from Puncture, summer 1996
“Can you smoke in there?” is the first thing she asks when we meet outside a small Middle Eastern cafe in the Harvard Square section of Cambridge. Today is one of the first spring days the area has seen after the longest winter in many locals’ memories, and Thalia Zedek arrives on her bicycle dressed in a ragtag assemblage of trift-store finds. Assuming we’re in a neighboorhood too liberal to deny even smokers free reign, we go in and find a corner table at some distance from the piped-in sound of snake charmer’s horns and ouds. Thalia produces a pack of Old Glory cigarettes, and proceeds to burn five of them during our hour together. I say “burn” because I don’t remember her taking a drag off any of them–only her lighting them, and the way they look held by her fingers, adorned like her wrists with heavy silver jewelry. Many things on Zedek’s person are designed to draw attention, but it’s her pale blue eyes that captivate me the most. Leveled from beneath a shock of fashionably unkempt hair, her gaze is penetrating but earnest. Answering questions, she seems to ponder every word, looking directly into my eyes as so few interviewees do. She is intense yet personable, “a sweetheart,” as her publicist told me, but one who obviously takes no shit. When I ask her if she’s experienced any problems with being the music industry and with being gay, she responds, “I don’t know if I’ve experienced any, but if I do, fuck ’em! If they have a problem they’ve never said it to my face. I don’t know what they say behind my back.” I like her already.
Having just returned from a six-week European tour backing former Dream Syndicate leader Steve Wynn, and due back there in ten days for a five-week tour with Come in support of their new album Near Life Experience, Thalia doesn’t look like someone who’s been living out of a suitcase for a month and a half. “It was my first time (touring as a supporting musician). I had a feeling I’d like it and I really did. I love playing guitar, and it was a good chance for me to concentrate on my playing. I didn’t miss singing at all.”
Zedek and Wynn met in the early ’80s when Zedek’s then-band Dangerous Birds opened for the Syndicate. Ten years later, Wynn, still a fan, played phone tag with Come for a year, trying to arrange their stint as his backing band. The outcome was Melting in the Dark, an album Wynn penned with Come in mind. “He was looking for a sloppier sound,” Zedek grins. “Don’t know if that’s a compliment…”
NOT STARTING OVER
Midway through negotiating the logistics of recording with Wynn, a bomb fell on Zedek and bandmate Chris Brokaw: the rhythm section of Come gave notice. “It was a total shock,” Zedek recalls. “There was never an discussion! No ‘this is bugging me,’ no ‘can we change this,’ just ‘we’re leaving.'”
Arthur and Sean’s reasons seemed more personal than professional: Arthur’s problems with Come’s sometimes relentless touring schedules, Sean’s desire to move to New York with his girlfriend. “In other bands (I’ve been in), the breakups were messy and everyone hated each other, but Arthur and Sean have been really supportive of me and Chris doing stuff. Since they left, we’ve done a couple of shows with keyboard player Deb Feinberg, and Arthur and Sean showed up for those.”
Although the two dropouts agreed to complete the Steve Wynn record, their announcement left Zedek and Brokaw dumbfounded. But Zedek recalls, “Chris and I never even thought about not playing. We never even considered not doing another record.
“I was sick of changing band names. I wanted Come to be my last band. How many times can you start over? I’ve been in so many bands, I’ve seen so many people come and go. I felt like I’d wasted a lot of time between bands. And I need to be less dependent on other people, because people come and go, get married, their lives change. If I want to do this, I can’t depend on someone else’s whim. I’ve thrown away so many good songs because people didn’t get along and a band combusted, and I’d feel I could never so a certain song again. I mean… Come is my fifth full-time band.”
AN INSTRUMENTAL JAM
Thalia can’t remember a time when she wasn’t into music. “When I was a kid I used to play little games. I’d sing songs over and over in my head, and after a while I didn’t have to sing them in my head–I could hear them, like big orchestras playing them. I liked to mess around with music in school–I was in the recorder choir.” But recorders seemed the limit of the sponsorship Zedek’s parents would bestow on their daughter. “They weren’t supportive of me at all until maybe the last seven or eight years. When I was fifteen or sixteen, my father forbade me to buy an electric guitar with my own money, that I’d earned!
“I was stubborn, though: I bought it anyway. I don’t think that I fit their idea of a musician. I wasn’t a prodigy or an amazing instrumentalist. I think they thought I was deluding myself.” Her older brother also played music. “We played together sometimes. He was in a couple of bands, though he didn’t take it as seriously as I did. That’s what freaked my parents out: I really wanted to do it–to play all the time.”
DROP OUT, TUNE UP
Thalia’s strong feelings for music drew her to join White Women, her first “real” band, when she migrated to Boston in 1979 from the Washington, DC area, supposedly to go to college. Her interest in education waned fast, but the feelings for music persisted. With White Women, Zedek picked up vocal duties for the first time: “I always wanted to sing, but thought I couldn’t.”
After much local playing-out, she left the band to join the new-wavy, all-women Dangerous Birds, whose single and scattered compilation tracks on prolific Boston label Propeller raised indie-rock eyebrows.
Not until the mid-’80s, however, did Zedek become involved with Uzi, the first band to indicate the dark, turbid direction much of her music would later take. With an inner sleeve that read like a Boston rock who’s who and an insert by Steve Michener (ex-Big Dipper), it was produced by Lou Giordano. While with Uzi, Zedek first met Gerard Cosloy, then of Homestead Records (now with Come’s current label, Matador), who released the band’s debut EP just in time for them to break up. Cosloy would release records by both Zedek’s future bands.
TALE OF TWO CITIES
From the ashes of Uzi, Zedek was drawn to New York to pursue yet another band. “Live Skull asked me to join because they wanted a singer,” she recalls. “I wrote some stuff and recorded an album with them while I was living in Boston. I was going back and forth between New York and Boston. I decided to move since I was traveling so much. An apartment and a job sort of fell into place, and I got my tax refunds. It was one of those things.”
Following a few records and some drug problems, Live Skull disbanded and Zedek returned to Boston. “In New York, I had no job, no apartment, and things weren’t going great. I’d moved there to be with Live Skull, but it’s a hard city to live in if you don’t have your shit together, which I didn’t. Boston was like a refuge.”
Plans were already brewing in Thalia’s head, however, before leaving the Big Apple. “I’d met Chris (Brokaw) and played with him before I moved to New York, and we’d talked for a year about how one day we were gonna start a band. After Live Skull broke up, I called him and told him. It was in the back of my mind when I returned to Boston. Not even that far back.”
Two albums later, Come found themselves two members short as they prepared to record Near Life Experience, their most experimental, perhaps most powerful record so far. After a two-month delay occasioned by their former European label Beggar’s Banquet deciding to drop the band days before they were scheduled to hit the studio (they’ve since been picked up by Domino in Europe), the album was recorded and mixed on a tight budget in a mere seven days in four cities, with input by 11 different musicians.
Laced with stabs of static, piano meanderings, and an occasional trumpet solo, the album shows Zedek and Brokaw making up for their rhythm section’s departure by extending the songwriting to include effects from a broadened pool of people and sounds to work with. “The experiments arose because Chris and I had worked out the songs, knowing there’d be other elements, but not able to map it out until we heard what the bass player and drummer would do.”
Come, with songs worked out in live performance, then recorded in more polished form, the two only had a notion of how their rough musical sketched would turn out with different musicians playing along. “It was really interesting for us, since we had never played the songs with a band before,” she recalls. “Not only was it the firs time the new musicians had ever heard the songs–it was the first time we had ever heard them with bass and drums.”
The backing band, if they can be called that, were a group of friends and musical acquaintances of Zedek and Brokaw, including Bundy Brown (ex-Tortoise, Gastr del Sol), Mac McNeilly (Jesus Lizard), Tara Jane O’Neil (Retsin, Sonora Pine, ex-Rodan), and Kevin Coutlas (Sonora Pine, Rachels, ex-Rodan). “We had never really played with any of these people, so we didn’t know how it was going to come out. We only had time to rehearse with them, like, twice, then go into the studio,” Zedek muses. “We had songs, but we didn’t expect to get more than an EP’s worth of material.” In the event, the band surprised themselves: the wound up recording ten blistering tracks, eight of which comprise Near Death Experience.
CHRIS CROSSES OVER
Two songs unfold an added surprise with Chris Brokaw leaping forward to share the vocal spotlight. “I like bands with more than one vocalist and I like his singing,” Zedek says. “The way it came about is, he wrote a couple of songs I couldn’t relate to lyrically even though I liked the music. I was struggling for words. Chris was more connected to those songs.” And she added, he felt he should do more, now that just two of them were left in the band.
“Secret Number” and “Shoot Me First,” the two songs on Near Life Experience that showcase Brokaw’s vocals, suggest a cross between the flat delivery of Beat Happening’s Calvin Johnson and a less furious Thalia Zedek. Musically, Brokaw displays a somewhat drier style, with hairpin guitars giving way at times to fuzzy fury, while lyrics address drug addiction in the former and washing an ex out of you hair in the latter.
For now, Come will continue as a duo. “We’re into making a looser, more flexible thing,” says Zedek. “Maybe this first album as a duo will confuse people, but then they’ll see Come as a group who are always changing, with me and Chris at the core. I’m cynical now about the idea of permanent band members and the ‘four-piece rock band’ concept. Nothing is permanent. I’m sure there’ll be a time when Chris and I aren’t playing together anymore–but for now, the two of us are one the same wavelength.”
THE HARDER YOU HIT
Near Life Experience is endowed with all the breathless angst one would wish for from Come; its sharp, meaty guitar arrangements are underscored by turbulent, pummeling rhythm tracks, and Zedek’s seared growls infuse the parts with maximum passion. Moving between the lonely sound of minimal instrumentation and myriad layers pulling in different directions, Come’s songwriting is thick with complexities without being overindulgent. It inhabits a dark, disturbing realm, singular in its emotional tension and force. Come’s music makes you feel.
The songs are lined with Zedek’s raw gravelly howl in deliciously pained verbalizations of vicious and complicated emotions. Kicking off with “Hurricane,” Zedek fills end refrain with a chorus of “Stay way from my love/The closer you get/The harder I hit you,” with her characteristic juxtaposition of violence and romanticism. But she defends the lyrics from any assumptions that they’re autobiographical.
She points out the “inherent sexism” according to which “if a man (say Leonard Cohen or Nick Cave) writes a moody, angry ballad, well, they’re a writer. But is a woman writes dark music it’ll e assumed not hat she’s an artist but that she’s fucked up. Not that she has a craft or choices, not that she’s a musician: no, is she writes stuff like that, she needs therapy.
“Our melodies are more toward the melancholic side,” she admits. “It’s more a matter of taste than that we’re morbid, depressed people. That’s the kind of music I like to listen to. Those are the kind of movies I like to watch. Those emotions mean more. Anything with any depth is not going to be happy: they’ll be more emotion, and that kind of music makes me feel good. We’ve been described as depressing; but if the songs were depressing, I’d never wan to play them.” Nor, in that case, would we ever want to hear them. Yet we do. Repeatedly.