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Music Review: High on lowsunday

Moody, majestic Pittsburgh band has a goth label, a goth fan base and a goth 'identity crisis'

Friday, March 30, 2001

By Ed Masley, Post-Gazette Pop Music Critic

They play at goth events.

Lowsunday -- A T Vish, Shawn Bann, Shane Sahene and Bobby Spell -- creates something beautiful for a rainy day.

They found their drummer through a posting on a local goth list.

Earlier this year, they signed to Projekt, a respected indie label owned and operated by the leader of the goth group Black Tape For A Blue Girl.

Ask them if they see lowsunday as a goth band, though, and Shane Sahene, who launched the band with different members and a longer name in 1994, will tell you "No."

As will his latest bassist Bobby Spell.

But that's when drummer A T Vish will more than likely step up, as he did the other evening at a coffee shop in Squirrel Hill, and say, "Of course we do."

"A goth band?" Spell asks, looking genuinely shocked that Vish would speak such madness.

"Sure we do," says Vish, who, with a smile that's sure to charm a million goth girls, adds, "It's an identity crisis."

It's not that you won't find a clearly marked sense of identity bursting through the wall of sound that is lowsunday's "elesgiem," a local effort that's about to be reissued with new artwork featuring the Projekt imprint.

The music is moody, majestic, emotional, beautifully textured if '80s-compatible drama-rock with shimmering guitars and heartfelt vocals pining for a rainy day.

And those are words you could apply to goth, of course.

But also U2, whose admirers would more than likely warm to the sound of "elesgiem" in a matter of seconds, and only in part because of Vish's Larry Mullen Jr. tribute on the high-hat that begins the album.

"I think we're appreciated by the goth scene," Spell admits.

"I just hate to say goth," says recent addition Shawn Bann (on guitar and keyboards). "It's so lost from where it started, but we're definitely dark-wave-oriented, shoe-gaze-oriented rock 'n' roll."

Although he'd rather not be pigeonholed, Sahene agrees that what they really are is dark wave (which, of course, means nothing to all but the tiniest fraction of the record-buying public but as Spell defines it would, like goth, be "moody, textured rock 'n' roll").

"Yeah," says Vish, who feels the band is goth the way the Cure was goth. "But at the same time, we're not disassociating ourselves from that whole goth thing."

"You can see," says Spell, "that we have no idea."

And they should have some idea, Vish (who says "We need to rein in what lowsunday is") will tell you.

But Sahene appears a bit more comfortable with letting people sort it out themselves.


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"Our goal," he says, "is just to take ideas to their limits, not on any other scale than our own, just pushing our own limitations, in our own little box."

"But I think it's important," Vish will argue, "that we recognize what I think separates us and makes us stand out in music in general today. I think the type of music that we make is distinct from what is on radio today or what is important today. You turn on The X and all you hear is Korn or Limp Bizkit. There's no melodies out there anymore."

"Or textures," Spell says. "We always focus on textures."

"And the bands that do that," Vish says, "like Radiohead ... you never hear Radiohead on the radio."

And it doesn't appear to be of any real concern at the moment to Sahene, who seems to feel as though he's finally arrived at that elusive reined-in definition Vish is after.

Shrugging off -- or possibly not hearing -- all the talk of marketing, he says, "I think we're just trying to create something to get lost in, you know what I mean? Within our own little box, just trying to create enough of an atmosphere to get lost in."

Those attempts at getting lost in the lowsunday atmosphere began in 1994 with Sahene at the helm of an early version of the group, Low Sunday Ghost Machine. He shortened the name, Sahene explains, because, in 1997, "after going through some changes, it just felt like sort of pulling up the landing gear. It just felt clean. It's sort of like a hot shower at the end of an exhausting day. You just sort of want to rinse everything off and let it go away. Refocus. Simplify."

But that's just technically -- historically -- the way the story goes.

Sahene would rather see the story as beginning now.

Or recently.

But not in '94.

"There are a lot of things," he says, "that I would now consider sort of pre-production. It's within this last year that it feels like everything is lined up in a way that you can now officially say 'This is the beginning.' Things are really looking up. There's a forward momentum that everybody has."

And part of that momentum is, of course, the aftershock of having inked a deal with Projekt. The Long Island-based, Ryko-distributed label, whose roster includes such acts as Black Tape for a Blue Girl, This Ascension, Mira and Lycia, is reissuing "elesgiem," an album Sahene and departed guitarist Shawn Leslie started tracking at Sahene's home studio in early 1999.

Vish joined while they were working on the record.

In the album's liner notes, the credits read:

"lowsunday is:

shane sahene -- vocals, bass, guitar, synth, kimball valencia

shawn leslie -- guitar


a t vish -- drums, spiritdrum, polarbong"

"I technically wasn't in the band then," Vish explains. "I put an e-mail out one day over the Pittsburgh goth thing and he ended up being the only person who responded to it. At the time I was slated to go out on the whole doomed Mace tour and I just went and met with Shane and really liked what he'd recorded. He was like 'Well, why don't you come over and we'll see how things go?' And I thought he meant 'Well, just come over and we'll jam a little bit.' But the next thing I know, I'm hooked up to a mixing board and he's pushing record. He's like here, listen to this song and I would play along to it and he recorded what I played."

The drums you hear now on "elesgiem," Sahene explains, were all recorded on the second or at most third time that Vish had tried to play the song.

Leslie, an "official" member on the album, left the group to focus on his daytime career in the spring of the following year, by which point Bann had joined the band.

"I guess it was right toward the end, when we were mixing it," Sahene recalls, "that we met Shawn. So we just started getting together as a live band then but the album was already sort of finishing up."

There seems to be a feeling that the first Low Sunday Ghost Machine CD was more traditionally goth than this one, but as Spell says, "that can be dictated more by not how you would represent yourself but who comes out to see you. And you can't determine that."

As Vish says, "If a bunch of skinheads showed up at our shows, then maybe we'd be labeled skinhead music. Maybe that's a better way of looking at it, how the audience connects to it. You have an idea of who you are but the people who come to see you sometimes end up defining you more than what you're doing."

"And so," says Spell, "if you follow that logic, I think in the past, Shane had a more dedicated goth following than he has now. I think people perceived it as more of a goth thing then."

The band hooked up with Projekt through a local college DJ named Tamara who happens to run a fan site for the band.

As Sahene has come to understand the hookup, "They were discussing playlists and the subject of lowsunday came up somehow. And [Sam Rosenthal of Projekt] was interested in hearing what we were up to, so we sent him a package."

That was in the fall.

They signed on Jan. 29.

As big a deal as signing on with Projekt is, it's not a perfect fit.

"The label's real ethereal," says Vish. "I would call it ethereal goth."

But that, Sahene believes, could be the key to their success.

"I think our role at Projekt is similar almost to the Pixies' role at 4AD," he says. "You know how 4AD had sort of their own thing happening and the Pixies came in and took things in a different direction?"

Lowsunday could do that at Projekt.

"We definitely possess a rock 'n' roll power that the other bands just aren't about," says Vish. "The other bands are all about, like, delicate, angelic vocals."

Actually, says Spell, the label did make a move in a less angelic rock direction when it inked a deal with Mira, a band that Spell says "sort of combines the rock 'n' roll aspect of what we're doing with the more ethereal stuff that he already had on the label."

Wherever you see the band as fitting in at Projekt, selling "elesgiem" here in Pittsburgh, where most fans already own it, could be problematic. But the label and the band are only so concerned.

"I think you have to remember, too," says Vish, "that based on Projekt's sphere of influence, Pittsburgh is a small drop. Yes, we have a fan base here, but I don't have great expectations. Pittsburgh isn't gonna make or break us. We're hoping that the world market is more what's going to get hit and marketed. The only people left in Pittsburgh are the Nick's Fat City crowds or the Rock Jungle crowds. We'd love to play at Nick's Fat City and make $700 a show. That could help us do a lot. But we're sure as hell not gonna get asked to play there."

The band stopped promoting "elesgiem" here in Pittsburgh after selling what Sahene is pretty sure was in the neighborhood of 200, 300 units.

"We knew that the way the contract talk was going, that it would be in our best interest just to stop distribution at that point," he explains. "So we just started kind of pulling stuff back in and stopped pushing the album at that point just to make this change work."

And so far, the change is working out as well as anyone had dared to dream.

"[Rosenthal's] shown a tremendous amount of support and appreciation," Spell enthuses. "Something else that I appreciate about the label is that Sam is also a working musician. So when we say we're struggling with something, he can understand."

"And plus," says Bann, "it has great distribution and marketing and advertising in magazines like Alternative Press."

Sahene, for his part, likes to use the word "proactive" when talking about the way they handle things at Projekt.

"He's been in business since, like, 1983 and he's put out about 120 albums now," the singer says. "So he's worked pretty hard at it. And he works really smart. He's very surgical. He doesn't waste a lot of promos."

On Easter Sunday, lowsunday is doing an in-store appearance in New York City at a Virgin Mega-store.

The label lined it up.

"It's just so pro, you know?" says Vish. "It's, like, so pro. Everything about it is so pro. And it's really refreshing because you struggle so much just trying to get your own crap together and then it's like you suddenly get on a label of that caliber and it's like bam, bam, bam, all this stuff starts happening."

To which Sahene can only add, "It's so proactive. Usually, the struggle with art in general is people dragging their feet. There's always, like, a weak link in the chain, people not doing what they could be doing. But [Rosenthal's] up at the crack of dawn. He works all night and weekends. Plus, it makes us look like more of a legitimate band. People have respect for that label and therefore his approval of us is just a verification of some sort to the consumer."

As much as the band would like to do its part by touring, it's a little early to be giving up the day jobs.

As Sahene says, "Our greatest frustration right now is that we're at a level where all the hardware is in place -- the distribution and everything is intact -- that could really handle a large flow of CDs. But we don't have tour support. It's really expensive when you're going to New York and doing shows. You're hoping you can pay the 200-some dollars in gas it takes and the trailer for $25 a day. So we're at that place where we're not expecting to get ahead but as long as we can try to break even and afford to travel, we will."

"There's a jumping-off point where you've got to make that leap of faith where you have to quit working," says Vish, who actually met Spell, a former archaeologist, at work. "And that's the problem right now. We can't do that."

What they can do, in the meantime, is get through the workday to get to their real life's work.

"This is what we consider ourselves doing," says Sahene. "And everything else is just the things we're forced to do to be able to afford to do it. 9-to-5 sacrifices."

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