Take a dip into the depths of Grand Lake
Caleb Nichols swings his arms in a wide arc, illustrating the release of his emotional baggage into the world. “This record’s about a journey that a lot of people have,” he explains, “about leaving home, and then trying to find it again. It’s also about the traveling itself.” He pauses, smiling. “About the baggage.”
Bespectacled, unshaven, and loquacious, he looks and acts every bit the hyper-literate songwriter one might expect to meet after listening to a few songs by his band, Grand Lake. His eyes follow the motion of his arms, and he continues with his wanderer’s metaphor. “It’s about trying to throw that baggage off a bridge,” he says, to soft laughter from his boyfriend (and Grand Lake drummer) John Pomeroy. “And then walking. You’re on the bridge; you’ve been stuck there for a while. You’ve got these heavy bags. It’s hot outside. You don’t want to walk anymore. Finally, you’re like, ‘fuck it,’ and you throw your bags over the rails. When you finally make it to the other side, and look back out over the bridge, you realize that one of them, not both of them, is still in your hands. It’s like an Alfred Hitchcock movie.”
This particular brand of psychic pain (Nichols refers to it as an “abstract feeling of ‘AHH!’”) and its ultimate cathartic release plays itself out again and again on Grand Lake’s energetic, emotionally raw debut record, Blood Sea Dream. A four-piece rock group from Oakland, Grand Lake is comprised of Nichols as bassist and songwriter, Pomeroy on drums, avant-shredder Jameson Swanagon on guitar, and his wife Danae Swanagon on keys and electronics. The quartet will play a CD-release show with Citay and Acid Tapestries on Friday, June 4, at The Crepe Place.
Though at first blush a standard rock set-up, Grand Lake seems bent on defying convention at every turn: the sound is loose, exposed. At times chaotic, Grand Lake will often take a sharp left turn into pure guitar pop bliss at the moment least expected. Swanagon’s lines are particularly notable for their studious experimentalism, treading the fine tonal and compositional line between heady jazz-rock improvisationalists (think Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot) and raw power mongers such as Neil Young or Tom Verlaine. His expressive parts cut through a thick mass of distorted bass, which is pervasive on tracks like “Black Cloud” or the beautiful “Concrete Blonde on Blonde.”
Not only is Grand Lake unconventional in its compositional approach, but also in its lyrical choices. Nichols’ songs tend toward the poetic and the soul-searingly personal, but are loaded with self-referential fragments and inside references to older songs, other bands, and his own personal relationships. An in-depth listening can almost feel like solving some sort of intricate psychological puzzle.
“I, like many songwriters, have a considerable amount of ego,” Nichols says, “and I don’t shy away from that. These songs are about my life and I hope that it’s relatable to other people. I don’t know if I’ve done my job in that people can relate to that. But I do know that there are thousands and thousands of people just like me who have had the same [or] almost the same experience.”
Songs such as “Oedipus Hex” explore themes of abandonment (“You were the best that I had / and now you’re gone” is the plaintive refrain), while other songs show considerable optimism, such as album highlight “Spark.”
Thus far, Grand Lake’s message seems to be resonating. With a blog-turned-record label releasing the band’s debut effort and a pair of West Coast dates with indie heavyweights OK Go! (including a gig at the historic Fillmore in San Francisco), Grand Lake is poised to carve a place for itself in the current rock canon. For Nichols, it all comes back to getting rid of whatever happens to be weighing him down.
“It’s about working through stuff, that’s what living is,” he says. “And it’s awesome.”
Grand Lake performs with Citay and Acid Tapestries at 9 p.m. Friday, June 4, at The Crepe Place, 1134 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $8. 429-6994.