The Art of Being Twee in Two Acts
Feb 02, 2003 Web Exclusive
“Indiscriminately I just picked up somebody’s suitcase and threw it across a field,” says Aberdeen’s co-founder and guitarist John Girgus with a coy laugh. It’s the last night of Aberdeen’s nationwide tour of the United States with The Trembling Blue Stars and Girgus and I are sipping double whiskey’s in the backroom of the Derby in Hollywood. Girgus is almost impishly casual as he describes some of the tribulations of the tour. This particular incident involves our hero in a severe state of temerity because somewhere on the road he became “the guy who was loading the van.” If you read on you will discover the throwing suitcases is quite a tame way for the members of Aberdeen to blow off steam. But that will come later. Right now, Girgus is explaining why he threw the suitcase. “I had [loading] the van down to a game of Tetris. I had the perfect pack and I go into the van and I find this suitcase. So I kind of unpack everything to fit the suitcase in with everything else. Then Beth comes up and says, ‘Are you O.K. to drive because Brian and Johnny are in there drinking.’ I just pictured them bellied up to the bar and I just threw it. I was like, ‘Let’s fucking go!’”
John Girgus is an interesting man to watch while he’s telling a story. He uses almost every part of his body to animate the most visceral of emotions. When he speaks to you he really wants to get his point across. By the time he got to the “Let’s fucking go!” part of the story I’m almost a little scared, which is rather odd considering John Girgus is probably one the nicest guys I’ve ever met. Then again, the entire Aberdeen quartet is really the most humble and giving of musicians I’ve ever had the opportunity to interview. There’s Brian, the token outspoken drummer but also very polite. There’s Beth Arzy, the vocalist, who unfortunately is in the process of losing her voice on this particular night but she seems to be very easy going herself. Johnny Joyner, the guitarist, is as quiet as a church mouse and has the most impeccable manner’s I’ve ever seen. Then there’s John Girgus who is all fun and jokes. I’ve only been talking to Girgus for about fifteen minutes and I already feel as if we’ve known each other for years. But there’s some kind of beast stirring just underneath the surface of Aberdeen’s calm demeanor. They’re a self-described “twee” band but after hearing their story it would appear the members of Aberdeen are more like the Hells Angels within the twee cannon.
If you aren’t familiar with the term “twee” allow me explain: Twee is really just a label the music press began slapping on bands like Belle and Sebastian in order to describe, in one word, a band who makes jangly, pastoral, pretty (and mostly English) pop music. Yet, like with most labels, the term twee is a little unfair to the bands. Obviously there is more going on in Belle and Sebastains’ music than hippies cavorting around in the Scottish heather. The same goes for the music of Aberdeen. Yes, it’s poppy, fun, and innocent but it’s also dark, foreboding, and to a degree...violent. There is a lot of variation within Aberdeen’s songs and surprisingly enough (in a classic case of art imitating life) there is a lot of variation within the members of the band. Aberdeen’s story is one of temper tantrums, lover’s quarrels, breakups, and eventually redemption through temper tantrums, lover’s quarrels, and breakups. It’s a complicated story.
Although the band has always been made up of the same core members there are really two very different Aberdeen’s. They truly are a band in two acts. This is their story.
“ Those early days were ridiculous!” – John Girgus
The opening of Aberdeen’s story begins in the town of Palm Desert, California circa 1990. John Girgus and Beth Arzy both attended Palm Desert High School and met through mutual friends only to discover they also had a mutual interest: music. “Beth was cool, you know. She was into the Jesus and Mary Chain. Anything that came out of England that was cool or remotely cool that you should know about she knew about,” recalls Girgus. “We didn’t start a band right away or anything. Beth didn’t even play anything. She had no musical aspirations except for wanting to be in a band because she liked so many bands.” At the time, the teenage Girgus was playing in a “really bad band with some friends” when Arzy approached him and asked if he could write music to some poems she had written. “I went over to her house and wrote some of the worst shit you’ve ever heard in your life. It was interesting.” In turn John asked Beth to join his band, which she did, naming them Black Star Carnival after a song by Primal Scream. “It sounded Goth but it had its roots in coolness. It’s just a terrible name for a band now that I look at it,” says John with a hearty laugh. “We might as well have called ourselves Evil Circus Clowns!” The poor choice of band name aside it was a humble beginning for the two budding musicians and it wasn’t long before Girgus and Arzy succumbed to their teenage hormones and embraced the kiss of death for all pop bands: they became romantically involved.
Black Star Carnival only played out a few times because Arzy and Girgus kept losing members for one reason or another but it was during this time that Arzy took a vacation to Aberdeen, Scotland. “She stayed with a couple of close friends of hers and fell in love with the city or just romanticized it, and wrote this song called, ‘Aberdeen’”. Shortly after Beth’s return to Palm Desert the Black Star Carnival days were all but over so she and Girgus decided to go it alone under a different name. “We weren’t going to be Black Star Carnival anymore,” says John, “so she was like, ‘How about Aberdeen?’ It sounded good to me. It starts with an 'A'. It’s easy to say. It sounds poppy. It just sounded good.”
Now the band was a duo but Girgus decided to make one other addition to the line-up. “I’d bought my first drum machine. So I was like, ‘Let’s try this. Let’s try it with the drum machine.’ It was a new technology for me.” “I really liked them with the drum machine,” recalls Brian, Aberdeen’s current drummer who often frequented those early shows. “John has always been someone who knew how to program a drum machine to make it sound like a live drummer was playing. He would do really good fills and he would do strange hi-hat lifts here and there. There were times when I would flat out imitate the drum programming he did.”
After high school Beth moved to Los Angeles and John soon filed suit. They began to play out at parties and local clubs around the LA County area. According to John the shows were less than perfect but the audiences seemed to like them well enough. “The shows were never as good as they could have been and they would always end with Beth and I getting into some big fight or something. I used to hate playing live. I used to really, really hate it. I don’t know how much I like it now but it used to be really hard. It just never sounded right.”
Aside from playing the occasional uncomfortable show John and Beth also began recording songs onto four-track. Beth soon sent a copy of their demo to the English label, Sarah Records, and Aberdeen was signed. From 1992-95 Aberdeen put out one single, “Byron”, and the well received “Snapdragon” and “Firework” EP’s. Most of the recordings on the Sarah releases feature the drum machine (although at the time Brian was the acting live drummer for the band) as well as an additional bass player. Today Girgus views those Sarah recordings with the disdain of a wiser man, going so far as to describe the “Byron” single as, “garbage. It’s total shit. I can’t even listen to it. It’s completely flat.” It’s not that the songs weren’t twee enough they were but Girgus chalks up the flat sound of the recording to the bands lack of technical expertise in the studio. For the two EP’s the band got more involved within the production process and the difference is more than noticeable. “It made the others a little more exciting to listen too.”
Although Aberdeen were getting decent press in England they weren’t known well enough in the United States to tour. In fact the furthest the band ever got out of Southern California in those days was to play a show in Arizona. Naturally, after four years of gigging the shows in the LA were becoming tiresome and after six years of being a couple the romantic relationship between John and Beth had begun to wither on the vine.
At it’s heart Aberdeen consists of two major players, John Girgus and Beth Arzy, thus in accordance with pop band lore the moment the romance between John and Beth started to unravel so did the bands creative muse. “We were really just running out of steam near the end there anyway...creatively. There really wasn’t much there,” recalls Girgus. The band had hit its first major brick wall and it would cost them a hiatus of over a half decade to overcome.
If you ask any band who’s been around awhile they will all say the key to being in a good, tight band is maintaining the friendships within the creative dynamic. A really great band acts more or less as an extended family. When it comes to dealing with touring, the music industry, and creating music a band must have that familial aspect. They need to depend on one another because the players are the only ones who can trust each other in this business. Like a family a band will have it’s fair share of ups and down’s but they are still a unit. But when a band forms around a romantic attachment...let’s just say it’s an added difficulty. Judging by the relationship between John Girgus and Beth Arzy it would appear that Aberdeen was doomed from the start. The pair downright does not get along. Yet their creative relationship is also one of necessary evils for they only reach their creative heights when they work together. It’s a continual recipe for disaster so when you throw the arrogance of youth into the pot it’s easy to see why the band split in ’95. “I’ve never known anybody who can set me off like she does. Even today,” laughs Girgus with a roll of his eyes. “Most of the time when somebody says something to me I can just let it roll off or use common sense to diffuse the situation. But with her, for some reason, I can turn around and just say the worst possible thing you could ever say and it all comes crashing down.”
Brian remembers those heady days with rather vivid amusement. “I remember back in the day when I would practice with Beth and John and John would get upset at something in our rehearsal studio and he would just throw his guitar down on ground and walk out. And to top it off Beth would walk over to the guitar and start kicking it.” To the members of Aberdeen these little stories are more like inside jokes today but at the time these tantrums were perhaps not the best way to conduct a band. “There was a time when I believe John had a bass guitar,” continues Brian, “and it actually went through a wall. You would walk by and see this bass guitar sticking out of the wall!”
If you have heard Aberdeen’s latest album you would never suspect that most of those twee pop ditties were actually written under these volatile circumstances. The album is down right pretty with sugar on top yet the undercurrent of John and Beth’s soured relationship rests under the poppy sweetness as thick as a river of molasses. Lying next to the twee beauty is a spite you may not recognize on the first listen but it’s there.
The end of Aberdeen’s first incarnation came abruptly with John and Beth’s long overdue breakup. The strain of the split was to great for them to carry on as a band. They didn’t even get the chance to record a full length LP. By early ’96 Aberdeen were no more.
“ I can’t ever let things go.” – John Girgus
The next four years found the members of Aberdeen going their separate ways. Brian moved to Boston with his wife while John and Beth remained in Los Angeles without speaking to one another. “When we weren’t talking I absolutely could not talk to her.” Girgus wound up playing second fiddle in a few local bands but never for very long sighting the fact that, "I just wasn’t happy in somebody else’s band.” With Aberdeen buried Girgus concentrated on working day jobs only seeing Beth accidentally at the occasional show. When they did run into each other it wasn’t pretty. One time they actually got into a fight at a Saint Ettiene concert.
Yet, according to Girgus, Aberdeen was always gnawing at the back of his mind. Even though his time with the band will always be associated with his off handed relationship with Arzy; Girgus couldn’t let Aberdeen’s musical potential just fall by the way side. “I think Aberdeen was something good. It’s the only thing I think I’ve done musically that was really good. It just had that possibility.”
It may have taken five years but Girgus finally worked up the courage to ask a friend for Arzy’s e-mail address. His excuse: he wanted the Aberdeen four-track tapes Beth took with her after the breakup. “I don’t know if she knew why I was asking for them back but I knew why. I was trying to remember that stuff. I was thinking, ‘What about “Times Like These” or “That Cave...That Moon”? Those were good.’ I wanted to find those again.” After Beth returned the tapes to John and they discovered they “were able to talk to each other without screaming” John asked if she would be interested in recording again using the old material on the four-tracks. Beth agreed. It was a deciding moment and Aberdeen’s renewal was underway.
“ I had the idea of doing it like a retrospective. Here is the album we never made. Let’s just get these songs finished then we can move on,” says Girgus of the practice sessions for what would eventually become the bands first full length album, Homesick and Happy To Be Here. “After we started rehearsing and stuff we talked about the possibility of touring and doing shows again...you know, just trying to be a band again.”
This time around Beth and John enlisted the full time help of Brian on drums and Johnny Joyner, a member of a band Girgus was in during Aberdeen’s interim, on bass and guitar duties. Aberdeen was officially a quartet and they never sounded better. “Having Brian on drums changed everything. It’s so much better. And Johnny added so much to the arrangements. For instance, ‘Sink Or Float’ would have sounded like shit if it wasn’t for Johnny. He definitely spearheaded the direction of that song.” Aside from adding to the arrangements Joyner also brought in two whole songs to complete the album. The ever-bright “Sunny In California” and a mainstay of Aberdeen’s current live show, “Cities and Buses”.
In order to help steer the band in the right direction the band also brought in producer (and former Mighty Lemon Drop) David Newton. “David Newton got us to sound the way we wanted,” elaborates Girgus. “We had all of these ideas and he just helped us to realize them.” If you are into twee music, or any pop music for that matter, and haven’t heard Homesick and Happy to be Here you are missing out on a pop diamond in the rough. From the infinitely catchy hooks of “Handsome Drink” to the multiple vocal parts of “Cities and Buses” to the mysterious noise elation of “That Cave...That Moon” Aberdeen’s debut album runs a huge gambit of emotions. The band's history is in every note as each song tells a chapter of their story. Most of the material is re-worked songs straight from the infamous four track-tapes and a few have their origins as far back as the Black Star Carnival days. For a band with so many large emotional scars the members of Aberdeen have managed to bounce back stronger than ever with an album that finally realizes the potential they always knew they had.
So how is the relationship between John and Beth holding up? Beth currently resides in London with her husband and is also a member of Trembling Blue Stars but she flies back to Los Angeles for blocks of time to record and go on tour with Aberdeen. John has a new long time girlfriend who just so happens to be a good friend of Beth’s. Yes, the two core members of Aberdeen have successfully moved into adulthood in semi-pristine order but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a good row every now and then. “Yeah, we get along alright,” Girgus admits with a certain pride. “There were some instances where we had to send flowers the next day to get her back in the studio the next day though.”
“ They’re much calmer now,” says Brian. “It’s much less volatile. Beth and John are much more mature now. They still fight a little bit but it’s healthy. It makes the songs better. We’re not always happy with each other but you can’t always be happy with each other.”
“ Creatively, I think [fighting] is good,” says Girgus after some deliberation. “I think in any sort of career sense it’s really bad because we are on the verge of breaking up every single day. If it’s not one of us it’s another one of us. We’re all stupid and cranky. We’re just a bunch of bitches."
Some things never change but the members of Aberdeen seem to have figured out their limitations with one another these days. Maybe they’ve discovered that making music together is a little more important than the spats they get into. Judging by tonight’s show at the Derby the band has never sounded better. They play like a machine on fire. Brian pounds his drums ever pushing the songs forward while Johnny strums and swings his acoustic guitar as if his life depended on it. Girgus plays his guitar straight into the amp with the virtuosity of man who’s been around the block a few times but it’s Beth who’s the real trooper for the closing gig of the Homesick... tour. With her voice nearly gone she gets through every song with casual aplomb even asking the crowd if they heard “Handsome Drink” when it was played on an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer last week. The crowd whistles and applauds until John and Brian dismantles the drum kit in not so twee style: with violent feedback and smiles of exhilaration. It’s a good show.
As a reinvigorated Aberdeen put their old problems behind them they turn to the future where a whole new world of problems await. With Beth living in London it makes things difficult but if it’s Aberdeen’s time to go it’s their time to go. John Girgus isn’t too worried about it. His band finally got that one album they always wanted to make out to the public. He’s playing better than he ever has and the creative juices are still flowing. “After tonight I am going to go home and start writing new songs. I want to do another record but I have no idea if we are going to last after this. I don’t know if we are going to make it after this show.”
But after playing the show to a packed crowd of friends, fans, and well-wisher’s it appears that Aberdeen just might stick around for a little while longer. The lights have gone down and the tour is officially over. Instead of screaming at each other, throwing suitcases, or sending their guitars through walls John Girgus and his band mates embrace each other with familial hugs. They love each other. They fight one another. They create together. They hate together. Aberdeen’s art is their ability to stay together. “If something happens again who knows how long it will last,” concludes an optimistic John Girgus. “I don’t think any of us, no matter how much we hate each other, can stay away from making music.”
They're twee... don't fuck with them.
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