Beyond the Caterwaul
Past Lives Explore a Different Kind of Tension
Opening for Deerhunter and Times New Viking at Neumos in November, Past Lives looked skinny, hungry, and confident. They didn't appear at all to be ex-members of a highly successful band—the Blood Brothers—that had spent a decade touring the world, performing at huge festivals, recording for large corporations like V2, and gaining hundreds of thousands of fans. On the contrary, Past Lives seemed grateful to have the chance to play the night's first slot, filling in last-minute-style for BARR, on a bill composed of groups on small indie labels like Kranky and Siltbreeze.
Most musicians of similar stature would scoff at such an offer, but Past Lives—singer Jordan Blilie, drummer Mark Gajadhar, bassist/keyboardist Morgan Henderson, and guitarist Devin Welch (ex-Shoplifting, Chromatics)—are the opposite of prima donnas, even though they've made appearances on high-profile TV programs like Jimmy Kimmel Live! and The Henry Rollins Show.
During their Neumos set, Past Lives radiated an artful menace and tension. This isn't the ultra-mega-hyper spazz-core/no-wave catharsis of the Blood Brothers, but rather post-punk that exudes a well-tempered klang and angst. Frequently clutching the back of his head with his right hand, Blilie has mastered the art of wailing melodically, a far cry (heh) from his lacerated-larynx delivery with his previous group. Welch's wiry, incisive guitar, Gadajhar's sinewy drumming, and Henderson's insistent bass pulsations and trenchant samples coalesce into one of the Seattle rock scene's most intelligent, dynamic sounds.
Taking the path of most resistance, Past Lives have chosen not to build directly on the Blood Brothers' formidable legacy. "Doing that would seem a bit cheap to me," Blilie says by phone; his speaking voice is preternaturally calm, 180 degrees from his singing style. "I feel much better about starting over completely clean and building something from the ground up that people can take on its own terms, that feels completely brand-new."
"We're enjoying that part of being a band again," he continues. "I think that the beginning stages of a band are a very special time. I've been really happy to feel a greater sense of connection to things happening in Seattle. In the Blood Brothers for a long time I felt such a disconnect, because we were never home."
Now settled for a little over a year in Seattle, Past Lives have issued a strong five-song EP on Suicide Squeeze titled Strange Symmetry and are diligently working on an album that they hope will surface in the fall of 2009. "We've been writing consistently, but fairly slowly," Blilie observes. "I think that's because we really do want to get into different territory. Trying to get into uncomfortable and new territory, it takes a bit of time and effort—especially writing things that are more mellow. It's not second nature to us. There are some things you can't escape when you've been playing music with people for 10-plus years. 'Beyond Gone' [from Strange Symmetry], speaking of the three individuals who were in the Blood Brothers, was territory that felt a bit unmined. The one thing we could do to stray from the Blood Brothers is to create space. Knowing when is a good time not to sing and let the music breathe and speak for itself. I've been trying to be pretty aware of that."
Blilie cites Brian Eno's "Third Uncle" as an inspiration for Past Lives' "Chrome Life." "You have a song that's five minutes long, and it's a variation on one riff. But there's enough coming in and out of it to make it completely captivating from start to finish."
Blilie admits he's been obsessively listening to Eno's Another Green World and Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) since Past Lives began. He especially likes how Eno uses "fairly simple language to set a very moving tone to his songs." However, Blilie's lyrics on the EP seem allusive and tough to decipher.
"A lot of it is directed toward the state of mind I was in around the time the Blood Brothers called it a day," he says. "Most of the songs touch on things coming to an end or the desire to start over or dealing with a certain amount of disappointment or change."
Speaking of which, what was the real reason behind the Blood Brothers' split?
"I can't point to one defining event," Blilie says. "It was harder and harder for us to find that middle ground where all of us were happy. People weren't getting what they desired from music and being in a band. I couldn't imagine trying to work on another record with that band. We drifted apart, as people do, as people grow into different individuals and have different ideas of where they want to be in their lives and what they want to be doing with music. As different as we were, we all shared a similar vision as far as where we wanted to be; as the years progressed, it became more and more polarized. If something is no longer bringing you joy, it's time to make a change."