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Tristeza: Words Get in the Way
by tim mcmahan








"We're kind of mysterious," said Tristeza drummer Jimmy Lehner via phone just hours before the San Diego band hopped into a van and drove over the border for a show in Mexico -- their first gig on a tour that brings them to Omaha's Sokol Underground Nov. 1 for a performance with The Good Life and Real-Time Optomists

Lehner was taking phone interviews is sort of a junket-format, and had to finish with another interviewer, who, he said, "was asking some really deep questions." My questions, I feared, were far from "deep."

Of chief interest: Why an all-instrumental band like Tristeza shuns lyrics and vocals. Let's face it, there simply hasn't been that many break-through instrumental-based rock bands. The few that come to mind -- Jeff Beck, Joe Satriani, Edgar Winter -- haven't exactly been in the limelight for a decade or two.




"There's always that thing in the back of our minds that we could get more meaning and expand our options with lyrics," Lehner said. "But the songs we have now are pretty thought-inducing, full of different emotions that kind of leave it open for interpretation. We do have song titles and listeners can do their own thing as far as meaning goes, and if they talk with us about the songs, they might find out even more. If we had a singer, it might take away from what we've accomplished."

For only being around a couple years, Tristeza has become something of a legend in the indie music world. They've been compared to Pell Mell -- another indie-instrumental outfit -- as well as Sea & Cake and Paul Newman, with influences that range from Red House Painters to trip-hop, dub and indie rock. The band's members have been in such seminal bands as The Locust, Crimson Curse, Swing Kids, Gogogo Airheart, Strictly Ballroom and Constantine Sankathi.

And while the commercial rock world is lacking these days when it comes to instrumental-only bands, the indie rock world is crowded with them, including Tristeza label mates The Mercury Program (who will joining Tristeza later on this tour), The Letter E, Don Caballero, Euphone, Pele and 5ive Style, to name a few. "It's getting easier to get people to our shows because there are so many instrumental bands around now," Lehner said. "It was hard in the beginning, but people are getting used to it, especially with our new record. Everyone who's heard it accepts it."

Lehner asks listeners of Tristeza's new CD, Dream Signals in Full Circles (Tiger Style Records) to do so unconventionally -- that is, get out of your car or office or bedroom and listen to the music in new surroundings. "Walk around listening to it with your headphones on," he said. "There's a lot more experiences that don't really come out unless you have an undistracted, free mind. Listen without distractions and you'll see."


"If we had a singer, it might take away from what we've accomplished."


"Hopefully in the future, I'll be living a musician's lifestyle rather than a rock lifestyle."


Sound trippy? It is. Remember that scene in Risky Business where Joel goes on a special train ride with Lana, and how the throbbing, hypnotic music was as much a part of the scene as what was going on in the seat? Tristeza's vibe takes you to a similar place. The nine tracks on Dream Signals… transcend whatever preconceived notions you might have about the instrumental rock genre. In fact, Tristeza's music speaks volumes beyond what the majority of today's typical indie rock communicates with its usual banal lyrics. The follow-up to the San Diego five-piece's '98 Makoto Recordings debut, Spine and Sensory, takes their lush, trance-y, drum-driven sound to even moodier extremes. With two guitars playing off each other and an understated keyboard drone shifting with the bass line, drummer Lehner provides the necessary grounding to push everything forward into seldom-traveled territory. This is pop music, pure and simple, but with the same lush undertones found on the best independent movie soundtracks.

When the band was in Omaha last April performing for a crowd of around 160 at the Sokol Underground, it was like being in the middle of a séance or a weird group meditation. Lehner and company's simple stage show -- which consists mainly of dark mood lighting and the twin guitarists bobbing in unison like urban snake charmers grappling King Cobras -- looks solely to the music to provide the otherworldly vibe. As simple as it sounds, however, the 45-minute set of tightly constructed, unbending rhythms left the band soaked in sweat and exhausted.


"Your body and your mind get worked over on stage and on the road," Lehner said. "When you're touring, you either have too much free time or not enough free time. It's so back and forth and up and down, it's just hard, physical work. The stress is grueling, but that's how you get records out. If we were doing film scores or whatever else, the music would do all the work for us."

Lehner said the band doesn't covet major label success, but ultimately wants to live the life of professional instrumentalists focused solely on the music -- not how they're going to get to the next gig. Composing movie soundtracks is one apparent escape route.

"If we were going to branch out, it wouldn't be to bigger levels within the industry, but moving out of the recording world and doing some straight-up film scores," Lehner said. "Then we wouldn't have to support a record with a live tour and do the whole rock and roll thing.

"Right now, the indie music world has become similar to the major labels. If we stepped up to a major label, it wouldn't be much of a change, except the scale would broaden. I personally want to do different things and not go that route. Hopefully in the future, I'll be living a musician's lifestyle rather than a rock lifestyle."

He might not have too long to wait. Lehner said independent film companies have approached the band with projects, but so far nothing has come of it. "We don't want to waste our efforts on a small project that wouldn't reach as many people as our songs should," he said. "Most (producers) have wanted to make films to our songs, which is great, but we're protective of our work. We'll just have to wait and see."

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Published in The Omaha Weekly October 25, 2000. Copyright © 2000 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.