“Loving Music and Playing It in an Intense Way”
Come’s Thalia Zedek Revisits 11:11’s Lows and Highs
Rock ’n’ roll music is a cyclical phenomenon, an ever-evolving and multiple-layered social/artistic history with tier upon tier of traditions, personalities, hierarchies and influences. Every good band has a certain sphere of influence that resounds infinitely, however faintly – and sometimes the echoes of the past bounce back with surprising volume.
Come are yet another of those bands that experienced a degree of notoriety in one era, more or less disappeared, and voila, they’re back! But there is a crucial difference. Unlike the endless spate of never-were bands trying to relive imagined glories, the band was really significant in the early ’90s – sort of a microcosm of the Velvet Underground or Ramones in that they were more influential than commercially successful. Lucky for us, Come’s first and best record, 11:11, has been reissued by Matador (with a bonus live disc tacked on) after being out of print for quite some time; and two of the reunited band’s few American stops will be at The EARL and Athens’ 40 Watt Club.
“Touring and recording is really just about work,” says Come vocalist/guitarist/auteur Thalia Zedek. “And I’d like to think that I’m playing for the right reasons – loving music and playing it in an intense way. For me playing music is a very cyclic thing. And I just ride it out. Sometimes it seems like everyone is against you and nobody cares. I’ve seen a lot of ups and a lot of downs, but it always seems to go up again. I don’t get discouraged.”
Certainly an artistic triumph, the newly reissued 11:11 must have emerged from one of the aforementioned down periods, both lyrically and musically. The album was first released in 1992, in the wake of Nirvana’s game-changing Nevermind (and the grunge madness that ensued). Hailing from Boston, Come were kinda/sorta lumped in with the scuzzy East Coast postpunk sounds of Sonic Youth, Swans and Zedek’s earlier band, the sadly underrated Live Skull. But 11:11 was really just a deftly executed, evolved and amplified variant of the blues. This is to say that the album was depressing, heavy, emotionally powerful – and important.
While the album was indeed dark, Zedek wasn’t really such a Gloomy Gus in the ’90s. Actually, she was healthy and happy at the time.
“I wasn’t really that depressed back then, absolutely not,” says Zedek. “I mean, 11:11 is a dark record. When the album came out I was already in a better place and I was kind of writing about surviving and sort of coming through to the other side. Even though the songs are about people that are in really tough places in their lives, it was written from a bit of distance.”
But the album was interpreted by many as a drug record. That Zedek had previously gone through a much-publicized bout of heroin addiction and that there was a song called “Brand New Vein” surely didn’t help matters much.
“The songs on the album are not necessarily about me. They’re about other people. It’s not like they were written from the perspective of being in a hospital bed or anything. I’m not talking about myself – I’m talking about some friends of mine maybe. I mean, the ’90s was a tough time for a lot of people. I came through it and I was around a lot of people that struggled. I was writing about my community. And I don’t think drugs are ever mentioned in the songs: getting fucked up is never mentioned, getting drunk is never mentioned, getting high is never mentioned. It’s about people trying to get their act together.”
Returning to the bleak terrains of 11:11 after an extended hiatus has still been something of an odd experience for Zedek. After all, the process of playing such cathartic material might feel like purposely reopening old wounds long since healed.
“It was kind of painful in a way to sort of revisit myself at that stage of my life,” says Zedek. “It felt like I was on the outside looking in. I felt like I was sort of re-inhabiting the songs. Now I feel really comfortable with them and able to sort of separate the stuff that was going on with me at the time from songs and the lyrics.
“It’s been really satisfying, actually,” Zedek continues. “I had to literally sit down with the record and play it over and over again to learn my stuff. I had to relearn my lyrics, too. And while that was going on, I was kind of being blown away, you know?
“I think the lyrics are really impressionistic. A few of them are kind of literal, I guess. But there’s not anything in them that necessarily had to be of the ’90s. There aren’t any cultural markers there. So I can get in the songs and play them probably with a different kind of forcefulness than I had the first time around.”
Hot off the heels of a well-received European trek, the band is firing with all cylinders. But the reunion will not be a long-term affair.
“The band isn’t reforming per se,” says Zedek. “This is definitely just, you know, a promotional tour to support and publicize the reissue. Come had a couple of different rhythm sections and we’re only performing songs that were written with Shaun [O’Brien, formerly of Athens’ Kilkinney Cats] and Arthur [Johnson, formerly of the Barbecue Killers], the original bass player and drummer. Actually to my surprise that lineup had quite a few songs – without even doing all of them, I mean. Shaun and Arthur were in the band for around four years and we had upwards of 25 songs. We sort of picked through those because that felt like more than enough for this tour.
“And after doing like 14 shows in Europe we’re thinking, like, wow, this is a really good band. I felt like every show got better and better. By the end of the tour we were not trying to relearn the songs, but more like a real band again. I love playing with this band. The chemistry with this lineup is just incredible. Playing with just the four of us together is something I haven’t experienced in such a long time. It feels pretty magical to me.”
Bear in mind, Zedek never went away. She has enjoyed a long and productive career as a solo artist – a career she is enthusiastic about resuming in the near future.
“I never stopped writing and performing music,” says Zedek. “I had a new record out on Thrill Jockey last March (the critically acclaimed Via) that I haven’t even begun to really promote yet because it’s kind of dovetailed with the Come shows and things I’ve done in Boston. So I’m looking forward to getting back to my own stuff when Come is over.
“But it’s hard to say where I’ll be in 10 years. I’ll be 61 years old in 10 years. I hope I’ll still be playing music but I don’t have some fabulous career planned at this point. I love playing music and I love touring. But I’ve never been the kind of person to think very far ahead. I’ve never sat down and said, OK, I want to be successful in music and here’s how I’m going to do it. I’ve always been about making the best music I can and playing with the best people I can play with. And it’s extremely gratifying that people like what I’m doing.”
Photo by Mark C.