Found in Translations
With Its Debut Album, Two If By Sea Perfects a Sound it First Picked Up in the (Sniff) Reagan Era
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The members of Two if by Sea hold secret band meetings and have forged a binding, lifelong pact. They're not trying to establish their own inner-sanctum cabal, however; this circle of five reminds you more of a boys' club riding bikes around the neighborhood searching for scrap wood to build tree houses. The meetings are usually about finding cheap places to meet and rehearse; the pact a promise among close friends rather than a blood-oath initiation. And three years into this promise Two if by Sea has smelted Translations, the band's Speedbump Records debut, a thickly layered, metric rock endeavor that builds on sounds the quintet remembers from its childhood.
"We made a pact," guitarist and vocalist Chris Cowan says between swigs of beer in the backyard of the Hampden duplex he shares with drummer Chuck Cole. "We all decided to do this until it's done, whatever that means."
His four band mates, sitting around the yard's koi pond, heartily concur. "We've all made a personal promise to do this band properly until it's finished," guitarist David Hardy says. "We practice a lot and have all sacrificed jobs and relationships to do this. We don't want to ride it out like a death march, but until that day comes we all know what's expected, and what we need to give up or postpone in order to make it work."
All five, ranging in age from the mid-20s to early 30s, share this certainty about their musical future, less so about their current day jobs. Cowan is a sous chef at Vespa in Federal Hill, Hardy is a freelance graphic designer, bassist John Jorde works at a branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, keyboardist Yuri Zietz also works in restaurants, and drummer Cole works in graphic design, too.
Despite the commitment to the band, describing the Two if by Sea sound proves elusive for the group. They note comparisons to the recent spate of Factory Records clones--Interpol, the Rapture, Radio 4 --and quickly dismiss them. "Our influences are spread over a broad spectrum," Hardy says. "But apparently they get narrowed down to [the] Factory Records output by a select few. Still, our intention is not to be a revival band of any sort. The fact that we pull influences from the Reagan era is due to our age and actually being around to listen to that stuff. I think five or six years can make a big difference. Kids who are coming of age now can't relate to that time musically in the same way that we do."
The group formed in late 2001, initially without Cowan or Zietz. Cole, Jorde, Hardy, and then-keyboard player Rob Nelson held surreptitious practices late nights at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County TV studio, but they didn't have a vocalist. Cowan entered after answering an ad in City Paper.
"We had over a hundred calls that I could tell right away didn't even warrant a personal meeting," Hardy says. "We were stoked the first practice with Cris."
At first, Cowan only sang. But he quickly added his guitar to the band's mix. "We weren't sure about his vocals at first," Cole says. "But when he showed up the first time I thought, Oh, he's got a van. We wanted someone who sounded like we wanted to at the time, but we've grown into working with Cris."
"He sounds like a hetero Morrissey," Zietz adds.
In October of 2003 Nelson left the band, and Two if by Sea continued as a quartet before enlisting Zietz. "He had been in a band called the Dolly Sods," Hardy says. "We played one show as a four-piece at the Ottobar back in October with the Black Keys, and then Yuri [Zietz] was in. He picked it up quick, too, which allowed us to keep writing without having to revert back too far."
Zietz's arrival also encouraged the band to play out more frequently and hone its live sound, which has earned the group a loyal local following. "There's so much energy in the right crowd," Cowan says. "You can feel it coming right off the floor. You can almost make them dance. The record is called Translations because it's an interpretation of our live sound. The energy is still there, but we've embellished quite a bit. Records are pure, but live is raw."
Translations offers up a combo platter of sounds. While the drum, bass, and keyboards dance on top of 16th-note high-hat beats and tarantella footwork, the layered guitar work and the vocals achieve a sort of serenity in the center of the whirling. Cowan's baritone croons manic stanzas at the forefront of tightly wound accompaniment.
"There's been a lot of goth response," Cowan admits. "But maybe that's just because of my vocal style. I get compared to Peter Murphy a lot. The funny part is that the lyrics are anything but depressing."
The music steers a clear path around the goth theatricality of the Cleopatra Records stable, but black-nail-polish wearers could easily be fooled by the band's borrowings from early-'80s vocalists such as the Psychedelic Furs' Richard Butler or U2's Bono, two bands for which Two if by Sea admits admiration. Still, it's rare to hear an indie-rock band focus so tightly on emotionally vocalizing and complex material and still get fans to do more than pocket-tap and shoe-gaze. Two if by Sea's energetic songs leave little room for audience apathy, or ruffled cuffs and collars.
"What we're doing is ours," Cowan says. "We're going to take it to its logical conclusion."