Back to the Future: Current Leaves Broke Up 2 Months Ago
Current Leaves was a band that can’t accurately be described as polarizing, but nevertheless seemed to draw one of two reactions: reverence or indifference.
For me, the allure of CL had a lot to do with the timelessness of their sound. Like most good contemporary country influenced rock music, I thought they were able to maintain a wholesome, throwback quality: they paid homage to their (in this case psychedelic) country heroes but they refrained from casting themselves as twangers of the "fun" over-the-top variety while making no effort to capitalize on irony. All the same, I wonder if their generally straightforward and established approach, rather than gaining them a more universal appeal, instead nudged them in the direction of a niche that’s usually shunned by audiences more preoccupied with the arcane? Contemplating the uneventful expiration of a band that I thought should have been able to really take off around here, I was tempted to draw on that stale old argument that our music scene deserved blame.
I contacted Aaron White to learn more about CL’s decision to throw in the towel, not only because I had my own curiosity about the band, but also because its dissolution provided a great opportunity to—for a change—go easy on the amorphous sociocultural anthro-babble about the local music community and instead allow a muscian to comment first-hand on the factors that can make it difficult for a band to sustain itself in an often underwhelming music scene. Aaron was nice enough to share some thoughts and a bit of history of the band, and in the exchange below, he also explains the decision to pull the plug on what was formerly Current Leaves while recounting a series of struggles that the band encountered.
Those who lament the break up of CL can look forward to the posthumous follow up to Pastense, which according to White should be available in some capacity shortly. What I took to be a defeatist attitude related to CL seems to be somewhat at odds with his enthusiasm for the upcoming material, which you should be able to check out this Friday at Dan’s Silverleaf, where Aaron will be joined by Grady Sandlin, Glen Farris, and Danny Balis.
In general, the new material on Life's a Gash is a little more upbeat than Pastense, but my favorite tracks are the slower ones. If you're at Dan's on Friday, you might listen for: “Cost of Living,” which is currently posted on their myspace; "Never Look Back," which is waltzy like "Golden Waves" and "Someone to Get Close To" from the first album, as well as a cover of Big Star’s “Take Care"; and "You Drank Me Up," the resolution of which is like equal parts southern drinking song and gospel.
Wildcat: Can you provide a little background info on the history of Current Leaves and how everything got started in the first place?
Aaron: I moved to Denton to play music under the guise of furthering my minor interest in graphic arts for employment. I met Grady Sandlin when he was running the p.a. at Big Ass Beer/open mic night at Rubber Gloves. We formed a band I had already called Current Leaves. I already had the first album Pastense written so we went through a couple bass players, my best friend on rhythm guitar and a pedal steel player, eventually recording 6 songs at JC Collins' house.
We had given out cdr's of an album of 4-track recordings we did in my apartment. There was a lot of reverb. So I mixed some songs from that and the JC songs and made Pastense. About that I have to say there was no release date. I made cdr's of that shit in my different forms, so the Pastense you hear today is just what caught on so I stopped mixing it up.
Glen and Cory joined around then and we played more. The people at Dada wanted to have us play a "residency" on Wednesdays and we did that. It actually helped to popularize us. I don't know whether it was because of all the amateur booking and music blogs starting up around then though. It was probably in my mind because I was reading the blogs, which a musician should never do! We got put on shows by people who wanted to see us with bigger bands and they actually gave the feeling that they cared. We did well.
But it doesn't matter because the reason I broke up the band is that the way you start a band dictates how far you will go; or rather how far you will let it go. I didn't have a plan to start so we were basically just playing while looking around wondering what to do next.
I firmly believe that it takes a vision stated within the band to take it anywhere. I had none so I thought it best to end it. At the very end we were about to start working with a booking person/manager and I felt that it wasn't a good idea to bring someone in when I didn't have a goal or allegiance to the future of the band.
WC: At what point was Pastense ready to be recorded and packaged up? Did you have it written before Current Leaves was actually formed? Is there like a "Pastense" proper, or are there various versions/mixes that might have been bought at shows, handed out, burned, and whatnot? I first heard it on CD-R in SR’s car.
Aaron: There is no Pastense proper. What you heard was a version of those apartment demos mixed with studio recordings. Various versions were passed out, mailed, etc. When SR and the Observer got that version and wrote about it, I just stuck with it…The full apartment album and studio recordings will be released along with the new album…On the timing, I did write all the Pastense songs before I formed a band, hence the obsolescence of the band. You can't write psychedelic country songs forever...
WC: When Current Leaves broke up, were there essentially 4 members?
Aaron: Yeah, rotating members. We contemplated being a sit-down 3 piece without bass. Indifference in the band and my lack of leadership contributing to the demise.
WC: And at what point did that become the lineup? Did you guys all write songs together, or was the "band" more or less your live, backing band? Like how did any material develop after you brought Pastense to the table, committed it to tape, and then ostensibly moved on?
Aaron: The final lineup was a mixed bag. Cory (from Record Hop) had been playing bass for 2 years. They were about to start back up and I sensed that I should ask if he was going to have time for CL, since we were talking about nailing down some committed members and working with the booking/management person. He opted out and Danny Balis agreed to play for a couple shows. One of which being Wall of Sound, which we canceled. The band was basically my backing band to a point. I pretty much wrote the songs and brought them in finished and arranged. That said, I had no restriction on anyone. Everyone was encouraged to play their own style and variations on demo's I made. THAT said, I did have the final word on what stayed and what didn't work. In that way I saw a lot of apathy that contributed to a depressing atmosphere of only getting together to practice for a gig. A couple songs were fleshed out with Glen's help, but mostly they were cooked solely by me. The only difference was in how loud or fast we played them live as opposed to recorded. Sometimes. On Pastense I played everything but drums and bass. On this new record, everything but drums and a spare piano part.
WC: Do you want to go more into what happened after Dada? You mentioned that people that acted like they cared about you doing well put you on shows with bigger bands. What were those bigger bands and who was setting you up with them? And why were you skeptical of them?
Aaron: Well, essentially it got us attention in Dallas. I tried to book the bands we played with, bands that would be a good fit in my mind, but the owner thought he could get bands that would draw and get us noticed. One example that still irritates me is that he booked Olospo one night. That in itself is ill-matched to me but, when that night came it was Chris Holt solo playing Radiohead and other 90's cover songs on acoustic guitar. My contributions to the booking were the Backsliders and 100 Damned Guns and those nights worked out great.
After that, Chelsea from the Double-Wide (and friend) was trying to put together package shows with us involved. One was Cartright and 100DG and that night worked out extremely well. When bands click across the lineup it's a magical thing and I don't think club owners get that. I don't think they can hear music like musicians. One of the major roadblocks to playing there (DW) more was scheduling problems. Every member was in another band, sometimes multiple. That is a major point of contention with me; granted, I play with other bands but CL was always first...You think you just want to be in multiple projects, see which one sticks and go with it. You should really just commit to one thing and make it the best you can and be able to rely on others to do the same.
WC: And what about the manager thing? How did that come about and why did you worry about being compromised if you were to work with a manager? Was there pressure to do things that you did not want to do?
Aaron: No, that's the wrong idea. I thought it would be a waste of her time and efforts to work with us if I wasn't sure that I wanted to pursue the band's future. She was also my sort-of counselor on things I wasn't knowledgeable about, i.e. industry stuff, modes of operation for success. Things you don't think about when you're playing guitar.
WC: I'm curious about your take on what a band needs to be able to rely on for success these days—the infrastructure of the scene, for example (which you seem to discount). Personally, I feel like there has been a shift in the last 5-10 years in which our music scene is less about “music” in and of itself and more about just having fun, like there’s a much stronger association between “partying” and live music today than there was 5-10 years ago. I feel like as a result music and bands are consumed much more superficially these days. A band like Ghosthustler, which I really have no interest in, might be a good example of what I’m talking about: how do you account for the buzz that has snowballed around them compared to the interest in Current Leaves before you broke up?
Aaron: I think Ghosthustler is fine, not mind-blowing but damn good at what they do. People around here are absolutely grasping at anything they can wrap a scene or lifestyle around. They desperately want it to be life-affirming in a way they observed Williamsburg parties of the early 00s to be from afar…I know exactly why bands like us and bands like the Theater Fire are not in the same league of perceived success and that's attitude and effort. I don't blame people for not going to a show they like because their friends want to go where their other friends are going…
I discount scenes because if you live in a place of such geographic enormity, such as this, you have to make your own way. You can't rely on some central enigmatic support group to boost you into next level. It all depends on what your idea of success is, but if you want more than what's around you, you can't bitch about how loose your "scene" is, you have to get out of town. Bands like the Strange Boys did that and they will be better for it…Scenes are cool for hanging out but these days you either make your way or you resign to playing Rubber Gloves on Thursday for beer - and don't bitch about it.
WC: There has been much written and talked about lately regarding the "cult of the amateur" and how means of production and distribution have been democratized to an extent that most anyone can get their work out in the open for people to browse. Blogs (including this one) and music are prime examples. So, if you largely operated independent of the scene and you had an album recorded and everything all on your own, how did the DIY paradigm limit you?
Aaron: My personal goal in music is to be included in the catalog of American music. That's it. I can't expect to "make it" I just want as many people as possible to hear it so it will then be documented…Independence to me just means being able to do your thing to the best of your ability without diluting it or rushing the product. That comes through in the production of my music. Basically I want to throw it on the floor and have the listener to appreciate how it fell. Now, of course I will throw it in such a way that it lays how I want but I won't obsess with rearranging it to be perfect.
The DIY paradigm can limit you depending on how much expendable funds you possess, how much you wish to be signed by a major, or just wishing you didn't have to do it yourself. There are bands that have absolutely flourished directly from having complete control, Guided by Voices comes mind. With Undoing of David Wright, you have a group that puts just as much effort into their presentation as their music. I think that's great. How would they do that for a stadium? I don't know.
WC: It sounds like your encounter with the manager precipitated some reflection or made you reconsider what you were doing versus what you wanted to be doing, and that seems perfectly reasonable, but it doesn't seem like subsequently breaking everything off would be a necessary consequence.
Aaron: You're pretty right on about manager dealings causing reflection. Know this, I respect the person in reference a whole hell of a lot. You don't want to exploit someone when you are basically stressing the fuck out and you can't figure out why. There was a nagging anxiety when we would discuss things. At first it was exciting but when I didn't get uniform support from the band I knew there was trouble. So, I quit my job recently and the second day I was decompressing on the couch and realized that I needed to kill the band. A moment of clarity late in the game perhaps but nonetheless it was still a clear revelation. She was supportive of the idea of starting fresh.
The part about doing what I want vs. what I was actually doing, well, that's kind of why it had to end. The parameters were closing in. I'm not a lazy songwriter at all, I just get stumped by the form. If there's no form the idea can grow how it wants to grow.
WC: Maybe your future plans would shed light on things? If Current Leaves was doomed to stagnate because of the way in which it came about (no premise or long term plan other than completing Pastense), what is the grand plan from here on out that will be better off for your music in the long run?
Aaron: The only thing I could say about it is that I have no plans for genre, wardrobe or visual stance for any future project, but that a more honest and put-together band is imminent. I really like how Greg Cartright of Reigning Sound evades genre but always plays small-group simple music. I generally like music from and inspired by the spirit of Memphis, TN and surrounding areas and that's where I've found my deepest inspiration for creating the type of music I want to create.
The final album of Current Leaves material is being mastered as of 9/12/07 and will be available as soon as artwork and packaging is completed. A limited run of vinyl-sized cd packaging will be available for this last album. After that, all recorded CL material will be available for download or CD-R purchase via http://www.txmfrecords.com/, myspace and/or direct contact on one CD-R.