Out of the big, blue sky
Could the future of rock ’n’ roll be a local trio named Frank Jordan? Stranger things have happened.
Ever had the kind of experience that made you wonder if someone slipped a little something into your glass?
You walk out of a movie, remembering the vividness of the colors, the gemlike snippets of dialogue, a feeling you cannot shake. You move through an art gallery, and the act of standing in front of certain paintings and drinking them in with your eyes ignites every molecule in your body.
Or, you listen to a new album, and your first spin through it leaves you scratching your head: What did I just hear? Surely, it can’t be that good. So, you cue up the beginning and dive back in, initiating a furious internal dialogue, with your critical faculties trying to find ways to break it down into easy-to-digest elements while your emotional body and spiritual core take in the music as a continuum and respond to it.
A little something in the glass, indeed.
Such was the result upon listening to Milk the Thrills, a remarkable new CD by Frank Jordan—a local trio, composed of two guys from deep Carmichael and one from Sierra Oaks—none of whom are named Frank.
On a recent winter evening, the three members of Frank Jordan, all of them in their late 20s and perfect products of Sacramento suburbia, sat down to talk in the living room of drummer Devin Hurley’s longtime family home, just off Watt Avenue, which his parents just sold after moving to Southern California.
Milk the Thrills is just coming out now, on a Modesto-based indie label called Devil in the Woods, but it’s been finished for quite a while, long enough for Frank Jordan’s members to start talking about recording a new disc. The band members moved down to Redondo Beach a year ago, where they lived in the studio, sleeping until afternoon, when they would arise, bending and shaping the songs with co-producer Eddie Ashworth.
“He did all the Great White stuff,” said bassist Matt Ontjes. “We were in the studio, and I was looking at the platinum album for Once Bitten, and then I was looking at the fire at this little club [outside Providence, R.I.] on TV. And then the phone rings, and Eddie’s getting a call from someone looking for the singer. It was kinda surreal.”
Ontjes added, “We’re no stranger to clubs, but we don’t carry pyrotechnics with us.”
The music Frank Jordan plays, however, doesn’t sound like the kind of heavy-metal-light that seemed tailor-made for album-rock radio back in Great White’s 1980s heyday. Though the two bands may share a fondness for the stormy-sky textures and Viking blues swagger of vintage Led Zeppelin, Frank Jordan (yes, the band appropriated its name from the former mayor of San Francisco) appears to have arrived at its destination in an altogether original fashion. The band’s influences seem to begin around the late 1960s, specifically the trippy epiphanies grafted to interesting rock songwriting that characterized the Beatles’ “White Album.” There’s also a nod to the 1970s—Zeppelin, mostly, but a bit of Marshall-amplified English plainsong à la Jethro Tull in some of the band’s minor-key melodies—and the 1980s, with a noisy guitar attack that bears a resemblance to that of the Cure’s Robert Smith.
But the most arresting aspect of Frank Jordan’s sound comes courtesy of singer-guitarist Mike Visser, who sounds uncannily like the late Jeff Buckley. He wails like a banshee, his voice soaring and swooping, riding the complicated melodies, which sometimes touch the kind of delicious faux-Orientalism evoked by a few late-19th-century European composers.
But Visser is no conscious imitator. “It’s just the way the voice comes out,” he said. “I can’t help it.”
Frank Jordan has been together since 1994, but it began as an instrumental group with two drummers. For a while, the band lived together in East Sacramento on 39th Street, in a four-bedroom pad with a pool, a two-car garage and a pingpong table. “That was a great place to go after a show,” Visser recalled, “because you could have a lot of people over.”
“Our neighbors were coming over and hanging out to party,” Hurley piped in. “They were crazier than we were.”
“The lawn was knee-high for a while,” Ontjes added, laughing.
Then the band relocated to old Hollywood for a time, around Cahuenga and Ivar streets, checking out laughable bands made up of actors who wanted to parlay their semi-fame into rock stardom. “We didn’t really play any shows when we were down there,” Hurley recalled. “We all had jobs, and we would practice in studios, but we hadn’t started playing around with vocals yet.”
“As much as I think that we all kinda had the attitude that we were going to go down to Hollywood and take over the world, we had a lot of learning to do,” Visser added.
Upon moving back north, Visser started singing, and Frank Jordan released a full-length, Decoy, in 2000, and the EPs Enemies and 8 Songs in 2001 and 2003, respectively. The former came out on Cornerstone, which already had local ska-funk band Filibuster on its roster; the latter EP was released by local indie label The Americans Are Coming.
Those discs, along with the new one, may trace the growth of Frank Jordan as a band, but what its members cite as the catalyst is the time-honored crucible of touring, piling into its Ford van and whipping its sound into shape in one small club after another. Manager Chris Watson convinced the band that its best interests lay in breaking out of the San Diego-to-Vancouver western-seaboard circuit and seeing America the old-fashioned way. “We’ve done the whole country about three times,” Hurley said, “playing wherever. Some good nights, some bad nights.”
Next month, Frank Jordan will play the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, on its opening Wednesday night, before the booze, barbecue and late nights incapacitate the crowds later in the week. That early slot may prove to be a smart move.
What that crowd likely will hear is a band with the kind of depth that only comes from listening to, and digesting, a lot of different music.
Sure, there were a few false starts: Young Ontjes, for one, knew he needed a copy of “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.”
“But I didn’t know that it mattered that you get it by the person who did it originally,” he said. “So, I bought the Michael Bolton version.”
Visser admitted to an even more embarrassing musical memory—the time he called London’s information, looking for a number for the Cure’s Robert Smith. “I was a kid,” he said. “I’m calling him up, all nervous …”
But that was a long time ago. These days, the band is more likely to be checking out such contemporary acts as Grandaddy and Broken Social Scene, along with timeless favorites like Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, although Hurley confessed to a fondness for classic album rock: the Who, the Beatles and the Stones.
“There’s so much out there,” Ontjes said. “I’m always wanting more and more and more. It’s just the coolest thing to find a new era where there were all these people who were just so into doing what they were doing, they were putting out all this music—they had the ability to put a real album together, to spend the time to do it that way, it’s like—”
“There’s nothing better than getting into a good album,” Visser said, finishing Ontjes’ thought.
Of course, there’s nothing better than giving birth to one, either.
“We just had a bunch of songs we wanted to record; we didn’t know exactly how we were going to arrange them,” Visser said, describing the sessions that resulted in Milk the Thrills.
“But when it came time to do the sequencing,” Ontjes added, “we had a lot of heated arguments about how it was going to go, just because we wanted it to flow the way we were hearing it in our minds.”
According to the bassist, the right album sequence became apparent once they lived inside the songs a bit. “It’s like arranging a room,” he said. “You don’t put everything in one corner and have a bunch of space left over; you’ve got to make it more even.”
And so the room has been decorated, with proper attention given to feng shui, and the band has found its voice. And rather than describe an entire room, perhaps one piece of furnishing will suffice.
Eight songs into Milk the Thrills is a song called “Headaches.” It begins with a burst of feedback, which fades into a liquid, oscillating guitar figure. The rhythm section clicks in, followed by a fluid guitar arpeggio, and Visser’s voice begins to ascend and then fall and then rise again, in an oddly lovely melody. “Milk the thrills and find the quickest route,” he sings. “’Cause everyone’s attention just up up and walked away to attend the funeral of the next big thing.” Then a chorus kicks in, before the song returns to repeating the arcing-melody motif as the band builds in intensity. Behind the first instrumental bridge is a chorus of babbling voices straight off Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Visser returns with a countermelody and finishes the lyrics, the band returns to the song’s original guitar figure for a few bars, and then the whole thing explodes in a sunburst of dazzling sonic brilliance before dropping to a trip-hoppish acoustic-guitar riff into the fade. It is an asymmetrically perfect pop song, five minutes of sheer bliss, on a recording filled with similar moments, by a band at least as good as anything that’s ever emerged from this town.
Or, perhaps it was just something in the glass.