Kenny Childers, lead singer and primary songwriter for the Bloomington band Gentleman Caller, says his formative years — when he trod “a strange tightrope walk between Christian Pentecostal fundamentalism and booze and drug-laden hedonism” — are a key influence on his songwriting, and they’ve directly inspired two of the darkest and most compelling songs on his band’s new album Gentleman Caller vs. The Elephant (Musical Family Tree), “War Drum” and “Flaming Arrows.”
“War Drum” starts in a muted setting dominated by a steadily-picked acoustic guitar, an organ (by the second verse) and Childers’ plain-spoken, slightly anxious voice: “Your legs behind the pulpit / the banjo was trembling and floating / I wished into you like an ocean / The spirit blew open the shutters.” Then a full set, more electric guitar and organ, a few bells and backup singers join Childers on the chorus: “War drum, organ swell and the choir is singing / Your dress swinging low and the bells ringing.” It’s perhaps the best song on a uniformly strong record, not only because of the direct but still poetic language, but also because of the sensitive and dynamic way in which the song is orchestrated, with the band sounding a bit like a church choir on the chorus but not didactically copying the lyrics (no war drums), and staying true to the simplicity of the acoustic guitar and voice that are at the heart of the song.
Childers dug into his childhood for inspiration on “War Drum.” “That song is what it’s like to be a normal 11-year-old boy,” Childers says, “sitting in a pew with a man screaming at the top of his lungs 10 feet from your face about how the world is coming to an end any second due to our society’s lusty obsessions, and there is some older girl with long brown hair across the isle and you are noticing she’s pretty, all while your mother nods blankly. It’s a pretty crazy juxtaposition. It feels pretty apocalyptic.”
If “War Drum” explores that conflict between the church and the natural world as it played out in the mind of a pre-adolescent, a track later in the record — “Flaming Arrows” — explores that same relationship later in life, when that puzzled child has become an adult compelled to violate those things held sacred. The song opens with sharp organ chords (dominant throughout), leading into a fairly conventional rock setting, with punctuations that sound like a duet between a high-pitched faux steel guitar and a very slow and relaxed ululation. The girl with the dress is back, along with her soundtrack — “Your dress sways, beats and hums / I hear tambourines, bass guitars and drums” — but now instead of turning to mother and the preacher, he suggests that “Let’s burn this town to ashes,” or, maybe even less sympathetically, “As I avoid your eyes / As I burn you, yeah / Burn you alive”
“While the surroundings have changed,” Childers explains, “the mother, the preacher and the angry God are still in that room, freezing the narrator, over-emphasizing the drama. The end is still near, even though I’ve moved on from believing in most of those stories or that God is going to show up any second and strike me down.”
Asked to explain away the matter-of-fact violence, Childers, who, in person, is kind, outgoing and does not seem like he’s suppressing immediate homicidal desires, explains that he’s working from his subconscious, and elaborates, “If I am going to let drama into my songs, I want it to feel as cold as it does in real life, like Lou Reed sounds in ‘Venus In Furs.’”
The rest of the album doesn’t always reach such a high emotional pitch as “War Drum” and “Flaming Arrows,” although the band is musically sensitive throughout, and Childers has a knack for writing a catchy song with few extraneous verses or melodies. Some songs edge into more conventional territory about frustrated love. (Childers admits to a difficulty in approaching women or acting on crushes, even while in a band in his early 20s.) Another strong track — “They Found Rita” — is a ripped-from-the-headlines tale about a woman found mummified in front of her TV after having been dead for a year (Childers wanted to rescue her humanity from a cnn.com article that could barely hold back the yuks).
Childers — with the caveat that his “recollection” may be a “little fuzzy” — says Gentleman Caller played their first live show in the fall of 2001, when he needed to put together a backup band following the release of a first record (Ice Water) that was recorded in keyboardist Derek Richey’s living room via a process of “smoking our brains out and recording sort of spontaneous melodies as they came to us.”
“Realizing from experience that I’m really not a very assertive front man or organizer, I just kind of tricked my favorite and most ego-less people from the local music scene to be in the band by giving them the impression that it would be a one-off show kind of project,” Childers says. Some of those performers on the first night have stuck around for seven years (Richey, bassist Jim Robinson and lead guitarist Chris Kupersmith). Others have moved to England (drummer Freda Love, of the Mysteries of Life, who nonetheless laid down a few tracks on Elephant). Childers explains that Gentleman Caller functions “more as a guild than a band … We are all in our 30s with sometimes disparate lives and schedules, so while we may have eight or nine people involved at any given time, we rarely play shows with everyone at once.” Ten people are credited as members of that guild on Elephant.
With all those musicians gathered on one stage or in one studio, arrangements are bound to become richer and more complicated, although Childers says that he’s only gradually allowed the guild the freedom and responsibility to flesh out his acoustic guitar based songs.
“I think you can hear a logical evolution through our three records,” Childers says. “Ice Water was far more acoustic and stripped down and done completely on a four-track. Until We Are Missing is sort of a snapshot of the inception of us becoming a proper band, but with me still doing a lot of the arrangement work. This latest record is far more of a free-for-all. I kind of come in and sing the songs and play my boring acoustic part, and then the band goes shithouse all over it.”
Where one might find mundane (and often endless) acknowledgements and thank yous in an album’s liner notes, Elephant includes remembrances that recognize and pay tribute to those family members and friends that Childers and the Gentleman Caller guild have lost in the past two years. “We’ve suffered more unnatural kinds of losses than you can really absorb in a short period of time,” Childers says. “We’ve lost young friends to a variety of catastrophes. And my wife and I lost a daughter, Roxy, on Aug. 1, 2007 … But as damaged and shellshocked as I probably am from losing Roxy and my friends, I also have a clarity that I didn’t have before…I tattooed Roxy’s name on the inside of my wrist to force myself to never shy away from acknowledging her or the tough experience of losing her.”