Live Wires

The subversive charms of Warm Wires' clever, strange, catchy rock

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.

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Saturday, May 18, at 10 p.m.

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"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, Kindnessseems 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 Comfortis 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?"

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