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In downtown Orange's Ugly Mug Caffé, a former instructional-dance studio turned hipster coffeehouse, five Gap-clad Friends clones are giddily cackling among themselves about sport-utility vehicles. An angry, black-clad young turk sits in the corner, his fastidiously shaped goatee buried in a brand-new copy of Jean-Paul Sartre's Les Chemins de la Liberté. At the front counter, a blender has just gone into overdrive again because a sassy customer wants her coffee-based cocktail "extra fluffy."
Among all the annoyances, Anna-Lynne Williams, lead singer of Trespassers William, dutifully announces the bands' next song: "This one's called 'Broken,' and it's from our soon-to-be-released CD." Matt Brown, the lanky, silent half of the band, digs into the opening chords, and Williams soon joins him, throaty but tranquil-a cross between Patsy Cline and Sarah McLachlan. The band is electrically amped, but tonight, the "audience" they're playing to is much louder.
Three hours before they begin their 9-to-midnight set, the sensibly yet chicly dressed duo occupy the Ugly Mug's nicest pseudo-antique sofa. "We know the traps of playing coffeehouses," Brown says. "But our music isn't really suited for a Friday night at Club Mesa."
Trespassers William, which for all intents and purposes is just Williams and Brown, are cerebral introverts who write ethereal, spine-chilling tunes that could hypnotize you if you weren't talking extra-frothy coffee drinks. But don't call what they do New Age. The aforementioned CD, titled Anchor (which will be released later this month), owes more to the Velvet Underground than Enya, as the songs are based around simple chord arrangements, temperate drum patterns, and Williams' oscillating vocals. It's a compilation of their first two EPs, plus a few new songs.
"We were going to put a couple of songs on the album with dulcimers and weird studio effects-our 'trying-to-be-hip' songs-but they were too imposing," Brown says. "They stuck out from the rest of the songs to the point where it seemed like an obvious attempt to be cool."
The pair formed in 1996, when Brown was looking for a vocalist to sing on some songs he put down on a four-track after ending his synth-pop band. His early demos still shamelessly borrowed from bands like Depeche Mode and New Order, but Williams-who was ending a stint in a band herself-was given a copy of the instrumentals by Brown's ex-girlfriend. The two shaped their early, fabricated sound into the natural, live music it is now (although there are still tentative plans to remix some Anchor songs as a trip-hop EP). "There are actually about three versions to every song we perform," Williams says. "It just depends on the crowd we're playing to."
On this night, the Ugly Mug gets the minimalist version.
The owner of the coffeehouse gave the band an intermission tonight, so they decide to break at the 90-minute mark. If the dozen or so people in the living-room-sized sitting area have noticed that the music has stopped, they don't act like it. "Pretty attentive crowd," Brown says, grinning sarcastically as he returns to his original spot on the couch. "I think we're really getting through to them tonight."
It's a line he's probably used every time he finishes a set for a coffeehouse crowd. "There's no real scene [in Orange County] for our music right now," Brown continues, as if he has to explain the audience's short attention span tonight. "So we've created things for ourselves. I've started up a label [Emerson Records], and we're developing a multifaceted Web site to try and foster a scene that doesn't have a hub yet. We might not get the cover of Rolling Stone, but I don't necessarily want that either. I just want to get something different going, and if I can quit my waiting-tables job, that's great."
When pressed, Brown will admit that "it would be fun" to turn up the amplifiers, stomp on a distortion pedal, and wail away on the type of music that got him hooked to the guitar when he was younger-namely bands like Metallica, Judas Priest and Mötley Crue. But he's disciplined. "It would be easy to write traditional rock songs and blast the music," Brown says. "But it's being done so much right now-what would the point be? It wouldn't be satisfying."
Thirty minutes later, the two return to the stage, and Williams announces the next set. About halfway into the first song, the boisterous cast of Friends gets up as one and files out of the room. Williams stares at them as they shuffle past her. "It's about time," she mutters between verses, never missing a beat.
Trespassers William play Alta Coffee, 506 31st St., Newport Beach, (949) 675-0233. Sat., 8 p.m. Free.