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The Mass Media

Indie Rock Profiles: Mellowdrone

deceptively calm
deceptively calm

Band Website: mellowdrone.com, http://myspace.com/mellowdroneRecord Label: 3 Records/Red Ink


Former Berklee College of Music scholarship student, guitar whiz and Venezuelan native, Jonathan Bates fronts Mellowdrone, a guitar-heavy, synth-aided rock quartet based in Los Angeles. In recent years, they have opened for bands like The Killers, Phantom Planet, and Johnny Marr. They were the Band of the Day on SPIN.com in March and are on the compilation CD of the latest issue of PASTE magazine. Their much anticipated debut album, Box (3 Records/Red Ink), was released in March, as well.

Things couldn’t be better for the band now, but garnering so much attention and developing the band to its current state didn’t come overnight. When Bates started Mellowdrone in 1999, he was a one-man show, literally. Building songs live on stage using looping technology worked to his advantage and eventually led to a record deal. After a couple of mostly critically lauded EPs for the label ARTISTdirect, Johnny Marr, legendary guitarist of The Smiths, took Bates and his fully formed band (with Cami Gutierrez on bass/keys, Brian Borg on drums, and Tony DeMatteo on second guitar) on tour in 2003. Unfortunately, DeMatteo couldn’t make it as he was recovering from a nearly fatal car crash at the time.

Box’s album closer, the moody “Limb to Limb,” was co-written by DeMatteo and Bates and reflects the pain he was in when he wrote the music. The album was produced by Tony Berg, an accomplished musician and producer who has worked with artists ranging from X to Beck. According to the band’s press release, Berg was amazed by Bates’ focus and natural musical instincts during the recording sessions for Box, which allowed him to just “go for it and land on his feet every time.” On “Oh My,” a track chock full of super-heavy guitars, synth-pop and rump-shakin’ beats, Bates took the opportunity to record what he calls a “big, hairy guitar solo” that recalls 1987-era Zakk Wylde. Bates flashy fret-work is short and sweet but Wylde would’ve wanted it to be louder and longer, to be sure. Elsewhere, “Whatever the Deal” has easily recognizable elements of ’80s retro rock (a la Echo & the Bunnymen), and the jangly, chorus-greased guitar on “Madison” is instantly infectious. Beautiful Day is reminiscent of the late Late Show with Craig Kilborne’s theme music, it’s cool and creepy.

After starting out with a folky acoustic guitar and sounding a bit like Beck on vocals, heavy retro-sounding beats pound their way through “Four Leaf Clover” and are coupled with newer vibes, as is the case for much of Mellowdrone’s work. They are a modern alterno-pop band with varying influences, ranging from the synth-inspired Angelo Badalamenti to the DIY spirit of Sparklehorse. They aren’t into complex song arrangements such as Tool, but many of the tracks are a collage of sounds, whether it be multiple layers of guitars, vocals, keyboard work or otherworldly sounds and synths.

Bates lyrics run the gamut of emotions; one minute he’s serious or down on himself, the next minute, he’s sarcastic and humorous. “And Repeat” picks up these themes with lyrics like: “You’re just so amazingly cool/’Cause someone wrote a song about you/Oh please, can I shake your hand?/So I can grow up to be just like you.” Even funnier is that the track is about a record executive who insisted on telling Bates how to write a hit song a few years ago.

Listening to Box, one notices that Bates starts many verses singing softly or lowly, then builds momentum to a strong chorus as the songs build character. This is evident on the album’s centerpiece, “Fashionably Uninvited,” where he sings in soft falsetto then belts out, “I’d die if you leave me” with such elongated fervor that you would think he’s deadly serious, if you didn’t know better.

All in all, Box is a consistent, repeat-warranted record and will easily make many critics’ year-end “best of” lists. Ironically, for a band named Mellowdrone they make music that is not mellow but melodic and at many times danceable, not drone-y. Keep it up (beat) guys.