When asked to name the most important thing he’d learned about rock ‘n’ roll, Pere Ubu front man David Thomas once quipped, “Rock music is mostly about moving big black boxes from one side of town to the other in the back of your car.” This is a lesson that local indie rockers Kerouac or the Radio have learned again and again. But the band only recently had a shot at learning a more advanced lesson: Sometimes, on rare occasions, you must move those big black boxes out of a burning basement.
“Our freaking house burned down!” exclaims Kerouac drummer Jonathan Darconte, laughing. Darconte, with cohorts Jeff Markham (bass and vocals) and Matt Cavanaugh (guitar) have just played to a full house at the New French Bar and are still sweating and breathing heavily when we sit down over beers on the bar’s back patio.
“The only thing we saved was our musical equipment from the basement,” Darconte continues. “My drums are a little fire-damaged.”
The bandmates tell more stories. They talk about growing up in North Carolina; about an ill-fated trip to play at CBGB’s that left Cavanaugh with pneumonia and ended with them playing for the entourage they’d brought with them; about John’s brief stint as a “trapeze-safety-net-setter-upper”; and about how they changed their name to The Dark Engine, but went back to Kerouac because everyone thought they were a goth band. As they talk, it becomes clear that these guys have spent a lot of time together, experience that shows in their performances.
“The thing that makes it hard for us is that we’re trying to be a real band and not just throw it together and rock out,” says Markham.
Markham and Cavanaugh have played together in various incarnations for four years. Darconte was added in 2004 (replacing drummer Denny Ball), and his straightforward approach to drumming lent a new structure to the band. “If we didn’t have Jon, we’d write really ambient music,” says Markham. “Matt and I definitely lean towards the ambient.”
Those leanings co-exist peacefully with Darconte’s drumming, which loops and weaves through the mix like ivy on a lattice. “What we’re worried about is how the thing as a whole gets to your ear,” explains Cavanaugh.
And it works, not only on stage, but also on the band’s newly recorded, as-yet-untitled album, which they’re currently shopping around to labels.
The music on the disc will no doubt appeal to anyone who spent the late ’90s geeking out over the stylings of The Flaming Lips or Smashing Pumpkins. There’s even a hint of U2 in the mix, especially in Markham’s vocals. While the listener would guess the echoes of these bands are bouncing around in the musicians’ heads, Kerouac manages to reframe and showcase its influences without throwing them back in your face.
The lyrics are as ethereal as the sounds supporting them: A fuzzy-lensed view of the world powers songs like “Changes Were Made,” “Would it Let You All Down,” and “A Life Complete.” As Markham explains, “This is a vague exploitation of what we think and feel and want. Most writers do that, [as do] most musicians.”
While Kerouac would fit in on the FM dial between groups like Modest Mouse and The Flaming Lips, they aren’t in a huge rush for people to “get it” on such a widespread level.
“We’re not trying to do something greater than what’s out there,” says Markham. “We’re trying to do something greater than what we’ve done. We’re playing these small clubs. We like it like that, and a big reason I’m holding off with the CD is that my first child is being born in November and it’s one of the coolest and strangest things that’s ever happened in my life.”
The album will be out sooner or later, and until then, Kerouac or the Radio will keep moving those big black boxes.
[Asheville-based freelance writer and cartoonist Ethan Clark is a regular contributor to Xpress.]
Kerouac or the Radio plays the Westville Pub (777 Haywood Rd.) on Sunday, Oct. 22, as part of the Noisegate West monthly showcase of local Asheville bands. Free. 225-9782.