Slowcore Legends Codeine Convey Details in the Distance
Eighteen years after disbanding, slowcore progenitors Codeine have re-formed for a run of shows commemorating the re-release of their entire catalog. The original lineup of Stephen Immerwahr (vocals/bass), Chris Brokaw (drums), and John Engle (guitar) is intact. In June, Chicago-based, Grammy-nominated archival label Numero Group put out a limited-edition Codeine box set called When I See the Sun, complete with singles, demos, Peel sessions, live tracks, and their Sub Pop output: two full-lengths (Frigid Stars and The White Birch) and the Barely Real EP. Active from 1989 to 1994, Codeine became known for their slower, dignified, minimalist approach to rock that inspired bands like Mogwai, who requested that Codeine play with them at this year's All Tomorrow's Parties in the UK. Immerwahr and Engle spoke, slowly. They gave their answers collectively.
Codeine's songs are like scenes shown in slow motion. There's more time to ingest details. It's like car crash test footage, with the mannequins moving gracefully toward impact. Arms flail with an abnormal elegance as necks bend to breaking angles. Bodies without seatbelts flow weightlessly through the interior into pain. It's grotesque, but there's a beauty to it that's unique. This seems fitting for Codeine. Your tempos appear oblivious to the outside world. The pace is inside its own rotation. Does your music seem slow to you?
I like the point you bring up with crash footage. People ask us why we play slow. But we're not slow just for the sake of being slow. When you were describing seeing something that's usually fast happen at a slower speed, especially something that has violence, in slow motion, there's a sense of inevitability. That this thing is going to happen. I think that's part of what we do. When you hear it, and you feel what's coming—it's still a ways off, but you'll get there eventually. The space, the slowness, and the sparseness are meant to convey a distance. There's something to the way it all unfolds. The sound takes on another meaning than if we played it at a normal pop tempo. I think there's an inevitability that comes from playing so deliberately. The pace is more of a tool to bring across what we're trying to communicate.
What draws you to that deliberateness?
The feel. We came up with a conceptual musical approach, a band name, and an area of emotional states to write about and to draw creativity from. With John's guitar playing and what Chris was able to come up with on drums and guitar, it worked. We were always a three-piece. It's been interesting listening back to the reissues for rehearsal; so much of it has two guitars. That's not how the band sounded live.
How is it playing after all this time? Have you found the common denominator again?
Six or eight months ago, I told my cousin we were going to play some shows. We were texting. And she texted back, "Good thing you guys play slow. It won't be that hard getting the songs ready." But it is harder, because of the slowness [laughs]. It took us a while to find that slow groove, that slow common denominator. Chris lives in Seattle, so when we started playing again, it took a while to rehearse because he had to fly to New York. The first practices were over the course of maybe two months, and we were already scheduled to play a show in Seattle in April. The first six or seven practices, we hadn't found it, we were all just sort of playing slowly. Then it finally fell into place. I couldn't tell you what it sounds like when we're playing poorly. During the first couple shows we had played in 18 years, there were definitely some moments onstage of "Wow, there's Steve, and there's Chris, and we're playing." The way the music is and the way the music is played, there's so much openness, it can really leave your mind with plenty of room to go somewhere else. I was really worried about singing. Basically, I haven't sung in 18 years. I was worried enough about it that I took voice lessons. So I went to two voice lessons, which was pretty weird. I don't think it had a lot of effect, other than making me feel more confident. I actually think my singing is a little bit better now. The quality of the voice isn't the same, but I've spent a lot of time listening to music and to singers. I'm enjoying the singing more now.
What's different about Codeine now? And what's not different?
I still feel it. But I'm less afraid of it than I was. It feels much more manageable now, and not this overwhelming thing. The songs are romantic—romantic with a capital R, in that it's feeling over rationale. I'd say it's a little harder to stay awake now, late into the night. I think each of us has grappled with what the implications of us playing again are. Once we got going again, it became more a physical thing, more about finding the balance between the three, finding that slow-moving string that we settle into. The emotions are the same, but we relate differently now.
Codeine could be one of Ad Reinhardt's "black" paintings.
We're definitely not a Renoir. Funny, I've made an analogy before to Ad Reinhardt and his "black" paintings. But that was just to illustrate how we weren't simply a slow band, saying there's a lot more nuance there and that you become familiar with it. There are relationships within the elements of each of those paintings, even though they're still basically all black paintings.
How did Codeine's signing to Sub Pop happen?
The first label we were signed to was Glitterhouse in Germany, who handled a lot of the Sup Pop Records there. I'm not sure if that actually helped us get signed or not, although it did seem like a natural choice. We sent them a cassette, but again, I'm not sure if that helped [laughs]. I feel like we scammed Glitterhouse a bit. I was doing sound for a friend's band who was on tour in Europe, and I asked them to tell people Codeine was this hot unsigned American band. Glitterhouse heard about us that way. So we sent them a tape and they agreed to put us on a compilation, and to give us money to do a record. Then it turned out they were the people who were doing Sub Pop in Europe. So Sub Pop in the US was like, "Huh, who is this band?" I think we were signed to Glitterhouse before we had played five shows. And when we signed to Sub Pop, we had played maybe 10 shows. It was different than the grunge bands who were touring a lot.
We should also say Sub Pop really weren't sure about us. At that point, it was all grunge and Beat Happening. Frigid Stars was already out on Glitterhouse. When Sub Pop was considering releasing it, they asked us if we would possibly come out to Seattle and record a few extra guitar tracks on the songs with Jack Endino. I knew some of the Sub Pop bands through cassettes Steve had made for me, but I wasn't up on all of it.
He thought Jack Endino was two guys—Jack and Dino.
I didn't want to go all the way out there and record with these two knuckleheads [laughs]. I think by the time we had politely refused, which was within two or three weeks, Sub Pop had gotten to like the album just as it was. And they didn't want us mucking it up with additional grunge guitar.
And the slide guitar on "Pickup Song" is so nice, so crystalline. What was that recording session like?
That's actually slide bass [laughs]. On the box set, there are demos. Stephen had recorded a demo of that song a couple years earlier where the slide part was played on guitar. When it came time to record it, he was like, "I think it has to be a bass." Because there wasn't really a bass part for that song. And playing the slide part on bass sounded cool. The demo version has no drums; I really like the demo version. Basically, it's just playing power chords on the bottom three strings, and the top three strings open. It gets this real ringing sound throughout, and then with the second guitar playing more strummy chords creates a good mesh between the two. I remember writing it around the time that Sooyoung Park of Bitch Magnet gave me a new pair of bass pickups, so that's what the pickup is about. I had gone to school with him, and he was an inspiration. He also gave me a drum machine.
How did Codeine write songs? What was your mode of creating?
I feel like it was a pretty normal process. I'd take a four-track recorder and lay down guitar and vocals. Then give it to John and he'd listen to it a bunch to figure out what I had done.
"Washed Up" is another one that represents the Codeine elongation well. You sing, "How can we live, forget, but not forgive." Where did these words come from?
They aren't that profound. I guess at the time, I thought they were profound. I'd say it's about how to process and make peace with disappointment in relationships. Any kind of relationship. It's a recurring theme in Codeine songs, part dream, part relationship. Some songs on The White Birch we had recorded earlier with Chris, and "Washed Up" was one of the newer ones. I got to play the bass with distortion and reverb.
When we made Frigid Stars, everyone thought it was slow as heck. And we actually got slower when we played live. Slower than on record. Other bands in 1990 were playing blistering, noisy, raucous, riffing guitar stuff. I think by the time we recorded The White Birch, some bands had settled down and were playing slower. Stephen brought in a metronome and said, "All right, this is what we're going to do with this song," and kept lowering and lowering the tempo [laughs]. But not for "Washed Up." That one was slightly peppy for us.
I think we got tricked a bit by the slow stuff, too. People would always say, "You guys are so slow." And it's true, we were slow, but we weren't the slowest, or the heaviest.
Any plans to record new Codeine?
No, no plans for any new Codeine. We did eight shows in Europe with ATP, and we have 10 shows in the US. It's a special thing, to be a part of it. But that'll be it. Codeine was there to serve the songs. I don't feel like I must write more songs so Codeine can continue. There came a time when there weren't any new Codeine songs, so there wasn't any more Codeine. Also, I don't think I can get any more time off from work this year [laughs].
But after these shows, your gears will be lubed and you'll be sounding so tight. What about a speed-metal album? A new Codeine direction?
Only if we can get Hope Sandoval from Mazzy Star to sing.