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Southern Gothic Past Shadows Verbena's La Musica Negra

There has long been something mysterious about the South. Whether it be the gothic, Faulkneresque representations in its literature, the weeping willows of its landscape or its dark past, a uniquely Southern mystique permeates much of the songs on La Musica Negra, the third album by Birmingham, Ala. trio Verbena, set for a May 20 release on Capitol.

"I like the lore of it all," lead singer Scott Bondy said, on the phone from Los Angeles. "Just the storytelling aspect of it. Just the fact that these great stories were handed down from person to person. Just people sitting on the front porch at the end of the day talking about stuff. There's just something mysterious and spooky about the South, I think, that you don't find geographically in other parts of the country."

Bondy said his band's sound — a subfusc fusion of Delta blues, meaty guitar riffs à la Led Zeppelin and sonic experimentalism — feels haunted by a spirit, a tonality, that comes from his hometown, Birmingham. A similar spirit, he said, is reflected in other Southern artists' music — one he mentioned being Chan Marshall (Cat Power).

"She's from a storytelling tradition," he said. "There's just serious darkness, like, if you're brought up in the '40s or '50s in the South, your dad could go to work at the mill or on the farm and come home losing an arm. Those kind of stakes — there's just something so much more respectable about that way of life. I don't know, there's like a sense of honor, or whatever, like in a David Lynchian kind of way. There's also like a really large underside of the iceberg — the darkness of it."

Exploring that darkness in his songs, Bondy has created a timeless rock sound, a sound that he believes has a universal appeal. He said he turns to like-minded artists — such as Lynch, the Coen Brothers and the White Stripes — for inspiration. "Anything...that paints a portrait of [the] America that doesn't exist anymore...," he said. "It's almost like those things are timeless. They're telling stories that you don't know when they're set. That's like our record. Hopefully you can listen to it and you don't know that it's 2003 or 1978 or 1991. I don't think the production really lends itself to any particular year. I don't think the content in the lyrics lends itself to any particular time, so hopefully it will live for a while.

"I think the White Stripes are fantastic," he added. "I just heard their new record [Elephant]. I think he[Jack White]'s an amazing guitar player. They have a thing...[It's] definitely based in something that happened decades ago, but it definitely has something modern about it as well. You could listen to that record, and if you didn't know who they were or when they were from, it would be kind of hard to [know] when they came out. Especially in their lyrics — it's not like they're painting these really literal stories that can be attached to a particular year."

Bondy, who formed his band (initially called Shallow) in high school, has struggled to make it as musician, something he attributes to Birmingham's relative lack of a music scene. Still, he said, while playing gigs in local clubs, the band caught the attention of a journalist.

"There was a writer at the local paper who became our manager, and he knew a lot of publicists and a few other industry employees," Bondy said. "He would send the tapes to the publicists, and then the publicists, if they liked them, would pass them on to A&R people that they knew."

The trio hooked up with Merge Records; an EP, Pilot Part, was released in 1996. Verbena's first album, Souls for Sale, followed in 1997. Soon they attracted the interest of some major labels. Foo Fighter Dave Grohl heard their music and signed on to produce the band's debut for Capitol Records, 1999's Into the Pink. Though Bondy said Grohl's involvement added a certain cachet to the release, it also invited unwelcome comparisons to Grohl's former trio, Nirvana.

"It became frustrating after a while, because as much as we may or may not sound like that band, there are any number of other bands that you could have said that we sounded like just as much — like the Sex Pistols or The Stooges or X or whatever," he said. "It's a selling point for an article to use the 'N' word. Just like Rolling Stone or Spin has a cover with Kurt Cobain every year because they know it's going to sell X amount of copies.

"How in the hell is someone going to call us a grunge band?" Bondy continued, raising his voice. "A grunge band? Would you call the Sex Pistols a grunge band? Grunge to me is Alice in Chains. Mudhoney is not a grunge band, they are a garage-punk band. Labels in general, especially, in America — it's nice to wrap things up in a package so it makes it easy to market and sell to people, and that's the purpose for that. You can't get really too upset about it."

The trio consists of Bondy (who also plays guitar), drummer Les Nuby and bassist Nick Daviston. Daviston is a relatively new addition to the band, replacing former bassist and vocalist Anne Marie Griffin; besides being bandmates, Griffin and Bondy were romantically involved for a period of time.

"She went back to school," Bondy said of Griffin's departure. "We just got to the point where we weren't really getting anywhere.

"When we both started singing together neither of our voices were very distinct. And over time they each became more and more [distinct]. It got to the point where they could stand on their own. It became, I just thought, too much for us to sing together on every song."

For La Musica Negra, Bondy said a musical maturity and sense of experimentation informed the writing/recording process and the band's sound. "It's definitely not polished, it's ugly," he said, laughing. "But, it's like a controlled ugliness, I guess. We're just capable of doing things as a three-piece that we weren't before. There's nothing to hide behind, so it makes it a riskier endeavor."

The album contains some lysergic guitar licks on songs like the rollicking "White Grrls," but also stays true to its bluesy influences on tracks such as "Killing Floor (Get Down on It)." Bondy says the album's title reflected those influences.

"It means 'the Black Music' just because we're basically a blues band," he explained. "Even though some people might disagree with me, I think we are. It also means basically that if you're playing rock 'n' roll music, you're playing black music. There's no way around that. That's the irony about bands like Confederate flag-waving bands like [Lynyrd] Skynyrd and various other bands — just that they're playing a descendent of an art form which was invented by black people. There's no way around it."

But what about a double meaning? Does the title correspond with the album's tenebrous tendencies? The songs certainly explore obsession, doomed spirituality, sin and lust.

"That's secondary, if at all," he said. "I didn't really think of this record as being too dark, especially in comparison with the last one. But, yeah, that might [make sense at times]."

A sense of religiosity is ubiquitous on the album as Bondy questions notions of redemption. Just scan some song titles: "All the Saints," "It's Alright, It's OK (Jesus Told Me So)" and "Devil in Miss Jones." Bondy attributes that to, yes, his Southern upbringing.

"In times past religion has just interwoven in the South into people's lives," he said. "It's not focused on; it's just a part of things. It's just like, you say grace at dinner, or just, in the same way, like [how] people used to be more in touch with nature or something.

"Now, human beings seem to be pretty much disconnected with most things that are earthly or spiritual... [But in the past] by the very nature of their daily lives, they had a farm maybe. So their hands were in the dirt every day, and life was a lot more dangerous, so therefore more valuable, I think."

Verbena are currently on tour. For more information, check out the group's Web site. — Brian Orloff [Tuesday, May 13, 2003]

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