The best pop musicians often seem to balance the relationship between what they've heard and what they play, drawing on artists who have shaped their musical sensibilities while creating something original. 9353, which has just released its second album, "We Are Absolutely Sure There Is No God," does that, and in the process creates some of the Washington area's most interesting new music.
The band members, led by the vocal acrobatics of Bruce Merkle, have endured some of the classic pitfalls of their chosen endeavor: members going off to college or on extended hiatuses; questionable mixing of instruments on a self-produced first album; even the prolonged reconstruction of the studio in which their second album was to be produced.
Still, they have persevered, and over the last three years have amassed a solid local following. Their desire for a larger audience is balanced, says guitarist Jason Carmer, by a healthy sense of realism.
"Our whole point, as far as money goes, is to be able to support ourselves. That doesn't mean being able to buy a 100-foot yacht." Perhaps, but for bands like 9353, whose members say they loathe the excesses of corporate rock 'n' roll, there is a constant and at times conflicting desire to make it big -- and with all the trimmings.
"We want our picture on the cover of Rolling Stone," jokes bassist Vance Bockis. The band laughs collectively at the idea, but in many ways this tension between the real and imagined rock worlds parallels the intertwined musical textures and ironic lyrical postures that define the band's sound.
Especially during live performances, the group displays a highly developed sense of dynamics. The typical 9353 song creates a tensile relationship between instruments, then explodes into what may seem a completely unrelated idea. If that sounds like a description of jazz playing, the similarity is not coincidental. Carmer shuns most current popular music in favor of other forms: "Classical music is my first love, and I grew up on jazz. I hate pop."
Carmer's remark may seem to smack of elitist posturing, but the technically gifted guitarist's style reveals an uncompromising respect for the music. Both Carmer and Bockis share the punk rock of the late '70s as the force that led them to their instruments.
Bockis' bass lines recall the melodic, linear patterns of Jean-Jacque Burnell, bassist for The Stranglers. Carmer was drawn to the guitar by the "anybody-can-do-it" three-chord simplicity of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. Now, however, through a calculated manipulation of sonic effects and instant changes in style, he has created a refreshing approach that both parodies and celebrates the pomposity of rock guitar cliche's. Dan Joseph, the band's drummer, attacks various tempos with clarity, precision and surprising ease for a 19-year-old.
9353's music is ultimately defined, however, by lyricist/singer Merkle. During the course of a single song, Merkle uses up to five distinct voices, ranging between a mocking, authoritative bass and an innocent upper-register falsetto. The voices divide his lyrics into theatrical segments, with often bitingly funny results. Underneath the humor, however, Merkle harbors a sense of having been betrayed by society's institutions, particularly the educational system. "I'm doing what I want to do," he says, "and I wonder what it would have been like if I had been encouraged to do that [in school]. I'd probably be a lot further along than I am now."
The group will be performing at what is being billed as its "record-release hell" Thursday night at the 9:30 club, where they say they may eventually record a double-live album of unreleased songs.
"Nobody's done a good double-live record in 10 years," Carmer points out, grinning slyly. His expression sums up the relationship between the 9353 musicians and the music they've grown up with. Asked how they sort the confusing barrage of influences that have preceded them, Merkle supplies a telling answer: "With all of the various phases of rock evolution contradicting each other as much as they have, it would be impossible for us to take any period of rock more seriously than any other."