Beautiful Catastrophes: The Rum Diary’s newest album, ‘Poisons That Save Lives,’ is pure ambient cohesion.
The Rum Diary could sneeze and it would sound ethereal
By Gabe Meline
So I call up Daniel McKenzie of the Rum Diary and he’s in the middle of watching a movie. The film is Gerry, Gus Van Sant’s cinematic ode-to-drone about two friends stranded in the desert. It’s a tedious, slow-moving movie with very little dialogue, and it didn’t run in even the artiest of art-house theaters. Naturally, McKenzie is thoroughly enjoying it.
“There’s so many shots of landscapes,” he marvels. “It’s just amazing.”
Everyone tends to agree that the Rum Diary is a hard band to pin down stylistically, but “shots of landscapes” might be a good point of reference. The Cotati band’s second album, Poisons That Save Lives, is an existential recording that transports the listener to moonlit fields and wide-open skies. There are few lyrics, but when sung, the words sound like wind. Almost all of the songs on the album are over five minutes long, and some are beautiful catastrophes of ambient cohesion, worthy of closed eyes and snug headphones.
Such chemistry seems to come naturally to the Rum Diary. They are a rare breed among established bands in that all four members–Jon Fee, Daniel McKenzie, Joe Ryckebosch and Schuyler Feekes–genuinely enjoy hanging out together. A visit to their rural practice space on Highway 116 offers a glimpse into their creative process, their camaraderie and their lack of musical background.
“I think we’re good in a band, because none of us are technically amazing musicians,” says McKenzie, nursing a Natural Ice. “We all started playing music after high school, and that’s kind of late to start. We don’t shred.”
Late starts notwithstanding, Poisons That Save Lives showcases the kind of sonic mélange that calls to mind Montreal’s Godspeed You Black Emperor alongside the bass-driven peppiness of New Order. Even on upbeat songs like “It’s Midnight,” laden with handclap breakdowns and a catchy chorus, it’s still easy to get lost in a swirl of harmonic hooks and hypnotic organ lines. Feekes’ myriad of vintage keyboards has been a mainstay of this sound, and because of the band’s unique instrumentation, it seems were the Rum Diary to sneeze it would sound ethereal.
“You can almost split the new album in half,” notes Fee. “Here’s four, you know, pop songs, they all have the driving melodies and the double bass, and that’s one band. And here’s the long songs that have a big crescendo and big guitars and a wall of sound, and there’s another band. We like all different kinds of music, but it’s kind of difficult to win fans ’cause you sound like two bands at the same time.”
Indeed, the Rum Diary is contemplative and zany. Yet they have stuck to a vision and are still as dedicated as ever. In addition to the usual tasks of booking shows, practicing and recording, members have dabbled in factory work by laboriously hand silk-screening and individually numbering each of the new album’s 500 LP copies, pressed on bright yellow vinyl. A U.S. tour is in the works, and already the band has recorded four new songs for an upcoming split EP with New York’s Kilowatthours. The pace is furious, but accolades are pouring in–even in the form of a cordial postcard from Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto, one of the band’s proudest moments.
“We’ve been playing for four years,” says McKenzie, “hard, twice a week, touring, playing our asses off, and I almost feel like finally something’s happening.”
Something, indeed. While band members are dismissive of a recent on-air interview with Bay Area radio station Live 105, they do reserve a special enthusiasm for playing the high-profile Noise Pop Festival this year at the Great American Music Hall, where they have spent many nights watching their favorite bands perform. “My mom is so excited,” beams McKenzie. “She’s coming to the show.”
“I think the most important thing is for
us all to stay excited,” reminds Fee. “It all starts with the four of us constantly challenging each other, coming up with different sounds and trying for a different style of song.”
The Rum Diary perform Friday, Feb. 20, at 9pm. Tradewinds, 8210 Old Redwood Hwy., Cotati. Free. 707.795.7878. They also appear at an all-ages show on Saturday, Feb. 28, at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. www.therumdiary.net.
From the February 19-25, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.