The Mendoza Line used to live in Athens, Georgia.
You know all about Athens. You know about R.E.M., and maybe even Pylon. And you know how in the nineties, something called Elephant 6 took the whole scene over. Indie kids would refer to it reverently as “The Elephant 6 Collective.”
“We were not part of that collective,” Mendoza Line guitarist and singer/songwriter Pete Hoffman said to me.
Despite its reputation as a place where young artists in the south can find a nourishing, likeminded community, Hoffman had this to say about Athens:
“It was not a place where we were loved.”
I asked Pete why his band didn’t gel with the Elephant 6 gang.
“They were into the Beach Boys. We like the Replacements and getting drunk.”
And with that the Mendoza Line—which along with Pete includes co-singer/songwriters Tim Bracy and Shannon McArdle, bassist Paul Deppler, pedal steel wizard John Troutman and drummer Sean Fogarty—picked up their wares in 1998-ish and moved to New York City, where they are ever-so-gradually building a reputation as one of the best grudgingly-alt-country-Replacements-esque-not-to-mention-heavily-Dylan-and-Chilton-influenced rock bands in the world.
Peter Hoffman talked to me from dowtnown New York, where he was working his day job at a production company (“We do a lot of PR bullshit,” he told me), and “recovering” from the previous day’s protest of the Republican National Convention. We chatted a bit about what makes a good placard slogan, and then I asked him what he thought about the argument that protesting is futile—maybe even worse than futile—because it alienates would-be swing voters who don’t want to be associated with a bunch of nuts.
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” he allowed, “but I think, in this case, being from New York, and on September 11th having looked down my block and seen the buildings on fire—and now to see how incredibly poorly they’ve managed the war on terror, and what a disaster it is—I feel like you can be shrill. You can be a nut.”
The new Mendoza Line album, Fortune, documents a band growing out of its comfy, insular world of 3.2 beer and languid relationships. Now it’s a band who has Something To Say, and that’s arguably cause for concern. After all, one the best things about 2002’s raggedly exquisite Lost in Revelry was it’s time-and-placelessness. It was a languid litany of jealously, drunkenness, and twenty-something ennui, and easily one of the best albums of the ‘00s so far.
For the most part, smart people with good taste gave up on political music after the colossal fade-out and failure of ‘60s. They have left it, for better or worse, to two-chord scream-core punk vegans, who churn out an endless blur of blinkered agit-prop that makes no difference in the world whatsoever. Fortunately, Fortune is not pointless, ear-splitting propaganda. But when Pete explained to me why the band finally decided to get political—now THAT sounded like propaganda (not that there’s anything wrong with that):
“We have always consciously tried to not include politics in our songwriting, but it is at such an outrageous level right now—what incredible bastards these people are—we couldn’t not say something about it.”
He went on, “I don’t think we really understood how much America was hated until we went to Greece and saw signs all over Athens saying things like ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Terrorist: George Bush.’ I mean on every street corner. And locals would tell us stories about how two years earlier there were 25 McDonald’s, and now there’s only two, and there are protests in front of them every day.”
Having just returned from Asia, where a new McDonald or KFC sprouts up literally every month, I earnestly asked Pete why he thought McDonald’s was doing such bad business in Greece.
“Because people don’t want us importing our horrifying culture into their nation,” he said plainly. “And we’re trying to say something about that on our level, and a lot of other people are trying to say something about it on a lot bigger levels, especially like the protest yesterday.”
When speaking, Pete doesn’t bother with the restraint that characterizes his singing. He’s brazen, droll, outraged. And he’s willing to go along with my rather obnoxious request that he interpret the words to one of his songs.
“Pete,” I said earnestly, “You say that the new album has a lot of political stuff on it, but I don’t really see it. Can you give me an example of a song you wrote that’s political?”
“Well, take ‘Let’s Not Talk About It.’ That song is actually about having a conversation with someone who is very near and dear to me, but who basically has only the Fox News view of the world. And it’s basically saying ‘I’d rather stay friends with you than have to talk to you about something that you essentially know nothing about.’”
“I thought it was just a love song.” I said meekly.
“I think in some ways it is a love song,” Pete said, magnanimous in his effort to help me not to feel stupid. “But it’s sort of a different kind of one. It’s saying ‘Let’s not talk about the issues that we are on such different ends of the spectrum so that we can remain friends,’ essentially.”
Those kinds of politics—the kind that exist between friends and lovers—are no stranger to the Mendoza Line, who have endured the kind of personnel changes you’d expect to lead to shoving matches in the studio, if not outright collapse. To wit: the band had been the exclusive songwriting vehicle of childhood friends Hoffman and Bracy for years when, in 1998 or so, Bracy gave his new friend and eventual romantic partner Shannon McArdle a guitar and told her to write a song.
“It was strange,” Hoffman conceded. “It was at a time where we weren’t doing very much as a band, and Tim met Shannon, gave her a guitar, and she started playing.”
“The next thing you know, we just kind of decided Shannon was in the band. And the first song she ever wrote, ‘A Bigger City,’ was on our next album. And I mean it was the first song she’d ever written in her whole life. She’s really good at it, too.”
I agreed with Pete. She is really good at it. But, I told him, her songwriting seems to have gotten more mature on Fortune, and I wasn’t sure I appreciated this new maturity. I liked the rawness and venomous quality of her more emotionally revealing songs.
“Yeah, she definitely has some venom there,” he agreed heartily. “I think that Shannon had a couple of pretty bad years, and now she feels pretty—she’s pretty much the greatest person I know - so maybe she’s cutting back [on the venom] a little bit. These songs on the new record are about different things other than the fact that she wants to, you know, kill her boyfriend or something.”
Toward the end of the interview, Pete and I talked more about the Replacements. We debated about which album was the best. I told him that I’ve always thought Let It Be was their finest.
“Tim has the best songs,” Pete countered, “but it sounds like shit. Tom Erdelyi was basically going deaf while recording it. It’s one of the worst-sounding records I can imagine.”
Then I suggested that Tim Bracy borrows a lot of his singing style from Paul Westerberg,
“I think so. He’s just such a huge Mats fan it’s retarded.”
“That’s why you guys are good,” I said. “You have good taste, and you can play your instruments.”
“You think we can play our instruments?” Pete shot back.
“Reasonably well,” I said. “The lead guitar on Fortune is terrific.”
“Oh that’s JT,” Pete said.
“John Troutman. We call him JT Hotlixxx. That’s with three X’s. He’s responsible, in my view, for a lot of why I think the record sounds really great. At least when it comes to all of the loud and pedal steel guitars.”
“So if you like ripping guitars,” I said, trying to be sly, “then how is it that you don’t like Let It Be the best of the Mats’ albums?”
“I can understand why people think it is there best one. It has all of the elements of what really made the Replacements so great.” He paused. “And then it’s got ‘Gary’s Got a Boner.’”