For Against
Photo: Courtesy of the artist via Bandcamp

Dream-Pop Heaven: Jeff Runnings on For Against’s Landmark ‘Coalesced’ at 20

For Against’s Coalesced is an undeniably mature work, softer and less angular than prior efforts, and a culmination of everything they were aiming to accomplish.

For Against
Words on Music
2 December 2002

Coda (n): “A more or less independent passage, at the end of a composition, introduced to bring it to a satisfactory close.”

Codas occupy a curious place in rock folklore. They are superfluousness defined: The artist has said what s/he intended; no need to tack two repetitive minutes onto something that holds up just fine by itself. But can one even imagine Eric Clapton’s unrequited 1970 opus “Layla” without Jim Gordon’s ageless piano outro? Would Grand Funk Railroad’s “I’m Your Captain” be just another album closer without its soaring, therapeutic closing refrain? Or how about 1995’s obscure personal favorite “Drug I Need” by Poster Children, whose thermonuclear finale ranks among the most cathartic passages in rock? Codas may not advance the plot, but like deft character development in a film or novel, they add flavor for flavor’s sake. An uncommon songwriting choice, and by definition a distinctive one.

Codas derive from classical music structure, specifically the notion of discrete symphonic movements. But this is rock and roll, not Beethoven. The fact that vocalist / chief songwriter Jeff Runnings was raised as a classical pianist might therefore explain his most gorgeous and idiosyncratic creation: an entire rock album stuffed with them. Which is merely one aspect making For Against’s Coalesced so extraordinary, and well worthy of celebration two decades removed.

We all know life gets busy, and Jeff can be a tough man to pin down. Label re-release headaches; moving into new digs; even a frightening plunge down some stairs, a la Fight Club. When we eventually hook up, our first topic is a basic one.

Lincoln, Nebraska?

“I grew up in farm country, with no choice but to become obsessed with music,” says Runnings today. “Bands drove through Lincoln back then, and they didn’t stop. But record stores played a huge part, and we had a tremendous one.” In terms of formative influences, he makes the obvious point that being gay and sixteen mattered. A lot. “The way you interpret trauma, some music spoke to us,” he says. “4AD artists like In Camera. I loved the Smiths, Echo and the Bunnymen’s Porcupine, and the Go-Betweens.” He even remembers playing pinball with Grant Forster and Robert McLennan sometime around 1984.

Surprisingly, Runnings found the talent he was searching for right at home. “It was a vibrant scene. The guys were actually right here in Lincoln,” he says – including A-listers like original For Against guitarist Harry Dingman, replacement Steven ‘Mave’ Hinrichs, and drummer Paul Engelhard. Diligently honing his craft, Runnings played with Lincoln native Matthew Sweet during the latter’s early Buzz of Delight days, as well as the dBs’ Chris Stamey. “I realized I can do this and enjoy it,” he shrugs. “Otherwise, why do it at all?”

Like many bands, For Against’s early lineup shuffled and evolved. They began with five members in 1983, then four, then three – eventually settling on Runnings, Dingman, and drummer Greg Hill for their 1987 debut Echelons and its well-regarded followup December. After Dingman and Hill left to form the Millions, Mave and Engelhard joined Runnings for the duration. Today the band gets credit as among the first Stateside acts to mine the British post-punk scene for musical inspiration. “That first record [Echelons] was the only Anglophone album at the time. Everything else was pop and hair metal,” says Runnings. “I love the loneliness of [that music], like a warm blanket in the dark. You can’t see it, but it’s there.” And quite rare? “Yeah – not many bands can achieve that. The Chameleons’ first record managed it (1983’s Script of the Bridge).”

December gets all the press raves, but it was 1993’s Aperture that propelled For Against into what this reviewer considers their creative zenith. Beyond good songwriting, Runnings found a way to infuse his music with tangible depth and vitality, cushioning the oft-bleak atmospherics. “Some people write in linear style, others ramble here and there. I do both,” he says. As for the notoriously impenetrable creative process, in his case it seems the 10,000-hour rule definitely applies. “After writing twenty-five songs, I knew I was getting better. And while collaboration is great, I knew that to get what I wanted, I had to lead the band.”

Shelf Life (1997) delivered precisely that – a haunted, compelling record with uncanny staying power. Ironically, Runnings despised the album’s production upon its release and still does. “I was super disappointed with Shelf Life‘s final mix. Just terrible,” he told last year. “It sounds so small.” Here we must respectfully disagree, as do his bandmates – they still adore the record. Fortunately for all concerned, the exquisitely produced (and written) Coalesced waited on deck to smooth all differences.

Not that it was an easy record to cut, or release. For whatever reason, For Against albums had a habit of delayed publication – parts of Aperture sat in the can for two years, Coalesced for one. Then came the personal issues, to which many of us can surely relate. “I was an alcoholic, and having family problems,” says Runnings. Yet such experiences can often lead to transformative art. Perhaps it’s his classical upbringing, but Coalesced is such an undeniably mature work – softer and less angular than prior efforts, a culmination of everything For Against was trying to accomplish. The record delivers a lilting rhapsody of pain and longing suited to any emotional crisis, yet at the same time fully supportive of recovery. Because in the end, doesn’t recovery and its attendant wisdom make all the suffering worthwhile?

Then there’s Mike Mogis’ production, which given the conflicting opinions about Shelf Life, fully satisfied Runnings. “The studio was adjacent to downtown, and the record took two months to record. Very straightforward,” he says. “I was thrilled with it, and its production. Mave’s guitar is so on, and his variety is fascinating. I could see it all in my head on the piano. Deceptively difficult stuff.”

As for the music itself, Runnings compares Coalesced to a Nebraska cornfield with blue sky in every direction – pastoral and introspective. Indeed, album opener “Medication” may be the most soothing band-aid of a song ever recorded. A shower of chiming guitars envelops insightful lyrics like “Medication comes in different ways”, which we all know it does. Then, just past the four-minute-mark, the album’s first coda begins – ninety seconds of ringing bliss, which in an ideal universe would last forever. Runnings dubs this confident, pacifying dynamic “the waver and pattern of a coda”, plainly invoking the classical-trained pianist of his youth.

Before continuing, the updated song sequence on Coalesced’s new vinyl re-release deserves mention. This is the placement Runnings prefers, in which the title track kicks off Side One. But recall that old nostalgic adage, which holds that the first version of a beloved song is the one we stick with for life? (Kiss’ 1970s concert firecrackers Alive and Alive II come to mind, after which the band’s tamer studio renditions lost their appeal.) Without delving into specifics, this writer much prefers Coalesced’s flawless 2002 song sequence. Perhaps this is a function of spending twenty years with that original arrangement, but it holds nonetheless.

“So Long” follows next, a plaintive romantic lament to somebody specific. But whom? Runnings won’t tell. “Most subjects don’t know my songs are about them. So it might hurt some feelings and cause some rage,” he says. “Though I do sing to myself sometimes. The song ‘Profile’ off Shelf Life is basically about me not having a very good day.” “So Long” boasts a sky-scraping high-wire bridge, plus the excruciating lyric “Nothing this bad / Could ever last so long.” Agony, right? The requisite coda is a mere sixty seconds this time around, but still wondrous.

Forming the heart of the original CD at track four, seven-minute title song “Coalesced” is calm, epic, and insistent all at once. After two short verses plus an aching chorus, the final 2:25 is dedicated to yet another magnificent coda. Like Indiana Jones’ famed boulder, this one hounds the listener over cliffs and down mountain crevasses until cornered. Then the chase continues on Side Two, climaxing with “Love You” – a delicate five-minute instrumental forming its own coda to the entire sumptuous record.

According to Runnings, Coalesced’s recent vinyl re-release brought headaches with benefits. “We entered a verbal agreement, and discussed other merchandise as well. But Cascade drove us crazy,” he says. “You don’t think a record will take eighteen months to get done. But it was as if a meteor hit the pressing plant.” Though at the same time, other qualms were finally resolved. “We re-sequenced it, the way it should have been all along,” says Runnings. “Also, the cover now has reflections on wet streets and leaves, instead of a corn field. [Coalesced] needed to be presented as an autumnal record, not a summer one. But we were in a rush to get it out, and phoned in a sleeve.” One fascinating defect he never managed to fix? Seven tracks instead of eight. “I’m still pissed I couldn’t get one more song out of myself,” he laments. “I wanted another track, but it didn’t happen.”

For Against released two more albums, 2008’s Shade Side Sunny Side and 2009’s Never Been. Along the way Runnings morphed into a professional student, earning a degree in English Literature. Now a pastry chef by trade, he’s seven years married with two cats. His band may have a selective fan base, but it sure is fervent… Any new music on the horizon? “I’ve got a wealth of material written and recorded,” he confides, kindling some serious titillation. “Though we aren’t writing together right now.”

Runnings closes out with a regret one hears a lot in this business – that under different timing or circumstances, their best work might have led to something even greater. “We really hit our stride [on Coalesced]. It was our Porcupine,” he sighs, praising the Bunnymen one final time.

“Could the next album have been Ocean Rain?