Lasers and Cornfields
Psych-Blues Septet Rose Windows Open Doors to the Unknown
Strange things happen at Rose Windows shows—really strange things. Old men and young women pass out. Disheveled mystical-voodoo ladies ask for the mic in order to babble crackhead gibberish. And then this happened at a pickup show at a San Francisco Mexican restaurant, according to vocalist Rabia Qazi.
"We were playing 'Walkin' with a Woman' [a slow-burning psych-blues ballad off the Seattle group's album The Sun Dogs], and this guy was way too into it—headbanging in a small area. He got really close to my mic and slammed into it, and it slammed into my face. I spit my tooth out into my hand and gave it to him. I was like, 'Fuck you!' It hurt really bad. I was in the middle of singing, too, so it was very abrupt. But I didn't stop singing."
Then there was the weird house party show in Portland where nobody in the audience would accept the smoke Rose Windows offered and nearly everybody exited the room while they played. So all the members faced one another and played to themselves. Afterward, two girls approached Qazi. "One of them said the most beautiful thing anyone's ever said to me in my life: 'You made me feel like I was dying and going to hell.' I said, 'Thank you so much.' She said she didn't mean it as a compliment, but I told her that's exactly what I'm going for: invoking hell for you. That made me want to continue singing, for sure."
Although the Seattle septet have been bedeviled by horrible luck on their tours (guitarist Nils Petersen having all his clothes fall out of a moving van, bassist Duke Ballsworthy [aka Richie Rekow] suffering extreme illness, no AC while driving through the Mojave Desert, etc.), they've persevered and risen quickly in the local music ecosystem. In 2011, Rose Windows were playing small, off-the-grid spaces like the In, Josephine, and Black Lodge. A year later, they were performing at Showbox at the Market, on KEXP, and, this Tuesday, at the Neptune.
The band—which also features guitarist/main composer Chris Cheveyo, drummer Pat Schowe, flautist Veronica Dye, and keyboardist David Davila—have spent much of the last two years working on their debut full-length, The Sun Dogs, which they recorded at Avast! Recording Co. with renowned producer Randall Dunn (Master Musicians of Bukkake, Sunn O))), Akron/Family, etc.). Sub Pop has shown interest, but group members remain coy about negotiations. One way or another, though, Rose Windows hope to release the album in time for your summer enjoyment.
The Sun Dogs differs from the band's early sound, which tended toward chaotic, cacophonous jamming. The Sun Dogs shows much refinement, structure, and concision, although there are still some long songs—including highlights "Walkin' with a Woman" and serpentine psych epic "This Shroud"—which top seven and nine minutes, respectively. Partially credit Dunn for this result.
"He was as much a part of the process as any of us was," Cheveyo says. "From the beginning, it seemed like we [played like] were just drunk. We played like that because we kept missing cues."
Rose Windows have winnowed their excesses without getting too stripped down. They still exhibit flashes of turbulence when necessary, but their studio time with Dunn left them believing less is more. "If we had stayed in the style of the first couple of shows we played," Schowe says, "we would've [remained] in the same stagnant psychedelic-jam-band water. Where the music's gone, you can see that growth."
So what sort of advice did Dunn give Rose Windows?
"It was all metaphorical," Petersen says. "My favorite Randall quote was when J [Kardong, guest musician] came in to track the pedal steel for 'Indian Summer.' When they were ready to do a take, Randall comes on the mic and says, 'Just think: lasers and cornfields. All right, we're rolling.'"
Dunn has nothing but effusive praise for Rose Windows. "Everyone in that band is such a great musician. The writing is deep; the lyrics are so good; Rabia's voice, for how old she is , is so unique and deep and just gets better and better. Chris is a very strong thematic writer and super prolific. They have way more in common with the Zombies or Fairport Convention than a lot of the more 'psych' bands in the scene that they get thrown in with. They also have the ability to do whatever they want musically. I don't see chops like that often."
Rose Windows have applied those chops to a couple of vastly divergent covers: Frank Zappa's "Cosmik Debris" and George Gershwin's "Summertime." Cheveyo heard Qazi drunkenly singing the latter to people walking into the Wildrose bar two years ago, which convinced him they needed to write songs together. But why cover this overplayed tune?
"It's one of my favorite songs of all time, one of the few songs, before Rose Windows, I've ever felt comfortable singing," Qazi says. "A lot of people have covered it, but it hasn't been done the way we do it." True. Rose Windows' version is sinister, pregnant with menace.
Cheveyo elaborates: "It sounded like an American dream kind of a song. I thought it would be funny if I wrote it inside of a song that sounded like a war dance, like a preparation. There's the calm before the war and the actual battle."
Rose Windows know from battles, and their bumpy if swift ascent convinces you that making music for them is much more than just a fun diversion. It's a spiritual, cathartic quest.
"It's a way to get out all the stress and anxiety of everyday life and to release something much bigger than yourself, feel like something bigger than yourself," Qazi says.
"It's as spiritual as taking drugs," Schowe adds. "I get a high from playing. It's as spiritual as taking two hits of acid and walking in the woods."
"There's some part of it that's escapism, like you're trying to get away from these doldrums, the life you're surrounded by," Petersen says. "But there's also this part where you're opening doors to the unknown."