Just for the hell of it, and because a few people have asked, I’m resurfacing an album from one of my old bands. This one is pretty special to me, and since it disappeared almost the moment it came into existence I thought I’d give it a new lease on digital life.
Back in the late 90s/early 00s, I was in a band called Crystal Radio. The group was built around my then-new friend Andrew Norsworthy and his amped-up folk-rock songs. Gabe Nelson joined us on djembe (no joke, we actually had a fucking djembe in the band for a while), before mercifully transitioning to his natural element of bass guitar. And Josh Williams came into our lives to provide drums (and drums, and drums...he brought a Carter Beauford-esque kit to our first rehearsal). Most of my time was spent messing with my tremolo and delay pedals, trying to “be artistical” with sound pads and such.
We started out playing at the Traveler’s Pub in old Ballard, on a stage the size of a small picnic table. Over time we honed our schtick and got more focused. Josh trimmed his drum kit down to a modest size, Gabe kept going lower and lower (his notes, not his guitar strap), and I got a bigger amp to keep up with what was rapidly turning into a fairly experimental rock band. Sometime in the middle of this I found a cheap pedal steel guitar and brought it to the rehearsal space, having no idea what to do with it. Andrew got an electric guitar and I figured out how to make whale noises on the pedal steel. Josh and Gabe turned into a killer rhythm section, which prompted Drew to cite more and more examples from his favorite hip hop tracks. My effects board grew and grew, finally becoming self-aware and replacing most of my guitar playing with algorithmically-optimized sound collages.
Our rehearsal space had a permanent moldy smell, and a thin creek of what we hoped was water running through the floor. It was across the street from our favorite bar at the time, which provided additional incentive to put in long hours practicing. We played 4-hour sets at the Owl & Thistle, an Irish bar in an alley downtown. These shows were some of the best rehearsals I’ve ever had, in any band. We were figuring shit out.
We made one record early on, and none of us liked it very much after we finished it. It was disappointing, and we all wanted to do better. We just had to figure out how. In the meantime, we graduated to playing shows at more established clubs like the Sit & Spin, where we felt like a real rock band and tried to act accordingly. We made friends with people like Aiko Shimada (jazz-pop vocalist extraordinaire), Weary (sad alt-country rockers of early Ballard Avenue fame), Andrea Maxand (indie pop singer/guitarist of extraordinary talent), Voyager One (psyched-out space rock), Sunday Morning Music and Preston Mill.
Most of the hard work during this time fell to Andrew, who over the next year wrote a batch of songs so strong, we almost felt guilty playing them. It was like we’d stolen them from someone else. These songs pushed us all in different ways, and as they started to come together I could see Drew’s vision for a new album getting stronger and crystallizing. At this point we enlisted the help of our friend Shawn Simmons, who had just acquired a new recording studio and was ready to get into the fight with us.
At this point we had the songs, the studio, and the desire. The final step on the journey required us all to humble ourselves. As we began recording, we promised each other to be honest in our assessments of all performances, and to not spare each others’ feelings if something didn’t measure up. This led to quite a few uncomfortable moments, especially for a gang of sensitive dudes like the four of us. Shawn helped keep us all honest, and we learned how to toss ideas onto the scrap heap in service of the greater good. At times it was exhilarating, and at times it was brutal.
It also took forever. We were doing this on our own dime, around the other parts of our lives such as day jobs, relationships, families, etc. Our perfectionism was costing a shitload of time and money, and the strain took a toll on us. While we were going deep nerd on every nuance of modern record making, the band started to crumble. Andrew was already writing new songs that fell more into the folksinger style he had originally come from, Josh was playing with other bands, and Gabe had a growing family to care for. Things were changing, and it felt like the moment for our band to finish this magnum opus had already passed us by.
But we pushed on, finally mixing and mastering the record without any real plan for its release. During this time we learned there were a bunch of other bands named Crystal Radio, and at least one of them had a better lawyer than we did. So we ceased and desisted with that name, and christened ourselves Joran, in honor of our dear friend Joran Lawrence, who had nothing to do with the decision. We used his name without permission, but thankfully he forgave us. (Or at least he didn’t take us to court.)
When Some Low Beauty arrived at our door, one of my first moves was to take a few copies down to KEXP. I’d been an avid listener for many years, but never in my life had I heard myself on the airwaves. Until a few nights later, driving home from some party, when I heard the first notes of “Nothing is Better” sneaking out of my car stereo speakers. I rolled the windows down, turned it all the way up and shouted at the moon, I was so happy. KEXP played songs from SLB that whole summer. I remember wishing we’d been able to just play one more show, now that this magical endorsement of Seattle cool had been bestowed upon us. But it was not to be.
So anyway, years later here is Some Low Beauty, the DOA first album from Joran. I’m still proud of it, and all five of us who created it are still friends, still living life and having musical adventures. I’m putting it up on Bandcamp as a free download for anyone who is interested. If anyone wants to pay for it, I’ll donate the money to a good cause...such as buying beers at the Tin Hat for me, Andrew, Josh and Shawn (and Gabe, if he ever wants to come visit).
Please enjoy, and thanks as ever for listening.