Your snobby friend from the coast is visiting for a spell. The talk turns to music, and he regales you with repetitive tales of all the cool bands in his city. Well, St. Louis has a pretty thriving music scene too, you tell him. “Oh come on, man,” he sneers. “What have you guys produced except Uncle Tupelo, who aren’t technically from St. Louis, and that overrated Nelly guy? Who else with any real talent comes from this cow town?” You rattle off a list of names, getting more defensive as your friend smirks and shakes his head. “Never heard of any of ’em,” he says. Listen, check this out, you say, putting on the new Julia Sets CD, Yes-Wave. These guys are really cool. Your friend listens attentively to a couple of tunes, and scratches his chin. “Well, they’ve got possibilities,” he says.
Julia Sets, one of the hardest-working and most artful rock trios around, have had possibilities for quite a few years now, and you get the sense they’re tired of hearing about it. Lots of bands have “possibilities.” But the Sets—lead singer/guitarist James Weber Jr., drummer Kris Boettigheimer, and bass player Kate Eddens—have played countless gigs, recorded several full-length albums and endured a couple of difficult personnel changes. They’ve worked their butts off honing their craft, yet somehow real recognition has eluded them, except among their friends and colleagues at the independent record store Vintage Vinyl, where all three are employed. Scene-watchers who’ve caught some of the exceptional shows Julia Sets have performed over the last few years have waited for the band to catch a break, for something to mark a tangible change in their fortunes and elevate this undeniably compelling outfit to another level. The wait may be over now. The just-released Yes-Wave has the feel of a “coming out” of sorts for Julia Sets. It’s loud, brash, charged up, and well produced. The Sets are ready for their closeup.
“This record definitely feels like the defining moment of what we’ve been trying to get to as a band, in the music, the lyrics, the energy, just all of it,” said James Weber, the group’s leader, who’s blessed with the sort of intensity, charisma and drive that have powered many a classic band through the years. “It’s really our first record where I feel I’ve finally figured out how to write songs. All our recordings so far have in the end been disappointing, but any mistakes here are strong, honest chances, and I’ll take that over perfection any day.”
The band’s previous work hasn’t so much been released as slipped out. Their 2000 debut, The Last One Hundred Days of Julia Sets, had some terrific songs on it, but it suffered from murky sound and non-existent marketing. Their next project, An Alternative to Extinction, had some of the favorite tunes they’d been performing live, but everything about it, inside and outside the grooves, seemed even murkier than the previous outing…in fact, some fans didn’t even learn about it until months after the release. For a year, it was only available on cassette. The band’s PR budget clearly consisted of pocket change. Despite Weber’s compelling stage presence and his growing potency as a guitar player, there was a sense that Julia Sets were capable of so much more.
But last year’s Steel Rails Under Thundering Skies was only available as a download from the group’s Web site, and it seemed like a nervous, scattershot set of tunes (despite some of Weber’s best Neil Young and Crazy Horse guitar playing on “Andromeda 77” and “Letters Just Make Words, Man,” the latter tune a genuine classic). And by this time, the group had gone through several bass players, using fill-ins occasionally for live shows. An aura of uncertainty seemed to surround them, until Kate Eddens joined and a little light began to penetrate their foggy mystique. The band loosened up during a weekly hosting stint at Frederick’s Music Lounge earlier this year. And Yes-Wave, though mostly recorded before Eddens settled in, is a noticeably more confident recording, filled with searing guitar, memorable songs and a thrilling sense of urgency.
“I think from day one we knew that this was going to be the record we’d all be proud of,” said Weber. “Everything about it was so easy, so comfortable. The tracking went quickly and never really bogged down or created frustration. It’s the first record where we really took control.”
“We weren’t overthinking anything this time,” added Boettigheimer. “We were just asking, how good is the sound quality? Dan Freund mixed it; it was good working with him. He was super-conscious of the mastering to begin with. And we were like, this is a good idea! This is how other records are made.”
“Before we ever went in, we demoed all the songs with full arrangements on our own,” said Weber. “Another big key was we all were together in how we wanted it to sound and feel. All those classic ’80s independent records, Let it Be, New Day Rising, all the early American Music Club stuff, those are the records that stand up to us today. They’re the standard we judge our music against, which sets the bar pretty high, unfortunately!”
Weber cites R.E.M., The Cure, and U2 as artists played frequently in his household growing up. He taught himself to play countless songs by those groups, developing a style that he says is impossible to explain to others (“I’m a big believer in just playing the damn guitar. Don’t overthink. Neil Young says, ‘You start to think, you start to stink.’”). Young, naturally, is one of three other artists whose influence was more clearly discernible in Julia Sets’ music from the start, the others being Red House Painters and The Replacements.
“I think any artist has something to learn from Neil Young, regardless of their medium, both from a creative abandon perspective, and his uncanny ability to be fearless, to stare down the good and the bad and the ugly.”
“Staring down” is something Weber does a fair amount of on stage, losing himself in the passion of the performance much as Young does on a good night with Crazy Horse. He’s capable of that same kind of raw, “ragged glory” on his electric, and like Young, seems to meld into his instrument at times. Though the Mark Kozelek influence was more pronounced in Julia Sets’ earlier days, that of The Replacements practically leaps from Yes-Wave’s grooves.
“Around 1994 I went away to school in the middle of nowhere Illinois, and was really just casting about for anything that seemed authentic, as the whole of academia seemed like such a lie,” said Weber. “My friend gave me Down Colourful Hill. Its starkness really hit me. Matt Harnish (former Sets bassist) turned me on to The Replacements, and the place I was, 24 or 25, trying to reconcile the fact that I’m playing rock in a cultural climate where people don’t care so much, it had the same authenticity Kozelek did before. They really taught me everything I needed to actually fucking play music. Abandon, songcraft, an allegiance to rock tradition and the fearlessness to dance on its grave. The need to take your tunes seriously, but not yourself. That flat-out falling on your ass at a show is important.”
Weber integrated the lessons from his influences well, and quickly earned his band the respect of peers and a loyal group of fans, mostly through a steady series of gigs in the St. Louis area that, despite the periodic sound problems and off nights, were seldom less than entertaining, and were often downright incendiary. But there were plenty of bumps along the road.
“When Matt quit the band, I went through an ugly couple of weeks, where I really didn’t know if I was wasting my time,” said Weber. “I was 26, working at a record store, and playing in a rock band. My bank account hit zero every month. Finally I decided to just do it, and ever since, the music has been somehow different. Completely rewarding, an end in itself. Now I’m more excited, more hopeful and trusting of these songs every day.”
Weber and Boettigheimer have been the solid core of the band from the start, but there was a sense that a vital piece was missing, one that appears to have been filled now by Eddens. The band’s whole attitude seems to have shifted, and with it, all those “possibilities” are now within their grasp, one suspects.
“Kate brings so much energy. She’s one of those gifted people that knows how to listen to music and jump in fearlessly. It’s incredible to me that she was able to get up on stage, knowing nothing about bass! From the first practice, we thought, Oh, this is nice. There’s something besides three people here.”
Although Eddens was still learning when sessions got underway for Yes-Wave (bass duties were ably handled by peers such as Jason Rook of Wormwood Scrubs and the Love Experts’ Steve Scariano, also a Vintage Vinyl co-worker), the more energized attitude and improved sound are noticeable right away. There’s an economy of purpose on the disc; things move along briskly and confidently. Weber’s crunching guitar work has never sounded better: stellar moments include the concise, muscular “w/Drum Major Instinct” (preceded by a short little whistled bit that seems to evoke the merrier mood in the studio), the thrilling “Knox College Natural History Collection”—a riveting rocker that alternates between early R.E.M. jangle and fuzzed-out Replacements style chugging, and the powerhouse “Seven Golden Sisters” and “Map/Mtn.,” on which Boettigheimer’s drumming is exemplary, and the whole band can practically be heard hoisting themselves up to a higher level of inspiration. The latter tune is one of the catchiest Julia Sets have recorded, with Weber displaying real grace as a vocalist and Eddens adding a bracing new texture to the band’s sound with her harmonies. It’s certainly a real pleasure hearing Weber’s electric guitar done justice on disc for the first time—just check out the beautiful mix on “Of Milk and Strings” and the title track. And “Fundus Auflagen,” a very long song, is just magnificent (until it wears out its welcome after the ten-minute mark), with Weber’s guitar occasionally soaring to Television-like levels of harmonic brilliance and some atmospheric sax work provided by Mario Viele (who also recorded the disc). They’re at last fulfilling some of those many “possibilities.”
“We’ve finally written something important to us, to the people of this town, and I’ll be damned if they’re not going to hear it,” said Weber. “It’s tough to convert folks. The Vintage Vinyl connection can be very off-putting, the hipster mystique thing. People think we’re crazy pretentious, just a bunch of oily tits. But, Christ! We’re the biggest goofballs you’ve ever met.”
“We’re our own worst critics,” said Boettigheimer. “We know when we make mistakes. Sometimes when we’re playing, we’ll wonder if anybody noticed something that happened, but audiences don’t care. It might not be obvious to them.”
Weber freely admits that gigging used to be his least favorite aspect of making music. It’s something he had to evolve through, and again, the addition of Eddens has helped.
“I was so timid on stage, so uncomfortable,” he said. “It was sort of a necessary evil, playing live. But now that we have Kate up there, and Kris has gotten so strong on the drums, I really am just living to play out. We had a small CD release party at the Red Sea a few weeks ago for friends and folks on the record. And there was this moment, we were playing ‘Of Milk and Strings,’ and all our drunk, beautiful friends have been throwing crap at us on stage the whole show, jumping on the mic, heckling us, and I look out at these people I care about so much, and each one was singing every line with us. How can you put that into words? How can anything else in your life matter as much as something like that? Those moments cement that playing this music is absolutely what I’m supposed to be doing with my life.”
Weber seems willing to put in the time now to build a viable music career. Working at Vintage Vinyl and being surrounded by fellow musicians and aficionados, he’s privy to all manner of discussions and advice about how to “make it” in the overcrowded field of music.
“A large part of the problem is that it’s no longer difficult to be in a band,” he said. “Recording is cheap, duplication is cheap, and any kid with fifteen hundred bucks can hire Team Claremont to promote their music to college radio. There are too many bands, too many record labels, and not enough fans. It’s the worst time in history to be in a rock ’n’ roll band, but I don’t want to do anything else.”
Julia Sets have been far more productive than many local bands. They work at their craft continuously, they’ve played most of the popular venues in town at one time or another, and they’ve completed four full-length discs and a couple of singles, with a fifth album scheduled to get under way soon.
“ I think there is definitely a sort of ‘blue-collar’ level of musician that we’re aspiring to,” said Weber. “Centro-matic is a fine example. They’ve consistently put out great records, they tour regularly, and they haven’t made any compromises. If you’re putting out good music, putting on great performances, things that people really care about and need, then I’ve got to believe that labels and management and booking will take notice…The fact that we have no distribution, no means of getting it, no money, no van, no advertising budget, certainly gets in the way. It’d be nice to have a manager to take care of these things, help us jump up that next level.”
Meanwhile, the band seems to be gelling as never before, with Eddens easing into the lineup comfortably, Boettigheimer showing remarkable discipline and patience as a drummer and making major contributions to the sound, and Weber, of course, being the obvious focal point both on stage and on disc.
“It’s definitely been a long, slow climb to growing comfortable as ‘James from Julia Sets.’ Who doesn’t want to be the frontman when they’re 12 years old? But I’m just now starting to be okay with it. Kate and Kris have been good for that, because they like the way I write so much, I don’t feel embarrassed about the songs anymore, about the lyrics. And I think I’m driven differently than Kate and Kris; music is more of an obsession for me, and for that reason they’re okay with me being sort of out in front. I write every day. I’m playing guitar for hours every day, it’s my life. So they don’t feel so bad!”
“I love being a key piece of the puzzle,” said Boettigheimer. “I totally relish my role. I just read that new Wilco book, and…people are always so concerned about their parts. But it has to be about the song. Something has to be right for the song, not for our own ‘investment’ in it.”
With increasing frequency now, Julia Sets are indeed doing what’s right for the song, and Yes-Wave showcases their unity and fresh spark in memorable fashion. Now if they can just get the attention of a few more listeners in a town where audiences tend to be fragmented and apathetic, and where bands break up or depart the city with alarming frequency.
“It took me a long time to make peace with this town,” said Weber. “Most of our songs are about St. Louis! The architecture, the weather, its history. I’ve had friends in NYC trying to get me to move for years, and I’m terrified I’ll have to leave this town to find an audience, like most folks seem to do.”
No card-carrying member of the local music community would want that to happen. St. Louis can be hard on its bands, and there’s not a working band here getting rich from their efforts locally. So the groups who possess talent, credibility and determination, like Julia Sets, deserve our appreciation and gratitude. They may not be the “only band that matters” here, but they’re without a doubt one of the bands who matter most.
“Every night, no matter where or to whom or when, we play our god damned hearts out,” said Weber. “We love this town, we love its people, we love music. Don’t be afraid to let a band matter to you! Go buy the book, Our Band Could Be Your Life. We’re rough and ragged, but somehow that seems all right. Come to a show. Yell stupid crap at us. Scream. Holler. Dance. Let us in, dammit!”
You listening, St. Louis?
Yes-Wave is available now at Vintage Vinyl for a smashingly low price.