There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Everyone knows about the Mountain Fallacy, which got its name from the beefy ’70s outfit that cut the fuzz-und-Drang classic “Mississippi Queen.” Sure, you grunge-raised youngsters may know it as the Tad Fallacy, but the idea is the same: It takes a heavy band to make heavy music.
Nonetheless, as I scan the Wednesday-evening faces at Adams Morgan’s Tryst coffeehouse, trying to ID the members of D.C. power trio Dead Meadow, I find myself on the lookout for tres meaty hombres. So imagine my surprise upon discovering that, far from being Bachman Turner Overweight, the lads in Dead Meadow are lean and lanky—delicate-looking, even. Why, you could probably squeeze the three of them into the back seat of a compact car, with enough room left over for one of the long-haired Angora goats rusticating on the cover of the band’s second and most recent release, 2001’s marvelously bottom-heavy but still melodic Howls From the Hills.
Not only are the guys in Dead Meadow impossibly svelte, they’re also remarkably, well, normal-looking. They bear none of the distinguishing marks of your usual Black Sabbath-worshipping, neopsychedelic sludge rocker. There are no disfiguring facial piercings, no lobotomy or trepanning scars, no bullet holes. Heck, there aren’t even any Satanic neck tattoos. These guys look like altar boys. And sincere altar boys at that, not the kind who are in it only for the communion wine.
But let’s get back to the goats. Dead Meadow wants the world to know that they were rented. “Sure,” says drummer Mark Laughlin, 24, as if the rent-a-goat concept were common knowledge. “But it was weird. The goats were chaperoned. We showed up for the photo shoot, and here come these very nice twin sisters in matching sweaters, each of them with a white Angora goat on a leash. Turns out the goats are their pets.”
Before Dead Meadow got its goats, both vocalist-guitarist Jason Simon, 24, and bassist Steve Kille, 25, were members of D.C.’s the Impossible Five, whose frenzied live shows and 1999 CD, Eleven Hours in Antwerp, won significant praise in indie-rock circles. But their bandmates eventually decided to abandon music for other pursuits, so, three years ago, Simon and Kille hooked up with Laughlin to make rock of a more classic variety.
Categorizing Dead Meadow’s music is no simple matter, however. Though the band makes a kind of murky, ’70s-influenced din, it prefers not to be labeled as stoner rock, and there’s something vibrant at the core of its sound that separates it from the weed-and-downers crowd. Maybe it’s the years the trio spent listening to hardcore. Or maybe it’s the elusively rustic feel of most of the band’s best music. Which should come as no surprise, seeing as how the band is called Dead Meadow and recorded Howls From the Hills in Liberty, Ind., and Chantilly, Va., with Shelby Cinca and his Mobile Mystic Gnome Recording Studio.
Whatever it is Dead Meadow is doing musically, it’s certainly working. A rave review in the Web-based ‘zine Ink 19, for example, begins, “This is the most primitive stoner metal album I’ve ever heard. I mean ‘primitive’ in the sense that Dead Meadow has captured the very essence of a deep, deep ‘stoned’ feeling.” But the band has also won praise from a slightly less deeply, deeply stoned source, namely trend-spotting English DJ John Peel, whose BBC Radio 1 program has been a springboard to the toppermost of the poppermost for many a young and aspiring band. Indeed, so enthusiastic was Peel about Dead Meadow that he took the unprecedented step of allowing it to record its contribution to his show here in the States, because the band wasn’t in the position to travel to England at the time.
And if that weren’t encouraging enough, Dead Meadow has future shows lined up with the likes of Guided by Voices and Super Furry Animals. In addition, the lads also recently finished a tour with the Brian Jonestown Massacre, a longtime dream of theirs. How was it, I wonder, touring with BMJ’s legendarily difficult frontman, Anton Newcombe?
“Oh, he’s all right,” says Simon, who graduated from George Washington University with a degree in religion and now has a part-time record-keeping gig with a local hospital. “He was pretty calm, for the most part. He didn’t pull any guns on the audience like he allegedly did at [Los Angeles club] the Troubadour.”
“He was quiet at first,” adds Laughlin, another GW grad who works in classified sales at the Washington City Paper. “Then he’d, like, stay up for three straight days, drinking. And screaming ’til his voice gave out. But the rest of the band is pretty mellow.”
“Yeah,” adds Kille, who attended Northern Virginia Community College before he abandoned academia to, he says, “do the music thing.” (He’s now gainfully employed as the City Paper’s assistant classified sales manager.) “To be in his band, you’ve got to be able to put up with a certain amount of insanity.”
The same can’t really be said of Dead Meadow. For one, everyone in the band has a steady girlfriend—which eliminates at least the groupie factor. “Actually, we’re pretty mellow,” says Laughlin. “We’re looked upon as indie rockers,” adds Kille, “and indie rockers don’t get groupies.”
“Besides,” says Laughlin mock-ruefully, “people are so damned responsible these days.”
That goes double for the people in Dead Meadow, though, who say they do a lot of reading on tour. Laughlin and Simon share a taste for occult literature, so they spend their idle time on the road boning up on such arcane subjects as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn or perusing Israel Regardie’s interpretation of the works of Aleister Crowley, The Eye in the Triangle.
Not surprisingly, occult and fantasy elements figure prominently in Simon’s songwriting, as can be gleaned from titles such as “The White Worm” and “Beyond the Fields We Know” and the preponderance of lyrics of the we-come-from-the-land-of-ice-and-snow variety. Just don’t ask Simon to explain them. “I’d rather not,” he says. “It’s better if people listen to them themselves. You know, use their imaginations.”
Like the other guys in the band, Simon spent his junior-high years listening to Led Zeppelin before moving on to punk rock in high school, only to rediscover Led Zeppelin after tiring of hardcore’s lyrical and musical constraints. “That’s what I liked about Led Zeppelin,” he says. “There was so much imagery. They painted pictures in your mind.”
“That’s right,” says Laughlin. “That’s one of the problems with the D.C. scene. There’s no room for imagination. So many D.C. bands want to get political, but that’s the last thing I want to think about now. I want to think about dragons and stuff like that.”
But haven’t most serious rock lyricists shied away from fantasy elements since, oh, the heyday of Uriah Heep?
“Right,” says Laughlin. “And the ones who don’t, it’s embarrassing. Look at Ritchie Blackmore: He’s gone on this weird retro-medieval trip where he plays, like, Renaissance fairs; he even has a song about playing at a Renaissance fair. Which is stupid. Why not just write a song about the actual Renaissance?”
Despite their avoidance of political topics, the guys in Dead Meadow still see themselves as being firmly within the Washington musical tradition. “We’re still D.C.,” says Kille. “It must be in the water or something. We want to capture the feeling of the bands we love from the ’60s and ’70s, but we add a kind of hardcore energy. The last thing we want to be is retro.”
To that end, Dead Meadow is taking some time off from touring and is thinking about writing and recording its third album. The threesome would like to do this one a bit differently. “We put our first two albums out pretty quickly,” says Kille. “The first one [2001’s Dead Meadow] consisted of material we’d been playing for almost a year. The last one was written and recorded pretty quickly. We’d like to have a lot of time to write and record this time.”
As our interview winds down, it occurs to me that this seems like too cheerful a bunch of fellows to be dragging the moniker Dead Meadow around. Don’t they think that their band’s name might be a little, um, depressing?
“I don’t see it as depressing,” answers Simon, ever the religion major. “I see it as just one part of a cycle. It reflects the fall, autumn—a down period. But spring is going to come back around again.” —Michael Little