Any heat is bearable when you’re near a body of water. That was Meredith Metcalf’s thought sometime in the scorching summer of 2004, when she was talking to Jessie Conklin, her best friend and the drummer in a new band she and her husband had formed. The band had been named Death of the Unicorn up to that point, but the image of refreshing, sparkling water seemed more apropos, especially for a band whose joyous, spiritually-charged, and multi-voiced songs were just beginning to take shape.
Now, three years later, the band has just released its debut full-length, titled Ears Will Pop & Eyes Will Blink. It is, indeed, aptly named, an almost overwhelming blend of soaring vocals, off-kilter melodies, and the sort of mad, dancing-in-the-streets energy of a Cecil B. DeMille production number. Comparisons to Polyphonic Spree get to the intricate counterpoints, and references to Danielson Family try to pin down the explosive, spiritual energy of the record. Yet, really, Bodies of Water is its own entity, channeling the rhythmic complexity and vocal pyrotechnics of 1940s gospel quartets and the elated experimentation of Tropicalia.
It’s a band of many contradictions, grounded in Christian tradition and faith, but without any overt religious references in the lyrics. It has a weird combination of outsider-ish naivety and extensive formal training. Three of four members had never been in a band before, and two of them had never played their instruments, but the leader and main songwriter, David Metcalf, had been playing classical piano since the age of four.
As a band, Bodies of Water began in the early ‘00s, shortly after David and Meredith got married. “We kind of started out recording songs on our computer at home a few years ago,” said David. “We did that for a while and we decided to make a band so that we could play shows and actually perform the songs that we had recorded. So we asked two of our good friends to play with us.” Kyle Gladden had been one of Meredith’s best friends in high school, where the two of them had cut gym class to talk about Led Zeppelin and other classic rock giants. Conklin was a friend of friends who had never played the drums before.
They began fooling around, playing songs, developing the band’s signature, everybody-sing-at-once sound. By 2004, they had begun to play some shows. At the end of 2005, they released their first EP. It was originally intended to be a full-length CD, but the band was only happy with a few cuts. They tried again to make the CD in early 2006, but again had trouble; a producer dropped out and the band lost all the tapes from these sessions. Finally later in 2006, the third time out, they cut a full album at a garage studio with producer Adam Siegel.
David believed that all that practice was ultimately good for the record, giving the band time to hone its sound in live shows and learn enough about recording technology to make the most of studio time. “Playing in a recording environment is a really different way of thinking about what you’re doing. It’s a skill that you’ve got to practice, and I think we had it down when we went in to do it. It went really fast,” he said.
Fast and well, apparently. Even before its release, the album began to draw enthusiastic notices in the blogs. Said the Gramophone wrote, “Bodies Of Water have cultivated (as in, grown from mere seeds) an album of almost unbearable beauty. Ears Will Pop & Eyes Will Blink is a fantasy painting of a landscape lush, wide and foreign, an epic journey, a heroic undertaking, an accomplishment.” Richard Gehr in Paper Thin Walls opined, ” Contrasting sections nestle against one another, waterfalling harmonies echo such classic SoCal harmonizers as the Beach Boys and the Association, the godspell horns work their magic, and the ears of your ears awake. Can I get an amen?”
Gospel quartets and body imagery
The reviews focused on Bodies of Water’s distinctive, multiple-vocal sound. If Ears Will Pop doesn’t sound like most indie pop records (and it doesn’t), that may because it mines an unusual combination of influences, primarily mid-20th century gospel quartet music and Tropicalia.
David Metcalf explained that he first heard the Swan Silvertones, one of the pre-eminent gospel quartets, through the LA Times, where a review of a reissued record was linked to a phone recording bank that played a 30-second clip of “Sinner Man.”
“I kept listening to it over and over again. Maybe it blew my mind. I don’t know,” Metcalf remembered. “It seemed mysterious to me. I really liked blues like Son House and Robert Johnson and that kind of stuff. And it was kind of tangentially related to that stuff.”
He began seeking out gospel quartet music in the mid-1990s, coincidentally just about the same time when many of these groups’ albums were being re-released. Metcalf says that the small ensemble gospel music of the 1940s and 1950s particularly appealed to him, for three main reasons. “I like the intensity of it and especially the stuff from the early 1950s. It was sort of like de rigeur for everybody to work their way into these breaks. That were really kind of rhythmic shouting that builds into a really intense emotional release,” he said.
“But the second thing I liked was the counterpoint and interplay between the singers, the way that they could sing together, intuitively,” he said. “Generally they were all on the road constantly and singing together every day. It’s beyond being really tight. They knew how to anticipate what everybody else was doing.”
And, finally, Metcalf says that the lyrical content attracted him as well. Metcalf had grown up in a religious environment, but not one that nurtured this kind of music. “It was a different way of thinking about faith as it relates to music,” he said. “It was a different expression of that than the one I was exposed to when I was young.”
Metcalf said he preferred the quartet style of gospel with its intricate rhythms and complex four-part harmonies, to the larger ensemble style still practiced at many African-American churches. At one time, he attended a House of Prayer Church in nearby San Luis Obispo, but he and Meredith now go to a Mennonite Church. And, though the music is very different, it also has some similarities. “It’s funny, though. In a roundabout way, I went from this House of Prayer Church to a Mennonite Church and they’re both like all about singing together, but in real different ways,” he said.
Both Metcalfs are religious people, but you will hunt in vain for Bible verses or overt Christian symbolism in their music. There are, however, a lot of images of the human body—hands, faces, eyes, and ears—which may remind you a bit of certain gospel traditions. (Like “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands,” to state the obvious.)
“There’s a whole tradition of corporeal imagery in Christianity that really resonates with me,” David Metcalf said. “It’s an immediate way of understanding your place in the world, the way that you physically exist in the world. To see how you relate to god and the world.” He adds, “They relate very naturally to the theme of this record: the relationship between the physical and the metaphysical.”
Tropicalia’s sunny vibe
The other main touchstone for Bodies of Water is Tropicalia, the late 1960s Brazilian movement to blend traditional music and arts with technology and modernity. David Metcalf said that it was the unstudied exuberance of music from bands like Os Mutantes that inspired him the most.
“I feel about Tropicalia the same way I feel about—I don’t like the term but—outsider music like Song Poems and the Shaggs,” he said. “I love listening to that stuff because it kind of takes the pressure. You realize that, ‘I really like listening to this Daniel Johnston song. The recording is shitty and he can’t play his little organ very well, and he’s off-key, but it’s rad.’ It kind of reminds you that that’s not really what’s important.”
David, like the musicians of Os Mutantes, has extensive classical training. He took piano lessons from age 4 to 14, and when it comes up, Meredith interjects, “He plays the piano beautifully.” Yet his music, like that of Os Mutantes, sets that training aside to some extent and revels in more primitive sounds. Describing Os Mutantes, Metcalf said, “There are these passages that are really exquisitely orchestrated and thought-out and really composed and then they will break into some crazy wah guitar that is ten times louder than anything else. You kind of hear it first and you cringe. You’re like, ‘Whoa, what are they doing. That ruined the song.’ But then later you really love it.”
Voices as instruments
Bodies of Water is still very much a work in progress, with the band continually evolving the way it writes and records songs. David Metcalf began the project writing nearly all the parts to all the songs. Now he says that individual members will often develop their own parts, once he’s brought a song in. That’s a big step up for Meredith Metcalf, who had never played a keyboard before joining the band, and for Jessie Conklin, who had never sat behind a drum kit.
“At first, I started playing the organ just because I needed something to play while I was singing,” Meredith explained. “But now I actually enjoy playing an instrument and using that to make the music better. It’s fun. I never thought of myself as inclined that way.” She added, “Jessie, too, she had never played the drums, but she could dance. So we said, we’ll ask her to play the drums. She really has an amazing intuition when it comes to rhythms. She brings this really strange stuff. People who are amazing drummers are blown away by her because it’s like that outsider thing. She kind of does what feels right and she comes up with great stuff.”
Yet their very unfamiliarity with their instruments may contribute to the band’s unusually vocal-centric sound. The songs are often embellished with wordless vocals and one-word shouts and whoops that act like orchestration ... without the need for a full pit band. For instance, “Here Comes My Hand” has a dense and sort of thrilling series of “whoo-ooos”, which Meredith explains as follows:
“A lot of times, the stuff like the “whoo-ooo” were places where we would hear other instruments in our heads,” she said. “We would say, ‘Oh that would be fun if it was a violin!’ So we’d all sing it, and then we’d just kind of leave it like that. So a lot of it actually stems from the rest of us not have our instruments be our voice. Or there might be a place where normally you would have a horn sound going ‘Blam, blam’, instead we’ll have Jesse and I scream out a word. It kind of has the same feeling with human voices.”
Bodies of Water just finished a month-long residency at the Echo in Los Angeles, playing every Monday night with friends from other bands. They’re working on plotting out a tour for the summer, though no dates have been set. “We’re just kind of hoping ... it would be great if we could tour with a band that was kind of like us, maybe?” Meredith said, hopefully. Asked just how many bands are there that are kind of like Bodies of Water? She retreated a little, “Well, maybe not a heavy metal band or something like that.” Meanwhile, there’s the full-length, out July 24th and available through Bodies of Water’s web site.