Rum to the Hills

Why does the Rum Diary hide its noise-suffused indie rock in the wilds of Cotati?

The members of the Rum Diary are hiding -- and, frankly, it's a little annoying. After nearly three years of hard work, the four musicians are sitting on a pot of indie rock gold, and yet they continue to conceal their spoils in tiny Cotati, a town an hour north of San Francisco that boasts 6,700 residents, one music venue, and California's largest accordion festival. The burg is far from an altrock breeding ground: Local shows tend to bring out more lawn chairs than chain wallets.

But coasting through life in a lawn chair fits the Rum Diary's sensibility just right. After all, solitude has its advantages, not the least of which is the freedom to take one's time. And so, in the smallest room of its practice space -- a weathered red house that sits a few miles off Highway 101 -- the quartet slowly sculpts its music out of an eclectic arrangement of two drum kits and two bass guitars, with some keyboards, guitars, and vocals sprinkled in. The resulting sound takes bits of the genre's present -- the distorted wallop of Mogwai, the melodic complexity of Three Mile Pilot, the pop-friendly edge of Death Cab for Cutie -- and synthesizes them into a style that's both cohesive and original.

This March, the Rum Diary released its debut full-length, Noise Prints, which led a reviewer from the Web zine Geek America to write, "I order anyone who's into sad and experimental music to check out this CD right now." But it's the band's latest EP, The Key to Slow Time (due for release July 15 on Springman Records), that presents a distinctive new vision for indie rock -- one that's sincere without being sentimental, raging while still keeping its cool. The EP's damn good, but it brings up one question: Why is the Rum Diary still hiding in the hills?

Akim Aginsky

It takes just a few moments for the members of the Rum Diary to get noticed when they enter a loud, brightly lit bar in downtown Cotati. As they head to a table, the musicians overhear a blue-collar drunk slur gibberish about their apparent cuteness. It's not exactly name recognition, but as these guys have learned, in a small town like Cotati sometimes you have to take what you can get.

Sitting together, the bandmates -- Daniel McKenzie, Joe Ryckebosch, Schuyler Feekes, and John Fee -- look like college freshman, though their average age is 27. McKenzie (bass/guitar/vocals), Ryckebosch (drums), and Feekes (drums/keyboards) offer more bashful grins than words, while Fee (bass/vocals) is pensive but vocal. Each exudes a quiet charm as well as a hefty amount of modesty, which can be exasperating, like listening to a supermodel talk about getting fat.

As the unofficial leader of the Rum Diary, Fee acts as the primary spokesperson and de facto manager. In addition to holding a degree in business from Sonoma State University, he's also the band member with the most music experience, having played in groups since he was in high school in Southern California. His family moved there in the early '90s; he grew up in Ferndale, where he met McKenzie. When the pair reunited in college, McKenzie offered his services as a vocalist. Since he couldn't play an instrument yet, he and Fee decided on that easiest of styles for nonmusicians: punk.

Before forming the Rum Diary, Fee and McKenzie played in three groups together -- Car Trouble, Mount Decline, and Piper Down -- developing their chops and sound along the way. "We started to get more into Drive Like Jehu and Unwound and Three Mile Pilot," says Fee, naming several arty indie bands that inspired their evolution. "The last song we were putting together [in Piper Down] became the first song of the Rum Diary."

Meanwhile, Feekes and Ryckebosch were playing in another local band called Eucalyptus, a group that focused on droning instrumentals and a distorted wall of sound. With McKenzie and Fee coming from the world of angsty punk and Feekes and Ryckebosch embracing the esoteric white noise of bands like Ride and My Bloody Valentine, the collaboration could have yielded some pretty ugly stuff. As it turns out, the resulting music sounds damn pretty.

"Sunken Fields" is one of the first songs the Rum Diary wrote when the band came together at the end of 1999. Although it was written long ago, the Noise Prints track remains one of the group's most popular tunes -- a sterling illustration of how the band distills a confluence of sounds into something pure and beautiful. (Magnet magazine recently included "Sunken Fields" on its monthly CD-sampler.)

In explanation of the number's duality, Fee says, "Daniel and I wrote the first part, and then, to satisfy these guys, we had to blow our amps out."

In the beginning of the song, McKenzie dangles his pre-pubescent tenor in between Fee's lilting bass lines. Eventually, Feekes' and Ryckebosch's dual drumming pushes the song into a hurricane of percussion and distortion. Where many bands that dabble in sonic chaos descend into noise, the Rum Diary deftly straddles the line between clamor and control, dissonance and melody, hope and desperation.

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