A Nashville trio makes some noise.
By Michael McCall
APRIL 6, 1998: The members of Iodine have a few simple, straightforward objectives. First and foremost is volume. "We want to be the loudest band in the world," says bassist Chris Feinstein, a veteran Nashville rocker who formed the group four years ago with singer-guitarist Jay Joyce and drummer Brad Pemberton. "From the start, we've written songs with that in mind. We all really love volume--just turning it up and playing hard and loud."
But in the end, it's not enough just to be loud. A band also has to have a distinctive sound. "We've always dedicated ourselves to sounding bigger than a three-piece," says Joyce, who has developed a unique melody-and-machine-gun guitar style. Onstage, he'll capture a live guitar riff on a tape loop, then play off the repeating vamp with a different solo; it's an unusual technique, especially for someone who plays with as much force and tempo as he does.
The band's final objective concerns attitude. "We're very insistent about keeping it fun," Feinstein explains. "This band was founded with that in mind. I know it sounds trite, but we do this because it's fun." The bassist maintains that as musicians age, they tend to lose the original sense of joy and freedom that drew them to music in the first place. With Iodine, he has regained the enthusiasm and spontaneity he experienced when he was in his first band, Shadow 15, a well-regarded Nashville outfit that formed in the early '80s.
"It's difficult to hold onto that feeling after you've been doing it for 15 years, but I've got the same feeling with this band that I had in Shadow 15," Feinstein says. "We refuse to start taking all this too seriously. We want to relax and have fun and not worry so much about the business. We just want to play and enjoy it for what it is, and so far that's working."
It works because what Iodine creates is distinctive and good, as evidenced on the band's newly released second album, Baby Grand. "We read each other's minds at this point," says Pemberton, a dexterous drummer who combines furious grooves with dynamic, crashing counterpoints. "We don't have to look at each other to know what the other guy is going to do. It's all intuitive at this point."
All three members are indeed highly regarded veterans who know what they're doing. Performing live at the Exit/In this past Friday night, it was apparent that they'd achieved their stated goals: The band thundered out a loud, dense wall of melodic hard rock, and they looked like they were having a great time.
More than that, they delivered a ferociously tight, powerful performance. With Joyce's textured, crashingly melodic songs and the rhythm section's flexible range, Iodine rocked the house, moving from dreamy psychedelic intros to spleen-splitting crescendos.
"As far as classic three-pieces go, I think we went in the opposite direction of The Police," Joyce says. "We don't strip the music back and go for a sparse sound. We're more like Cream and the bands that build it up with waves of noise."
But Iodine isn't as indulgent with its solos as Cream was--something Feinstein and Pemberton quickly point out. "Jay lets loose sometimes," Feinstein says, "but me and Brad try and lay a foundation for him rather than join in or interrupt. So, in that way, I think we're more like HŸsker DŸ than Cream. But as long as Jay thinks it sounds like Cream, and Brad and I think it sounds like HŸsker DŸ, then everybody's happy."
Nonetheless, Feinstein adds, a three-piece places special demands on each band member. "No one gets to relax or lay back or take a breather," he says. "We've all got to be working it and staying real aware and real involved. But because Jay's guitar sound is so broad and takes up so much space, I can actually play some melody and the bottom end doesn't drop out. That's a real treat for me."
Although Joyce likes to show off his guitar pyrotechnics, the band doesn't shoot off into extended solos or jazzy flights. Even so, Iodine sports a widely varied sound: Baby Grand boasts everything from the power pop of Cheap Trick to the tension-building repetition of U2 to the progressive punk potency of the Minutemen. Yet it's all tied together by Joyce's tightly wound songs. The music also reflects the band's divergent personalities: Joyce is intense, brooding, questioning, craggy, and sarcastic; Feinstein seems eternally happy and boyish, full of laughter and mischief; Pemberton is thoughtful, focused, and physically imposing.
Unlike most underground rock bands on the club circuit, Iodine consists of accomplished veterans. As a guitarist, Joyce has played on multimillion-selling releases by Jewel, the Wallflowers, and Indigo Girls, and on records by Iggy Pop, Joe Cocker, K.T. Oslin, Gillian Welch, and Maura O'Connell; he also produced the upcoming Patty Griffin album and records by Lisa Germano, The Borrowers, Lounge Flounders, and Sally Dworsky. After his time in Shadow 15, Feinstein was bassist for The Questionnaires, who recorded two albums for EMI Records in the '80s; he also played with Joyce in Bedlam, which put out an album and an EP for MCA Records in the early '90s. Pemberton, the youngest member of the band, is among the most in-demand hard-rock drummers in town.
Some musicians find it difficult to return to the unglamorous world of underground rock after having flirted with major labels and the big-time. But Joyce and Feinstein, having experienced all the disappointments and false promises of corporate rockdom, simply love being able to get back to basics. At this point, they enjoy climbing into a beat-up van, carrying their own gear, and setting up and breaking down their stage shows, all to play to a few hundred young rock fans on weekend nights for a small fee.
"I love doing it like this," Feinstein says without a hint of sarcasm. "We play, then we step off the stage and sell CDs, shake hands, have conversations. We put people on a mailing list and we give them our phone numbers. We become friends with them, and now we have all these people across the country who know who we are. I get calls from places like Dayton, Ohio, and they ask when we're coming back, that they're dying for an Iodine show."
For the band, this grassroots approach has restored their faith in rock 'n' roll--something they'd started to lose. "If you just stay home and listen to the radio and watch MTV, then you might wonder about the state of music," Feinstein says. "But there are a lot of really good bands out there, traveling around clubs, selling records off the stage, or in cool local record stores. We see these bands, in places like Kansas or Ohio, and they're just bad-ass."
Of course, Iodine are pretty bad-ass themselves. "When we do something other than Iodine, when we play with other musicians, they don't really want to get loud," Feinstein says with a laugh. "They say they like volume, but I don't think they realize the volume we're talking about. But each of us, we jones for that. So when we get back together, at first it's just 'WAHHHHHH!' We play insanely loud, and we laugh like crazy. It's just something we really need to do."
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