Clever Criminals

Los Angeles, full to the hilt with self-centered wannabes and bitter never-weres, is hardly the friendliest environment for a musician seeking fame and recognition. And if a performer already has Cleveland, home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, on his side, why would he ever want to head west? According to Mark Addison of the Borrowers, the answer is simple: competition is always preferable to comfort.

By 1991, Addison says, he was at the end of his creative rope in his Ohio hometown, and he needed a fresh challenge to re-fire his engines. After spending much of the '80s with the locally influential Cleveland groups Nation of One and the Generators, Addison set out for L.A. armed with an acoustic guitar, an eight-track recorder and a list of contacts, plunging headfirst into the fray of recording-industry hype and pay-to-play showcases.

"Cleveland was a nice place to grow up, but it has this chip on its shoulder and hardly any role models for success. I mean, when was the last time a band got signed out of Cleveland? Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails is really the only local inspiration musicians have right now," says Addison. "I think it's really important to go away from where you are and move somewhere else to build your craft. I needed to reinvent myself, and L.A. has a really fertile music scene."

It's a scene that's often fertile to the point of saturation, but no matter. Addison settled in Santa Monica near the Pacific Ocean, where he found regular gigs at local coffeehouses, began producing demos for local artists and prepared for the reality that it might be a while before his voice registered over the din of the countless others competing for a place in Southern California's musical evolution. During that three-year process of discovering himself, Addison found a place as leader of the Borrowers, a band of musical misfits that hit on the formula required to make fluid, if somewhat conventional, neo-folk rock with a lucid social conscience and healthy levels of emoting.

"L.A. makes you really take a look at yourself and find what you do that is really special that nobody else does," says Addison, the Borrowers' singer, guitarist and primary songwriter. "A lot of places where people make music don't really value originality. They just sort of follow each other, follow trends. In [L.A.], the only thing you got going for yourself is how different you are, not how you fit in."

Where the Borrowers distinguish themselves is in their stylistic ingenuity, a quality that's likely a symptom of the band members' eclectic backgrounds. Addison, the son of an opera teacher, nurses a soft spot for classical music, mainstream '70s rock and hard-core punk. Bassist Josef Zimmerman played with a number of rockabilly and Latin-flavored groups around Los Angeles while working on a degree in music from Cal State Northridge. He's also toured Europe with comedian Sandra Bernhard's band. Jazz-trained multi-instrumentalist Joshua Segal has dabbled in a little of everything, from jazz to punk. He was part of DD Nose, a funk-core contemporary of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and also sat in briefly with Porno for Pyros, Perry Farrell's post-Jane's Addiction project. Original Borrowers drummer Shawn Lee, heavy into acid jazz, ended up leaving the band for a recording contract overseas; he was replaced last year by Nina Singh, who has a rich background in blues and jazz.

"We were four people in the same sort of situation but with different experience, and we found this chemistry that is unbelievable," Addison says. "It's a real good feeling."

The Borrowers' competing tastes feed the band's sound, an arresting blend of folk's acoustic intimacy and rock's forthright electricity that gives the impression of a group trying its best to come to terms with a daunting myriad of influences. On the band's self-titled debut, the attempt is largely successful, thanks in large part to Addison's powerful songwriting, which constantly struggles for reconciliation and release. On one of The Borrowers' more telling tunes, the lilting ballad "This Time," Addison comforts a troubled mate by singing, "This time you won't have to walk away / Won't have to run away / No one will drive you away baby this time." It's a rudimentary assurance delivered in a voice that trembles and cracks as if Addison has just finished crying his eyes out. And you never doubt for a moment that he means every last cliche.

"That is quite a personal song, but it's not literally something that happened to me -- though I might have drawn from some feelings that I had left over," says Addison. "I think that once you start writing, songs begin taking on their own different stories."

If you had a mind to, you could read plenty into the Borrowers' own story. The name alone implies a band humble enough to acknowledge and celebrate its influences, a likable trait that's been praised by fans and critics around the country. Those most impressed haven't hesitated to put the Borrowers in lofty company, throwing out names such as Van Morrison, Lennon and McCartney, Warren Zevon, John Hiatt, Counting Crows, Elvis Costello and R.E.M. in their attempts to peg the band's rootsy-resilient sound.

"Everything in music is borrowed from everything else, either directly or indirectly," says Borrowers bassist Josef Zimmerman. "It's the context you put it in that matters. Writers have to give people an idea of what we sound like. I'm okay with being compared to anyone, because I know how we sound."

Then again, you can read too much meaning into minor details. And in truth, the Borrowers' name has little, if anything, to do with their musical philosophy. Little real foresight went into choosing the moniker; Addison came up with it in minutes, borrowing it, if you will, from the title of his favorite children's book. That was a few years back, when the Borrowers were only a duo, and the label has stuck. And, Zimmerman adds, "now that we're trying to do everything ourselves, we're actually living up to our name. We've mortgaged ourselves to the hilt for this group."

The group borrowed $12,000 from Joshua Segal's father to finance its CD, recording it in two weeks with Nashville-based producer Jay Joyce for the tiny Santa Monica-based India Records. Since, the Borrowers have spent most of their time either on-stage or staring out of a van window at the passing scenery. Near broke most of the time, they've had to rely on the kindness of family, friends and strangers to help them along. Roadside generosity has been most pronounced in Austin, where the group has built a reliable life-support system of musician pals, among them the Sexton brothers (Will and Charlie) and Little Sister. Aside from providing a crucial free place to crash during the Borrowers' often lengthy stints in Texas, the connections have aided in establishing the band's credibility.

"Austin is like our second home," says Zimmerman. "What we hear a lot is that we really fit in well there, but that there also is no one around who really sounds like us, either. We thought very seriously about moving there, but we're traveling so much that it really doesn't matter where we live."

The endless touring and empty pockets could come to an end as soon as this summer. The group recently signed with Guardian, a subsidiary of EMI, which plans on releasing The Borrowers nationally in June. The new CD should see relatively few changes from the indie version. At most, says Addison, a few songs might be added and the production enhanced, though neither is really needed to better the immaculately written and recorded 12-song original. "We don't want to go too far from where we are right now," Addison says.

But until the royalty checks start rolling in from EMI, the Borrowers are happy to subsist on handouts and loans. Heck, even something as seemingly innocent as a trip to the store has been known to result in lodging for the band.

"We walked into a hardware store in Fort Collins [Colorado] last year to find a part for Nina's drum kit, and we ended up meeting the owners. Now, we stay at their place any time we're in town. We'll borrow from anybody," muses Zimmerman. "Just ask the guy who's lending us his floor tonight."

The Borrowers open for Charlie Sexton at 9 p.m. Wednesday, January 17, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $8. For more info, call 869-

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Hobart Rowland