By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Somewhere, on an independently produced stretch of celluloid, a Cylon (you know, from Battlestar Galactica?) and a young woman are driving across the country in an '82 Cutlass Cierra. The land and sky are a perfect match: flat, gray, and frozen. As cinematic luck would have it, the unlikely travel companions fall in love. Crammed into the back seat of their car, providing the soundtrack to this accidental romance, is a tangle of arms, legs, and computer cables known as Halloween, Alaska.
"Okay, I'm getting really excited about the Cylon now," says James Diers. In a Minneapolis coffee shop on an overcast day, the group's frontman pieces together the perfect story to fit the mood of his easy-listening pop outfit: a long journey with the comforting sense that something good will come of it. Like a robot learning to love. Right now, this bizarre scene only exists in his mind, but Diers can't wait to reintroduce the Cylon to pop culture. He's sure that Peter Weir will direct the film and, although the contracts haven't been signed, Sam Rockwell and Sarah Polley are pegged for the leads.
Such premature planning isn't just common for the group, it's how they were conceived. A few years ago, omnipresent drummer Dave King told his Love-cars bandmate Diers and 12Rods bandmate Ev Olcott (who just goes by Ev) about a great new electronic project he described as Everything But the Boy. Little did Diers and Ev know they were already founding members.
Assuming King's excited voice, Ev recalls the pitch: "Get this, cats. I got this great idea. You're in a band with these two guys and we're going to start playing next week."
Matt Friesen, who has designed cover art for Love-cars and King's jazz-for-pop-fiends project the Bad Plus, joined on bass. Since then, they've been recording their self-titled debut (Princess Records), which is filled with non-rock songs--the kind you can make out to. During the handful of times they've played live, no one reels drunkenly around the stage, so they can safely set up their PowerBooks and assorted gadgetry. And with this softer sound comes the most handsome option: a chance to perform while seated.
"I made a concerted effort with this group to make it not so rock and roll," Ev says. "Keep the gear offstage. You set up the fragile stuff and you sit down and you play."
From its first track, "You're It," the album drowns the ears in alien lullabies, though Diers's candid lyrics about living-room clutter make everyday things just as song-worthy as these strange soundscapes. A couple of tracks later, he continues to toast the lackluster, cautioning, "The boy with such sad wings/Should stay off tall buildings/And keep away from the high wire/No circus left to join/Nobody, just Des Moines." King combines his traditional drum kit with electronic pads that sound just as they should--beautifully artificial. Of course, he throws in little flourishes to remind you that drum machines only wish they were this cool. When all the elements combine, the songs float. Maybe it's not road trip music after all. Did Oldsmobile ever make a hovercraft?
Despite Halloween, Alaska's technical savvy, their singles sound a bit like that refreshing Tears For Fears track that somehow got sandwiched between Steve Winwood and REO Speedwagon on a department store P.A. And when Diers and Ev hear the words "adult contemporary," they don't get defensive.
"I've always felt like I have a lot of square tastes," adds Diers, "and I'm insecure about it. I don't like talking to people about my deep familiarity with... I'm not even going to name anybody."
In fact, Ev quickly dismisses any negative connotation the phrase might have. "[Adult contemporary] is the genre that styles shift under," he says. "It reflects what was new 20 years ago. Adult contemporary of the '90s was a slower, quieter version of what was going on in the '70s."
Many of Halloween, Alaska's influences--Peter Gabriel, Everything But the Girl, the Police--were getting heavy airplay two decades ago. So it seems natural that the album reaches its peak on the penultimate track with a cover of Bruce Springsteen's "State Trooper." Over five anxious minutes, the guitars and vocals seethe over bleeping synthesizers and drums, and the frustration between them builds a wall--a nice change of pace in a set of otherwise airy songs. If this is the usual reward for patience, we should all take classes on standing in line.
Diers remains patient when searching for a way to describe their sound. He doesn't wince at the term elevator music, as long as it's "the actual mood of an elevator, not dismissible Muzak." In iTunes, the group chose the nondescript tag of "pop," but they'd like something more specific.
"Dark pop?" Ev suggests.
"You start throwing 'dark' in there and you start pissing off a lot of Skinny Puppy fans," Diers says. "You gotta be careful."
He's right. Maybe they should just call it Cylon pop. "They're like Storm Troopers, kinda android-like. They talk, like, with a vocoder," says Diers. "But there was a pain, you know. They were agents of evil and yet there was a pain behind that mask."
"There always is," says Ev.
"There always is," Diers agrees.