Thirty-One (08 of 31)

These days, I spend most of my time alone in an office in Kenmore Square, doing my job as best I can and trying not to go insane due to the lack of human contact. So when I look back through the archives of this website for entries to feature in this month-long series I’ve begun, I am often drawn to stories that tell the tale of times when I was not so alone.

The golden age of my social life, late 1994 through late 1999, was bookended by the development of two romantic relationships. From the day that JonMartin introduced me to Tracy in the late fall of 1994 to the day that Stephanie and I moved into our first apartment in September 1999, there were friends galore, parties of every variety, and very few moments spent entirely by myself. And one of the most interesting social groups to which I belonged during those years was a rock & roll band whose fickleness in regards to its name was symptomatic of a much larger problem — its members’ inability to focus its energies toward any one particular goal.

Soma: Behind the Music

Variously known throughout its existence by the aliases Social Growling, Brand X Detergent, Brand X, Sigma Six, Vocis Mirae, Other Voices, and, for a brief period of approximately forty-eight hours, Diet Soma, the “sonic gang” most often referred to as Soma was formed in the mill city of Lowell, Massachusetts in the middle portion of the 1990s. Though it’s line-up in the early days changed almost as often as its name, the band’s core members and founders, JonMartin and KenMills, remained fixtures of the group throughout its turbulent run.

Though various attempts at shows and recordings had been made with earlier line-ups, it wasn’t until November 4, 1995, at Martin’s Basement in Lowell, that the band made it’s public debut. For the three-song set, Jon (lead vocals) and Ken (keyboards) were joined by Paul Zeppelin* on electric guitar and the effervescent E. Christopher Clark on additional vocals. The band played two covers (“Country Feedback,” by R.E.M. and “Dominated Love Slave,” by Green Day) and one original, “Satin,” an ill-conceived bit of comedy written ostensibly to expose the band’s true level of creative talent to the exclusive crowd of V.I.P.s.

Here, now, is an excerpt from Clark’s journals:

Now, for some reason the one original was this song called “Satin” and I recall that Kyle was around for the rehearsal and had something to do with the genesis of it. Who the fuck knows? The song was pure shit though, so let’s not worry about it.

The very fact that we subjected anyone to that “song”, which was only kinda funny if you were us and you had been there for the writing of it, probably means we’re all going to hell. The gist of it was that you had JonMartin playing the part of a televangelist and asking for all your money… KenMills was playing an organ during this… and then we launched into this hellish, Satanic music. I think we were partially inspired by a song Jon had put on a mix-tape back in the day, by The Fools I think, called “Kill For The Devil.”

Strangely enough, the aforementioned Kyle Gothrocker* is the only witness to the creation of “Satin” who is still writing and playing music. His musical endeavors, as this writer understands, are, in fact, quite well-received in and around the Merrimack Valley. Perhaps this has something to do with him refusing songwriting credit on that abomination of musicality, but, really, we’ll never know.

What is certain is that the band would quickly bring other members into its fold in an attempt to broaden its musical horizons. Without a proper rhythm section, the first show had been relatively limited in scope. But with the arrivals, over the next two months, of Dubner, a drummer of occasionally dwarfen disposition, and Beth the Bassist, a lover of Smurfs whose parents were sure that the band was, during their breaks from rehearsal, subjecting her to pornography of some sort, the set lists would grow more and more ambitious, for better or worse.

With more members, possessed of far more talent, and little to offer beyond his ability to sing silly Green Day covers, Clark began to wonder, around the time of the band’s second show, a New Year’s Eve gig played at Martin’s Basement, whether there was a place for him. Again, here is an excerpt from his journal:

The things I remember about the show are sparse… had a massive headache. I suppose it was good I only sang on one song out of the eight and did very little on any of the others.

It does make me wonder what the point of me being in the band was at this point. I sat in the corner for most of the damn show.

And things didn’t get much better following the next show, on February 10, 1996:

The set was too long and my girlfriend couldn?t make it and I only got to sing three fucking songs. There was virtually no point in me being there. If they had cut my songs it probably wouldn?t have made a difference in the show. It might’ve even been better.

I couldn’t write songs with Paul and that’s what I wanted to do. I was only vaguely interested in doing covers. I half-heartedly prayed that someday we would have a guitar player with at least an ounce of creativity in his body.

Clark’s prayers were soon answered. When Paul Zeppelin departed the band during the spring of that year, the band brought in a new guitarist, [[andy|Andy Hicks]], who, it turned out, had far more than an ounce of creativity in his body.

Andy brought charisma to the band, and pure listenablity, and a half-dozen finished songs, to boot. Here is an excerpt of Clark’s thoughts on the band’s first show with Andy, June 1, 1996:

‘Tree Song’ eventually became ‘Orange,’ the Brand X classic. ‘The End,’ our epic nod to the Cure and other such wonderfully melodramatic and emotional bands, also made it’s only live appearance here. I forget how long it stretched on for but the key problem with ‘The End’ is that we never knew when to end it.

The title of this entry also points out a chief characteristic of the show. It really was Brand X and Andy Hicks or Brand X featuring Andy Hicks or whatever. He brought in finished songs of a higher caliber than we’d ever developed with Paul. He helped us fine-tune the old songs and soon he would be helping us write new ones. Andy was an infusion of energy into the band and we would never be the same, for better and worse.

Feeling more confident in their abilities with a new guitarist in the fold, the band recorded it’s first demo tape in the Summer of 1996. Far more ambitious than a group that had only just solidified its line-up should be, they set out to record six songs, two from each of the band’s primary songwriters (Martin, Clark, and Hicks). Recorded at Oak Grove Studios in Malden, Massachusetts over the course of two days in July 1996, the six-song demo was either a high point or a low point, depending on which band member you ask.

Some of Clark’s thoughts on the first day of recording:

When we actually got to recording we were told we’d be nailing the drums first and then worrying about rerecording everything else later. I think that made some of us not try as hard on the first takes, which because we were doing too many songs (six in all) sometimes ended up being the final takes.

By the end of the day though, we had rough cuts of each song and it was way more professional than anything we’d ever put together on our own shitty equipment. We were so drunk on the coolness of it that we hardly noticed all the damn mistakes — and God, were there a lot of them.

And some of his thoughts on the second day:

On the first side we sounded like a half-assed pop-rock band. On the second side we sounded like a half-assed goth band. We couldn’t even make up our mind what we were.

In 2003, Hicks added his own thoughts to the journal entry posted online by Clark:

We played The End once in rehearsal and it was the best thing I’ve ever played. Just real simple… Am-F-G… with swirly keyboards and I think Jon shrieked a lot. It was like a really good old Cure song… A Forest or someting.

It never worked again.

To celebrate the release of the demo, the band played it’s first show outside of Martin’s Basement in Lowell. The “Out of the Basement” tour began with a gig at Clark’s Backyard in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, on August 26, 1996.

Clark’s thoughts:

The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about this show is that nobody was really into it. The band was kind of into it but the audience, most of them at least, were talking and looked like they were falling asleep. The mosquitoes were out in force and if I recall correctly, Andy broke a string on the very first song.

Hicks chimes in:

drama drama drama. 

we also didn’t have time to rehearse the set until just before the actual show, when most people had already shown up. so we played the set, in effect, twice. and I broke a string during Orange, and i think the E on your dad’s guitar kept jamming so I kept making this weird ass pinging noise. all in all, a wonderful show for me self-esteem wise.

But, for all the hit-or-miss events of the summer of 1996, the band kept on keeping on. In the early part of the autumn, minus both Ken and Jon, the other four wrote what would become one of the band’s signature tunes, “Never Forget.” Clark supplied the lyrics, Hicks the music.

Clark:

I drove down from Bradford one weekday evening in the Fall of 1996 to do band practice and much to my surprise, there was no Jon and no Ken. It was just Andy, Jeff, Beth, and myself. We ran through a couple of the songs we could play with just the four of us and then we decided to try something out. We decided to try and write something new.

...I had some lyrics and Andy read them and then started strumming this simple riff. B-flat, D, E-flat and then again… Eventually he added a bridge that was only a slight variation. I can’t remember the chords. The chorus and the verse ended up being the same. Eventually, when he’d done the riff a couple times and taught Beth the Bassist the part, Dubner had begun to add drums. When the full band was going I added my vocal, singing the lyrics: “Makebelieve roses, doused in perfume. The man I loved, sealed in his tomb…”

By the time KenMills showed up a little while later, we had the whole song.

Hicks:

that was the best song we ever wrote ever!!!

...the veeeeery very rare video for this song (seen once or twice on MuchMusic!) features mr. clark dancing about a carousel like debbie gibson and the rest of the band playing in what strongly resembles a giant cotton candy making machine.

(Nota bene: Truth be told, the video is so rare that it has eluded even this dedicated researcher even after almost a decade of sleuthwork. Phonecalls made to both Mr. Clark and Mr. Hicks in an attempt to secure a copy of this Holy Grail were not returned.)

The “Out of the Basement” tour continued that fall with a series of shorter gigs, during which the band finally began to perfect a small subset of its repertoire.

Clark, on the September 28 gig at the Chelmsford Common:

It was a nice length, somewhere between the way-too-long shows we’d been playing for most of our existence and the short sets we’d be playing over the next couple of months. The thing that sticks out most in my mind about the show was that it was clear skies just before we went on and then it clouded up and looked stormy for our set, then got bright again right after we went on. It was as if someone upstairs was providing a little mood lighting for our schizophrenic, half-gloomy, half-poppy group.

Clark, on the November 24 Boy Scout show at Temple Beth-El in Lowell, played without Beth the Bassist:

The song that went over best was probably “Wonderwall,” which was a hit at the time. The acoustics of the place were pretty good and for the first time ever, all of us got up and sang — including Ken and Dubner. We hadn’t really arranged a campfire version of the song but that’s what it sounded like and I think they dug that.

Hicks, recalling something said to him by one of the Scout leaders that day:

“Now, what people want to hear is oldies. You’ve got to play the oldies. None of this, now, what exactly do you call that hairstyle, boy?”

Clark, on the first of two shows the band would play at Westford Academy (December 7):

We played in the middle of a snowstorm and we had enough power to turn on our keyboards but not enough power to play them. It is a common writer’s exercise to try and sum up a story with a single sentence and that’s how I would sum up the story of Brand X’s first show at Westford Academy in the winter of 1996.

Clark, on the show they played at his school, Bradford College, the next night:

First, we’d been rehearsing all day to prepare and we’d just played a show the night before. We were tired and we’d gotten angry with each other when we couldn’t get a slew of songs (including the oft-worked on and never-played Coconut Grove). Second, we were trying to do a full-length fucking show and we should’ve just been playing four or five songs. Third, the crowd was barely into it and that made the rest of the band barely get into it.

The band took a short break from public performance after that, changing it’s name again, this time to Soma. A great many good rehearsals were had, but there were far more poor ones. Tensions rose. Where once the abundance of ideas had been a good thing, it was now pulling people in different directions. And, most of all, it just wasn’t fun anymore for some people.

The band burned out with one final gig as a six-piece, playing Westford Academy again in what would be, in Clark’s opinion, their finest hour. Here are some of his thoughts on the January 18 gig:

First of all, the set was short. It was the length we should have been playing along. 99% of the trouble with Soma was that we tried to tackle too many damn songs. There would always be some new cover we wanted to learn or else someone would get bored with a song they’d written that we’d just started to get right. It was fucking chaos. The four to five song set was where we belonged. It was where we could have excelled.

...The premiere of my song “Proposal”... I’d written the angry lyric mainly in my continuing disillusionment with the memory of Tracy and we’d set it to music with a fucking kick-ass jam one evening. It was the fastest, angriest song we’d done and I believe everyone really got into it because it was a true team effort. The thing I remember most about this part of the show was that, for the first time, I got to hear Beth the Bassist kick ass. She’d hooked up to someone else’s bass rig for the show and MY GOD WAS SHE GOOD! It was as if all we needed to to was give her some fucking volume. Beth’s bassline got me through the song, which otherwise broke me vocally.

Hicks and Dubner left the band that spring. The remaining members of the band practiced several times before Hicks returned for a few impromptu jams, resulting in the group’s final performance, a birthday present to their biggest fan.

The band had only broken up six months before but it seemed like an eternity between that fateful day and this one, the day that we reunited for one show only for Nicole’s birthday party in Westford, MA. The four of us that hadn’t ever quit (Jon, Ken, Beth, and myself) had managed to coerce Andy to come back into the fold after a couple of rather unsuccessful rehearsals. We didn’t get Jeff back, but after an impromptu jam in Nicole’s garage earlier in the summer we decided we would play her birthday. She had been our #1 fan after all.

Will the greatest band ever to play in ChrisClark’s backyard ever rise again? Only time will tell. Until that glorious day, we leave you with an image that will warm your hearts, from the last great almost-reunion, a going-away party thrown for Beth the Bassist in August 2004:

*Some names have been changed to protect the guilty… I mean, the innocent.