MAKING OUR NEW NORMAL Antietam

With the release
of
Tenth
Life, Tara Key and Tim Harris show there
are options to fading away or burning out.

 

BY JOHN SCHACHT

 

Two of your trio’s members have recently slipped past 50. The other
one’s over 40 and has a toddler. Your band’s been around 26 years, and its
modest sales seem inexorably linked to the inverse of your records’ critical
kudos. Your audiences, while never exactly robust, are getting older and
smaller. You tour less in an age when touring matters more. Each new face on
the hip-new-thing carousel is a reminder that rock & roll is supposed to be
the domain of the young.

 

Most bands with less longevity have bowed out quietly and turned to
other pursuits when the signs all point in this direction. So what do you, Antietam, do? You defy common wisdom like you’ve always
done. You release the aptly titled Tenth
Life,
one of the most ferocious and feral blasts of punk-inspired guitar
rock in your esteemed catalog. And with it you prove yet again that great music
doesn’t give a fuck how old the people making it are.

 

“One of the really cool things about this band is it’s going on beyond
when most bands have myriad reasons to break up,” says Tara Key, the Les
Paul-wielding guitar dynamo of Antietam. “It’s
gone beyond having nine lives.”

 

Adds Key’s husband and Antietam
bassist Tim Harris, “Usually, if you’ve been together 20 years you’re playing
the hits you had from the first couple of years and revisiting that. There are
some other bands around like us now, but not too many where we, at least, think
we’re doing our most vital material now.”

 

Talking to Blurt over speaker phone together from their Manhattan apartment,
Harris and Key embody the animated excitement and nerves musicians of any age
feel leading up to a new release. What most impresses Key is the fact that they
now have a “second wind” and are not, say, like the Rolling Stones, doing it
simply because “you’re in a position where you’ve been rewarded with the money
and the support to do it forever if you choose to.”

 

Oddly, given Antietam’s punk
pedigree, Key has even found inspiration in bands like the Stones, too. She
remembers fighting her way up front at a ’75 Stones gig in Louisville, getting
sprayed with Keith Richards’ sweat, and feeling like she’d been passed a
metaphorical baton. She even took something fundamental away from Richards’
recently released autobiography: If you rock long enough, you find it
impossible to separate it from your identity.

 

“I don’t doubt Keith is a lifer and doing it for really soulful
reasons,” she says. “I don’t know that he knows what else to do as well as he
does. I feel that way for myself. When I started playing punk rock, it wasn’t
like I thought, ‘oh, what an interesting career choice.’ It was like, ‘finally,
this is a way to express myself,’ and that’s never changed. You get to the
point where you do it because it’s what you’re supposed to be doing.”

 

Of course there’s a chasm between the luxuries – figuratively and
literally – Richards enjoys and Antietam’s
hardscrabble efforts to put out their music over the years. Keef’s never had to
work a day job as a librarian (Key), or hustle freelance editor work (Harris).
And slumping CD sales probably haven’t put too big a dent in the Stones’ bottom
line like they have third Antietam member Josh Madell, who when he’s not
pounding out beats runs the underground music-friendly and all-round awesome
Other Music record shop in Manhattan.

 

Struggle, in other words, is second nature to Antietam. Key and Harris have been playing together since
they formed one-half of Louisville’s Babylon Dance Band in the early
1980s.  Their current band emerged from
the ashes of that outfit in 1984, first as a double-bass quartet, during a
brief relocation to Hoboken
before they moved on to their current home in NYC . They released their
eponymous debut in 1984 and followed it with 1986’s Music From Elba (the latter began a five-record stay on seminal noise-rock label Homestead
Records), then made good on their brief Hoboken stay
by enlisting soon-to-be life-long friends Ira Kaplan and Georgia
Hubley of Yo La Tengo to produce Antietam’s third album, 1990’s
Burgoo.

 

 

Madell joined in time for 1991’s Everywhere
Outside,
even though he wasn’t officially old enough yet to get in half the
clubs Antietam played at the time. Before the
mid-point of the decade, Key and Harris would release another Antietam
record (Rope-a-Dope, arguably their
best, in ’94) and two solo Key
records (Bourbon County in ’94 and Ear & Echo in ’95), as well as the
Babylon Dance Band collection, Four On
One
in ’94.

 

During that stretch, the band’s sound morphed from its college
rock-like beginnings (think a dBs-inflected Pylon, or a Southern rock-fringed
Feelies) into a controlled maelstrom with Key at its center. Riding waves of
fuzz and feedback like a blend of Neil Young and J Mascis, Key’s guitar
whipsawed through the thick rhythmic torque of Harris and Madell, while her
vocals – Exene Cervenka’s spring-tight snarl alternating with Kirsten Hersh’s
nerve-wracked caterwaul or confiding whisper – slipped into the cuts like salt
or salve.  Despite their increasing
ferocity, Antietam songs didn’t stray far from
sympathetic melodies or near-pop hooks – think Flip Your Wig-era Bob Mould and you’re in a similar area code.

 

Yet Antietam never got close to Young’s iconic status or Husker Du’s
seminal standing, let alone the hipster popularity of like-minded ‘90s indie
rock peers (and shredders) like Dinosaur Jr. or Built to Spill. It was
puzzling, frankly, and in their review of Rope-a-Dope,
CMJ Music Monthly simply asked, “Why
the heck isn’t Antietam famous yet?”

 

It didn’t help matters that whatever momentum they had dissipated when
Antietam didn’t release another record until Victory Park in 2004. There were reasons, of
course, for the decade-long silence: Homestead
put out its last record in 1996, leaving the trio without a label; the fathers
of both Key and Harris passed away during that stretch as well. Increasingly,
the band was referred to in print in the past tense. 

 

But Antietam’s fallow era wasn’t
devoid of activity. The trio recorded most of a full-length in ’97, but
scrapped it. Key teamed up with an old friend, Eleventh Dream Day’s Rick Rizzo,
for the first of their two compelling all-instrumental records, 2000’s Dark Edson Tiger, and the pair played All Tomorrow’s Parties in
2001. (The second Rizzo/Key collaboration, Double
Star
, came out this year to near-universal praise.) Work began on the songs
that became Victory Park, too. But Key concedes it was a
time of professional recalibration, too. 

 

“Through the 90s, it was a sweepstakes of who’s going to be on a major
label now that Nirvana’s on a major label,” she says, confessing that she got
caught up in the “velocity” of the times. “You think your life is going to
change, getting swept up in that and having a couple of meetings with music biz
lawyers, which I probably handled more like a hayseed than what they were
looking for.”

 

Without a label or its resources, and with the major label brass ring
out of reach, taking a step back – “press pause,” Key calls it – wound up
laying the groundwork for Antietam’s… well, sure, why not: Tenth life. Victory Park, recorded in a beach house at the
Jersey shore with Tara Jane O’Neil at the controls, streamlined the band’s
sound, toning down the fuzz for melody without eliminating Antietam’s
urgency. 2008’s Opus Mixtum was a
sprawling 26-track, three-LP/double-CD set that tapped into all facets of the
Key/Harris/Madell sound, from laid-back, spacey instrumentals and quiet ballads
to thundering rockers, high-velocity punk, and Feelies-flavored indie pop. 

 

“What we did was we taught ourselves how to record,” Key says of the
band’s time away from the new-release light. “We bought good mics, we bought
gear, we took responsibility for our own sound. 
So even though there wasn’t something aurally manifested from that time,
we were working hard to get to the point where we could not have to rely on
people giving us money or giving us opportunities and do it for ourselves.”

 

Harris adds that it was “natural for people to think that we didn’t
exist, but it actually wasn’t true at all. We were together, practicing,
recording and writing through all that time.”

 

It was, in effect, a return to the band’s DIY beginnings in the
post-punk Petri dish of Louisville where Antietam first learned to swim upstream. In that flaccid
rock era of Frampton, Skynyrd and Boston,
punk rock was openly loathed when Key, Harris and some of their peers first
embraced it.  Harris even recalls a
fellow musician getting punched in the face “on purely aesthetic
considerations.”

 

“They just wanted to beat you up if you were playing music that was
too fast,” he chuckles.

 

That vitriol, though, had a galvanizing effect for Key and Harris, who
first formed Babylon Dance Band in 1978. Nor were they alone, which was kind of
the point. Group-ostracizing offered at least camaraderie for kids who’d been
feeling ostracized all alone. For that reason, punk rock became far more than
just a new music genre for many outcasts.

 

“It was all the freaks in the community on the same raft together,”
Key says. “It was ‘oh, man, I found a place that welcomes everybody who’s not
of this typical fabric here.’ And that’s really intoxicating to find something
that special, to finally feel like, ‘yeah, I felt weird my whole life, but out
here with all the weirdoes we’re making our new normal.'”

 

It was that sense of no rules-adventure mingled with
what-the-fuck-are-doing? fear that fired the imaginations of Antietam and its peers
(among them acts like Endtables and Blinders) and influenced a Louisville scene
that would shortly birth the likes of Squirrel Bait, Slint, Rodan, Will Oldham
and a host of other like-minded outsiders. 
But those first brave baby steps belonged to Key, Harris and their comrades
in an era when musicians put a premium on virtuosity — something anathema to
kids just picking up their first guitars.

 

“When we did it, it was really like, ‘Oh my god, you’re really going
to do this instead of go to Law school? You’re really not going to go to the
graduate school you got into?'” Key says. “I don’t mean to glorify it, but it
was a pretty big leap of faith especially when you weren’t somebody who’d been
playing in blues-rock bands for five years. Now, it’s almost like you can go to
your high school counselor and say, ‘I want to have a punk rock band,’ and
they’d be, ‘well, that’s good, here’s some data on how you can network to do
this and this.'”

 

And now in the internet age, with music sales plummeting for everyone,
the playing field has leveled to the point where Harris says the “gestalt has
come back our way, and we’re just trying to do better what we’ve always been
doing.”

 

If there’s one advantage the young have, of course, it’s time. But if the
kind of punk/DIY-influenced rock Antietam
makes is typically fueled by youthful exuberance and hormonal angst, this trio
finds equally intense fire and urgency in the passing of time. (“You’re dealing
with a palette of loss,” Key reminds.) And like a crafty veteran ballplayer –
let’s go with Jason Kidd, since it’s NBA playoffs-time and he’s a badass, too –
Antietam may not be able to play the rock
& roll release-and-tour game like they once did, but experience and skill
has made them sharper than ever.

 

“The ship sailed for me on worrying about how many records we sell or
how much money we make,” says a defiant Key. “Frankly, it’s not going to change
whether I do it or not, as long as I can physically and mentally do it. My main
concern now is to take the vast opportunities that are presented with the
internet and find a way to target the people I know might like us if they heard
us. Nobody is putting a gun to any of our heads to keep doing this; it’s just
what I do, who I am. Short of having a stroke and forgetting everything I know
about myself, that’s not going to change.”

 

Harris puts a neat bow on the conversation by citing a line from the
song “Numbered Days,” the fire-breathing opener from Tenth Life and a perfect capsule of Antietam’s mindset: ‘Say
goodbye to foolish things, these are numbered days,’ which you could take as,
‘oh, I can’t rock out anymore, I have to think about these other things,'” he
says. “But you could also take it as, ‘it’s really important to rock out.’ “

 

Antietam has been proving
that for a long time, and seems intent on continuing to do so for the
foreseeable future.

 

[Photo Credit: Dawn Sutter Madell]

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