As the traditional music business gasps and sputters its final breaths, artists like the Deaths are breathing easy. Their attitudes are as mellow as their music, which swaggers with tinkling guitars and plaintive synths and drops the band squarely into the psychedelic rock bucket, though the astute listener quickly realizes that label is too limiting. Their album Centralia proves the band is something more, bigger, even if they aren't the greatest salespeople.
In today's terms, 2008's Centralia is ancient news. The album's 13 ambitious tracks hit the Twin Cities scene with little fanfare, perhaps stifled by a dearth of live shows—by their count, the Deaths played only four last year. Still, the record delivered the goods, and those fortunate enough to stumble across it chalked it up as one of the year's local best. Propelled by Karl Qualey's skillful, timeless vocals, the band's edgy-yet-accessible compositions fill the collection to bursting and demand the attention of a wider audience.
One wonders, then, why the Deaths aren't out there gigging endlessly in hopes of becoming a household name.
"We noticed it was happening, but we just shrugged it off," says Qualey of the band's lack of self-promotion.
The band's sentiments come across not as lethargy, but as being so connected to the music that external definitions of success simply do not matter. The Deaths question the motives of those complaining about sagging record sales due to the economy and digital downloading, and are quick to point out the pitfalls of the era in which they operate.
"In every decade since the '50s there was something huge coming up from the underground. That hasn't happened in 20 years," says Qualey.
Hailing from Fargo, where Qualey and vocalist/keyboardist Jeff Esterby attended high school with Roxana Saberi—the journalist currently being held prisoner in Iran—the Deaths began as a quartet bent on becoming the antithesis of the booming bands its members had formerly inhabited. Bassist Mark Schumacher, drummer Thomas Stromsodt, and recent addition Jason Demars (guitar) helped accomplish just that.
"At the start, we very consciously wanted to play something as quiet as possible. Plus, with the name we thought we were being really dramatic," adds Qualey. "We've settled somewhere in the middle."
Wherever they've settled, they've done so solidly. From Centralia's opening track, "Turn for the Worst," the band's repertoire is familiar yet fresh, terrestrial yet soaring. Minimalist beats à la Radiohead infiltrate tracks like "Selector," while the old-school crunch of "Choir Invisible" sneaks in to sate fans of epic rock and the lilting keys of "Revolution" strand themselves somewhere between "Strawberry Fields" and "Bittersweet Symphony."
"We took a year and a half on that record," says Schumacher. "We spent a lot of time on it, which is why it's such a slick little guy."
The painstaking approach the Deaths took with Centralia is headed out the window for their next effort, which the band has been writing over the past several months.
"The next one, we're going to bash through it. It's going to be the exact opposite. We've read Neil Young's biography, and that's been a huge influence on how we want to do the next record. Freewheeling, just do it," says Qualey.
Until then, Deaths converts can explore the band's first release, Choir Invisible, or watch for the new track "Love Is Hanging 'Round" on the upcoming U.K. release Psychedelica Volume 4.
And if the lowest-common-denominator music industry does collapse around them, the Deaths will survive.
"I'm fine with it," says Schumacher. "When the music industry becomes less of a moneymaking affair, if there isn't the dream of making it, it will deter more people. Shit floats; mediocrity rises. If you look back 20 years from now, we did what we wanted to do."
THE DEATHS play with First Communion Afterparty, the Nightinghales, and Velvet Davenport on FRIDAY, MAY 8, at STASIU'S PLACE; 612.788.2529