the beginning of the song, McKenzie dangles his pre-pubescent tenor in between Fee's lilting bass lines. Eventually, Feekes' and Ryckebosch's dual drumming pushes the song into a hurricane of percussion and distortion. Where many bands that dabble in sonic chaos descend into noise, the Rum Diary deftly straddles the line between clamor and control, dissonance and melody, hope and desperation.

The group's lyrics also express this balancing act, nailing the conflict between Cotati's bucolic simplicity and the requirements of making a living. On "Slow Transit," a song about traffic jams, McKenzie sings, "Under sunsets, overgrown, open fences/ With fender blows/ In slow transit/ It's like no one ever reaches home." As he relates in the track "On Sunday," "In my town/ Time slows down."

If Noise Prints offers reasons for embracing isolation, The Key to Slow Time proposes motives for stepping out. Though Noise Prints is a beautiful album, it's unfocused at times -- which makes sense, given that it was pieced together from three years of recording sessions, during which the band hadn't fully developed its sound. The Key to Slow Time takes the best parts of the full-length and compresses them into more succinct, accessible songs. The release shows the Rum Diary hitting its stride -- but good luck convincing the musicians of that.

Take the band's new song "Mileage," which is quickly becoming the Rum Diary's show-stopper thanks to the "indie rock drum circle" finish, in which the whole band grabs drumsticks and pounds the melody to a pulp. Fee tries to downplay the material's power: "The [San Diego band] Drop Science was saying, 'That's the ultimate song. You're gonna close the house every time doing a maneuver like that.' But none of us had that idea. We're just going, 'Oh Schuyler, you like to play drums? Well, I like to play drums. So does Daniel! Like, let's just all fuckin' play drums.'"

Then there's "Del Toro," a tune that blends dense percussion and dueling bass riffs into four minutes of pop-infected bliss. McKenzie sums up the band's feelings in the satanically catchy chorus, singing unironically, "'Cause we lack potential/ If nothing else."

This attitude explains why the foursome would rather take off on labor-intensive tours (a recent one featured 18 shows in 18 days across eight states) than pose for photo shoots, even if the average show draws only 20 listeners.

Referring to the band's endeavors thus far, Fee sips his rum and Coke and shrugs. "It's all just kind of like a dress rehearsal."

Of course, the Rum Diary isn't opposed to success -- as evidenced by its religious devotion to recording, touring, and practicing -- but its members are addicted to having control over how they achieve it. As a result, the band chooses to toil in relative solitude, in an old red house in the middle of nowhere. But when the Rum Diary comes out of hiding, its music speaks for itself.

On the group's May tour, for instance, the Rum Diary was scheduled to play an in-store at Seattle's Sonic Boom Records. When the shop's management realized that an employee, Melanie Sheehan, had booked an unknown act with no inherent draw, it pulled the plug.

"They were worried about putting up a lot of effort," says Sheehan.

After a little haggling, though, the store manager reluctantly let the Rum Diary play -- with unexpected results.

"They were really good," says Sheehan. "It was amazing. People were coming in off the street to stop and listen."

After the show, the employees requested a poster to hang alongside those of Pacific Northwest icons like Death Cab for Cutie and 764-Hero.

Not bad for a dress rehearsal.

About The Author

Garrett Kamps


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