The Ballad Of A Band Called E
On Complications, Thalia Zedek, Jason Sanford and Gavin McCarthy put forth a total group effort
The deep-seated cred that the members of E bring to the table is seriously hardcore.
An independent rock supergroup with next-level chemistry to match, the cryptically named E (or “A Band called E,” as they are sometimes called) unites three underground game-changing lifers: Thalia Zedek (of dirge-blues gods Come), Jason Sanford (of alien art-rock crew, Neptune) and Gavin McCarthy (formerly of Karate).
The end result that E noisily crank out on their just-dropped third full-length, Complications (via Czech label Silver Rocket; E’s first two records were released by Thrill Jockey) is a complete and total collaborative effort. Of course, there’s no mistaking that Zedek touts an epic resume cemented in the indie rock annals (Come’s 1992 touchstone 11:11 is one of that decade’s most celebrated record and stints in Live Skull and Uzi are noise-rock-defining). But in E, Zedek, Sanford and McCarthy prove songwriting soulmates and despite the group’s star power, E is a band of equals.
Those killer dynamics go full-throttle on the cutthroat-precise, off-kilter melodies and intertwining nails-on-chalkboard guitar scratch attack on the bass-less Complications. Their raw and primal energy, unmistakable rapport and ear-bleeding sonics easily reach Shellac-like levels. Then there’s the themes of sickness, viruses and contagions running through Complications that prove freakishly prescient in these tumultuous times.
The Globe caught Zedek and Sanford on Skype to talk Complications, releasing it during COVID-19 and how the pandemic has affected their plans, its underlying themes, the origins of the band, its collaborative nature and much more.
Complications is out now via Silver Rocket Records.
Your new record, Complications, was released smack-dab during the pandemic and your tour is on hold, right?
Jason Sanford: Well, the tour is hopefully not canceled. We hope to reschedule it but we just don’t know when that’s gonna happen exactly. It’s definitely pushed way, way back. We love playing live and we love connecting with our audience in person, so that’s a bummer to us. It’s also meant that the vinyl was delayed because of the closure of a pressing vinyl pressing facility in the Czech Republic. It’s still coming but we decided to just go ahead and release the digital album anyway, in part because it seems like such a surprisingly timely record. We happened to be thinking about all of these medical issues when we were writing it before the pandemic.
Yes, there’s the song, “Contagion Model,” on the new record that is strangely prescient.
J.S.: That’s one that Gavin sings on. He wrote the lyrics for that one. He seems to be a master of timing.
Obviously, the songs on Complications materialized way before COVID-19 hit but at the heart of the lyrics were medical issues?
Thalia Zedek: I think it was different stuff for everyone because all three of us sing on three different songs, but I think my stuff is the least sort of medicalized. Gavin wrote the lyrics for “Contagion Model” and Jason wrote the lyrics for “Acid Mantle” and “Miasma.” We recorded the record at the end of November and we had no idea about any of this. I don’t want to put words in Gavin’s mouth but I think with “Contagion Model,” we discussed it before and I think he was thinking of false information, how things and rumors can spread and stuff like that. I think that’s more where he was coming with that. (To Jason) I don’t know where your all your medical stuff in your life comes from (laughing).
J.S.: An ongoing topical interest to me is science, historical science and medicine so those ways of thinking about those things inform ways of understanding our current world. I think I’m always writing a little bit about science and this record happened to be more about medicine.
Would you say Complications is a loose concept record since it has these recurring medical and science-leaning themes?
J.S.: I would say in a three-mind intuitive way, yes. It’s not a thing that we explicitly really agreed upon but it did develop that way organically. It took us a while to decide on the album title but there’s an idea about the complications being there were all sorts of different complications, one being I’m now in Colorado so we can’t have our regular practice sessions—we had to develop new modes of working to compose the stuff and we’d be sending files back and forth. Then I’d come to Boston for a short period of time and we’d have a really intense rehearsal session to do a lot of writing. So, that was a complication. There are other complications as well like new equipment for me. I think Thalia remembers some (complications) also. (laughing).
T.Z.: A lot of stuff. The record was initially supposed to come out on Thrill Jockey then it didn’t so we had to find a new label. I think the name kind of described the making and writing of the record a little bit.
Let’s talk how E originally formed. You started the band in Massachusetts but Jason, you recently moved to Colorado as you mentioned.
J.S.: I think we started in 2013?
T.Z.: Yeah, yeah.
J.S. I’ve only been in Colorado for two years. We actually recorded Negative Work just before I moved so we did our first two records, you know, the uncomplicated way. Then I moved out here. That was a big switch. We didn’t know if we were gonna weather that as a band but we found new ways of working, which are different. There are definitely things that I miss about the old ways of working but also there’s stuff that has proved to be really effective and interesting about these really condensed writing sessions. We have these marathon practices that go all day long and they will be three or four days in a row. They really are super intense but super productive—it’s a whole new way of working. Then, between while I’m out here, we’ll be sending files back and forth and having ideas. There will be a little germ of an idea that people have heard already and been thinking about it then we’ll be able to get together and play it.
So you send riffs and ideas to each other then build on them when you’re all together in Mass.?
J.S.: Yeah, I’ll send a little guitar part and then when we were writing it, pre-pandemic times, Thalia and Gavin would get together and they record a part together and send it back to me so that we would start to get an idea of what everybody was thinking about.
When you travel to Mass. then the three of you hit the studio and jam out songs?
J.S.: Exactly. But it’s very efficient to have some ideas in place already so that we can dive right in.
T.Z.: We also want to have a bunch of half-baked ideas that we could just start on but then also a couple things definitely came up just spontaneously together because when Jason was living here, we rehearsed a lot. We’d rehearse twice a week and we just really take a really long time writing records. We started playing together in 2013, just to go back to that (earlier) question a little bit. We started and it was just me and Jason at first and then we had a different drummer named Alec Tisdale. He was a really cool drummer, multi-instrumentalist and also a pretty good engineer. We recorded some stuff with him but he had a lot of other things he was doing in his life. Me and Jason really wanted to tour and it became clear that, ultimately, we didn’t want the same things. So Gavin joined. We’d already started playing out with Alec but it was very, very slow beginning so me and Jason started playing together in 2013. But we really were just kind of messing around. He was doing Neptune and his other stuff and I was doing other stuff and Come was doing a bunch of stuff at the time. It was a really slow, slow beginning. (To Jason) Wasn’t our first show in 2015 or something crazy like that? We played this one show then we didn’t play another show for another year. It’s kind of crazy but once Gavin joined, we sped up the process. When Gavin joined, we probably had about a third to a half of the first record written with Alec and so we did those songs and wrote a bunch more songs with Gavin. Then things started moving a bit faster at that point.
Did both of you know each other already from being knee-deep in the Boston scene?
J.S.: Yeah, we were fans of one another before and also we knew Gavin that way, too. Neptune opened the first Karate record release show in 1994.
T.Z.: I saw Neptune play a bunch of times. I was a fan of them and a fan of Jason’s work.
E can be called a supergroup of sorts, knowing all the bands each of you have been in and the history.
T.Z.: I don’t think of it like that but I’ve been doing solo stuff for a while and I was feeling very stuck in the writing department. I just really wanted to do something collaborative. Rather than writing songs by myself and presenting them to other musicians, I had it in the back of my mind, I don’t know. There was this one show, I think it was at TT the Bear’s (Place) where I’d seen Neptune and, for some reason, at this one show, this was the first time I had saw’em, and I just thought to myself, “I want to play with Jason someday.” It was something that he was doing and I just had this feeling of, “Oh, I understand what he’s doing.” I can’t explain it. It’s just this certain thing where I was like, “I’d really like to play with this guy someday.” A few years went by and it wasn’t until later I think…we didn’t really have a ton of mutual friends back and I was getting really bored. I was in between drummers and I knew that Neptune was slowing down because a couple of the guys had left. I think after (Neptune’s) Mark (Pearson) moved to North Carolina, I went to a barbeque and thought, “maybe this would be a good time to ask Jason to play together.” I had no idea what he would say about it because we’re in different scenes. I don’t think that we ever…(to Jason) Did we ever play a show together or did our other bands ever play show together?
J.S.: At a festival in Spain or Italy was the only time we played together.
T.Z: I knew Dan Boucher (one-time drummer of Neptune). He was working at this theater that I was performing at a lot. (To Jason) He was a stage manager at the Market Theater?
J.S: Yeah, I remember meeting you then, too. The Market Theater was a short-lived, really amazing experimental theater that was right in Herald Square and Neptune did live sound for its very first production. Thalia was doing something that was coming up and she was there while we were doing rehearsals while we were finishing up our run.
VIDEO: Neptune “Cash Mattress”
Was it imposing at first to play with Thalia, who has this long and storied history?
J.S.: It’s always nerve-wracking to play with somebody new, actually. It was nice that Thalia had the idea to try it because I probably wouldn’t have had the nerve to ask.
T.Z.: I’ve been waiting for my chance! I was like, “Mark just left town….” (laughing) I was nervous about asking you, too. I definitely didn’t know if you would be into it—at all. But he was like, “Sure, let’s try it out.” We just got together and just played for months, actually.
J.S: The other thing I would say about playing with anybody new for myself, personally, is that I, for many years, I think at the start of my career, had a lot of “imposter syndrome” because I don’t have any sort of formal musical training and because I come from this visual arts background. But then Neptune kept getting shows, I kept playing shows, we kept getting asked to do stuff and eventually that faded. I guess that has been a welcome gradual transition in my life that I no longer feel like an imposter and I just accept myself as a non-traditional kind of musician, and that it’s great to play with other musicians even if I don’t know the notes, chords and the same scales.
E has three different singers and writers but the sound is totally cohesive. It sounds like a total collaborative effort. How do you balance that out so well?
T.Z.: I think we write the music very much together. I might come up with a riff but then Gavin might be like, “why don’t you add in a different chord there or a different kind of chord there.” Even though we all do come up with parts, we all really look to each other for, like, “so what do you think?” We really take each other’s ideas and we are never like, “this is my song and I don’t like that idea.” We think of everything as our song and everyone kind of molds it. We spend a lot of time on arrangements and stuff like that. Like on “Contagion Model”: originally, I had a guitar riff that Gavin recorded and chopped up and rearranged. Then Jason came up with this other line that actually now is more prominent. I know the genesis of the song but it’s changed so much after everyone got in there and started working on it though that guitar riff is still in there somewhere, it’s not at all like the meat and potatoes of the song anymore. Then I came up with another guitar riff that was different, which is now more prominent. To me, that’s really special and magical about this band: that we can all work, the chemistry, in terms of writing is something that I definitely didn’t take for granted and that I have not had with people in a long time. That’s also partially why when Jason had to move to Colorado for work reasons we were all like, “oh, god, this is gonna be hard. Should we just forget it?” Then we just thought what we have together as a unit is pretty special. Now let’s try and see if we can make it work.
AUDIO: Come “German Song”
Thalia, how does partnering up with Jason and Gavin in E compare to say what you and Chris Brokaw had in Come?
T.Z.: I think it’s pretty close. I’ve really enjoyed writing with Chris and I hadn’t really found anyone that I could really write with since Come broke up. That was a different way of working and it’s not like me and Jason writing together and Gavin just playing drums—Gavin is writing a lot, too. In Come, it was a little bit more of a “me and Chris thing.” It was me and me and him working on stuff a little bit more. But I feel like with this band, it’s really a three-way thing, which is really, really cool. It’s also cool to play with a drummer who is so musical and who thinks in terms of melody.
Thalia, did you have to adapt in any way to the homemade instrumentation that Jason uses and was known for in Neptune? Have you played with someone who makes their own instruments, pedals and contraptions?
T.Z: I loved it! Jason is such a unique and amazing guitar player or I don’t even call it a guitar. He’s really fun to play with. It’s never really been an issue, though. He built a new one recently. Towards the end of his last guitar, it got so bent from so much touring and playing—the intonation just got so bad. It’s been really exciting and inspiring to play with him.
Jason, Neptune was definitely more noisy and E is more melodic. How has that change been for you?
J.S: With Neptune, I had gone as far as I could go in this very noisy direction. It’s been good for me to bring it back in into something that has a structure that is more intelligible, like, to take my sound and to be like, “okay, it’s not going to be just my sound.” I’m going to make this work with what Thalia is doing. That has been a great experience for me.
VIDEO: E “Sunrise”
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