Author: Sandy Masuo
Multi-instrumentalist Cevin Key may view his ten year tenure in the industrial music world as a brief history, but it’s definitely one that’s witnessed some revolutionary changes in the music technology. “We started in the analog era” Cevin says, contemplating his long career both with Skinny Puppy and as a principal in various outside ventures, including Hilt and the Tear Garden, “and somewhere in the middle of our careers we had to completely assimilate a new technology – the midi computer world, which is obviously much more technical and much different even in the approach and the concepts. I mean, even in our short ten year history we’ve seen major changes and I expect that the next ten years will see something just as major…I’m not sure if it’s going to be the music itself that evolves. I think the technology can evolve and we can get the perfect sound, but the music…It’s still [repeatedly] proven, with Nirvana or whatever, that the classic aggressive aggro-pop is always going to be something that will remain at the forefront because, you know, that’s the language of the masses.”
Well, it may be the language of the masses, but it’s not Skinny Puppy, whose tulmutuous sound has little to do with aggro-pop aside from a sense of louder and larger than life gestures. So, for Cevin, the Tear Garden is more than just a side project to wile away the time between Skinny Puppy albums. In it, Cevin (on drums among other things) together with bassist Ryan Moore, Legendary Pink Dots vocalist Edward Ka-Spel and guitarist Martyn DeKleer, plus an assortment of other contributors from both the Dots and Puppy camps, explore a sonic realm that is quite removed from Puppy-dom. Though they employ many of the same electronic implements and use much of the same vocabulary, they refrain from plunging into the depths of exquisite despair that are Puppy’s stock in trade, and instead roam across strange terrain that is alluringly diverse – from slightly somber, thoroughly elegant pop songs like ‘Love Notes and Carnations’ and ‘Romulus and Venus’ that seem to have evolved from the same melancholic filament that linked Joy Division and New Order to ‘The Strong and Whining Toad’, a deliciously creepy soundscape of samples that unfolds with the juicy premeditation of a Stephen King novel. Yet even at their most digital, there’s a pervasive sense of flesh and bone about the music – a factor Cevin attributes to the amazing live rapport at the core of the group.
“I think Martyn DeKleer is a great guitar player,” he says emphatically, concluding, “There’s no doubt about that. He’s like 25 and he just has it inside him. The three of us got together – Ryan Moore, Martyn DeKleer and me – and write a lot of songs [playing live] and then base a lot of electronic stuff around that. So we have a real human element that normally people ignore when they’re working in an electronic mode, or apply it so unevenly that something ends up getting lost… I’ve never worked with two other people that I felt so good playing with in a live situation before. It’s quite the opposite with the Tear Garden than it is with Skinny Puppy in the sense that Tear Garden is mostly written around a lot of live playing, where Skinny Puppy isn’t. So that’s where I get a chance to explore my real live desires.”
The Tear Garden’s first album, ‘Tired Eyes, Slowly Burning’, appeared in 1987, and it was five years before they re-convened to record the material that appears on the current ‘Sheila Likes The Rodeo’ album and its predecessor ‘Last Man To Fly’. Both albums are the product of one five-hour session, and they reflect the volatile contrast between iron control and spontaneous disarray that lies at the heart of the band’s music. ‘Last Man’ is the more deliberate, composed collection full of moments that stun with their quiet pop demeanor interspersed with carefully cultivated outbursts of angst, while ‘Sheila’ staggers from one mood to the next. The distinction between individual voices blurs; guitar lines and streams of samples seem to resolve into dialogue as Edward’s voice disintegrates into white noise. According to Cevin, much of the material that eventually became ‘Sheila’ was recorded without the band’s knowledge by engineers who simply let the tape roll.
“There’s a certain greatness to knowing that the tape isn’t rolling and knowing that the song that you’re playing is simply the last time you’ll ever hear it, if your in a jamming, improvisational mode. And then going in and hearing that somebody actually recorded it is just,” he pauses, pondering for a moment, “the ultimate gift I guess.”
Augmenting the persistent tension between control and spontaniety in the Tear Garden is a strange temporal dynamic that’s generated by the collision between the past and the present as they tumble toward the future.
“I think the Tear Garden is more like hippy-type people exploring their ’70s roots,” Cevin postulates.”I mean, there was some amazing stuff that was written in the ’70s, starting with Kraftwerk and the whole early German scene. A lot of people create music without any knowledge of these bands, and if they went back and listened they’d be damned surprised that there was a lot of alternative-ness going on twenty years ago too. I find that it’s not a matter of revivalism as much a matter of keeping that [tradition] alive. I think there’s a reason to go back and listen to that if you’re a musician. It’s like going and reading a lot of books if you’re into literature. It’s a matter of getting exposed to the right things – that’s one thing I realized when I was exposed to a lot of the late ’60s/early ’70s stuff. I felt like ‘well, gee, this is going way back.’ But from there I went all the way back to…” he considers for a moment, “You know, I believe cave men probably made some great tunes.”