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Wordless Wonders

Death Valley does its talking through its playing

Tune into '90s rock radio sometime, and what do you hear? There's Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong singing about not having much to sing about. There's Smashing Pumpkin Billy Corgan, who, despite all his rage, is still just a whiny brat with bad hair. There's Joan Osborne with some silly crap about the Pope's phone habits. And there's Kurt Cobain, wailing from beyond the grave about how he hasn't got a gun, when everyone knows that he had plenty of guns; what he hasn't got is a head. It's a wasteland of lyrical bombast and self-indulgence out there, and anyone with a respect for words is bound, sooner or later, to wish they'd all just shut up. So it's more than a little refreshing to hear Death Valley guitarist Joe Emory explain his band's creation as a wordless powerhouse.

"The other guitarist, Mear, and I decided we wanted to form a band, and neither one of us wrote lyrics," says Emory. "We decided that neither one of us had anything significant to say -- or if we did, we didn't know how to say it -- so we just kind of stuck with the instrumental thing."

That "instrumental thing" began about four and a half years ago in Austin, where Emory, Mear, bassist Pepper and drummer Blue (the band wasted no words on surnames) came together at the University of Texas. All were students who have since earned graduate degrees (except for new member John Sutter, who replaced Blue on drums two months ago, and who's presently working on a master's degree in social work). "We've got the highest GPA of any band in Austin," says Emory.

They've also got a clean, crisp spaghetti Western sound built on the twin towers of Dick Dale and Link Wray surf-style guitars and liberally glossed with an abiding fondness for the soundtrack work of Ennio Morricone. Death Valley's live shows often include a few lyric-containing covers of classics by '80s punk and '60s garage rock groups -- the Ramones, the Go-Go's, 13th Floor Elevators and Billy Childish all pop up as pacers in the band's set list -- but the group's recorded output, which includes one full-length CD, AQue Pasta!, and a red-vinyl-only Christmas single of "Silent Night" backed with "Little Drummer Boy," is purely instrumental, an advantage in more ways than one.

"It's a lot less expensive and time-consuming to record instrumental music," Emory explains.

The 15-track AQue Pasta!, in fact, was recorded for a hair under $500. There's also an edge of aesthetic freedom to Death Valley's musical approach, since "instrumental music can take one person somewhere and it can take another person somewhere else," says Emory. "As much as I listen to vocal music, instrumental's just not as limiting. We write songs the same way a band with vocals would write a song. You dream up something you want to write a song about and then you write a song about it, but you're not encumbered with lyrics. It can have different meanings for everyone."

Not that there's no idea behind a song's construction. Like Dick Dale, who will tell you -- at length, if you let him -- that his hang-ten E-string crashes are meant to conjure a tropical rain forest in industrial jeopardy, Emory approaches his song craft through visual images. His "Surfista Jam," for instance, is "about the Surfistas in Brazil, who are these gang members who get up and surf on top of the electric trains. But then again, if someone likes the song and it says something else to them, that's fine with me, too."

Pepper thinks that's too vague. "He's got these special parts of the song, where the guy's down low and balancing, certain parts he's up high and happy that he's out there, and there's the dangerous part where the tunnels come in," Pepper says. "Some of the songs have a definite meaning to them, even though there's no way you would know that."

Not being able to know the meaning -- or being able to invent a meaning of your own -- can be a large part of the music's appeal. That Death Valley's songs lend themselves to open visual interpretation may be the reason why the group's music has been in such high demand as soundtrack material for student films over the past several years. That, and the hip cachet that's reattached itself to instrumental work since the re-emergence of Dale two years ago and the subsequent surf music-laden Pulp Fiction soundtrack.

"When Pulp Fiction came out," says Pepper, "everybody who had never heard of us said, 'Hey, they sound like Pulp Fiction!' "

"They're cashing in!" mimics Emory.
Death Valley, though, could hardly be accused of cashing in. The group embarked on its instrumental path well before Quentin Tarantino met John Travolta. And that path hasn't led them to riches; all the band members are holding day jobs they don't plan to leave any time soon, or any time at all, really, and Death Valley's dream of success consists largely of being able to mount a small tour beyond the borders of Texas. There's a second CD in the can awaiting release, and while the sophomore effort's sound is, Emory reports, expanded with the addition of Farfisa organ, vibraphones and tambourine, it's still instrumental music, designed to conjure images and then get out of their way.

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