Winfred E Eye's music is downtempo, often labeled "Americana" in reviews, and it's not nearly sugary enough for the cookie-cutter corporate expectations of early-21st-century American taste. It feels a little boozy, and the vocals scratch and groan, but this isn't Tom Waits. This is more like a few hours after the bourbon ran out, and the headache's setting in.
The answer to the first and most obvious question about Winfred E Eye is: the name comes from Aaron Calvert's grandfather, whose name it was, and who hated it (especially in the armed forces--think "Private Eye") and changed it as soon as he got the chance. Calvert, singer/songwriter and one of three guitarists in WEE, dug up the name, and that's the story of the band's moniker.
The story of the band itself is a bit more convoluted. When it started two years ago, Winfred E Eye was originally Mikel Garmendia on drums and guitar; Aaron Calvert providing guitar, vocals, and lyrics; and Andy Ward on bass. Calvert and Ward were both in the Los Angeles band Evergreen, and Garmendia was in the defunct noisy local indie/pop group Cars Get Crushed. Since then, Ward has left the band (and joined LA-based combo the Deers), to be replaced by Chandan Narayan, a former member of Jakarta. Craig Adams (formerly of Ned Kelly) was added on guitar, and Dax Pierson on keyboards and melodica. Pierson is currently in the band Tenth Planet with Malcolm Mooney (original singer for Kraut-rockers Can) as well as several other groups. I could go on (even a simple search on Google brings up an ever-expanding tree of connections), but I'm stopping now. The latest addition, drummer Josh Kilbourne (formerly of Applesaucer), joined after a short SoCal tour last month. Kilbourne--who has worked on other projects with Narayan, Adams, and Garmendia--takes over percussion duty from Garmendia, who is more comfortable behind a guitar than a drum kit.
Unlike some of the groups littering Winfred's pedigree, though perhaps in a logical progression from them, the band plays a subdued set. On first listen, there's a guitar and a voice, and both are ambling along quietly, not necessarily moving toward any climax--angry, ecstatic, or otherwise. Lyrics aside, the sparse percussion (soft brush snare, occasional bass drum), the full but dampened feel of the bass ("standing" bass, not bass guitar), and the two or three gently strummed guitars provide a continuously moving, but slow and contemplative, ambience. The music itself doesn't necessarily evoke any particular emotion in the listener--it's more a dark atmosphere.
Calvert's voice adds the needed emotional depth. Moving from gravelly rumblings to whispered pleas, Calvert conveys a sense of dreams mislaid, loves and innocence lost, and all that good stuff one expects from acts like Nick Cave, Black Heart Procession, or Johnny Cash.
Winfred E Eye formed about two years ago as a collaboration between Calvert and Garmendia. "Basically, we started by [Calvert] and I working out some song ideas he had in my basement. At the time, I was setting up a recording studio in my house," Garmendia explains. "Over a year, we developed many songs, and started to record them. When we were ready we had Andy Ward [Calvert's Evergreen bandmate, and bassist for both Winfred E Eye CDs] come up [from LA], and we got the basic version of Sea Legs."
Those songs, recorded wholly in Garmendia's basement, became The Day I Lost My Sea Legs, Winfred E Eye's spring 2000 debut. "When the 4-track process was finished, we took a big crate of reel-to-reels down to Bay Records Studios, Oakland, and mixed the album. I wrote the whole layout of the album down on paper and we edited and mixed it in just one day the way it appears on the CD."
Sea Legs is a melancholy collection of songs about loss interspersed with rolling, sad instrumentals, all glued together with ambient sea sounds spliced from old reel-to-reel tapes--some of which came from Garmendia's grandfather, who worked for the US government-run overseas radio network Voice of America. The album is a fictional account of real-life (eventual) staff sergeant Winfred E Eye's return from his tour of duty, and his reaction to life off the boat.
"With The Day I Lost My Sea Legs we wanted to add a fictional CD concept," Garmendia explains. "Aaron and I were the recipients of Winfred E Eye's log, titled Life in the Service. The tales in the log became ideas for songs describing the sense of loss and dissolution he encountered. Thus, the title of the album describes his state upon return to hard ground."
"God Don't Be Hard on Me" starts the album off on a somber note. It's also probably the catchiest song, being the only one with a repeating chorus. The lyrics are a grimmer version of the Reverend Gary Davis (sans redemption) and are nearly whispered, a plea for mercy from an unfeeling master: "God do you know what it means/ to be losing the fight.../ when a lift just in time might set everything right/ ...Did you ask what it was.../ why the quivering lips and the glistening tears down the pale cheek that slips...." The words are carried gently along by Calvert's slow strumming and the slowly rolling bass line to the next tune, "Steel Bridge," a six-minute instrumental.
"Steel Bridge" begins the water imagery that weaves in and out of the album. The bass-heavy production, and slowly rising and falling bass line itself, evoke the image of a rowboat making its way over ocean swells.
The love song of sorts "Close by the Bay" focuses more on Calvert's voice with blank verse lyrics about a man with no home: "There's something under us and I can feel it moving.../ I won't wake you up but I'll be up late tonight.../ The cotton is holding all it can take.../ I bleed when I sleep and wake another day."
Then on to "Found Bones (Knots)," where Calvert's voice deepens almost to a Tom Waits growl, and finally to the twelve-minute "Dark Country," which winds the album slowly down to its conclusion, dribbling down to rumbling bass drum, then brush-stroke snare, to the end.
Unfortunately, The Day I Lost My Sea Legs is largely unavailable, due to a string of rather boring coincidences involving the album's distributor. Basically, as Garmendia describes it, "Since we put the record out ourselves, we ran into the typical problems with getting it out to the public." The band hopes to finally receive the CDs some time in the near future, so copies may eventually be more widely available. It can be found in MP3 through the independent music site www.mp3it.com.
The second Winfred E Eye release, Glasses (April 2001), is a three-song EP (the first album was also labeled an EP by the band, though it skirts the edge of full length, consisting of six songs and clocking in at about 35 minutes). The new EP is not so sparse as Sea Legs, reflecting changes in the band's live sound. The prominent keyboards give the songs a more dramatic edge, creating an atmosphere comparable to 3-Mile Pilot or related goth-indie group Black Heart Procession, though the layered guitar and Calvert's plaintive vocals are nothing like the carnival drama of Pall Jenkins.
Another change on the EP, and one also prominent in live shows, is the cover songs: one of the three songs on the EP is "Memo to My Son" by Randy Newman. WEE takes songs that are part of the esoteric musical history of the US--songs by folks like Randy Newman, Townes Van Zandt, John Lee Hooker--and weaves them neatly into the set. Live, they perform the occasional excellent rendition of "Death Don't Have No Mercy" (by the Reverend Gary Davis), and they recently recorded a couple different takes of Linda Ronstadt's "Silver Thread." Neither a cop-out for lack of original material, nor a pandering to the always-nostalgic masses clamoring for old faves, Winfred E Eye's covers lend a bit of grounding, a nod to its roots.
This propensity for reworking the past may be explained by some of Calvert's early experiences with live music, when, in tow behind his father, he caught some sets played by the house band at an anonymous hotel. "My dad started taking me to see cover bands between the age of nine and eleven. I always really liked it, and liked watching people get drunk." He remembers one band playing hours of material, with only the occasional twenty-minute break. "The band was called Le Crew. They did a cover of 'Hang on Sloopy.' They could do anything, it seemed.
"My dream is to be able to play professionally three times a week, near the ocean, at a hotel," Calvert says, which helps explain the search for songs from the past. "To get there, we'll need about a hundred songs, and so we just learn them as they come."
So Winfred E Eye keeps working on new material. The band still records in Garmendia's basement, a nicely crafted homemade studio, the quality of which is vouched for by the first album and the fact that the recent recordings they played for me during an interview were the only unmuffled sounds on my resulting tape.
Live performances, rare a year ago, are becoming more and more common. A mini-tour of Southern California one month ago was a success, and the band seems to play locally twice a month lately, as opposed to once every couple months not that long ago. The upcoming show at the Bottom of the Hill with Black Heart Procession and Holland's the Ex provides a fine (if crowded) chance to see them with two other excellent bands. Also in the works is a half-fantastical future tour of more of the US than just a small strip from the bottom left section, though currently that isn't so much news as wishful thinking.
Drawing heavily on the singer/ songwriter tradition and exempting itself from the need to create catchy pop songs, Winfred E Eye plays something like ambient Americana, a music for loneliness, a soundtrack for dusty roads and overnight stays in dingy hotels.
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