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True Grit 

Winfred E. Eye's scruffy Americana mines the simple pleasures of life

Wednesday, Jul 31 2002
Like Tom Waits before him, Winfred E. Eye's Aaron Calvert sings in a voice that could easily belong to one of his characters. On his band's debut full-length, A Bottle, a Dog, Some Milk, a Bottle, Calvert brandishes a slow, raspy tone that befits the drifters, derelicts, and regular working folks of whom he writes. When Calvert murmurs, "You can have the glee club/ That's not for me/ I'll take the docks/ I'll take the breeze," on "Up Ahead," his drawl seems to speak for all wayfaring strangers. At the same time, his East Bay group -- named after Calvert's grandfather -- adds weight to the offbeat lyrics by sculpting a kind of Gothic Americana, blending traditional guitars and lap steel with exotic colorings from melodica and synthesizer.

"I really like old songs, how someone might just write a song on a whim about something they saw or that happened to them that day," says Calvert. "Our songs are just simple messages, interpretations of things happening around us. Expressions of our blues."

For the past four years Winfred E. Eye has pursued its modest ambitions much the same way Calvert's characters might, with vision focused on the everyday, giving little thought to grand schemes. "There's never been some kind of agenda behind what we do," says Calvert. "We all have 9-to-5 jobs, and playing music is what we do to have a good time. I suppose other people play baseball or something."

Agenda or not, Winfred E. Eye has become an increasingly visible presence in the Bay Area music scene and beyond, scoring prominent supporting gigs for indie rock stalwarts Smog, Mary Timony, and the Black Heart Procession. Along the way the band's proven equally successful with the gay bikers at S.F.'s Eagle Tavern and the legendary producer Daniel Lanois at L.A.'s Spaceland. Such notoriety can seem odd for a group that started almost as an afterthought. But the casual and happenstance have always informed Winfred E. Eye's career -- and its music.

Winfred E. Eye formed in 1998, when singer/guitarist Aaron Calvert and multi-instrumentalist Mikel Garmendia got together for a series of post-brunch jam sessions. (The two had shared shows during the mid-'90s with their previous indie rock bands -- Garmendia in Cars Get Crushed and Calvert with Evergreen.) Over the course of a year the duo compulsively recorded songs on a succession of ancient two-track recorders in Garmendia's Oakland basement, culling tracks from the sessions for 2000's self-released EP The Day I Lost My Sea Legs.

Sea Legs had many of the elements that would come to define Winfred E. Eye's songs: folkish playing, gruff vocals, and gritty, ruminating lyrics. But there were also tape loops, meandering instrumentals, and long ambient sections.

"The first record was still a lot of experimentation with what we wanted to do," Calvert says over beers and a little whiskey at Garmendia's studio. "We really thought of it as just something for our friends, with some small distribution."

Following Sea Legs (now slated for rerelease on Luckyhorse Industries), the pair continued experimenting, while Garmendia also began recording other musicians' work, including some solo guitar tracks by his former roommate Craig Adams.

While he wasn't happy with the resulting songs, Adams liked playing with Calvert and Garmendia -- so much so that he joined Winfred E. Eye. Quickly composing a batch of new material ("I couldn't learn the old songs," deadpans Adams), the trio started playing intimate gatherings for friends, with Calvert and Adams on guitar and Garmendia switching between bass and drums.

Impressed by what it had heard on Sea Legs, German label Monoton Studios contacted the group about recording another EP in July 2000. With the prospect of an actual recording budget, the band did the unthinkable: It left the basement. To facilitate the move, Winfred chose to bring along longtime friend and recording engineer Jeremy Goody, best known as Balanceman from the laptop-pop outfit CatFive, as well as bassist Chandan Narayan and keyboardist Dax Pierson.

"What attracted me was the music and the arrangements," says Pierson, who also performs with avant-garde hip hop collective Subtle. "Our musical backgrounds are pretty diverse, but I guess you could say that Winfred E. Eye is the point where we all meet."

As for the new recording environment, Garmendia says, "It was a bit of a challenge. Unlike the basement, where there's no rush, we had to be in and out of the studio in one night, and all of the songs were done on the first or second take."

The resulting three-song EP, Glasses, available in the U.S. from Independent Music Distribution, was a coming of age for Winfred E. Eye. Doing away with tape loops and ambient sections, the band pushed Calvert's lyrics front and center. As if to solidify its embrace of songwriting, the band included a cover of Randy Newman's "Memo to My Son."

Like the jams with Adams, the sessions went so well that Pierson and Narayan joined the group officially. Then, in January 2001, on the eve of a minitour to Southern California, the group added one final member: drummer Josh Kilbourn of local power-pop act Applesaucer (Garmendia switched to guitar). Seven months later, when bassist Narayan announced plans to return to college for a graduate degree, Winfred decided to record a full-length to "capture what we had," says Pierson.

Liking the results of the Glasses sessions, the group again tapped Goody as engineer. But this time, the destination was not a recording studio per se. Rather, the group chose to sequester itself at Pegasus Hall, a small playhouse in Monte Rio, about 15 minutes from Petaluma. "Getting away was important to me from the beginning," says Garmendia. "The most important thing was to get away from having to return phone calls and our day jobs and things like that."

Utilizing a variety of inexpensive equipment, Winfred recorded seven of the album's eight songs over the course of four days, with the LP's final track laid down back in Garmendia's studio.

"I think the intention was to match the Sea Legs recording as much as we could," says Goody. "There's something about that record, the way it was recorded in the basement with all the ancient gear, it just has this old-time record sound to it. But that vibe was still there for these recordings, and I think we captured a lot of that feeling."

While A Bottle, a Dog, Some Milk, a Bottle may lack the artifactual feel that comes from older equipment, the record's sonic clarity makes up for it. An apt comparison might be that the first EP sounds like a dusty 78 playing on an old turntable, while the new LP captures the vibe of the band playing live in your living room.

The sound quality of the music isn't the only thing that has progressed; the songs are also Winfred E. Eye's strongest so far. Showcasing the musical collaborations of the entire group, the new arrangements are propulsive without being rushed, with full instrumentation that never feels dense. By filling out its sound while retaining a degree of sparseness, the band has produced a set of songs that is both atmospheric and engaging.

Lyrically, the album sticks to the kind of darkly poignant subject matter that Calvert specializes in. "Bury It!" and "Keep the Bed Warm" explore the process of moving on after failed relationships, or, in Calvert's words, "coping with coping." Meanwhile, "Riding the Rails," the result of a joint effort between Calvert and author Aaron Tassano, is a stream-of-consciousness account of travels in France: "Search for meaty words/ In matted fur and fancy pants/ Things that we're taught/ To hate and want in America."

The album's two most moving tracks -- "Don't Be Here Tonight" and "Monte Rio" -- deal with the concept of being an outsider. "Don't Be Here Tonight" was inspired by a note Calvert's landlord left for a squatter who had set up camp on his roof. Calvert effectively uses the plight of the drifter to touch on his own feelings of not belonging in Oakland. "Monte Rio" closes the album, utilizing the combination of Calvert's growl and Pierson's falsetto to tug at your heartstrings: "No one wants to hold you/ No one wants to touch you/ No one wants to live with you/ And it's starting to sink in."

"They're all just stories to be told," Calvert says of the songs that make up A Bottle, a Dog, Some Milk, a Bottle. "I think the best way to think of it is that there is a ship that has washed up ashore, and it's somewhat mysterious, full of the histories of the people who were on it."

About The Author

Paul Koehler


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