Speaking in tongues can serve a secular purpose. And it can take you on a voyage of self-discovery. Ask Clifford the Homeless Guy, who came up with a formula for making plutonium out of household products while ambling by the river last night, random syllables and sounds taking him he knew not where. Or more to the point, ask Mike Dixon, a singer and guitarist for the Bloomington rock four-piece Memory Map.
About a year ago, the guys in Memory Map were sitting around Russian Recording, the studio owned by band member Mike Bridavsky. They had just finished an album's worth of instrumentals, a collection of guitar-driven songs that were bright, tight, dense and sometimes polyrhythmic in the style of math rock, but melody-driven, accessible and never complicated for the sake of complication.
The recording process went smoothly enough. Bridavsky, talking with me last week, joked that, "knowing that they'll be able to record for free," people are that much more likely to be in a band with him. Which isn't quite true, though Dixon, on the speakerphone during the same interview, added about the process, "Being able to take a leisurely pace with things and be more careful, it was like, 'Whoa, this is what it feels like to be in Coldplay.'"
But all along, they had wanted to add lyrics, and those didn't turn out so easy to come by. Dixon compares the writing process to a scene from the Metallica doc Some Kind of Monster that saw the metal band struggling to write any lyric at all, staring at a notebook as if it were one of the memory erasers from the movie Men in Black.
One problem was that the music was already pretty dense, and while it wasn't dense enough that it would have worked to perform the compositions without lyrics, there wasn't exactly space for them either. The band's makeup — three guitars, one of them occasionally masquerading as a bass; a drum set, played precisely and energetically — lends itself towards complexity, not to mention that band members are, as Bridavsky puts it, "not scared to play crazy guitar parts and make it work."
They tried to find another singer, hoping that she could find a way to make things work. And they did look for a she, trying out three or four female vocalists. None of them could figure it out, according to Bridavsky. "The music was intimidating; there was so much melody going on already that people were like, where would the vocals even fit in here?"
And besides, the guys in the band had already bonded, and a new member would have been superfluous. The three guitarists knew each other going in: Bridavsky, who gets to record just about every rock band in Bloomington through his work at Russian Recording; Dixon, who played with the band Rapider than Horsepower and had wanted to work with Bridavsky for some time; and Matt Tobey, who enjoys a significant following in the indie world for his work with the band Push-Pull and backing work for Kimya Dawson. Tobey joined the band at the behest of the two Mikes, Dixon and Bridavsky, leaving the three looking for a drummer.
Dixon found him first, announcing, as Bridavsky remembers, "'I know this drummer; he's got the touch.'" And he turned out to be Josh Morrow, an IU audio engineering student and member of the band Impure Jazz. Bridavsky approached him one night after an Impure Jazz show, and whispered to him ominously, "We'll be using you later." Somewhat younger than the rest of the guys, Morrow ended up being the brunt of Blink 182 jokes made at his expense, two of which made their way to the band's current bio.
It just wouldn't work to go outside the band: the big brothers had already begun teasing the younger member, and they'd all spent too much time working together already. So the guys looked inward, deep within, to that undeveloped element in each of us that knows no language. Call it the Id; call it the soul; call me on my hyperbole.
Here's Bridavsky: "Mike Dixon is a really cool singer, and he's really good at coming up with melodies, so we just kind of gave him a mic and he free-balled it." Dixon clarified: "Speaking in tongues. No lyrics, which have always been my least favorite part of writing songs anyway. I like good lyrics when I hear them, but it's not my strong point."
And so Dixon went Pentacostal on the tracks. And then came the time for deep hermeneutical study. Bridavsky again: "We copied and pasted the coolest things he sang, the coolest melodies, and we listened to that for a while. And then, based on that, we sat around and listened to whatever he sounded like he was saying or whatever syllables he used, and then we kind of made up words based on that."
And lo, an album was basically complete, and released in June of last year under the title Memory Map. Not that the record was, at the time, self-titled. For Memory Map began life as Holiday Band.
It was a fine arrangement for a time. Bridavsky was surprised that so many people were interested in the new album, given that it was self-released and that that their promotional efforts were limited to being on Bandcamp. But the record was little too successful, and Google results soon saw Bloomington's Holiday Band showing up before a cover band by the same name. And Holiday Band, "The South-East's Premier Party & Dance Band," happened to have copyright on their name.
In order to forestall threatened legal action, the band name and the album title were inverted, Holiday Band becoming Memory Map, Memory Map becoming Holiday Band. "And in the end, I like being called Memory Map," Dixon explained.
Thus, we have a new version of the old record, with the release of Holiday Band by Joyful Noise Recordings on 180 gm red vinyl (like a Jolly Rancher record, according to the band), as well as standard weight black vinyl and CD.
Bridavsky had worked with Joyful Noise labelhead Karl Hofstetter before, when other bands on his label had recorded at Russian Recordings. "Karl will not put out anything he doesn't believe in and that he's not into, and he's got pretty specific tastes," Bridavsky explained. "But I played him Memory Map and he was really into it right off the bat."
Band members are also at work on second album for Joyful Noise, due in fall 2012, or "right before the Apocalypse," according to Bridavsky. Because while promotional materials make out Memory Map to be something of a Bloomington super-group made up of members already active in other bands, the opposite is close to the truth.
"It seemed that when we started we were a side project band to a lot of people just because of the other bands we had played in, but I'm pretty certain for all of us this is our main musical focus now and we're all pretty serious about it," Bridavsky said.
Hear: Stream Memory Map in its entirety from the Joyful Noise Recordings site.