High brow, low frequency

The Vulgar Boatmen know what they loathe. It's clever, middle brow and it has too many notes, says Nick Coleman
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At any one time it's feasible for there to be two Vulgar Boatmen on the go, one in Indianapolis, the other in Gainesville, Florida. The Boatmen are one group with two bodies; two units with a variably common membership. They share two viola players, two singers, several guitarists, any number of drummers and a double-headed, trans-continental songwriting team that matches their efforts according to taste and, presumably, convenience. The only fixed thing about the Vulgar Boatmen is that they know who they're not.

But more of that later. The group who sneaked into England recently to appear at London's Splash club and on Later were a typically composite Boatparty, led by founder members Robert Ray and Dale Lawrence. They plugged in, frowned a fair bit and sang quiet-ish songs about encounters between people. Not sex. Not love as such. But the trials of courtship and romantic palpitation. They went over as well as any group can who sound a bit like first-album Modern Lovers and sing songs about walking around in the middle of the night worrying.

Robert Ray, who is in his late-forties and professor of English and film studies at the University of Florida, is doubtless all rock 'n' roll on the inside. He's tall, etiolated, square-featured and lacking only patched elbows for the full-on seminar look. His writing partner Dale Lawrence, mid-thirties, has the pointy hair but leaves it at that. For popsters they'd make good theatre critics.

"In pop," says Ray, hunched with authority, "sound is more important than words. Pop music registers at the level of sound before it registers at the level of anything else."

When the Boatmen record - and there's a new album out this week on Blanco y Negro called OppositeSex - they do it at Ray's place in Gainesville. They take their time. As the professor puts it, there's an analogy between recording and writing, in which "the advantage in writing over speaking is the possibility of revision. Same thing goes in performing and recording music. If you lock yourself into a studio with a three-week time limit at a huge rate per hour, you've eliminated the single greatest advantage to writing, because you don't have the time to revise. You can't go back and do things again, unless you're the Beatles. Most bands at our stage just don't have that privilege. We're lucky. We can take our time and get our sound right".

The Vulgar Boatmen do sound right, too. If their songs are oblique events inscribing the subtle shifts of feeling in an averagely confused guy, then they have the guitars to do the job: warm, thin, simple, studious, and faintly inhibited. You won't find yelling distortion on OppositeSex, partly because it wouldn't suit the songs and partly because "distortion has become a grunge cliche".

The Boatmen have a keen sense of their provenance.

Ray: "Some of my favourite records are not distorted. Bo Diddley's 'Hey, Bo Diddley', which is massively tremeloed but not distorted; Eddie Cochrane records, which are mostly acoustic guitars with an underlay of undistorted guitar; and I really like the guitar sound on 1969, the live Velvet Underground album, which is mostly not distorted apart from some of the lead parts."

They also seem keen to be sure of the things they're not.

"Well, yes." Ray settles forward in his chair, hands spread. "Inevitably you have to be a little self-conscious if you're playing pop music at this late stage in pop history. One of the standard moves of invention is contrast, by which I mean that you push off against something that you don't wanna be. I think of the French New Wave film makers: they didn't want to be what Truffaut called the 'tradition of quality', which was the big literary adaptations which were being made in France at the time. Similarly, the Surrealists did not want to be realistic novelists. The first thing Breton said was, he hates description, so he pushes against that. At the moment we don't wanna be grunge."

What did they not want to be when they started, a dozen years or more ago.

Ray: "In 1982, in the Deep South where I lived, I did not want to be Lynyrd Skynyrd or the Allman Brothers. And I didn't want to be Tom Petty."

Lawrence: "At that time I was in a midwestern punk band called The Gizmos. This was the time the punk sensibility was turning into Hardcore which, it seemed to me, was turning into Heavy Metal, losing all sense of a beat or melody. Melody was always vital to punk."

Ray: "It's perhaps worth pointing out at this stage that Dale also always had a big animus against Progressive Rock. Yes, Genesis, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Steely Dan. That sort of thing. I don't wanna sound like a snob but Progressive Rock sounds to me ultimately middle-brow. It misses the high end of the spectrum, which would be Irving Berlin, Thelonious Monk and, er, opera or something, and it completely misses the low end, which would be John Lee Hooker. It lodges somewhere in between, and I'm willing to stake everything I believe in on saying that Emerson Lake and Palmer were wrong; that this was a wrong direction for pop music to take. Terrible lyrics, you can't dance to it, it's no fun to listen to - it's ... it's crap."

Ray composes himself.

"It's also wrong because it's not progressive; not progressive in the following sense. The middle-brow sensibility always associates difficulty with quality - the more difficult something is to do the better it must be. But the whole history of the avant garde arts since the 19th century is about making things easier. That's what Surrealism is all about: automatic writing and so on: procedures to facilitate and democratise things.

"The hardest course I ever taught was on Mass Culture and the Avant Garde to honours students, who were the virtuosos of the academy and therefore prized difficulty above all things. And these people absolutely despised the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol. They despised them because, as they said, anybody could do that; anybody could play those songs; anybody could silkscreen a picture of Elizabeth Taylor or Marilyn Monroe.

"They loved Norman Rockwell, because it looked difficult to do. They loved it. And their favourite band was Rush, because Rush had obscure lyrics and lots of tempo and key changes; because they were superficially difficult. And they prized that because for them it reflected their own status as honours students. Speaking for myself, I can't think of anything worth doing that's too easy." Ray smiles, sits back, rests his case.