Photo by Paul Trapani
by Andrew LauThe music of Conor Jonathan and Eimer Devlin - originally from Dublin, Ireland, and now based in San Francisco – is described by Adam Hervey of Pehr Records as "a very dry, time-standing still feeling. I heard their old band back in the '90's and I loved how hypnotic, simple and un-rushed the whole albums were."
'Hypnotic' and 'un-rushed' summarizes the guys' latest incarnation - as [the] caseworker – equally well when Pehr Records released their second album, When I Was A Young King, this summer. Its mesmerizing "Markievicz's Walls" - crafted to daze any listener - encapsulates their long, slow brand of hypnotherapy as a thin line of feedback leads into a gentle churning riff and vocals before a barrage of guitars, drums and hollow harmonies wash away the bottom. Music as smart and appealing as this generates a natural urge for the band to hit harder: when [the] caseworker resists this obvious temptation, the band stands in complete control. Their songs are musical anomalies, soundtracks to long stretches of open land.
Although their faces display that 'Just-Finished-The-Day-Job' look, our interviewees are welcoming and, once the discussion turns towards their craft, their demeanor changes. Both are in their thirties and have been making music for years, learning a few lessons on the way; after so much time as creative partners, they know one another inside out, understanding limitations, but with a keen sense of where they are and where they're going. Conor has a knack for hilarious stories tempered by caution and cynicism, while Eimer's easy-going manner is strengthened by a perseverance that excludes over-emotionalism. That doesn't make them dour however; with self-deprecating and biting humor often helping them make a point.
Conor: "I really do see everything now as fast track to getting on to a major. A band comes out of nowhere, in six months they're everywhere, in nine months they're at Coachella and a year later they're on a major label. I don't really hear much that I find very challenging or interesting or innovative. It seems to be a lot of power chords and goofy vocals... it's all a bit of a joke..."At nineteen, they split from Dublin, jumping first to London, then to Northern England encouraged by friends in the area and the lower living expenses it offered. The plan however, was always to head for the States. "Americans are very encouraging," says Conor. "If you say you want to do something, Americans tend to go: 'Yeah, do it.' Less so in Europe. It's culture."
Eimer: "...except for Scott Walker."
Conor: "Yeah. I'm obsessed with that record, The Drift. It's amazing... I wish there was more stuff like that out there, that's all I can stomach. It's irrelevant, the entire industry... We're going to keep making records and we're never going to be a buzz band and that's fine. Our records are better."
Sending out demos on arrival paid off. Within a year of landing in the Bay Area, they hooked up with Monte Vallier (then of the band Swell) who took them to the next level. They got down to business quickly; Vallier recorded two 7" singles and then Swell took them on tour through England.
By July 2000, the band – known as Half Film - had released an album, found some great reviews and a fan base, but still decided to pull the plug. Soon ("about two minutes after," according to Eimer) [the] caseworker was born, taking their name from a George Konrad novel. A good portion of their debut was written during 2001, during a self-imposed exile in Spain. Once back in San Francisco, they put it all together Vallier producing and former Swell drummer Sean Kirkpatrick sitting in. They created a watershed album, These Weeks Should Be Remembered (Manifesto Records, 2003).
Vallier moved from his place behind the mixing desk to the stage, helping them replicate in live appearances the gentle swoosh of their studio work, adding guitar, vocals and sometimes second bass. "I recorded their first record but I wasn't planning on being in a live band," he says. "I don't think they were planning on being a live band until after that record. I never considered myself a member officially; not a member who makes any decisions or writes any of the music. It was really fun for me because, here I am a bass player, and I get to play guitar, which I've never done live. So it was fun to play the little strings."
The big difference with When I Was A Young King is the immediacy it carries: dispensing with old-style meandering, only one song, "The Kick," tops the three-minute mark. Monte assisted Conor in making arrangement decisions: "Okay, forty seconds and you're into the first chorus, that's good, that's pop. [laughs]…I help figure out which way to make the biggest impact." Despite the continuing lethargic feel permeating the music, its new sense of get-in/get-out comes with no loss of integrity. They still produce great guitar and bass parts, but now emphasize the giant spaces.
Having cut all musical fat, the set is condensed into eleven tight songs; "State" stands out as a tension-builder heightened by Eimer's bass, and biting lines from Conor: "You're talking to me / in your filthy English / You roar and you scream".
Eimer comments, "The song always seemed a little negative, and I like that" but there's no political axe being ground here: it's more psychological, based on Samuel Beckett's novel Molloy. Conor explains, "The person he's thinking of is completely unaware of his existence; he's dreamed their relationship, their connection. I love those lyrics, I love singing them. This record is more direct and lyrically better…not as indulgent. I was more excited when I wrote it and had a drum machine around... I tended to play around more with speeds. I didn't want to make another record that was really slow. I guess in my head I was trying to make a pop record but it doesn't sound anything like a pop record."
The band's first nation-wide trip is on the horizon and the anticipation is palpable.
Conor: "I just want to get out and drive across the country and see what it looks like," he says. "There's little tiny pockets of interest all across the country..."And as for the future, they've planned out their most obvious course already:
Eimer: "I don't know if it's for the band or for drinking buddies [laughs]. We spend almost a week on the east coast."
Conor: "The last show is at a youth club in Salt Lake City. We do well in art clubs, we don't do well in rock n' roll clubs 'cuz we feel like idiots standing up on stages in front of a rock n roll audience."
Eimer: "Some of our best experiences have been in youth clubs, especially in Europe."
Conor: "Little dive-y places...'cuz there is nothing worse than coming [to a rock venue] and dealing with sound people and grumpy bar staff and the pressure to bring heads in through the door. In an art space, people are more relaxed, the band is more relaxed, it's friendlier. That's where we belong. The music comes across better, the people are more attentive, they listen better as opposed to waiting for the headliner."
Conor: "I've never been out, I've never been across the U.S."
Eimer: "We've never done the traditional slog across the U.S., it'll be interesting to do this, to see what it's like. Believe me, we've played enough miserable shows to know what the feeling is like and I'm sure there will be plenty of those along the way [laughs] but the consistency of being out for any length of time is certainly important."
Eimer [flatly]: "We're waiting for Celine Dion to cover one of our songs."
Conor [as flatly]: "Yeah. That'd be great, actually. That'd be about as surreal as you can get. I think she could translate one of our songs in a way that would be…very amusing... and"
Eimer [interrupting]: "Don't be modest. He's chosen the song. [laughs]"
Conor: "It's a few years away, but we're on a collision course with Celine Dion. She's gonna know about us, she's gonna cover us. It'll be beneficial for both parties. She's going to get some really good lyrics and a good melody."
Eimer: "It's going to be a heartbreaker."
Track the Caseworker down on the web at http://www.myspace.com/thecaseworker or http://www.caseworkermusic.com
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