There are seven people on the stage. They are from Lincoln, Nebraska. They look like a rural school orchestra. When they begin to play, their heads are downcast, their eyes closed. It's a lulling sound, until the trumpet comes in. Then it sounds like a lament. It comes from all parts of the stage.
The words the singer sighs are crystal clear, but too strange to understand. "Our friend has left us like wrecked statues," he sings. "Euclidian minds are our ball and chain." The glockenspiel player, a rangy, open-faced woman, peers into space as if, all these miles from home, she does not want so many people to look at her. The crowd's murmur sounds like crickets. It seems indelicate to clap. But by the end, the crowd are roaring.
Half an hour earlier, Lullaby for the Working Class's two songwriters are sitting on a staircase in a pub in King's Cross, thousands of miles from the back porch where, disconsolate from broken relationships, they first began. Mike Mogis, who has the wearily hopeful look of a young Gene Wilder, added the layers of instrumentation which make their acclaimed albums, Blanket Warm and I Never Even Asked for Light, rich.
He chose instruments he thought were childish, sounds which were never meant to meet: banjos, ukeleles, glockenspiels. Together, they sound delicate, beautiful.
Ted Stevens, more severe, with a crew-cut and spectacles, wrote the lyrics. They are inflected with the results of university studies, references from Hume to Tolstoy; not the usual preserve of what some call a country band. "Every word I put down in a song is intentional," he says. "I may regret some lyrics. But I never put anything in a song without knowing exactly what I mean. I hope they're not scholastic. I hope they're not self-absorbed."
Stevens' father plays the banjo, and he has listened to bluegrass music his whole life. Mogis and his brother AJ (the band's bassist) listened to their dad's country music every day. But their band is not country. Mogis mentions the Tindersticks; Stevens is a fan of Joy Division. "I identify with Ian [Curtis], is that his name? He is a great lyricist. A little sad. But he had true things inside of him."
Mogis and Stevens both went to Catholic schools. Both rejected what they heard there. "I can't even recall the last time I said `Hail Mary', or even went to church," says Mogis. "I was expelled from Catholic school, and that's the last time I went to church, when they made me go. I was an altar boy and all of that, and I never understood it. Since I was expelled from that school, I didn't give a shit."
Both understand the need for religion. But music fills that space for them now. "It gives us something to strive for," says Stevens. "I'm a pretty depressed individual, I've got a lot of problems that religion can no longer solve. Music helps to curb that need. It's a form of consolation." His lyrics remain filled with religious imagery, abused angels. "That's one of the benefits of having it completely ingrained, that you can spit it right back out at them, and say, `What now'."
It is a trajectory, from castigating religion to being snared in it, reflected in the book from which the band take their gently confrontational name, Tolstoy's Confessions. "There's a lot I relate to in Tolstoy's life," says Stevens. "He's self-critical. He's writing War and Peace, and he's claiming he's a bastard and he can't write anything worthwhile. At the same time, there's something that really drove him to greatness. I'm not saying that Lullaby's destined for the same greatness. I don't want to be miserable like Tolstoy, either. I don't want to lose sight of happiness."
What makes Lullaby's music truly their own is the place that they're from. Their records reek of Nebraska, their words hover in its endless sky. "It's a 360-degree horizon," agrees Mogis. "And it's comforting to me, to my eyes. It's what I'm used to. It's what makes me feel good." Do they think of its spaces as they write? "Yeah," Mogis considers. "Because it's wide open, it has this feeling of loneliness. It's a common element in our music."
With their own studio, Mogis and Stevens are at the heart of Nebraska's music community. They still play in noisier rock'n'roll bands, but Lullaby gives them something else. "Some nights, there's as great an emotional release with Lullaby music as I ever had playing rock," Mogis says. "There's more of an adrenalin rush with rock, because you sweat and you pound, and you bleed. Lullaby's a more contemplative release.
"As a band we're discontent with everything we do," says Mogis. "When I was little, I had two goals - to make three records, and go to Europe. Now we've done it, I've got to think of something more."
On stage later, Stevens is dedicating a song to a friend who died, almost weeping. His music is beautiful enough to match the moment. Lullaby for the Working Class are fans of American music before pop began, the maverick lineage that twists through Dylan to Vic Chesnutt. They're shaping up as worthy successors.
Lullaby for the Working Class's single `Hypnotist' and album `I Never Even Asked for Light' are out now on Rykodisc.Reuse content