by Craig Young
There's a quality to The Tremens that you don't find very often in the music world today: an ability to take their music seriously while still being able to inject some noticeable fun and humor into the process. In a musical day that, on the national level, showcases both the chest beating apes of nu-metal and the Barbie Doll sex of bubblegum pop, and, in the local scene, the shoe-gazing too-cool-for-you indie sounds, it's difficult to find an honest band with these qualities.
But it's a quality that's not gone unnoticed. Pacific Northwest music icon Steve Wold, who has put his recording stamp on some of the most influential bands to come out of Puget Sound, speaks highly of The Tremens. Commenting before his recent move to Europe, Wold said that the band was the one he'd miss the most, and the one he'd always hope to work with again. That's no lightweight compliment, friends. Their music is reminiscent of the tightly wound jazz-as-told-through-punk-on-a-surfboard sound of '80s seminal punksters the Minutemen, with singer/guitarist Quentin Ertel's lyrics focusing on girlfriends, his dog, and his house instead of D. Boon's (R.I.P.) political manifestos, but the end result is identical: fast, fresh and fun--with the live setting the place to best absorb the band's sound.
I first met Quentin a year ago at Seattle's Luau, where he tends bar. On the eve of moving to New York, nursing the warm comfort of several Bushmills, and watching a friend's hand suddenly erupt without rhyme or reason in a bloody stigmata, Quentin introduced me to his band's sound as we exchanged our mutual admiration for Minutemen bassist Mike Watt. [Click here to read Craig's Mike Watt interview. --Ed.] A year and two Tremens' album later, I had the opportunity to sit down again with Quentin--along with bassist John Mitchell and drummer Curtis Andreen--to discuss his band's music.
Things open up with a round of beer and a round of questionable jokes
Quentin Ertel: Why do guitar players keep drumsticks on the dashboards of their vehicle?
Quentin: So they can park in the handicap zone.
Ha ha! That one sounds familiar.
Quentin: Yeah, I picked that up from Chunklet.
How many lead singers does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Quentin: How many? Just one. He holds it up and the world turns around him.
Everyone: Ha ha ha ha!
Hey, how many indie rockers does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Curtis Andreen: How many?
[In a condescending tone] You mean you don't know?
Quentin: That's a great one!
I've been hitting a lot of all-ages shows lately and they seem to be pretty fertile places for light bulb jokes. Anyway, let's talk about the history of The Tremens and how you three got to where you are now, which is here at the seedy-but-blue-collar-comfy of Leny's Tavern.
Curtis: Quentin and I were in a group called Toothpaste 2000. I was filling in with that band for awhile because they needed a drummer. Quentin and I found musical similarities with each other that we didn't have with the other members so we just kinda split off and did our own thing. He was really into tight, funky guitar rhythms and I just locked in on that.
Quentin: It became apparent really quickly that Curtis and I clicked. [Toothpaste 2000] were great at what they did, but it was pretty much a straight ahead Brit pop band.
Quentin: So we packed up our gear one day and moved it into [John] Mitchell's basement and set about playing our own stuff. We had a few ideas but no songs.
[To John Mitchell] How did they end up playing in your basement?
John Mitchell: Quentin was working with me at Shaky Records, and Curtis I knew because we played in a band together years before. He and I are old friends, and Quentin and I met when Curtis joined Toothpaste 2000. Curtis and Quentin became fast friends and we just hit it off from there.
So you decided to start a band together and fuck all that good friends stuff up?
Quentin: Yeah. Nah, actually I think we're really lucky. If we weren't playing music together, we'd all still be hanging out together. Curtis and I were playing in Mitchell's basement and he'd come down and play with us for awhile before running back upstairs. We would egg him on to join the band; dangle little carrots out there even though we really had nothing to offer him even though we didn't even have a show, much less any songs.
photo by craig young
Curtis: We didn't even have any carrots!
Mitchell: I was in Dyke Van Dick at the time.
Quentin: We tried out bass players and everyone was horrible. So I called him up one night when I was shit-faced drunk and said, "Hey, man...you're going to be our bass player, dammit!"
How do you go about the songwriting process? Does everyone contribute equally?
Curtis: Oh, yeah. It's pretty equal.
Mitchell: It's Curtis and Quentin, really.
Curtis: Nah...it isn't.
Quentin: One of the things Curtis and I decided when we started this is that we wanted to have a band that didn't have rules, because we had just come from a situation where we were tired of dealing with that. So sometimes Curtis will come up with an idea on bass and I'll change it, then Mitchell will add to it, I'll change the guitar part and Curtis will add something else.
Mitchell: My writing is simple, straight ahead stuff. [Gesturing towards Curtis and Quentin] These guys write interesting, musically challenging pieces.
Huh, that's interesting because the bass lines in most of your songs are rather intricate.
Mitchell: Most of them are written by Curtis.
Wait, isn't Curtis the drummer? Are drummers allowed to do that?
Mitchell: He has an amazing ear for music--better than mine. My whole thing about bass is: don't be noticed. In this band I'm really a guitar player playing bass. When I first moved to Seattle I played bass because every band always needed one. So I've always struggled to separate guitar from bass, because the stuff I listen to and the stuff I emulate is very, very different from the stuff Curtis writes for bass. All the intricate bass lines in this band are written by him or Quentin, so I can't really can't claim much responsibility for what I play. Heh heh.
Quentin: That's not true, you've thrown down your own stuff, you're just a modest gentleman about it.
I was really blown away the first time I saw the band play live. There's a noticeably intense style, but when you listen closely to the different parts of the songs there's all sorts of clever little care-free hooks to get yourself hung up on. It seems there's as much importance put on making a strong presence with the song as there is to making sure you don't take yourselves too seriously in the process. How much of that is a crafted, conscious effort, and how much of it is just the way things turn out?
Curtis: You totally nailed it.
Quentin: Some songs on our records are ideas that I four-tracked years ago. Some songs we just came up with on the spot. We don't take ourselves too seriously, but we are serious about what we do. It's fun to write music that's interesting to play but that other people can enjoy too.
Not get stuck too far up your own ass.
Mitchell: Yeah. I mean if you want to watch someone jerk off onstage, you can go to Champ's Arcade.
Ha ha ha! Yeah, that levity shows up in a lot of the song titles you have: "Don Karaoke," "Crack Puppy," "Can of Ass." And the title of the new album: Lipsicate. Where does that come from? What does the word mean?
Curtis: It's Quentin's.
It's a Quentinism?
Quentin: Yeah. That was just something that popped into my head. I have a writing background, so I get excited about words. When "lipsicate" popped into my head I thought, "This is great!" I ran to the dictionary and didn't find it listed and said, "Perfect!" So it's not a word, per se.
Was it the sound that turned you onto it? It flows off the tongue nicely.
Quentin: It was an idea as a lyric first, and it just sort of worked. I was also under extraordinary pressure at the time to come up with lyrics because we had about a week's notice before we were to go into the studio and record the new album.
Tying into the issue of balance between seriousness and levity, how much work do you put into lyrics as opposed to the music?
Quentin: A lot of the lyrics just come out when I sit down. What rhymes with this, what idea works with that. Boom, boom, boom...and it's all there. The music always comes first. And a lot of that comes from doing so much writing and having it be such a tortuous process where you sit in a room for six hours and at the end you have three sentences.
Oh, how I know that feeling so very, very well...
Mitchell: But all of your writing is very real in regards to your current life. Most of the words are about your girlfriend or your dog.
Quentin: Yeah...or my house!
Let's talk about Shaky Records, its history, and how it intertwines with the band.
Mitchell: I was working for Tower Records for a long time and hadn't played or written any music in awhile. A friend of mine that I had played in bands with in college had a new band called the Hate Fuck Trio from Denver. I had been toying with the idea of starting a label and I got home from work one night and there was a tape of a demo he had done. I listened to it that night and thought "Holy fuck...this is awesome!"
Quentin: The first time I heard that Hate Fuck Trio tape I was amazed.
Mitchell: It was just so different from anything else I'd heard before. They had put out a seven-inch on their own of a couple of the songs from the demo, and I thought this was the perfect opportunity for me to start my own label.
Because the idea had popped into my head some time ago to start a label, I had gone and worked for a couple of labels--C/Z and Empty--in my free time. Both of those labels were very different with their approach to the business. I went back home to New York and got a few people interested in the idea, raised some money, and started putting out Hate Fuck Trio records.
How long ago was that?
Mitchell: Shaky Records was officially incorporated on Friday the 13th--September 13, 1996. When my lawyer called me to tell me it had been incorporated on Friday the 13th I didn't quite know how to take it...so I just took it as a stroke of good luck.
[Laughs all around]
Mitchell: But anyway, when I met Quentin we had talked about it very briefly. I asked him if he was into it, which he was, and that was when we became Shaky Records.
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