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Austin Chronicle It Takes Two

Sharing Bed and Band

By Christopher Gray

AUGUST 14, 2000: 

"O my Luve's like the melodie, that's sweetly played in tune." -- Robert Burns, "A Red, Red Rose"

Few themes cut straight to the heart of music quicker than love. It dates back to the earliest instances of Homo sapiens altering the pitch and tone of their voices in order to get some sort of Paleolithic point across. Judging by the amount of "music" found in nature, our not-quite-erect ancestors were communicating via prehistoric variants of "Let's Get It On" and "Heartbreak Hotel" long before their brains evolved sufficiently to dream up such exotic concepts as written and spoken language.

Let's fast-forward a bit. Past all the ancient folk ballads of betrothal and betrayal, past the scores of operas and symphonies devoted to the domain of Aphrodite; even past the pack of blueshounds whose romantic pursuits either gave eyesight to the blind or wound up on the killing floor, and all the country folk who asked why baby why they were so lonesome they could cry. It's vexed great poets and philosophers from Plato to Tupac Shakur, yet it's so simple. "L-O-V-E," sang the Rev. Al Green. "It's what the world is made of." And apparently since the Sixties, if you're looking to start a band, love truly is all you need.

The pages of music history are crammed with more couples and intra-band coupling than a Vegas wedding chapel at midnight. Cutting like a scythe through stylistic, geographical, and generational variances, from Sonny & Cher and the Mamas & the Papas to No Doubt and Yo La Tengo, that crazy little thing called love is directly responsible for the existence of more bands than could ever be assembled for even the most comprehensive of Rhino box sets.

Ike & Tina Turner, X, Blondie, Pussy Galore, Wings, New Order, ABBA, Heart, Nashville Pussy, Sonic Youth, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Fleetwood Mac, Culture Club, and the Smashing Pumpkins -- no matter if the individual relationships survived the rock & roll wringer or not, these bands (and oh so many more) have taken great pains to ensure nobody, from Peter & Gordon on down, has to live in a world without love.

"That's part of the appeal to me when I hear X or something," says Aaron Blount, principal songwriter for Austin etherealists Knife in the Water. "There's that male-female thing, and it makes it seem real -- when you hear songs about people living together and having a hard time."

Why is love so ubiquitous in the pop realm? Because in the words of Bruce Springsteen -- even before he fell for Patti Scialfa -- "two hearts are better than one." When it comes to providing the public with poignant lyrics and a steady beat to slow-dance or nurse a heartache to, two hearts can get the job done all right. Since one of the cardinal rules of songwriting is write what you know, it's musicians' personal experiences that have supplied jukeboxes, late-night radio dedication shows, and wedding bands with a never-ending tide of material.

Of course, few professions are more notorious for leaving behind a trail of broken hearts and busted relationships than that of musician. Then again it makes perfect sense; music is one of the few things that can even approach love when it comes to consuming human passions, and can be as spiritually gratifying as the sweetest embrace. Musicians are constantly faced with a choice non-musicians are rarely forced to make: Do they commit to the music or the muse? Dare they do both? It's not an easy decision.

"Every guy I know, you've got a girlfriend pissed off that the band takes priority," says Telray's Alan Durham.

"There's no way that I could be in a relationship with someone in a touring band if I wasn't with them," says Adult Rodeo bassist/vocalist Stephanie Mankins, who met boyfriend/bandmate Rob Erickson at Rhode Island's Brown University. "I can't see how anybody does it any other way."

Considering the all-consuming hold music exerts on its practitioners, not to mention the myriad of lifestyle idiosyncracies that are all but unfathomable to fans, musicians shacking up with their own kind seems inevitable. Who else could truly understand them? There are other, more practical, reasons for dating within the band, naturally, but there are just as many reasons not to. Lené Clare, who plays bass to husband Tom Cuddy's guitar in Austin alt.rock mainstay Do It Now Foundation, initially tried to avoid dating in the workplace

"When we first met, I wouldn't play in a band with him, because I thought that was too many eggs in one basket," says Clare.

Cuddy nods in agreement.

"I had had problems and she had had problems with nonsupportive mates before we met," Cuddy says. "So I wasn't about to get seriously involved with anybody who [wasn't a musician]. If they weren't a serious musician, they'd have to be totally obsessed with something to the degree I was obsessed with music."

Tchiya Ahmet Vela, who sings and plays keyboards for Hip Hop Humpday/Flamingo Cantina regulars Tchiya & the Lighthouse Band, views being in the same band with her drummer, percussionist, and husband Mario as practical.

"Honestly, I started performing because I knew if I didn't, I'd never see him," she laughs. "I met wives of musicians before and you never see your partner."

Sheridan Roalson, who dated and/or shared a stage with Durham for almost a decade, agrees.

"You're in close proximity with each other, you pretty much know what's going on, you're working together as a team, you don't have the issue of the other girlfriend or the other boyfriend, and you can pretty much just decide as a couple your priorities," explains the singer.

While the two continue to play thickly textured, melodic rock & roll together in Telray, sharing guitars, vocals, and songwriting, they ceased their romantic involvement two years ago. And yet ...

"People still assume we're together, just because of the way we interact," acknowledges Roalson.

"It came up last night, out of the blue," concurs Durham. "Somebody said, 'I love the Sonny & Cher thing you guys got going on.'"

As hard as it can be for audience members to distinguish between band members' musical and personal relationships, frequently it's no easier for the musicians themselves. For some, it's essential. For others, it's impossible.

"I think what's tricky about it is there's so much that's required of having a successful romantic relationship, and then there's so much that's required of having a successful artistic relationship, so you're just sort of like doubling the odds," posits Roalson.

"It's so intertwined," agrees Blount, who was already dating singer/steel guitarist Laura Krause when Knife in the Water formed.

"I know it happens more than we want it to," says Krause, "but I know we've tried really hard not to bring our personal life into the band situation."

For her part, Roalson readily admits that romantic concerns regularly "bled" into her and Durham's musical enterprise. Tchiya Ahmet Vela, on the other hand, thinks blowing off steam in the practice room can be therapeutic to a couple's non-musical relationship.

"When we do come on the rough spots -- not communicating verbally very well -- we're still able to go into the music room and play music together, and that tends to smooth things out," she says. "Sometimes I say, 'If we can just get in there and play, I think we'll be OK.'"

"I think it's been instrumental in keeping our whole family together," Mario Vela says of his and Tchiya's musical partnership. "It's definitely been very helpful for us to keep in a relationship and a marriage and all that, because we're really connected in that way."

"It's never been music or our relationship," agrees Tchiya. "They're not the same, but they're really connected. I think our world-view, our spiritual view, is pretty much the same, so he's the person I want to play music with. I haven't really met that many other musicians in Austin that I have that interconnection with."

According to Adult Rodeo's Erickson, that interconnection can sometimes leave other band members feeling out in the cold.

"Sometimes it'll be Steph and I just off on a tangent, talking to each other in our coded familiar language, and the band will be 'Hey? What the hell?'" laughs Erickson. "Sometimes we just forget that there is a way that we talk to each other that everyone can understand, and a way that we talk to each other that no one can understand."

Anyone who's ever been in love knows what a rush it is to meet someone who gets you, who can finish your sentences, who knows exactly what you're going to say before you've barely even thought it. Add a shared passion for music on top of that -- while bearing in mind that music is almost universally cited as the most sexual and spiritual of all the arts -- and the resulting mix can be too potent to ignore.

"I think we're just so much more affected by the lyrics and the music," says Beth Frydman, who splits guitar and vocal duties in local funk-rock quartet Quatropaw with husband Jason Richard. "When I hear Jason singing the words, and it's a love song, I feel like I'm so much more connected to the music."

"It's much easier to play with Beth because we've been leaning on each other all these years and we just know each other's style and complement each other," Richard says. "It's been developing so long that when we go out and do something on our own, it almost feels like part of it is not really there."

Lest we forget, for these couples and the many more like them who choose to pursue a living through music, being in a band is also a job. And it's not the kind of job where you can turn off the computer at 5pm and go home to watch The Simpsons, either.

"Doing an alt band is like a 24-7 commitment," says Do It Now's Clare.

To be fair, it's a commitment most musicians prefer to, say, punching a time clock or working in some cramped Dell cubicle. One way musicians say sharing a band with a significant other really pays off is when it's time to hit the road.

"We get to have our best friend along with us," Blount says. "You get to share everything."

Most intra-band couples know the road experience is quite different for them than for their bandmates who don't get to tour with their partner. Adult Rodeo's Erickson says it's particularly painful to watch bandmates who do have someone to leave behind try to keep up the relationship long-distance.

"Having been on the road with two men and my sister, all of whom have not only boyfriends or significant others but recently acquired significant others, all of them are like on the cell phones or at the pay phone or buying phone cards, trying to stay in touch," he says. "It's miserable. We're very lucky in that one respect."

For Cuddy and Clare, touring also afforded them a way to spend time together outside a musical context.

"We were able to enjoy touring, because if we had any time off, we'd take off and explore the city," Cuddy says. "That allowed us to not irritate the rest of the band."

With young children at home, the Velas and Quatropaws aren't able to tour like many bands. Nevertheless, aspects of their musical relationship reverberate into their home life all the same.

"Even a lot of times with [their 20-month-old son] Jacob, there's music involved in that," says Quatropaw's Richard, "because of all the nursery rhymes, you're constantly making up songs for him that he's going to be into."

"If we didn't have a band, I think we'd still keep working [with one another]," maintains Mario Vela. "Even if we didn't play live together, she wants to record albums for children, and I think that's a great idea."

"This is just something that I feel like I have to do," rejoins Tchiya. "He keeps me focused on moving forward instead of getting bummed out when things aren't going right. I really don't know if I would be doing music if it weren't for Mario and his support and guidance."

It seems the more secure a couple is offstage, the easier it is for them to work through the inevitable rough patches onstage.

"There's a stability element," explains Richard. "If you're playing with someone in a band and you have a problem with them, it's like having a girlfriend -- it's very easy to go, 'You know what? We're not working out. Let's just go our separate ways.' Whereas since we're married and all, we have to work through it."

That's not always an option, though. Sometimes, for whatever reason, it just doesn't work out. And even amid the inevitable pain of breaking up, a couple's musical connection can sometimes withstand the dissolution of their romantic involvement.

"I really like those stories like X, like Superchunk, like these different bands where the band actually survived the couple, but with the couple still in it," chuckles Krause. "To me, that's a really strong couple if they can maintain their musical link too."

Fittingly enough -- especially in light of the deep-rooted bonds intertwining music and love -- Durham's description of the musical bond between him and Roalson could, in a slightly different context, also describe the ideal romantic coupling.

"We accent each other," he says. "Her strengths are my weaknesses, and my strengths are her weaknesses, and when you put it together it makes a whole."

In the end, like so many things, it all comes down to perspective, though it's hard to argue with Cuddy's assessment that if you can't stand to be around each other 24-7, you're probably going to break up anyway. Beyond that sage advice, each couple's circumstances are as different as their music.

"I can't say what it's like to be in a band without being a couple," Krause admits.

"I can," Blount replies immediately, "and I would say this is way better in every way."


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