Kerry Zettel's brashly noisy, post-punk outfit Das Llamas played their final show in the sweaty bowels of the Cha Cha Lounge in July 2008. Their dissolution was a surprise to the band's fan base, which had just begun to absorb Das Llamas' sophomore effort, Class Wars: K–12, released less than two months prior.
See Me River With Grand Archives and S (Jenn Ghetto). Tractor Tavern, 5213 Ballard Ave. N.W., 736-5009. 21 and over. $10. 9 p.m. Thurs., May 20.
But Zettel already had one foot out the door with his new project, a goth-tinged folk-rock band called See Me River that had recorded and released a self-titled debut in late 2007. While that project's softer tones and more introspective themes initially seemed to represent a dramatic departure, Zettel now sees it as a natural evolution and a parallel extension of his lifelong love of both genres.
"I have always been into punk, metal, and hardcore—and will most likely be until the day I pass on," says Zettel, explaining his career's creative trajectory. "I picked up my first bass at 16 and played it in punk, hardcore, and post-punk bands until I was in my mid-to-late 20s."
It was collaborative work with Jesy Fortino of the dark-hearted acoustic act Tiny Vipers that re-ignited his interest in the country standards he'd sung throughout his childhood, and the more intimate territory he could cover when the walls of distortion and electric amplification are torn down. "I realized how fond I was of my old acoustic guitar," he recalls. "It was like catching up with an old friend I hadn't seen in years."
Zettel recorded and mixed some of Fortino's early works for Luckyhorse Industries (the indie label she was on prior to signing with Sub Pop), but the later material they played on together was lost. Still, the experience was just the spark he needed to take the leap with See Me River, a band that has since recorded two more full-length records and one EP (a second is set to drop later this year), which have enjoyed broader critical and commercial success than Das Llamas. This week, they'll celebrate the completion of their third full-length, The One That Got a Wake, with a record release party at the Tractor on Thurs., May 20.
On a recent postcard-perfect afternoon on the beach at Golden Gardens in Ballard, all five of See Me River's core members are discussing the new record after lunch at neighboring Cuban sandwich stand Paseo. Zettel and bassist Evan LeSure are playing with the tiny hermit crabs scattered among the rocky shores, while drummer Kellie Payne, guitarist Joe Arnone, and keyboardist Ken Jarvey bask in the sun. "Kerry's songwriting has improved dramatically since I first started playing with him," says Arnone frankly when the topic of what keeps the band together arises. "There were a couple of 'sea shanties' on the first one," he laughs, referring to some more clichéd moments early on. "But now he writes really great songs."
Recorded with local producer Chris Common at Red Room Recordings and released jointly on Zettel's own label, Aviation Records, and Megan Birdsall's Don't Stop Believin' Records, The One That Got a Wake is indeed See Me River's most self-assured, cohesive, and refined-sounding release to date, though the recording process was a bit of an organic free-for-all at points.
"Ken was playing accordion, me and Joe were playing guitar, Kellie was playing shakers, and Chris Common was playing tambourine and stomping on the floor," says Zettel, recalling the group romp that informs the track "Betrayed." Though the band's country-noir roots remain apparent, a slight psychedelic shimmer stretches over the material, especially on the haunting title track and the folk/fairy tale–inspired yarn "Baba Yaga."
Zettel returns from the water with a crab in his palm and an obviously earnest desire to give credit to the band's current collaborative writing style. "I come up with the basic skeleton of [the songs], and everyone else throws the muscles and the meat on it," he says.
Zettel remains close friends with his former bandmates in Das Llamas, and has been a vocal supporter of guitarist Shawn Kock's excellent new punk project, Absolute Monarchs, but it's clear he's in a better space now with his own band. "Das Llamas was a great time and I love those guys dearly, but we all had different ideas about how we wanted things to progress. I have zero regrets about my decision to move forward with See Me River...this music is just an honest extension of who I am."