"I don't think people really know this about the band, but I really fell in love with Depeche Mode when I was little."
Earlimart With the String Dream Team and Patrick Park. The Triple Door, 216 Union St., 838-4333, thetripledoor.net. $12. 8 p.m. Sat., Aug. 25.
Listen to a sample of Earlimat's "Everybody Knows Everybody."
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Indeed, when envisioning what sort of Personal Jesus would preoccupy the soul of Earlimart frontman Aaron Espinoza, Martin Gore is not exactly who leaps to mind. However, Espinoza has plenty of praise for the arrangement skills of the leader of that synth-driven goth-pop outfit from the '80s as he chats via cell en route to the Ship, his band's studio in Eagle Rock, Calif.
"Martin Gore just builds and builds his songs," he explains earnestly. "It can be a simple chord structure, but on the next verse, there will be a new hook, and then another, and another. It's fucking relentless, nonstop hooks! I was really, really into that when I was young. My friends and I were skateboarding around, and they were listening to Black Flag and I was listening to Depeche Mode on my Walkman. That sort of new-wave '80s stuff...you would never think of that when you think of us, which I guess is a good thing," he laughs.
Upon further consideration, that childhood affection for gradually layered, hook-riddled compositions can be traced directly to the core of what makes Earlimart such a curiously charming and impressive chamber-pop/rock band. Alternating vocal duties with songwriting partner Ariana Murray, Espinoza assembles black-hearted, finely drawn melodies, supported grandly by gorgeous swells of orchestral buttressing that mesh beautifully with smart, sometimes painfully insightful lyrics about love, loss, and random acts of human cruelty.
"Fakey Fake," the opening track on their fifth and latest release, Mentor Tormentor, exemplifies that aesthetic perfectly. "Always been down with one of the two: You were the fake/And I was the fool," sings Espinoza in the delicate, hushed quiver that has earned him countless legit comparisons to his late friend, Elliott Smith. "But you were too young to know all the rules," he continues. "So I was the fake/And you were the fool." Murray is no less maudlin, waltzing ironically through "Happy Alone," extolling the virtues and practicalities of a solitary existence. Lines such as, "I've always known that I gotta be happy alone/So burn the mail/Destroy the phone," are delivered with a plaintive, resigned sweetness that wraps up neatly as she exits the song, observing drolly, "Our little hearts have turned to stone/They better be happy alone."
To be fair, they have plenty of reasons to be dour (though Espinoza has a warm, affable demeanor and is quite funny). Their previous record, 2004's Treble & Tremble, was pure grief therapy, written among the ruins of Espinoza's brutal breakup, and in response to the tragic death of Smith, a longtime mentor and close friend of the band (Espinoza and Smith met at the very first Earlimart gig in Portland). Their history is also littered with label troubles and rotating-lineup issues, both of which contributed to the extended incubation time for Mentor Tormentor. "We came off the last tour for Treble in a state of flux," explains Espinoza. "We had been dropped from our record label, we had money problems, and we had different band members leaving. So Ariana and I started making the record, and we never really had a time to stop. This fucking record took two years to make," he sighs with a tone that is at once exasperated and proud.
Thankfully, the shrewd choice to build the Ship recording studio made the delays manageable from a fiscal standpoint. "I built it as an insurance policy so we wouldn't be waiting around for some big, fat record-label guy to give us money to make records," he says pragmatically. "I just wanted us to always have a place to work." That work includes behind-the-board duties for Espinoza. In addition to impressive recordings with the Breeders, Folk Implosion, and the Silversun Pickups, he has produced all of his own band's albums to date, and his graceful, methodical approach is a reward in itself, giving Mentor Tormentor a palatial sense of space and sweeping grandeur that miraculously doesn't sacrifice intimacy. "I've been doing it for quite some time. I'm starting to get pretty good at it, I guess," he demurs modestly.
For their Seattle appearance, he'll have plenty of help fleshing out those lush arrangements, with assistance from a full string section and, of course, Murray, the creative partner he clearly holds dear and in high regard. "We have had so many people come and go with this band, and she's always been my rock. It's her and me, when it comes down to it."