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Refactored Rock 

Tobin Mori's divergently minded bandmates help him retool Ee's indie rock

Wednesday, Nov 6 2002
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In 1997, San Jose's Korea Girl was having an incredible year. The indie pop band -- fronted by singers Tobin Mori and Elizabeth Yi -- was gigging heavily throughout the Bay Area, supporting a self-titled debut that beat out Pavement's Brighten the Corners for album of the year on South Bay station KSCU-FM (103.3). As the group prepared to record a second full-length for Asian Man Records, Korea Girl's future looked bright -- that is, until everything fell apart.

First, co-founder and bassist Summer Farnese split for L.A., needing a change of scenery. Then, struggling to keep the band afloat, Mori and Yi began taking out their frustrations on each other -- both on- and offstage. Eventually, in 1999, the combo imploded without having written any new material, forcing Asian Man to rerelease Korea Girl instead of its anticipated follow-up.

Mori soon resurfaced as the frontman for Ee, a quintet that played less poppy, more brooding rock numbers. While Ee showed promise, it lacked a distinctive sound; it wasn't until Mori shed his bandmates again that the outfit truly found its voice. The group's sophomore full-length, For One Hundred We Try Harder, is nothing like Mori's past work; instead, it channels his delicate sensibilities through thundering rhythms, bursts of noise, and graceful instrumentals. All it took to achieve this heady musical synthesis was recruiting a guitarist from one of Chicago's most adored indie rock bands, a drummer known for his work in a notoriously violent noise act, and a bassist whose ideas about music were nothing like Mori's own.


Tobin Mori arrives for the interview holding a book titled Refactoring: Improving the Design of Existing Code. Mori, 32, a programmer for a financial company and a self-proclaimed "developer nerd," explains that refactoring is the process of retooling a program's code to improve its outward functionality. Conveniently enough, the concept also works as a metaphor for Mori's extracurricular activities.

During Korea Girl's final months, Mori attempted to recode his band's sound by switching drummers and bassists. But as tensions with his co-vocalist gradually increased, Mori saw that refactoring Korea Girl was impossible.

"A band's a really difficult thing because it's like a family -- you all have to get along," Mori explains over dinner at an Italian restaurant in the Sunset, alongside current Ee guitarist Sooyoung Park, 35, and bassist Che Chou, 30. (Drummer Pete Nguyen, 25, is on tour with his other band, the experimental noise outfit Total Shutdown.) "But you also have to have similar musical visions or else complications arise," Mori adds.

When Korea Girl dissolved in 1999, Mori started writing new songs. After months of searching for like-minded musicians -- "I spoke with a woman who claimed to be a psychic vampire!" he says -- Mori wrangled together a band and began playing shows as Ee, a name that means "one" in Chinese and "good" in Japanese, but which Mori insists was chosen for the aesthetic value of two E's placed side by side. Though the band name may have balanced out, the musicians did not.

"Our shows were a bit strained, if not fraught with peril," Mori says.

He recalls one botched performance in which the group's hypersensitive bassist stormed off in the middle of a gig because, according to Mori, "I mentioned onstage that he took his shoes off."

But Mori pushed on anyway, recording the album Ramadan with his fledgling bandmates. Though the effort managed to focus Mori's melancholy sensibility -- probably because he wrote most of the songs by himself -- it was rather wimpy and undistinctive. By the time Ee finished recording the CD in the summer of 2000, the group was in a state of chaos, and Mori was having serious back-to-the-drawing-board thoughts. Right around this time, Che Chou, who had played a few gigs with Korea Girl in its final days, re-entered the picture.

"I moved back from Chicago and I saw one of the old Ee lineup shows at the Make-Out Room," Chou says. "And afterwards, jokingly, I said, 'Dude, kick out your bassist so I can join.'"

To Chou's surprise, Mori did just that. When the new bassist showed up to his first practice, he brought along a drummer friend named Pete Nguyen. A few weeks later the trio invited Sooyoung Park, another Chicago expat who knew Korea Girl from his days fronting revered indie rock outfit Seam, to sit in. Suddenly Mori had himself a new band.

Now all he had to do was meld four distinctly different styles: Park's heavy, sweeping guitars, Chou's love for psychedelic instrumentals, Nguyen's furious drumming, and his own sprightly pop songwriting.

"When we started, we tried to play a lot of the songs off Ramadan," Nguyen says, after a recent Total Shutdown show. "They're great songs -- but it's not really the kind of stuff that I want to do and it's not really what Che [wants to do]. Even though they're good songs, we wanted to have more instrumentals or hard-hitting grooves."

Fortunately, Mori was flexible. "It was like a whole new branch on a tree to me," says the singer.

Where none of Mori's previous songs ran longer than five minutes, For One Hundred We Try Harder consists of several six- and seven-minute tracks. Park's control of distortion reflects his years of fronting a band that relied on it, while Chou's ear for counterpoint adds a special complexity to each song. Then there's Nguyen, who, in sharp contrast to Mori's past drummers, enjoys beating his kit so hard and with such precision that you almost want to jump in and save it.

The first track on For One Hundred, "Slow Motion Restart," centers around a gently modulating guitar arpeggio and an opposing bass riff, calling to mind the melodic layering of the Scottish instrumentalists in Mogwai. By the time Nguyen's drumming enters the song, there's no doubt that this is a more confident, more complex version of Ee.

With its distended vocals layered over churning guitars, "Beijing" closely resembles some of Seam's best material, while Chou's walking bass line on "San Jose" recalls Doug McCombs' dubbed-out riffs for Chicago post-rock legends Tortoise. On "March of the Chogokin" Nguyen gets a chance to spaz out, channeling the legendary jazz giant Art Blakey during a lengthy drum solo. But it's on "Thomas Sleeps Beneath an El Paso Tree" that the varied styles blend most eloquently. Led by Nguyen's marching pit-pat and Chou's lumbering bass line, the song strolls along, with Mori suggesting, "Don't wait until you're free/ 'Cause when will that be?" Suddenly, the tune bursts into a fury of swaying guitars and heavy drums, before dissolving back into the refrain and then building again to an exultant finale.

Chou remembers standing outside a gig in Los Angeles after first playing "Thomas" for an audience: "We were talking and we're like, 'You know, I think that's sort of the new direction we want; we want vocals for our songs, but we also want the music to be interesting.'"

Indeed, Mori's candid indie rock vocals, which lent so much heart and credence to his previous efforts, are still in effect; however, they now exist merely as part of the musical landscape rather than as the main focus. Apparently, the singer has finally found bandmates who understand what he wants -- tenderness -- as much as what he needs -- force. Perhaps Tobin Mori's years of refactoring are finally behind him.

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Garrett Kamps

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