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Yours for a Song 

A Night of Serious Drinking rewrites the rules of the old-fashioned rock combo

Wednesday, Jan 12 2000
Anthony Bonet is in the middle of an extended commentary about the Beatles, and he's speaking like the sort of intense fan who does it often. He's giving detailed information about the precise studio in Abbey Road the band recorded in, effecting a spot-on John Lennon accent, and providing a blow-by-blow account of the recording of the Beatles' hard-to-find Christmas singles, which were released only to fans.

This isn't to characterize Bonet as little more than a Beatles nut. Nor is it meant to characterize his band, A Night of Serious Drinking, as a '60s-styled pop combo that's simply been dipping into a batch of Oasis-brand rock 'n' roll formaldehyde. The music that Bonet, drummer Bennett Green, and bassist Mark Yahnke make is more complex than that: It draws on the cool of guitar jazz, the in-the-wee-hours compositional style of Cole Porter and the Gershwins, the gloomy-gus folk of Nick Drake and Elliott Smith, and the love of a graceful hook the Beatles always possessed. But Bonet's little jag about the Fab Four means something because it speaks to a certain amount of obsession, which has more to do with a love for song than a craze for musical idols.

When the band played at the Great American Music Hall just before Christmas, opening for Mark Eitzel (who considers himself a fan), it offered up a couple of those Beatles holiday tunes -- trashy stuff, throwaways. But what was remarkable was the amount of focus, style, and good humor that came across, especially given Bonet's singing of "all the bone crushing sameness, boredom, and pain," on "Half Lit." "I don't like to fetishize depression," says Bonet. "There's this kind of weird holiness that we're supposed to ascribe to people when they're performing. And for me, it's like [snapping his fingers] 'C'mon baby, this is life!' That's one of the things that attracted me to Eitzel. Who writes more depressing songs than Eitzel? But he's a laugh riot onstage."

Bonet and Yahnke have known each other since 1992, when Yahnke posted a note on the bulletin board of UC Berkeley radio station KALX ("because I think that KALX is the bastion of cool," he explains) looking for musicians to play with. Out of that meeting came the quartet Portashrine, a straightforward alt-rock band that threw in the odd Petula Clark cover, recorded with esteemed Lookout band producer Kevin Army, and got a modicum of college radio success. But by 1996, both Bonet and Yahnke had grown tired of the group. "I thought Portashrine was a very good band," says Bonet, "but like a lot of alternative rock bands, it was sort of monochromatic. We did the one thing, and did it a bunch of times. I found myself, as a songwriter, sort of locked in." It was a feeling he'd had earlier playing punk rock in Washington, D.C. with a go-nowhere punk act, Dark Victory. "My big problem in D.C. was that I kept writing melodies, and I liked the Beatles and Kinks."

Drummer Bennett Green came out of the ethereal folk-rock band Her Majesty the Baby, having taken out an ad saying that he was looking to play soul music. As far as the band's name was concerned, Yahnke was simply looking for "a name that's fucked up." So one evening Bonet was sitting at the Bottom of the Hill -- where he works as a booker -- reading one of his favorite novels, A Night of Serious Drinking by avant-garde French author and philosopher Rene Daumal. "I was reluctant, because I thought [the name] was unwieldy," says Bonet. "I have to crowd all those words into the little squares on the calendar. And also, I thought that people would mistake us for a party band."

Far from it -- the first song the band played in rehearsal was Nick Drake's shimmering, minor-key "Pink Moon." That song appeared on the group's first EP, 1998's seven-song besides the well there was the rain, a sauntering, jazz-inflected rock album that occasionally suffered from being a bit too jazzy, with busy arrangements and Bonet's straining vocals giving the songs a precious and over-earnest feel. But by the end of the year, the band had compiled a charming five-song cassette of Rodgers and Hart covers, distributed to friends and fans, that seemed to draw out the group's strengths, particularly in the finesse with which they tackled their smoky, dreamy version of "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered."

That approach is the hallmark of One After Another, which the band self-released late last year. Its nine songs were recorded in one shot at Bottom of the Hill and interlock in a song suite that Bonet confesses was modeled after side two of the Beatles' Abbey Road. There are moments of upbeat pop -- the hook driven "Shades of Another Color," "Long," and a cover of '70s rock absurdist Ivor Cutler's "Little Black Buzzer" -- but mainly it's a savvy and sophisticated emotional travelogue, contemplative but never dour or forced. Much of the seamless effect comes out of Bonet's sparkling guitar figures, but also the tenor with which he sings. The words are only his in part, and stem from a correspondence with a friend of his, Chris Vernon; the lyrics are inspired by notes, lyrics, and full-fledged poems that resulted from their writing. "I really like collaborating," says Bonet. "When I was a kid, I often wrote lyrics to other peoples' music. Typically, Chris would write poems, and I would try to give them a rhyme scheme."

The idea of performing a song cycle isn't an art move, just the natural progression in how the band approaches its songs. "We started doing [suites] not too long after we got together," says Yahnke. "It just kind of happened that way. We would put together two songs, and then four songs, and eventually we did the whole show without stopping." Bonet admits also that performing the songs without breaks came out of "a need to get over a certain amount of nervousness," but it also plays into his experience working as a DJ at KALX. "I think in terms of juxtapositions: The fact that one song can mean what it means, another song can do the same thing, and then together there's a third implied meaning." Asked for examples, he starts into an enthusiastic music fan's leapfrogging through pop history, laying out a set that goes from Big Bill Broonzy to John Lee Hooker to Red House Painters to Bach to Nick Drake. "From there you can do Fair- port Convention, and from there it's not too far to the Chieftains ...."

For their residency at the Hotel Utah on the first Wednesday of every month, the band encourages that sort of interplay with other bands. The bands will play with each other, share covers, play each others' songs, and banter with the audience. Which is a lot more giving than the situations Bonet occasionally runs into at Bottom of the Hill. "I'll be behind the bar listening, and I'll tell the band at sound check, 'You might want to consider turning down. I'm on your side, I want you guys to sound good, try turning down.' And they'll say, 'Dude, it's our tone, dude.' Well, you guys won't have a tone if people are sticking toilet paper in their ears to keep them from bleeding."

That's spoken like an obsessive of songs. "You're never gonna make a cent doing this shit anyway," says Bonet, starting a sentence.

"You might as well be doing something you like," says Yahnke, finishing it.

A Night of Serious Drinking plays Saturday, Jan. 15, at 8 p.m. as part of "The Hotel Utah's Last Great Waltz," 500 Fourth St. (at Bryant), S.F. Call 421-8308 for more information. Anthony Bonet DJs Wednesdays 9 a.m. to noon on KALX, 90.7 FM.

About The Author

Mark Athitakis


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