Softer than yesterday
The Proles come up with a smart take on twisted pop music in their CD debut, Index
Three years ago, there was a band, based in the old Sacramento County town of Florin (a wide spot in the road, really), called Zoom.
“We were more or less a hard rock band,” said the singer and guitarist, Justyn Bartles, “but we kinda started writing more melodic songs. Then, we took a big break, started writing more new songs and changed our name.”
“You’ve got to play a lot quieter to hear the vocals come through,” the group’s drummer and background vocalist Dan Taylor added.
Thus were the Proles born.
Now, the band’s name could be slightly problematic in these flag-whipped times—evoking a committed cell of firebrand workers who square any new song lyrics with Marx and Engels before offering them for public consumption and who crank their amps to punk-rock pummel down at the secret communist beer bust at the Union Hall every Friday night.
That would be wrong. The name is a tabula rasa, a red herring. “All of us were reading George Orwell’s 1984,” said Bartles.
“It looks good on paper,” Taylor said cryptically.
The seven songs on the Proles’ swell debut CD, Index (on the local indie label The Americans Are Coming) aim for the kind of post-Nuggets garage-band feel, mated to a hidden agenda of pop-music smarts, that can found in various works by some of rock’s brainier combos—from Blue Öyster Cult to Split Enz, Built to Spill and NRBQ. The songs are top-down summer tuneful, but there’s something dark, slightly mysterious and strange lurking under the surface.
Typically, that kind of dislocation comes from being exposed to offbeat influences. Like when American composer Charles Ives’ father, a 19th-century bandleader, made young Charles play music in one key and sing in another, which resulted in some forward-looking symphonies. Or when Byrds guitarist Roger McGuinn took acid, listened to John Coltrane and came up with the solo on “Eight Miles High.”
In the Proles’ case, Taylor’s dad turned them on to some choice jazz records. “We like bebop—Miles and Charlie Parker and Monk and all those guys,” Taylor admitted. “A lot of drone notes, like the harmony will stay with the drone, moving exactly with the lead melody. I got a lot of that from jazz—Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew has all kinds of droning bass clarinet.”
“That’s actually the first jazz record that his dad turned us on to,” Bartles said.
“And from there, we got some more sophisticated stuff,” Taylor added.
Thus, the Proles—Bartles and Taylor, plus guitarist and keyboardist James Jenkins and bassist Jeff Fisher—holed up in their Florin practice space and came up with the material for their debut. The music has the kind of fluidity and lightness of attack that can be found coming from some currently in-vogue New York bands, like the Strokes, but the Proles write more interesting songs. The guitars and keys swirl together or spill out of the speakers like water from a tipped-over glass, the rhythm section percolates rather than jackhammers, and Bartles’ raspy vocals ride over the top while the band chimes in behind, with some strangely sweet harmonies. Chalk some of that up to local producer Eric Broyhill, who recorded the Proles at the Hangar studio in Alkali Flat.
The music has an organic, slow-cooked feel; it doesn’t sound banged out. “Rarely, if ever, do we have someone come in with a full song and not have it picked at,” Bartles said. “Something’s gonna change. That’s why it takes us a while to write new songs.”
But the process, apparently, is not painful. “We’re a pretty diplomatic group, really,” Taylor explained.
Diplomatic and lighthearted, according to Taylor. “We just put the fun back in music because we just got so serious—on the verge of what people might call ’emo,’” he explained. “And there wasn’t enough fun in it; you can’t feel all emotional and serious all the time about your music. And we really don’t want to play it that way.”
Thank whatever deity governs summertime anthems for that.