The battered decay of East St. Louis buildings gives way to marshes and flat expanses of highway that feel cold and barren even in the green of summer. That day in early April, the first tiny bits of life are just showing themselves in the buds on the trees and a stray daffodil here and there. It's chilly and full of sun and chirping robins who seem fatter and sassier than they have in past years. The air should smell like earth and promise. However, on this side of the river it smells, as always, of burning trash and exhaust fumes.
Contrast seems to be the word of the day. Earlier, I was with what's left of my ever shrinking family, consoling them and mourning with them as we buried my mother's brother. This makes four of six siblings who've been stolen by cancer. Each time a different person is whisked away it causes a chain reaction of grief. Like dominoes toppling over one another, each loss takes me back to the one lost before them. My mama was the first and I see her face every time we bury another of her kin. Grief is relentless. The adage "time heals all wounds" is bullshit; all you can do is keep putting on fresh bandages.
I am relieved to be on my way to this taping. I already have a sense that this is going to be one of the most Yin/Yang days of my life. My morning has been made of emptiness but this afternoon is full of possibility. I need to sit in a room and let music wash over me. I am grateful for the reprieve.
I turn off of the interstate, off of the highway and down a two lane road that leads into the heart of Lebanon. The name of the city conjures war torn streets and bloody conflict but this is the Midwest, not the Middle East. Tree lined streets, well-loved lawns and brick buildings with charm and character are a warm embrace. McKendree University's Hett Center for the Arts seems almost like a mirage. Inside it's warm wooden walls, the members of Water Liars are setting up and quietly joking with one another. I'd met them the night before at Off Broadway where they ensnared hearts and earned respect with a hell of a show which mostly featured songs from their sophomore release Wyoming. They are unassuming and gracious and seem slightly perplexed as to why I would care to sit through all the fiddling of instruments and practicing bits of the same song repeatedly. They've no clue that this is my idea of "The Most Interesting Thing I Could Possibly Be Doing."
A few moments are spent weighing the pros and cons of different color gels for the lighting and the backdrop screen. Justin Kinkel-Schuster tunes his lovely Gibson Hummingbird, breaking into a few lyrics here and there. Andrew Bryant strikes a few keys on a gorgeous piano whose sound is shiny bright and telling of it's price tag. G.R. Robinson, who has joined the duo on this tour, asks if there are any other mallets for the tom drum. Apparently there's a wealth of goodies backstage and so the guys head back there like kids headed to a candy store. I sit back and enjoy the oasis of serenity that is this theater. For me, it's a holier place than the church I'd just spent time in that morning. Once they begin playing their songs, I am nestled into my seat and finally sinking into some peace.
After the first two songs are recorded, the guys take a break and come sit down in the seats beside me. We are a row of blue cotton and denim, and brown boots. Justin's right forearm catches my attention immediately. One of his tattoos is a lovely little line drawing of the mismatched couple from The Owl & The Pussycatin their beautiful pea green boat. I admire it and wish it were on my own skin. He shares that it was a childhood favorite. I don't share that I've been working on an illustration of this same subject in which the roles are reversed and it's the Pussycat serenading her love, the Owl. His design has given me inspiration and I take a mental snapshot.
We begin by talking about whether music was a big part of their childhoods. Both Andrew and G.R. share a common past in growing up singing in church. Justin talks about his mom's musical taste and how Neil Young and Jimmie Rodgers got a lot of airtime in his home. When I ask how they came together to form Water Liars, Justin answers with quiet enthusiasm as if he's not been asked this question a hundred times already.
"Andrew and I met years ago," he says, "probably like 7 or 8 years ago, at a show over in St. Louis. Andrew was touring his own songs with a friend of ours named Matt and the band I was in at the time opened their show. We met and liked each others songs a lot, just hit it off and became friends. Over the years, every time we would be crossing paths or in each other's town we'd hang out and just got to be better and better friends over the years. Finally a couple of years ago I asked Andrew if I could come down and record some songs at his house and just to hang out. Once that turned into a record, we started touring and trying to make something of it."
That album was "Phantom Limb" on Misra Records, an introduction to the duo's fuzzy, reverb laden songs that quickly won the hearts of those in the know. Sidenote: Misra Records also put out the Phosphorescent album, "Aw Come Aw Wry." When I fantasize about a Phosphorescent/Water Liars tour, my mind goes on a carnival ride of pure bliss. I want that lineup to happen. Can someone make that happen?
Slapping a genre on a band is often irritating to me. What does "alt-country" even mean anymore? I understand that we use categories to give listeners a point of reference. However, it's an annoyance every time I have to define a band influenced by a myriad of styles. I tell them, "I don't like to put people in boxes with genres because I think it's so all over the place these days and people are influenced by so many different things."
Andrew interjects, "Plus it's just not polite" and we laugh. I continue, "But there is definitely this kind of meeting of traditional country and punk, and I wanted your thoughts on what the two genres share or have in common?"
"That's a good question." Andrew pauses for just a beat and says, "Three chords."
Justin chimes in, "Hmmm. Yeah, I think that the one thing that they share, that we're trying to do is be simple. They share simplicity of approach and sound. I mean, I know that's what we're after is to just try to be as simple and direct as we can. I think they share that."
"I think there's this heightened sense of emotion in both.", I say. Andrew agrees but says they are "... a little bit opposite ends of each other. One is more energy and anger. You know there's different stations of emotions, you've got those different phases you know when you lose something. I guess it all kind of comes down to that. Like you go through the anger phase and I think a lot of it has to do with age and then you go through the grieving phase which you could say is country, whatever. This might all be bullshit what I'm sayin'."
He fiddles with his glasses and continues: "For me, I went through this phase when I was younger where I liked the fast directness and the simplicity, like what he's talking about. Punk was faster and direct, more in your face. Then I just got older and older and just couldn't handle it anymore. But I immediately (snaps his fingers) turned to country. I mean I hated country as a kid. Then in my twenties I just ate it up. I'd heard all that stuff my whole life but I never really listened to it. So I started really listening to it."
During their show the night before, I had been thinking about how Punk Rock artists use reverb and distortion to disturb and enrage, often throughout an entire song. Water Liars uses it sparingly, less as a backbone to the music and more like a tool to heighten a moment. That reverb travels across the floorboards and throbs into your feet and up into your teeth, vibrating the emotion of the song straight into your brain. Also in their tool belt is something successful Traditional Country music hinges upon, which is the heightening of feeling through precise timing and phrasing within the lyrics. By blending the two genres and using all the tools they offer, these gentlemen have proven themselves as masterful carpenters who build simple songs and make homes for very complex emotions.
Within their music and within their lives, it seems that simplicity is Water Liars' touchstone. Wyoming deals with complicated emotions and struggles but Justin and Andrew's simple treatment of the songs allows the listener a little breathing room in order to sort it all out for themselves. I am beyond attached to this record. It speaks to me in a way that hits a little too close to home and I love it for that and so many other reasons. If you've never lost love, destroyed it, forsaken it or been forsaken by it . . . well how wonderful for you. I do not mean that sarcastically. I say that earnestly and somewhat jealously. For those who haven't experienced those types of heartaches, there are parts of Water Liars songs that may never resonate with you in the way it will for those of us who have.
Oh, I think most anybody will feel the ache in Justin's voice and how Andrew's drumming is often like a stab in the coronary artery, no matter what kind of hand life has dealt them. Some will have enough empathy to relate to the lyrics even if they've been spared heartbreak. However, time has taught me that too many who are unblemished by the devastation of loss, whether by fate, circumstance or worst of all, by one's own hand will hear these songs with only half an ear. While you are nearly brought to your knees by the memories the songs are summoning, another will hear them and only comment on what sad-sack music you listen to and request that you play something with a brisker BPM.
Never you mind them. Folks either get it or they don't, how listening to melancholy music can make you feel better, not worse. It can have the power to transform your grief into a better understanding of yourself. Justin's vocals may carve you up but you will gently be put back together again; these songs are achingly sad and lonesome but not forlorn. Water Liars wisely leaves much of their songwriting open to interpretation and what I hear in "Bird of Song" is a gritty desperate aspiration to "carry on". I have an internal debate as to whether I think "carry on" means to abandon ship and move on or to keep going on as before. I don't think I necessarily need to know. What I do know is that this song puts me in mind of Emily Dickinson:
"Hope" is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -
And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -
I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.
Video: Jarred Gastreich for Show Me Shows
Audio Recording/Mixing: Kevin Koehler
Audio Mastering: R&R Music Labs
Lighting: Dakota Reed
Writer: Janet Noe Rhoads
Thank you to the friendly staff at the Hett Theater.