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Three Indie-Rock Stars Unite As Maritime

For members of '90s indie-rock beacons the Promise Ring and the Dismemberment Plan, uniting under the name Maritime and releasing their debut album Glass Floor is a real new beginning.

Glass Floor, released May 31st on DeSoto, combines elements of Thatcher-era UK pop (XTC, Squeeze, and Electronic) with a healthy dose of indie rock (Pavement, Guided by Voices, the Promise Ring). Former the Promise Ring singer/guitarist Davey vonBohlen and drummer Dan Didier, with help from the Dismemberment Plan bassist Eric Axelson, have fashioned a bright, adult sound while retaining the energy, skill and musicianship of their previous projects.

What makes Glass Floor distinctive is vonBohlen's efforts, supported musically by Didier and Axelson, to convey a snapshot of someone in transition from the carefree times of touring and recording into mature adulthood, a place to which all three band members are slowly adjusting. The album varies throughout, from a mature, contextual perspective — "The King of Doves," "James" and "A Night Like This" — to lighthearted celebration on "Adios" and "Sleep Around," to weary resignation on "If All My Days Go By" and "Someone Has to Die."

VonBohlen acknowledged during a recent interview that Glass Floor is a record focused on the dynamic nature of transition. "This record, lyrically, is a good snapshot of where I'm at right now," he said. "Any honest person can't hide anything. I tried to write lyrics out of somewhat real emotions and feelings that I was having."

The theme of growing up is exemplified on "Sleep Around": "Now The Cars are saying 'Shake it up'/ But I've been shaken up enough/ But I can't live my life like a pop song anymore."

Starting Over

After 10 years and five albums, the Promise Ring broke up in October 2002. Their last album, Wood/Water, on Epitaph's Anti imprint, was not a success commercially or critically. VonBohlen and Didier returned home to Milwaukee, neither sure if they even wanted to continue playing music.

"There was something that made it impossible to continue," vonBohlen said. "The joy sort of left the band, and it had been going on for a long enough time that I think we all felt that our time on this planet would be better served/spent pursuing something else."

Back in Milwaukee, vonBohlen and Didier decided to give music a final try; they got together regularly to see if they still had a passion for playing. "Me and Davey started writing and we just threw things at the wall, basically," said Didier, who also plays organ. "Just to see what stuck. But there wasn't any preconceived notion that we put into this project. We just said, 'Start writing, and whatever comes out comes out.'"

For vonBohlen, too, the jam sessions were illuminating. He still had a need to play music, and the Promise Ring had ended at the right time: "Timing is everything; had the Promise Ring held on for two more years, that probably would have been it for me," vonBohlen said. "Certainly I felt that it wasn't my time to stop writing and playing music. Dan and I took a good amount of time to figure out if it was our time to stop." It wasn't.

Didier and vonBohlen refined the new songs through the latter part of the winter and into the spring, but they still didn't have a bass player. After almost 10 years together in the Promise Ring they weren't going to rush into a new band without making sure the chemistry was right. Then Didier found out that the Dismemberment Plan were breaking up. The members of "the Plan" were moving on in a variety of directions: singer Travis Morrison wanted to go solo; drummer Joe Easley returned to college in Maryland to study aerospace engineering; guitarist Jason Caddell descended into the depths of audio engineering and film scoring. These changes left bassist Eric Axelson without a home, and he planned to seek out free-agent gigs as a tour manager and session player.

Didier called Axelson, whom he knew from their time together in D.C., and asked him if he was interested in laying down some bass lines on a few of the demos he was working on with vonBohlen. Didier and vonBohlen exchanged MP3s through the mail with Axelson, who viewed the project as a way to transition from his old band. "It was more of a session thing for me," he recalled. "They would send the songs and I would fill in the bass lines. Which was kind of fun. It was a good way for me to start weaning myself off the Plan."

Initially, working on the new songs was a challenge for Axelson, whose funky virtuoso bass lines were a key element of the Plan's unique sound. "I tried [my] style on the Maritime songs and it sounded awful," Axelson said. "I was trying to do syncopation, and I was trying to do the notes like I did in the Plan, because that's what I do! Totally screwed me up. I felt like I was a pretty bad player at first. 'I cannot play in 4/4 — why is this so hard?'"

Axelson found that he had to rein in his playing and almost re-learn how to play. "I went out and bought some pop records (The Attractions, the Charlatans UK, South) that I really liked, but I didn't own, and I just listened to the bass and how it was played, what made sense."

Quickly Axelson adapted to the style of the Didier/vonBohlen demos, and the demos began to come together.

With Axelson on board and a solid set of songs ready for the studio, Maritime signed a tentative deal with Anti (home to Tom Waits, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and formerly the Promise Ring). In the summer of 2003 Didier, vonBohlen and Axelson went into the studio with DC music impresario J. Robbins, primarily known as the singer and guitarist for influential D.C. bands Jawbox and Burning Airlines. But Robbins is also an accomplished engineer and producer (Jets to Brazil, Shiner). He'd worked with Axelson and the Dismemberment Plan on both the Emergency & I and Change records, and Didier and vonBohlen on the Promise Ring's Nothing Feels Good, Boys + Girls and Very Emergency.

"He was someone who we both worked with and we all knew and trusted," Axelson said. "I think that the trusting was good too, because if we went with a big-name producer that one of us knew and the others didn't, it would have just been a little bit strange. As a new band starting out, it just worked well."

One thing that Robbins noticed during the Glass Floor recording sessions was that vonBohlen, Didier and Axelson were simply focused on the songwriting process, rather then the final outcome: "I didn't feel any external pressures, which I definitely felt in the case of the Plan's last two records, especially the one that started out on Interscope. Dan, Davey and Eric's confidence in themselves, the songs, and their ideas, made it a really fun record to work on. Everyone was focused on making a great record, period, with no sense of 'stakes' except to fulfill the songs."

Maritime finished the record with Robbins and submitted the finished demo to Anti Records, but the label passed on it. So Maritime shopped the record to a few different indie labels. As they were in the midst of negotiating with one of those, Axelson called an old friend for some advice.

The More Things Change…

In addition to playing bass for Jawbox, Kim Coletta was also co-founder and owner of DeSoto Records, the label the Dismemberment Plan had recorded for. She'd also managed the Promise Ring in the mid-1990s. As Axelson described it, what started as a simple talk between friends quickly turned into an important discussion. "Kim's always been kind of a mentor; the Plan learned a lot from Jawbox. We were talking, and there was this long pause, and I was waiting for her to say something very deep, and she goes: 'Want me to put your record out, Eric?'"

Axelson was confused, and with good reason. Coletta and her husband Bill Barbot, yet another former member of Jawbox, started DeSoto together in 1989, but DeSoto had stopped releasing new music in 2002. Coletta had been following Maritime's negotiations with an indie label from afar and didn't like how they were going. "I felt like [the label they were talking to] was a bad match for them," she said.

"I said, 'Kim, DeSoto's not a label anymore,'" Axelson recalled. "And she said, ‘Yeah, but I don't know, why not?' It was literally that quick."

Coletta remembered that the offer to Axelson and Maritime wasn't something that she had planned. "It really is as simple as it sounds, and it was like, 'Shit, let's just do this!'"

As a result of signing Maritime, DeSoto has signed three other bands: J. Robbins' new project Channels, Doris Henson from Kansas City, and the Life and Times, the new band of Allen Epley, former lead singer for Shiner. During an interview, Coletta stressed that DeSoto was never really defunct: "There were still royalties to be run, bands to be paid. There was a bizarre hiatus because of all the bands breaking up over the course of a year. I had to regroup after every band on the label's roster broke up. For me it was weird. There was really no break."

But Coletta agreed that her conversation with Axelson sparked her to action. "Maritime didn't open the floodgates. It was something I had been considering before I spoke to Eric. It definitely spurred me to quicker action [regarding adding more bands to the DeSoto roster].I didn't want them flapping in the breeze alone — like it's not a real label if you're the only band, sitting there by yourself."

Growing Up

The highlight of Glass Floor is the seventh track, "A Night Like This." The song is wistful and resigned, yet hopeful in its embrace of life, as the narrator gains a delicate perspective on what's really important: "They all smoke inside their sweaters, drinking with their mouths shut/ Money is a disaster if this is what you buy with it/ I take a deep breath, I let freedom ring."

The song is a stretch for vonBohlen. He felt it was a bit outside of his capabilities, so much so that Didier and Axelson had to convince him to include it on the record. "We put it on because I was persuaded by the strings on the song; they add a lot," vonBohlen said, adding, "I felt that maybe it tackles emotions that I have not totally harnessed or grasped yet. It's an uncomfortable place for me, I don't necessarily know why. It still has a certain weightiness to it that doesn't necessarily feel right in my head."

This summer and fall, Maritime are touring the U.S., Japan and Europe. After taking some time off this fall in order for Didier to get married and vonBohlen to have his first child, they plan to get back in the studio this winter to record their second album after a tour of Europe. Didier is looking forward to incorporating Axelson's talents into the initial phase of the songwriting. "It's good, because the way the last record was started it was me and Davey, so I'm really excited to have Eric in from square one on this record," vonBohlen said. "Because that will definitely move the direction of the band elsewhere."

Robbins sees a lot of promise in the new yet veteran group, and is also looking forward to the results of Axelson being involved from the beginning in the songwriting for future recordings. "Davey's songwriting is getting ever deeper, and Dan's conceptualizing of the production is getting more nuanced," Robbins said. "I think Eric brings a lot of the same aesthetic to the band that he had in the Plan, which sort of shakes up the arrangement just enough to make it really interesting. It will be cool to hear what they have worked out now that they have been writing together as a band for awhile — I think Eric was able to bring his approach fully into the creative mix on the next record."

vonBohlen has enjoyed the freedom of the new beginning with Maritime: "One thing that's really good about starting a new band now is that we are able to define the rules of the band," he said. "I think Promise Ring was still living under the rules of the 20-year-olds that formed the band. The Promise Ring was all-encompassing, and if you had anything else to do, you could do it, but [not] in the context of the Promise Ring; 30-year-old people don't have that rule." — Matthew Landry [Monday, September 27, 2004]  

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