Mellowdrone’s singer, guitarist and chief songwriter, Jonathan Bates admits that he has a compulsive streak when it comes to making music. “I don’t like playing a song the same way twice, which will either win people over or do me in,” he says with a laugh. “For me a song is never really done because the possibilities are limitless if you start out with a great chord progression and a strong melody. That’s what fascinates me about songwriting–once you have the foundation, you can build anything you want on top of it and then you can tear it down and start over again.”
Box–Mellowdrone’s debut on 3 Records/Red Ink–was recorded in various Los Angeles studios. The eclectic collection captures the Los Angeles-based quartet’s mercurial vision with 13 songs that shift effortlessly from moody space-pop that ripples with otherworldly textures (“Limb to Limb” and “Four Leaf Clover”) to razor-sharp synth-pop pulsating with dance beats (“Oh My” and “Amazing”) to brooding new wave imbued with slyly infectious melodies (“Beautiful Day,” “And Repeat,” and “Fashionably Uninvited”).
With producer Tony Berg, Jonathan Bates and company found the perfect foil–a willing co-conspirator who encouraged musical experimentation as well as a sober voice of reason that kept the band focused. An accomplished session musician turned producer, Berg has worked with a wide range of artists from Beck to X. He met Bates in 2002 and was immediately struck by his precocious technical skills and his artistic innocence. “What makes Jon special is that he just intuitively knows what to do,” Berg says. “If he thought about what he was doing, the magic would be lost. He has amazing musical instincts that allow him to go for it and land on his feet every time.”
Another aspect of Mellowdrone that attracted Berg was the music’s sly subtext of humor. “When you hear the music for the first time, you think, ‘Wow, this guy is depressed about something.’ Then it creeps up on you and all of a sudden you’re asking yourself, ‘Did he just say, I’m getting high with my boss again?’ His lyrics are filled with those wry moments that catch you completely off guard.”
“The songs are intentionally simple with lots of familiar chord progressions, a big Phil Spector wall of sound and lots of compression and reverb,” Bates explains. “I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel, I just want to ride it for a little while. My objective was to dress these familiar sounds up differently.”
“Fashionably Uninvited,” one of Bates favorites songs on Box, was inspired by Angelo Badalamenti, the acclaimed composer whose music is an integral part of the films by famed director, David Lynch and Lynch’s cult television series, Twin Peaks. “I’m a huge Badalamenti fan,” Bates says. “The synth sounds on the album are basically an homage to Angelo’s signature sound on the Twin Peaks movie Fire Walk With Me.”
Much like what Lynch does on film, Bates says “Fashionably Uninvited” is about hiding something ugly underneath something beautiful. “Lynch is a subversive genius because he is a master at filming something creepy in a stunning way. This song is a lot of fun because it has a nice, happy melody washing over dark lyrics.”
“And Repeat” is a song about an obnoxious record executive Bates met a few years ago. “This guy basically sat me down and explained the formula for writing a hit song,” he recalls. “I went home that night and wrote ‘And Repeat’ using his ‘instructions.’ The best part is he loved the song but never figured out that the lyrics were about how big of an ass he is. I feel snotty for putting it on the record, but how could I resist? I like the song and there’s a hilarious story behind it.”
“Oh My” started out as a simple, tongue-in-cheek rock song, but quickly turned into an excuse for a big hairy guitar solo, Bates says. “The song needed something to take it over the top so I threw in a solo that sounds like Zakk Wylde, circa 1987,” he says. “I knew I nailed it because when I stopped recording my solo everyone was on the floor laughing.”
The album takes a conceptual turn with “Limb To Limb,” a song co-written by Mellowdrone guitarist Tony DeMatteo while he recovered from a near-fatal car accident that sent him into a coma for four days and left him bedridden for three months. “You can’t imagine how humbling an experience it is to lose control of your life and not know if you’ll ever walk again,” he says. “I would sit in bed and cry every night for a year because the pain was so bad. The only thing that got me through–and I know it’s cliché to say this–was the music. I wrote the music while I was living with a lot of pain and music was my only escape.”
If the accident and excruciating recovery were horrible, the timing was even worse. After a year of paying dues with tours and EPs, Mellowdrone was chosen by the Smiths co-founder and legendary guitarist Johnny Marr to support him on his European tour. The band joined Marr without DeMatteo, who was dealing with more practical issues such as learning to walk again. “I hated being left behind, but they had to go without me,” he says. “The whole experience just motivated me to keep pushing so I could rejoin the band.”
“Tony’s recovery was miraculous,” Bates says. “He was dead, they brought him back and now a song he wrote is coming out on a record. How crazy is that?”
Still hobbling around on crutches at the time, DeMatteo’s first performance after rejoining the band was on the Orlando Jones television show. “I was nervous, I sounded terrible and I couldn’t enjoy the moment,” he recalls. “Now I’m enjoying every minute of it, like each show is a gift.”
Born in Venezuela, Bates and his parents moved to Miami when he was 7. He began playing guitar at a young age and his waking hours were quickly consumed by guitar practice. At the age of 17, Bates’ fretwork prowess earned him a scholarship to the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston. The experience opened his eyes, and more importantly, his ears. “I quickly realized at Berklee that I was technically proficient on guitar, but I didn’t know anything about music,” he recalls. “I’d spent so much time worshipping the guitar and mastering it as a piece of engineering, that I missed the point–the guitar is the means to the end and the song is the end. It sounds so elementary, but it was lost on me until I was 20 because I was practicing so much. When I truly discovered music, the world opened up to me.”
A year before graduation, Bates left Berklee, moved to Los Angeles and formed Mellowdrone. Bates said the DIY spirit of Mark Linkous, a solo artist who recorded intricately-layered music under the Sparklehorse moniker, inspired him to become a recording artist. “I heard what he was able to achieve by himself and it made me want to try,” he said. “I even modeled the name Mellowdrone after Sparklehorse–both names have three syllables.”
After recording his first EP by himself on his computer, Bates earned a reputation as an electrifying performer for his one-man shows, which included him looping different instruments and building songs live on stage. Mellowdrone’s tour with Marr, Bates says with deadpan understatement, was educational. “Johnny was amazing, but if you want to find out what you’re made of as an artist, try opening up for him in Manchester in front of a couple thousand drunk Mancunian’s who aren’t shy about letting you know that all they want to hear is Johnny Marr,” he says laughing. “That will put some hair on your sack.”
After the tour, DeMatteo rejoined Mellowdrone and the band set out on a never-ending tour that included stints with the Killers, Phantom Planet, Secret Machines, Fire Theft, and Elbow. The band signed with 3 Records/Red Ink in early 2005.
And then back on the road. “I’m like a kid in the candy store because I’ll get a chance to reinvent the songs every night,” Bates says.