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'80s Babies

The twentysomethings in Longwave resurrect the Reagan era's cool underbelly

Some musicians take you to a place. Think of Calexico and that Arizona desert vibe, of Dr. John's New Orleans aura, of Snoop Dogg's ability to transform the burbs into a cartoonish version of South Central L.A. Other bands make you travel in time. Longwave is one such band.

Longwave's The Strangest Thingscould almost be a soundtrack for a John Hughes movie. The New York band has that melancholy and melodic, droning and hypnotic '80s rock of the Psychedelic Furs, U2 and Joy Division down pat.

It's the stuff you dug if you were a real music geek back then, the sort with Anglophile pretensions, the kind who wore black Converse high-tops with electric-blue laces and moussed your hair in 1983.

It'll be Christmas in July for lovers of the cream of the '80s when Longwave comes to town.
It'll be Christmas in July for lovers of the cream of the '80s when Longwave comes to town.

If you were the sort of person who didn't want to rock it with Chaka Khan or jump with Diamond Dave, or conversely if you were the sort that got on the R.E.M. bandwagon with Chronic Townand jumped off at Green, or the sort of U2 fan who hopped on the Irish band's jock with Boyor Octoberand leaped off hollering "Sellout!" after The Joshua Treewent multiplatinum, this band's for you. If you ever went apeshit at a high school dance because the DJ slipped in the Alarm's "Sixty Eight Guns," again, this is the band for you.

All of that makes sense if you're explaining the band's appeal to Gen-Xers, but why does Generation Y dig 'em so much? Easy -- they're just plain great at what they do, and this sort of music hasn't been played so well in so long that it could be mistaken for something new.

And somehow, obvious and glaring debt to the Big '80s aside, it even sounds like something new. Longwave doesn't sound like they're copying any one of those bands -- instead, the album sounds like an unearthed platter from a hitherto unknown contemporary of theirs. The effects-laden, hazy, almost celestial guitars of Shannon Ferguson and Steve Schiltz glide atop Schiltz's warm and weary baritone, the murmuring bass of Dave Marchese and Mike James's solid skins. It's the interplay of Schiltz's singing and the twin guitars that provide much of the band's signature texture, though, captured ably in the studio by Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann.

Reached on a chaotic media day at RCA's New York offices, Marchese credits Fridmann -- whom he calls one of the most impressive people he's ever met -- with being something of a Socrates in the studio, a guy who asked the musicians to look within to find the answers to their own self-doubts.

"The first day I was tracking, I would play something a little sour, and I would say 'Should I fix that?' " Marchese remembers. "And Dave would say he liked it. I would be like, 'Really?' I always wanted to play really tight and metronomic, but Dave would just say, 'That's really cool what you're doing. You don't want this to sound like a cheesy pop record.' He knew I liked the Cure, and there's a great bass player in the Cure, and he would say, 'Is he always tight?' and I would go, 'No, he's actually a little sloppy.' And he would say, 'Do you still like it? Is it ever gonna stop you from buying a Cure record, because he's behind the beat for a note?' And I would say no. And then he'd go, 'Well, isn't this cool too?' And I would go 'Yeah, man, this is cool!' "

The band had desperately wanted to record with Fridmann ever since they heard the Lips' Soft Bulletin.They were captivated by the way Fridmann could make such a complicated and symphonic pop record sound so organic. Fridmann's solution is a simple one: Play as live as possible in the studio. "With our effects, we used to try to put each sound on a different track," Marchese says, and adds that Longwave's two guitarists think almost as much on the pedals at their feet as they do on the strings of their guitars. "He was like, 'No way, dude. I want you to hit your pedals as you're playing, I want it to be alive.' Kinda like our live show, which can be pretty archaic. I guess that's one of the things that makes it sound good -- he definitely got performances out of us."

The Strangest Things is Longwave's first album on a major, but it makes no concessions to modern rock radio. In other words, it ain't exactly Buzz-friendly. For Marchese, life on a major hasn't been a mixed blessing -- it's been great in every way.

"I'll tell you, it's a hell of a lot better," he says, looking back on his indie days. "When we made that first indie record, we'd get in our van and everyone would put in 20 bucks for gas. Now we get a $20 per diem. RCA's been really cool. They've never gotten in our faces about anything; they really let us make the record we wanted to make. Nobody from the label came to the studio. We did our own artwork, and they said it was cool. We turned in the record, and they said, 'This is it? Cool.' No fuss or anything about none of that staff. Having those resources -- like being able to pay a sound man -- is just a really big deal. Also knowing that we'll be able to eat. That's really, really big."

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