Indie rock's finest come out and rock (Altitude Records)
By: Alex Steininger
Los Angeles's alaska! (yes, always lowercase, always with the exclamation point at the end) are a super group of sorts, comprised of former Lowercase member Imaad Wasif, Sebadoh/Folk Implosion's Russell Pollard, and former Red Aunts drummer Lesley Ishino.
With the addition of Ishino for their second record, Rescue Through Tomahawk, Wasif, the principal songwriter/front man for the band, and company, have gone from their singer-songwriter (Pollard and Wasif on acoustic guitars) beginnings to a full-on, classic-rock tinged rock record on their sophomore release.
With a new label (Altitude Records), a new record, and a willingness to tour relentlessly, alaska! seems poised to dominate the indie world.
"It was in Europe that Leslie became part of Alaska. We all had our defenses up. But, at the end of that trip I felt something really blossom. And the thing that really became apparent to me was that we were going to make this record with Leslie," says Wasif, discussing how himself and Pollard went about finding a drummer and preparing for their sophomore record.
With Ishino on board, the three of them began working on what would become Rescue Through Tomahawk. The record would be a departure for the band in several ways. First, they had severed ties with their then-current label, B-Girl Records (who released alaska!'s debut, Emotions, in 2003). Second, they were officially a trio, whereas when Emotions was recorded it was just Pollard and Wasif. And, third, unlike Emotions' softer leanings, alaska! was not going to hold back on this one; they were going to rock.
"It wasn't something we planned, it totally happened out of circumstance of just playing together and getting to know one another," Pollard says of the band's progression.
"It was coming before, because when I joined they had already decided they wanted to make an electric record," adds Ishino. "When I was added it was to make it a little more rock, but I don't think they knew that, they just realized they wanted a little more and then it just became, gradually, more rock. I'm kinda loud, and they forced me to play it down a bit."
"We bought her a smaller drum set," Pollard says, laughing.
"They helped teach me more about dynamics, which I knew a little about but not really as far as volume goes," continues Ishino. "They're naturally very dynamic; their songwriting individually and together is very dynamic. I think what they were doing acoustically was where they wanted to go at the time, because they wanted to let go of a lot of what their past had brought to them. They were so intense for so long, they wanted to strip it down. And once they stripped it they could bring it back up again."
Pollard nods in acceptance while Ishino is talking, letting her finish before elaborating.
"The very fundamental idea of what we created from the beginning was coming from the place where we wanted to do something different," he says. "We wanted to create something fresh and new for ourselves. What we had to realize throughout the course of us writing songs together and totally trusting each other and working on stuff together is that we had to create an avenue for us to do that. We had to totally understand that and embrace the fact that this was going to be something we didn't really understand and couldn't really control. We just had to really let it happen.
"It was a very confusing time. When Imaad and I started the band there was sort of an idea of what it was going to be, but not really. And he and I just struggled and struggled and worked and worked to just get something going and then we knew we needed something else, we needed someone else. We knew we needed a drummer. I wasn't going to play drums, I wanted to sing and I wanted to play another instrument. It just evolved naturally and it was a struggle to get the point we are now."
According to Wasif, though, nothing has been easy for this band, and everything seems to take some work before it really comes together in an almost-magical way.
"We have some crazy shit going on. This band is so fucking intense, we have a lot of shit going on between all of us all the time, and I think that is the secret of this band," explains Wasif. "It makes you feel like you're going to explode."
Some of the craziness surrounding the band came in the form of recording Rescue Through Tomahawk, an experience the band tells me was unlike any other recording session they've done with any other project.
"It wasn't a usual recording session. It was hard," Ishino tells me. "We've had other experiences before in other bands, where we settled, and we just didn't want to do that this time."
"You know what's interesting about that?" Pollard asks rhetorically. "This is something that Imaad and I have learned about each other. We never walk away from that. In the past, there have been instances where things got too intense that we couldn't deal with it and we just walked away. The process of recording this record, we got in each other's faces and we made sure everyone was accountable in the respect that not recording a record where you could walk away and have any complaints once it was out. Like, 'alright, I settled for something'. It's really interesting, because just the relationship we have, and what has been brought to the table from all of us in the band, it's been proven that you can not settle. It has to be right, it has to be on the level. And that is what happened with recording." "We took the record so far," adds Wasif. "When we recorded it, everyone went into emotional overload. People were crying, we were feeling like someone smashed something over our heads.
"It's very simple," furthers Pollard. "We were experiencing a lot of what this record is about with Imaad when he was writing it. And we're a part of it. What the songs are projecting and conveying, we're as much a part of it as he is. But he wrote them. The completion of the songs came out of us. Sticking with him and figuring out how to portray them as a band and flesh them out and make them complete. At this point, it makes me really happy to be a part of."
Wasif couldn't agree more, it is a feeling he shares.
"I've never met people on this level, of what we are as a band. We are this band. We became the music for this record. We become it every time we play the songs live," says Wasif.
When asked what was the single most memorable recording experience during the making of Rescue Through Tomahawk, everyone looks at each other and Leslie quickly speaks for everyone telling me "Through the Years".
"We had the roughest day. We were working on this one song, and it took all day, until 10pm. We took a break and when we came back we did 'Through the Years' in one take and it was beautiful."
"One take," Pollard reiterates. "We just played it through and looked at each other and knew that was it."
Once the record was complete the band sent it around to a few select labels, and Altitude, a new upstart label with one other act, Matt Pond PA, quickly jumped at the chance to sign the band.
With a label in tow, and a new record complete, the band hit the road to support it. Touring prior to the record's release supporting Ash and The Bravery, alaska! played in front of sold out crowd after sold out crowd across the U.S., earning the respect of both the indie rock and alternative radio listening crowds.
Following the tour, Ishino and Pollard both got married, Pollard's wife giving birth to their first child. The band took a break for these two weddings and childbirth.
With the break over and the band anxious to get on the road, look for them on tour in August, supporting Dinosaur Jr. on their reunion tour up the West Coast.
As for the future of the band beyond touring and supporting Rescue Through Tomahawk, everyone in the band agrees that their next record will be different, much like the difference between Emotions and Rescue Through Tomahawk. But, as for that difference, it is anyone's guess.
"This record is different only because it is the record I wrote the songs on. And Leslie and Russ both completely became the songs and we all become the songs every night and I've never played with two people who can understand the songs in that way," Wasif tells me.
"I think this record, this is our first record together, and we might change for the next record, but we don't know yet," says Ishino.
"We're working on it," furthers Wasif. "I think we're going in a totally interesting direction right now."
"Of course [it will be different]," Pollard informs me. "I can't tell you exactly what that's gonna be. It was a night and day difference between Emotions and Rescue Through Tomahawk. It will probably be for the next record, too, but we don't even know what that's gonna be."
If the Dinosaur Jr. tour doesn't hit your city, look for the band on tour in the fall and winter.