That’s what it took to get Matt Rendon’s juices flowing again – and it also describes the Tucson group’s revitalized sound.
BY ERIC SWEDLUND
For 15 years, Matt Rendon led the Resonars as a one-man band, recording his unique version of 1960s glory-day rock ‘n’ roll on a four-track at his Tucson home, adding layers of harmony and playing everything himself.
Then last spring came what Rendon calls “a kick in the ass” from Burger Records, his Fullerton, Calif. label, and the band he’d never been able to find fell together in a week. The newly formed live version of the Resonars played a long-awaited return Tucson performance in March as a tune-up for SXSW, then hit the road for Austin with a caravan of Burger bands.
“I’d always in the back of my mind wished that the players would come along,” Rendon says. “But I never found the people. Finding a good drummer was always a problem, finding people who could sing harmonies was a problem. It just never got together, and that was 15 years of trying to make that happen, and then it happened in a week. It was crazy.”
Now that he’s able for the first time to introduce a new album to listeners across the country who only know The Resonars on record, Rendon is hoping for a full-fledged tour in 2013. The current live lineup makes use of harmonies from Isaac Reyes of Lenguas Largas on guitar and bassist Jeremy Schliewe of the Knockout Pills, with drummer James Peters of the Jons filling in the rhythm. Crummy Desert Sound, perhaps the final Resonars album Rendon will record entirely on his own, was released Jan. 29 on Burger.
Crummy Desert Sound, like its five predecessors, could be passed off as a long-lost record from the mid-to-late 1960s, a blend of styles – garage, psychedelic, British Invasion and jangly, harmony-driven pop – that’s timeless and oh-so-familiar.
But, says Sean Bohrman at Rendon’s label, good luck finding another band around today that’s like the Resonars, both in terms of songwriting and overall sound. “He writes amazing songs and the way he records, he gets sounds that only he can do. The way he plays and records his music and writes his songs, it’s a distinct style. Nobody else sounds like him.”
Rendon, who calls it an “archaic” sound, says the explanation is easy: it’s simply the type of music he grew up playing, first on drums and then on guitar. The one time he purposefully tried making a record sound like the 1960s he regretted it, and later remixed it to move away from the derivative sound.
“Essentially when I was learning how to play instruments, all the stuff I tried to learn was the Who and the Yardbirds and stuff that was just really close to the source of blues and country and all that kind of stuff. I never was really influenced as a player by much after that,” says the 44-year-old Rendon. “I sort of missed the whole punk rock thing as a tweener, I guess you’d say. I was into learning Troggs songs. I guess if I had been aware, the music would’ve been a lot different.”
It’s been a long road for Rendon, from the early 1990s version of the Resonars, in which Rendon split songwriting duties and battled a bit with the direction of the band, which released one album and an EP and played Tucson clubs.
“On one side it was maybe sort of an alternative country band. But my songs tended to be more upbeat and I never felt the energy was behind it,” Rendon says. “They were good players but it wasn’t angry, nervous rock ‘n’ roll energy. It didn’t propel like this stuff does. I thought my songs got sort of shortchanged so I started recording them myself.”
As that group split, Rendon took the Resonars name and put out his first album, The Resonars, in 1998 on Star Time Records. The songs were fully fleshed out with bass, drums, rhythm guitar, lead guitar and two or three vocals, but the album was essentially a collection of demos. Rendon had always expected to teach those songs to a full band and re-record differently sometime down the line.
“The first record sounds sort of untamed and thin, because I wasn’t putting any attention into sound quality at all. I may have not even had anything to use as reverb back then,” he says. “After that one, when I got to the second album, I started paying more attention to the technique of it all, doubling vocals, using compression, that sort of stuff.”
Though he’s experimented with different recording equipment and techniques along the way, Rendon still sticks to the same Vestex MR-44 four-track cassette recorder he’s used since the beginning. “I’ve been writing a lot of new songs and it’s just about the immediacy of getting them onto tape. It’s really hard to record and learn a new machine at the same time. Your attention is getting cut in half and one side always suffers. I just felt like going back to the old machinery and I don’t even have to think about it.”
After The Resonars, Rendon released Bright and Dark in 1999 and Lunar Kit in 2002 on Get Hip Records. The records were well received for their vintage sound, but Rendon was never entirely happy with them, other than the experimenting he did with harmonies and more complexity within the songs, and next turned his attention another band, playing guitar and singing in the Knockout Pills, a Tucson punk band that formed in 2001 and released its self-titled debut in 2003 on Dead Beat Records.
“I think it’s helpful to take one band’s experience and turn it into the next,” he says. “Playing punk rock for five years really came through on Nonetheless Blue and That Evil Drone.”
Between those two records, Rendon transitioned from Get Hip to Burger. That Evil Drone was finished, down to the album art, but the label wasn’t offering much support, so Rendon turned to Bohrman, who he’d initially met when the Knockout Pills played Orange County and Arizona shows with Bohrman’s former band Thee Make Out Party!
“He’s one of my favorite songwriters and I love the music a lot,” says Bohrman, who first heard the Resonars when a friend put on Lunar Kit during a late night drive from Milwaukee to Chicago. At the end of the tour, he bought all the Resonars music he could get. “The lyrics speak to me and the sound is great and it just connects with me on a level that other music does not.”
That Evil Drone was Burger’s second LP, an important step in the start-up label’s transition from cassettes and 7-inches to full-length vinyl releases. Burger subsequently re-released all the other Resonars’ past albums.
For Crummy Desert Sound, Rendon took a shot at switching up his recording methodology, but struggled to get the sound he wanted.
“Putting it together was a long, drawn-out process. There was a point there I was trying to record this thing and I wanted to get a better sound. I got a hold of a four-track reel-to-reel and it ended up breaking. I got an eight-track reel-to-reel and didn’t like it. Then I started working with an ADAT and that sound was far too clean. I also tried an eight track cassette, but nothing seemed to work,” he says. “I was getting more and more frustrated, until finally I just said ‘fuck it’ and went back to the original four-track cassette and I had all these songs – 20 or 25 songs – and just last January started recording them, day after day.
“When I was finally able to clear my mind and not have to think about it anymore, I was able to lay down the tracks much easier. Once I got to the point I knew I’d use that machine, they came like ‘that.’ I’m glad it happened that way in the long run because they all sound uniform, the album has a sound. With all the harmonies and poppiness going on, there’s a certain sort of a core energy there that’s nervous and fidgety and a little angry and maybe that’s what gets to people.”
The title Crummy Desert Sound comes from a Bright and Dark song, “Under the Blazing Stars,” that critiqued the alt-country-type bands that were prevalent in Tucson in the late 1990s.
“I didn’t really like the music scene here very much, the desert rock thing that was going on. That music sort of bored me,” Rendon says. “I’d been trying to use that as a title. When this album came around, I thought ‘I can use that title now.’ It’s actually a crummy desert sound because it was recorded on four-track cassette.”
Taking a phrase from a bit of out-of-date commentary and re-working it as a bit of clever self-deprecation came to signify a turning point for the way Rendon writes songs. In his typical method, Rendon searches through photographs in old magazines like National Geographic, centering his thoughts on a particular image and letting the words spring from what’s on the page.
“Photographs, if you give them the time, they can almost create a sound. You start hearing the soundtrack behind this photograph. It doesn’t matter what the images are, they always sort of set something off,” he says. “But a lot of the songs on Crummy Desert Sound weren’t written that way. There was a point I was experimenting with drinking a pot of coffee on a Saturday morning and sitting at a table with a guitar and just seeing what I could come up with.
“I just started writing songs and not caring about lyrical content any more. There was a period I was writing a lot of goofy boy-girl stuff and I just went, ‘What am I doing, I should just writing whatever I’m thinking about.’ As soon as my mind was freed up, a lot of songs started coming. A lot of them became inward looking songs, which was a surprise because I don’t write like that much about myself or my life.”
The new immediacy of songwriting that marks Crummy Desert Sound makes Rendon recall his passage into playing music in the first place, to those early discoveries that revealed how powerful music could be.
“I got a really crappy drum kit when I was 11 and I played the thing into the ground. Then I started playing guitar at 14 or 15. I didn’t really decide I wanted to be a musician until I saw Keith Moon play (in The Kids Are Alright) when I was 12 or 13. When I saw that you could be that physical playing a musical instrument and you could create that much excitement, I knew that’s what I want to do.
“The Who was the whole kickoff point. I’d been into the Beatles and it got me into drums and playing guitar, but I’d never thought of being in a band. When I was a kid I was into sports too and it seemed like The Who was a combination of all that. There was the physical aspect and everybody was doing something over the top and that’s rock ‘n’ roll.”
Playing drums and guitar set the stage musically for Rendon, but it’s the songwriting that’s captured his attention most.
“To communicate through music is a necessity, because I don’t really communicate that well. I sort of tend to be a little insecure and impatient. A lot of times there’s a short circuit between my brain and my mouth of what I want to say and what I end up actually saying,” he says. “But with music, you can refine and you can create the mood you want to with the chords and the melody and it seems like it’s more me than I am.
“It’s just easier to communicate and I think that’s why most people write songs. You can’t get it out, then you grab a guitar and write it down and you’re able to spin those lines around and you come away feeling better.”
Visit the Resonars on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Resonars/114993301867228
[Photo Credit: Jessie Jones]