Terry Eason doesn't command attention. When the singer-guitarist takes the stage, elbows pinned to his sides, only his forearms move with what he must intend as a frontman's requisite animation. Indeed, he seems to have a born sideman's reticence and self-depreciation--"I guess I'm supposed to tell you to buy a CD now," he'll say between songs. And someone watching him live for the first time might be surprised to learn that the performer spent most of the Nineties fronting bands, most recently a power-pop trio called the Ultrasonics, and now his own lo-fi solo outfit, Eason.
That's not to say these shows don't reward attention. The distinctness of his politely inquisitive chirp more than compensates for his constricted vocal range. And as a recent Eason set progressed at the 7th Street Entry, I watched his stiff discomfort in the spotlight become as plausibly compelling as any other frontman's mannerisms, while Eason the guitarist accompanied himself with a sideman's sense of how to ornament a song without overshadowing it. Sometimes nature is a better ally than nurture.
Of course, the reason the sideman in Eason has to phrase his chord changes so carefully is that the songwriter in Eason doesn't particularly command attention either. A casual listen or three might leave you mistaking his just-released sophomore solo album, Via Satellite (Reticulated), for a typical assortment of basement-pop miniatures, the kind the home-studio underground emits with a Grape Nuts-fed regularity. Surveying the disc's jaggedly piecemeal craftsmanship can seem as enticing as watching your grandmother assemble jigsaw puzzles at the kitchen table.
But (fans of thematic parallelism take note) Via Satellite indeed rewards attention. What's more, by the standards of the contemporaries Eason professes to admire, the album's compensations are unusually generous. I'd estimate that the release is on a par with the best third of Guided by Voices' sometimes brilliant but wildly uneven output--although comparisons with that patchy lo-fi American Anglophile outfit aren't far off the mark. And Via Satellite's goofier sound-trickery--an alarm-clock buzz timed with a drum beat, a 25-minute electro-percussion jam--is well beyond the scope of, say, the Elephant 6 contingent. Though the guitarist is a few lessons shy of the formal discipline that makes Apples in Stereo the definitive nonpopular pop craftsmen of their day, Eason nonetheless edges past the willfully infantile Olivia Tremor Control on sensibility alone. (Elf Power? Super Furry Animals? Fuhgeddaboutit.)
Instead, think of Eason and his various local collaborators as sitting somewhere on the sonic and lyrical map between 1970s Genesis at its most literal (stripped, that is, of Peter Gabriel's poetic libretti) and the dryly angular pop abrasions of XTC at its most quizzical. Though neither group might employ a line as homely as "I have got the strangest notion/After years of this devotion that was blind/A promotion would be fine," they'd approve of the skewed syntax. As for the guitars, triangulate the artier-than-heavy side of Jimmy Page, the heavier-than-arty side of Robert Fripp, and, for obscurity's sake, the trippier side of Ollie Halsall--a John Cale sideman whom Eason refers to as "one of those fast, weird, yet tasteful jazz guys." For more distant influences, toss in Bill Frisell and other assorted jazz pickers, whose fluidity Eason envies with a fan's gently gnawing insecurity.
Unlike nearly all of the above, Eason still faces that little matter of attracting attention to his work. That's certainly the topic preoccupying the performer when I meet him one morning at the Urban Bean on 33rd and Bryant, where he's ruffling through an issue of Goldmine and picking at a muffin. A cottage industry of family and friends is currently busy promoting Via Satellite to an international web of Aussie fanzines, German distributors, and the whole Byzantine Amerindie infrastructure. "There's so much indie rock crap, it's hard for anyone to differentiate," Eason sighs. "So unless there's already a big buzz, they probably aren't going to take a chance on you."
A day after our formal interview, I get the promised follow-up call, and an unexpected clarification. Eason wants to qualify his mention of Guided by Voices to say that he doesn't identify with the band's middle-aged cynosure, Dayton schoolteacher turned indie rock singer Robert Pollard. "I just didn't want to make it seem like I was some old washed-up guy obsessed about my age or with making it," he explains. That makes two of us.
Still, it'd be an easy enough angle to pursue. The Richfield native is a 37-year-old warehouse shipping and receiving supervisor who rents in boho South Minneapolis with his wife of four years. He started gigging in the early Eighties, achieving some degree of scene respectability, first with the Form and then with North Equator Nine, a band whose album on Twin/Tone Records Steve Albini once favorably compared to early Minutemen. ("I still get a lot of mileage out of that quote," Eason says.) In the late Eighties, Eason stumbled across a Fostex 4-track, and by the 1990s he was home experimenting like mad, alone and with his band the Ultrasonics. "In hindsight, I'll think, 'Why didn't we tour?'" he says. "But everyone had their respective day jobs and it just didn't work out." Today if club regulars recognize him at all, it's usually for his skilled sidemanship with Dylan Hicks and Rhea Valentine.
So, yeah, the angle's there if you care to work it. But there's no shame in Eason's modest dream: to make his music available for as wide an audience as possible without seeming too desperate for attention. No matter how private its birthing, after all, rock 'n' roll always imagines some kind of public reception. In fact it's that slight tug of publicity that separates home recording from, say, home brewing or collecting model trains or assembling jigsaw puzzles at the kitchen table.
But there is a world of infinite gradations between obscurity and megastardom, and it's in that range that Eason is curious to find his slot. "You see bands getting dropped because they only sold 50,000 copies," Eason says. "But if I press a thousand and sell them all, I feel like a success. But..." He pauses with an apologetic chuckle. "Maybe I'm rationalizing now."
Eason performs on Friday, June 11 at the 7th Street Entry with the Plastic Constellations and 12 Rods; (612) 338-8388.
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