There are reasons, upon first inspection, that Remy Zero's second record, Villa Elaine, should suck: Bio says they sound like Radiohead; first record not so good; long-standing friendship with singer from Counting Crows; from Birmingham, Alabama; both Daniel Lanois and Courtney Love championing the band. Actually, Villa Elaine doesn't suck: The sound is like a combination of Radiohead, Jeff Buckley and U2; Adam Duritz does not appear on the record; "Prophecy" is a great radio song. Villa Elaine was, in fact, the most surprisingly great album of last year.
With delicate textures and smart songs meshed into catchy guitar hooks, aching vocals and moody production, it was probably the best record last year that nobody heard. Since its release in August, it has been slowly building steam, thanks in part to people such as Ms. Love proclaiming its greatness, sporadic airplay of the urgent "Prophecy" and the notoriety of the band's singer, Cinjun Tate, for becoming Mr. Alyssa Milano on New Year's Day.
Milano, Lanois and Love aren't the only famous fans of the band; young, hip celebrities are in abundance at their Los Angeles shows. (Brian Austin Greene! Pat Smear! Shannen Doherty! Pat Smear!) The band isn't starstruck, which is admirable considering their somewhat humble roots; they have a peaceful calm about them even as the storm of popularity seems to loom.
When asked if it seems like a matter of time before the song is a hit, bassist Cedric LaMoyne laughs. "We all hope so," he says, before continuing more seriously. "We didn't really construct the record in a way that any single would be the big standout, runaway hit. So if 'Prophecy' just lays the groundwork that allows us to continue releasing songs and promoting the record and steadily getting the word out about who we are, that would be enough."
This kind of low-key ambition regarding sales is consistent with the goals and approach of the group. Both drummer Gregory Slay and LaMoyne seem to have lofty perceptions of what Remy is doing as a band. Speaking in vague generalities, comparing music-writing to painting, for instance, they seem to be trying a little too hard at first, taking their music as seriously as capital A Art. When their results were as convoluted as the 1996 self-titled release (a hodgepodge that doesn't hold up when compared to Elaine), they came off as pretentious. Now, they have grown into their ambitions. On record, and especially on stage, guitarists Shelby Tate and Jeffrey Cain play like a pair of fencers, thrusting and parrying with each other. When one builds a wall of sound, the other attacks with single notes, peeling them off without diluting the power of the song. Intentional or not, there is a mythic quality to the band and its music, one of the facets that brings up the Radiohead comparisons.
The band members have always formed an eccentric and arty group. Starting out as teenagers in Birmingham, Alabama, the quintet realized that they weren't going to be able to easily explore the margins of music there. So they began a nomadic existence that has taken them to Nashville, New Orleans, Montreal, New York and Los Angeles, for various stretches. Absorbing the culture of each city, they moved on when they "knew the names of the streets," according to LaMoyne.
Still sleepy the morning after doing a radio show, LaMoyne and Slay manage to play off each other in a way befitting a band that considers its members to be family. It seems almost second nature for them to finish each other's thoughts and sentences. Commenting on their propensity for packing their bags and moving on abruptly (though they have semisettled in Los Angeles for the time being), Slay jokingly suggests, "It's kind of like we were a National Geographic team of scientists going around to different spots and picking up information."
LaMoyne responds, "We use places up pretty quickly. As soon as two people start to be unhappy in a place, then it makes it not useful to be in that place anymore."
And Slay echoes, "When you are in a family, you can't stand to see one person totally miserable all the time, so changes must happen."
The two acknowledge that Remy works in a unique way, with members trading instruments on recordings and with everyone in the band participating for the greater good. Most bands pay lip service to the fact that everyone is equal, and most bands are liars. But from the pseudomystical way they describe the intertwining of their lives, their artistic processes and the sounds of Villa Elaine, these are people that work and play well together.
According to Slay, "We live out of each other's pockets, and we are really, really good friends. That sounds kind of syrupy-sweet, but it's actually the truth. And, yes, because we're like a family, we have some intense moments. But on the other end of it, the creative process is more fulfilling."
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Using the democratic process to write songs sounds noble, but it can also drag things towards the middle, and usually boring, ground. Slay credits everyone's ability to add to songs as the reason they aren't pulled down, even if it does also take time. "A lot of times a song hits its stride right when the final person has it," he says. "It can be very slow, sometimes slower than other people on the outside would like it to be."
The outside world has taken a curiosity in the relationship between the singer for the band and the Who's the Boss/Melrose Place/Charmed star. For an off-center band, the attention of Entertainment Tonight et al. seems odd. Their association with Milano has its benefits, according to the band members, but the heightened interest of the mainstream press isn't considered a plus.
"It's very strange to have to contend with so much that is external to what we do musically," LaMoyne explains. "Obviously she is one of our best friends, and we are very happy for Cinjun, but it has added a weird element of things we have to deal with on a daily basis. She's dealt with fame in such a great way; it's cool to have someone around so you can learn to deal with the trappings of success if they ever come. The whole pulp media has definitely been frustrating, but what can you do?"
Remy Zero opens for Semisonic on January 28 at Numbers, 300 Westheimer, (713)526-6551.