A little over a year ago, Spin magazine hailed the Geraldine Fibbers in its list of the 40 "most vital artists in music today."
But the hard-to-peg, country-and punk-tinged band from Los Angeles failed to ride critical acclaim to commercial success with its sophomore release, "Butch."
In February, Virgin Records dropped the Fibbers, with their aggregate U.S. sales of 32,000 for two studio albums, and the band went into an indefinite state of suspended animation.
Singer Carla Bozulich went looking for a real job and fell back on house-painting, a trade she had plied on and off since learning it from her stepfather at age 15.
"It was horrible. I was mortified," Bozulich said recently of her return to brushes, buckets and turpentine. "I was broke. I just had to get it together."
One job was enough to drive Bozulich, 32, to another career that in certain hands isn't even as creative as house-painting: She has become a professional songsmith, paid by her publishing company to come up with material that can be pitched to other performers in hopes it will hit big on somebody else's record.
Meanwhile, the vital artist in her has found another outlet. Bozulich and Nels Cline, the Fibbers' lead guitarist, are teaming in Scarnella, a duo whose upcoming album plays even deeper in left-field than the Fibbers, with avant-garde guitar dissonances and feedback explorations that call to mind Sonic Youth and inward, meditative vocals and lyrics from Bozulich that can evoke Tom Waits, or a less opaque Kristen Hersh.
Bozulich and Cline play as Scarnella tonight at the Long Beach Museum of Art--with Bozulich's friend, singer-guitarist Stephen Malkmus of Pavement, second-billed in a rare solo performance. (While the name Scarnella may suggest a lacerated cousin to Vampirella and Barbarella, it's only an anagram of Bozulich and Cline's first names.)
The two met several years ago when Cline, whose career has straddled the worlds of rock and avant-garde jazz, was playing in Mike Watt's band and the Fibbers were touring as an opening act.
They hit it off as friends, then discovered in a backstage, two-guitar jam session in Birmingham, Ala., that their musical sensibilities meshed. When the Fibbers' original lead guitarist, Daniel Keenan, was sidelined by tendinitis, Cline joined as a substitute, then became a full-fledged member.
Having been bruised in their shot at becoming major-label rock contenders, the Scarnella partners say their objective now is to make music that is strictly an alternative choice.
Their album was recorded for Smells Like Records, the label owned by Sonic Youth's drummer, Steve Shelley. It was conceived with an anything-goes approach; the only rules were that Bozulich and Cline would play all the instruments themselves and that they would stay clear of the country-music influence that often surfaced in the Geraldine Fibbers.
"Whatever musical history I have has been in the cracks, so for me [Scarnella] makes perfect sense," the lanky, spiky-haired Cline said last week as the duo paused for a lunch interview near its downtown Los Angeles rehearsal studio.
Exploring His Jazz Roots
Cline lent his wide-ranging guitar work to two of last year's best rock albums--"Butch" and Mike Watt's "Contemplating the Engine Room"--while also playing on so many avant-jazz sessions that it would take a scorekeeper to track them.
Among them are two albums in which Cline looks at inspirations that helped usher him into jazz: One is a complete remake, with guitar filling in for saxophone, of John Coltrane's album "Interstellar Space." The other revisits material from Miles Davis' 1970s experiments with jazz-funk and jazz-rock fusions.
"I'm kind of chagrined at playing a kind of retro thing on John Coltrane and Miles Davis in the same year, but they're both part of my post-adolescence," Cline said. And both suit his contrarian bent.
The remake of a free-blowing Coltrane album, he said, "started as a joke, because politically, in New York, the climate is so revisionist, to the point of writing the avant-garde out of jazz history. We," said Cline, referring also to his collaborator, drummer Gregg Bendian, "wanted to say, 'We care about this music, it changed our lives.' "
Bozulich, wearing a Bohemian ensemble of all black, with a cropped, black, Joan of Arc haircut, still carries bruises from the rise and fall of the Geraldine Fibbers.
When critical acclaim struck, this self-described shy person said, "I found myself trying to prepare mentally for what I thought would be the pretty terrifying experience of being famous. It was very confusing."
Instead, there was a letdown in which Bozulich says the most disillusioning part wasn't the lack of a hit but the experience of being treated as damaged goods. "People [in the band's management and record label] just turned out to be much less impressive, character-wise, than we would have hoped."
Bozulich and Cline had been talking about what Cline calls "a fantasy project for enjoyment's sake." The Fibbers' dumping and disbanding left them free to have all the enjoyment they wanted. In June they drove to Seattle, where they had lined up free studio time, stopping along the way to play their first Scarnella gigs. Most of the material they recorded was written during the trip north and in the studio.
It's possible to read Bozulich's downcast-but-not-hopeless lyrics as a response to the Fibbers' collapse, but she says the problems of one little rock band don't amount to a hill of beans compared to the big existential questions she has.
"I don't really care that much about disappointments trying to cooperate with corporate rock. I got a good ride out of it."
Instead, Bozulich said, songs such as the eloquent "Release the Spring," in which she sees life budding everywhere and struggles to find the same natural force of renewal within, are a coming-to-terms with the fact of death.
"If you ever had a chilly brush with mortality, it separates things into black and white very quickly, as to what's important, and what's not," she said. "I feel I have that awareness every day. I try really hard not to take life for granted.
"I've lost a lot of friends through AIDS, drug addiction and car accidents--15 or something. I have a lot of gay male friends, and for a couple years there it was a funeral march," she said. "It was crazy how many people were dying."
" 'Butch' was really heavy with that kind of pain, and the first Fibbers album ['Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home'] was too," she said. "A lot of things I did on those records were small gestures toward friends I lost and their families and toward just dealing with it."
Out of Darkness
With the Scarnella album, she said, "I feel like I'm on the other side of that. I was listening to the album the other day, and I thought, 'It's remarkable I've moved past that.' I'm not tied to that [emotional] anchor any more, and I'm really glad."
There are spots of humor on the album, and the mere sight of Scarnella live may hold chuckles. On certain songs, Cline stomps a bass-drum pedal while playing his guitar. Bozulich has numbers where her hands are doing playing guitar or bass while her feet try to hit separate cues on pedals that trigger a sampling keyboard.
"It's hard, but it's fun," Bozulich said. "It makes it a challenge. It's not set in stone, but we want to do it as a duo at least for a while."
Cline is committed to an upcoming tour with Watt. The Scarnella album is due in the fall, after which Bozulich and Cline will play more Scarnella shows.
Bozulich figures that, between the Fibbers and her previous band, the sex-obsessed industrial rock band Ethyl Meatplow, she has spent more than half of the past nine years on the road. She's glad of the slower, lower-pressured pace. And when the Geraldine Fibbers reform--something she vows to make happen--she says the band will look for a record label that's not expecting hits.
Of course, hits, or a reasonable semblance thereof, are what Bozulich now tries to craft in her day job as a songsmith-for-hire. She says she has had some amusing moments trying to write to standard verse-chorus pop structures after years winging it with no rules.
"It's an extreme adjustment," she said. "It's a trip though. It's fun. It's like Halloween. I crack up most of the time when I'm doing it. It's like putting on a funny hat, trying to be so calculating and contrived."
Bozulich is sure that she won't hate herself in the morning if she scores with this more overtly commercial form of courting success.
"No, I need the money," she said. "I think it's a respectable job."
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