Concision and Subtlety
By Greg Beets
APRIL 13, 1998: Trying to accurately describe the music of Bedhead is a bit like trying to explain the color blue to someone who's never seen it; when you're talking about something so elemental, the obvious starts to seem a bit inexplicable after a while. Bedhead's detractors have much less of a hard time doling out time-worn clichés like "slow-paced snooze rock," but in doing so they ignore the harder-to-define aspects of this Dallas-bred quintet's approach. First off, it's pop - pure, unvarnished pop music broken down for careful scrutiny. Every note and every empty space is meant to be savored, with the band's stark approach leaving a degree of ambiguity that listeners must color in for themselves. As a result, some people listen to the band and have epiphanies bound only by their imaginations, while others hear only a big gray box. To appreciate Bedhead, you have to meet them on their own subtle and nuanced terms.
Transaction de Novo, for instance, the band's most recent album, showcases Bedhead's quiet-yet-formidable cohesion with an uncommon degree of clarity, and as the band's third full-length for longtime local indie Trance Syndicate, it may also be their most versatile. Among its gems are a mournful, twang-peppered waltz ("Forgetting"), an urgent, well-measured dose of Britpop from the Joy Division axiom ("Psychosomatica"), and a driving slice of three-minute heaven that would be in heavy rotation in a perfect world ("Extramundane").
Although Bedhead is now its seventh year, brothers Bubba and Matt Kadane have been playing and experimenting with music since they were teenagers growing up in Wichita Falls. "We were always working toward something that we felt like this band became," says Bubba.
The two guitarists/vocalists had a strong desire to create what Matt calls "essential" songs, and once they hooked up with drummer Trini Martinez, bassist Kris Wheat, and third guitarist Tench Coxe, the elusive sound the Kadanes were shooting for began to take shape.
"We wanted to try and create a kind of textured music, I guess," says Matt, "with guitars, bass, and drums - to create chords from more than one instrument. We wanted a bunch of different instruments playing single notes instead of making chords on one instrument, because the texture is so different and that was a sound that was appealing to us."
Currently, the members of Bedhead live in three different cities: Boston (Matt), New York (Coxe), and Dallas (the remaining three). While that sounds like a less-than-ideal arrangement for writing songs and practicing, the band is well-versed in working long-distance.
"I've lived outside of Dallas for four years now," says Matt. "We came out with our first LP just a few months before I moved, so everything we've done has been done long distance for the most part.
"When I'm in Dallas, the band does basic tracks on a recording and then I bring a tape back [to Boston] and do some things, send it back there, and then they do some things. We just sort of swap tapes and get together at least three or four times a year to practice. We always get together a week before a tour or recording to really practice.
"It ends up working out okay, actually. I think we avoid a lot of the problems bands who know each other and are intimate all the time have. I think bands like that break up sooner."
When Bedhead began gigging in January 1992, their quiet, intimate approach to live performance was hardly an earmark on the Texas indie circuit (as it may be considered now). With caustic sensory overload quickly becoming the order of the day, naturally the band felt some apprehension about bringing their sound to venues where "grunge" and punk rock were (re)flourishing.
"It's kind of hard even for us to remember what things were like back then, but they were different," says Bubba. "There was no band around [Dallas] or in Austin that was like us. And it was a good feeling part of the time, and it was a bad feeling part of the time.
"I mean, when we went to some punk rock club, our first instinct was to think, 'Okay, uh, what are our hardest, fastest songs, 'cause we gotta pull 'em out!' And then our good sense would take over and we'd say, 'Aw, we gotta just do what we do.' Then we'd do that and it would usually go over pretty well."
After releasing a couple of singles on Direct Hit Records in Dallas, the band came to the attention of Trance Syndicate founder King Coffey, who put out the band's debut WhatFunLifeWas in 1993, effectively shifting the epicenter of underground rock music in Texas. Up to that point, Trance had focused on loud, spectacular acts such as Crust and Ed Hall. Bedhead certainly didn't supplant that notion, but their arrival clearly paved the way for quieter, more esoteric bands like The American Analog Set, Windsor for the Derby, and newcomers Monroe Mustang (all on Trance).
Even after three albums and two EPs, however, the band still has a hard time finding the perfect venue for their live performances. When Bedhead plays a club where music usually starts at 11pm or midnight, it takes cooperation between the band, audience, and venue to create a suitable atmosphere. Unfortunately, that doesn't always happen.
"We played Cleveland on a tour in '96," recalls Bubba. "It was a Wednesday night, there were a couple of hundred people there to see us, and we couldn't figure out why all these people who were there to see us were yelling and just causing a ruckus the entire time. We basically had confrontations with the audience, because there were people who just wouldn't shut up, yelling for songs and things. It was one of the most bizarre shows we ever played. I'm kind of scared about going back!"
Of course, the band also plays shows where 600 people will sit down and be totally quiet, a significant feat in a forum intended for inebriated revelry. Either way, Matt acknowledges that the mood of the venue is often beyond the band's immediate control.
"That's a source of endless agony," he says. "I wish there was a way for us to play quiet places that were non-smoking, where we could start at 8-9pm and finish at 10pm, and where everybody would sit and listen attentively.
"I think the people who come to see us have to like the records, because the records are quiet. They don't sit at home and go, 'Yeah, woo!' so they'd probably like to come see us and have people be quiet. But when you play at a rock club, you get so many other people."
If they can't always control what happens when they play clubs, Bedhead has certainly made up for it with some of the most exquisite-sounding recordings to come out of Texas this decade. WhatFunLifeWas, recorded live in a multi-track studio, captured the band's understated power in all its organic glory, while the band's 4songCD EP took that approach even further; it was recorded completely live in a church using only one stereo mike.
For Transaction de Novo, the band journeyed to Chicago to record with famed indie producer Steve Albini. His crisp and clean production aesthetic suited Bedhead perfectly. "In a way, I think he produced every other record we did," says Matt. "I remember listening to some of the records he did and thinking, 'I want our records to sound like this.' We were going for his sound."
Although Transaction de Novo has a wider range of tempos and melodies than Bedhead's previous albums, Matt says the band's approach has remained steadfast. "We didn't make an active decision to make it sound different, and if it does, it's probably only because those were the songs that were available and a couple were faster or louder than usual. I think there are a couple that are also slower than anything else we've done, too.
"It may just be different because not all the songs have three guitars. My songs have two basses and two guitars. We've done that kind of thing before, but we do it more on this album"
Bedhead's highly focused, almost painstaking approach to building songs is sometimes referred to as minimalism, but Bubba takes issue with that description. "Someone could come up with an argument to throw at me, but minimalism is kind of a relative term to me in the sense that it has to be minimal compared to what," he asserts. "I think a lot of times, when people say minimalism, what they mean to say is maybe concision and subtlety. In that sense, I think they're right on the mark, 'cause I don't feel like we do anything that's just ornamental or extraneous in the way of throwing everything but the kitchen sink."
A profound lack of ornamentation is also a mark of Bedhead's album covers, which Bubba designs with input from the band. The cover of Transaction de Novo is nothing more than unassuming sans-serif type against a solid black background, a look Matt says was inspired by the covers of Joy Division albums on Factory Records. The stark simplicity serves the music by not saying anything about it.
"When we were trying to figure out what to do for the cover of the first record, all of the songs had gained a lot of personal meaning for us in the sense that it spanned quite a few years by that time," says Bubba. "There just wasn't any particular single or combination of images that could cover all that, so the idea was to just make it simple. We thought the song titles were evocative enough."
The elegant blank slate Bedhead uses for their cover art is a good indication of how to approach the structured ambiguity of their music. Just strap in with an open mind and no ulterior motives. There's no telling where these songs might take you.
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