Perfect Sound Forever


American shoegaze: their early years
by Tim Shannon
(December 2008)

No matter how great a band may be, nothing can save them if they're out of sync with the world around them. It's become the story of a hundred cult bands that were widely ignored and are now praised today as trailblazers. During Medicine's career, America was at the height of its grunge fever and took little notice of anything straying too far from that sound. The band was creative and innovative with pop hooks to boot, but it never translated into the success they deserved. Their interest in making listeners swim in a swirling abrasive ocean of distortion stuck out like a sore thumb in the '90's. Over in England, it was an entirely different story, where shoegaze was embraced with open arms and getting plenty of exposure, allowing many bands to flourish. Unfortunately there was no John Peel or NME equivalent in the States to champion this new music. Medicine is often referred to as America's answer to My Bloody Valentine, but it appears no one was listening when the response was given.

On paper, it seems like shoegaze music should have never been popular. Wall of noise guitars, frequently incoherent vocals and a sound inspired by Sonic Youth aren't exactly the formula for accessibility. As Nirvana did for grunge, My Bloody Valentine accomplished for its respective genre, prying open the doors of record companies and showing that there is a large crowd for this music. With the popularity of MBV's Tremolo and Glider EP and Ride's Nowhere, it displayed that this type of bands could really have a future. I take particular delight in John Peel's astonishment of the commercial status of shoegaze, saying "it set a new standard for pop. It's the vaguest music to have been a hit." Now a channel had been born where the avant garde and the melodic merged, which many bands would then utilize. When MBV shook club walls on tour in 1992, there's no doubt that Brad Laner (Medicine's main guitarist) was in the audience, carefully examining each guitar texture in his head.

Medicine always conveyed a sense of individualism and stubbornly uncompromising attitude about their sound that can be traced back to Brad Laner's roots. Growing up in California, he ingratiated himself with underground music of the '80's, playing in the experimental-noise band Debt of Nature and later on, as a drummer for noise rockers Savage Republic until their demise. The idea for Medicine came about not in a traditional garage setting, but from some four track recordings Laner was working on in 1991. "I kind of stumbled onto a very interesting approach to recording guitars, which in turn inspired me to write a bunch of sounds around that sound," he recalls. After showing the tapes to some "industry" people, he was told that if he formed a band that sounded like the tapes, he could get a record deal.

He soon assembled a band of musicians plucked from the L.A. music scene including vocalist Beth Thompson, drummer Jim Goodall (from the DON days), bassist Eddie Ruscha and guitarist Jim Putnam. When coming together, their output would show a wide cross section of influences like late Beatles, Hendrix, industrial (Throbbing Gristle, Nurse With Wound), experimental krautrockers (Can,Neu,Faust), punk and post punk (Black Flag, Wire) and of course late '80's UK Bands (Cocteau Twins, JAMC, MBV). Adhering to advice that a guitarist should find his own tone, Laner did just that, providing a distinctive element for Medicine. Instead of using an arsenal of effects pedal he couldn't afford anyway, he applied DIY ethics to distortion, running his guitar through a Yamaha 4 track recorder with all the knobs turned up and in a wonderful discovery, he found an unique head-splitting distortion.

On the basis of the original demo, the band got signed to Creation Records, attaining the honor of the being the first American band to do so. This achievement would however prove to be darkly ominous as the fact stands they were only able to secure a record deal in England. It would be months later until Def American would pick up their debut for distribution in their own country.

Listening to their debut, Shot Forth Self Living (Creation, 1992), is like getting a ticket to a carnival of noise with candy melodies and all the accompanying thrills. The first track, "One More," takes you on a lengthy visceral rollercoaster ride of psychedelic feedback and vicious noise that's exciting in the chance that you could crash at any moment. In the strangest (and most brilliant) combination of melody and dissonance, "Aruca" starts off in some mad laboratory for guitars with crushing musique concrete sounds before somehow evolving a beat around what sounds like a car skidding across the road. Then this seemingly underwater slide hook tantalizingly lures you in while Thompson's gentle vocals entice you further. Thanks to Youtube you can now see the video for the song here (I urge you stop reading for a second and watch that if you haven't seen it before). "5ive" is nothing short of transcendental, as if it were beamed down from the skies. A curved riff comes flying out on "Defective" and eventually morphs into this wave of melody that uplifts you, making you feeling free and invincible. "Queen of Tension" gives out a much-needed breather, gradually unfolding like the beauty of watching a firework explode in slow motion.

The album is a stone cold classic of disorienting bliss. It also helped distinguish them from the pack by taking a much more brutal and aggressive approach to noise than their peers. Shot Forth was met with approval by college radio and alternative newspapers, with even a few of their videos getting on MTV.

In England, it did so well that Creation released two separate EP's with singles and B-sides from the album sessions: Aruca and 5ive. They may be viewed as mere collector's items now but are worth tracking down if only to hear two of the songs on it. First, there's the gorgeously sedate ballad "World Hello" (from "Aruca") that's intoxicating like the warm air on a summer night. In a rare occasion, Laner and Thompson share vocal duties, weaving harmonies together in an ethereal tone: "If you could see that the world is inside out" they softly sing showing a dissatisfaction with others priorities and later on offering an unconditional embrace ("I wont judge you, all the insides are what matter"). The other song is "Time Baby II," all distorted and fuzzy grounded by a fat melodic bass line and Thompson promising that you don't have to let the dark consume you. It's a tragedy these gems were heard by so few. They could have both easily been hits, although Medicine never seemed too concerned about being popular. Either way, a fansite for them was kind enough to upload the tracks for everyone at the Unofficial Medicine fansite.

Ironically, when they got over to England to perform, they were met with a less than favorable reception from the press. In what should have been an inviting atmosphere, they had hipsters congratulating themselves on noting a fairly obvious resemblance to MBV. "I've got psychic scars to last a lifetime from the roasting we got in the UK press whenever we'd go over there," Laner remembers. Apparently, the press wasn't too open to bands from another country that they hadn't discovered first.

Medicine's debut was Laner's first time in a 24 track studio and he mentioned feeling pressure about having to live up to the original demos and translating them to a full band record. The label was expecting a hit but he refused to compromise his vision."I don't think it would have been a big hit if I had laid off the edgy sonics," he explained. For the next album, he would incorporate an entirely different approach. Many basic parts would be recorded on a home machine, allowing him more of a sense of comfort with the material. There would also be more collaboration between the band members.

With The Buried Life, Medicine took a bold, creative step forward. The album had more diversity than the previous album, experimenting with new styles and sounds. The band had finally found their own identity, stepping out of the shadows of MBV comparisons and into something that can't be easily categorized, which surely pleased the band.

"The Pink" starts the record with a circular sawing riff that pulls you in, backed with a strong melody. An elegant piano and screeching distortion both make an appearance in the song that ends with the riff being sped up to a manic heart racing speed. They then explore the often neglected hybrid of dance and noise with "Slut" that uses a dance beat around constantly shape-shifting dissonance. "Never Click" is the centerpiece of the album and it's perfect single. Immediately, you're grabbed by the revved up slide (an amplified bic lighter) and the booming catchy bass. In the middle part, they go into full freakout mode, unleashing a tornado of thrashing noise.

The album has lighter ideas, as well in the shimmering ambience of "Fried Awake" and the wavey "Beneath the sands." Realizing that he probably wouldn't get the chance again, Laner took $6,000 from the label's budget to hire Van Dyke Parks to collaborate on a song as a "fun major label indulgence." The resulting track would not only become one the most surprising and unexpected moments on the album but also one of its best. "Live It Down" starts as a beautiful classical arrangement with Beth's soft voice floating over the strings and piano before radically shifting to euphoric noise that sounds ripped from the soundtrack of a perfect dream. Ending the album is "The Earth is Soft and White," a long noisy experimental collage in tribute to Laner and Goodall's Debt of Nature days. The Buried Life is the kind of album that rewards it listener upon further spins.

The album gained them even more attention, being written up in magazines like Creem. The Buried Life would also be the first album to released by an American label after signing a deal based on the success of their debut. Finally, someone in their own country was recognizing the talent in their own backyard, but they wouldn't be the only ones. While on tour with JAMC, Curve and Spiritualized in 1994, the band were approached by some film makers. They requested a song for their upcoming movie and to make a brief cameo in it. Not wanting to pass up an opportunity like this, the band agreed and reworked "Time Baby II" into the breezy translucent version aka "Time Baby III." The movie would turn out to be the major box office hit The Crow- it would be their biggest exposure ever and the only reference point many people would have for the band.

The American label was eager to release "Time Baby III" to coincide with the film's success, which Laner countered with by proposing a remix record of the band's songs. He asked Robin Guthrie of Cocteau Twins and Smashing Pumpkins leader Billy Corgan to take a creative crack at Medicine's songs as they were more than willing to work on the project. The resulting Sounds of Medicine EP has other people interpreting their music, but the changes aren't dramatic- a few extra vocals by Liz Fraser (Cocteau Twins) on "Time Baby III," an electronic beat on "She Knows Everything" and some more prominent harmonies on "Little Miss Drugstore." The highlight of the EP is the extended noise workout on the live version of "Lime Six" that's dense enough to get lost in for days. This is the closest most of us will ever get to hearing Medicine live and Laner confirms that it's an accurate representation of them in concert.

By the time they were making their third record, Her Highness, the band sounded like they were on their last legs. Communication within the band and between them and their label and management were strained. Exhausted and suffering from self doubt, Laner reflected "I knew I wanted the band to evolve somehow but I didn't know how to go about doing it." Consequently, an unmistakable air of apathy and weariness is embedded in the music. "You've got nothing to lose, wash me out of your life" is an archetypal lyric from the album. One look at the black and white picture of a decaying castle only further illustrates the music inside. Merely treading water, the noise that was once a key element to Medicine's identity becomes secondary with hollow, ghost-like vocals pushed up front. Despite the bleak subject matter, songs like "I Feel Nothing at All," "Aarhus" and "Heads" retain the spirited noise of their best material.

Soon after the release of Her Highness, the band called it quits. Tragically, this was at the time they were getting huge offers to tour with Garbage, the Cranberries and Marilyn Manson that they all turned down. In retrospect, it was a good decision, citing Laner "I quit in order to survive because keeping the band afloat was destroying my health in mind, body and spirit."

Following the demise of Medicine, he switched his creative side in a fresh direction in the experimental electronica of Electric Company that released several albums over the next decade.

In the meantime, over in England around 2003, a "crappy dance music duo from London" had started using the Medicine name to which Laner put a halt on as fast as he could, contacting their label Wall of Sound. After winning that battle, he decided to re-assert his ownership of the name by putting out another Medicine album that, oddly enough, would be released by the label he just fought with.

Having met Shannon Lee (Brandon's sister) on the set of The Crow years ago, he contacted her and they collaborated together as a duo on new material. Fans expecting vintage Medicine noise on The Mechanical Forces of Love will be disappointed, but the album is still entertaining for those interested in electronica, processed drums and sweet harmonies. In 2007, Laner released his solo debut, Neighbor Singing, which featured hazy lush psychedelia sounds, at times like Smile-era Beach Boys, with a random schizophrenic charm to it.

Most recently, he has been working on the score for the upcoming shoegaze documentary Beautiful Noise by Eric Green, set to be released in 2008. The documentary is to cover the rise of bands that may be a distant memory to some including Ride, Boo Radleys, Slowdive and Lush, while also paying respect to originators JAMC and MBV. Originally, Laner was being interviewed for the film when he offered to help by doing a soundtrack for it. The project is described as a labor of love and Laner raises expectations, stating "It's very substantial, with lots of information, history and great interviews with all the key players."

Could all this new attention and re-assessment make Medicine more popular than before? Possibly, but he doesn't seem worried either way. "I have absolutely no regrets about the music we made and that's all that really matters in the end. The recordings are still there and I love them all."

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