Marshall Graves didn't know the gun was loaded. Isn't that what they all say?
Some time ago, Graves and his fellow members of old-beyond-their-years Houston quartet listenlisten were rehearsing at bandmate Shane Patrick's house in the Heights. An Airsoft BB pistol was lying around, and as Chekhov taught us, the gun that shows up in the first act always goes off in the third. This time it didn't take nearly that long.
"I shot Shane," Graves sheepishly admits as Patrick and Ben Godfrey erupt into laughter around a picnic table on the Continental Club's patio. (The fourth listener, drummer Jose Chavez, is unable to join us.)
"I didn't know it was going to...shoot him," Graves insists. "Shane was in mid-sentence talking to Ben, and I picked up the gun and was like" — he holds an imaginary pistol about a foot and a half from Patrick's temple — "'Bam.'"
Capping bandmates with high-powered pellet guns is hardly listenlisten's only form of recreation. At the band's first practice space in president-head sculptor David Adickes's Old Sixth Ward warehouse, they recall, they were fond of such Fight Club-like activities as hitting golf balls off the roof, breaking bottles out back, skateboarding indoors, urinating out their second-story window — although, Godfrey points out, he did refrain the time he saw a man engaged in the exact same activity directly below him — and exploring the nearby Target then under construction.
Still, the pellet-gun incident tops them all.
"It was an accident!" Graves pleads. Godfreyisn't buying it.
"How was it an accident?"
"I was just playing around," Graves says. "I was like, 'There's no BBs in here.' He was yelling at me, and I was beet red. Man, I felt awful. I'm sorry, Shane."
"It's okay," Patrick replies. "I know how to throw knives and shurikens now, so..."
"If that ever happens again, I'm fuckin' dead,"concludes Graves.
For all of listenlisten's horseplay, however, there's almost nothing humorous or even transgressive about the group's music. Quite the opposite — several songs on its exceedingly dark, occasionally unsettling debut full-length, Hymns from Rhodesia, really are based in part on century-old church music. "Funeral Dirge; Burial Service" goes them one better, coupling together a pair of Masonic burial songs that the band reckons have been around for 200 years or maybe longer, and that haven't lost one ounce of creepiness.
"I think it was just kind of an idea that either I had or maybe me and Shane developed, that it would be cool to try and reinvent some old hymn songs that maybe had words we could relate to, [that] maybe had double meanings we could apply to today," says Godfrey. "Once we started doing it, it sounded really cool, so we just kept doing it."
"There were a lot of weird parallels [between the hymns] and the stuff Ben was writing anyway," adds Graves.
Any song that deals with death, especially — such as Rhodesia's "The Body," "Shall We Meet Beyond the River?" and "When the Man Comes" (shades of Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around") — never seems to lose its relevancy.
"The funeral dirge, I think, is especially interesting because the chorus is actually one song, and the rest of the lyrics are another dirge," offers Patrick. "The chorus kind of highlights how no matter what your status is in society, you're going to die, and you're going to be just as dead as anybody else. It's completely humbling — it doesn't matter what you achieve, you're going to get to this certain point. No matter how you feel about spirituality, it's something to [give you] pause."
A swooning suite scored mostly to trumpet, piano, violin and banjo — Godfrey, Patrick and Graves each play a variety of instruments, but generally Godfrey handles guitars and strings, Patrick horns and woodwinds and Graves keyboards — Rhodesia lurches around the specters of Tom Waits and Okkervil River. The album doesn't so much contemplate humans' impending mortality as await it with something approaching relish. "It loops 'round my neck, and dips down the back, and I'll hang on, I'll hang on this rope," the band sings on stomping, pass-the-bottle clap-along "On a Rope."
"I really liked how [the songs] have this sense of not impending doom, but maybe a mix between impending doom and impending hope," adds Godfrey. The common thread between Rhodesia's dirges and more hopeful songs like sea chantey "Safe Home, Safe Home in Port!," he and Patrick agree, is that both capture a sense of urgency even when, as on "Safe Home" and "On the Water," the music is as calm as the ocean under a cloudless sky.
"That mixed well with the music we were writing, and the attitude I have, and probably the attitude they have somewhat," Godfrey says as his bandmates nod.
All in their mid-twenties, Godfrey, Patrick and Graves knew each other growing up in Spring. Godfrey and Patrick, "looking for something to do," formed listenlisten about three and a half years ago.
Graves came along about a year later — "the day I got kicked out of my power-violence band," he explains (hmmm...) — and newest member Chavez about a year after that. The band's self-titled EP, released in spring 2007, contains evocative titles like "The Winter of Two Thousand Five" and "Watching the Watchers Watch Us Watching."
Today, the members see it as a sort of rough draft of the sound they would eventually — and painstakingly — arrive at on Rhodesia, which began its long gestation even before the EP came out. Patrick admits the delay is mostly his doing.
"There's like two or three [songs] that have over 100 tracks," he says. "One has 120 to 130. I told the guy who mixed it before we had him do it, 'It's going to be awful,' and he was completely down for it then, but I think after a couple of months of dealing with it, he didn't say anything, but I'm sure he was kind of hating the process."
This explains why Rolling Stone's "Hype Monitor," a column on the magazine's Web site tracking under-the-radar music, referred to listenlisten as a "collective" when praising Rhodesia back in July as an "even spookier version of Will Oldham." The attention was nice, the band says now, but didn't exactly help get people out to shows on their recent two-week tour to Brooklyn, Chicago and back with good friend and sometime "collective" member Robert Ellis. Truthfully, to hear Godfrey explain it, listenlisten's songwriting process doesn't sound especially belabored or meticulous — collective-like, in other words — at all.
"I'm usually asking them to do something really weird and unexpected," he says. "Like, I just say, 'Do the weirdest thing you can think of.'"
We'll just assume that "weird and unexpected" does not generally extend to the use of firearms during band practice. But maybe it does. Whatever the band is doing seems to be working — just ask the guy who stumbled across them at one of the clubs where listenlisten honed its sound, the old Super Happy Fun Land in the Heights.
"A lot of metal guys like us," says Patrick.
"Because we're fucking dark," Graves chimes in.
"I guess that's what it is," Patrick continues. "One of our first bigger fans at Super Happy told us that first it was Metallica, and then it was listenlisten." CHRIS GRAY
listenlisten releases Hymns from Rhodesia with Peter & the Wolf, I Am Mesmer and Sew What, 8 p.m. Friday, September 18, at Mango's, 403 Westheimer, 713-522-8903 or www.mangoscafehouston.com.