Into the mythic
Letters from the Earth
The songs of Letters from the Earth are stories. Not really the folk-telling kind, but stories that are almost cinematic in scope, drawing from influences as varied as Danny Elfman, the score to Lord of the Rings, mythology, Chopin, Sigur Ros and Radiohead. While they don’t really expect listeners to figure out that a certain song is, for instance, about a Minotaur in ancient Minoan mythology or dancing with a vampire, they hope they at least get the song’s feeling across.
“We’re trying to tell stories without words,” says singer and lead guitarist Sean Hill, a tall 22-year-old with black-rimmed glasses and curly blond hair. While they use lyrics sparingly, group members think music alone is sometimes the best way to tell those tales.
“When you have someone telling you what to feel, sometimes it doesn’t work,” says singer and bassist John Griffin, a soft-spoken, thoughtful guy who recently turned 24.
The band members met in the same downtown building that houses their jobs at Jungle Vino, Jungle Java and the Sierra Tap House. Drummer Matthew “Oliver” Sala, 22, suggested they play sometime. One day while Sala and Hill were jamming together, Griffin came over and started messing around with Hill’s old bass guitar. Two months later, Griffin bought a bass of his own, marking this past May as the band’s official formation.
The members of Letters from the Earth approach songwriting much like some visual artists approach a canvas—with intentions to shape an idea, mood or expression that others may or may not get, but ultimately, they want what they create to make people think and feel. They say there’s no front man to the band. Their songwriting generally begins with someone coming up with a storyline, a feeling, or maybe a melody that the rest of the group runs with. Each instrument is integral to each composition. The bass, for example, is more than just the foundation upon which the music is built but becomes a main character in the song.
The band’s name is taken from the Mark Twain book Letters from the Earth, a collection of pieces in which Satan and the archangel Gabriel, among other biblical figures, correspond satirically and hilariously about the strange goings-on of Earth. The work was published posthumously due to concerns from Twain’s daughter about its controversial take on religion. The book carries overtones of what the band Letters from the Earth is trying to evoke—the idea of stories, for one, but also stories of a grand scope, across time and space. Hill says that, like their songs, the stories in the book sound serious but are playful underneath.
Letters from the Earth’s music is dramatic. Soft introductions and gurgled distortion rise in development. Shifting moods and tempos preempt a guitar-wailing climax before the whole thing is brought down to resolution—classic storytelling. The guitarists use foot pedals to great effect, like in a song about an adventure on an alien landscape, where a sound effect sounds like an old Atari video game at the moment when the ghosts descend upon Ms. PacMan.
“Each song is a journey,” says Sala. “They’re very different and complete thoughts. The songs are letters of their own, spelled out with sounds instead of words.”