No one understands this situation more than the Run For Cover Lovers. The Oakland foursome's delightful debut LP, aptly titled The Difficult Nature of Interpersonal Relationships, contains more broken hearts than a box of mangled Valentine's candy. In fact, there's so much misery and unrequited passion here -- laced with a sardonic attitude born from such experiences -- that many people might mistake the CD for a country album, if it weren't for all the garage-y guitar and '60s organ. You'd be better off calling this record country music for people who hate country, if you didn't want to get into fist fights with guys named Earl.
Certainly, the Run For Cover Lovers aren't the first Bay Area musicians to make art after crying in their beers and breaking out their old Kinks records. But what makes The Difficult Nature of Interpersonal Relationships such a gratifying listen is the way all its parts fit together. Aching vocals mesh effortlessly with fuzzed-out rock, as the lyrics tell tall tales of horny grandpas and fat bald men, clumsy blind guys and heart-burning cooks.
In person, the Run For Cover Lovers aren't nearly as somber as you might expect from listening to their music. Gathered at guitarist/singer Beulah Faye's West Oakland warehouse apartment on a lazy Saturday afternoon in October, the musicians laugh easily and often, spinning yarns of naked saxophone players, vomiting ex-drummers, and their buddies in Billy Jah, a band that did reggae covers of Billy Joel and released an album called Piano Mon. Faye passes around bowls of homemade chili and cornbread, which she learned how to make from an old family recipe. Having spent a good deal of her youth in La Grange, the Texas town that ZZ Top made famous, Faye seems to be the group's main source of country culture.
"It's almost too close to home to be cool," Faye says of country music. "I can just remember sitting in the living room of my friend's house in college, when it was really cool to be listening to Patsy Cline, and knowing every single word on some album that was playing, and thinking, 'Why do I know this? Oh, it's Crystal Gayle. I was locked in the back of my father's car, being forced to listen to this.'"
She does recall, however, liking one tune by John Denver. "My mom bought me this single for some reason, and on the other side was this song -- 'Please daddy, don't get drunk this Christmas/ I don't wanna see my momma cry' -- and I would sing that all the time when people would come over, and [my mom] would be completely mortified."
Besides singing at open mikes and for a Led Zeppelin tribute act during high school, Faye had little musical training before hooking up with organist Whipped Creama and bassist/singer Mike Shy in 1997. Shy, who'd played in the Kinks cover band Walter and in art-rock outfit Cardinal Sin, asked his girlfriend, Whipped Creama, to start a band after she began taking piano lessons at SF State. "I realized, 'You know both kinds of chords, major and minor,'" remembers Shy.
The threesome wrote songs together for three months, and then enlisted Shy's 17-year-old sister, Tequila Killingsworth, as drummer. "She was hit by a car and broke both her shins, so she needed the exercise," Shy explains. (Miami Duluth replaced her in late 2001, when Killingsworth moved to New York.)
Taking their name from a song by Boston musician Ken DeFeudis, whose tape a friend had found in a dollar bin, the Run For Cover Lovers began rehearsing. "We were so fucking bad," laughs Faye. "We practiced at the CCAC auditorium, and people would walk in and be very afraid, and walk out."
Soon, RFCL moved its rehearsals to a more welcoming location: Club Giggles, the Oakland house where Shy lived. Besides looking out on speed-freak, junk-pedaling bikers, the building was an occasional venue for Chuck the Naked Saxophone Player and the Patch Chords, a Sammy Hagar-obsessed jam band, as well as the location of the Icky Boyfriends' cult film, I'm Not Fascinating.
Eventually, the Run For Cover Lovers started playing out at the Purple Onion, Cocodrie, and Tip Top Inn. "We played all the great defunct clubs of San Francisco," quips Duluth.
"We play them, and they go out of business," says Shy.
After sharing a 7-inch compilation called Chicks with Sticks and a split single with the Gazillions, the band set about recording its debut LP in August 2001. The taping took about a week, but the mixing took much, much longer, because the man in charge, Faye's boss at Popular Corners sound studio, Richard Beggs, was such a perfectionist. Beggs had a long history in both the music and film worlds, having recorded Country Joe & the Fish, Mike Broomfield, and the Kingston Trio, and done sound design for Apocalypse Now, Single White Female, Rain Man, and other movies. "My boss is obsessive-compulsive, and he just kept tweaking things," Faye says. "He would listen on the car stereo and then have to tweak it more."
All the extra work paid off, with the resultant album, The Difficult Nature of Interpersonal Relationships, sounding great. Creama's blaring organ parts and Faye's roughshod guitar riffs meld with Killingsworth's spare time-keeping and Shy's springy bass for a sound that's cleaner than most '60s-styled recordings, without losing any of the edge. Sonically, the tunes have more in common with Holly Golightly than with Waylon Jennings: "Take Me" is the only track featuring anything close to a traditional feel, thanks to Faye's lovely, near-Hawaiian slide guitar.
It's Faye's vocals -- her lovely, raspy tone, like a regal, weathered barn -- that bring the songs back to country music. On the highway melody "Transmission Standard," she infuses her drab motel room with bitterness, muttering, "On the side it says free cable/ But you know they're gonna make you pay." On the weeper "Take Me" -- in which Faye professes her love for an obvious scoundrel, promising not to out him on daytime TV -- her longing is palpable. Even the cheeky, uptempo "Fat Bald Man," in which Faye lusts after a plump married guy in socks and sandals, feels mournful in her grip.
Don't get the idea that The Difficult Nature is some big cornball sobfest, however. Shy sings lead on four tunes, adding a brash Richard Thompson-ish bellow to "Blind Guy Cherry Guy" and a winking holler to "Baby's Got Her Dirty Shoes On." Creama helms two tracks, including a loopy cover of Cardinal Sin's "Plant Heaven," while Killingsworth delivers an ode to the "Cute Cook From the Homemade Cafe." Even Faye's tone lightens a bit on "Castro," a goofy, cautionary tale about not letting your girlfriend go down to the Castro, where "she'll be doing exactly who she probably should."
Faye wrote that last song after overhearing a conversation between frat-boy types in a bar. "There was a guy behind me talking about his girlfriend, who'd gone down to the Castro and gotten involved with a woman," she says. "You could tell they were totally afraid of the thing."
Several of the other tunes have a similarly twisted take on matters of the heart. Inspired by Faye's career in the movie industry, "Fat Bald Man" can be read as expressing either revulsion or attraction. "Kubota Tractor" was inspired by Faye's Texan grandfather, who apparently likes much younger women, many of whom he meets at the local Whataburger restaurant. "Suffice it to say, he's now living with a former topless dancer and current born-again Christian," Faye says.
"Monoshock" has an odd back story as well. The words to the song were written by '80s punk oddball Von LMO for a now-defunct local band called Monoshock, whose bassist lived with Shy. "The lyrics were pinned to the wall in the bathroom, so you'd see them every day," Shy says. He liked the bittersweet lines, and placed them over a fuzzed-out waltz, making them that much more poignant.
Of all its lovelorn songs, the title number may be the album's most brutal. As Shy picks over his emotions -- "Back to back in bed/ Don't even wish you were dead" -- Faye sings along in the background, adding to the claustrophobic feel of a relationship in perpetual decline. "That's one in a series of breakup songs to people you never break up with," Faye says.
Now that the album's finally out, the Run For Cover Lovers can sit back and enjoy the avalanche of notice, which so far has amounted to charting on college radio stations in New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin, having "Castro" chosen as one of September's Records of the Month by influential British DJ John Peel, and learning a KUSF-FM (90.3) staffer told a promo agent that "there's a total buzz" about the band. OK, so it's not exactly an avalanche, but maybe it's a snowball heading downhill. As the group's press sheet says, "You love, you lose, and you learn to love again." To that end, the foursome plans to return to the studio soon to record its sophomore effort.
"The themes are the same -- weird relationship phenomena," Creama says.
"These are a bit darker," adds Faye. "They're more serious than the last album."
Be still my aching heart.