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Beep Beep

Beep Beep: Personality Crisis

story by tim mcmahan



Lazy-i: April 1, 2009

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Beep Beep
w/ The Show Is the Rainbow, Cat Island
Saturday, April 4, 9 p.m.
The Waiting Room
6212 Maple St.

There is a bipolar nature to Enchanted Islands, Beep Beep's just-released sophomore effort on Saddle Creek Records.

Half of the 14 tracks are exactly what you'd expect from the band that released the psycho-sexual freak-out debut, Business Casual, back in 2004 -- yelping, pained vocals, hyper-acidic guitars, uncomfortable time changes, and disturbing lyrics that all combine to produce a sense of jittery unease.

But then there's the other half of the album -- organic, almost-traditional soft-rock and country-influenced ballads that sport doe-ear-soft natural and falsetto vocals, glowing guitars, and instruments that include accordion, Rhodes and Wurlitzer, even a touch of harmonica, all wrapped in a rhythm section straight out of Fleetwood Mac.

The first time I heard these softer, gentler tracks from the album -- over a year ago -- I didn't even recognize the band. On a number of levels, Enchanted Islands is a breakthrough for Beep Beep, a handshake between its brash Gang of Four-flavored past and a Roxy Music/Kate Bushian future.

It's a future, however, that's been draped in question marks since the band finished touring Business Casual in the spring of 2005. Over the course of four years, Beep Beep has seen an almost total change of personnel, leaving only one original member from a band that formed in 2001 out of the ashes of a handful of other bands whose members (including Conor Oberst and Todd Fink) would go on to define the first high-water mark for Saddle Creek Records.

Though drummer Mike Sweeney and bass player Joel Petersen were the core of the rhythm section, at the heart of Beep Beep has always been guitarist/vocalist Eric Bemberger (a.k.a. Eric Ray) and guitarist/vocalist Chris Hughes (a.k.a. Chris Terry).



Sweeney was the first to leave the band shortly after the '05 tour. "He just quit showing up for practice and stopped answering his phone," said Bemberger via phone from San Francisco, where Beep Beep performed the night before. He said Sweeney wanted to "settle down and sell paint." Despite the loss, Bemberger and Hughes began writing material for the next album, using a computer for the initial drum parts.

By the fall of 2007, the duo had first drafts finished for a number of songs, but was waiting for Petersen to provide the bass parts. "Joel just wasn't writing," Bemberger said. "Then he fired himself, saying he didn't really know how to contribute to the songs because he didn't understand them and was busy being the engineer at The Faint's new studio."

Bemberger said that while all that was happening, Hughes was being overwhelmed with his job selling insurance. "Chris then found this collectible and antique assessment company that's he's doing a wonderful job with now," he said. "His contributions fell off sharply as well. So it was me writing all this music and hoping for someone else to contribute some bass parts that I could write a second guitar part off of."

At first, A.J. Mogis (ARC Studios, Criteria) agreed to take on the bass chores, but two weeks before entering the studio Mogis hadn't written a note. That's when Darren Keen, the creative force behind one-man act The Show Is the Rainbow, stepped up. "The whole time, Darren said, 'I know I'm not a bass player, but just say the word.' He didn't even own a bass; it's not his first instrument but he's turned out to be one of the best bass players I know now. He pulled through amazingly."

With Ben Armstrong (Head of Femur) agreeing to take on the drumming chores for the recording, the band entered the studio with Petersen behind the knobs. Bemberger and Hughes had made a conscious effort not to replicate the style heard on Business Casual. "We didn't really want to limit or define Beep Beep as some sort of particular aesthetic, and were turned off by the misconception that the last record was this aggressive, masculine statement, which wasn't our intention at all," Bemberger said. "That coupled with an infatuation of all things Kate Bush and the idea that no matter what the musical context, the vocals would be smooth, for lack of a better word."

The band went into the studio intending to record a staggering 23 songs. "Chris was leaning on the idea that this was going to be the last record, so let's release it all," Bemberger said.

As it turned out, the last day of recording was Hughes' last day in the band. "His job was so Internet-dependent that he wouldn't be able to do it and tour," Bemberger said. "We had just got (the record) done and mastered, and then the Chris information (his quitting) came up and it wiped me out. I didn't know what the hell I would do. I certainly thought it was the end of things."

He said he "stared at the wall for a couple of days," then thought of James Reilly, frontman for Lincoln band Pharmacy Spirits. "He jumped right into it and spent many hours and many weeks learning the music."

Beep Beep's final touring line-up now consists of Bemberger, Keen, Reilly and drummer Ian Francis of Lincoln band Machete Archive. The band played South by Southwest in March and will continue touring through the end of April. After that, plans call for a European tour later this year.

There were those who wondered why the band bothered to stay together after Hughes left. For Bemberger, Beep Beep goes beyond personnel decisions.

"For me, Beep Beep isn't a band or identity or a pair of humans or one human," he said. "It's an entity that needs humans to propel it. I'm not too particular who they are as long as they understand it. The decision to continue was a combination of me having to deal with too many obstacles to give up seeing this project to its end, and just my desire to give it a chance."

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Published in The Omaha Reader April 1, 2009 Copyright © 2009 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.
















Beep Beep Enchanted Islands

"For me, Beep Beep isn't a band or identity or a pair of humans or one human."