Dead Meadow are the D.C. band from the deeps: they record in basements and farmhouses, and although they are noted and promoted as one of the latter-day Sabbath shadow bands, they actually dig back a little darker than four British guys creeping out on Boris Karloff. Instead, they are listening for the old weird world. Drummer Stephen McCarty is poking through the books left by John and Alan Lomax that collected things like the cowboy songs of central Texas, put to paper in 1910 direct from the cattlemen who'd learned them after the Civil War, and then he is teaching himself to play them on guitar.
"I love the idea of just looking at a page from history and working it out and then the song springing out," he says. "It's a medium outside of recorded music. That's exciting to me now, with all the things like filesharing—thinking of a song having a life outside of a piece of plastic."
This idea of getting outside is something of an inevitable conversation with Dead Meadow—LA Weekly's Greg Burk once called them "pure escape," and though McCarty sets that one down gently ("My personal feeling is that we need to establish some kind of alternative rather than just sit in rooms and escape from anything—the question is always in my mind, 'What are we doing this for?'"), the idea is too potent not to persist. Dead Meadow don't make songs particularly suited for plastic; like a lot of the old '60s psych inspirations who unhappily released truncated songs for studio singles, they bump right up against the rims of their records.
You the woozy listener can escape into their songs—and they are very comfortable when you do—but their songs might like to escape back into you too, so they can resume the natural tidal rhythm to which they were written. (Guitarist Jason Simon once said the longest he can recall Dead Meadow holding a song open was 35 minutes, though he admits they usually keep it to a trim 15.) When McCarty joined Simon and bassist Steve Kille in Dead Meadow (and former guitarist Cory Shane), leaving a Zombies-style pop band where he played like Ringo Starr, he spent a year cracking his cymbals until he figured out how to play again: "You gotta be able to carry that physicality with you," he says. "When I joined, I really had to change because it was such a different style. And then I found I couldn't change back."
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Like recent tour mates Blue Cheer, legendarily said to turn the air into cottage cheese, the space in front of Dead Meadow is an instrument itself: what McCarty calls "the wash," which is specifically a Keith Moon touch that really can crack a drummer's cymbals but also seems to whatever it is that makes a Dead Meadow album something to swim in. The first big break on their last record, Feathers—most of the way through "Let's Jump In"—loops the first part of "War Pigs" back around on itself, but then it's whale songs and swell maps.
They fill those songs with wide and wild oscillations that don't float up until late at night—one came out of my little stereo and caught a mate in my store-brand table fan and together they started singing by themselves, woke me up with some counterpoint turbine whine, and who knows what else they did when I pulled the covers over my head? It was a funny moment that found the mood of Feathers. Like McCarty and a song from the Lomax anthology: it wasn't alive until I heard it.
"It's a foundation of principles," says McCarty now. "Trying to make music—and I know it sounds generic—that people feel, instead of something that is . . . I don't know. We were just trying to be in a real rock band, and I don't think people get that much these days. I know when people really respond to us, they really respond to us—they're like, 'Oh my God, I didn't think people were still playing music!'"
DEAD MEADOW PERFORMS WITH SPINDRIFT AND DJ SHORT SHORTS AT ALEX'S BAR, 2913 E. ANAHEIM ST., LONG BEACH, (562) 434-8292. SAT., 9 P.M. $10. 21+; AND ALSO WITH MANY OTHER BANDS AT FUCK YEAH FEST AT THE ECHO, 1822 SUNSET BLVD., ECHO PARK, (213) 413-8200. SUN., 3 P.M. $20-$55. VISIT WWW.FYEAHFEST.COM FOR COMPLETE INFORMATION.