By Sarah Bennett
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I have, finally, come to appreciate the technical proficiency of electronic-based acts such as Radiohead and Moby, which isn't the same as saying I fully enjoy listening to them. I'm sure they dig tweaking synths, samplers, processors and other techie gadgets, but the music's consistent lack of soul still leaves me cold, for the most part.
OC's Sunset Room, however, are bringing to electronic music what it so desperately needs—all the messy ingredients of human emotion. Because the band members have varied influences and interests, they have created an intoxicating blend of electronic, jazz, blues and rock. It's an unusual sonic mélange, one where forward-leaning aural experimentation happily mingles with more traditional, often gut-wrenching vocals and topics.
Sunset Room was formed in 1997 by drummer/keyboardist James Flores and bassist/programmer Tim Rumbaugh as an homage to British trip-hop acts such as Portishead and Morcheeba. Flores and Rumbaugh had long been intrigued by electronic and techno, dating back to '80s mainstays Depeche Mode and Tears for Fears. Yet both agreed that their music needed more feeling.
That's what they got when they hooked up with singer/songwriter Catie Moore. The charismatic Moore, with influences ranging from Sarah Vaughan and Janis Joplin to PJ Harvey and Nikka Costa, is not only responsible for the group's live spark, but she also fosters much of the group's dark, smoke-filled jazz-club undercurrent, helping to transform Sunset Room into something quite rare: a hard-to-classify band that appeals to both the head and heart.
They put out an album, Almost an Angel, in 2001; it had hearty helpings of electronic-edged torch songs ("Haze," "Sweeter") and bluesy ballads ("Smoke," "In My Mind"). In fact, the opening lines to "Smoke" neatly sum up the disc's dark, lonely, boozy atmosphere: "Sitting in this lifeless bar/I look to you/Don't know where you are."
"Yeah, that pretty much is the album . . . that's definitely us," says Flores. "I don't think I could write a happy song to save my life. I admit to liking the dark side of music. Even if it's subtle, blues is the underlying thread in our music, and how many happy blues songs do you know?"
If Almost an Angel sounds heavenly, the recording process was anything but—at least initially. Preferring to take the DIY route, the band bought a sophisticated Mac computer for their software-driven home studio. But unaware of the recording complexities involved in looping, programming and the application of technology, they soon lost their footing.
Fortunately, longtime friend and musician/producer Marty Beal came to their rescue. Beal, who's produced and engineered albums for local singer/songwriter Kerry Getz, performed those same chores here, in addition to laying down some key guitar tracks. Perhaps most importantly, he provided some brutally honest feedback.
"When Marty first heard our demo," Flores remembers, "he told us flat out, 'I know the quality of what you're looking for, and we can't use this—it's crap.' It was tough to hear, but we didn't know what the hell we were doing . . . we sucked at recording. We were confident he could help us, so we put him in charge of the control board."
Work on the band's forthcoming sophomore release is under way, with several selections already being performed live in rooms like the Continental in Fullerton, DiPiazza in Long Beach, and the Detroit Bar in Costa Mesa, where they play Aug. 21. Dirtier and a bit angrier than Almost an Angel, the new material has an off-kilter, Tom Waits-like aura about it—unsettling and a little insane, but in a cool kind of way.
One new tune penned by Flores, a bluesy confessional called "Diary," features guitarist Nick Wisniewski on a spooky acoustic slide in a tale about a woman telling a potential beau that he has no idea what he's getting himself into—a demanding ride that she doesn't think he can handle. Another new one, written by Wisniewski and titled "Without Your Love," even damns a former lover to hell. Worth noting is that Moore and Flores were engaged to one another until about a year ago. Not surprisingly, both say the emotional fallout from the breakup was initially quite volatile. Still, they both came to recognize how much they cherished Sunset Room.
"Jealousies and insecurities exist even now," says Moore, "but our musical partnership definitely works. I really think we were meant to make music together . . . we know each other so well that we kind of mesh into the same person when we're writing songs together. I know I've never felt more comfortable from that standpoint."
Flores adds: "I remember after I told Tim that I was 'involved' with Catie, he said, 'If you break this band up, I will rip your head apart and piss down your back, so don't fuck it up.' Now fast-forward to today . . . well, it wasn't an easy transition, but we've weathered it. We both realize that keeping the band together far outweighs any ego or personal considerations."
As Sunset Room continue delving into more modern sonic textures, Moore lays to rest any fear that the band's electronic leanings will become too impersonal or inaccessible.
"It's important for us to keep that smoky, café-like feel, using both acoustic and electric instruments," she insists. "Our approach is to keep it real, to play with the intimacy of seeing us in your living room, rather than at some massive rave somewhere buried by tons of heartless equipment."Sunset Room, the Starlight Mints and Steve Burns perform at The Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600. Thurs., Aug. 21, 9 p.m. $7. 21+.