The fastest way from Point A to Point Z is to believe that there is nothing in between, that the letters fall in sequential order, with the ending tucking in logically behind the beginning. For expediency’s sake, it’s best to ignore the holes, hold-ups and haranguing zig-zags slowing the smooth process of linear progress.
As such, Black Taj is the debut album issued on Amish Records from the band of the same name, a rock ‘n’ roll quartet with two gnarled guitars, a subterranean bass and a drum set that’s played with a strength that threatens to split snare skins with every wallop. All four of the musicians–Tom Atherton, Dave Brylawski, Steve Popson and Grant Tennille–know each other from other bands and decided on forming Black Taj after those other bands, all famous and infamous for their idiosyncratic impressions, broke up. That is so simple: They met, formed a band, made a record and found a label.
But, of course, there’s the question of those other points, known–for clarity’s sake–as B through Y. Life isn’t expedient, and it’s certainly not logical. If life is chaotic, then the lifespan of a band is but a subset following suit. Mostly, lines are only lines if the zoom is fractal.
As such, no one knows what Point Z will be, but it is possible to get close to a real Point A. Dave Brylawski and Steve Popson were childhood neighbors in Durham, and they’ve been playing music together for a long time.
“If I had lived across the street, none of this would have ever happened,” laughs Brylawski, a barrel-chested guy with a gruff voice.
He’s standing at the center of the Birds of Avalon’s practice space, which overlooks the asphalt-and-streetlight vista of Capital Boulevard in Raleigh. Popson leans against the door and chuckles, taking a break from periodic bites of a slice of steaming pepperoni pizza. Back in the ’90s, these two were half of Polvo, a Merge Records legend that ranks with Slint as one of the most interesting, unorthodox things to come out of primordial indie rock. Polvo grabbed hold of everything around it and spit it all back out in acerbic alt-tunings and big, mutating rhythms. Their last album, Shapes, was released in 1997.
Now, Popson co-owns Kings Baracade–the performing epicenter of the Raleigh rock circuit–with Birds of Avalon guitarist Paul Siler. Siler has already packed the van for the Birds of Avalon mini-tour that begins in the morning, so he agreed to lend the practice space to the band. Black Taj will join them for all four dates–Asheville, Nashville, Athens, Ohio and Chicago–making debuts in all of those cities save Chicago. Tonight, they need to squeeze in a practice before leaving.
But shouldn’t they be well-rehearsed by now, less than 16 hours before they embark on the first tour behind their first album, released just two weeks ago? And shouldn’t they have their own practice space? And aren’t they going to pack the cars soon?
No, sure and hopefully: Brylawski, the impetus behind the band and the only one that has kept it going constantly since 1998, has consistently lived hundreds of miles from his bandmates–Orange County and Raleigh residents all around–since the band formed. First it was New York, then Nashville, and now New York again. He has been visiting every three months to practice, and–since the band formed–several Black Taj sessions have gone on tape in Raleigh, D.C. and Chapel Hill. The practice schedule and slow, long-distance path have been tough. Partial break-ups constitute most of the points during Black Taj’s extended evolution. Once, Brylawski flew in only to find that there was no practice space, only three apprehensive bandmates.
“All of us had reservations about this, except for Dave,” explains Tennille, Brylawski’s bandmate in the erstwhile Idyll Swords. “We just didn’t know if it was worth it.”
“We had a band meeting at Fat Daddy’s,” Brylawski remembers. “In the rain.”
“Yeah, we had four frown burgers,” Tennille laughs, sitting on an amp and leaning against the wall, playing with his brand new tuning pedal and noting that, for the first time, he’s going to try the $100 savior’s stream function on tour.
Everyone chuckles, and Brylawski moves the story of Black Taj through another snagging point: “I came out of that meeting thinking that if I was going to do Black Taj, I would be doing it by myself. But, one by one, I begged them all to come back.”
Atherton interjects, maintaining that he was willing to help Brylawski even then. Tennille posits that it was the songs–especially “C Jam,” “maybe your best song ever”–that brought him back into the fold.
Atherton actually did leave the band long enough for Brian Walsby–drummer in Daddy, Patty Duke Syndrome and for a time in Polvo with Brylawski and Popson–to join the band and to actually record tracks with them.
“Brian is my favorite local drummer, but I think he would agree that he and the songs didn’t fit–he’s more mathy and calculated, I think,” Brylawski explains. “But Brian gifted to us the ability to coalesce our songs and to get a lot recorded in a shorter time.”
“One of my reasons for quitting then was I didn’t think I was as functional in the studio as I was in the live setting,” agrees Atherton, who always seems unjustifiably reserved about his substantial role in the band.
Atherton–formerly of The Jimi Hendrix Inexperience–is actually the band’s second and fourth drummer. Washington, D.C. drummer Jon Theodore recorded on the first sessions, but left late in 2001 to join the major-label pad of The Mars Volta.
No one frowns on Atherton for leaving. Actually, Brylawski insists that he’s the only member never to quit.
Popson laughs and then disagrees, maintaining, “I’ve never actually said those words.”
Three minutes later, Popson realizes he’s brought all of his gear to practice, except his bass head. It’s still down at Kings. He rushes out, grabs his amp and lugs it in. He promises to be back in 10 minutes. No one’s mad, but they’re anxious to practice.
But, seriously, what’s 10 more minutes?
Black Taj plays with Birds of Avalon and TV Knife at Kings Saturday, Nov. 26.