Record: Demos Vol. 1 (Somewherecold Records, 2020)
The guilty pleasure of the “demo album” is in getting a glimpse behind the magic curtain into that place where creatives risk everything. Demos are where every recording artist begins their songwriting journey. It’s a private place, a raw and real and fragile place. Kept like a secret sketchbook, for some artists, demo tracks rarely escape into official releases. John Treanor, along with James Cooper in New York, the original keepers of the fire that drives Tombstones In Their Eyes, have opened their vault to share some of their early sketches, some of which made it to “sanctioned versions,” approved by the band. The map is here, in 12 songs: from Dropbox to Garageband, through missing bass lines to a few “sketchy vocals,” this is where the storm began — the fire, the hurt, the neo-psych pulse, and the staggering longing that beats inside every meticulous, layered Tombstones studio record. This release is a passion project that time-travels us back to the lyrical beginnings of one of LA’s essential contemporary neo-psych experimenters.
Demos Vol. 1 (2020)
Track 1: Sleep Forever
Track 2: Nothing Left
Track 3: Maybe Someday
Track 4: Everybody’s Dead
Track 5: I’m Already there
Track 6: Whatever Happened to Your Dreams
Track 7: My Place
Track 8: My Head Is Fighting Me
Track 9: By My Side
Track 10: Fear
Track 11: I Can’t See the Light
Track 12: From the Depths
Tombstones In Their Eyes
To write a new song is to set off on a quest. From the first word to the first chord, there’s a weight of uncertainty and doubt that follows every move like a pursuing shadow. Probably most songwriting happens only because there’s always a kill-switch at hand, ready to send everything into oblivion — any offending false start can be deleted at any time, and no one will ever know. But what if the songwriting process is the destination, and these early efforts are more akin to a love affair than a technical creative challenge? In such a case, every draft of every new song can carry the same significance as a love letter to a desired beloved. Everyone has at least one first love. Some are lucky enough to have many. These early flash-point moments are a lot hotter — and harder — to consign to oblivion because they mark a universal journey into a bigger, more exciting world. Who wouldn’t want more?
While perhaps not an essential find in this band’s rich catalog (unlike the just released, “Collection,” Somewherecold Records, 2020, on both limited-edition double vinyl LP and digital formats, which is both essential and a record we’ll soon be writing about), discovering Tombstones In Their Eyes, “Demos Vol. 1” (Somewherecold Records, also 2020) is a little like finding a small bundle of love letters in the attic — private fragments twined with tentative beginnings, moments of intimations and invocations, furtive gestures and exaggerated pantomime. Such is the cast of every young love.
“Why are we putting out demos,” writes Treanor in the liner notes for the limited edition CD? “Because sometimes we love the shit out them. We feel these [demos] have charm and character, and that’s something that we wanted to preserve.” Driven from the world of live performing as the pandemic rolls down on us harder as this terrible year comes to its exhausted ending, recording artists are searching for pathways to a meaningful continuance of their craft, while awaiting, like all of us, for signs that soon we might emerge into a new light of reason and social cohesion. We can still dream. We haven’t reached The Walking Dead status yet.
Creating art, making music, writing songs, for me, it’s not just an escape — I don’t want to say escape — it helps me tamp down the anxiety and depression. It’s one of the joys I have in my life…John Treanor, from the GP review and interview
Several of the demo tracks on “Demos Vol. 1” have emerged on the newly remastered “Collections.” “Maybe Someday” (2018-19), can still be had on its haunting standalone LP, while “Sleep Forever” (2014-15) and “Fear” (2017), once cornerstones for eponymous Tombstones LP/EP releases in their own aesthetic right, now feel like they’ve lost a bit of the spotlight (10 tracks, 5 from each record, joined “Collections”). An understandable housekeeping move by a band that’s released numerous singles and EPs over the years — this move, however, makes “Demos Vol. 1” more valuable to fans wanting to quickly assess and understand how, as a group of changing players, they developed, and continue to develop.
It’s also interesting how some of these demo tracks blew into the world in almost visceral forms that softened — either intentionally or serendipitously — as they were hammered by the band into their final studio forms. It’s important to note the not insignificant impact Paul Roessler has brought to the refined engineering/studio work of this band in recent years. (Roessler has become, in everything but the name, a part of this band in overseeing recording, production (with Treanor), and engineering.) Treanor himself almost laments (in his CD liner notes) that these demo tracks came packed with an energy he hoped to retain as they were developed, but found the intensity slipping from his hands as he took them into Roessler’s Kitten Robot Studios, now his recording home where he shapes all of his new studio work. This is the land of the guilty pleasures of hearing the energy of creation before it matures into something else. Before it slips away.
Finally, there are a few tracks (five by my count) that never found homes on records. In some ways, these songs call to me the most because of how Treanor speaks about them. “Whatever Happened to Your Dreams” (2013) remains a favorite of Treanor, but it never found a release of its own. “This one never made it into the studio,” writes Treanor, “but it’s one of my favorites, for some reason. I like the lyrics, the structure of the song, the great bridge and ending.”
Every demo release has to leave us with some mystery. For it to work, a collection of demos should raise as many questions as it answers. “Demos Vol. 1” is an essential addition to anyone following the development of Tombstones In Their Eyes. In these raw versions and solitary moments, some of the anxiety and darkness that has stalked Treanor as a writer comes into sharper focus, even as the studio versions of many of these same songs grew in beauty and integrity. Given that this collection reaches back to 2013, heard today, perhaps the greatest mystery is how prescient Treanor has been as a seer long before the real world brought us all into an even greater national anxiety. Art should be the realm where we can explore these emotions without making them a reality. Treanor, the writer, is exorcising some of his demons, and we get to go along for the sonic ride, hard as that might feel at times.
(where not otherwise credited)
“Broken ship in bay” / photograph by Trevor Cole on Unsplash.com
“Shipwreck” (footer) / photo & design done on Canva