On a warm evening in Anchorage the four members of local band Historian sat comfortably together, crunched up on a bench seat in their midtown practice space. Nathan Hurst, Daniel Zawodny, Marc Bourdon and Jason Lessard have worked hard to get where they're at now. Things didn't always use to be this comfortable.
"We tried really hard for a long time, and we failed and struggled a lot," Hurst said from his seat in-between Zawodny and Lessard.
Bourdon chimed in, offering an explanation. "It took us sort of a long time to realize what our sound was. We would have these really agonizing practices where we'd work on one song a thousand times, we just didn't know what we sounded like. It was really weird to us."
Historian's heavy instrumental backings are reminiscent of popular 1990s bands, but the keyboards combined with Hurst's low, unwavering voice lift the group up and out of the decade, modernizing their compositions overall. As such, their sound is quite unlike other contemporary indie-rock outfits.
"It was just so different from anything that any of us (individually) had ever done." Zawodny said, "It was ... uncomfortable."
A brief history of Historian
The Anchorage music scene is fairly close-knit, so it's no surprise that most of Historian's band members either knew each other or had previously played in other bands together.
"I got together with Dan to play," Hurst said, "It kind of started with me and Dan writing some guitar songs ... and then we thought it was probably best for me to move to keyboard, since that was my primary instrument."
Hurst and Zawodny soon asked bassist Bourdon, who they knew by way of a mutual friend, and drummer Luke Gorder to come aboard. Gorder eventually left the band, and the three remaining members brought in Lessard, who joined just before Historian released its first album, "Dream Crusher" in May of 2012.
"I was in the Smile Ease, and Dan was in about 300 other bands," Bourdon joked, "And I think the first time I met Jason he was with the Gigantic Spiders."
Zawodny made sure to sing Lessard's praise. "Jason was in a really, really awesome pretty influential local punk band called Los Gran Torinos and they played quite a bit in the mid-2000s."
Hurst, Zawodny and Bourdon were confident Lessard could fill Gorder's empty shoes.
It took some time, but after Lessard joined, the group felt collectively prepared to lock-in and focus not only developing their sound, but understanding it better too.
"I think within the past 6 to 8 months, maybe longer, whenever I come to practice with a new idea everybody knows what to grab onto," Hurst said. "There's no wavering ... (and if there is) we're able to play through it."
"We know who we are and we know now what we sound like now," Bourdon added.
The result is two-fold: A beautifully technical, albeit relatable, new release called 'Romance' and the official christening of the band's sound, something they call "doom-wop," a play on the 1950s' "doo-wop" which the band describes as whimsicality smashed into despondency.
A light dark "Romance"
"(Our sound is) definitely dark and, uh, it's funny cause I don't think that I'm a dark person," Hurst said. He paused, thoughtfully staring off before adding, "Well, I mean, I guess I have a dark sense of humor ... it's just what I have fun singing about. I like telling weird abstract stories about dark stuff. They're usually about relationships or your sense of self ... just your typical human shit."
"Romance" isn't quite as dark as Historian's previous album "Dream Crusher," but the collection does have its moments. Hurst often draws inspiration from classic poets with darker reputations. Edgar Allen Poe, William Blake, Robert Frost and others show up periodically, linking lived experience with the world of the subconscious.
In track four, "Noise and Scratch," Hurst sings about his teeth falling out before launching into the song's hook, "Now that I feel/emotional, a (once) still living thing/ I've got miles to go/ before I sleep/ before I dream/ before I believe." The last lines, a references to Robert Frost's poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, evokes the deep twinge of emotional suffrage and struggle.
As someone who appreciates poetry, it goes without saying that Hurst would be interested in lyricism and figurative language. "I've never really been a fan of really literal work that's easily understood. I've always been attracted to obscurity and interpretation (and) interested in hearing lyrics that make you think one thing, but then they might turn out to mean something else."
So, how can the listener understand the album's title? Hurst said he chose it because, overall, "it seems to make you think about the content of the songs and their relationship as a whole." The album is a complete piece, which the title is meant to reflect.
"It's almost like a placebo," Bourdon added, "directing the listener to interpret (it) in a certain way."
The album, in turn, offers rich textures, sonic depth and some lyrical mystery. It does hint at a sort of romance, but the kind that leaves you in longing. Historian's "Romance" fosters a desperate optimism laced with emotional cruelty -- a portrait of someone tragically in love ... with the wrong person.
Contact Katie Medred at katie(at)alaskadispatch.com