"It´s like we´re making a documentary," says singer-guitarist Cinjun Tate of Remy Zero´s novel approach to recording. "Everything we´re seeing, listening to, reading, doing at the time — it all goes into the process." Gorgeous melodies and assertive rhythms make the quintet´s Villa Elaine (Geffen Records) a remarkable study in light and shadow, its 11 songs encapsulating Remy Zero´s tenure at Hollywood´s Villa Elaine, a once-fabled apartment/hotel now down on its luck.
"Icons like Orson Welles and artists like May Ray used to live there," explains drummer Gregory Slay. "But today it´s crackheads, transvestites, street people — and us." Adds bassist-guitarist Cedric LeMoyne: "It still has a beautiful courtyard and an air of mystery. But it´s a broken kind of mystery."
Remy Zero´s previous "documentary," their self-titled 1996 debut, offered indelible aural snapshots of the group´s Alabama beginnings. Cinjun, his brother Shelby (guitar and vocals), Jeffrey Cain (guitar), Slay and LeMoyne served notice of their arrival with lean, low-fi songs conjuring an ambiance that reflected the band´s native rural South.
Rich in mythological and modern imagery, Villa Elaine takes its inspiration from Remy Zero´s sojourn through Hollywood decay. "There´s something about life coming out of the destitute — like a flower breaking through concrete. It´s an image of having existence despite everything," Cinjun remarks. "You start finding myths and stories and romanticizing the struggles of the people around you."
From the power surge of "Prophecy," "Problem" and "Hermes Bird" ("So hold to your permanent bliss") to the elegiac loveliness of "Life in Rain" ("We once had oceans left to fly") and the grandeur of "Grammarye," the album intrigues and challenges the listener. Its range of textures and moods mirrors Remy Zero´s own aesthetic restlessness, their quest for further, deeper means of expression. "Basically, our recordings are reactions to all our transitions," LeMoyne says, "and we keep on moving, changing. We´re like a band of musical hoboes."
Holed up in one large apartment in the Villa Elaine ("Imagine a flophouse with a lot of recording equipment," Slay says), Remy Zero set about making their new music the way they always do — collectively. "It goes sort of like this," LeMoyne explains. "Cinjun might start recording a guitar part or playing drums through a tape machine. Shelby might then sing a melody. Greg could add a keyboard line. Then Cain and I might play some other guitar parts."
Their method is a rarity, a genuine creative democracy. The band builds up their songs, melodies and lyrics, piece by piece together. "It´s the collision of ideas that´s exciting," Slay offers. "There´s always something fresh going on." Cinjun comments: "When you leave your ego aside, you can come up with something so much stronger than anything you´d create on your own." Says LeMoyne: "Think of our writing like this — a conveyor belt of paper constantly moving along, with pencil sketches added to it all the time."
After their own initial recording, Remy Zero entered a series of L.A. studios with co-producer David Botrill (Peter Gabriel, Tool). "David was great, because he lent discipline to our stream-of-consciousness process," Cinjun reports. "He brought the best out of the songs." The band then sent tapes to their favorite producer-mixer, Alan Moulder (Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, Depeche Mode, U2). Impressed, Moulder canceled his two-week vacation from working with Nine Inch Nails to reserve mixing time for Remy Zero. One stipulation: They had to fly to England on two day´s notice. A quick trip to the Los Angeles Federal Building for passports and Remy Zero was on its way — straight from the airport into the studio. Once in London, the band found themselves enchanted by the English capital, so much so that they´re planning to record their next album there.
Raised in various locales throughout the South, the members of Remy Zero met as boys in Birmingham, Ala. "Because the town was so small, anybody different really stood out," Cinjun says. "We naturally gravitated toward each other." In their mid-teens they began making music. "Basically in childhood, that´s when we started," LeMoyne confirms. "Playing, recording — doing things together. Making tapes is how we began," elaborates Slay. "And from that our roles as guitarist or bass player or drummer just happened to evolve. But we all play a number of instruments."
So tight was the band´s early bond that they formed a kind of alternative community, eschewing, for example, conventional high school for home-schooling. As musicians, even from the beginning, they were itinerants, contemporary troubadours moving city to city — Nashville, New Orleans, Montreal.
Along the way, they created, wrote songs, made tapes. And people began to take notice. After Chris Douridas played Remy Zero on his "Morning Becomes Eclectic" show on Los Angeles public radio station KCRW, the group landed a deal with Geffen Records. Remy Zero was released shortly thereafter.
Drawing comparisons to such diverse acts as R.E.M., The Psychedelic Furs and U2, the band opened shows for Radiohead at the latter´s request and packed crowds at L.A.´s famed Viper Room.
Villa Elaine (released Aug. 25, 1998) is the culmination thus far of the Remy Zero experience. It´s a sweeping album full of surprises, off-kilter detail and subtle guitar explosions. With Cinjun´s eloquent lead vocals and Shelby´s distinctive harmonies, the entire record, from the haunting "Hollow" to the bittersweet "Goodbye Little World," conveys urgency and emotive power.
Yet Villa Elaine is also only the latest chapter in the quintet´s story. The one certainty in this band´s future is that they will continue — to create, inspire, moving ahead. As Cinjun says of the moveable feast the band´s shows have become: "The best thing we can do is inspire someone else to do their own thing. Because that´s what we´re about. We do write and play songs, obviously, but in truth, what we really care about is the act of creating."