Being an indie rocker isn’t that glamorous. There are no stadium tours, no throngs of groupies, no elaborate parties on the tour bus. It’s more like tiny clubs, a geeky guy in the corner who wants to tell you about his addiction to The Sims video game, and a van that smells like sweaty socks and resin. You’re lucky if your record is in stores. There’s barely enough money to survive on. Ramen is a tour staple. And when you get home you work temp jobs to pay rent.
Jeff Gramm is about as unglamorous as they come. His band, Aden, has released three records in the last four years. And even though each one gets critics all hot and gooey, there’s no way the group will ever end up in the Top 40—though it would be a better world if they did.
Hell, Gramm isn’t even sure what he does at his temp job. “It’s just like a … well, I’m not sure the nature of what they do,” he says, a little dumbfounded. “Basically, I occupy a desk and a computer. It sucks.”
But it’s what you have to do to play music. Gramm is more than content to live the life for the moment. “I know there’s no real financial prospects for this band, so eventually I’ll have to go full time and think about a career,” Gramm says. “I’m just not ready for that yet.”
Hopefully he won’t be ready for awhile. Aden’s chief songwriter, Gramm plays the role of musical manic-depressive perfectly. While his weepy voice makes him sound like a jar of Valium away for normalcy, his lyrics are flighty and occasionally goofy. For example, “(Everything is Fine at the) House of Klein”: “Uncluttered sidewalks and tree, some parking five blocks from a nice grocery/Maybe 5,000 CDs on custom-made shelves filed from A to Z.” Not really contemplative or subjective stuff. The rest of the song is the same—Gramm basically taking his fans on a musical tour of his favorite record store. Maybe there’s something deeper going on; it doesn’t really matter. Gramm has packed in enough slight hooks and hummable melodies that you could care less what it’s all about. It just sounds good.
It’s what separates the group from other indie starlets like Belle & Sebastian or Elliott Smith. All three walk the same path: Shy-guy pop with roots firmly planted in Paul McCartney’s organic garden. But Gramm inverts the standard depression-disguised-in-happy-go-lucky-hooks formula. While Belle & Sebastian’s frontman Stuart Murdoch comes off like a bummed-out sex addict and Smith can be just plain mopey, Gramm keeps his tongue firmly planted in cheek, never forgetting to have a little fun.
The rest of the group is the same way. On Aden’s current disc, Hey 19 (TeenBeat), guitars bounce and play like a pair of puppies, only occasionally settling down when the moment is right. The rhythm section always keeps things tight, even when Aden is off messing with some odd 7/8 time signature. Songs like “Dear John” and “(Rock Me Now) Rockulator” have a slight punky flavor. “Gulf Coast Lounge” comes off as Gramm’s sleepy take on the Beatles’ “Blackbird.” And “Country Bar in the City” is perkier than a Playboy bunny.
But Gramm admits that sometimes people just don’t get it—writing Aden off as a shoegazer group or labeling them as fey (for those without a dictionary, that means spellbound) just because of his voice. “It’s frustrating, because sometimes we get labeled as this slow core band,” he says. “Not to knock the praise we’ve gotten just because I don’t like the flavor of it, but it’s kind of inaccurate. Plus, I don’t think anyone really likes being called fey.”
Yet even though Aden sticks out from the pack, Gramm is more than aware that the chances of the group ever becoming something other than a hobby are slim to none. Sure, Aden is on a label that attracts indie-rock diehards, TeenBeat Records. And the band always plays to solid crowds. But by its nature, the pop Gramm practices isn’t meant for the masses.
“I think there will always be the occasional band that breaks through, but as a movement it will never happen,” he says. “The only way for groups like us to get big is through the movies, like Elliott Smith and Aimee Mann did, because we aren’t going to get any airplay. And yeah, a lot of emo bands seem to have struck a chord with kids, but I don’t think we appeal to kids. But that’s fine.”
Gramm is going to keep at it anyway, even if some of the other members of the group are already giving in to the workday lifestyle. Guitarist Kevin Barker and bassist Fred Kovey have opted out of this tour. “They have to stay home and work,” Gramm admits. He’s gotten people to fill in. Gramm admits that’s just the nature of indie pop.
“Yeah, they’re bummed out because they can’t do the tour, and it will be bizarre to do it without Fred. He’s been on all the tours we’ve done. But if we couldn’t tour, that would suck more.”
Aden with Brilliant Stereo Mob, Star No Star and V-Vast, Kilby Court, 741 S. 330 West (320-9887), Tuesday March 13, 8:30 p.m.