Triumph Over Perversity

In the months following the release of its Sub Pop debut, Jimmywine Majestic, back in 1994, Red Red Meat began a slow but radical transformation. The band was at the height of its local popularity and the time seemed ripe to take its opiate version of the blues–the sweet, sorrowful moans of Tim Rutili, cobwebs of slide guitar, and spacious arrangements–to the masses.

With an all-acoustic sit-down show in the spring of that year, however, Red Red Meat took a perverse step in the other direction, performing new and somewhat improvisational versions of older tunes. The fans, many of whom had been attracted by comparisons to the Rolling Stones, were not amused. “We’ve always been about shooting yourself in the foot to see if your other leg’s all right,” Rutili says.

To many observers, Red Red Meat has been limping ever since, making increasingly inaccessible music with an apparently unstable lineup: In a characteristically strange move, when the band parted ways with founding member and lead guitarist Glenn Girard, he was “replaced” by percussionist Ben Massarella, the drummer in Rutili’s previous band Friends of Betty and on parts of Red Red Meat’s self-titled, self-released 1992 debut. On the band’s third album, Bunny Gets Paid (1995), former Dolomite front man Neil Rosario lent a hand on guitar, and the brand-new There’s a Star Above the Manger Tonight features Eleventh Dream Day guitarist Rick Rizzo on three songs, but the lead spot has never been permanently filled.

But the madness hasn’t been without a sort of method, says Rutili. One of the drawbacks for an unknown band touring in support of a new record is that it’s expected to play the same tunes the same way night after night to foster recognition. “It was too boring,” he says. “When we toured with the Smashing Pumpkins we played to huge audiences and we learned to make everyone bounce in unison. If we played at a certain pace and kept things rolling along, we could just watch all the heads go up and down. But after a while we’d spend our 45-minute set just talking to people until they would start throwing money at us so that we’d get off the stage.”

The situation wasn’t much better on Red Red Meat’s own tours. “We would go out east and play to 13 people in Burlington, Vermont,” says bassist Tim Hurley, who also plays everything from synthesizer to lap steel to pump organ on the new album. “To play a set of songs in front of nobody is ridiculous, it’s really boring. We would’ve broken up if we didn’t do what we did.”

What they did was to engage themselves artistically, even if it disengaged their audience. They opted to be a noisy, discordant jamming band. Unfortunately, they initially lacked the chops to pull it off consistently–one fan aptly compared a set during this period to “a fat bird trying to fly.” “Sometimes when you do that,” explains Rutili, “it takes you about 15 minutes before you find something good, and by the time you’re there, the audience is at the bar.” But as the new record makes plain, their experimentation with making music on the fly has finally yielded results.

Recording for There’s a Star started in January of last year and proceeded in spurts for the next six months. The band had no new material, nor any particular direction in mind, upon entering the studio. “Nothing on the new record was developed on the road other than our ability to jam,” says Massarella.

Drummer-keyboardist Brian Deck recorded the album, the band’s first without Brad Wood at the console. “I’d venture to say that it wasn’t ‘produced,'” he says. “It just sort of happened.” This looseness is immediately apparent in the music. While songs like “Sulfur,” “Chinese Balls,” and “Quarter Horses (B-Slow)” more or less follow traditional structures, the album as a whole has a collagelike density. Other songs that began traditionally were grafted onto unrelated rhythmic patterns that had been recorded months earlier. But close listening to endurance tests like “Paul Pachal” and “Just Like an Egg on Stilts” proves that the band has gained an understanding of the subtleties of musical flow and developed acute interactive skills. There’s a Star is at once Red Red Meat’s most difficult, abrasive record and its most organic.

In August A&M will release a beautiful album the band made with the New York trio Rex under the name Loftus. From Loftus 9 was recorded in ten days last summer, and while it’s plenty improvisational, it’s also remarkably focused, fusing Red Red Meat’s hazy emotionalism with the elegant languor of Rex. There’s a Star fulfills Red Red Meat’s contractual obligations to Sub Pop, and the band is presently shopping a new demo.

Band members swear that for the time being Red Red Meat has gotten the heavy jamming out of its system, and has come, if not full circle, at least semicircle. “We’re trying to think about an audience more,” admits Rutili. “What we’ve been doing has been really fun and it helped us make this last record, but now, maybe because it’s the opposite of what we’ve been doing, I’d really like to play for people more. After doing this crazy shit for so long it’s really fun to play songs again.”

Red Red Meat, back from a two-week tour of the west coast, headlines Metro on Friday.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Red Red Meat (Tim Hurley, Ben Massarella, Brian Deck, Tim Rutili) photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.