'80s Babies

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 Things could 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.

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 Town and jumped off at Green, or the sort of U2 fan who hopped on the Irish band's jock with Boy or October and leaped off hollering "Sellout!" after The Joshua Tree went 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."

Back in the pre-per diem days, the band filled their bellies on free CDs, for which they had a voracious, all-encompassing appetite. "When record labels were courting us, they would give us all these promo CDs," he says. "We'd take everything -- they were like, 'Why you picking up all these dance records, Dave? I know you're never gonna listen to 'em.' Of course we'd take them all down to a mom-and-pop record shop and sell 'em all so we could eat. They pay well."

Up to now, most of Longwave's hype has come from the fact that they opened for the Strokes for a time and bear certain superficial resemblances to them -- shaggy hair, obvious connection to certain bands from New York and England, and Gotham residences.

Opening for the it band of 2001 has proved a mixed blessing. First off, they've been stricken from the ranks of the über-cool by some who hate everything about the Strokes. "We're not popular with the hip set," Marchese says. "Whenever you see a list of '15 Cool New York Bands' or something, we're never on that list. I don't ever want to get caught up in that. The last thing I want to do is get caught up in 'a New York scene' or something like that."

Then there are those who slag 'em off for not sounding enough like the Strokes. "The Strokes did help raise our profile and get some people to check us out, and most of those people say, 'Oh, they're nothing like the Strokes, that's cool,' " says Marchese. "But a couple of times we were criticized for not sounding like them. It's like, 'Yeah, but we're still good, aren't we?' "

To answer that, we'll resort to some of Fridmann's Socratic questions, '80s-style. Is the pope Catholic? Does a bear shit in the woods? Was Molly Ringwald pretty in pink?