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We really like our eggs: indie rock outfit Albumen.

Do You Remember?

How self-effacing Saratoga Springs trio Albumen fought despotism in Asia, took up vegetable farming, and called back the excitement of early indie rock

By Mike Hotter

It’s 1987, I’m 13, and something on the television is subtly changing my life. PBS is showing a documentary on the “Minneapolis sound,” and three sweaty, flannel-clad dudes in their 20s are playing some of the fastest and most distorted music I’ve ever heard, singing and flailing like their souls are up for the offing. They were Hüsker Dü, of course, but what mattered more than who these guys were was what they represented, that one could rock way harder than those poofs in Hit Parader, rock like they were trying to save the world, all while dressed in duds that your mechanic buddies wore while helping you adjust your car’s ignition timing.

Albumen hearken back to those days, when alternative rock came without a dress code, when life-changing albums came out every six months or so on SST or Touch and Go . . . you know, before Nirvana “won” the war and Marc Jacobs made “indie rock” a fashion choice. What’s ironic about the whole don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover thing is that I first picked up Albumen’s debut CD Lake Desolation because the packaging looked and felt great, a nice biodegradable cardboard package with beautiful tree and leaf imagery and old-style typewriter fonts listing titles like “Raven Black” and “Bad Arm & Bowie Knife.” I figured I was in for laid-back alt-country fare, perhaps a bit dark, but amiable, which is what Andrew Ashton, one of Albumen’s principals, says they were initially aiming for. “We had a bunch of songs we worked out on acoustics. The only thing was, we didn’t have a drummer at the time.”

So instead of proceeding with the often-tried folksy approach (as Ashton quips over a beer at Albany’s Lark Tavern, “The road to hell is paved with ‘Free Bird’ ”), Ashton and collaborator Paul Coleman (a veteran of Boston-based rock outfits, newly returned to his Capital Region home) decided to make use of samples and drum machines to cyber-flesh-out their songs. Coleman remembers, “A lot of my Boston friends were working on hip-hop and electronica. I was interested in that sound as well, but more for its ambient qualities.” What came out of the electro-acoustic experimenting was something quirky, organic and original, its closest counterpart probably being early Beck without the smartass rapping. For their more rock-heavy jams, Albumen enlisted Andrew Churchman (of Cambridge, Mass. band Pants Yell!) for some balls-to-the-wall drumming that put the Albumen sound in the same vicinity as early Meat Puppets and Sister-era Sonic Youth.

Upon completion of last year’s Lake Desolation and the subsequent call for live playing, the guys started fishing around on Craigslist for a local drummer who could keep pace, no small feat for a band who credit Flipper, Iron & Wine, the Stooges and the Incredible String Band as some of their main inspirations. Luckily, they found Mark Ramirez, who shares their eclectic tastes as well as their sly, often self-deprecating sense of humor. At 27, multi-instrumentalist Ramirez is the baby of the band. “We’re like the anti-Menudo,” he jokes, “There’s an age criteria—if you’re too young, you get kicked out.” Coleman chimes in, “Old and embittered—that’s pretty much our demographic.”

With Ramirez came another batch of quality songs, though a bit quieter than those of Ashton and Coleman. The trio have been working on another CD, some of which they showcased at a recent show at Valentine’s. Whereas older tunes were usually sung and constructed by their primary writer, Albumen’s favorite thing now is to work out the songs together and see what coheres and what fades away.

“At practice, everybody brings a song,” says Coleman. “With a full band, the new songs may be a bit more ‘conventionalized,’ but they’re a lot more rocking now too. The old songs are changed too, sort of like the Clash on steroids.”

“With one of the new ones, I started trying to play ‘24 Hours,’ a Joy Division song.” Ashton explains. “It didn’t sound anything like Joy Division, but whatever it was I played, we all thought, hey, this sounds good!’” A new Albumen song was born.

Lake Desolation found itself on the playlists of dozens of college radio stations, mainly on the Eastern seaboard. “You could basically trace the places I’ve lived by which stations played the CD,” says Coleman. It was a particular favorite of Duke University’s WXDU. A number of Web ’zines took up the Albumen banner with glowing reviews, though most have a penchant for comparing them to REM and/or Michael Stipe. Coleman opines, “I think a certain quality in Andrew’s voice reminds some people of that. We have a theory that once one review is written and mentions who it sounds like, the rest often use the same comparison.” With the ghosts of Murmur in the air, I decide it’s time to bring up Ashton’s rumored involvement with something called Radio Free Asia.

“Yes, I did work for them for a time,” he says. “That was when I lived near Washington, D.C. Their whole thing is to broadcast theoretically unbiased news to China and Southeast Asia. I did get to broadcast Camper Van Beethoven’s ‘Joe Stalin’s Cadillac’ while I was there.”

Along with the diverse life experiences that inform their musicmaking, each of the guys has more than a full plate when it comes to extramusical activities.

“Mark works nights,” says Ashton. “I have two kids, and Paul has the farming thing.”

The “farming thing” refers to Coleman’s moonlighting gig as a vegetable farmer. As a caption on their cdbaby.com page clarifies, “[Paul] could talk all day about mummy berry and tractors.”

When asked the inevitable band-name-origin question, Ashton says, “It was the best on the list of shitty band names.”

“What can I say?” says Coleman. “I like eggs and old photography techniques.”

The old photo printing method of using egg whites (mixed with other chemicals) to make haunting and indelible images does seem an apt moniker for a band whose lyrics seem to describe an alternate history of the United States. Whereas a band like the Decemberists can grate with their arch scholarly histrionics, Albumen come on with the skill of a writer like Richard Powers or Stephen Wright (the novelist, not the comedian). “Bad Arm & Bowie Knife” is a psychedelic fever dream of the American Civil War, while “Delgado” (a gem of a song that would be a radio hit in a fairer world) tells of the obscure Spanish physiologist Jose Delgado performing electrical experiments on the brain of the song’s protagonist somewhere out on the Salt Flats of Nevada.

But the band characteristically deny that they are up to anything special. “Anyone can put together a bunch of disturbing images trying to sound deep,” shrugs Ashton.

“But we actually do it!” Ramirez jokes. “Anybody can, but we take the time!”


ROUGH MIX

Got Rough Mix items? Contact Kathryn Lurie at klurie@metroland.net or 463-2500 ext. 143.



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