Across the Great Divides One Last Time: An Interview with the Mendoza Line
Timothy Braces gives the story behind the band's literal break-up album.
At that moment, watching him descend the stairs, I had this unnerving vision of my friend drifting from bar to bar, from girl to girl, with no kind place whatever to look back upon. I tried to call to him then, but all I could think to say was, “I'd like to cut their fucking hearts out,” and that hysterical imprecation would have given him little consolation.
-- Fredrick Exley from “A Fan's Notes”
That was no one's wedding, baby, that was Pickett's Charge
-- The Mendoza Line
The members of the Mendoza Line weren't my friends, though I suspect that a lot of people who loved their music felt a strong affection for the group that went beyond being a fan. Certain bands you want to keep for yourself and you get angry as new members are added to their audience. But some you don't mind sharing; some you actively talk up and have nothing but positive words for. These are the friends who will stay with you over time. And losing friends like this, even if they aren't your real friends, is never easy. Even if you haven't seen them for years, finding out that you'll never see them again leaves you old and wishing that you'd had more time.
As the joke goes, the Mendoza Line were the little band that couldn't. Or, more correctly, didn't. On the surface, their limits and shortcomings were fully exposed, owned up to by the band themselves. But they believed in them only as much as they created barriers within which they could fully explore. Their sound grew from album to album, the songwriting became even more consistent and sure, and they became adept at walking all kinds of lines; they were political but not boring, they played with the first person without losing a personal connection with the listener, they were down but never out. They were supposed to be building to the album that would put them across to a wider audience. But it never came. By all respects they deserved an oasis, a chance to make an album of laid-back, lazy contentment that shrugged off the duties of carrying the weight of the world. But instead, they fought and scrapped to the end, announcing the release of their final album, the fraught 30 Year Low, in August and ended the group.
As a last statement, 30 Year Low brings the band to a close with an exploration of the same ideas that defined them all along; the struggle of love, the struggle against compromise, the struggle of America's most invisible residents. “I feel like it follows from the somewhat haywire but consistent internal logic of the project,” says the band's Timothy Bracy. “The main themes of the band are iterated and revisited: mortality and aging, personal and socio-economic disenfranchisement, and the role of money and greed as a depersonalizing, destabilizing factor. There is some comedy and some tragedy, and the acknowledgment of what we consider to be our tradition and some heroes that came before us that never really got their due... the late, great, songwriter Jimmy Silva whose song ‘Tell It to the Raven’ we cover. It feels like a fitting enough denouement. I don't think any of us ever really wanted it to end, exactly, but you have to have fidelity to the original idea, or then you start diminishing the existing work. And, I think we knew we completed the mission.”
At eight songs, 30 Year Low is brief but it's thorough and engages you more directly than any of their other efforts. The album is light, though, on the hard-worn optimism and promise of beauty that lifted some of their other work (see the impossibly perfect song series of Bracy and Peter Hoffman's “Williamsburg, Shannon McArdle's “A Bigger City”, and Bracy and Hoffman's “Everything We Used to Be” from We're All in This Alone) and, almost because there's no alternative anymore, sees only loss in love.
The release of the record, with its hard-bitten first-person stories of struggling with age and lovers, came coupled with the announcement of the separation of husband and wife songwriters Bracy and McArdle, which effectively marked the end of the band's twelve-year existence. Features on the record, including ones from the BBC and Billboard (they received a stunning amount of high-profile press over their career relative to their stature), have not danced around the couple's personal problems.
McArdle's responses to the Billboard interview are particularly difficult to read through, as she seems to take the questions head on. “It is very strange and very off putting, I confess,” says Bracy. “I am aware of having contributed to the confusion in a sense, because we wanted to tour a bit on the record -- a sort of farewell tour -- and that was going to be not Shannon and I both. And so to alleviate this confusion I signed off on putting things in the press release about our being separated, so people would not show up and be like 'What the fuck is going on here?' -- and that just took on a whole character I never, ever expected. It's just wrong to assert that these songs are specifically about our situation. They aren't. They're acts of imagination. Some of them predate our getting married, let alone divorced. I get why this occurred -- I don't mean to be disingenuous -- but it is highly uncomfortable, even on the minute scale in which we have been scrutinized. I mean, many of the songs are intentionally funny. I don't think there is anything funny about our splitting up.”
“The release,” he says, “was kind of cobbled together from existing items. It just wasn't this coherent, thematic examination of our relationship. I almost wish it was at this point for all the conjecture, but in fact it just isn't true.” Still, being aware of the very personal events that surrounded the album's creation, it's almost impossible not to read something into songs like “Love on Parole” (“You couldn't make a cup of tea without a battle strategy”), “31 Candles” (where McArdle plays the spurned lover being hastily shown the door and spitting hit and miss venom at the paramour who has dropped her for a younger model), and “Stepping on My Heels (where she comes to the realization of how easy it would be to walk away from music in favor of a family; “I can stop writing lines about myself but I can't stop myself from writing down names”).
Photo: Sonya Kolowrat
“I don't think anyone is 'wrong' to assign any interpretation they want to the songs,” says Bracy. “If the material accrues to something in their experience or reminds them of something and they make an association and this leads them to assert a meaning that was distinct from what we maybe had specifically in mind, well, I mean that's great. That's what's fun about art. I just think it is a very delimiting interpretation to assume that the employ of an I/You pronoun structure in a lyric necessarily means that it is Timothy or Shannon or Elvis Costello or Leonard Cohen or Songwriter X who's perspective is being given.”
More than most bands, the writers in the Mendoza Line were able to take on roles in their songwriting, often to explore political and social issues, without having their writing sink under it's own grand designs. “There are lots of bands with a high fashion aesthetic or this whole kind of fantasia/children's wonderland kind of thing going on; the Flaming Lips or whatever,” says Bracy. “And you know, I guess they're really good, but we just never really gave a fuck about any of that. We just didn't really get into songs about puppets and robots and things. That was just our disposition. We are all politically minded people and this has been such a grotesque and tragic period in the history of our country, and for us, to feel like being a credible part of the cultural dialog, we felt the need to make records that reflected our view of it, that attempted to chronicle it in some way.”
“That's what the artists we most appreciated have always done, from the Mekons to Martin Amis or whatever, and although those waters are creatively treacherous and commercially unpromising, there wouldn't have been any point in our making non-political records. It would have been disingenuous, given our preoccupations and core beliefs about the value of art.” The clearest example on 30 Year Low is McArdle's “Since I Came.” The singer, an illegal immigrant whose husband dies in a farm equipment accident, ponders loss (“My husband dead, without a service, without grace”) and cruel fate (“I haven't had a name since I came”) from her “invisible shack back in the trees,” suffering new lovers, and pregnancy, with the ultimate hope of finding freedom for her children.
These are the first bodies that the band considers. On “Aspect of an Old Maid,” two dead-end lovers re-collide for an uncertain night of passion that means completely different things to each of them. The song is cut through with humor (provided mostly by Okkervil River's Will Sheff's drunken, increasingly cruel and deprecating come-ons), but McArdle takes each one and when she delivers her pay-off line, “It's so hard to know just how to dress for the last days of our life,” she cuts him to pieces. Her words cast a harsh light on the angst and disassociation we've all felt when a relationship that we believed in, no matter how ridiculous it seems in retrospect, dies. Any laughs become uncomfortable at best.
Her songwriting, throughout, takes a lead role. The hooks that she provides aren't always as strong as what she's brought to past albums but she sacrifices them to fit lyrics that are thornier (“Stroke her supple skin, you know she may not fare as well as me; I'm thinking five more years to go”) but that build to lines that aim to get at truths she never hit on as directly. When she plays it straight, she finds brutally simple lines that speak to the real feelings of not knowing what to physically do with yourself when a relationship ends (“It's time we rode in a separate car and stayed in our own place”).
Bracy, who sings on only three of the album's eight songs, has nothing to prove and at his best can already tie his lyrics up in circles without leaving the hook behind, and on “Love on Parole” the Dylan coat that he sometimes wraps himself in has never fit better (“For all of your talk of ending the fray, there's not a part of your heart that would have it that way”).
Bracy follows his lyrics where they lead but always brings them around to sturdy, dead-on declarations (“I could never navigate your body's complex narratives, that which lived and died and lies in state and still suffers its imperatives and anyway, I was never that interested in your heart and soul; I just wanted to see you and make love on parole”). “I think I've come to understand that if the essence of the material is in the lyrics and themes, which with the Mendoza Line it very often was, then you must make decisions with the arrangements which are in service of the material,” he says. “There are very good musical ideas that may need to be diminished or even abandoned, because they are just too distracting. I think for me part of the process of learning record making was to understand that there are a lot of really neat tangents that one could conceivably go on with extra instrumentations, backing vocals, whatever. But for me, and I get this most principally from listening to the Stones and the Velvets I believe, it's kind of the things that you leave out that make the biggest difference. Then, when things DO get sort of baroque, it stands in bold relief and seems incredibly moving. That's kind of my view of it.”
“There are lots of these bands around now that got a million members and a kind of kitchen sink approach to instrumentation and choirs and all this. And there is inarguably a kind of power in that -- the sheer kind of density of sound, the Phil Spector idea. But you know, that's never been my bag. I have, whatever the reason, never felt anything like the affection I do for four or five or six people just playing within themselves as band -- the Faces, Kinks, Who, Replacements, Crazy Horse, Stones and VU. I mean, that sort of thing. That's my wheelhouse.”
Bands, and people, can maybe only cope so long in a state of struggle. What was manageable at 26 becomes increasingly less so with each year you stay immersed in it and 30 Year Low is full of characters grown old before their time. On the Band, Greil Marcus wrote, “So the story is revealed, and concealed, in flashes, dreams, pieces of unresolved incident, rumbles of doubt exiting through a joke. Yet if the music is part of the story, it is also the landscape against which the story takes place. Blurred at the edges and unsure of its center, this America is still a wilderness -- the moral, social wilderness that is left even when the natural wilderness is gone. Excited and intrigued by the place for just that reason, the worried man has to get on without maps.” It's too close to the end to talk about how the individual songwriting talents that made-up the Mendoza Line will fare alone in Marcus' wilderness, but, their story revealed for now, to their eternal credit, they took their chances, stood in there, and never backed away.