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The sticker on James Diers's guitar reads "Cheer Up Emo Kid," and tonight he's trying to do just that. Moments before Love-Cars launch into a gig at St. Olaf's student union in sleepy Northfield, the frontman affably coaxes a dozen students onstage to view the show from the close proximity of several comfy old sofas arranged around the band. Bassist Alex Gaddis warns that it'll sound lousy from this vantage point, but the students stay planted for the duration, nodding and tapping as Diers pillow talks into the microphone before flailing about under the control of some unseen voodoo pin.
"Do I still stammer my so-called stutter?" he whispers almost incoherently over the band's loose, quiet funk, cuddling up to the mic as drummer Dave King pauses through the pregnant spaces between beats. During these solemn passages--there are plenty with Love-Cars--guitarist Matt Foust lurks around the edge of a melody, letting a few well-placed chimes suggest often-complex chord changes. Like other tunes culled from the band's new, sophomore album, I'm Friends With All Stars (No Alternative), "Stammer" shows how much the musicians have honed their ability to underplay, to sulk before erupting in occasional fits of mania.
Not surprising, then, that Love-Cars resonate among the growing audience for so-called emocore. The band has steadily built a following at the all-ages Foxfire Coffee Lounge and draws favorable comparison to the similarly moody Pacific Northwestern rock group Sunny Day Real Estate. But Diers and company are hardly what you'd peg as ready-made for the youth market. A quartet of late-twentysomethings dominated by a jazz drummer and fronted by a professional rock critic, Love-Cars are an all-ages anachronism.
At times the generation gap is palpable during the St. Olaf gig. When Diers bombs with a crack about being approached by a studio exec to do a song for the sequel to Midnight Cowboy, he tries to recover (with little success) by substituting Pulp Fiction. Later in the set the band succumbs to crowd pressure and plays "Somerset," the one bona-fide college radio hit from last year's auspicious but muddled Chump Lessons. Love-Cars haven't played this tasty chunk of power-pop for nearly a year, and the singer seizes the opportunity to wink at the TRL generation by adding a playfully sung, "I did it all for the nookie, the nookie," as the song winds down.
While I'm Friends With All Stars takes adolescence as a recurrent theme, it is obviously the work of a seasoned and smart ensemble, one whose odd dynamic shifts reflect a range of personalities within the ranks. Diers writes about music and film for numerous local publications, including the one you're reading, and he has a stage persona roughly akin to a guy-next-door David Byrne. Foust and Gaddis are local rock vets:The former played with 12 Rods and both played in Ether Bunny. King has established himself as a musician's musician, playing professionally for more than a decade, leading jazz fusers Happy Apple and new wavers Tugboat in recent years. He plays in a host of other groups as well, including, now, 12 Rods. His jazz roots were largely what set Love-Cars apart at the outset. There's always a regular contingent of audience members--often musicians themselves--who come specifically to see him play.
Such creative competition results in a blend of influences in Love-Cars, if not an easy decision about what gets played on the car stereo. The press materials for I'm Friends, anonymously penned (as always) by No Alternative maven Kim Randall, put it this way: "Without actually naming any direct or indirect influences, suffice it to say that David could do without most of Alex's record collection, and vice versa." But internal tension is a welcome departure from the local norm, given the "Drummer Wanted: Influences include Tool, Rage, and Tool" ads that birth too many bands.
A couple of days after the St. Olaf show, Gaddis joins Diers and Foust for beers at Grumpy's and remarks that he gets a warm, fuzzy feeling every time he hears the band compared to the emo standard-bearers he loves. But, Gaddis hastily adds, King is less than giddy about such talk. "I think it makes him want to jump off a bridge," he says.
One reason Love-Cars clash on taste is that they were friends before coming together as a band two years ago. Gaddis, the one self-described "emo-geek" of the bunch, attended high school with Diers and Foust at Highland Park. Parting ways in their college years, Foust and Gaddis found themselves back in town in the mid-Nineties and formed Ether Bunny along with future 12 Rodder Ryan Olcott. King befriended them at about this time, and he met Diers when the latter was drafting a Twin Cities Reader piece on him.
Their relationships might explain how they succeed in what they call an "obscenely collaborative" songwriting process. Liner notes for both Chump Lessons and I'm Friends credit the collective "Love-Cars" as the author of every song. Diers and King write most of the lyrics, but all four shape the band's sound, which has been dramatically expanded on the new album. I'm Friends shares an instant pop charm with its predecessor, but the pace and texture are more varied, with even a few strategic samples finding their way into the mix under the guidance of producer Jason Orris.
The fact that Diers, Gaddis, and Foust knew each other as teens might also have something to do with the album's thematic thread. "Call Me Sometime, Best Friends Forever" is a poignant sequel to Hüsker Dü's "These Important Years," lifting its lyrics right off the pages of a high school yearbook ("Stay Sweet this summer, kay?/ Don't party too har-day"). Meanwhile, "24" features lines such as "Smells like teen forgiveness/And at 23 we'll still be good friends."
When asked if it seems odd that a band given to covering Springsteen--Diers staged a recent local-music tribute to the Boss--would find an audience among Promise Ring fans, the musicians shrug. "Our support at venues like the Foxfire has always been pretty organic," Diers says. "None of us are complete grown-ups anyway."