Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Interview: The Silent Comedy

I am particularly fascinated by certain sociological characteristics of rock and roll bands – the nomadic lifestyle, the personal and working relationships behind the creativity, and the inspirations that drive that creativity. There is another pattern of interest- a correlation between a devoted and deeply connected fan base with a band’s ability to use principles of religious congregation in the writing and delivery of their music. I’m not talking about a particular denomination or belief, but rather, a mastery in rallying a community together, inspiring a feeling of belonging, and facilitating that cathartic release of energy at a rock show that parallels the historic use of religion for that function.

Going into my interview with San Diego-based band The Silent Comedy, I knew they had a unique insight into these three themes – a nomadic existence, a sense of broader community, and integration of music and religion – that long preceded their life as a working band. On a sunny day in Santa Barbara, brothers and band founders Joshua and Jeremiah Zimmerman sat with me in the park and shared some of the profound life experiences that shaped their worldview, and now offers layers of depth to their songwriting craft.

Jeremiah and Joshua, sons of a Pentecostal minister, spent their early years in Orange County, California. When Joshua was 12 and Jeremiah was 15, their parents sold all possessions and uprooted the family to South Asia to pursue missionary work and to scout a location to open a holistic medicine clinic. For two years, the brothers and their parents, along with another family, lived out of backpacks, moving from India, Nepal, Thailand, and then on to parts of Europe and the United States. I asked them to talk to me a bit about how those experiences shaped them as songwriters and as traveling performers.

Jeremiah: It was a very strange experience to have at that age, not doing anything in a permanent way, getting rid of everything and just becoming vagabonds for a while. Some places we would roll in and leave the next day, some places we would stay for months. And the bug for touring came from that. I am happiest when on the road.

Joshua: We became completely placeless and we made peace with the fact that we were not going to see any of our friends. You really become kind of anchorless. And that is something that people have said about our music.

When asked whether the musical traditions of the places they visited had an influence on the sound of the Silent Comedy:

Joshua: It wasn’t necessarily the musical traditions of wherever we were, but it was more of a feeling. And also just the dark aspects – our outlook on the world changed drastically when we went on that trip. To go from an affluent upper-class area to having no possessions, being on the streets of Calcutta… I don’t think I had ever seen a dead person before. We went to Mother Theresa’s Home for the Dying and they were carrying a body out when we arrived. Kids on the street without jawbones (a deformity of malnourishment) would hold on to your clothes, begging for money.

Jeremiah: And there were some situations that felt hostile. We were in Dehradun (India) during elections and people were getting killed on Election Day, and there was just a lot of tension. At a young age to experience that, it changes you fundamentally. The difference between being aware of the things that are going on in other parts of the world when you are in the States, versus experiencing it firsthand – you realize the enormity of problems that exist in places where everyday life is [wondering] “will I make it through today?” So that did influence our sound, I think, just experiencing that that kind of uncertainty in the environment around us.

Joshua: Coming back to Orange County, it was tough to acclimate. We were a bit removed… you know, we’ve always been weird. We see in our music now; we just can’t embrace the norms of subject matter that people write about, like love songs. We can try to write love songs but they come out a little warped.

Part of the “placeless” feel of the songs in the Silent Comedy catalog is that they conjure imagery of migratory characters from a different time in American history, notably late 19th/ early 20th Century – Wild West prospectors, Prohibition-era bootleggers, Vaudeville performers, and traveling preachers. So where does this imagery come from?

Jeremiah: Our dad was a minister in the Assemblies of God, a Southern Pentecostal denomination and so the whole tent-revival-snake-handling stuff – they weren’t as crazy as that - but still in that tradition. So we grew up in that environment.

Joshua: We try to get to deep human issues in songwriting, like the dirtiness of humanity mixed with the desire for redemption. The tent revival thing was huge during the Great Depression. So when we think of the events that evoke those forces in the world, we naturally go back in time because to sing about the grinding pressures of life, its not that you missed your morning latte, it is more about immediate survival.

On writing songs that are imaginative storytelling vs. autobiographical:

Joshua: I always thought it was a really cool thing to write songs that are totally in character. [“Exploitation” from the perspective of a sexual victim] is about the human trafficking trade. My dad is involved in an organization to stop human trafficking and I was interested in the work that they do. I read case studies on their website and that song came out as a way of kind of purging my brain from the horrific details from those case studies.

Some songs, you take what has happened in your life and you put it in a fictional context, because sometimes it’s easier to not be as confessional. Like the song “49” is a real personal situation transposed into a situation that occurs during the Gold Rush.

Jeremiah: I think some vagueness is good. I don’t ever want to be so specific (in autobiographical songwriting) that I am the only one who can relate what I’m talking about.

In addition to Jeremiah (piano) and Joshua (bass), who are the primary vocalists of the band, the Silent Comedy is also comprised of Justin Buchanan (banjo and mandolin), Chad Lee (percussion), and Tim Graves (Guitar and Harmonica). Their live show, probably best described by Joshua as a “whiskey-fueled tent revival,” is a boisterous dancing-stomping-shouting celebration that leaves the crowd feeling like participants, not just spectators. An appreciation for showmanship and inclusiveness, which the brothers acquired from years of attending Pentecostal tent revivals, shines through in the Silent Comedy’s live performance.

Jeremiah: Being raised in that kind of church environment where the crowd is involved and everyone is participating and raising their hands, it was always a pet peeve of mine at rock shows when the cool kids would be standing there with their arms crossed. If you’re going to be there and be into music, just drop the act, get into it, be a little foolish. If people are going to come out to see us, we have got to be worth seeing, and I think that some of those early (tent revival) experiences inspired that. That kind of showmanship, those traveling preacher types are great at that.

Joshua: It’s one thing to see a band whip people into frenzy, it’s even more incredible to watch a single guy, without a band, whip people into frenzy. There is a lot of force behind it. If we had been brought up in a different religious tradition, we would have a different approach to it. In Catholicism or Anglicanism, people come to sit and observe and hear someone talk, but in Pentecostalism people don’t come to observe. It gets chaotic and energetic. People come to have an experience, and that is what we bring to the music.

The Silent Comedy indeed delivers a phenomenal live experience, and I came away from it with an overarching feeling inclusiveness. It was as if their sound was the equivalent of outstretched arms, beckoning the crowd closer so that we could all, collectively, stomp harder and sing louder. Many bands, probably without realizing it, erect a wall between them the audience, a division between performer and spectator. I found the Silent Comedy to be refreshingly accessible, both in conversation and also as performers. They clearly operate under the philosophy that they are part of a greater community that includes the new faces of each town they visit. It is no surprise that they are collecting new loyal and devoted fans with every live show.

I may be a heathen, but I’ll worship in the church of the Silent Comedy any day of the week. And twice on Sunday.