"Every time I see [Warm Wires], I shake my head," says Dan Leone, former singer for local band Ed's Redeeming Qualities. "I'm amazed that a) he thought he could get away with writing about that, and b) that he did. He touches subjects that no one else will."
Unfortunately, the music world isn't kind to quirky songwriters anymore. There was a time back in the mid-to-late '80s when bizarre wordplay and kooky instrumentation could score radio air time and a major label contract. Groups like Camper Van Beethoven, Ween, and They Might Be Giants were weird and successful. Like-minded local bands such as the Donner Party, Catheads, 28th Day, Little My, X-Tal, and Thinking Fellers also flourished. Then grunge hit in the early '90s, and the majors went whole hog for loud groups with long hair and hard glares; the market for eccentric songwriters seemed to dry up.
Mossman has kept plugging along, nonetheless. Now, Warm Wires -- featuring Mossman, drummer Adam McCauley, bassist Bernie Jungle, and guitarist Matt Stahl -- has released its second album, Kindness. The record's full of clever lyrics, joyous singing, catchy riffs, and otherworldly presence -- you know, the kind of stuff that gets you nowhere these days.
Before he was the main singer, songwriter, and rhythm guitar player for Warm Wires, Brad Mossman (né Pedinoff) was in Harm Farm. That group -- formed in 1988 while Mossman, cellist Tom Hallenbeck, and violinist Morgan Fichter attended Oberlin College in Ohio -- melded bluegrass, Irish traditional music, Eastern European folk, and indie rock in much the same way Camper Van Beethoven did. After Harm Farm's members moved to S.F. and Fichter left to join Camper, Harm Farm added ex-Catheads/Donner Party drummer Melanie Clarin and recorded two albums for the Alias label. One of them, 1990's Spawn, remains an underappreciated gem, a record full of exuberant takes on aging ("Creases, Sags, and Wrinkles"), the Middle Eastern conflict ("Arabs and Jews"), and a certain squishy food ("Clams").
"That was the dividing line," laughs longtime Bay Area scenester and X-Tal member J Neo Marvin about "Clams." "You either really loved or really hated it."
Unfortunately, too many people were just plain indifferent to Harm Farm, and the group broke up in 1992. Mossman moved to Portland, accepting an invitation from ex-Donner Party member Sam Coomes to play bass in his new combo, Motorgoat (which also featured Coomes' then-wife, Janet Weiss). He lasted about a year, before rain and band conflicts got to be too much for him. "They told me we were going to play my songs, but I got up there, and it wasn't like that," Mossman, 35, says during an interview in the Mission home of Warm Wires' McCauley. Coomes and Weiss eventually formed Quasi and played with Sleater-Kinney and Elliott Smith. Meanwhile, Mossman took off for the United Kingdom.
"I wanted to get away from the States," Mossman says. "I probably should've done that first, instead of Motorgoat."
After traveling throughout the U.K., Mossman found work at a hostel on the west coast of Ireland in a town called Dingle. He spent nearly a year there, writing songs about his travels and the people he'd met, eventually recording them on a four-track with only his acoustic guitar and the Irish pipes of local Chris Prior for accompaniment. The seeds of Warm Wires were sown.
Adam McCauley moved to the Bay Area the same year as Mossman, 1988. Along with guitarist Matt Stahl and singer Tynan Northrop, McCauley formed Little My, a group renowned for its dark and arty indie rock. Harm Farm gave Little My one of its first big gigs, with Stahl returning the favor for Harm Farm when he began booking shows at Oakland's legendary Merchants club.
When Mossman returned to S.F. from Ireland in 1995, he played the recording of his new songs for McCauley and Stahl. "We were trying to talk Brad into putting that out as it was," McCauley, 36, says, "but he wanted it to rock."
While Harm Farm's second album, Nice Job, Einstein, had been heavier than its first, it still featured what Mossman calls "that fiddle aesthetic." For Warm Wires, he wanted something less folky, what he jokingly pegged, in his Oberlin alumni magazine, "cuddle-core influenced by elves and bulldozers."
"My understanding was that we were trying to make it more like pop songs -- streamline them and make them less arty and indulgent," McCauley says.
The result was Warm Wires' Severe Comfort, released in 1997 on Sugar Fix in the U.S. and Brinkman in Europe. While there were still some violin parts (courtesy of 100 Watt Smile's Carrie Bradley) and tabla and sarangi from Peter Altenberg, the record was far more of a rock effort. Stahl's fretwork was consistently inventive, offering a wide variety of frameworks for Mossman's adenoidal voice and loopy lyrics.
Mossman's wordplay had grown considerably since the jokey sketches of Harm Farm. His time abroad seemed to have given him perspective on his peers. On "King of the Picked-Ons" he sang, "I'm going to every high school on the Earth/ To tell the nervous freaks of their self-worth," while on "Fabulous Guru" he observed the rules of shyness, singing, "None of my friends have heads with love/ All of my friends are scared/ None of my friends make the first move/ All of my friends just stare." But he'd also gotten his first dose of true love, evidenced by the goofy lust of "Angel Came Down" and "Women Are Better Than Men."
Upon the album's release, the group -- now augmented by bassist and songwriter Bernie Jungle -- was primed for a big break. When it played Los Angeles' Poptopia Festival, the group's members expected a reaction like they'd gotten the year before, when the crowd went nuts and a suit from Geffen Records made tentative inquiries.
"I had such high expectations," Jungle, 41, says. "Like, "Woo hoo! Mom and Dad, I'm on my way!'"
Alas, the Poptopia show -- and much of the band's following tour -- was a washout, thanks to El Niño's torrential rains. Although "Women" got airplay on John Peel's influential BBC show and several other European stations, neither the Sugar Fix nor the Brinkman label had the muscle to get the band noticed stateside.
"I'd by lying if I didn't say that I thought "Women Are Better Than Men' was going to make a dent," Mossman says, "but it didn't."
Disappointed, Warm Wires splintered, with McCauley moving to Hawaii and Stahl heading down to San Diego to pursue a master's degree in communication. Meanwhile, Mossman and Jungle performed around town with tabla player Altenberg and fiddler Jason Kleinberg (of local jug band 86). McCauley returned in 1999, and Stahl continued to make occasional visits, so the guys began to hash out new songs -- in a different manner than in the past.
"A lot of this [recent] stuff was written almost accidentally," McCauley says. "We'd just be jamming at practice and we'd have a new song."
"It was less about me bringing in songs and adding instruments," Mossman says. "We would just be a four-piece band, pretty much as we are live."
This was the middle of the dot-com boom, and Warm Wires couldn't find an affordable, available place to record, so the group decamped to an office complex in Santa Rosa with 100 Watt Smile's Scott Greiner. Whenever the members had extra cash, they'd take the tunes to Greiner's office at Transmedia, an advertising jingle business, and tweak them. Eventually the band recorded four more numbers at Wallysound in Oakland and went searching for a label. Warm Wires finally settled on Two Ton Santa, whose owner, Guy Capecelatro, was responsible for last year's Dom Leone tribute album, Guess Who This Is. (See "Paying tribute to the near-forgotten Dom Leone," Pop Philosophy, March 28, 2001.)
Capecelatro had loved Mossman's songwriting since the Harm Farm days. "My band at the time, Toast, had played with them at the Rat in Boston," Capecelatro says via phone from his home in Vermont. "We used to cover "Clams.'"
As for why he wanted to release the new Warm Wires record, Kindness, Capecelatro says, "I think they have such a fun, adventurous sound. ... It's complicated and interesting without getting in the way of the actual songs."
Indeed, Kindness seems labored over but not belabored. The playing -- from the anthemic-yet-gritty guitar riffs to the loose, swinging percussion to the melodious vocal harmonies -- is tight but not slick, walking the line between precise and joyful. Mossman's lyrics are better than ever, with lines that sound like Dr. Seuss for aging hipsters. "So nice to fuck and not be wed," he sings on "Funhappy," while on "Go Home" he captures the feel of that first night in bed: "I remember when you took off your bra/ I ran out and joined a health spa." "Soak Us" could be a theme song for the writer, listing a compendium of "the joys of being me" that includes taking the cordless phone to bed and scratching his bird's head.
The biggest difference between Kindness and Severe Comfort is that Jungle sings two songs of his own, both of which offer a wistful counterpoint to Mossman's eccentric fare. "The two of them really complement each other, because Brad's [songs] are so rhymey and goofy in an upbeat way and Bernie's are introspective and quiet," says Dan Leone, who's currently in the Lipsey Mountain Spring Band with Jungle. "Without a dose of one, they might be too much."
Despite its newly acquired balance, Warm Wires finds itself in a time of transition, just as after the last album. Stahl has returned to San Diego, and the remaining members' time is taken up by other projects: Jungle's in several bands, McCauley has a graphic design business, and Mossman's been doing music for children's TV. Still, they aren't ready to pack it in.
"I feel like there'll always be room for a band," Mossman says. "Even if you have a stupid job and 10 kids, you've always got time to go to a bar, so why not use that time for a band instead?"