'We call it heart-quaking doom pop,' says Neil Popkin of the sound of WAR TAPES' first full length album, THE CONTINENTAL DIVIDE, set for release on May 26 by Seattle-based indie Sarathan Records.
The foursome includes Neil Popkin (singer/rhythm guitarist, from Boston), his sister Becca Popkin (bassist, also from Boston), Matt Bennett (lead guitar, from Hawaii) and William Mohler (drummer, from SoCal). They've been raking in rave reviews since their 2006 live debut, and the early buzz on War Tapes earned airplay on such tastemaker radio stations as BBC Radio 1 and Live 105 in San Francisco, while 'Dreaming of You' was aired on NBC's New Year's Eve with Carson Daly (and 'The Night Unfolds' for a week in March). The band has also already played shows and/or toured across the US and in the UK with The Smashing Pumpkins, Tiger Army, Shiny Toy Guns, Moving Units, The Bravery, Longwave, VNV Nation and The Unseen--even before releasing their first retail EP in Oct 2008.
Written in a bleak rehearsal space overlooking the downtown-LA skyline, THE CONTINENTAL DIVIDE distills the simultaneous gloom and beauty of midnight skyscrapers, crumbling train yards, abandoned warehouses, and feral animals. Guitars stab, assault and shimmer; industrial effects and ambience co-mingle like lost strangers; unexpected bass lines and harmonies rumble propulsively; incessant drum rhythms pulse like LA's writhing freeways; and the always passionate vocals range from apocalyptic to triumphant to tauntingly seductive.
The LA influence is a purely physical affair, not social: William points out that they're 'not looking to be lumped into anyone's idea of what an LA band sounds like.' Matt continues that 'there is some great music coming out of LA right now --music that is relevant, creative, beautiful, and unique. In this way, we feel we fit in, but we were never part of any scene even though we have the utmost respect for the bands and the people involved.' They classify themselves as 'on the outside looking in' and writing music purely for themselves: 'and if other people like it, then that's the best feeling ever.'
But the end result is far from self-indulgent navel-gazing. The band has an innate knack for crafting timeless sing-along melodies, anthemic choruses, and an arena-ready sound that has already erupted from the stages of both Fillmores, The Bowery Ballroom, The Warfield, and The Wiltern--and, of course, epic shows at dangerously overcrowded warehouse parties and punk clubs that have become legendary for the passion of the band and their audiences.
Nor is this solely urban music. Although songs like 'The Night Unfolds' and 'Mind is Ugly' are tailor-made for the 1:30 AM Saturday night mosh pit, songs like 'All the World's a Stage,' 'Dreaming of You,' and 'Use Me' beg to be sung cinematically from a majestic peak or at Red Rocks. Like the cover art (a photo of the continental divide in Colorado taken by Becca while criss-crossing the U.S. on one of their national tours), the music also conveys the expansive openness and hope of the empty but majestic American west. And yes, there is love too: 'For Eternity' and the beginning of 'Fast Lane' swoon like young lovers in a summer meadow.
From the very first time Neil, Matt, Becca and William played on stage together in 2006, they have been perfecting the kind of musical explosion you'd expect from a high-end pyrotechnics lab--or Matt's volcanic island home of Hawaii. Such mountainous fireworks require elemental alchemy, and each member provides distinct color and flash. Bassist Becca is a classically-trained pianist and guitarist (but had never played bass before joining War Tapes). William is a jazz-educated bassist and guitarist (but had never played drums in a band before). Matt has roots in the fertile soil of shoegaze and punk guitar styles. Neil evolved his voice and aggressive stage style from his post-punk influences. And Becca notes that, though collectively they play one style of music, they all 'love so many different genres of music that the combination is what makes our sound so unique.'
Consequently, it's challenging to pigeonhole War Tapes into any particular genre. They play rock clubs and gain screaming fans faithful to the hardcore scene, but receive eloquent and studied reviews that cite the technical mastery of jazz bands. While LA2Day.com recognizes their 'cohesive passion' as 'infectious' and 'fun,' Punknews.com sees them as 'sexy,' and 'atmospheric.' LA Weekly sees them 'spreading their emotional spectrum.'
At live shows, Neil prowls and leaps like a crazed and dangerous animal, often startling or even alarming audience members with his theatrical intensity. Matt is a blur of movement as he does the work of three guitarists. William provides precise time, and scales a mountain of volume to their trademark bridges and choruses. And amidst the frenzy, Becca stands as still, beautiful, and stoic as an elm tree from her native New England while filling the room with her glorious and unique bass lines.
Very refreshingly, War Tapes are not just one-dimensional musicians. Becca is an accomplished craftswoman whose jewelry lines are featured in New York and LA, and has studied painting at academies in Boston, New York, and Chelsea, England; Matt is an avid museum-goer, obsessively enjoying the mind-bending Museum of Jurassic Technology most of all. And the entire band is versed in classic and modern literature, citing Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic 'The Road' and the magical realism of 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
'We couldn't be more proud of The Continental Divide,' concludes Becca, referring to an album that may very well itself become a defining work in the canon of modern rock. 'We feel passionate about it and all we can hope is that other people will share that feeling.' Adds Neil, 'We want to work. We want to put the wheels on the road. We're not going to sit around and wait for something to happen.'
And for War Tapes, EVERYTHING could happen: and most likely will.